Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Back to 1976: CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE

by Heath Holland
This Bigfoot movie is a step above the rest.

There was an entire cycle of Bigfoot movies in the 1970s, with at least two in 1976 alone. While sometimes it can be hard to separate the good from the bad, each one of these films has something to offer that the others don’t. In the case of Creature from Black Lake, the thing that sets it apart is the stellar cast of character actors and a sly, humorous tone.

I’m not sure what it is about the seventies that made Bigfoot cool, but it’s hard to deny that the decade launched the hairy fella into the stratosphere. We’d had Bigfoot movies before (especially in the fifties), but he became a sensation in the 1970s with a whole new level of exposure in pop culture. I think the biggest reason for this is because independent cinema really took off in the decade of disco and you could make movies for next to nothing but still turn a profit by showing them in grindhouses and drive-ins. The audience was hungry for sensationalism, and they wanted to be scared.
Creature from Black Lake probably owes a huge debt to an earlier Bigfoot movie, 1972’s The Legend of Boggy Creek. That film was shot in a pseudo-documentary style and filmed in the swamps of Fouke, Arkansas, the real-life site of some of America’s most famous Bigfoot sightings. Furthermore, that movie cast real locals in the parts of the townspeople, giving it an authentic feel. The Legend of Boggy Creek went on to be a huge success in 1972, out-grossing a lot of big studio movies. Creature from Black Lake from 1976 is clearly trying to tap into some of that success. While it doesn’t have the pseudo-documentary style of Boggy Creek, it does have the same isolated eeriness. I think there is another significant influence on Creature from Black Lake, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

The plot is as simple as it gets. Two Chicago-based researchers learn of a Bigfoot attack in the bayous of Louisiana and decide to drive down in their van to investigate in the name of science. What they encounter when they arrive is a town that is entirely uncooperative. One portion of the townsfolk are too scared to talk, and the others thinks the whole story is made up. When the two researchers decide to camp out in the wilderness, they discover the truth for themselves.

The story is generic, but again, it’s the cast that makes this one so much fun. First of all, we have wild-eyed Jack Elam (Once Upon a Time in the West) as a trapper who has witnessed the creature first-hand. Another eye witness who would rather forget that anything ever happened is an old grandpa played by Dub Taylor (The Wild Bunch). Bill Thurman (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Silverado) plays the unbelieving town sheriff, and our two leads, the young researchers, are played by John David Carson (Pretty Woman) and the legend himself, Dennis Fimple.
Fimple is (was) a character actor extraordinaire, filling out an impressive resume as a guest star on just about every notable TV show of the seventies and eighties, including (but not limited to) M*A*S*H, Charlie’s Angels, S.W.A.T., Kung Fu, Starsky and Hutch, Knight Rider, The Incredible Hulk, The A-team, The Rockford Files, Matt Houston, Simon and Simon, The Dukes of Hazzard, and Fall Guy. However, F This Movie! readers and listeners will probably know him best for his appearances in 1974’s Truck Stop Women and in Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses. Fimple is a real hero to genre buffs, and his presence in Creature from Black Lake makes this one essential.

Creature from Black Lake is more of an exercise in atmosphere than in outright horror, though it does have several very effective attack scenes and builds tension as it goes, which brings me to what I believe is the second major influence on this film. I believe that the filmmakers were heavily inspired by Tobe Hooper’s 1974 horror classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but I realize that bringing up that movie, especially here, is not something one does lightly. IN NO WAY is Creature from Black Lake remotely in the same echelon of quality as TCM, which is one of the greatest horror films (and films in general) of all time. But still, there are similarities, and this movie makes me think of TCM. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre filmed in rural Texas while this movie filmed in rural Louisiana, just a handful of miles from the Texas and Arkansas borders. The same sweaty isolation of TCM is on full display here. Our two researchers travel in an old, beat up van. These fish out of water encounter people who would rather not have them poking around their town, and others who keep secrets. And finally, there in the remote wilderness, they encounter shocking violence and pure terror. So while this movie is not in the same ballpark as Hooper’s masterpiece, I think it’s not a coincidence that there are so many similar elements. The filmmakers seem to have made a movie that combines The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Legend of Boggy Creek. In that effort, at least, they have succeeded.
It’s impossible to talk about a Bigfoot movie and not discuss how they tackle the big guy himself. As expected, the sassy Sasquatch of the movie is a man in a suit. Sometimes the suit works really well and sometimes they show too much of it, which takes away from the overall effectiveness of the creature effects. By and large, though, the monster makeup does its job, and they smartly edit around it most of the time and use clever framing tricks that don’t give away the illusion. In the end, they probably show too much, but that’s a welcome change from many other similar movies that show us nothing at all. The filmmakers were nothing if not ambitious.

The script for this movie was written by a Shreveport-based writer and producer named Jim McCullough, Jr., and this was his first screenplay. He also plays one of the locals in the movie and contributes a sweet seventies country song to the film’s soundtrack. McCullough, Jr. is a second-generation movie man, and he’s essentially the lifeblood of this movie. This is his story, shot in his town, with music he wrote. The movie was directed by actor/director Joy N. Houck, Jr., who also directed a handful of other low-budget horror films in the late sixties and seventies. If you’re still on the fence about this movie, maybe I can add one little tidbit to help you make up your mind. In addition to this movie being populated by a troupe of all-star character actors, being written and produced by a Louisiana local who would have heard these Bigfoot stories as a boy, and being influenced by some really great horror, there’s one more element that makes this movie essential viewing for monster movie fans and horror buffs. It was shot by Dean Cundey.

That’s right, the legendary cinematographer who lensed some of John Carpenter’s best films like Halloween, The Fog, and The Thing, who was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and who rolled the film on Jurassic Park for Spielberg got his start on low-budget films like Creature from Black Lake. His style and composition go a long way to elevate this movie far beyond your usual drive-in fare. Even back then, just three years into the business, Cundey had an eye for outstanding shot composition and framing.
I like this movie a lot and I dig the DIY style that it embodies, yet another movie that is really unique and adds to the overall patchwork tapestry of 1976. Unfortunately, this is also another cult classic movie that is begging for a respectable release. Synapse Films had announced a Blu-ray a few years ago, but then discovered that the print they thought was 35mm was actually only 16mm and the project was put on hold. To my knowledge, nothing has surfaced since. You can still track this down on washed-out DVDs from budget distributors, and Amazon’s Prime Video has a nice widescreen transfer with tons of nicks and specks (which suits this movie nicely), but this remains another genre movie that really needs some love and attention. I’d like to think that, just like the creature that allegedly haunts the swamps of the south, this movie will one day get the attention it truly deserves.

Read more of Heath Holland's writing at his blog Cereal at Midnight!

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