Creature from Black Lake
The Tillamook Indians call him “Yi’ dyi’tay” or “Wild Man.” The Spokane Indians referred to him as Sc’wen’ey’ti – roughly translated: “Tall Burnt Hair.” To the Colville these strange beasts were known as Skanicum (“The Stick People”) and to the Wenatchee they were Choanito (“The Night People”). The Nisqually people dubbed him “Steta’l” — the Spirit Spear — and to the Chinook he was simply Skookum – The Evil God of the Woods. The Yakama Indians, apparently seeing a quintet of such beasts, referred to them as Qui yihahs — The Five Brothers. From one tribe to the next, he had many names: Big God, Trickster, Brushman, Devil of the Forest, The Frightener, and Hairy Savage. His names ranged from the poetic (Misinghalikun to the Lenne Lenapi Indians — “Living Solid Face”) to the terrifying (the Zuni call him Atahsaia, The Cannibal Demon) to the just plain weird (The Nelchina Plateau Indians saddled him with the monicker Gilyuk, or “Big Man with a Little Hat”). There are names reverent (The Hoopa thought of him as Oh Mah, The Boss of the Woods), quaint (to the Pacific coastal Salish Indians he is See’atco: “the one who runs and hides”), and kind of chummy (the Lakota tribes called him Chiya tanka, or “Big Elder Brother”).
You probably know him by the name derived from the name given to him by one of the many Salish tribes along the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountains areas: Saskets, or “The Giant,” which in the early 1800s became Sasquatch.
Whether you call him Sasquatch, Chiye Tanka, or just plain ol’ Bigfoot, few characters have achieved the mythological proportions of our big elder brother, the boss of the woods. No American myth, including Reaganomics, is as well-known as that of Bigfoot. He draws his appeal partly from the mystery surrounding him, partly from the fact that he’s just normal enough to maybe be real, and partly from the fact that he’s just plain cool. Bigfoot is weird and spooky but not so out-there that you can’t believe something like it might actually still be hidden in the dense woods of the Pacific Northwest and Canada, just waiting for a chance to come down out of the woods and shake a trailer home.
During the 1970s, a sort of Bigfoot mania swept America, resulting in scores of shoddily produced documentaries and feature films. Often times, these feature films had even less plot than the documentaries, but regardless of the format, two things were a given. First, they were going to play that Bigfoot howl over and over. You know the one. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of Sasquatch has heard the howl at least once on some documentary special. The second given was that at some point Bigfoot would come down out of the woods, off the mountain, or out of the swamp to shake a trailer home or bang on the walls of a wooden shack while the inhabitants scrambled around in terror looking for shotguns and hiding places. Bigfoot must have had a good laugh every time he pulled this stunt, and he pulled it a lot.
As slapdash as many of them were, there was something appealing about these sundry low-budget forays into cryptozoology. Something about the grainy 16mm film on which many of them were shot. Something about the poor lighting, muffled sound recording, and artless editing. As a kid, these gritty, low-budget looks at Bigfoot fascinated me on a technical level as much as they did on a content level. The archaic production values suited the material. It made it seem more real.
So entranced were my friends and I with Bigfoot that we managed to convince ourselves that he lived in the woods behind our houses. Hey, it was rural Kentucky and there weren’t but a few hundred people in the whole town. You have to do something to keep busy as a wee tot, and riding your cheap K-Mart dirtbike down shady forest trails in search of a skunk ape is about the best you can do when you get tired of shooting your Shogun Warrior’s knuckle missiles at each other. On more than one occasion, my friends Dan, Rob, Roman, and I thought we even saw the elusive man-monster sprinting across a moonlit field and into the thickets. I’m not sure exactly what it was I saw that night, but if I had to guess, I’d say it was most definitely either Bigfoot or Tommy Bulgren, the teenager who lived at the end of a nearby cul de sac. It was the 1970s, and telling teenagers from Bigfoot was difficult, especially by moonlight.
