Hanna-Barbera Meets Irwin Allen. Warner Bros' Archive Collection of hard-to-find cult and library titles has released The Beasts are on the Streets, the 1978 made-for-TV disaster flick directed by James Bond helmsman Peter Hunt, and starring Carol Lynley, Dale Robinette, Billy Green Bush, Philip Michael Thomas, Casey Biggs, Burton Gilliam, Sharon Ullrick, and Anna Lee. Coming out near the tail end of the 70s disaster genre's peak, The Beasts are on the Streets was another attempt by Joseph Barbera to expand into family-friendly live-action production, and taken for what it is--a disaster movie about rampaging animals breaking out of a wildlife sanctuary--it's quite silly and fun, especially for younger viewers. No extras for this good-looking fullscreen transfer.
At the African Wildlife Park in Texas, former "white hunter"-turned-ranger Kev Johnson (Dale Robinette) is alerted to a medical emergency by fellow ranger Rick (Casey Biggs): a camel is in breach labor. Calling up nearby vet Dr. Claire McCauley (Carol Lynley) for assistance, Kev and Claire deliver the calf (?) while trading banter about their complicated, frustrating romance: he wants her to marry him, while she doesn't want any man to tell her or her daughter, Sandy (Michelle Walling), what to do. Meanwhile, good 'ol boys Jim Scudder and Al Loring (Billy Green Bush and Burton Gilliam), back from bagging a deer, almost cut off tanker trucker Carl Evans (Bill Thurman), who, later on, blasts his air horn in glee when he sees the hunters pulled over for speeding. Catching up with the trucker, Scudder pretends he's going to shoot Carl, who, suffering from some malady that affects his vision, pulls off the highway, runs an intersection, and promptly plows his out-of-control rig along the African Wildlife Park's fence line. Almost immediately, hundreds of animals, including ostriches, rhinos, bears, elephants, and hungry tigers and lions (what...no apes???), escape, menacing the cars on the roads and spreading out into the unsuspecting outlying communities.
Growing up in the 70s, no movie genre made more of a visceral, lasting impact on me than disaster movies. Not many Westerns except for Wayne's yearly outings were playing at the time, and spy movies, with the exception of Bond, were rather drab for a long time there (try getting excited over a double feature of The Mackintosh Man and The Tamarind Seed some Saturday night). Sci-fi adventures were extremely hit and miss until "you know what" premiered in '77 (sure Zardoz is fun to watch now, but try it as an 8-year-old). Thrillers or mysteries were close seconds...if they were fast and violent (something like The Seven-Ups would have us coming back the next day...before we feel asleep during The Drowning Pool). Disaster movies, though, were never-fail. I didn't see one I didn't like during that long-gone "golden age," even if I knew it was junk (you think I cared that they just threw a Hot Wheels car into a tub of dirty water for Damnation Alley's big finale?). The excesses and cliched conventions of the genre weren't drawbacks, but highly-anticipated treats; whether they "worked" (Maureen Stapleton's heartbreaking subplot in Airport) or not (Erik Estrada saying, "I like my coffee sweet, mommy," while he sexually harrasses Christopher Norris in Airport 1975) was completely beside the point. The brilliant examples of the genre (I passed out cold when my old man said he was taking me to a drive-in double-feature of The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure) and the offal (I sat completely alone in a 900+ seat theater loving every single minute of The Swarm), were as like one. If you were a kid and felt the theater start to crumble when that first tremor hit in Earthquake, or you saw George Kennedy make love to Bibi Andersson on a bear rug in The Concorde...Airport '79...well, you don't forget those sorts of things. Not ever.
And the same thing for small-scale TV disasters, too. If you were a fan of the genre back then, you probably already sensed the fad would fade sooner rather than later when numerous low-budget network knock-offs starting popping up with regularity--but that didn't stop you from watching every one of them, and remembering most (someone help me out: what's the one where they drive a Beetle covered with bees into the Astrodome and crank up the arena's A/C?). Sure, the gold standard was producer Irwin Allen's offerings like Fire! and Flood! and Cave-In! (yes, the exclamation points did help make them more exciting), but if you saw that even someone as unlikely as cartoon giant Hanna-Barbera was getting in on the act, you tuned in. I saw The Beasts are on the Streets when it premiered back in May of 1978 (right inbetween Gray Lady Down's debut in March, and right before The Swarm's notoriously ballyhooed premiere in July), but I can't remember the network (it feels like an NBC picture). The only thing I remembered about it, prior to watching this disc, was Carol Lynley, because I had a huge thing for her from The Poseidon Adventure and B-horror classic, The Shuttered Room, and Blazing Saddles' Burton Gilliam cackling in a truck. Other than that, it was a blur to me.
So, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed catching it again--with at least half of that feeling, admittedly, coming from seeing my littlest kids enjoy it, too. Written by Laurence Heath (a true headcase whom nonetheless wrote all kinds of good and bad television, include trash classic, Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls), from a story by Frederick Louis Fox (Elvis' Charro! and lots of TV Westerns), The Beasts are on the Streets's premise is rather ingenuous...even if I'm not too sure it would work out that way (wouldn't those animals be spooked to the other side of the park by a huge explosion and burning tanker truck, instead of immediately piling out of the hole in the fence?). Necessarily held back from delivering even PG-rated thrills because it's 70s TV and because of Hanna-Barbera's commitment to family-friendly fare, the worst you're going to see here is some tame tigers playfully wrestling with their trainers...and that's about it.
However, director Peter Hunt, a consummate action editor/director, who helmed what it is still the best movie in the Bond series, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, keeps things bouncing along despite the budget, constantly cross-cutting between several sequences to jack up the suspense, with all of them cleanly designed and executed (you have to give credit to the writers here, too--this movie throws in everything, from exploding tanker trucks to bear attacks, to a little girl in her home menaced by a lioness, to said same lioness menacing a heart surgeon during an emergency open heart operation, to ostrich attacks via VW Bug, to a last-minute brush fire). As for the acting and the "disaster victim backstories," Lynley and Robinette won't surprise you with any of their pro forma bantering; however, they have an agreeable, easy chemistry together that doesn't hurt, while more importantly, they don't insult us by taking any of this too seriously (hamming up their scenes would only emphasize the script's bare spots). Familiar face Billy Green Bush, though, walks away with the acting honors here, helping to get across a reasonably intriguing subplot of a controlling, headstrong father who doesn't listen when he should, and who thinks his shy, hunting-hating son (Jeff Bongfeldt) needs to become a man by foolishly joining him in a nighttime lion shoot (the best acting? John Stephenson dubbing in his Flintstones' "Mr. Slate" voice for the helicopter pilot). As for the action scenes, sure some of the stuff is a little silly (nobody noticed that lioness just waltzing into an operating room?), but remember: that's what makes the genre so much fun. So if you're into the black panther trying to eat the people in that one car, only to find yourself cracking up when a bear walks by on its hind legs looking for a ball to balance on its nose, it's okay. It's that kind of movie.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.