Creature from Black Lake used to turn up regularly on the Creature Feature TV shows of my childhood. If I missed a single showing on my local channels before 1980, I would be very surprised.
Now, if you'd approached me the day before I saw it for the first time, and asked me if I thought it was likely to become one of my favorite monster movies, I would have thought you were crazy. "Look at the title," I would have said; "for crying out loud, who calls their film 'Creature from Black Lake'? What a rip-off! I wasn't fooled by King of Kong Island; I certainly wouldn't be fooled by, say, Invasion of the Saucer Guys. With a title like that, you just know it's going to stink." That's what I would have said.
I would probably also have pointed out that the movie starred people named Dub Taylor and Dennis Fimple. Making fun of people's names is the height of wit to an eleven-year-old boy, and names like "Dub Taylor" and "Dennis Fimple" are just too good to resist. Sure... now I know these were two solid and respected character actors, and I'm deeply ashamed to remember how I dismissed them so lightly. But to a little kid, the name "Fimple" — so much like "pimple", yet so far less dignified — was a source of endless mirth. If you'd told me the movie was directed by a man named Joy, I would have howled. And don't even get me started on Roger Pancake.
Wasn't he in "International House"?
Yeah. So I had low expectations for this movie. Things would probably have been different if I'd known a little more about it. If someone had described it to me in advance, I would never have bothered to tune in at all.
To us kids back then, there were two things about a monster movie that mattered most. The first important thing was what the monster looked like. Monsters are cool, and we kids couldn't wait to get our first look at them. Sometimes you only got to see the creature for a few moments at the very end of the film; in those cases, we'd sit propped up against the TV with toothpicks under our eyelids, anxious to soak up every precious frame. We weren't usually disappointed: the film-makers spent a good part of their budget on the monster suits, and they generally made sure they got their money's worth out of them, no matter how shabby or ridiculous they turned out to be. These were the days before video on demand, so if we missed seeing the monster during those few moments, that was it — there was no rewinding, no freezing the picture to feast our eyes, no looking up production stills on the Internet. And every kid knew in his deepest heart that if he missed seeing something this time, the movie would never, ever be on again.
We loved seeing those big ugly monsters because, as so many film critics have pointed out, we felt a little like monsters ourselves at that age. We were beginning to mutate. Certain Jekyll-and-Hyde transformations were beginning to occur. We suddenly found ourselves growing larger than the world we thought we knew; and we often left an inadvertent trail of wreckage and chaos in our paths. We could relate.
But that's not the whole story. The second, equally important thing about monster films was this: we needed to know how the monster was destroyed at the end. You didn't just kill a monster: you destroyed it. You poured salt water on it, or exposed it to sunlight, or trapped it in a burning building, or lobbed sodium pellets at it... you put a stake through its heart, you shot it with a silver bullet, you reversed its polarity... whatever: you found its One Fatal Weakness, and you destroyed it. As much as we might have empathized with the monsters, our fellow-feeling only went so far. We were kids, after all, and we desperately wanted to be reassured that normalcy and stability were going to be re-established at the end of the story. Yes, these were precisely the things we would rebel against as we got older. But at that age, we weren't ready for the bleakness of movies like Night of the Living Dead. We wanted to believe in Good Guys and Bad Guys; we didn't particularly like the Good Guys, because they were so bland, but we wanted them to win. And as for the monsters? The beasts we so strongly resembled? We wanted them to be, well... destroyed.
In Creature from Black Lake, not only is the title Creature not destroyed, it's glimpsed for such a short time, in such little detail, that on my old black-and-white TV it might as well not have been shown at all. The letterboxed DVD shows the Creature in greater detail, but that's a mixed blessing: the suit not terribly inspired, even by the standards of the underachieving Bigfoot subgenre. It looks like a guy in a monkey suit; it moves like a guy in a monkey suit; and while the very brief glimpse we get of the face-mask shows it to be pretty good, it's not quite enough to make up for the obvious monkey-suitery. Had I known all this in advance, I would have imagined it was the polar opposite of any monster movie I ever wanted to see.
But I didn't know anything in advance, so I watched the movie anyway. And I loved it. It was a simple story, told simply (and reasonably effectively). Though the monster wasn't much of an on-screen presence, it lurks very well — and I was suprised to find that its lurking was just as satisfying as seeing the stuntman in the costume, and much more frightening. And even if the ending could hardly be called a happy one, with so much left unresolved and our heroes in a world of hurt, it wasn't too much for a kid to handle. Thinking back on it, I suppose my lingering fondness for Creature from Black Lake stems from the fact that it was such a good movie to grow into. It had a measurable impact on my development, helping prepare me for stories with greater depth and maturity than the stuff I was used to... while still being an enjoyably goofy monster flick.