We even went so far as to mount Bigfoot expeditions out into what we called “the big woods.” I have no idea if the big woods were as huge as they seemed then. I’m sure they’ve long since been plowed over to make room for human expansion, but back in the day, they seemed vast and incomprehensible. A tangle of thick, undamaged woods that lead to a steep, grassy hill, a raging creek, and then up sheer cliffs to another endless expanse of green tangle. We spent hours back there exploring and only catalogued the tiniest portion. It was one hell of a place to have as a back yard, and there was no doubting that if Bigfoot was anywhere, he was back there. Dressed in surplus camos from Dizzy Dave’s Army Surplus in LaGrange, we’d set out to scout hill and dale in search of this missing link. When, on one expedition, we discovered a dead and badly decomposed cow lying near the banks of the creek, we knew two things: 1) Bigfoot was close…real close, and 2) it was about time for us to haul ass on out of there.
As we grew older, the search for Bigfoot became less of a priority. A move to the other side of town brought me to an even larger patch of woods to call my own, and back there we busily tried to woo the more adventurous girls who would come along for the trek, or we’d simply look for signs of devil worshippers and dare each other to go into the “Jason murder barn” (a dilapidated old wooden barn out in the middle of the woods, abandoned for decades, overgrown with weeds, and looking very much like the kind of place Jason from the Friday the 13th movies might be watching us from). While my quest to capture Bigfoot using all the tools afforded a nine-year-old (a bike, some camo pants, a pocket knife, and one of those L-shaped army flashlights) may not have survived my passage into middle school, I certainly never lost my fascination with the beast.
Like the lush green woods that were my home away from home for most of my childhood, those old Bigfoot movies and documentaries grew more magnificent as they were dimmed by the fading of memory, taking on near mythical proportions in the recesses of my brain. When, later in life, I had a chance to visit the woods of my boyhood, I found huge swaths had been carved away, just as I feared might one day happen. The abandoned cabin with the tombstones from the 1800s out back was gone, and in its place was a brand new home. Across the creek there was no longer an imposing and enchanted forest; there was instead a neighborhood. About the only thing that had survived, curiously enough, was Jason’s murder barn. The woods around that for a mile in each direction were mysteriously untouched, and the old structure itself, every day on the verge of collapse, still stood just as ominous, foreboding, and filled with wasp nests as before.
The reality of today could never again match up to my memory of the past. In much the same way, any time I would stumble across one of those grand old Bigfoot movies from the day, I’d discover that it simply wasn’t as cool now as it had been back then. Those of you who don’t know me very well will sigh and pronounce that a symptom of growing older and wiser. The childish, simplistic things that entertained us as sprouts simply can’t achieve the same sense of wonder in a tired, jaded adult brain. That may be true for some people, but I still watch many of the same movies I enjoyed back then and can say without hesitation that my inability to enjoy something could come from a lot of places, but maturity and sophistication are not among them.
Part of it has to do with my surroundings, no doubt. It’s hard to be scared of a rural, forest-dwelling creature when you live in one of the biggest urban areas in the world. If he were to terrorize me today, Bigfoot would have to take the subway, stalk through the Hasidic ghetto, and ring the buzzer just so he could come up and slap my door and howl, an act that would inevitably be drowned out by all the fire engines that tear down the street at all hours of the day. These movies, even the bad ones, were a hell of a lot scarier when you turned them off and heard nothing but the sound of the woods, when you look out your window into the black of night and saw the same sort of landscape that you’d just seen Bigfoot come tearing out of hellbent on shaking some trailer homes. In that setting, even an average Bigfoot movie can attain unparalleled heights of terror. All I had to do was step out the back door and walk beyond the reaches of the back porch light, and I was in the movie.
What I can do, however, is go backpacking. Lying out there in a little tent or just under the stars, the city falls away and suddenly I can remember what it was that made these films such a nightmarish thrill for us all when we were young. It’s not about growing old. Enjoyment of these films comes from empathizing with that sense of vulnerability. Sure, Bigfoot movies aren’t scary when I’m sitting in my dead-bolted apartment in Brooklyn. But plop me out in the middle of the woods far from the concrete and with nothing to illuminate the darkness but a weakly flickering campfire, and a movie like Creature from Black Lake suddenly moves from the dimness of memory and reclaims its spot at the forefront of my mind. Suddenly, Bigfoot has found his howl again.
