Creature from Black Lake(1976)
Studio: Synapse Films
Release date: December 13th, 2022
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
When we glorify the halcyon days of exploitation filmmaking, we tend to wax poetic about those truly deranged, otherworldly transmissions that earned their notoriety through sheer force of schlocky will. Their reputations buoyed by promises of sleaze and violence, these films often toured the drive-in and exploitation circuits as cinematic freakshows daring their audiences to take a peek just to see if they could stomach it. There was so much more to this scene, though: sure, the schlock brought people into the doors, but it’s the idiosyncratic, regional charms of these productions that have made so many of them endure. They’re often not just a window into the sensibilities of a time but also into the specific places that spawned them, making them truly fascinating cultural relics even if they struggle to fulfill their schlocky promise. Creature from Black Lake is a prime example of such a production: no doubt inspired by the resurgent popularity of Bigfoot in the 1970s and piggybacking on a slew of other cinematic trends, this Louisiana production teases cryptid mayhem but is more interesting as a Bayou travelogue. This is a nice way of warning you that there’s not a whole lot of Bigfoot to be found here; there is, however, plenty of good old boys and southern-fried hokum to compensate.
Nearly bereft of plot, it borrows the “big city boys stumble into backwoods trouble” trope popularized by Deliverance—only this time, it’s a couple of University of Chicago students heading down south to investigate rumors of Bigfoot creature living around the Arkansas-Louisiana border. Enraptured by a lecture on cryptids, Pahoo and Rives (Dennis Fimple & John David Carson) load up their van, determined to prove the existence of a beast that’s supposedly terrorized a small town for generations. The pair hits a roadblock, though, when most of the cagey locals refuse to talk and the hardass sheriff (Bill Thurman) threatens to run them out of town. Maybe it’s not exactly Macon County Line, but the message is clear: their kind isn’t wanted here. And to make matters worse, their best hope emerges in the form of town pariah Joe Canton (Jack Elam), an old codger whose boozy rants about the beast have made him a frequent visitor to the drunk tank. The titular Bigfoot does make an occasional appearance, but only to interrupt the really important stuff for Pahoo and Rives: fondly reminiscing about growing up on a chicken farm, flirting with the local gals, and scarfing down hamburgers and fries.
I realize that’s probably not going to be enough for most audiences, but Creature from Black Lake is exactly the kind of regional fare I dig. There’s an authenticity to it that makes it crucial anthropology: while I’m sure some of the local flavor is somewhat embellished, it’s not heightened to the point of absurdity. Filmed on location in and around Shreveport, it captures the area’s rustic charms with an assortment of small town haunts, from greasy spoon diners to hayseed barbershops. Everyone sports southern drawls like fashion accessories, and characters are lovingly referred to as “Grandpaw.” Given producer/director Joy N. Houck’s Louisiana roots, it’s not surprising that the film holds some reverence for this setting: to borrow from the local parlance, it’s a hoot that treads softly around the hicksploitation line without completely crossing it to make jokes at the expense of the locals.
It results in a genuinely fascinating texture that becomes the film’s signature because it’s pretty tepid as a Bigfoot movie. Boasting neither the evocative atmospherics of Legend of Boggy Creek nor the schlocky cheap thrills of Night of the Demon, it aims for a more naturalistic approach, right down to its uninspired creature effects. Since the monster isn’t shown very often anyway, I have to assume this was just a practical choice not to waste an already meager budget. This doesn’t mean the film isn’t without its moments, though. A local boy’s extended flashback to his childhood encounter with the Bigfoot finds the beast terrifying a family in broad daylight, leading to a gnarly car crash that must have accounted for a large chunk of the budget. The climax likewise features vehicular mayhem when the creature flips over our heroes’ van, leaving them battered and bruised. Otherwise, its presence is mostly suggested through eerie howls screeching from the woods as the locals cower in terror.
