Directed by David A. Prior
Not the A.I.P. that first springs to mind. Not American International Pictures. Long after that legendary production company went away, another A.I.P. was born in the form of Action International Pictures. Think of them as the poor man’s Cannon Films. From 1987-1994 they produced and distributed a slew of low rent action and genre flicks, a few of which got tiny theatrical runs, but for the most part were designed to occupy space on the shelf of your local video store. Movies with titles such as Hell on the Battleground, In Gold We Trust, Sudden Thunder, Maximum Breakout, Future Zone (starring David Carradine), the notorious Christmas monster mash Elves, and one of the all-time great bad action flicks, Deadly Prey.
Action International’s output generally consisted of DIY cheapies with a certain degree of hokey charm to them shot somewhere in Alabama – you haven’t lived until you’ve seen the woods in the Mobile, Alabama, area double for Vietnam and South American jungles, but for all their shortcomings (of which there were many), you usually got a sense that the people making them were at least trying. It’s almost like there was sincerity to their badness missing from so many b-movies today, as strange as that statement may sound.
One of my personal favorite Action International releases was The Final Sanction, a film that could be best described as Robot Jox without the robots. No joke; the premise was almost identical to Robot Jox except it was just Ted Prior (star of most A.I.P. movies) as a dickish Rambo-type running around the woods in a one-on-one, winner-take-all duel to the death with an evil Commie played by Robert Z’Dar, whose weapon of choice appeared to be spring-loaded garden trowels that he hurled with deadly accuracy.
You probably won’t be surprised to know I have a special place on my shelf where sits a myriad of A.I.P. titles – all VHS since so few of their films have ever and probably will ever get released on DVD, let alone Blu-ray.
That stroll down memory lane brings us to Night Claws, the newest movie directed by David Prior and co-starring his brother, Ted, the multi-tasking brothers who pretty much spearheaded A.I.P. back in the day. Had Night Claws come out during the heyday of Action International, I can guarantee you a copy would occupy a slot alongside all the other A.I.P. movies I’ve collected over the years. I can also guarantee you it would probably stay on that shelf unwatched as a film I’d be happy to add to my collection for posterity’s sake but never revisit. It’s pretty lousy, I’m afraid.
Aside from being shot on digital, Night Claws looks, feels, and plays out almost exactly like an A.I.P. movie would released in, let’s say, 1991. Shot in Southern Alabama, practical effects and gore, and starring the likes of Reb Brown AKA Yor, the Hunter from the Future, Frank Stallone, and, of course, Ted Prior. Hell, the only thing missing that truly differentiates it from classic A.I.P. is the lack of an appearance by Joe Estevez or the late Cameron Mitchell. The entire production is so retro it feels more like an homage to those old A.I.P. films rather than a modern movie. Because of that there is some of that hokey charm, just not enough to salvage what is primarily a too often tedious mess.
This movie, whose plot boils down to people hunting after a savage Bigfoot that is on a murderous rampage for absolutely no particular reason in the woods outside of a small Southern town, culminates with a baffling third act plot twist built around the backstory of a character who up until the moment another character appears for the first time to reveal that backstory had almost no inkling of a backstory of any kind. And none of it has anything at all to do with Bigfoot.
Let me put it this way: Imagine if you were watching Predator 2 and the entire third act with Danny Glover and government agents hunting the Predator was jettisoned in favor of a non-Predator-related plot twist that introduces a brand new character seeking revenge against Gary Busey’s character for a past war crime never before even hinted at.
I was left wondering if this was intentionally scripted from the get-go or if they went this route because the production ran out of money and couldn’t afford to film a climactic battle with Sasquatch. I can’t imagine they wrapped things up this way merely as an excuse to shoehorn in a cameo appearance by Frank Stallone. Night Claws was barely getting by on Brownie Points up until that point; this just ends the movie in a most unsatisfactory manner.
I found it kind of hard to not get the sense that a good deal of Night Claws was being made up on the spot, which is kind of surprising for me to write given the amount of exposition piled on, particularly in the first forty-some-odd minutes.
Bigfoot makes very few appearances for a good chunk of the film after a pre-title attack sequence. Bigfoot’s kills continue to be fairly random and often consist of people getting blindsided by the charging Sasquatch. A lot of people disappear off the screen to the left or right depending on in which direction Bigfoot chose to bum rush them.
Now there are some impressively goofy kills, such as when Bigfoot gets a grip on a guy’s head with both claws and squeezes so tight the dude’s head literally flips its lid. Or the opening kill that sees Squatch dragging a young man out of a car window by the torso while his girlfriend desperately clings to his ankles to try and save him. She must have possessed an even stronger grip than Bigfoot because his feet suddenly rip off in her hands.
The Bigfoot costume is the kind that far too many movie-watchers today are quick to snicker at. Yeah, it’s obviously a guy in a Sasquatch suit. The face has personality and is cheesy in the best way possible as far as I’m concerned. I have no problems with the Squatch suit aside from wishing it had more to do and was being employed in a better slice of Sasquatchploitation.
On the human side of things, well, strong thespian performances have never been a hallmark of A.I.P., and this is no exception. Heck, Leilani Sarelle may as well be Meryl Streep compared to the rest of the cast. You may remember Miss Sarelle as Sharon Stone’s lesbian lover in Basic Instinct. Here she plays an anthropologist with some amazing connections. She actually claims at one point that with one phone call she could have the military combing the woods looking for Bigfoot. Bet that would have been a hell of a phone call to eavesdrop on.
She partners up with Reb Brown, the sheriff contending with Bigfoot’s body count. Brown’s never been that great of an actor, but he does have a likability that helps him get by and perfectly suits the “golly”, “shucks” small town persona his character exhibits. Sadly, we are denied the opportunity to hear any of those Space Mutiny girlie screams.
Sherrie Rose has a long list of credits to her name. I suppose she can add her insignificant role here as the sheriff’s deputy/sheriff’s girlfriend to that resume. It almost felt like they were setting up a potential love triangle between her and Sarelle over Sheriff Brown only for it to go nowhere when Rose’s deputy is all but written out of the movie mid-way.
And then there’s Ted Prior, the film’s only real saving grace, who absolutely steals the show as the world’s angriest camper. I quickly reached the point where any time the film shifted away from his camping trip, I wished it would hurry up and get back to him so I could witness how big of a prick he would be in his next scene. Prior’s character should have been named “Dick Bastard” because the guy he is playing is both a dick and a bastard – to his wife, to fellow campers, to the people organizing the camping trip, to homicidal Sasquatch hunters willing to kill every single human they happen upon in the woods, even to ol’ Bigfoot himself. He doesn’t want to go on this camping trip with his wife. He doesn’t want the lady coordinating the nature hike to tell him what to do. He doesn’t want to be around the other idiots on the trip. He doesn’t really want to be married anymore, but he also doesn’t want to even get the hint that his wife may potentially enjoy the company of another man. Pull a gun on him and he’ll call you a pussy. Engage him in fisticuffs and he won’t hesitate to fatally punch you in the throat. Why is this man such a hateful asshole? Who knows? Who cares? At least his scenes are fun.
Fun is something Night Claws just doesn’t deliver enough of to overcome all of its other shortcomings.
1 1/2 out of 5