Director: Herb Wallerstein
Tagline: “The legendary creature is half man… half animal… and a cold-blooded killer!”
Plot: The Rill Lodge is getting ready for the opening of its 50th Winter Carnival, and excitement is running high. Carrie Rill (Sylvia Sydney), the lodge owner, can’t stop reminiscing with the locals about her time as Winter Carnival Queen, a position currently held by Betty Jo Blodgett (Jacquie Botts). Sidney’s grandson Tony Rill (Robert Logan), has his hands full running things and delivering his lines in a hypnotic, cottony monotone. That’s before two skiers come across some unusual tracks on the mountain, and one makes the mistake of not trying to escape when a POV shot comes roaring out of the woods and attacks her.
The first victim’s friend reports her disappearance to Tony and his men, and Tony finds the girl’s torn coat and skis on the slopes. He neglects to inform the rest of the security team, which is okay, because they’re largely irrelevant. Not realizing what he’s up against, one poor bastard goes on his own after the search is called off, only to trip, fall, slide over a cliff edge, and get grabbed by the monster while trying to pull himself up.
While Tony’s working out the best way to explain the situation to local lawman Sheriff Paraday (Clint Walker), two of his old friends arrive with their own emotional arcs in need of resolution: Gar (Bo Svenson) and Ellen (Yvette Mimieux). Gar is a former Olympic gold medalist in skiing who’s fallen on hard times and is in desperate need of job, while Ellen, a television reporter and former flame of Tony’s, has lost respect for her sullen, self-pitying husband. The ground has been set for a love triangle of deep, deep tepidity.
Thankfully, there’s still a creature out there. After a young boy finds the corpse of the missing skier in a barn, Paraday calls Tony and Gar in to consult, and Tony’s brief flirtation with obstructing justice comes to its conclusion. Ellen follows her intrepid reporter’s instincts to the barn just in time to see the cops chatting, and finds what they’ve missed; a set of the monster tracks, same as the ones the two skiers saw before. Ellen follows the tracks long enough to get menaced by some growling, before escaping back to the barn—unfortunately, the cops and everyone else have left for the night.
While Ellen hides, the monster sets its sights on bigger prey, busting up the evening’s festivities at the nearby high school. It could be he’s only looking to make a friend, but Betty Jo’s horrified reaction forces him to break a window, then wander off and kill Betty Jo’s mom in the parking lot.
His wife still missing, Gar decides it’s time to take action, and after a brief flashback to his former Olympic glory, he straps on his skis and somehow manages to track Ellen to the barn. The two rekindle their romance and are able to present a combined front when the monster attacks them the next morning. The arrival of Paraday and Tony on snowmobiles scares the thing away, but it looks like the fate of our four main characters is sealed. They have to go into the wild and kill the snowbeast before it murders any more innocents, even if that means their doom from an avalanche of logs:
Key scenes: When Jaws hit theaters in 1975, it broke box office records, changed the way films were marketed, and made an entire generation of filmgoers scared of the beach. It also spawned decades of copycat moviemakers desperate to recapture some of the original magic. But those copycats failed to understand what made Jaws so great in the first place, or else were unable to successfully replicate Spielberg’s uncanny grasp of pacing, character, and mood; so instead, the entertainment world was flooded with what amounts to a series of motion picture Mad Libs.
Snowbeast was made for television, but it’s as much a rip-off as Grizzly (Jaws with a giant bear!) or Tentacles (Jaws with an octopus!) or Claws (Jaws with a slightly smaller giant bear!). The first attack on a skier has a resemblance to the skinny dipper’s death that opens Spielberg’s killer shark classic. There’s an upcoming event that the monster’s actions threaten to disrupt, which means there’s the inevitable “We have to close the beaches!” scene; here, it’s a chat between Tony and Carrie, with Tony trying to explain the dangers, and Carrie refusing to listen to reason.
But of course the beaches—ahem, the carnival—can’t shut down until the worst happens. The attack on the high school leaves the whole town on edge. When Sheriff Paraday goes hunting for the monster, he brings back a dead bear, just like the psycho fishermen and their dead tiger shark that gave the mayor false hope in Jaws. The group that goes out into the mountains to track down the beast is one larger than the trio that manned the Orca, but there’s still a lawman, an outsider expert, and a local with a grudge.
Can easily be distinguished by: Since it started life on television, there are clear commercial breaks; not only does the action stop abruptly for a fade-to-black that lasts longer than it should, each break is preceded by the screen going red in a way that’s probably supposed to be terrifying, but becomes increasingly detached from context. (First red-screen comes in the middle of a monster murder; in the last, the sheriff is… looking at something.)
There’s also a definite lack of follow-through on the snowbeast’s attacks. While Spielberg got a lot of scares by keeping his (malfunctioning) shark off-screen as much as possible, Wallerstein lacks the craft to rise above his limitations. Each time the monster strikes, there’s some thudding camera work, screaming, and, in a few lucky instances, a furry white arm. Worse, there’s no satisfying reveal on the beast itself. The most the movie delivers, apart from the arm, are a scant few close-ups on the thing’s face. There isn’t even a shot of the dead body after the thing is put down.
About that death; Gar triumphs over his insecurities by strapping on some skis and proving that he’s not the mediocrity he was afraid of being. And then he kills the snowbeast by stabbing it with a ski pole, which, as anyone who’s ever skied can attest to, would be like cutting an orange with a toothpick. It’s the classic story of a man who wins gold medals, is paralyzed by self-doubt, then finds himself by engaging in improbable physics. (There’s even a chance that the creature is still alive at the end. The movie is so obliquely shot that it’s hard to be sure of anything, apart from boredom.)
Sign that it was made in 1977: Bigfoot was all the rage in the ‘70s (just ask Lee Majors), so of course Ellen’s an expert on the creature, her being a TV reporter and all. Gar is as versed in the subject as his wife, and gives Tony a lecture on how it’s wrong to kill something just because it’s there:
This seems like a moot argument, considering that:
a.) The thing’s already killed one person, so it’s probably not as friendly as Gar wants to believe and
b.) It’s not a Bigfoot. (Ellen herself explains this later on, saying the creature is, instead, some kind of “mutant.” Maybe Bigfoot’s lawyers made some calls before the movie hit screens.)
Timeless message: If your marriage is in trouble, go beg for a job from your wife’s former lover about whom she still fantasizes.
Memorable quotes: When Paraday calls Tony over to look at the dead skier’s body, there’s some question as to her identity. Tony: “Maybe I’ll recognize her when I see her face.” Paraday: “She doesn’t have one.” When a filmmaker can’t actually show gore because of television censors, implication will do in a pinch. (The script, incidentally, comes from Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano.)
Tony tries to explain the situation to his grandmother: “This wasn’t an animal! And it wasn’t human either!” Her response: “Well that certainly narrows it down.”
And finally, after Gar is welcomed to the Lodge by a friendly, exposition-laden fan, he turns to his wife and says, dryly, “Well, it’s nice to feel wanted somewhere.” It’s like Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? in snowsuits.
Available on DVD as part of the Sasquatch Horror Collection from Image Entertainment.