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Monday, March 16, 2015

The Crater Lake Monster (1977) review


Richard Cardella (Steve Hanson), Glenn Roberts (Arnie Chabot), Mark Siegel (Mitch Kowalski), Bob Hyman (Richard Calkins), Richard Garrison (Dan Turner), Kacey Cobb (Susan Patterson)

Directed by William R. Stromberg

The Short Version: A creature resembling a Plesiosaur hatches from a dormant egg after a meteor crashes into Crater Lake in this moderately ambitious, if failed low budget throwback to the monsters of many a Fab 50s flick. Periodic dino attacks and bad acting ensues. Lots of meaningless dialog, hillbilly comedy, and an intrusive sub-plot involving the sheriff chasing a crazy man (he kills for his booze but pays for his meals!) around the lake defy the viewer to keep watching. Hindered by a handful of behind the scenes mishaps, this nearly worthless monster movie is redeemed by the stop-motion animated Crater Lake critter.

A meteor crashes into Crater Lake, attracting the attention of local scientists and law enforcement. Acting as an incubator, the heat from the falling rock hatches a dormant prehistoric egg at the bottom of the lake. Six months later a very hungry aquatic dinosaur goes on a modest rampage devouring anyone who goes near, or into the water.

Reportedly financed through an inheritance, the one and only directorial effort of William R. Stromberg is torture to sit through. It begins promisingly, but sinks faster than a mob victim wearing cement shoes. Outside of a few fleeting moments of potential, the monster sequences keep it alive, but even some of these are infected with inertia. Most grievous is the finale--where you'd expect it to shine the most. According to sources, an animation shot for the climax inexplicably went missing (more about this below). Filmed for approximately $200,000, Stromberg's big screen debut as director was, like many a movie, not without its share of production problems.

A portion of the movie had already been shot when the filmmakers came to the conclusion that what they had was inefficient. The decision was made to scrap what they had and start over. According to director Stromberg he cast himself in the role of the doctor for the initial version, but stayed behind the camera for the do-over. Crown International came aboard bringing additional financing with them. With Crown involved, Stromberg reportedly lost a lot of control. Planned monster sequences such as an attack in a cavern and the beast ripping off the roof of a building to get at room full of dancers went unfilmed due to budgetary constraints. Reportedly, Stromberg also had little input in regards to the editing of his movie. Existing expository scenes were cut, yet, oddly, some others were extended leaving a mostly boring mess of a movie when the monster isn't onscreen. 

Moreover, the editing is totally backwards by forcing the stock 50s monster characters (law enforcement that wants the thing dead and the scientists that want the thing alive) into the background and putting the spotlight on a hillbilly Laurel & Hardy schtick that takes up far too much of the running time. Elsewhere an utterly stupid sub-plot about a disgruntled long hair killing two people in a convenient store leading to a gunfight-chase with the sheriff adds nothing except more questions. Why does he gun down a store clerk and a customer over a $4.75 bottle of liquor, but has no problem paying for a meal in a diner shortly thereafter? If this bit of padding led to the sheriff's discovery of the monster it would make more sense for its placement, but it doesn't. The sheriff (played by co-scripter Cardella) stumbles upon the monster a few scenes later.

Aside from leaden to bad acting, horrible pacing, and incongruous editing, Paul Gentry salvages some of the technical aspects with his cinematography; his camera captures some beautiful, as well as haunting visuals of the title body of water. Filmed on location at Huntington Lake in the High Sierras and on Palomar Mountain, some moody shots of natural fog and mist add an enormous amount of production value to a film with very little of it. Scotland's Loch Ness Monster is evoked in some of these shots where the monsters neck breaks the water, gliding a ways before descending back into the lake.

Before making his creature feature, Stromberg dabbled in amateur cinema; at an early age he concocted a 16mm version of 'Sound of Thunder' by Ray Bradbury (later made into an execrable, big budget disaster in 2005) and working in animation for DAVEY AND GOLIATH cartoons and commercials. Collaborating with long-time friend and filmmaking associate Richard Cardella (he plays the sheriff in the film), the duo set about writing a script about that most famous of mystery monsters, Bigfoot. This being the mid 70s, Bigfoot sightings were on a multitude of Silver Screens with a variety of interpretations, so this idea was eventually abandoned--settling on a monster more akin to that other famous folkloric creature, the aforementioned Loch Ness Monster.

