Monday, 25 February 2013

Creature from Black Lake

Director: Joy N Houck Jr
Writer: Jim McCullough Jr
Producer: Jim McCullough
Cast: John David Carson, Dennis Fimple, Jack Elam
Country: USA
Year of release: 1976
Reviewed from: UK DVD

I first came across this movie when I interviewed cinematographer Dean Cundey back in the mid-1990s and I have been wanting to see it ever since so I was delighted to find it tucked away with 19 other movies in a big, random ten-disc box set of horror movies. (You want random? This thing was on a disc with Queen of Blood!)

The title notwithstanding, this has no connection with a certain well-known 1950s Jack Arnold picture. This is instead part of the 1970s boom in bigfoot movies. It is superficially similar to the later Boggy Creek II but considerably better, not least because it is actually slightly interesting.

Rives (John David Carson: Empire of the Ants) and Pahoo (Dennis Fimple: the 1976 King Kong, Bug Buster, House of 1,000 Corpses) are two anthropology students from the University of Chicago who head down to Louisiana in search of a legendary ‘bipedal primate’. In the small town where the sightings have been reported, they find that most people claim to know nothing about any ‘creature’ or to have heard of ‘Joe Canton’, a trapper whose partner was killed by the beast. (We saw this in a prologue - the creature is clearly hairy and ape-like but also aquatic as it drags the man from a small boat.) In particular, the town’s Sheriff (Bill Thurman, who made a bunch of genre pictures in the 1960s including The Yesterday Machine, The Eye Creatures, The Black Cat, Night Fright, In the Year 2889 and Zontar the Thing from Venus) is downright hostile and tells the Yankees to stop asking questions and head home.

However, the two students meet a young man, Orville Bridges (writer Jim McCullough Jr), who says that the creature slew his parents when he was a kid. He and his grandfather (Dub Taylor: The Wild Bunch, A Man Called Horse) are prepared to discuss the animal, but not his grandmother. While sleeping in the family barn (after a dinner table faux pas) Rives and Pahoo hear - and are able to record - the nearby screams of the creature (which is never given a name).

Camping outside of town, they make out with two local young ladies but are interrupted by the arrival of the creature, who departs just as the sheriff arrives to take his daughter home (whoops!). By a stroke of luck they are locked up for the night in a cell with none other than Joe Canton (the ever-reliable - and top-billed - Jack Elam, whose genre credits include The Night of the Grizzly, Uninvited, the TV series Struck by Lightning, a Twilight Zone episode and the title role in a 1984 TV movie which has gone straight to the top of my list of A Christmas Carol adaptations that I absolutely have to see: Scrooge’s Rock’n’Roll Christmas) who tells them about his encounter and where he thinks they can find the creature. And indeed they do!

A large part of this film’s strength lies in the double act that Carson and Fimple create, helped by some neat dialogue and some smart editing (courtesy of Robert Gordon, who also cut Return of the Living Dead and Toy Story!). They are a likeable and believable pair of characters. It also helps greatly that the titular monster, although undoubtedly real, is neither explained nor properly revealed, with only a few dark long shots and a couple of less-than-a-second close-ups to show us what it looks like. (It looks like your standard bigfoot/sasquatch-type thing, frankly.)

Also in the cast are art director Roger Pancake (who also worked on Charles Band’s debut Mansion of the Doomed) and director Joy N Houck Jr as the university professor who sponsors Rives and Pahoo’s expedition. The Inaccurate Movie Database has some difficulty distinguishing between writer Jim McCullough Jr and producer Jim McCullough, but one or both of them also seems to have been involved with The Aurora Encounter, Video Murders and Mountaintop Motel Massacre. Director Houck’s other credits include The Brain Machine, Night of the Strangler and Night of Bloody Horror.

Bolivian composer Jaime Mendoza Nava (A Boy and His Dog, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, The Legend of Boggy Creek) supplied the music while Sterling Franck (Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural) was responsible for the special effects. Cinematographer Cundey, who later worked with the likes of Carpenter, Zemeckis and Spielberg) does reasonable work here although the widescreen framing is ruined by some of the most cack-handed panning-and-scanning I have ever seen. Charlene Cundey (presumably related) handled make-up, her only known movie credit.

While nothing special, simple competence and a lack of tedium raises Creature from Black Lake (which had the working title Demon of the Lake) above many of the other films in this subgenre. The story trots along nicely and the characters are interesting. Some bits are funny, some bits are scary. It’s not a bad little movie.

MJS rating: B-

review originally posted 27th December 2005

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