CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE
Pros: Some suspenseful moments; captures the backwater setting quite well
Cons: Very talky for the first hour, with a minimum of creature action
With the seventh season of Animal Planet’s Finding Bigfoot kicking off in late May, it would appear that the current wave of public fascination with all things Sasquatch is still going strong, but this is hardly the first instance of Bigfoot mania that swept the world. During the early 1970s, The Legend of Boggy Creek, a low-budget pseudo-documentary about unknown humanoids trolling the bayous of Fouke, Arkansas, sparked a wave of public interest in these creatures and led to a whole string of Bigfoot-related movies popping up in theaters, particularly drive-ins. After the ridiculous 1974 film Shriek of the Mutilated, 1980’s slasher-like Night of the Demon and the incredibly sketchy 1976 “documentary” Legend of Bigfoot, 1987’s Harry and the Hendersons effectively marked the end of the cycle: a big-budget attempt by mainstream Hollywood to cash in on the fad. Even in such a diverse selection of titles, 1976’s Creature from Black Lake comes across as a bit of an oddity: a regional film made in rural Louisiana that crosses Boggy Creek’s backwoods “slice-of-life” approach with a somewhat spooky horror movie presentation.
The film concerns a pair of would-be cryptozoologists from Chicago who, following a professor’s crash-course lecture on unknown creatures, venture deep into the Louisiana bayou investigating reports of a bipedal hominid. If the locals are to be believed, this creature has already killed a man by dragging him out of his canoe and drowning him, but researchers Pahoo (!) and Rives find their inquest halted at every turn by reluctant locals, who fear not only that the city slickers are going to woo their women, but also that the “Yankees” will make them all look like “stupid rednecks.” Pahoo and Rives eventually come in contact with a farmboy named Orville who invites them out to his family’s homestead where, after an awkward dinner, the out-of-towners manage to get a tape recording of a suspected Sasquatch cry. This recording does little but upset whichever of the townsfolk that hears it (resulting in a particularly calamitous incident at the local diner), but once the researchers find the booze-hound trapper who’s buddy was killed by the creature, things start to get serious.
Jim McCullough Jr.’s predictable script plays out for the majority of its duration as a vaguely comic “fish out of water” tale dealing with the Chicagoans trying to integrate into the close-knit community of Oil City, Louisiana. As might be expected, Pahoo and Rives stick out like sore thumbs against the conservative local citizenry and seem to cause problems every where they go. This, of course, incites the ire of the hard-ass local sheriff – who really pops his top when the two boys invite his daughter for a night of drinkin and “foolin’ around” in a tent outside of town. Creature from Black Lake is very talky for at least an hour of its ninety minute running time, with the titular beast only popping up intermittently in the form of a flashback or a shadowy nighttime encounter (everytime a camper stumbles away from camp to “relieve himself,” you know something is going to happen….). It probably doesn’t take a genius then to realize that things are literally going to explode during the film’s climax, in which the two researchers square off in a remote corner of the swamp with an exceedingly belligerent Sasquatch.
Directed by Joy N. Hauck, Jr., Creature From Black Lake is probably best in its depiction of life in a backwater community. The film starts off with a sort of tour of local bayou attractions – turtles falling off logs, waterbirds stalking prey, low-hanging weepy trees, and lots of virtually stagnant, muddy water. It’s immediately apparent that this picture was actually filmed way out in the swamp and the surrounding wilderness, and the sense of being far-removed from what many people would consider “civilization” gives the film a sometimes eerie mood. The seemingly authentic locations seen here are populated by characters who one would expect to be there, and the colorful assortment of slightly goofy townsfolk thankfully keeps the film interesting even when the monster’s not around.
This film marks an early cinematography credit for Dean Cundey who would later lens such big-budget classics as Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Jurassic Park, so one can rest assured that Creature From Black Lake looks pretty good despite its miniscule budget. I’d have to say that Cundey’s work here is not especially flashy, but I did like a nifty setup which occurs late in the going where Rives aims his rifle at the beast, who’s posturing wildly in the background. Creepy backlighting in the scene makes the creature seem very intimidating – a definite plus since its costume (when seen in brief close-up glimpses) looks pretty awful (for the most part, director Hauck does his damnedest to keep the creature offscreen – which is a very good call). Jamie Mendoza-Nava (who I’m familiar with as the person responsible for the delirious soundtrack to Orgy of the Dead, one of Ed Wood’s skinflick credits) provided the music for the film, which is appropriately suspenseful when it needs to be. I should point out that, like many films of this era, Black Lake includes a typical ‘70s folk rock song which plays over its end credits. Entitled “Exits and Truck Stops,” the tune is sung by writer McCullough, who (aside from playing Orville) apparently wanted to show his chops as a songwriter. It’s no surprise that his career never blossomed.
Acting in the picture is unexceptional but pretty decent for a film of this nature: Dennis Fimple (as Pahoo) and John David Carson (as Rives) are likable enough, and Bill Thurman makes the most of his role as sheriff. The recognizable Dub Taylor seems to be having fun playing a local farmer, but it’s the inimitable Jack Elam (star of countless westerns) who steals the show playing the moonshine-swilling trapper who swears he knows where the beast resides. Look out for the moment (not entirely dissimilar from Robert Shaw’s Indianapolis monologue from Jaws) when Elam’s Joe Canton character tells the pair of researchers about the silence that falls over the swamp whenever the creature is prowling about – it’s a highlight of the film as far as I’m concerned.
Standing as one of the few straight-faced Bigfoot films of the ‘70s, Creature from Black Lake is a slightly better-than-average addition to the Squatchploitation genre. The film’s strong sense of setting places it in a league with such “nature on the rampage” films like Frogs and Squirm, and I think it’s comparable in terms of its entertainment and production values to those pictures. Though undeniably crude, this flick does have a few moments of suspense and is worthwhile enough as a time-waster – especially for those who appreciate that one-of-a-kind B-movie charm. Moderately recommended.
Many existing copies of the film seem to be public domain rips presented in pan-and-scan format – one of these rips . Considering the shoddy quality of these versions, an upcoming home video release from the fine folks at Synapse Films should be an absolute revelation.
2/10 : Very mild violence and a few scary moments, with just a smidgen of blood.
1/10 : Occasional rough language and maybe a minor curse word or two.
4/10 : An enjoyable (if low-key) backwoods B-movie adventure that may have added appeal to the Squatchaholics out there.
“If I had’na been drinkin sa much, I’d a blowed his butt off.”