Fictional Fictions
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Fictional Fictions

The Long Strange Trip of the Monsterbear Franchise

We begin the Fictional Fictions publication with the story of Monsterbear, a popular franchise in the ‘killer monster’ subgenre of horror movies that rose to prominence in the late 1970s and dominated the box office for much of the following decade.

Monsterbear, a horror film about a man transformed into a murderous giant bear and his subsequent mauling of a group of teenage delinquents, hit theaters in the fall of 1980 to overwhelming success. Made on a very low budget by renowned schlock horror auteur Junt Fleckholm, Monsterbear’s unprecedented theatrical run quadrupled its original investment, cashing in on the nascent ‘killer monster’ subgenre.

This was good news for Emil and Franz Denis, producers of Monsterbear and co-founders of Starpoint Pictures. Starpoint made the Denis brothers rich with a series of cheap, violent Westerns throughout the 1960s and a foray into soft-core counter-culture exploitation films during the early 70s. A big-budget western by the legendary writer-director-star Jack Ralston in 1976 gave Starpoint the money and reputation it needed to take the next step, which unfortunately was 1978’s shameless cash-grab Battle in Space, a poor attempt to replicate the success of Star Wars that opened and closed on the same weekend.

Monsterbear was meant to be a tax shelter for the nearly defunct studio, and its unexpected success was a windfall for the brothers and their struggling enterprise. Consequently, Monsterbear 2 was rushed into production to capitalize on Monsterbear’s success. The sequel was produced without Fleckholm’s involvement, as he had fallen out with the Denises over money, rights, and creative control.

Though not as successful as the original, Monsterbear 2’s 1981 release turned enough of a profit to warrant a third, but the Denis brothers, again mired in financial trouble, had been embezzling from the studio for years. Starpoint Pictures went bankrupt in 1983, with the third film only half-finished. The studio’s assets were auctioned off in 1984, and the Monsterbear property, along with its incomplete third chapter, was acquired by a mob-run hedge fund. Roma Films was spun up as a money laundering front and the movie was completed on the most threadbare of shoestring budgets.

The official poster for the much-derided third entry in the “Monsterbear” franchise. Despite a variety of salacious rumors, the true identity of the designer remains unknown.

The film’s numerous flaws, including a noticeable drop in quality between the two halves of the film, as well as obvious recasting of key roles and a hurried rewriting of the third act that restaged the climactic battle from the top of an erupting volcano to a suburban basement, were addressed with a shoddy 3D process and intentionally murky SFX. The arrest of Vincent Gracchi, the mafia lieutenant in charge of Roma Films, delayed the release of Monsterbear 3D until spring of 1986, when the 3D fad was on its way out. The movie bombed, Roma Films folded, and the Monsterbear rights were in limbo once again.

Magnifica Picture Group, brainchild of sci-fi wunderkind Jeff Goldman and horror maestro Cliff Wakeford, acquired the rights to the Monsterbear property in 1988. Due to their inexplicable entanglement with Vincent Gracchi’s racketeering trial, the actual three films weren’t included with the rights, precluding Magnifica from using any established characters.

Chet Buldo, a Goldman protege, wrote and directed Son of Monsterbear, a soft reset of the franchise featuring all new characters, with a story that alluded to the previous films without direct reference to any off-limits characters. It presented Monsterbear’s titular son as the offspring of a bear-selkie and a human man, raised in the forest with his mother’s people, until the machinations of a greedy land developer resulted in the deaths of his entire tribe, including his parents. Though he does embark on the standard Monsterbear killing rampage, the killing is largely bloodless on screen, with a noble purpose attributed to it. This nobility is reinforced when he gives his life to save a gang of plucky teenagers from the developer’s armed guards at the end of the film.

Son of Monsterbear, while not without its admirers, ultimately failed to meet expectations upon its release in 1990. It has since found moderate success on the cult film circuit, but audiences at the time were lukewarm to the new characters, and the stab at family friendliness (it was the first non-R-rated Monsterbear film) alienated diehard fans of the franchise.

By 1993, Magnifica had acquired the rights to Monsterbear’s first three films and plans were underway to resurrect the franchise. Clint Hardway, provocative young director of 1991’s indie sensation Doctor Hitman, was tapped for the project. A long-time fan of the Monsterbear property, Hardway was asked about the project during a televised interview at his home and said that Monsterbear Returns would “honor every film in the franchise — yes, even that one — while turning it into something entirely new and at the center of our cultural zeitgeist.” He then proceeded to smoke a joint, scream gibberish at the ceiling, and engage in a loose-limbed flailing he called ‘TV Karate’ for five minutes before passing out on the couch.

Due to Hardway’s packed schedule, including his follow-up to Doctor Hitman and a series of lucrative Austrian television commercials, the movie languished in development for three years. Finally, after numerous script revisions, false starts, recastings, Hardway’s very public exit from the project, and with the highest budget for a movie of its genre in history, Monsterbear Returns arrived in 1998 to decent box office and middling reviews. Though it turned a profit, if barely, the ROI for Monsterbear Returns wasn’t enough to justify its expense. This, plus a few high-profile flops and the collapse of Skybox, Magnifica’s animation studio, led Goldman and Wakeford to sell Magnifica Picture Group and all its intellectual property to Conglomerate Pictures in 1999.

Conglomerate also held the rights to Uglyfish, another popular killer monster franchise from the 80s, and in 2003 they sought to settle a long standing debate among fans with Monsterbear vs Uglyfish, directed by journeyman music video director Buzz Lipman. This entry underwhelmed even further at the box office due to an aimless plot that focused too much on underdeveloped characters, wooden dialogue, terrible jokes, and a poorly staged title fight that ended with an ambiguous tie. A studio-mandated PG-13 rating made for a tepid conflict, and the movie was forgotten by all who saw it.

A misguided attempt to reinvent the franchise, Monsterbear in Space (again by Lipman, this time writing and directing), was released in the summer of 2009. It made barely a quarter of its budget after two weeks in theaters, at which point most theaters started pulling it off screens to make room for more showings of the superhero blockbuster, Moxie Girl.

A fast-tracked killer monster shared universe was scrapped when the first entry, Uglyfish Reborn, failed to meet expectations upon its 2014 release. The planned follow-up, Monsterbear: Awakening, was never filmed. The shared universe would also have included such popular 80s killer monsters (and Conglomerate properties) as Chainsaw Jimmy, Hatchet Zombie, and Frightwig, the central antagonist of the Die Die, Bastard Clown! series.

In 2018, Conglomerate Pictures announced the return of Monsterbear creator Junt Fleckholm to the franchise.

Fleckholm has been quoted as saying his upcoming Monsterbear film will serve as a direct sequel to the 1980 original and take place in 1983, completely ignoring all subsequent entries.

The main roles are to be recast, but Fleckholm intends to create important characters for the original cast and promises an in-story tribute to Deborah Ainsling, the actress who played Monsterbear foil Becky Rogers in the first two and a half Monsterbear films and passed away from cancer in 2002.

Ainsling’s cameo in 1998’s Monsterbear Returns is her final credited acting role, and it is a hotly debated legend among the Monsterbear fandom that she provided an uncredited voiceover that was dubbed in place of the unintelligible dialog of Tanya Mankowicz, Vincent Gracchi’s chiropractor’s office manager, who had been cast as Becky Rogers in the second half of Monsterbear 3D.

Tamryn Ainsling, former child star on the Conglomerate Kidz network and Deborah’s granddaughter, is said to be campaigning for the role of Becky in Fleckholm’s sequel.

Monsterbear arrives in theaters Fall of 2021.

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