I suspect, then, that how much you enjoy a movie like Creature from Black Lake depends a lot on how you grew up and how you approach the movie today. With no frame of reference in common with the film, you can’t hope for much. The simple fear generated from saying, “Did you hear that?” while you’re sitting out in the middle of the woods isn’t something that can be explained to someone who hasn’t been there. An understanding of that sensation, of that primal sense of sudden fear that makes you peer pensively into impenetrable darkness, is integral to appreciating this type of film.
Thanks to a long life on the drive-in circuit, some late-night broadcasts, and a bunch of kids with overactive imagination, Creature from Black Lake has attained a level of legend slightly less than the creature itself, but it still gives it enough cult status to put in the top two or three Bigfoot films, alongside Sasquatch and Legend of Boggy Creek. Like those films, Creature from Black Lake draws its power from its authenticity. It looks like it should. There is no polish, no glitz, and only a couple familiar faces — and those are only familiar to hardcore fans of cult films and Hee Haw. Most of “the locals” are just that, keeping the film realistic. Nothing kills the believability of a small-town film faster than seeing Hollywood attempt to recreate that small-town aesthetic. They never get it right, and it makes a film look goofy just as quickly as seeing one of those 1980s street gangs that look like they just walked off the set of a music video.
There are certain conventions in the Bigfoot mini-genre, and Creature from Black Lake is quick to fulfill them all, which isn’t a bad thing mind you. If you expect something from a movie, sometimes it’s nice of a film to give it to you. You’re going to get the howl. You’re going to get some domicile shaking (in this case, a van). You’re going to get a lot of “peering through the brush” point of view shots. There will be at least one “Do you really think there’s a creature?” campfire chat. And you’re going to get a lot of “crazy old coot” raving. In this case, it comes courtesy of two of the greatest crazy old coots in cinema history: Dub Taylor and Jack Elam. You may not know their names, but the instant you see them, you know who they are. Elam has been in more television shows and movies than a mere mortal can count. He’s the old guy with the crazy left eye and wild hair. Dub Taylor, who starred as a crazy old coot in Moonshine County Express, is probably best known for his role on the inexplicably long-lived variety show Hee-Haw. He went on to play that same role in dozens of films and television shows. Both are in fine form here.
Our movie opens with a couple of fishermen cruising through the bayou in their boat, intercut with a speech being delivered by some egghead anthropology professor up in Chicago. Obviously, he’s talking about the skunk ape, which will undoubtedly attack the fishermen. What university can you go to where they teach you about Bigfoot? In grad school no less! The grad students I knew who went into anthropology spent all their time researching Filipino jungle tribes and Anasazi ruins. Even when I took a class called “Lost Tribes and Sunken Continents” hoping for some quality academic Bigfoot discourse, all we got to talk about was Veracocha, the White-Bearded God of the Andes. Sure he was interesting and all, as was all the talk about ancient astronauts, but I was hoping for at least a little skunk ape action.
Oh well, I can’t hold it against these guys just because they get to study Bigfoot for a living. I guess I could have done that if I wanted to, become one of those pipe-smoking old cranks sitting out in the woods of Oregon with a collection of plaster footprint casts. Pahoo (Dennis Fimple) and Rivers (John David Carson) play two of the oldest grad students in the world, on their way down from Chi-town to investigate stories about a strange Bigfoot-like creature stalking the swamp surrounding a small town. Everyone they meet is tight-lipped and creepy or regards the creature as a big joke. They encounter a nutty old trapper named Joe Canton (Elam) and cranky old Grandpa Bridges (Taylor), both of whom claim to have seen the creature up close. Elam, however, is crazy as a loon, and Grandpa has no interest in talking about the beast, which he claims was responsible for a car wreck that killed his daughter and her husband. In one of the film’s most effective scenes, we get a flashback look at the encounter. The shaky, documentary style photography adds to a real sense of immediate panic and terror.
After the film’s first “howling” encounter, itself decently scary and downright frightening if you’ve ever sat motionless and terrified in the middle of the woods at night trying to figure out what “that noise” was, the Yankee boys are more determined than ever to get some real photographic proof of the creature’s existence. The local sheriff isn’t so happy about having these city boys snooping around, creeping out the locals, and asking all sorts of weird questions.
