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Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Savage Harvest (1981) review


Tom Skerritt (Casey), Michelle Phillips (Maggie), Shawn Stevens (Jon), Anne-Marie Martin (Wendy), Derek Partridge (Derek), Arthur Malet (MacGruder), Tana Helfer (Kristie), Vincent Isaac (Jurogi), Eva Kirrita (Tantsi)

Directed by Robert Collins

The Short Version: Killer lions roar in this US-Brazil-Kenyan co-production; an under-seen action-horror thriller in which Tom Skerritt must protect his family from a dozen or so hungry lions salivating for people burgers. Some instances of gore and violence seems to have been cut, but you do get to see some impressively disturbing shots of dummies filled with meat being dragged off and torn apart. These lions may have been difficult actors, but they take pride in their work. Fans of THE KILLER SHREWS will get a kick out of the climax. Reaping some suspenseful thrills, this HARVEST ends up a well paced B picture that was originally envisioned as something a bit more cerebral.

A devastating drought in Africa forces local workers to move to the city to survive and causes starving predators to seek out a new food source with humans next on the food chain. A pride of hungry lions lay siege to a house in Kenya in an attempt to sink their teeth into the human food trapped inside.

An unjustly obscure, and really quite extraordinary entry in the 'Killer Animal' sweepstakes from a director primarily of the television medium. Any time you have a movie where big cats are required to interact with humans in an aggressive fashion, it's a testament to everyone involved--regardless of how good or bad the film turns out--that the filmmakers manage to make you believe in the onscreen danger. That's one thing SAVAGE HARVEST has in spades is harrowing sequences of lions re-enacting the zombie siege of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD to get at the warm human flesh inside. As opening and closing title cards inform the audience, SAVAGE HARVEST is based on true events.

The filmmakers (particularly the editor) amass more than a few shock moments that balance the scale between a jump scare and tension. The lions are incredibly resourceful at finding ways to get inside the house even after their human targets have boarded up all the more accessible entry points. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some of the cast members do incredibly stupid things that allows them to be put in danger while upping the animal attack ante that is this films bread and butter.

The last half will particularly delight bad movie buffs with a fondness for THE KILLER SHREWS (1959). In it, Skerritt and the rest of the survivors build a cage made of metal, wood, and held together with chains. They move across the ground in a last ditch effort to make it to one of the cars. It's an ingenious contraption; and offers the film one last extended sequence of suspense as the lions furiously try to break through the cage and claw at their legs as they move precariously towards their intended destination. 

There's also a modicum of characterization found in Ralph Helfer's script. Tom Skerritt's Casey is divorced, barely spending time with his family. He has a good rapport with his wife's current husband, though (played by Derek Partridge who acted in the animal themed THE IVORY APE [1980]). Naturally, all hell breaks loose upon one of Casey's infrequent visits--this one to see his daughter compete in a tennis match. This presents an opportunity for this broken family unit to reconstitute itself. Unfortunately, little time is afforded this arc; so little in fact, that it's forgotten once the lion attacks increase, and they increase quickly. It's handled so carelessly, the writers would have been better off just having Casey as the husband and Derek as a business partner, or family friend. 

Producer and co-writer Helfer, a famous animal trainer and behaviorist, as well as founder of Gentle Jungle, Inc., seems to want to guide the picture into a particular direction with its human-animal interaction, but this, too, is mostly abandoned amidst lots of screaming, roaring, and strewn viscera.

According to articles of the time, the original script had a lot more exposition between Skerritt's hunter character and one of the lions in the film; the big one with a scar on his face. This, too, goes by the wayside. Casey (Skerritt) possesses some sort of empathy for the lions. He doesn't want to kill them, and goes out of his way to avoid it; even so far as proclaiming that rifles will be ineffective against them! Other than a few ambiguous moments, this aspect of the script becomes not only confusing, but annoying; especially with Casey's "I'll shoot you, I won't shoot you" fickleness when confronted with a life threatening situation. Makeup effects artist William Munns stated in interviews of the day that one of the reasons this mutual respect between two pride leaders was abandoned was the difficulty in working with a multitude of lions; each had been trained to do something different, and what might work with one, wouldn't work with another. As it became more difficult to get the footage they wanted, the film was changed to a more straightforward action-horror picture.

This lifelong love of animals and wildlife extended to Munns, he having previously studied under Ralph Helfer. It was through their mutual affection for animals that led the teacher to seek out the student. Helfer ultimately asked Munns to work on the rampaging lion picture, which had been gestating since 1979. Munns' duties on the production were varied such as makeup application to both humans and lions, and supplying prosthetic body parts for the violent scenes of flesh being ripped asunder. Additionally, Munns built a partial lion suit that he himself wore for shots that would have been impossible to do with the real animals in frame.

