BAD MOON (1996) Blu-ray
Director: Eric Red
Scream Factory/Shout! Factory

A shaggy werewolf story. Shout! Factory’sScream Factory line has released on single disc Blu-ray BAD MOON, the blinked-and-you-missed-it 1996 werewolf/family doggie thriller from Morgan Creek (released by Warner Bros.) based on the Wayne Smith novel, Thor, written and directed by Eric Red, and starring Mariel Hemingway, Michael Pare, Mason Gamble, Ken Pogue, Hrothgar Mathews, Johanna Lebovitz, and introducing Primo the Wonder Dog as German Shepherd Thor. Abandoned and left to die by Warners and Morgan Creek, BAD MOON was thrown into a (comparatively) few theaters with zero publicity and advertising support, before it was unceremoniously yanked after a pathetic $1 million dollar gross. Since then, it’s played quite often on cable, and was a late-stage VHS rental hit. Seen today, it’s an agreeable time waster, with good kill scenes and a better-than-expected turn from Pare offsetting the dismal family drama and that verkakte dog. Scream’s razor-sharp anamorphic Blu transfer features a disappointing director’s cut (more about that in the bonuses section) along with the original theatrical release, with two commentary tracks, a new documentary on the movie’s production, featuring interviews with the cast and crew (don’t expect Hemingway), lots of storyboards and an original trailer for extras.

Being a photojournalist in the deep, dark jungle has its rewards for Ted (Michael Pare, EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS, STREETS OF FIRE): there’s nothing to do at night except screw your insanely hot assistant, Marjorie (Johanna Lebovitz, CONVERGENCE). Unfortunately, a local werewolf likes her more, and right in the middle of illitus meum polum, she’s snatched from the tent and literally ripped to shreds before Ted, also bitten but not shy, denogginizes the werewolf with a pump-action shotgun. Cut to the Pacific Northwest a few months later, where vaguely mannish mom and lawyer Janet (Mariel Hemingway, LIPSTICK, STAR 80) is confidently brushing off door-to-door sharpies like con man “Flopsy” (Hrothgar Mathews, TV movies MOTHER, MAY I SLEEP WITH DANGER, IN THE LAKE OF THE WOODS), with the aid of family pet Thor (Primo, THANKSGIVING FAMILY REUNION), a preternaturally intelligent German Shepherd who faithfully guards her and her young son, Brett (Mason Gamble, DENNIS THE MENACE, SPY HARD). One day, Janet gets a call from her brother, Ted, who has returned to the country and is now living in a trailer down by the lake. Something’s up with nervous, anxious Ted, so when chewed-up hikers are discovered looking like a couple of pulled pork sandwiches, Ted thinks a change of locale to Janet’s house would be in order. Unfortunately, Thor doesn’t think so, taking an immediate dislike to “Uncle Ted,” and with good reason: Ted has become a werewolf. Soon, the two dogs are literally in a pissing contest, squaring off for dominance and turf, as Ted slowly looses his cool as Thor thwarts him at every turn.

A good example of a lower-budgeted exploitation product that almost immediately ticked off the suits (in his commentary, the director states the studio guys hated the movie from the first dallies), BAD MOON was subsequently consigned to a limited, unsupported release to minimize any further supposed financial risk. In those pre-internet days, TV ad buys were everything for a new movie’s recognition factor: $7 million dollar BAD MOON’s laughably pathetic $100,000 P & A budget didn’t allow for any. Opening blind the day after Halloween in 1996 on only 825 screens (Bill Murray’s elephant comedy LARGER THAN LIFE booked over three times as many screens that same weekend...and flopped), BAD MOON’s anemic $600,000 plus change gross foretold doom. The next weekend it lost 176 screens and sustained an astounding 81% drop in ticket sales before it disappeared off the nation’s screens for good. A behind-the-scenes story like that always enhances some die-hard fans’ feelings that a particular favorite was “robbed” of the recognition it deserved, and in this case, that might be partially true. Certainly had Warner Bros. spent a more normal $2-4 million dollar P & A campaign on BAD MOON, and put it in a higher number of theaters, it might have had a better shot at recouping its production costs (“might”—see Bill Murray above). However...let’s not get crazy. BAD MOON has a few fun elements, and horror fans can groove along with it relatively painlessly, but it was never going to be a big, mainstream commercial hit.