A couple more late night brushes with the shadowy creature (which could just as easily be Jack Elam wandering to the outhouse) build toward the inevitable final encounter, which is surprisingly harrowing and effective in conveying a sense of overwhelming panic and terror. What the movie does well is balance the atmospheric sense of dread with bursts of the scares. Although you could call it slow in places, if you have the right set of experiences, much of the movie achieves the same feeling of foreboding that you get, as I said, sitting out in the woods trying to figure out what that sound was you just heard, or if that shadow at the edge of the fire light is a bush, a dog, or a sasquatch (or one of those crazy killers that prowl the woods at night).
The raw nature of the film’s production values only fuels the fear, but don’t let low production be mistaken for a lack of talent. The “shack shaking scene” in which Joe Canton’s ramshackle shack is besieged by the creature sports some expert use of lightning and music to build a dramatic sense of tension. The film is full of these flashes of competence, and that helps keep it heads above most of the other films about the same topic. The acting is also fairly high caliber for such a low-budget film. At the very worst, the performances are solid. Throw the music and its use onto the pile of things in this film’s favor. Like the plot, it’s simple in a way that is focused and effective, not unlike the minimalist scores that would be composed by John Carpenter for his own films. There’s also a couple good comedy scenes, the best being the one where Pahoo and Rives think the creature is stalking their roadside campsite. It turns out to be a stoned hippie looking to bum a ride.
As simple as the plot may be, there’s still a little more going on than in your average Bigfoot film. When Rives and Pahoo hear the scream for the first time, Pahoo remarks, “I’ve heard screaming. I was in Vietnam and I heard screaming, and I’ve never heard anything like that.” Although I’m sure a Vietnam war subtext is not intentional, it’s hard not to imagine American GIs huddled around in the dark jungle, breathless and silent, trying to figure out what “that sound” was. And then it erupts. Panic, fear, scrambling for guns and cover. Later scenes, like the one of Rives helping a wounded Pahoo through the swamp foliage, also look like something right out of a Vietnam war movie. As different as these situations may be: kids around a campfire, soldiers in the jungle, anthropologists chasing Bigfoot, one common thread binds them all together: primal fear. It’s the same fear, the same stomach-churning, limb-freezing fear followed by the same sudden explosion of action and panic. Real or imagined, it’s the feeling of trying to cope with the unknown, with helplessness.
It’s the feeling of a people disconnected from nature suddenly being thrust back into it and left at its mercy in a place where the latest technology means nothing. Soldiers marched into battle confident that superior American technology would aid them in a swift victory, only to find out that it wasn’t anything when pitted against nature. Not nearly as deadly, but sitting out in the woods and suddenly hearing something unusual or threatening puts you in the same situation. Despite moments where the film may drag, Creature from Black Lake effectively taps into that primal fear, especially during the climactic encounter. For those of us who have been in the same situation, even if the threat we faced was entirely in our own imaginations, the suspense is almost unbearable.
Creature from Black Lake succeeds because it never loses sight of its intentions. There are no sub-plots, no characters extraneous to the action. It’s lean but not empty, simple but not simple-minded. A few slow scenes and some awkward “day for night” shots that result in that “it’s dark, now it’s light” mistake do little to hinder the film. Some have complained about the film’s unwillingness to show the creature. We see shadows and shadowy figures, claws and feet. It’s the grandest tradition of the horror film, and it also serves the purpose of masking the low budget. When the film finally gives us a good look at the creature, it’s not nearly as terrifying as the shadowy figure or as Jack Elam. The filmmakers have enough sense, even when they tip their hand, to focus on the creature in good lighting for only a second before returning it to the shadows where it belongs and best accomplishes the task of scaring the viewer.
Appreciating this movie, as I said before, relies in part on who you are and what your own selection of experiences contains. Without the right background, the movie is at worst a decently put-together low-budget monster movie that relies on the “conceal rather than reveal” model of classic monster films. If you do have the right experiences, however, Creature from Black Lake takes on an entirely new dimension because you can empathize with every feeling. On a murky night, even in the city, you can almost hear Bigfoot howling one more time.