Saturday, October 27, 2018

Creature From Black Lake

For me, the Halloween season is the time of year for nightly horror/monster movies, and this year, I have gone to town. Cryptozoological thrillers always make for favorites, so I've put on several in the past couple of weeks. Since I saw it at the drive-in theater on its initial run, 1976's Creature From Black Lake has been a perennial favorite. So I'm gonna give it the quick treatment here at what we're gonna call—at least for this Halloween week—the Drive-in Where Horror Dwells,.

I haven't had many lazy Saturday mornings recently, so this a.m., I figured it was about time for one. The coffee had barely hit the mug when it struck me that that Creature From Black Lake ought to accompany breakfast. So, along with a yogurt-stuffed crepe, three strips of bacon, and my third mug of coffee, on goes the DVD. It's an old pan-&-scan, less-than-beautiful print of the film, but in its way, this sort of brings back the old air of drive-in from the mid-1970s. (A much better, letterboxed print is available on Amazon Prime.)

The Story: Two grad students from Chicago—Rives (John David Carson) and Pahoo (Dennis Fimple)—travel down to Oil City, LA, to check out reported sightings of a direful "Bigfoot Creature" for their anthropology research project. Upon their arrival, they attempt to track down an old trapper named Joe Canton (Jack Elam), whose partner was reportedly killed in the swamps by a big hairy beast. However, as the locals don't have much interest in discussing their cryptozoological neighbor, they give the young men the chilliest of receptions. In particular, Sheriff Billy Carter (Bill Thurman) takes a dislike to the fellows and tells them not to go nosing around where they don't belong, i.e., anywhere in town.

However, a young gentleman named Orville Bridges (Jim McCullough, the movie's screenwriter), having overheard their exchange with the sheriff, tells them that, when he was a wee tot, the creature killed his parents, and he invites them out to the family place on the edge of the lake so they can have an in-depth conversation. Orville's Grandpa Bridges (Dub Taylor), at first suspicious of their intentions, eventually warms up to them and invites them to family dinner. He does give them a very stern warning to avoid bringing up the creature, since this would upset Grandma Bridges (Evelyn Hindricks). But upon hearing the braying of the family mule, an overly excitable Pahoo hollers out, believing it to be the creature on the rampage.

Boom. Next thing you know, Rives and Pahoo are relegated to the barn. And after dark, guess-what comes roaming around. Rives is able to record its cry on his tape recorder. After an uncomfortable night, they return to town, where they meet a couple of young women, Michelle (Michelle Willingham) and Becky (Becky Smiser)—the latter of whom turns out to be Sheriff Carter's daughter. Smitten and not to be dissuaded, the gentlemen invite the ladies to their campsite for the evening. Not only do Becky and Michelle oblige them, so does the creature, at least briefly, as does Becky's irate, badge-wearing dad, who pulls our heroes into the jailhouse. There they meet friend Joe Canton, who has also been pulled in, drunker than hell after another Bigfoot encounter of his own.

Once let go, Rives and Pahoo, disregarding the sheriff's admonition to leave town, return to the woods for a last attempt to find our direful creature. This time, find it they do, and the ensuing meeting proves anything but pleasant for all parties involved....
Our protags, Pahoo (Dennis Fimple) and Rives (John David Carson)
Orville Bridges (Jim McCullough) invites Pahoo and Rives out to the family place
to discuss Bigfeet over dinner.
Crusty but lovable Grandpa Bridges (Dub Taylor)
Creature From Black Lake came out at the height of the 1970's crypto-horror era, amid such luminaries as The Legend of Boggy Creek (last night's Halloween treat); Bigfoot; The Legend of Bigfoot; Sasquatch, the Legend of Bigfoot; Mysterious Monsters; and numerous others. Although Creature From Black Lake is not presented as a documentary in the way of The Legend of Boggy Creek, the two movies could almost be considered companion pieces, with their settings being only 50 miles apart, and their styles, tones, and pacing remarkably similar. Both movies are set and filmed in actual locations — Boggy Creek in Fouke, AK, and Black Lake in Oil City, LA, and both use actual residents of their respective towns as characters. Like most such movies of its day, Black Lake is a slow burn, focusing on character development and playing up the creepiness of the setting—two elements too often missing from their contemporary counterparts. While some might consider the slow pacing a drawback, I find it relaxed without being dull, the characters well-drawn and engaging, unlike the cardboard, stereotypical teenage clowns that have populated all too many horror flicks, both then and now.

Indeed, actors Jack Elam and Dub Taylor, known for their exaggerated features and mannerisms, turn in appealing performances, both exhibiting humor and pathos in equal measure. As Pahoo, recognizable character actor Dennis Fimple—who appeared in virtually every TV show from the 1970s and 80s, as well as movies such as King Kong (1976), Maverick, and House of 1,000 Corpses—turns out to be quirky and likeable, while pretty boy Rives, played by John David Carson (also recognizable from countless 1970s and 80s flicks), starts out too cocky and smart-mouthed for his own good. As the story progresses, though, Rives learns he is not the self-assured, capable soul he believed himself to be. At the end, consumed by grief for his missteps, Rives breaks down with remorse, and Carson delivers a poignant performance. The focus on characters one can actually care about makes the difference between life and death for this film's pacing. Happily, it does live.

No movie about a monster is complete without the monster, but sometimes the reveal can be a movie's downfall. Films such as Boggy Creek kept views of the creature sparse, with little detail shown, which, given the threadbare budget, proved a wise move. Black Lake comes perilously close to giving us too much, as the few close-ups of the critter are, unsurprisingly, not convincing. However, for most of the movie, we see our Bigfoot in silhouette, in the distance, or in the quickest of cuts. A haunting shot of the thing partially backlit on a hillside after it has had a little tangle with Rives and Pahoo's van is the standout image from my first drive-in viewing of the film in the 70s. It's a matte shot, given away by a slight jiggle just before the camera cuts away, but this hardly spoils the impressive effect. A special-effects extravaganza this movie is not, but expecting one would be unrealistic. Where the monster is concerned, we do get mostly solid cinematography and effective use of suspense.

Some "old" movies that made an impression in my youth simply don't hold up to later viewings. Creature From Black Lake, however, is not one of those. It may be somewhat cruder than my first impressions of it all those years ago, and it most assuredly plays as a product of its time. Yet its solidity as a character-driven, atmospheric piece holds its own against so many later and contemporary horror stories, and I rate it among the ranks of damn-near perfect drive-in movies from those heralded days of yore.

Especially at Halloween time, this one gets 4.5 out of 5 Damned Rodan's Dirty Firetinis.
Crusty but lovable Sheriff Billy Carter (Bill Thurman) gives crusty but lovable trapper
Joe Canton (Jack Elam) a sobriety test. Epic fail.
There's trouble afoot for Rives and Pahoo!
What the HELL is that thing!?
Hey, kid! Don't put your lips on that thing!

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