Coming a bit late to the 'Nature Amuck' party, the 70s revival--excluding the mammoth classic that is JAWS--had some of its best examples towards the latter half of the decade. The small screen let loose a handful of these, and two of them were thematically similar to SAVAGE HARVEST (1981). MANEATERS ARE LOOSE! (1978) concerned a suicidal animal trainer releasing two Bengal tigers that go about depleting the population of a California community. THE BEASTS ARE IN THE STREETS (1978) is more family friendly in its action-centric story of a tanker truck crashing into a game preserve, setting some 60 beasts into the streets. The former on May 3rd and the latter on May 18th of 1978. 1981 brought another lion movie into theaters with Noel Marshall's ROAR. Eleven years in the making, it (barely) told the story of a family living with dozens and dozens of big cats. It ended up being one of the biggest box office failures in history, but has survived as one of cult cinemas most fascinating endeavors for the sheer insanity involved in its making. SAVAGE HARVEST likewise failed at the box office, seemingly relegating lions as box office poison much like dragons and films with the word 'Legend' in them.

Years later in the late 90s and beyond, big cats were back and hungrier than ever, albeit aided heavily by the use of CGI. THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS (1996) was another true story, this one about the lions of Tsavo, a pair of flesh hungry lions that killed a number of workers in Africa, and the hunt to bring them down. PREY (2007) has a woman and her child trapped inside a jeep with hungry lions trying to get inside, while in BURNING BRIGHT (2010) a woman is trapped in her home with a tiger! More big cats were on hand in the mediocre SABRETOOTH (2002) and its atrocious followup, ATTACK OF THE SABRETOOTH (2005).

Tom Skerritt had been in the business for nearly 20 years prior to his role in SAVAGE HARVEST. Working mostly in television, he has starred in some hugely successful pictures, but superstar status seemed to elude him. A fantastic actor, some of his work most familiar to readers of this site would be BIG BAD MAMA (1974), THE DEVIL'S RAIN (1975), and ALIEN (1979); the latter picture likely being his most recognizable role. FIGHTING BACK (1982) was his DEATH WISH with its plot similar to Bill Lustig's VIGILANTE from the same year. Skerritt got to play a cop in the Stephen King adapted THE DEAD ZONE (1983) for director David Cronenberg. Skerritt had experience battling big cats having starred in the aforementioned TV terror flick, MANEATERS ARE LOOSE! (1978).

Tana Helfer (above far right) is the daughter of producer Ralph Helfer. A fascinating woman, she grew up with animals and eventually became a trainer, a stunt woman for films utilizing them, and the author of the book 'When You Fight the Tiger'. She plays Kristie, the young tennis player and daughter to Skerritt's character. She still lives in Kenya. Her mother wrote a book as well, titled 'The Gentle Jungle'.

Prior to appearing in SAVAGE HARVEST, the gorgeous Anne-Marie Martin went by her real name of Eddie Benton. Some of her genre credits include roles in PROM NIGHT (1980) and THE BOOGENS (1981). She auditioned for the role Princess Leia in STAR WARS (1977), and found greater fame on television programs like DAYS OF OUR LIVES and SLEDGE HAMMER!

The director of photography, Ronnie Taylor, went on to perform camera duties on high profile pictures like GANDHI (1982) and HIGH ROAD TO CHINA (1983); and some of Dario Argento's movies such as OPERA (1987), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1998), and SLEEPLESS (2001).

Considering the rarity of this movie, I became interested in learning a bit more about its making aside from what was available in vintage magazine articles. I contacted the films makeup artist, William Munns, and he was kind enough to answer questions about his career, including SAVAGE HARVEST. Below are the questions and answers pertaining to this film.

Venoms5: I've read about your love of animals and working with them, so was this a pleasant experience working on this picture?

William Munns: Working with the animals was one of my most enjoyable experiences. I even got to work a bit as a trainer, for the sequence where the family tries to escape the house in a constructed sort of cage they are inside, with several lions outside. They used five young female lions which were somewhat trained, but they had only four trainers, so I was allowed to be trainer 5 for the fifth lion. After each take, we;d each go in and throw a chain around the neck of one lioness, and lead it away from the scene while the scene was reset or cameras moved. And doing makeup on Dandy, the main lion, was fun because he really was an incredibly tame and friendly male lion.
V5: Was Dandy another name for Zamba? Or was that a different lion entirely?

WM: Dandy and zamba are different lions. Zamba was Ralph's first and probably best lion, and he starred with Pamela Franklin in the movie THE LION (1962). If you want to know a lot more about Ralph's animals, get 'The Gentle Jungle' by Toni Helfer, (Ralph's first wife and she was married to him when we did Savage harvest) and it describes Zamba in detail. It also describes an incredible elephant named Modoc.

V5: What was the budget and how long did you work on the film?

