Sunday, February 23, 2020

The Giant Spider Invasion (1975) review


Steve Brodie (Dr. J.R. Vance), Barbara Hale (Dr. Jenny Langer), Robert Easton (Kester), Leslie Parrish (Ev), Alan Hale Jr. (The Sheriff), Bill Williams (Dutch), Kevin Brodie (Dave Perkins), Dianne Lee Hart (Terry), Tain Bodkin (Preacher), Paul Bentzen (Billy), Christiana Schmidtmer (Helga)

Directed by Bill Rebane

The Short Version: 15 years before ARACHNOPHOBIA (1990) merged spider horror and humor, this example of low budget, multi-legged mayhem did it first. The 50s throwback plot has geodes inside a meteorite crash into a field where these Gagbury Scream Eggs crack open to reveal a creepy spider center. With laughs of both the intentional and unintentional variety, Bill Rebane's creature feature showcases crane-operated, and Volkswagen-powered giant spiders making meals out of the residents of Gleason and Merrill, Wisconsin. A bad movie done good, and looking stunning in this blu-ray restoration, the cult following for THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION (1975) may find itself growing as well.

A black hole opens a gateway to a parallel universe releasing a meteorite that crashes into the Earth. A horrifying species of space spider encased within geodes are scattered all over rural Wisconsin. Once they hatch, the creepy crawlers begin feasting on the local livestock before moving on to human prey. Growing to enormous size, a number of the townspeople are killed before two scientists discover a way to kill the interstellar arachnids.

Wisconsin is known for Ed Gein, its cheese, and this here movie about a giant spider made out of a Volkswagen and steel tubing that terrorizes a small town. The most well known movie of the Latvian born Bill Rebane, it's a campy, pseudo-send up of 50s 'Big Bug' flicks. There was a resurgence of those movies in the 1970s, but they traded the atomic and alien invasion elements for an environmentally created threat as the backdrop. Rebane's movie is a throwback to the 50s style and imitates it well even if the special effects aren't very convincing; ambitious in design and execution, the money just wasn't there to make them more believable.

The script by Robert Easton and Richard L. Huff was a clash of ideas; the former wanted a jokier tone while the latter wanted to play it entirely straight. Easton thought the movie would be more palatable if camp was injected into it. According to him, some of his lighter moments didn't make the final cut. As schlocky as THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION is, its combination of horror and humor occasionally works; the latter being both intentional and unintentionally so.

One of the blackest of these comical moments is when the alcohol sponge Ev (played by former Hollywood model, actress, activist Leslie Parrish) thinks she's drinking a Bloody Mary and after taking a sip discovers its a Bloody Spider she's mixed in her blender.

Despite the budgetary shortcomings, there are instances of seriousness that imbues a few scenes with a creepy ambiance. Some of this is due to the scenes of tarantulas crawling all over everything leaving lots of webs behind. Elsewhere, there's the kooky preacher's proclamations of fire and brimstone intercut with Easton's sleazy character collecting as many of the interplanetary geodes as he can find--oblivious to their contents.

According to Rebane, the film originally didn't feature giant spiders at all. Distributor Brandon L.Chase, then President of Group 1 (later producer of movies like ALLIGATOR and THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER), wanted giant spiders to compete with a certain 25ft great white shark that was starring in a movie filmed on the east coast. So with only $10,000 available for special effects, Rebane's SPX man Bob Millay (who also performed the film's stunts) got local welders to build two gigantic spiders to his design. The one getting the most screentime was built using steel beams and tubing, and wire built around a Volkswagen chassis covered in black fur taken from fake fur coats.

The eight-legged, interplanetary monster was brought to life with the aid of seven local teens inside maneuvering the legs and fangs. Looking like any of your finer local parade floats, the performers operating it do a good job while the camera captures some great shots of it both at ground level and in aerial views.

The shots of the spider devouring people and some of the makeup effects of half-eaten victims are gruesome and surprisingly effective, too. The attack scenes are filmed enthusiastically and Rebane doesn't shy away from showing his monsters despite their lack of realism.

The other big spider was made specifically to be operated by a crane and is used a few times; most memorably during an attack on a house in a scene that recalls Mara Corday being menaced by the TARANTULA (1955); and again in a scene where a victim is attacked after driving through the alien beasts web on a country highway resulting in a car crash and explosion.

Surprisingly gory for a PG rating, there's even some brief nudity that makes one wonder what the ratings board was doing during the screening. Akin to other independent efforts like THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK (1972), SPIDER was another regional success, racking up approximately $25 million and making Variety's list of top 50 movies of the year.