Our heroes are two grad students from the University of Chicago named Pahoo and Rives. Pahoo (Dennis Fimple) is the elder of the two; all we initially find out about him is that he loves hamburgers more than anyone should. Pahoo is from somewhere down South — from Georgia, apparently, though this is only inferred — and his excuse for loving hamburgers so much is that he'd grown up on a chicken farm, so he'd had enough poultry to last him the rest of his life. He's also a Vietnam vet, possibly using the GI Bill to further his education. Rives (John David Carson), on the other hand, is closer to the stereotype of the 70's college kid: he wears his hair daringly long; he's distrustful of authority; and he carries himself with an air of smug superiority that really doesn't fit him.
Pahoo and Rives' anthropology professor (played in a cameo by the movie's director, Joy N. Houck) has inspired the two students with his tales of a mysterious bipedal primate that lives in the North American woods. So they decide to spend their summer break on a special research project: trying to track down one of the creatures. Now, there have been sightings of man-like creatures all over the country and all over the world... most famously "Bigfoot" along the forests of the Pacific Northwest, but also including Skunk Ape (sightings and smellings) in the Florida everglades, Orang Dalam in Malaysia, Yowie in Australia, Yehti in Tibet, and similar beasts in Russia, China and elsewhere. But among the recent reports of encounters with Bigfoot is a particularly vivid tale from northern Louisiana, near the Texas border. It seems an old trapper named Joe Canton (Jack Elam) saw his friend Willie dragged to his death in the waters of the bayou by some huge, hairy monster. If the story is true — and we know it's true, because we saw the attack during the credits — it's one of the only reports of a human being actually being harmed by a Bigfoot.
So, with a huge swath of the world to choose from, the boys decide to go to Louisiana.
(I'm not sure why Pahoo and Rives are anxious to track the only Bigfoot in the world that's reported to have killed somebody... but after all, this is a horror movie.)
Speaking of anthropology, we need to put ourselves in 1970's mode before we go any further. If you're too young to have experienced the 70's first-hand, just bear in mind that the whole American landscape, culturally and physically, was very much different then than it is today.
To begin with, Creature from Black Lake was made in 1976, at the height of the 70's Bigfoot craze. This was the year after the creature made its memorable guest appearance on TV's The Six Million Dollar Man, and the year before the kids' show Bigfoot and Wildboy hit the airwaves. As far as the movies go, Creature from Black Lake came midway between the releases of one of the Sasquatch subgenre's relative high points — Charles Pierce's Legend of Boggy Creek (1972) — and one of its lowest, Night of the Demon (1980; the one with the infamous castration scene). At the same time, there were also an alarming number of books, toys and TV documentaries devoted to the Sasquatch and his kin.
But in spite of Bigfoot's popularity, it seems a little unlikely that anybody at the University of Chicago in those days would be teaching a serious class on the Sasquatch. Very few scientists or academics saw any value in addressing the Sasquatch issue, any more than they would the equally-popular "ancient astronaut" theories of Erik von Däniken or the Bermuda Triangle claims of Charles Berlitz. Dr. Carleton Coon was one established anthropologist who expressed an interest in the subject; but Coon's controversial theories on race, now discredited by DNA studies, made him a less-than-ideal spokesman for what is still considered dubious science. Washington State University's irascible Dr. Grover Krantz tried for decades to get mainstream attention for the evidence he believed he had accumulated; but his ideas never gained any wide acceptance. Krantz persevered, although he was ridiculed by his peers and frequently passed up for advancement. He remained one of the only academics in a field overrun by enthusiastic amateurs. Coon's career got in the way of his interest in Bigfoot; Krantz's interest in Bigfoot seriously interfered with his career; either way, the academic establishment of the 1970's had no interest in looking for unknown hominids. The first academically-sponsored conference on humanoid monsters didn't take place until 1979, at the University of British Columbia, and by all accounts it was a fiasco2.
Blu Buhs, Joshua. Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009
"Sasquatch: The Anthropology of the Unknown" Narr. by Susan Lumsden. Radio Canada International. 1979 (broadcast date unknown)
If Pahoo and Rives's University-endorsed expedition seems like pure fiction, their destination is real enough. There is such a place as Black Lake, or rather Black Bayou Lake, in northwestern Louisiana. It's now a federal wildlife refuge. The town of Oil City, where Pahoo and Rives start their investigation, is still there (though it looks as though the years have not been kind to it); the film used the town's real inhabitants and locations to give their arrival a very realistic feel. Oil City is much closer to Caddo Lake, and Bigfoot sightings have been reported in the region. However, Black Lake sounds much more sinister, so the film has engaged in some forgivable creative geography.