WM: I don't know what the budget was, but it wasn't big. The producers got some financial concessions and support from Brazil to encourage US producers to make movies in Brazil, and so that's where we filmed, in a small town called Vassouras which was about 2-3 hours drive outside Rio de Janeiro. I had about 6-8 weeks prep to build the prosthetics, and we were on location in Brazil for 8 weeks.
V5: I noticed photos in old magazines and film stills display images of gore and violence not in the release version. I also noticed in a NYT review from May 23rd, 1981, Vincent Canby states the film is R rated, yet domestic posters have PG on them. Is this a mistake on the reviewers part, or was the film re-submitted to tone down these scenes?

WM: I don't recall its rating, but I did make quite a few body parts for people eaten by lions, but the film didn't show much of those things. I can't recall anything that would have justified an 'R' rating back then.

V5: The scenes with the lions dragging off the dummies were particularly striking. I've got an interview with you in an old Fangoria magazine and one of the dummies (I believe of actor Derek Partridge) is incredibly life-like from the photo. Was shooting these types of scenes particularly difficult? I also recall a dummy lion built to be blown up, but it's not seen in the film.

WM: The Derek mannikin was a poly-foam head from a lifecast of Derek, poly-foam arms, and then the entire body wardrobe was simply filled with meat. The producers delivered a 1/4 cow to my makeup room on set and my assistant and I carved up this 1/4 cow and packed it into the wardrobe of the body. The lions really loved tearing it apart. The lion prosthetic blown up I don't recall seeing either, except a real fast cut where you might see it for a split second.

V5: How much of your work was cut and were there any FX sequences that had to be dropped for time and budget?

WM: I don't recall exactly what all I did, so I can't say what was cut. My plan was to build a lot of "just in case" options and then put together what is needed on the location. So I had life casts and face masks to double all the main actors, and several mannikins as well.

V5: Were there any accidents or close calls on the set while working with the lions?

WM: The only serious accident was with a young lioness and the black woman, Eva Kirrita, because the plan was originally to let the real actors interact with the trained lions, so her attack by a lioness went wrong and the lioness accidentally bit her in the leg, making a puncture wound in her thigh. As soon as that happened, the producers reversed policy and said no actors could work with real lions, so only trainers could (using my actor double face masks) and the real actors could only interact with me in my lion costume. It's me mauling Derek in his close up fighting the lion, and it's me wrestling with Tom Skerritt on the porch. Only Tana Helfer was allowed to work with Dandy, because she had been raised with him and knew exactly how to work with him.

V5: I've read that Tom Skerritt disliked having been in the movie. Is this true? 

WM: Tom was promised he could work with the real lions, and that was one of the reasons he accepted the part. Once the accident above occurred, with Eva, the producer said no actors work with lions, Tom was very disappointed. The fact that he had to wrestle me in a lion costume instead of a real lion was one of his major disappointments.  

V5: Was Helfer (or his daughter for that matter) satisfied with the finished product?

WM: As far as I know, Ralph and Tana were satisfied with the film. Not many other people were. I was satisfied with my work and the experience, but I found the movie boring when I finally saw it in its release version. 

20th Century Fox released SAVAGE HARVEST domestically with reportedly little fanfare. Rated 'PG', the film isn't all that gory, but what brief gore that's seen, coupled with strong attack scenes, it will likely get a 'PG-13' today. A lot of the gore created for the film was not used, although promotional stills display some of these cut bits. Magazine articles from the time also showcased the bloody business put together for the film (see insert). Not long after its anemic theatrical showing, it showed up on HBO, where more people probably saw it. It hasn't been seen much since (at least in America) and has yet to legally surface on DVD anywhere in the world. Shout! Factory supposedly had interest in putting it out, but rights issues involving two Beatles songs being sung by the family in an effort to take their minds off the lions trying to get in will allegedly keep it from release.

If you are fond of 'Animal Amuck' movies, SAVAGE HARVEST is one you will definitely want to add to your list. There are far worse films out there, and particularly in this sub-genre, so it's a shame it remains largely unseen and unappreciated. While the film has some gruesome moments, those expecting a lot of gore will be disappointed. For that, you'll find it in the Italian made WILD BEASTS (1984), another late-blooming killer animal movie. Flawed, but highly engaging, this HARVEST reaps what it sows--pure B movie entertainment.


Steven Millan said...

The scenes of the two Beatles songs being belted out(by a few of the cast members) is possibly one of the main reasons why we've never seen this entertaining film out on VHS video,DVD,or even MOD DVD,for I'm sure that Shout! Factory would heavily promote the film if they lucked in on landing it as one of their future DVD/Blu Ray releases.

venoms5 said...

Hi, Steven. I mention that at the end of the second paragraph from the bottom. I read somewhere that apparently Shout had stated that was the reason they wouldn't touch it. I would definitely buy it--whether here or overseas--should it show up one day.

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