Other than Barbara Hale (PERRY MASON [1957--1966]) and Leslie Parrish (LIL ABNER [1959]; THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE [1962]), the film's other big star was Alan Hale, Jr., the skipper from GILLIGAN'S ISLAND (1964--1967). He's the first actor you see and his first line of dialog, "Hi, little buddy", sets the tone right off the bat. Hale literally phones it in, spending most of his scenes on the phone and uttering comical lines and, at one point, breaks the fourth wall.

Robert Easton appeared in dozens of movies and TV shows; and was famous for being a dialog coach and a master of accents. If you're a GUNSMOKE (1955--1975) fan, you'll know him as Chester's brother, the "uncivilized" Magnus (he also voiced the character in the radio version a year earlier) who comes to Dodge for Christmas in the season one episode that aired December 24th, 1955. In what would seem like the earliest known precursor to slasher tropes, a crazy old preacher man warns them not to hold a Christmas dance lest they all want to die. By the end, Magnus shows Chester he's far more learned than he ever knew and saves everyone from being shotgunned to death by a murderous old man.

THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION (1975) had its network television debut on February 8th, 1977 as the ABC Tuesday Late Movie airing from 11:30pm to 1:10am (in some markets it aired from 12:00am to 1:40am). As Judith Crist put it in her brief summation, "The title tells all." The first time I saw it was in the mid 1980s on local channel 48; a favorite for monster kids with its frequent airings of genre fare. Being nine or ten at the time, it was a shock to see the network let the nude scene slip by; and especially during an afternoon airing.

Filmed in rural Gleason and in the city of Merrill, Wisconsin, locals were up to the task in giving this INVASION some lasting appeal. Its cult status is strong in America's Dairyland, with the film occasionally playing at local festivals and DVD releases keeping it alive. SPIDER will continue to have legs with this stunning new blu-ray release; the movie looking like it was made yesterday due to this eye-opening restoration.

If you're a fan of the type of low budget, regional, independently produced horror and SciFi fare like PSYCHO FROM TEXAS (1975/1981), THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN (1977), THE CRATER LAKE MONSTER (1977), NIGHT OF THE DEMON (1980) and THE AFTERMATH (1982), then THE GIANT SPIDER INVASION (1975) is in the same league. There's modestly amusing humor; a capable cast of old pros; spirited, if fake-looking monster sequences; and just the right amount of exploitation for those seeking an old-fashioned, Drive-in styled entertainment.

This review is representative of the Dark Force Entertainment blu-ray. Specs and extras: New 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen HD transfer from the original 35mm negative; 2014 Bill Rebane interview; Robert Easton interview (last one before his death); Giant Spider music video; running time: 01:19:46

Monday, February 17, 2020

The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972) review


Vern Stierman (Narrator), Chuck Pierce (Young Jim), William Stumpp (Adult Jim), Willie E. Smith (Willie), Buddy Crabtree (James Crabtree), Jeff Crabtree (Fred Crabtree), Judy Baltom (Mary Beth Searcy), Mary B. Johnson (Mary Beth's Sister)

Directed by Charles B. Pierce

"... if you're ever driving down in our country along about sundown keep an eye on the dark woods as you cross the Sulphur River bottoms and you may catch a glimpse of a huge, hairy creature watching you from the shadows. Yes, he's still here. And you know, I'd almost like to hear that terrible cry again. Just to be reminded that there is still a bit of wilderness left; and there are still mysteries that remain unsolved; and strange, unexplained noises... in the night."

The Short Version: One of the most successful independent features, Pierce's fictionalized "True Story" of the Fouke Monster started an entire sub-genre of movies and documentaries built around hairy hominids with outsized appendages. It's quaint on scares but big on atmosphere. What the film lacks in polish it makes up for with Pierce's sense of composition and ability to turn nature into a foreboding sense of dread. In the 70s, regional horror was a thriving business; those days are gone in these increasingly industrialized times, but BOGGY CREEK remains a LEGENDary example of the Southern Fried Gothic form.

A narrator documents sightings and interactions with a 7-foot monster haunting the swamps and backwoods areas of Fouke, Arkansas.

Costing a meager $160,000 and using locals for the cast and crew, Charles B. Pierce's THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK (1972) remains one of the most influential and successful independently produced motion pictures of all time. Available for years on video in poor quality, fullscreen presentations, the 1972 classic has recently been restored in 4K by Pierce's daughter--released once more to theaters and on DVD and blu-ray for fans to experience either for the first time, or in a format not seen since its original release.

