Don't Go in the Lightning Bug's Lair #10: Don't Go Near the Park (1979)
Many of the features on this countdown will tell not to go in places, but only one of them will tell you not to even go near it. That film comes in at #10 on the Don’t Go in the Lightning Bug’s Lair and it wants you to know not to go near it. That’s right. You can’t even go near it, much less in it. How near is too near though? Can I go within a few feet of it or do I need to stay a few blocks back? Perhaps I need to stay a few miles away. It’s unclear. What is clear is that wherever there are ancient cave people trying to preserve their everlasting life, that might well be somewhere that you don’t want to go near. Worse yet, it’s a nice public space where you might want to go for a picnic or to walk your dog, but it’s probably best if you do what the movie title says and Don’t Go Near the Park.
Twelve thousand years ago. Gar and Tra (Robert Gribbin and Barbara Bain) abuse their tribe’s mystic cannibalistic rituals to maintain eternal youth by gobbling up some of their own tribe’s children. Cursed by the leader of their clan for their violations, they are fated to an eternal life, however one of endless old age. Flash forward to the present day, and the pair have survived by continuing to cannibalize anyone unfortunate enough to go near the park where they make their home in a cave. Somehow Gar, now known as Mark, has maintained a better appearance than his mate. So a plan is hatched to create the virginal blood they need to reclaim the youth she so desires. Mark marries a woman (Linnea Quigley in her first film role) and fathers a child named Bondi (Tamara Taylor), who he plans to sacrifice on her 16 th birthday to break the curse. Unfortunately, Bondi’s mother is so jealous of all the affection Mark seems to have for his daughter that she pushes her daughter to run away from home just as she was turning 16. Taking up with a pair of street kids, Nick and Cowboy (Meeno Peluce and Chris Riley), the trio find refuge in an abandoned ranch (which is apparently near enough to the park for Tra to hang around as well), and with the help of investigative journalist Taft (Aldo Ray), Bondi tries to escape the fate that her caveman, cannibal father has planned for her.
I won’t be the first to say it or the last, but when it comes to the pantheon of strange and unusual cinema; Don’t Go Near the Park deserves a seat at the table with films like Plan Nine, Food of the Gods, or Switchblade Sisters. During the first fifteen minutes, Gar and Tra are cursed, Gar/Mark marries, Bondi is born, and she makes it to the age of 16. It took me longer to string together the sentences to explain what happened in this movie than it did for it to happen. After the whirlwind opening, viewers are treated to the craziest and most iconic scene from the film. Bondi, an innocent, accepts a ride from a gang of guys (which include the film’s director) in a van and they attempt to be the originators of the Bang Bus, though in a forcible kind of way. Thankfully, due to an ancient amulet given to her by her father, she escapes and the van explodes into flames for no apparent reason. In a word, it is sublime. It’s the kind of scene that cult film fans crave and desire, and Don’t Go Near the Park delivers on these kinds of scenes. Unfortunately, it also often feels like a disjointed mess despite how enjoyable it might well be. This is often due to the cast more than the actions they take.
As a whole, the acting in Don’t Go Near the Park makes the viewer feel like none of the people on screen have gone near an acting class, and as one of those people in screen legend Aldo Ray, that’s a really sad thing to have to say. In fact, one of the best bits of acting comes from Linnea Quigley as the jealous mother, and Linnea is legendary in her own right however acting is not really why. Robert Gribbin and Barbara Bain might have been playing cave people and perhaps our modern ways frighten and confuse them, but one would think that given 12,000 years they would have figured out a way to act like normal people. Tamara Taylor, who would go on to appear in Meatballs II and Malibu High, was all sweetness and innocence in Don’t Go Near the Park, but she was also subjected to some really skeezy cinematography that saw the camera pointed up her skirt several times, despite the clear establishment that her character was only sixteen years old. She overcomes this uncomfortable setback by being apple cheeked and charming, but her cohorts at the ranch, especially Chris Riley’s Cowboy, don’t engender nearly the same goodwill and are more of the annoying child actor mold. Worst yet, was Aldo Ray. A far cry from his classic work in The Green Berets or We’re No Angels, Ray blusters though this movie looking bloated and bewildered. While Ray appeared in many genre films, I've never seen him look so bad or out of place in any movie.
Don’t Go Near the Park was the first feature for director Lawrence D. Foldes, who would go on to direct The Young Warriors (1983) and while there were rough edges abounding, there’s good reason for this to be one of the big titles in cult cinema. Yet it’s not, just as it didn’t rank higher in my countdown of the big “Don’t”s. The film is weighted too heavily on Bondi and her adventures with Cowboy and Nick as they elude the grasp of Tra, and, unfortunately, the gold in the film’s story line lay in the events that get compressed into the first quarter of the film. After that, Don’t Go Near falls apart, and it lands in a level more equivalent to an Encyclopedia Brown tale, intermittently interrupted by someone ripping open someone to gnaw at their entrails. Still, at number 10, I’d still say make this don’t a do. Thus far on this list we've been told Don’t Go/Scream in/near the woods, park, woods, Doris Mays, and there are still nine more entries to go. See you all back here tomorrow to follow the further adventures of Don’t.