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Endangered Species
[] Buy posters from this movie
by Jack Sommersby

"A Wonderful Thriller Worthy of Rediscovery"
4 stars

In a day and age when so many so-called thrillers don't even come close to thrilling, this marvelous movie delivers in spades.

Something's terribly wrong in Colorado, in the rural town of Buffalo where a series of bizarre cattle mutilations are turning up. The carcasses are completely drained of blood and devoid of the vital organs; the wounds have a surgical precision and no tracks can be found at the scenes, ruling out common predators. The newly elected sheriff Harriet "Harry" Purdue (JoBeth Williams) and her fellow officers in this low-crime community are stumped, a government agency in Denver with a very nervous bureaucrat has written the thing off as "natural causes," and the local veterinarian who's been handling the autopsies is suddenly suffering from nosebleeds. Welcome to Endangered Species, a mesmerizing, nerve-jangling thriller that packs enough undiluted entertainment value into its ninety-seven minutes for ten movies of its genre. But the movie isn't all about tightly tying its audience's innards in a knot (though it does this superlatively well), for it's substantial and knowing enough to give us an array of believable, three-dimensional characters with their own odds and quirks, which isn't too surprising being that the co-writer/director is Alan Rudolph, a former protegee of the legendary Robert Altman who made more than his share of well-received quirky pictures throughout the '70s. Serving as a heroic/romantic counterpart to Harry is one Ruben Castle (Robert Urich), a recently retired, high-profile New York cop who quit over disgust over the legal system. After discharging himself from an alcoholic rehab center, in the determination to make a fresh start he buys a trailer and takes his estranged teenage daughter Mackenzie (Marin Kanter) to Buffalo where he his old friend Joe Hiatt (Paul Dooley) runs the local newspaper. As usual, the world-weary policeman looking to escape the evils of the big city by relocating to a small town soon finds himself knee-deep in big trouble where a new evil has permeated the picket fences and soda fountains. But Ruben isn't really pulled into the investigation reluctantly: too seasoned and grizzled and set in his ways, he needs little prodding from Joe to launch himself into it with fervor and obsession. And Urich, always an underrated actor, throws himself into the role with the same aplomb Ruben does into the case. Ruben makes a good match-up with Harry, who's equally headstrong and feisty; and because she's the newly-elected sheriff and a woman, she knows she's got to deliver to sate the all-male city council, headed by brass, rich cattleman Ben Morgan (Hoyt Axton). As the movie progresses, we're gradually given clues that the culprits behind the mutilations are a lot more sinister than coyotes or devil cultists, both of which are still thrown out by Morgan as possible leads even though there's no evidence that points to those. Or is there? Or is their an ulterior motive on the part of Morgan? Or is it in fact UFOs? After all, sightings of bright lights in the skies have been reported.

Rudolph's previous pictures were largely talking-heads ones that lacked definition and pace, so it's a welcome surprise to find that he handles the thriller aspects here like a true champ, conjuring up and sustaining suspense with a less-is-more method, giving us brief glimpses of eerie nighttime sightings that we can't quite make out (right when we start to fixate on the image, Rudolph cannily cuts away), and we follow from a high-up point-of-view cattle being pursued, incapacitated with some sort of weapon with a red-laser sighting, and subsequently dumped several hours later onto hill country. Immensely helping matters is the superb electronic score by Gary Wright, the best of its type since the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers; and no slouch either is the ace editing by Tom Walls, who has a real talent for hair-trigger efficiency. Even the use of rack-focus shots, which can be distractingly arty when not used for valid visual purpose, are right on the money. One could argue that the action-packed grand finale isn't quite up to par with what's preceded it -- it literalizes what's been grippingly insinuated thus far -- but it's still a logical extension of the story and is engineered for maximum tension, and the movie doesn't exactly end on the happiest of notes. The culprits, after all, are not supernatural or otherworldly, but part of something much more disturbing, and because it's conceivably plausible, it makes this even more so. Before the opening credits appear, we're informed that the mutilations are based on documented fact; during the movie we learn that similar mutilations have been reported in surrounding states, and that the neurological and reproductive systems of humans and cows are virtually identical; and at the end that since 1969 more than ten-thousand cattle mutilations have occurred and no clear-cut conclusion has been reached. (While it's not spelled out but isn't exactly subtly implied, the movie's title means mankind with the misuse of dangerous research and technology.) Oh, the movie isn't without a few contrivances. On his first night in town, Ruben gets into a bar fight when a strong drunken cowboy overpowers Harry. Ruben and Harry "meet cute" after reckless-driving Mackenzie crashes into Harry's police wagon. Ruben's alcoholic relapse is almost a certainty. And there's a gaping hole in the plot: after what's been done to the cows, there's just no reason for them to be dumped out in the open so the existence of them can be known by all. But the attributes are plentiful: the outstanding performances, the frighteningly enveloping, ominous atmosphere, well-shaped sequences, and some occasionally humorous dialogue -- when Harry asks Ruben if he's ever been shot at, he laughs and replies, "Honey, I've been shot at more times than you've been laid,", then looks at her attractive self, pauses, and, with uncertainty, says, "Probably." It's an outstanding movie.

It's finally available on DVD after way too long, and while having it letterboxed on home video for the first time is great, the bare-bones package hardly justifies the high retail price.

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originally posted: 12/17/10 07:11:52
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  10-Sep-1982 (R)

  N/A (15)

  N/A (R)

Directed by
  Alan Rudolph

Written by
  Alan Rudolph
  John Binder

  Robert Urich
  JoBeth Williams
  Paul Dooley
  Hoyt Axton
  Peter Coyote

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