What's that? Oh no, it's a man-eating tiger! Everyone, run for your lives! Oh wait, it's not a tiger. Oh my God, it's worse! It's a Sci Fi Channel original! RUN!
In all seriousness, though, "Maneater" is yet another Z-grade extravaganza of gore and mayhem from the Sci Fi Channel. While the network has produced some relatively high-profile original programming like the Steven Spielberg produced "Taken" and the recent "Tin Man," they are better known for their low-budget schlock fests, complete with embarrassing CGI and grisly scenes of mutilation and dismemberment. With a killer tiger on the loose in this venture, the violence in "Maneater" is surprisingly subdued, which in some ways makes it a little easier to get through, but it still has Sci Fi cheesiness written all over it.
When a jogger's mangled remains are found in the woods near the Appalachian Mountains, the small nearby village is thrown into a frenzy of fear of an unseen killer. Experts conclude that the damage was done by a Bengal tiger that recently escaped captivity. Sheriff Grady Barnes (Gary Busey) takes charge of the situation, dodging the annoying local TV reporter and ordering all of the villagers to stay indoors (and thus putting a damper on the eagerly awaited Corn and Apple Festival!) until the tiger is caught. As more and more bodies pile up, the National Guard is eventually brought in to catch the predator.
While everyone is on the lookout, the only person who has actually seen the tiger is little Roy Satterly (Ty Wood), a sleepwalking boy whose religious nut of a mother keeps him out of school and has him memorize Bible chapters all day in their trailer while she's at work. When he tells her about the tiger, she dismisses it as an imaginative lie. Believing that the only useful information is that found in the Good Book, she avoids television and is thus completely unaware of the local attacks. Roy is also unaware, and when he discovers that the police are hunting it, he believes it is his responsibility to save the tiger and protect it from harm.
But wait, life only gets better. As if having the National Guard isn't enough, a big-game hunter from England, Colonel Graham (Ian D. Clark), appears from out of nowhere—and with his handlebar moustache and old-fashioned victrola tent looks like he could have stepped out of a 1930s Tarzan movie—to prove that he has still got it after failing to kill a tiger in Asia. Sheriff Barnes inexplicably puts all of his trust in this stranger, and together with little Roy the three form a sort of tiger-hunting triad. Roy and Colonel Graham in particular spark up an almost mystical bond based on their mutual fascination with animals.
As much as this movie would like to do for the woods what "Jaws" did for the water, it ultimately inspires more laughter than screams. Like most Sci Fi Channel telefilms, this one is bogged down by simply horrendous writing and nonsensical characters. Nobody in this film comes off as anything more than a broad stereotype, and the cast is not immune to blame. When Gary Busey is headlining a feature, you know you are in trouble. With his ill-fitting suit and incomprehensible facial expressions, he is actually more frightening than the tiger. Not everything, however, comes out quite as funny. The relationship between Roy and his fanatical mother is never as creepy as it is apparently meant to be, and scenes of them passing the time playing hangman and reciting Bible verses are just sad.
About the only thing I can give the film credit for is the use of an actual tiger. No CGI was employed in this movie at all, which cut down (somewhat) on the embarrassment factor. On the other hand, the more straightforward filmmaking means it also has fewer laughs than the typical Sci Fi fiasco. In fact, nothing in this movie is even remotely connected to science fiction, which makes it an even greater oddity.
Genius Products obviously didn't think much of this film either, and they have given it an appropriately shoddy DVD release. The film is presented in anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen, but the transfer is terrible. Colors are muddy and blotchy, and there is considerable digital artifacting throughout. During some freeze frames, the picture looks like a runny painting.
The audio is a little better, presented in a Dolby Digital 5.1 track. The surround channels are utilized mostly in the attack scenes, but the sound effects are scattered around without much clarity, and the overall effect is one of aural confusion.
There are no bonus features at all, save for a few trailers for other DVD releases before the film starts.
So there you have it. "Maneater" is typical Sci Fi schlock, but without the crazy-bad CGI. It's good for a few laughs but not worth even a rental. Wait for it come out sometime on late-night TV instead. Though there are obvious nods to "Jaws" throughout, this film will not make you afraid to go back in the forest. However, you might steer clear of any Corn and Apple Festivals, especially if Gary Busey is involved.