You can be really smart, but also be genetically pre-disposed to stink at real estate.
This is one of the premises of this week’s flick, the somewhat awkwardly titled American Beast, which deals with a creature created after a dispute between two Indigenous tribes about a century and a half before the establishment of the United States of America if you believe the flick’s internal logic.
We don’t know any of this until about four-fifths of the way into the movie when this gnarly-looking bearded guy with a knack for exposition who’s seen some stuff in his day named Jacob (Alex Cotant) tells us all about it. We have to navigate through a lot of flashbacks and a journey through decades of horror stylistics to get to that point, but the real point of the whole movie is that the Erikson family just plain is trash when it comes to property management. This is real estate horror at its finest, but with a lot more flaying with jagged claws ripping through torsos in the great outdoors rather than the Amityville approach of “this house had people die in it, and so it sucks and living here sucks because the spirits are jerks.”
In this one, James Erikson (Armin Habibovich) is notified about his mom, Tiffany (Kelly Lavasseur), dying. He visits an attorney, gives his girlfriend the lowdown, then drives a few hours to a rural area called Solitude (which was this 2014 flick’s original title) to get a computer paper box out of the storage locker that she left to him in her will. Therein, he finds an old journal written by his great grandfather, a bunch of news clippings and other junk such as audio and video tapes that detail the history of the property.
All the stuff in the box leads James to discover that his heritage is linked to 950-plus acres of wooded property with a rundown homestead and a creek and an Indigenous curse of vengeance guiding a creature to kill intruders. But here’s the thing — whatever happens to James and his girlfriend when she shows up later to help ends up being all Tiffany’s fault.
Had she NOT HAD A WILL, you know what would have happened? A couple public notices in the local paper of record once the county tax bill comes due and then it ends up being their problem or the problem of whomever buys it at auction. Whole lot of headaches saved. If you want your kid NOT TO HAVE TO DEAL WITH the legacy of an Indigenous curse, let the property lie and not tell him about it…
But, no, co-directors Livingston Oden and Taylor Scott Olson would rather make a horror flick about a rampaging tree-bear monster hybrid murdering folks through the decades than one that’s a mind-shredding venture into the horrific nuances of estate planning, and the monsters who manipulate other people to bleed their meager legacies dry. Which is fine, it was their choice, and it gave them the chance to employ this great gimmick of putting in at least five flashback sequences that mirror the styles of horror films made in the decades the flashbacks take place in. It’s a genius stroke and one that serves the flick very well once you figure out their intentions.
Anyhow, James’ act of reading the journal of his great-grandfather Frank (Brent Latchaw), a research scientist, leads to everything going black and white and for Flashback Uno to 1939 where Frank and his wife go on an expedition with five other people to find the healing power of nature in the form of a plant with a scientific name I’m not going to try to spell here. People start getting their faces clawed off because a movie about an all-healing plant would be boring and maybe even more boring than the estate planning horror flick I mentioned above.
So the clever thing that the filmmakers did is when they show one of the clawed-off faces, it just ends up being three stripes of fake blood, imitating the style of the flicks at the time. The monster puts a fake-looking severed arm in a trunk and the acting in the flashback is done in that stilted 1950s monster-flick style. This cool trick continues throughout all the flashbacks as the flick progresses — 1960s (times two), 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.
Then there’s another flashback where two campers go in the area that the beast roams in 1961 and they get killed even though the scientist guy put a chain-link fence and signs all around the perimeter. There’s a woman getting eviscerated and it looks like the zombie barbecue scene from Night of the Living Dead.
So Frank hires a hunting party consisting of a couple younger guys and a one-eyed drunk to find and kill the beast. Three of them get killed and the sole survivor Jacob makes it to modern times so he can tell James about this Indigenous legend when we shift back to modern day.
In the next flashback, the 952 acres is targeted for development by Frank’s son in 1977, and we get colorized flashbacks of him talking into a tape recorder. He is visited by the same actress who warned the scientist about spoiling the land, but she’s wearing a different vest because even spirits need to change with the times. She dares him to go to the property and he talks to a couple guys and has a nightmare about Frank who doesn’t have any eyeballs anymore and this prompt him to do a Vince McMahon impersonation. There’s some more guts and grittiness that reflects Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Hills Have Eyes.