I’m sure more than a few audiences have felt cheated by this film over the years, but I’ve come to accept that this is one of the joys of the exploitation experience. Sometimes, a film lives up to its face-melting potential; sometimes, you have to appreciate the idiosyncrasies and textures that aren’t heralded by a misleading poster art. And this film’s roster of terrific character actors provides plenty of that, starting with the tender friendship between Pahoo and Rives, just a couple of college “kids” (Fimple was 35 years old and it shows) trying to make names for themselves and maybe snag a gal or two along the way. Carson and Fimple—both of whom enjoyed long, productive careers on the drive-in circuit and beyond—are charismatic fish-out-of-water guys who make some of the script’s more absurd asides work. My favorite is the monologue where Pahoo explains that his obsession with burgers and fries is a byproduct of eating nothing but chicken during his childhood; a close second is Pahoo’s fretting about if their dates are going to show up to their ramshackle campsite. The frequent reminders of Pahoo’s tour of duty in Vietnam—which manifest in fits of wild-eyed panic—further humanizes the duo and adds another unexpected, timely dimension to the proceedings. Who knew that Creature from Black Lake would be among the first films to reckon with the effects of PTSD caused by Vietnam?
Not that it dwells on that, mind you, not when it has so many scenery-chewing performances at its disposal. For example, there’s the venerable Jack Elam strolling in as wild-eyed Joe Canton, ranting and raving to anyone who will listen about how his good buddy was pulled into the Black Lake by Bigfoot during the film’s opening sequence, which offers a glimpse of the creature’s entire arm. Dub Taylor is the affectionately named “Grandpaw” who invites our boys over to dinner on the condition that they never, ever bring up the bigfoot in front of his missus (you can guess how that goes). Bill Thurman—yet another exploitation staple—also has a lot of fun as the sheriff, especially whenever he’s trying to run the boys out of town for stirring up Bigfoot trouble. Almost all of the film’s charms emerge from this motley crew of grizzled performers making the most out of their time on screen, juicing the film with even more regional color.
Again, I get it: a movie titled Creature from Black Lake should probably be a passable monster movie that doesn’t leave a viewer scrounging for unexpected pleasures. I’m sure there are some people who would debate its merits as a horror movie at all considering it feels much more like a southern-fried hangout movie. I don’t know that I have a compelling argument to the contrary because the title creature does so often feel like an afterthought. Those few sequences are quite effective, however, and genre fans should certainly be intrigued by some early work from Dean Cundey, whose camerawork is instrumental in establishing the unsettling backwood haunts and adding some polish to an otherwise rickety production. To be sure, Creature from Black Lake is an acquired taste that reminds us that exploitation filmmaking sometimes thrives on simple, unassuming pleasures, like distinct locations, distinguished character actors, and end credits songs about the joys of trucking—even if the movie itself is not at all about the joys of trucking. But you know what was about the joys of trucking? Plenty of other 70s movies, and no good huckster is going to leave any stone unturned and unexploited.
Creature from Black Lake has not had the best life on home video. While it was a television and VHS staple, it’s been trapped in analogue amber for decades, persisting on cropped, muddy DVD transfers that did little to improve its presentation from previous formats. Synapse Films has righted this in a big way, though, with its recently-released Blu-ray. Given their stellar reputation, it comes as no surprise: sure, Synapse notoriously takes its time with its releases, but it’s hard to argue with their approach when the final product is so stellar. Calling this 4K restoration an “understatement” doesn’t come close to capturing how remarkable the improvement is: a robust color palette returns in place of the washed-out sepia hues that plagued previous releases, and the uptick in detail is phenomenal. It’s fair to say that nobody without a 35mm print has really seen The Creature from Black Lake as it’s meant to be seen since it played in theaters—until now. The 2.0 DTS-MA track likewise offers more clarity and fidelity than the DVD ever could, making this a reference-quality release for off-the-beaten path exploitation fare.
There’s also a handful of extras, but even a handful is more than Creature from Black Lake has ever enjoyed. Michael Gingold and Chris Poggiali provide an audio commentary, while “Swamp Stories” gives Cundey 20 minutes to reminisce about his path from USC’s film school to these Louisiana swamps. Both a radio spot and a theatrical trailer are included, providing a glimpse of the film’s marketing. This edition also includes a limited edition slipcover if purchased directly from Synapse’s website or Diabolik DVD. Either way, Creature from Black Lake scratches a very particular itch, and I love that Synapse didn't forget about those of us who love southern-fried bigfoot schlock like this.
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