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A STRANGER IN MY FOREST (1976).

Over the years, Mark IV Pictures cranked out some of the most delightfully cheesy Rapture movies of all time, but when they weren't scaring gullible Christians shitless with warnings of The Beast, producer-director Donald W. Thompson also beget some truly godawful, family-friendly melodramas. This maudlin, self-righteous, misguided, Tennessee-lensed 'Gentle Ben meets Jesus' malarkey is one of their earliest, most insipid examples. It begins so beautifully, with an all-American family on a camping road trip in their wood-paneled station wagon. Unfortunately, dad hasn't yet accepted Christ, and only seconds after he announces that fact, a tire blows out, the car flies off the road and the parents are killed. Thanks a fuckin' lot, God!... After this hilarious prologue, it's a year later, with orphaned siblings Robby (Eddie Moran) and older-sis Susan (Susan Backlinie) now living with Grandma and suffering through wrist-slashingly-dull Sunday sermons. Robby has also befriended a wild bear named Luke, who he treats like a cuddly pet and regularly brings to church. Obviously, this kid is no Einstein. Trouble erupts when a grouchy shopkeeper complains about Luke's thieving behavior, with the court ordering that the animal be found and destroyed. When Luke flees from his death sentence, Robby accompanies him on a tedious trek through the forest. Hell, even the fucking bear looks bored. Meanwhile, a brawny, big city stranger named Terry (Trent Dolan) starts to romance Susan, but he's also hiding a deep, dark secret. You see, before troubled Terry found religion, he took out a mob contract on himself and is still on the run from professional hitmen. Really? Is that the very best scriptwriters Thompson and Russell S. Doughten, Jr. could come up with? Oh, let's not forget about that contrived runaway speedboat full of explosives. And did I forget to mention that this film "was based on FACT!"?... Competently shot by Robert Caramico (BLACKENSTEIN, KISS MEETS THE PHANTOM OF THE PARK), the film juggles these two impossible-to-take-seriously storylines -- Robby and his bear, Susan and her beau -- amidst plenty of Bible-thumping histrionics and woefully wooden amateur acting (I genuinely wanted someone to punch that sweet, grey-haired, interminably-preachy grandmother in the mouth, just to shut her up). And if Susan Backlinie's name sounds familiar, that's because her main claim to fame was being the first victim in JAWS. Pushing 30, yet still playing a naive teenager, she's credited as the film's animal trainer and is one truly terrible actress. I'll give the filmmakers a smidgen of credit though; at least they seem sincere in their beliefs, unlike today's so-called-Christian politicians and TV-preachers, who don't give a damn about anything but themselves and money.

© 2012 by Steven Puchalski.