Bill’s Bizarre Bijou
William D. Carl
This week’s feature presentation:
Welcome to Bill’s Bizarre Bijou, where you’ll discover the strangest films ever made. If there are alien women with too much eye-shadow and miniskirts, if papier-mâché monsters are involved, if your local drive-in insisted this be the last show in their dusk till dawn extravaganza, or if it’s just plain unclassifiable – then I’ve seen it and probably loved it. Now, I’m here to share these little gems with you, so you too can stare in disbelief at your television with your mouth dangling open. Trust me, with these flicks, you won’t believe your eyes.
Howco International Pictures was a small, independent film production company that was established in 1951 by Joy Newton Houck, Sr. Based out of New Orleans, they produced little movies for the Southern Drive-In circuits, usually double features like Lash Larue Westerns or the John Agar wonder THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS (1957). After releasing everything from Roger Corman to Ed Wood to Ron Ormand movies, they really hit the big time with a giant hit, THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK (1972), which effectively combined documentary footage with the story of a Bigfoot-like creature called the skunk-ape. The movie made millions and was a hit world-wide. Hoping to play on the success of that film, Joy Houck, Jr. directed a script by his pal Jim McCullough, Jr. entitled THE CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE (1976) and created the creepiest Bigfoot movie ever made.
The film begins with Joe Canton and a fellow trapper tranquilly boating through the swamps around Black Lake, checking their traps. Suddenly, a hairy arm emerges from the water and snatches the buddy from the boat, leaving Joe Canton (played by stalwart Western veteran Jack Elam—ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, 1968 and RIO LOBO, 1970) screaming for help. Nobody believes the old drunk except for two cryptozoology students in Chicago who read about the experience in the papers. The two men take off in their van for Louisiana on a hunt for the monster. Pahoo (what the hell kind of name is that for a Yankee?) is a Vietnam Vet who jokes about everything, hates chicken with a passion usually reserved for despots, and is played by Dennis Fimple (KING KONG, 1976, the MATT HOUSTON TV series, 1982, and he was Grampa Hugo in HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES (2003). Rives is more serious and good-looking and a draft dodger, and he is played by ex-model John David Carson, who appeared in such diverse movies as EMPIRE OF THE ANTS (1977), PRETTY WOMAN (1990), and THE DAY OF THE DOLPHIN (1973). Together, they encounter a hostile sheriff, who warns them to get out of town, locals who proclaim the creature a myth, a practical joke-playing waitress, and more yokel southern-fired, hee-haw stereotypes than you can shake a Confederate Flag at.
Pahoo accidentally finds Joe Canton, but he loses him, but not before Rives encounters a young man named Orville Bridges, played by hawk-nosed screenwriter Jim McCullough, Jr. (the multi-talented guy also wrote and sang the songs for the movie). Orville informs them he saw the creature when he was a toddler in a car crash that killed his parents. Now he lives with his grandparents, and he’ll show them around if they don’t talk about Bigfoot. They go home to a big country dinner. Grandpa is played by Dub Taylor, from THE WILD BUNCH (1969), BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967), and BACK TO THE FUTURE III (1990). The old man is a walking advertisement for hick Southern trash, wheezing and making jokes nobody finds amusing. During dinner, a mule brays loudly, and Pahoo shouts out, “Is that him? Is that the creature?” Grandma goes into a PTSD inspired sobbing fit, and Grandpa kicks the two Yankees (who, by the way, both possess southern twangs) to the barn for the evening. While getting ready for bed, they hear the howling, haunting cry of Bigfoot closer than is comfortable. They are terrified, but not so much that they don’t pick up two pretty southern belles in the local hamburger joint and invite them to their camp for the evening.
The girls show up, and they all party a bit, playing over the recording of the Bigfoot cry. Soon, they discover one of the girls has a father who is the sheriff – the same one who warned the boys out of town on the first day. He hauls them into jail, where they stay the night with stinky Joe Canton, who is in the tank for getting drunk and chasing the creature with a shotgun. Instead of heeding the sheriff’s warning, the two boys head for the woods to track the beast, which leads to a night of harrowing horror as the Bigfoot stalks them, separates them, and brutally attacks them. These scenes are incredibly intense for a PG-rated film, never gory, but always scary and suspenseful.
The acting is good enough – nothing to shout over, but tolerable for this sort of yee-haw Southern horror tale. Jack Elam chews the scenery with gusto, camping his drunken role up to the tenth degree. Dennis Fimple and John David Carson make for likable heroes, and their interactions are natural and believable. The extras and small roles are filled with people who obviously live in the town where this was filmed. Their non-acting abilities actually lend an air of documentary-like verisimilitude to the proceedings, and the accents are to die for!
THE CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE benefits most, however, from the wonderful cinematography of Dean Cundy. Cundy started his career with the exploitation circuit, lensing such films as BLACK SHAMPOO (1976), the amazing THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA (1976), HALLOWEEN (1978), WITHOUT WARNING (1980) and ROCK N ROLL HIGH SCHOOL (1979). He moved on to larger pictures like THE THING (1982), WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT? (1988), JURASSIC PARK (1993), APOLLO 13 (1995), and THE HOLIDAY (2006). THE CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE is filmed in a gritty, sun-fried style, much like THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974), and this lends a feeling of you-are-there realness to the action. The scenery is beautiful, but never intrusive, and the Bigfoot creature is wisely kept mostly in the shadows, so the movie is about suspense and the threat of violence more than the actual acts of violence. This may be what makes that final fifteen minutes so disturbing and exciting. We do care about these two men by this point, and it appears as if we are watching documentary footage of their stalking and possible killing by his monster. The suspension of disbelief is suspended way up in the sky somewhere, never interfering with our nerve-wracking enjoyment of the movie.
The movie isn’t perfect. There’s a bit too much of the folksy humor, especially around Dub Taylor’s character, who seems like he should be plucking a banjo and attacking Ned Beatty any second. It slows down the momentum of suspense in the film and the characters strains credibility as much as he strains his overalls. Plus, the epilogue of the movie seems tacked on in order to pacify an audience that wanted a happy ending. After the sheer terror of the previous night, the sun is shining and everything is just hunky-dory. In the real world, this would have ended very differently.
But why quibble? On the whole, THE CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE is a wonderfully spooky Bigfoot movie, possibly the best one out there. The scares at the end are earned, and the photography is fantastic.
I give THE CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE three trespassing Yankees out of four.
© Copyright 2013 by William D. Carl