For the next flashback, James looks in mom Tiffany’s diary to establish it. Mom-to-be’s out there in a fluorescent bikini bathing in the river with four other kids camping and doing 1980s teenager stuff. She’s the sole survivor of this 1986 attack where the horny kids aardvarking and the kids wandering around listening to their Walkmans get offed in bloody and somewhat-nonsensical fashion, just how Mr. Voorhees would like.
Then James’ girlfriend shows up because James needs the moral support to deal with Jacob’s beard again, and they watch a videotape from 1999.
Just like Blair Witch Project, these people go out to the woods with two nosy girls, a smart, rational, black dude whose only mistake is having a weak bladder, and the quirky Asian camera guy who wears makeup and black nail polish. In the surviving footage, they bother his mom, go to the property, find the drunk one-eyed guy’s flask from two segments ago and then the monster.
Then in present movie time, James decides he has to kill the monster because a book says that it’s 400 years after the first full moon since the monster was created and so Indigenous evil dies tonight, or something. He and his girlfriend head to the property. The ghost woman shows up. There’s a final showdown.
Did I mention it’s all the mom’s fault?
Best Reason to Know When to Say When: Carl, a bearded bargoer, stumbles through the snowy woods, stops to take a leak, gets grabbed by the gazebos and meets his end before the opening credits.
Best Understanding of the Struggles of Someone With Speech Impairment:
Dick the Assistant: “I don’t think she can talk, Frankie, she must be a mute!”
Frankie: “Well, she must have something to say.”
Best Warning: The Indigenous woman, who turns out not to be mute as suspected, tells the expedition “You shall release death upon many generations if you do this,” after they grab an arrowhead. She wasn’t lying.
Best Sign of a Rational Mind: Frank Erikson, aka Mr. Scientist, tells his wife they’re leaving immediately after a guy gets clawed and he fights the monster off briefly, then says, “I’m in charge here, you listen to me,” after he says he’s going to find out what the monster is about 17 seconds later. Then another woman gets her face clawed off, and so they decide to leave as planned.
Best Speech Made With an Actor’s Guts Hanging Out: An older, wiser Mr. Scientist with his dying four or five breaths says to Jacob, “You must not tell a soul what happened out here. This thing isn’t obviously something that can be hunted of killed.”
Best Sign of an Egotistical Realtor: “My father (Frank, mentioned above) was a fool to think he was protecting anything by acquiring that land. It will be developed. There’s nothing on that land that I can’t control.”
Best Show of Optimism: The Realtor guy and another guy find a severed leg in the woods with the Realtor assuming Scott, who was formerly attached to the leg, is creature food. The other guy, the ever-hopeful Charles, responds, “You don’t know that!”
Best Show of Obliviousness: One guy in 1986 doesn’t realize that the girl he’s being intimate with has become somewhat detached from their intimate situation.
Best Head Trauma: Two characters gets their bells rung in messy fashion in the final fight.
Despite the somewhat-deceptive cover art, this is not a Bigfoot movie, although it shares some aspects of one — everyone who pees on the property dies. The monster design is a tree/beast hybrid, which is pretty cool.
Really, had box-of-rocks Tiffany just not made a will, had a rudimentary sense of the fact that the property would have got caught up in probate court, fallen into the county’s control, then the rampaging Indigenous curse monster would have been the local government’s headache and not James’ problem. Lives woulda been saved. She would have saved the money on attorney’s fees.
And then the ultimate insult: A tacked-on ending with a video segment that renders the entire flick basically moot drives home the point. Had James not started his historical exploration chronologically and had his dear mom actually labeled the tape “James: Watch This First, You Moron!!!” in black Sharpie with red exclamation marks if the message she eventually conveyed was so dang important, lives would have been saved.
Let’s face it, the real monster in this flick is not the rampaging Indigenous curse creature and his infinitely loving spirit guide — it’s the Eriksons’ misunderstanding of U.S. property laws and Tiffany’s parenting.
Two and a half stars (half-star deduction because no garbonzas).