Friday, October 14, 2022

Creature From Black Lake (1976) review

Jack Elam (Joe Canton), Dub Taylor (Grandpa Bridges), Dennis Fimple (Pahoo), John David Carson (Rives), Bill Thurman (Sheriff Billy Carter), Jim McCullough, Jr. (Orville Bridges), Catherine McClenny (Waitress), Becky Smiser (Sheriff's Daughter), Michelle Willingham (Michelle), Evelyn Hindricks (Mrs. Bridges), Roger Pancake (H.B.), Karen Brooks (Orville's Mother), Chase Tatum (Little Orville), Bob Kyle (Rufus), Joy N. Houck, Jr. (Dr. Burch), (Roy Tatum (Fred/Creature)
Directed by Joy N. Houck, Jr.

The Short Version: Houck Junior's Louisiana-set monster movie is the best of the Bigfoot flicks that followed in the footsteps of THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK (1972), and released by the same company. This CREATURE operates in identical fashion, only it unfolds in a cinematic form as opposed to the documentary-style effect of BOGGY CREEK. Today's horror fans will likely find nothing to hold their interest in BLACK LAKE (now out in a 4K presentation), but devout genre lovers and nostalgia seekers will enjoy their trip into the swamp, revisiting the dark water denizen.

Two aspiring anthropologists from Chicago take a trip to Oil City, Louisiana for the summer to investigate Sasquatch sightings and hopefully find evidence of its existence. Nobody wants to open up about what they've seen, and the few who talk are reluctant to do so. The two men eventually get more than they bargained for once they finally encounter The Creature From Black Lake.

Howco International, the company that brought you THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK (1972), attempted to replicate that double-digit million dollar Southern Fried success story with a similar tale about a swamp-squatch from Louisiana. Gone is the docu-cinema style in favor of a straight movie, but with some flashback scenes to recall familiarity with the previous Bigfoot moneymaker.
If you love old-fashioned Americana, you get some great visuals of a bygone era via the Louisiana locations. Single-pump gas stations, diners, payphones, and $2 haircuts abound. Back-country roads and less densely populated districts give viewers a look into simpler, less industrialized times. There's even a smooth country tune, 'Exits and Truck Stops', (written, composed and orated by Jim McCullough, Jr.) that plays over the end credits. 
These movies rarely satisfy with their primary selling points. When it comes to thick southern atmosphere and small-town rural life, it's distinctive elements like these that gives viewers their money's worth for those who can appreciate such things.
For whatever reason, Joy Houck, Jr. (who plays Dr. Burch seen at the beginning) directed only a handful of movies, and was much better at it than other genre helmers who sat in the chair for a great many more of them. He directed both movies that were part of one of the trashiest exploitation double bills ever, the sleazily titled two-fer, WOMEN AND BLOODY TERROR and NIGHT OF BLOODY HORROR (both 1969). A few years later, Houck helmed the underrated NIGHT OF THE STRANGLER (1972), a movie famously known under a title that doesn't even fit what it's about.

Houck, Sr. founded Howco International in the early 1950s. If you've seen THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS and TEENAGE MONSTER (both 1957), then you know the sort of cinema they specialized in. By the 1970s, the company's output focused on movies set against wilderness or bayou backdrops after the mega-money made by Drive-in classic THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK (1972). Which brings us back to the down-home goodness of CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE and all the things about it that make it worthwhile for nostalgia lovers, Bigfoot enthusiasts and horror and monster movie addicts.
Jack Elam may be top-billed but it's John David Carson and Dennis Fimple's movie. Elam's crazy bayou dweller is a scene-stealer for sure, along with the always welcome Dub Taylor. He's the local bottle-hitting hunter with a vendetta against the Bigfoot. There's a great scene where the two briefly square off, but no return match, unfortunately. 
Elam and his unique face was a regular in countless western movies and television programs. Of special note are a dozen-plus episodes of GUNSMOKE (1955-1975) where he played a variety of characters good and bad. One of the best being the light-hearted 'Where'd They Go'. Elam plays it straight as Clint Dodie, a homesteader accused of robbing the General Store. By the end, the only thing he may be guilty of is pulling the wool over the eyes of Marshal Dillon and Chester. Elam's probably best remembered for his cameo at the opening of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968) and his role as the mad doctor in the two CANNONBALL RUN movies.

Dub Taylor was another regular in six-gun cinema and television. His recognizable voice and country-folk mannerisms made him ideal for roles like Grandpa Bridges. Dishing dirt on the Bigfoot monster, Dub plays a little music and sits at the head of a table filled with southern food mainstays like fried chicken, mashed potatoes, turnip greens and sweet tea. Taylor enlivened whatever he appeared in. He is possibly best known as a regular on HEE HAW during the years 1985-1991.

