Blood Beach (1980) Blood Beach (1980) **½

     Jaws 2 is not a good movie. I think we can all agree that about the most to be said for it is that it isn’t as stridently lousy as Jaws 3-D or Jaws: The Revenge. Nevertheless, I think we can all also agree that “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…” is one of the all-time classic advertising taglines. So although there was understandably no great rush to copy Jaws 2 itself, I’ve heard plenty of riffs on that tagline over the years. My favorite variation was used in 1980 by an otherwise undistinguished picture called Blood Beach, which completed Universal’s elliptical sentence: “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, you can’t get to it.” In fact, I have to give credit all around to the Blood Beach marketing campaign. Not only did they make a great tagline even better, but they also cut together a trailer and TV spot that terrified me when I was little. I don’t know why, exactly, but being dragged bodily into the ground by a monster you can’t see coming immediately struck me as one of the worst fates imaginable, and those ads made sure I contemplated the subject from each and every angle. The film itself doesn’t carry nearly as strong a charge, unfortunately. It’s too concerned with the efforts of sober, reasonable people to solve the problem of a tourist-gobbling sand monster to dwell as it should upon the experience of being taken by one.

     Harry Caulder (David Huffman, of Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby) is an officer of the Shore Patrol for some Southern California resort community. That appears to make him something like a lifeguard with police powers. Shortly after dawn one summer morning, as Harry prepares to swim out to his floating observation post offshore, he encounters his friend, Ruth Hutton (Harriet Medin, from Blood and Black Lace and The Murder Clinic), who is taking her dog for a walk on the beach. It’s an unusual relationship this pair has. Ruth is the mother of Harry’s ex-fiancée, who left him some seven years ago to seek her fortune in the big city. The old lady evidently thought her daughter didn’t know a good thing when she had it, and has remained close with Harry ever since. Sadly, this morning’s random crossing of paths will be the last Harry ever sees of Ruth. Just as he gets far enough out into the breakers to prevent him from doing anything about it, something seizes her by the heels, and drags her down into the sand. Harry hears Ruth’s screams, but from his vantage point up to his eyeballs in the surf, he can’t really be said to have seen what happened to her. All he can tell his colleagues on the regular police force is that she was standing on the beach one moment, and gone the next.

     News of her mother’s disappearance naturally brings Harry’s ex, Catherine (Mariana Hill, from Messiah of Evil and Black Zoo), running. And because Harry is the closest thing she has in the neighborhood to both a friend and an eyewitness, she just as naturally seeks him out as soon as she’s learned what little she can from the cops. The reunion between the two former lovers reveals to the surprise of both that the old spark is still there— and since it turns out that Catherine is now separated from the man she married in Harry’s stead, there might even be potential for a proper rekindling. True, Harry is technically seeing someone, but because Marie (Lena Pousette) is an international stewardess whose work permits her only a few days in town at a time (and at several-week intervals, besides!), she’s arguably more of a friend with benefits than a girlfriend. Indeed, Marie’s erratic schedule is the reason why it takes Harry a while to realize that anything is amiss when she disappears, too, just like Catherine’s mom.

     Because Blood Beach is a Jaws ripoff at heart, the next monster attack briefly makes it look as if the movie is about to spring on us its equivalent of Mayor Vaughn’s tiger shark. Harry works with another patrolman called Hoagy (Darrell Fetty), who moonlights as a singer in that hippyish territory where rock and roll, country, and the blues all meet. Sometimes Hoagy is joined onstage by his girlfriend (Marleta Giles). On one such night, following the couple’s set, she goes down to the beach to unwind before heading home. In the shadow of the amusement pier, Hoagy’s girl is attacked by some scumball (Bobby Bass) plainly intent on raping her. Just the thing to throw the police off the scent of a monster they’d be disinclined to believe in anyway, right? In fact, however, the rapist draws official attention to the real problem, because the monster unwittingly saves the intended victim by biting the assailant’s dick off while he grapples with her in the sand! Sergeant Royko (Burt Young, from Carnival of Blood and Amityville 2: The Possession), the investigating detective, initially sees no point in looking a gift horse in the mouth when he already knows that mouth is full of severed rapist wang, and therefore misses the real connection between the attack under the pier and the two vanished women. But the next day, when a teenaged girl (Rush Week’s Laura Burkett) has her legs chewed to pieces in broad daylight before her friends can pull her to safety, Royko’s boss, Captain Pearson (John Saxon, of Blood Beast from Outer Space and Prisoners of the Lost Universe), makes the connection for him.