Seeing it today, and just like regional horror itself, BOGGY CREEK is clearly a product of its time. There's nothing particularly scary about it, but there are a handful of instances of genuine dread, though; much of this is derived from the foreboding sound of nature and the occasional expanse of a critter-filled swamp; or a desolate field whose only occupant is a dilapidated barn. It's scenes like these, and the atmosphere of the locality--from the gas stations, automobiles, and backwoods domiciles--that defines a time period virtually extinct today.

Based on the legend of the Fouke Monster of Arkansas, the film is told in a documentary style with interviews and reenactments of sightings by the residents of Fouke. Sightings of the creature in and around Texarkana reportedly date back to 1946; but it was a news story from May of 1971 that brought this Bigfoot national attention. On that fateful night, a family was attacked by a seven-foot, red-eyed, hairy creature. One man suffered minor injuries while other eyewitnesses on the property got a glimpse of the thing before firing at it. When police arrived they found no blood, only claw marks on the porch and strange, three-toed footprints around the area.

It was this attack that inspired Pierce to make his movie; and the same one depicted during the film's climax. With the furor at the time over the alleged monster, a movie about the incidents and sightings was a surefire winner. But Pierce and others probably weren't expecting the level of success THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK would accrue. Initially released in August of 1972, that first Texarkana showing led to long lines of curious moviegoers anxious to see this little movie about the mysterious Sasquatch haunting their communities and surrounding lands.

After major Hollywood distributors passed on the picture, indie outfit Howco International (THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS; TEENAGE MONSTER) bought the rights and brought BOGGY CREEK to an astonishing $22-$25 million haul. Re-released in 1975, the Fouke Monster continued to scare up good business in drive-ins across the country.

The magic of capitalism ensured Fouke would maintain notoriety through souvenirs and book sales of its mystery monster. Sightings of the creature continued (and to this day), but no photographic evidence throughout Texarkana has ever been submitted. By the mid-80s the Fouke Monster was being called a hoax by then mayor Virgil Roberts and others, believing it all to be a fabrication to bring attention to the area.

Elsewhere, Pierce's surprise moneymaking machine spawned a slew of imitations. The Patterson-Gimlin footage of 1969 stirred the initial curiosity of Sasquatch lore and its legitimacy, but BOGGY CREEK showed the topic had lucrative legs... hairy as they may be.

Pierce's first movie, BOGGY CREEK's deficiencies are evident throughout. Some of the monster scenes are sloppily executed and one scene where the creature casually reaches through a bathroom window where a man just sat down on the toilet comes off as humorous. However, Pierce's strong suit in his debut outing is an eye for composition. Here he succeeds at capturing a palpable sense of fear and dread in his use of shadow, and the sights and sounds of nature. The monster's roar, for example, is utilized to a far greater effect than some scenes where people come face to face with the thing. Other shots of the creature obscured by trees and the encroaching cover of night are highly potent in creating a goosebump or two.

If you grew up in the 70s and early 80s, the chances are high you saw a Made For Television documentary on Bigfoot, or a regional low budget production following in the footsteps of the Fouke Monster's big screen success. While Sasquatch was elusive in real life, he was cropping up all over the place in the entertainment medium. IN SEARCH OF BIGFOOT (1976), SASQUATCH, THE LEGEND OF BIGFOOT (1976), THE MYSTERIOUS MONSTERS (1976), THE LEGEND OF BIGFOOT (1976), CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE (1976), and SNOWBEAST (1977) were some of the similarly themed Cryptid creature features. 

The big screen monsters eventually haunted small screens at home as well. In November of 1981, a double bill of CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE and THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK aired on CBS beginning at 2:45am. A sequel surfaced in 1977 titled RETURN TO BOGGY CREEK without the participation of Pierce. The man himself did return to his creation in 1985 with BOGGY CREEK 2: AND THE LEGEND CONTINUES.

BOGGY CREEK's documentary style (along with 1980s controversial CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST from director Ruggero Deodato) was likewise instrumental in the plethora of 'Found Footage' movies that exploded after THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999) enjoyed a similar success story. One of that movie's two directors, Eduardo Sanchez, made his own Bigfoot movie in the 'Found Footage' format with EXISTS (2014).

It may seem quaint and outdated today, but THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK (1972) was a pioneering work from the man who would show a more confident hand (and garner genre attention yet again) upon directing THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN (1976); another picture based on a true story. The audience that will likely get the most out of the experience are those who saw the film during its original run; or those who caught it (or some of its imitations) on late night television... and especially by those who lived it.

*You can purchase the DVD/Bluray combo and other BC merchandise HERE.*

This review is representative of the Blu-ray/DVD combo restored and released by Pamula Pierce. Specs and extras: restored in 4K HD; 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen; restored theatrical trailer; running time: 01:27:00.

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