Oil City Then:
Oil City Now (courtesy of Google Maps):
View Larger Map
(The movie's ethnography, on the other hand, is a little more difficult to come to terms with, considering today's sensibilities. Oil City, like many towns in Louisiana, has a significant black population — over 40% in the most recent data. Yet [with the possible exception of one woman at the edge of the frame, standing next to a woman that Rives is questioning] the main characters, all white, are never seen to interact with any black people. You won't find any black faces in the café, or in the barbershop... and certainly not in the supporting cast.)
The Oil City we're shown is a place so rural that the locals consider a guy named "Pahoo" a Yankee city-slicker. If you look at the aerial photographs of the area today, you'll see that houses and trailer parks have crowded out much of the area the Creature might once have haunted: the deep Bayou described by Joe Canton isn't so deep these days. But the movie gives us the impression that Oil City circa 1976 is isolated, on the edge of uncharted swamp.
And conventions of the 1970's dictate that any time you have Yankee city-slickers venturing into the rural South, they must run afoul of the rural Southern Sheriff. And this is just what happens. By the worst of luck, it's the cocky anti-authoritarian Rives who runs into Sheriff Billy Carter, and the Sheriff's attempts to warn Rives about sticking his nose where it doesn't belong only make Rives more eager to insist on his rights.
I'm tempted to think the name "Billy Carter" is a reference to the future President's notorious brother; but since the movie was probably shot some time in 1975 for release in the early spring of 1976, it seems a little too early for that to be the case. Jimmy Carter was not considered a front-runner in the Democratic presidential primaries, and he didn't get the party nomination until well after Creature from Black Lake had been released. If nobody was paying much attention to Jimmy at the time, you can bet that even fewer were paying attention to Billy.
In any case, considering the movie as a grown-up, my opinion of Sheriff Carter has changed a bit. When I was a kid, I tended to side with Rives: what right has that mean old Sheriff to tell the boys what to do? He's standing in the way of their scientific research! Now, though, I recognize that Rives is a bit of a jerk. Pahoo's open-hearted guilelessness makes him an easy target for manipulation, by both Rives and the townspeople; but Rives doesn't like anybody telling him what to do. Rather than try to reassure the Sheriff that their research will be discreet, Rives goes out of his way to antagonize Carter... who was, after all, only looking out for the safety and peace-of-mind of his parish's citizens. And their safety, too, come to think of it. All in all, Carter ends up showing a good deal more restraint than other cinema Sheriffs I can think of.
While Rives's attitude is standing in the way of his progress with the locals, Pahoo is having the opposite problem. Pahoo's approach is much more earnest and straightforward than Rives; but it's also more credulous (and it doesn't help that he likes to start with the pretty girls). Pahoo's attempts to engage people lead to his being set up for an obvious practical joke, much to the delight of the locals. Well, all the locals except one, that is: the scruffy trapper Joe Canton just happens to be watching, and he is not amused at all. Canton stalks off before Pahoo is able to extract himself and follow.
Fortunately, though, there's still one person in town who's willing to help the boys. Young Orville Bridges (played by the movie's writer, Jim McCullough) was orphaned after an encounter with the legendary monster, and he offers to tell Pahoo and Rives all about it... provided his story is kept off the record. Figuring any help is worth accepting at this point, Pahoo and Rives go off with Orville to meet what's left of his family.
Orville was too young at the time of the incident to remember things clearly. Grandpa Bridges (Dub Taylor) is the one they really need to talk to... provided they can get him to open up. On one hand, he's naturally reticent with outsiders; on the other hand, he relishes the chance to fleece a couple of Yankee college kids out of their "ree-ward money" (once again I remind you that by local standards, even Pahoo is a Yankee). By the same token, though he wants to have some fun at the boys' expense, he's genuinely afraid of the creature (and for good reason); and though he agrees to talk to Pahoo and Rives, he soon has reason to regret his decision. It doesn't help that Pahoo, ever the naïf, misspeaks himself and opens some old family wounds; but in Pahoo's defense, he'd just been offered a plate of... home-fried chicken.
But if Pahoo and Rives are thwarted at every turn, either by lack of cooperation from the locals or by their own questionable competence, they do get some help from an unexpected source: the Creature itself. For such a reclusive beast, the Creature certainly seems to go out of his way to prove his existence to the guys. No sooner do they retreat from their disastrous dinner with the Bridges' when they get to hear the beast's howling for the first time. As the movie progresses, the Creature manages to turn up at the edges of their campsite with astonishing regularity.
