(director/writer: Jack Woods screenwriter: from story by Mark Thomas McGee; cinematographer: Mike Hoover; editor: John Joyce; cast: Edward Connell (Dave), Barbara Hewitt (Susan), Robin Christopher (Vicki), Jack Woods (Asmodeus), Fritz Leiber, Jr. (Dr. Waterman), Frank Bonner (Jim Hudson), James Phillips (Reporter Sloan); Runtime: 80; Tonylyn; 1971)

“A sci-fi film, originally started as a student project…”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A sci-fi film, originally started as a student project, noted only for its great special effects, as created by Dennis Muren. He raised $30,000 with the help of friends and took about 4 years to make this film. In order to get it released he sold it to producer Jack H. Harris, who shot some scenes over again and released it in 1971. Muren now does the special effects for George Lucas on his Star War films and won an Oscar for his work. This film is a good example of his first effort doing special effects in a feature film.

The problem with this film — that came 30 years before Blair Witch Project and has the same scary themes played out in the woods by students — is its weak acting, shoddy production values, horrible script, and ridiculous story. The film is so awkward that it never seemed professional, even though it was reworked for theatrical release. It has, nevertheless, over the years become a cult favorite on video (where it is titled “The Beast”). It could be appreciated by some horror film buffs despite all its shortcomings and genre clichés. There are just some who love bad films.

The film opens with a young man in the woods, Dave (Edward Connell), calling for “Susan (Barbara Hewitt)” and then running out of the woods in fright and onto the highway, where he tries to flag down a car driven by itself which runs him over; but, another car with people in it immediately comes along and takes him to the hospital. That accident happened one year and one day ago and now a reporter comes to the mental hospital where Dave is in a depressive state, clutching onto a small cross on a chain. It’s a slow news day so the reporter thinks he might come up with a story about the bizarre tragedy that hit the news exactly one year ago, as the doctor currently treating Dave allows for the visit. Dave is quiet until the reporter shows him a picture of an older man, Dr Waterman (Fritz Leiber-in real life a science fiction novelist), thereby Dave attacks him, ending the interview. In the attack the reporter comes into possession of the cross, turning it over to the doctor. The doctor then plays for the reporter a tape recording Dave made on the day he was brought to the hospital after being hit by the car.

The film is one long flashback of Dave’s recollections, as he seems to be also recollecting things he wasn’t even involved with. Don’t ask me how he can do that!

Dr. Waterman is Dave’s geology professor and urgently invites him to his mountain retreat to discuss an important discovery. Dave decides to make this visit into a picnic by inviting some airhead young friends along: Jim (Frank Bonner) and his girlfriend Vicki (Robin Christopher), she brings along her friend Susan (Barbara Hewitt) as a blind date for Dave. The hikers seem to be lost and are not sure if they are on the right road, but when they leave their car on the impassable road and walk to Dr. Waterman’s cabin, they find it caved in and unlivable. A park ranger happens by on horseback and tells them his name is Asmodeus (Jack Woods), and that Dr. Waterman is probably back in town.

Vicki sees a castle on a nearby cliff. Dave suggests, maybe that’s where Waterman is. On the way, they hear a madman laughing from a cave and find nearby gigantic footprints made by a beast. The intrepid but foolish youngsters light some torches and go into the cave, where a cackling old man forces a large tome on them which is locked. “The Book,” which is old and smells of sulfur, contains satanic symbols and a note from Dr. Waterman about good and evil living together and how this Book is a ‘Bible of Evil’ that is over a thousand years old and comes from the Persian Gulf. It is translated into many languages, which made it difficult for the professor to decipher. He did create some beasts from the Book’s symbols but is disappointed that his experiment was a failure, as he couldn’t control these mutant-beasts (in flashback we see one of them destroying his cabin). In the spirit of ecumenical tolerance, the Book has remedies against evil–that a cross or a Star of David or numerous other symbols would ward off the evil spirits. Jim, in between bites on his picnic chicken, says this is pretty heavy stuff.

Hey, Jim! what comes next is more than heavy, as Dr. Waterman steals the Book and while running away is chased by the boys and falls by a shallow stream and dies. When the boys don’t come back, Vicki leaves Susan alone and goes to round up the boys. The boys are baffled that the dead body of Waterman disappears just as Asmodeus appears on the scene questioning the boys. Asmodeus leaves them and finds Susan where he puts a special oversized ring on his finger, as he makes his face go contorted and puts Susan in a trance and attacks her. But the cross she wears around her neck saves her as he backs off from that powerful symbol and when she awakens, she only remembers that she was attacked but does not recall who did it. Dave realizes that the cross saved her, so the others make symbols out of willow twigs to wear as shields against evil.

The remainder of the film is a testimony to the special effects created on such a limited budget, but the story can only be construed as ridiculous. The four young students who must have taken stupid pills to still be hanging around in the woods, continue on with their adventure.

What pops up next is a huge, animated, mutant-gorilla who is chasing the old man around and frightening the girls, as the guys are heading for the castle atop the mountain seemingly not concerned about leaving the girls behind. But the castle has mysteriously vanished. Upon hearing the girls screaming, the boys return to stop the monster from stealing the Book. Dave will make a wooden spear to kill the monster.

Asmodeus will show his true face to Jim and make him an offer for the Book he can’t refuse: he offers to conjure up anything in the world in exchange — which sounds like a fair trade, if you ask me. But Dave wants to keep the Book to learn the secrets to cure Susan of the evil she was infected with. With that, Asmodeus promises that none of them will get out of the woods alive.

A huge mutant ogre attacks Jim who is carrying the Book and chases him into an invisible zone, but he gives the Book to Dave who passes it onto the girls and tells them to go back to the car and wait, while he goes into the invisible zone to rescue Jim.

Dave is the only one who manages to escape from the flying mutant-bats and other mutant creatures attacking them, but he is told by a mutant-hooded figure that he will die within one year and one day.

The film ends in a question mark as Dave is left in a straight jacket, yelling for his cross, as the insensitive and dull reporter leaves the mental hospital saying there’s no story here. The doctor must either be deaf or insensitive, because he doesn’t give poor Dave his cross back (he’s obviously not a fan of cult movies); and, Susan, who is apparently still alive, is looking slightly contorted while wolfishly smiling and heading towards the hospital’s front door.

REVIEWED ON 3/16/2001 GRADE: C   https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/