Winterbeast. Holy shit. Winterbeast. That’s about the quickest summation I can give of the feeling one has while watching this treat of regional filmmaking. It remains the sole creation of the film’s writer/director Christopher Thies and is a marvel of independent filmmaking that’s sure to excite fans of schlock cinema and the truly weird. For the uninitiated, regional filmmaking tends to refer to movies that are made outside of the Hollywood system, often in more rural areas, and drawing from local talent. For those willing to step beyond the safety tape laid out by the big studio system, an amazing world of creativity and effort is out there waiting to be discovered.
Winterbeast recently got a new 2k scan and restoration by way of Vinegar Syndrome as part of the first volume in their Home Grown Horrors series which collects regional films hoping to shine some light on forgotten gems. It joins the surreal Beyond Dream’s Door (1988) and slasher flick Fatal Exam (1988) to round out the first set. Vinegar Syndrome has made a name for itself digging up the obscure and forgotten of genre cinema giving them new life with lovingly crafted restorations. With so many films still trapped on VHS or never receiving a home media release in the first place, I simply can’t give them enough praise for the work that they do.
As the intro on the Vinegar Syndrome disc offers, the film has some interesting production history. Shot over half a decade it was filmed using a mix of both 8mm and 16mm. This creates some strange moments as scenes transition between the two formats in a very noticeable and often comical manner. Some of the slower moments of conversation give way to the hilarious realization that though we are being shown two people talking back and forth, they are actually in completely different locations and have likely filmed their scenes at different times. Many moments in the film will happen with no context or setup for what is going on. Careful viewers will notice outfits changing between cuts in the same scene. Even the timeframe of the story is quite fluid at times swapping from day to night to day-for-night and back again without warning. It’s an editing nightmare with barely a throughline to follow, yet somehow the sheer audacity of it all manages to pull you along.
The film’s score doesn’t escape these quirky errors either. Much of the music was recorded in such a way that at times it will naturally distort or go out of tune. Sadly, there was nothing to be done restoration-wise to improve this issue. This is maybe the most unfortunate part of the technical errors because Michael Perilstein’s score is really well done and highly enjoyable. Perilstein might be better known for the music in 1983’s The Deadly Spawn. Much of the dialogue is done via ADR and there’s even a few moments where a mouth gets entirely out of sync from what is being heard.
The story follows a group of park rangers in rural Massachusetts who begin investigating strange occurrences surrounding the snowy inn known as the Wild Goose Lodge which rests on one of the mountains. Led by Bill Whitman (Tim R. Morgan), their case begins with a simple disappearance, but soon mutilated bodies start showing up and the situation escalates into a full-scale crisis. As rumors and legends regarding local Native American lore gets brought into the mix, things escalate into a wild monster mash of different creatures.
I mentioned snowy inn because that’s how it gets described in various promotional materials and given the title you might think this will shake out as some winter-themed snowbound horror. But before you tag it onto that list, know that the film actually takes place during the fall. This makes the title just a bit comical because there’s really not much winter anything in Winterbeast. We do get a local harvest festival that the filmmakers cleverly took advantage of while shooting the movie. It’s this sort of intuitive use of the local setting that makes regional filmmaking so unique and wonderful.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the film ends up having a very Twin Peaks vibe. This is partially due to the rural forested mountain setting, but it gets accentuated further by the many moments of strange interactions between people. This isn’t the same sort of cryptic but intentional act that David Lynch takes with his works, however, and stands more as a happy accident. Somewhere at the intersection of a messy script, untrained actors, and a bit of stiff line delivery, it all congeals into that same sort of surreal Twin Peaks absurdity. Make no mistake, Winterbeast is not a good movie in any traditional sense. It is a very fun one and falls perfectly into that gap of so bad it’s great b-movies. As the world turns back to normal and theaters become more active again, I can see this movie playing gangbusters to a packed room of horror fans and it’s the perfect group watch for a movie night with friends.
Still, there are some great frights to be had. We open with an absurd nightmare sequence that throws you in with little knowledge and assaults viewers. Much of the practical effects on display are well done and executed if just a little cheesy at times. A personal favorite kill comes when a demonic skull tears itself out of a man’s stomach. It is easily one of the best gore gags in the film and the comical sounds coming from the skull place it right at home with the Deadites of The Evil Dead franchise. Even more amazingly, many of the monsters in the film wind up being totem poles that are animated by demonic spirits. One might wonder how a low-budget production could accomplish such a feat and the answer, surprisingly, is with clay models and amateur-level stop-motion animation. We get a giant tree monster, a supersized bigfoot creature, and even some sort of towering lizard that could pass in a kaiju flick.
The stop motion is a bit crude and definitely nowhere near as fluid as Harryhausen or even lower-budgeted affairs like the work David Allan did for Full Moon’s Puppet Master franchise, but it is still quite impressive to see a first-time filmmaker employing such techniques. It’s hard not to crack a smile, as a lover of special effects, when you watch a screaming actor transition into being a poorly modeled figure that has its head torn off. I relished every instance where we got one of these moments and it really makes Winterbeast stand out among other films at its weight class.
There are so many crazy moments in this movie, but I do want to leave some surprises because Winterbeast is the sort of horror movie that needs to be sought out by fans of the genre. However, I do want to talk about my favorite moment in the film. Much of the human drama centers on the Wild Goose Lodge’s owner Dave Sheldon (Bob Harlow) and a thinly veiled Jaws rip-off scenario where the rangers want to shut everything down to protect the town, but Sheldon is worried about his business. It’s so blatant it hurts, but all can be forgiven when you come face to face with Bob Harlow’s performance. It’s a crime that this man never played another role as he spends the entire film cranked up to eleven chewing through every scene he’s in and running circles around the other actors.
However, unlike Jaws, Sheldon’s just a bit more involved with the killings. With our leads closing in, as a precursor to their confrontation Sheldon puts on a record with a ghoulish version of the nursery rhyme “What Can the Matter Be?” that sounds like it is being performed by a poor man’s Tiny Tim. Set against this song, he dons a disturbing plastic clown mask and proceeds to dance, sing, and prance around the Wild Goose Lodge playing with the dead bodies of the various victims we’ve seen throughout the film. This is some utter soul-shattering nightmare fuel that starts as too funny to take seriously and then goes on so awkwardly long that it becomes the most disturbing moment of the film. Harlow’s performance here is amazing and I cannot stress that enough. Unfortunately, after that, it’s all downhill. Somehow this one moment ends up being more engaging with its weirdness than when the titular “Winterbeast” finally appears for the finale.
This is one movie that truly has to be seen to be believed and will stand the test of time as one insane slice of movie magic filtered through the lovingly fun yet awkward dialogues of Twin Peaks, the wonder of claymation special effects, and just a dash of the demented fun of The Evil Dead. The Vinegar Syndrome disc is packed full of extras including a never-before-released workprint cut of the film and heaps of commentary and interviews making it undoubtedly the definitive release for this wild piece of cinema. Winterbeast is the perfect junk food for the horror fan’s soul.
Dustin is a potentially overqualified office worker who has a lifelong love and fascination with Japan and all things Horror. With a bachelor’s in English Literature and a master’s in Library Science, he devotes way too much time to researching and thinking critically about the media he enjoys. When not celebrating trashy horror films, anime, and idol music, he can be found raving about all things genre cinema as a co-host on Genre Exposure: A Film Podcast or indulging a passion for storytelling through tabletop roleplaying games.