Not that this is a bad thing. Creature from Black Lake is very much a character-driven film, but its characters are precisely what many critics end up complaining about. I don't happen to agree: I think that Pahoo and Rives are very well-drawn. If their humor sometimes falls flat, it's completely in line with the near-documentary feeling of the movie as a whole. Rarely does it seems as though the characters are reading lines from a script — they stammer, they stumble, they contradict themselves... and as a result, they build up a believable atmosphere that really helps us suspend our disbelief when the monster shows up. But I have to admit: none of this would work if the monster didn't show up. Fortunately the Creature from Black Lake is much more obliging in this respect than his real-world counterparts seem to be.
There's plenty of good stuff to be found in Creature... The movie's first shots are of dawn in the Bayou, and they're beautiful: the dank, moss-laden forest makes a tremendously atmospheric backdrop for a monster film. But the atmosphere is used sparingly. The movie's climax takes place deep in the forest, and since the Bayou locations haven't been overused, it helps intensify the feeling of isolation and danger. Dean Cundey's night-time photography is way better than we'd expect from other low-budget movies of the era — it's nice to be able to see the climax of a 70's outdoor-horror film!
John David Carson does a great job as the slightly less-than-trustworthy Rives. Dennis Fimple is even better as the luckless Pahoo, moving effortlessly from the wide-eyed naïf (on a Buñuelian quest for hamburgers he's never given the chance to eat) to the terrified, exasperated Sasquatch-bait in the forest, left alone by Rives's miscalculation. Pahoo comes off as a genuinely nice guy: not even his time in Vietnam has changed his misguided trust in his fellow-man. But by the end of the film, we find it's Pahoo who's the most resilient of the pair.
Any shortcomings in the monster suit are more than made up for by the appearance of the movie's other big hairy monster: Jack Elam. I'm not in the habit of giving ratings to the movies I review; but if I did, I'd give any movie an extra star just for casting Jack Elam. There was always something lovable about Elam, no matter how awful a character he portrayed: Joyce Meadows told a story about her experience on The Girl in Lovers' Lane, in which she had to be murdered by Elam's character. The trouble, Meadows explained, was that Elam himself was such a sweetheart on-set; every time he moved in to strangle her, she'd break into uncontrollable giggles over the thought that Jack, of all people, was going to "kill" her3
Parla, Paul and Charles P. Mitchell: Screen Sirens Scream! Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2000. Elam actually underplays a bit as the drunken trapper Joe Canton, but while he's onscreen you're unlikely to be watching anything else. His last lines are the movie's best.
Stephen Thrower, in Nightmare USA, complained about the lack of on-screen deaths in Creature...4
Thrower, Stephen: Nightmare USA Godalming, Surrey: FAB Press, 2007; but to lament this sort of thing is to completely misunderstand the movie. Thrower was comparing Houck's film to... well... Houck's other movies, like Night of Bloody Horror... as well as the most extreme of 70's exploitation horror. Certainly the extreme became the norm after the slasher boom of the 1980's, and today's horror films barely register unless a disturbing number of people get killed before the end credits. But Creature... draws its effectiveness from its relatively realistic tone. One person's death is a significant event in the movie, as it would be in real life. What's more, Creature... avoids the typical situation in exploitation horror, where the heroes are nearly indestructible and the supporting characters are little more than balloons full of stage-blood just waiting to be popped. Pahoo and Rives endure concussions, broken limbs and worse before their encounter with the Creature comes to its harrowing end; and the injuries they sustain are all plausible.
As for the Creature itself, it's a little different from the Sasquatch of legend. Whatever the Bigfoot creatures may be (assuming they even exist), they're generally thought of as shy creatures, shunning contact with humans but not behaving aggressively. By contrast, the Creature acts like an animal jealously defending its territory: when a human being gets too close, the Creature doesn't just run away... it fights. It's enough like an animal to be dangerous, but it's also enough like a human to be terrifying: it's cunning; it seems to be intelligent enough to make complicated plans; and it apparently takes pleasure in stalking and killing its prey, to the point where it kills more forest animals than it can eat. But is always stays a reasonably-convincing animal. Though the ambush on Joe Canton's boat implies the thing swims with an aqualung, and it inflicts a tremendous amount of damage on the boys' camp and van, it's not the unstoppable juggernaut we might expect from other movies of this kind. It watches; it waits; it judges, and attacks only when it thinks it has a good chance of succeeding. The result is a monster far more unnerving and memorable than the masked, magically-teleporting killing machines that took over in the 1980's.
As I've grown older, Creature from Black Lake has dropped a good many places in my list of favorites. I'm still very fond of it, but this may not have as much to do with its own qualities as it has with my memories of it. Nevertheless, it does stand out as one of the best and most balanced films of the Sasquatch subgenre, even including the modern mini-revival of the last few years. One of the things that makes the movie stand out from the others is its serious commitment to its premise: while so many other films have used the legends merely to dress up a typical monster flick, this one really is... a Bigfoot movie.