     Pearson also grasps at once the central fact of the case as redefined by the attacks on the rapist and the beach bunny: his “suspect” must be a large, predatory animal that burrows under seaside sand like a bristleworm to attack prey walking or lying on the surface. The trouble is, no organism meeting that description is currently known to science. Whatever is down there, it’s something that no one alive has ever seen before. That being so, Pearson sensibly begins by calling in a biologist, hoping that someone with scientific expertise might at least be able to speculate about the creature more fruitfully than a bunch of small-town cops. Alas, Dr. Dimitrios (Stefan Gierasch from Blue Sunshine and Carrie) proves something of a disappointment. He can speculate, sure, but he’s honest enough to tell the captain that none of his ideas about the creature are actionable in any way useful to a police force trying to cope with it. He’s not one of those polymathic savants from the black-and-white monster movies who can listen gravely to a summary of the situation, and then pull a 100% accurate and reliable profile of the rampaging beast out of his ass. No, the actually helpful insight comes from Catherine Hutton, who sneaks under the amusement pier one afternoon to brood over the upgrade in her mother’s status from “missing” to “missing, presumed eaten.” There’s a secret place down there, you see— the basement of a building that was condemned and demolished long ago— and it always served her as a safe and tranquil retreat when she was a kid. After all, abandoned properties don’t tend to attract crowds. This time, however, Catherine is struck almost at once by a sense that something about the hidden basement isn’t right. She can’t really explain why or how, but she gets the distinct impression that something is living there, and that she never wants to meet whatever it is. Catherine tells Harry, Harry tells Captain Pearson, and police investigation turns up unquestionable evidence that the ruins under the pier are the beach monster’s lair. That answers the question of where to find it, but unfortunately it doesn’t say much about how to kill it…

     I found Blood Beach intensely disappointing when I finally got around to seeing it in the early 1990’s. Not only did it turn out that I’d already seen all the scary bits thanks to its advertising campaign, but most of the stuff in between them was also pretty fucking boring. Revisiting it now, I recognize that my prior assessment wasn’t entirely fair— although I can still see well enough how I arrived at it. Most of the movie’s problems stem from writer/director Jeffrey Bloom’s understandable decision to use the then fashionable Jaws template rather than the old 1950’s monster-rampage formula, to which this premise was inherently better suited. Although this isn’t immediately obvious, Jaws relies heavily on the fact that both we and the characters whose task it will be to stop the monster know from the outset exactly what it is. We have enough information to fill in the blanks each time that POV cam homes in on some doomed swimmer’s legs. And while Vaughn, Brody, Hooper, and Quint might bicker over the details, the menu of options for solving the problem is generally understood by all of them. However, if the monster isn’t a shark (or an alligator or a grizzly bear or a swarm of killer bees), but rather some made-up creature that operates like a predatory marine worm, then the film’s first act must perforce be spent establishing the thing’s basic nature and the general contours of its abilities. The authorities, meanwhile, can’t plausibly start looking in the right direction until incontrovertible proof emerges that something weird is on the loose. When Hooper declares, “This was no boat accident,” he has ready to hand an alternative explanation that the mayor and the community understand as a possibility, even if they don’t want to accept that it’s actually happening. Caulder has a much higher first hurdle to clear, in that he must begin by convincing himself that his town doesn’t just have on its hands a kidnapper or a serial killer or a piece of unsafe real estate sorely in need of condemnation. Until sufficient evidence piles up to accomplish that, Blood Beach’s A-plot can’t credibly do much except to spin its wheels.

     Something needs to happen in between the first-act monster strikes, however, and so Bloom has recourse to the characters’ personal lives. All the attention devoted to Caulder’s love triangle, Hoagy’s singing career, and the friction between the Chicago-bred Sergeant Royko and his less prickly fellow cops drove me up the wall the first time I saw Blood Beach. If you can muster up more patience than I had at nineteen, however, you might see how that stuff is actually doing some pretty important work. It’s creating a sense of the community and of the people who make it up, breathing a bit of life even into characters that ultimately exist only to become monster chow. Bloom is quite successful at it, too, in a way that reminds me of another movie that pushed the limits of the Jaws formula, The Car.

     Finally, I do want to say just a little about the monster itself. I’ve already mentioned the whammy that the Blood Beach commercials put on me just by raising the idea of a creature with this lifestyle, so it should be no surprise that I find the attack sequences highly effective, even if there weren’t enough of them to satisfy my teenaged self. Some viewers— and make no mistake, I was one of them originally— may be annoyed that Bloom never shows even a piece of the monster until the final showdown. I assure you, though, that the reveal is worth the wait. Like many of my favorite movie monsters, this one rather defies description, but the clear implication is that it’s a gigantic form of some invertebrate seabed ambush predator. And Bloom has clearly done at least a bit of homework on such organisms, for he devises an all too plausible excuse for the “it’s not over yet” coda that was more or less obligatory for horror movies in 1980. Let’s just say that what kills a great white shark might backfire rather spectacularly when tried on certain more primitive creatures.



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