The strength of CRATER LAKE (what little there is) lies mostly in its stop-motion creation. The picture had quite a pedigree behind the scenes in bringing the beast to life. David Allen, well known to insiders and cult fans, but not established with mainstream viewers to the degree of Harryhausen or Danforth, signed on as stop-motion supervisor. If you remember those animated Swiss Miss, Pillsbury Doughboy, and Mrs. Butterworth commercials, you've seen just some of Allen's work. His King Kong Volkswagen commercial is his crowning achievement among his TV credits. 

Another friend of the director, Allen designed the title creature as well as assisting in the construction and sculpting of the 15 inch model. STAR WARS (1977) animator Jon Berg (also listed as John Berg) built the armature. Award winning FX artists Phil Tippett (DRAGONSLAYER, ROBOCOP, WILLOW, STARSHIP TROOPERS) and Randy Cook (CAVEMAN, THE THING, FRIGHT NIGHT, LORD OF THE RING series) joined the pack as assistant animators. Like Berg, Tippett worked on STAR WARS and popularized the use of the Go-Motion SPX technique; both he and Berg animated the chessboard monsters highlighted in the sequence where Luke is warned Wookies are prone to ripping arms out of sockets when they lose at the game.

Going back to the animation, Tippet sculpted the creature minus the head (which Allen handled). Along with assistant animators Tippet and Cook, the great Jim Danforth allegedly pitched in and did some animating of his own although there is conflicting information that he never worked on the film at all. Reportedly these effects took roughly two and a half months to complete. David Allen animated half of the stop-motion sequences, while Tippet and Cook did the rest of the work; which leaves us with Jim Danforth. According to an old Cinefantastique article, Danforth's minimal work on the picture was highlighted by a spectacular bit of animation during the climax showing the snowplow ramming into the monster. This particular bit ended up disappearing somehow or other. There are a couple of brief shots done live showing the plow cutting into the creature (yet no wounds are visible on the animated monster), but these are unimaginatively directed, doing nothing to help bring the film to a crescendo on the scale of one of Harryhausen's creature feature denouements.

Taking into account the films low-level status and Danforth's limited participation, one can speculate he wished to disassociate himself from the production. To see what Danforth was capable of, check out Hammer's WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH (1970); a picture that also featured David Allen animation (the Chasmosaurus sequence). Other Danforth credits include 7 FACES OF DR. LAO (1964), PLANET OF DINOSAURS (1978), CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981), and CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982). 

It wasn't all dimensional animation (or Fantamation as it's described on promotional materials and in the credits) seen onscreen in CRATER LAKE, though.

Contacted in 1975 to build a Bigfoot suit when the picture was still about the Sasquatch, makeup artist Steve Neill (GOD TOLD ME TO, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, FULL MOON HIGH, GALAXY OF TERROR, Q, FORBIDDEN WORLD) was then tasked with building a large monster head instead. It's seen a few times under and above water, and matches very well with the animated creature. Funnily enough, Neill's aquatic dino noggin turned up a few years later in Mel Brooks' HISTORY OF THE WORLD PART 1 (1981) without the artists knowledge. Incidentally, all these guys  (minus Danforth) worked together on LASERBLAST (1978) the following year.

Regardless of circumstances determining how good or bad the finished product is, Stromberg's name is on it as director. Despite making quite a lot of money, Stromberg never directed again; but in articles of the time period, the man seemed to look forward to mounting another project. However, William's sons, Robert and William T. Stromberg, followed in his footsteps--the former having done visual effects for many major Hollywood pictures and directed MALEFICIENT (2014); the latter has more than two dozen credits as a composer. 

As for THE CRATER LAKE MONSTER, it's barely a footnote in monster cinema, but one that most everybody has seen on television or video at some point. Aside from being one of the better 'creature from the lake' flicks--a sub-genre with very little to recommend it--only the hardcore bad movie fans and stop-motion fanatics will have tolerance for it. The only things that save this MONSTER from remaining at the bottom of CRATER LAKE are its special effects and photography--two things that most other pictures built around a similar topic can rarely, if ever muster.

This review is representative of the Mill Creek blu-ray paired with GALAXINA (1980). Specs and extras: no extras; 16x9 widescreen 1.85:1; 1080i (for CRATER LAKE MONSTER); three English audio options: 2.0 DTS HD, 2.0 Dolby Digital, English PMC Uncompressed;  running time: 1:23:54

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