Written and directed by Eric Red (best known for writing the script for the classic 1986 thriller, THE HITCHER), BAD MOON starts out phenomenally well. A deliciously fake studio set mock-up of a jungle starts the fun, as we get our old timey Tarzan conventions (scared natives, restless horses, ominous rustlings in the bush) turbo charged by some sex and nudity (Johanna Lebovitz’s body is perfection in the lamplight) and some over-the-top gore (Lebovitz does very well in this horrific scene, conveying outsized terror and pain as she’s grotesquely ripped apart). It’s a color-saturated, comic book-styled sequence, trimly directed and edited, and highlighted by a take-no-prisoners attitude—the werewolf’s vicious swatting-away of Lebovitz’s corpse—that bodes well for BAD MOON.

Unfortunately, except for the other attack scenes (and thankfully, there are enough here to maintain our interest over the short 79 minute run time), BAD MOON slows way, way down into thoroughly conventional dramatics, as Red unsuccessfully combines familiar tropes from “family member becomes a threat” Lifetime melodrama and the “boy and his super-smart dog” kiddie movie subgenre, with equally reliable-but-unsurprising werewolf hijinks. You can nitpick about the lapses here if you want. Why does Pare speak with a Brooklyn accent and his close, close sister sports a flat Midwestern twang? Nowhere in Pare’s exhaustive journals does he write the word, “werewolf,” for Hemingway to spy? How many pairs of sneakers a month does Pare go through, since any moon sets him off, inflating his werewolf feet to a size 37 Triple E? And most humorously: a 7 foot tall werewolf, with muscles to rival a Russian Boy Scout den mother, can easily slice open a large human and toss him thirty yards up into a tree...but he can’t seem to kill a widdle doggie woggie? Horror fans often decry these kinds of narrative slips, but truth be told, they’re part of the fun of the genre: you’re almost disappointed when something close to perfection—at least in terms of werewolf movies—like THE HOWLING or GINGER SNAPS or the original THE WOLF MAN (or my personal, unguilty favorite: ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN), doesn’t screw up, thus denying us a few inadvertent laughs.

However, BAD MOON’s bigger problems are harder to ignore. If the movie’s central conflict, according to the director, is the threat to Hemingway’s family via estranged sibling “Uncle Ted,” and if Thor operates as the lead character, hero, and audience identifier—shouldn’t that family be believably drawn, and shouldn’t that dog performer be the reincarnation of Rin Tin Tin, Lassie, and Benji all rolled into one? Thanks to deficiencies in all major departments (like, um...the script, the direction, and the performers), I never believed these people had met prior to the cameras first rolling, let alone that they were supposedly cherished loved ones to each other. Gamble just has to be a kid to make his character work, and he does fine, but no way did I buy Hemingway’s stiff, mannered, preoccupied turn as a mother and sister (granted it’s a terrible line, but what all-American sister says, “You’re a putz” to her brother in such an unpersuasive way?). She didn’t even convince me when speaking lovingly to the dog—how do you blow talking to a dog (she isn’t all to blame: director Red is clueless when it comes to directing the straight drama scenes here—even rock-bottom Lifetime pap has more verisimilitude)? No family created in the viewer’s mind equals cardboard characters waiting to get chewed up or knocked down. That’s all.

