JACK THE BEAR – The DVD Review
As part of my post duty orders here at We Are Movie Geeks it is my privilege to shine a light on movies that never quite found an audience, that may have slipped through the cracks. Movies that got very little or n o theatrical release, not much publicity or went straight to video (very common these days.) Such a movie is JACK THE BEAR . I can recall being vaguely aware of the movie when it was released in 1993, it did play in theaters but I don’t recall much advertising devoted to it. In that time frame I either was too busy or too broke to take in a movie, usually both.
In JACK THE BEAR we have sort of a male version of Mermaids. An all male family with an eccentric Father John Leary (Danny DeVito ) who keeps moving his family around the country. John makes his living as an entertainer, usually a circus or birthday clown. He has found a niche, sort of, being a late night horror show host, in Oakland, California, in the early 1970s. John’s wife died in a car accident, for which he blames himself, and like a lot of dysfunctional parents in movies, drinks too much. His oldest boy Jack (Robert J Steinmiller Jr) has learned to do a lot of the parenting for his young brother Dylan (Miko Hughes) due to John’s being absent either due to work or drinking. In their new neighborhood is a handicapped man Norman Strick (Gary Sinise) who lives with his parents, whom nobody in the neighborhood ever sees. We expect Norman to be presented sympathetically due to the kids in the area being afraid of him.No, he turns out not only to be prejudiced, but a straight up Nazi. This leads to confrontations with John and his kidnapping of Dylan leading to the Leary family pretty much imploding. The whole Nazi thing doesn’t really work. Based on a novel by Dan McCall (which I have not read) it may have worked better on the page than on the screen. However, there is much to enjoy here. DeVito is excellent (I have never seen him do less) he is always sincere and believable as a single parent carrying a heavy load of guilt but still being a very fun loving, and loving, Father to his two boys. His character’s work as a horror show is also believable. But here is where the movie actually strains credibility. Very few horror show hosts ever made a living on just that particular gig. Most local tv horror show hosts, in the 1970s and now, had other sources of income. I have interviewed both Jack Murdock who hosted Zone 2 in the St. Louis, Missouri market, playing a host named Cronos and the legendary Dr. Paul Bearer (Dick Benedict) who hosted horror movies in the Tampa, Florida market for years. Both of them told me exactly the same thing. Making commercials and doing supermarket openings and hosting beauty pageants was what paid the bills.
But I digress…not only is DeVito very good, the two kids, in fact all the child actors are good. Steinmiller is excellent at portraying the frustrations of not only entering the teen age years but also carrying a heavy load trying to deal with a Father who isn’t always there for him. And Miko Hughes is also excellent, seeming more like a real little kid than a child actor. He steals every scene he’s in and is heartbreaking on his first day at a new school, wanting both his Father (laid out drunk) and his Mother (deceased) and having to make do with his big brother trying his best to take care of him. This is where Jack The Bear really hits the right mark. A family just struggling to stay together after the death of a parent, my friends, I have been there and done that, I know what that is like.JACK THE BEAR really should be beloved in the hearts of monster kids everywhere. In John’s hosting duties we see clips from Them, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and other films. And, unlike in, say a Joe Dante movie, they are not just there as reference points. This is part of John Leary’s job. And yet I have never seen Jack the Bear mentioned in Scary Monsters, Rue Morgue, Famous Monsters or any other magazine aimed at the monster kid crowd. As a member in good standing of that crowd I loved this movie. We see a good bit of the nuts and bolts of putting together a local, apparently live, television program in the early 1970s. And the period details are spot on. The cars, clothes, haircuts, the AM radios, black and white tvs, lp records and the players, are all accurate. Some of the cars are even banged up, rusted and burning oil. Much like a lot of cars did in the 1970s, including some of them I drove. In fact the movie and looks and feels like a 1970s movie, a neat trick if you can pull it off. There is even a young Reese Witherspoon, having just been in Man in the Moon, playing Jack Leary’s first crush at his new school. Their “date”, having dinner made by Jack’s Father is a wonderful sequence, showing us how DeVito’s John Leary really is a very good man, despite his faults. And we fully expect John to start a relationship with his assistant Patty (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and that doesn’t happen. It’s always nice to see Julia Louis-Dreyfus although the movie doesn’t give her much to do.
The dinner scene is wonderful but even better is a long sequence set on Halloween night. Accurately recreating a time when Halloween was still owned by kids Jack the Bear, by rights, should be a Halloween perennial, much like the different versions of A Christmas Carol and other movies celebrating Christmas.
As I said, to my knowledge this movie never seemed to find an audience. I am glad I finally got a chance to see it. Fox’s DVD is presented full frame which is fine. The only extras are three different versions of the theatrical trailer. I hope it brightens up your Halloween season. I give it three out of four stars