With the two seasoned old-timers out of the way, John David Carson was a promising actor who never hit it big, but did well in the parts he played. His potential breakout role came early on in 1971s PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW. From there it was mostly TV roles with an occasional movie. He had a good guy face but could do villainy too, such as his appearance in the season 4 episode of CHARLIE'S ANGELS, 'Angels At the Altar'. Monster movie fans will also remember him in heroic capacity in Bert I. Gordon's EMPIRE OF THE ANTS (1977). Unfortunately, he gave up acting early on and died just as young at only 57 years of age.

Carson's college buddy, the curiously named Pahoo, was played by Dennis Fimple. Both men are very likable playing off one another, and writer McCullough even tosses in a running gag for Pahoo and his desire for a hamburger. Compared to Carson, Fimple had a much more extensive career; just as prevalent on the small screen, but with more big screen credits to accentuate his resume. The two worked together again the same year on the Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sally Field flick, STAY HUNGRY. 
Looking like Hoke Howell's younger brother, Fimple featured in many of the same types of movies Howell did. He started out doing country boy roles in the late 60s and garnered a lot of attention in 1971 in the western TV series ALIAS SMITH AND JONES (1971-1973). Like Carson, he too did a CHARLIE'S ANGELS episode in season 5's hillbilly-styled 'Moonshinin' Angels'. Fimple's last role as the wild-eyed Grampa Hugo was one of the few tolerable things in Rob Zombie's abysmal HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES (2003). He died in August of 2002 at home while recovering from injuries suffered in a car accident several days earlier at only 61 years old. 

You don't get any long, lingering shots of it, but the Bigfoot suit is better than what little you could make out of Boggy Creek's beast. For an angry, super-strong Sasquatch who hurls dogs through the air and turns over trucks, the monster curiously doesn't appear all that tall. His roar makes him imposing enough, though; and John Carpenter's future DP, Dean Cundey, sets up some great shots for the big guy. The Creature is the film's main attraction, and the one area that could've made the movie even better is if it had a few more attack scenes. 
Sasquatch cinema was largely a kid-friendly genre during its 1970s heyday. Over the years there have been numerous, varied, and bloodier examples of the form ranging from the terrible, gore-drenched NIGHT OF THE DEMON (1980); the family-favorite HARRY AND THE HENDERSONS (1987); the energetic Squatch splatter of ABOMINABLE (2006); the genre-mixing of BIGFOOT: THE LOST COAST TAPES (2012); the traditional style told through the 'Found Footage' lens of EXISTS (2014); and another, woefully overrated, FF Bigfoot horror in WILLOW CREEK (2013). 

THE CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE didn't have the level of success of its better-known predecessor, but maintains a healthy cult following. It's possible more people saw it on TV than during its regional theatrical run. Houck's horror of southern Yeti terror made its Network Television debut on Friday, November 30th, 1979 on the CBS Late Movie starting at 12:40am in a two-hour slot. TV Guide critic Judith Crist was uncharacteristically vague about the film's qualities, stating CREATURE "tells us more than some would care to know about Bigfoot spookery in the Louisiana swamps". THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) TV Movie aired before it in a 70 minute slot starting at 11:30pm. Elsewhere, the 1975 TV Movie of alien abduction, THE UFO INCIDENT, aired at midnight.

If you were blown away by the restoration of THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK, and you're a fan of this film, you will be equally ecstatic over Synapses' long-in-the-making blu-ray release. On their slate as far back as 2009, Synapse made an official announcement in 2014 that they'd just signed a deal for the first, official release of the movie with the rights owners, the McCullough family (see insert: writer Jim McCullough as Orville Bridges), in the hopes of having it out for a Halloween release. However, in 2015, it was reported the release was put on hold as the print they'd obtained was a 16mm version used for television as opposed to a 35mm negative. 
Sadly, Jim McCullough, Jr. (Jimmie Bradford McCullough, Jr) passed away May 10th, 2022 at the age of 67. His father, a producer on the children's classic, WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS (1974), died in 2012 aged 83. The father and son team never got the chance to see their most popular production receive the restorative treatment it deserved.
Over a decade in the making, the first and only official release on any digital format is here; and if you're a fan of the film, or Cryptid cinema in general, CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE no longer needs to be a missing link in your movie collection.

This review is representative of the Synapse Blu-ray. Specs and extras: new 4K 1080p 2.35:1 widescreen restoration of the original 35mm negative; audio commentary with author-filmmaker Michael Gingold and author-historian Chris Poggiali; 'Swamp Stories' featurette with DP Dean Cundey; original theatrical trailer and TV spot; English subtitles; limited slipcover for the first 2,500 units; running time: 01:35:10
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