As for the dog, I keep reading from fans that he’s the Second Canine Coming, but he can’t even hold a candle to Won Ton Ton, the Dog That Saved Hollywood, let alone Rinty or Lassie or Benji (or even Digby, the Biggest Dog in the World, for that matter). Simply put: he’s not terribly charismatic on screen. We’re supposed to believe he’s got some kind of supernatural mojo going on with Pare, but their endless staring contests that director Red stages, like some insane study hall at the local obedience school, are completely lopsided. Pare’s doing good work in those silent scenes; he’s a talented guy who worked too often with schmoes. He should have had a more prominent career. But the close-ups of Primo mean nothing to us, because the dog’s eyes (or dogs’ plural, since two were used) just aren’t expressive. He always looks exactly the same: “I’m waiting for my next piece of hot dog, please.” You want to crack up when he’s supposed to be threatening; at one point they put a device in his mouth to make him look as if he’s snarling but instead, he looks like one of those smiling dogs in the Dentastix commercials (you want attacking dogs? Check out Joe Don Baker’s THE PACK—they’re insane). Either he wasn’t trained right, or he was just plain stroppy once the cameras rolled because he can’t stop looking off-camera at his trainer, rather than at the actor he’s working with (half the time they’re grabbing his head to line up the eyes). Thankfully, we have a guy in an animatronic wolf suit—the real star of BAD MOON. I know everybody hates the transforming scene, with its cheap, swirling morphing effect (we probably wouldn’t have thought it so bad twenty years ago), but the fake suit is tops. Ultimately seeing how phony it is doesn’t diminish the fun in the slightest, either (in Godzilla movies, it only heightens it). And Red, regardless of any other deficiencies, knows how to stage a bloody good action scene. When BAD MOON sticks to those simple horror pleasures, its fun. The rest is from hunger.

Scream Factory’s pristine 1080p HD widescreen 2.35:1 Blu transfer for BAD MOON looks sensational. Shot in anamorphic Panavision, BAD MOON sports significant depth of image, fine detail, and correctly valued color. Blacks are solid, contrast even, and fine grain super-tight. It looks like it was shot yesterday. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 stereo track comes alive during the attack scenes, with booming bass and some decent separation effects. A fairly lively field when stuff’s actually going on (there’s also a 2.0 track for purists). English subtitles are available.

The big extra here for fans, I would imagine, is the inclusion of a new “director’s cut.” It runs 1:19:25 to the theatrical version’s 1:19:51. Huh? Now, when I read up on BAD MOON, several sources cited shots of sex and gore were cut out of the opening scene to bring the initially NC-17-rated movie back down into R-rated territory. So I just assumed that stuff would be put back in. Nope. Nothing looked different throughout the new cut until we come to the final transformation, where Red deleted most of the morphing stuff. That’s it. And this is confirmed by Red himself in the director’s cut commentary track. Certainly a disappointment. That sex and gore is available, however, in the "Unrated Opening Sequence" extra (6:07). Unfortunately, it’s sourced (I would guess over and over again) from a VHS tape; it’s a pretty noisy, dark image, but you do see more of Johanna Lebovitz nude (I’m getting the vapors...), as well as a pretty cool shot of geysers of blood coming out of her body. "Nature of the Beast: Making of Bad Moon" (35:17) features new interviews with Red, Pare, Gamble, and special effects whiz Steve Johnson. Most if not all of the information presented here is covered in the two commentary tracks. The first commentary, accessible when watching the theatrical version, features Red and Pare, moderated by John “the Arrow” Fallon. Sounding as if he’s calling in from Donald Duck orange juice can attached to a piece of string, Fallon says, “f*ck” twice within the first minute of the track, so we know where this commentary is headed. Unfortunately, Pare and Red play right along. If you can get through it, interesting tidbits come out, like Primo’s handler was a prima donna; Pare’s assertion that “chicks have a hard time with this show business;” the rather startling assertion that BAD MOON is “one of the best werewolf movies ever made, hands down;” Red’s persistent attack on Mariel Hemingway (“To be frank, she’s a limited actor,”); and the single most depressing question ever posed by a moderator on a commentary track: “Was this the kind of set where you had a lot of down time to f*ck around, do sh*t?” Too bad Fallon wasn’t around to interview lesser talents like Hitchcock, Ford, and Kubrick. The second commentary track, accessible on the director’s cut, features Red alone, and while I wouldn’t exactly want to take a Sunday drive with this guy, it’s a more straightforward examination of all that went into BAD MOON’s production (he’s clearly reading his own script, sounding like a kid laboring through a fourth grade book report). Good technical info on the complicated dolly shots often used here, before he attacks Hemingway again (“[Pare] was there to give a great performance; she was there to get a paycheck,”). Animated storyboard galleries (with music) for the transformation sequence (6:30), Thor/werewolf fight (9:40), and Thor stares down Uncle Ted (4:14) are included, along with an original trailer (:29) rounding out the extras.
(Paul Mavis)