Friday, June 14, 2019

Cult-Movie Review: The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972)

I post this review today as a shout-out to a beloved horror film celebrating a restoration and release today, in Texarkana: The Legend of Boggy Creek.

I suspect that I owe my long-standing love of the horror genre to two productions that I encountered as a youngster.

The first is the “Dragon’s Domain” episode of Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977), about a deadly monster luring astronaut victims to their death in a graveyard of lost spaceships. 

The second is this colorful ode to Arkansas’s variation on Big Foot, The Legend of Boggy Creek. (1972) from regional director Charlie B. Pierce. 

I saw this film at a drive-in when I was four or five years old, and memories of it have stayed with me ever since. 

My Mom and Dad took my sister Lara and me to a local drive-in theater in Essex County New Jersey to see a double-feature. The first film was some forgettable kid’s flick (probably a Herbie movie, or some such thing…). But after it ended, Lara and I were supposed to go to sleep in the back seat of the car for the duration of the second movie.

But the second movie happened to be The Legend of Boggy Creek, and I remember persistently peeking at the screen -- over my parents’ seats and shoulders -- watching in horror as the film’s events unfolded

I wondered not only what I would see on that giant screen, but what the movie would dare show me. As a kid, I was tantalized by the notion that I might really see Bigfoot, or discover convincing evidence that he existed.

Even as an adult, I can summon some moments from that drive-in viewing of The Legend of Boggy Creek quite vividly. I remember a little blond-haired boy running through a wide-open field, stopped suddenly in his tracks by the roars of the Sasquatch creature. 

And I recall the trademark scene in which the Fouke Monster attacks a man (sitting on a toilet) in a cabin bathroom. That description may sound laughable, but when I was four or five, there was nothing laughable at all about that attack. My attention was riveted to the screen.

The funny thing about “Dragon’s Domain” and the Legend of Boggy Creek is that the two productions actually share in common a good, scary idea: that there are things as yet unknown to modern, civilized man; things that we haven’t yet quantified, analyzed, processed, or thoroughly understood. 

That monster in Space: 1999 for instance, didn’t register on sensors or scanners, and so no one could prove it really lived…or, at story’s end, that it had really died.

And the Fouke Monster, despite his recurring appearances in and around Boggy Creek, has never been photographed or captured. Despite the best efforts of photographers, police, reporters and the like, he is still a myth, a shadow-figure existing outside the bounds of rational belief.

I suppose some very primal or basic part of my psychic gestalt loves horror films because they implicitly concern this idea that something magical and abnormal can yet exist in our technological, overpopulated, hyper-connected world. By nature, I am more a skeptic than a believer, yet I live in the hope that my skepticism will be proven wrong, not by some amorphous acceptance of blind faith, but through the auspices of science and technology.

In short, I want Nessie and Big Foot and the Mothman to be real. And I want science to find them.

Because if these quasi-mythical cryptids are proven to exist, then there is a chance that there are other things -- other beings -- out there that science hasn’t yet proved either, and the possibility, I suppose, that there is more to this human existence than readily meets the eye. 

Today, “Dragon’s Domain” actually holds up a hell of a lot better than does The Legend of Boggy Creek, but it is fair to note in any review of the film that I have a strong affection and fondness it, even if I can’t say with a straight face that it’s a particularly good film.

What the film gets right, and notes in a beautiful, even poetic way, is that there are areas of natural beauty on this Earth where man has not spoiled everything, and not seen everything. The moments in the film that track with that idea are, quite simply, beautiful and resonant.

But before long, The Legend of Boggy Creek gets lost in weird, unintentionally humorous folk songs about the monster, and travels down other narrative blind alleys too. The evidence of the monster’s existence, similarly, is so patently unpersuasive as to be hysterically funny.

In short, The Legend of Boggy Creek is a movie every fan of horror (and regional filmmaking, to boot), ought to see, but that doesn’t mean it’s a great work of art.  It is, however, an unforgettable one.

“…A right pleasant place to live…until the sun goes down.”

A mellifluous-voiced narrator named Jim (Vern Stierman), describes his home town of Fouke -- which borders on the Texas/Arkansas border and houses a population of less than four hundred. It’s the home to many simple, down-to-Earth folk, and also, alarmingly, a hairy man-beast, the “Fouke Monster.”

Jim recalls a time in his child-hood when he heard the monster’s roar and felt fear, and then launches into an on-screen examination of the creature’s history near Boggy Creek.

Several members of the Crabtree family have, for instance, reported seeing it. One man is certain he shot it.

Jim recounts for the audience the story of a night that the monster approached the house of Mary Beth Searcy (Judy Dalton), and the time a cabin fell under siege from the beast. 

Although hunting expeditions and dogs have searched out the monster, it has never been seen again.  

But Jim is satisfied that somewhere out in the night, the Fouke Monster still roams…

“He always travels the creeks. That’s one of the first things we learned about him.”

The Legend of Boggy Creek opens with some remarkable photography. The camera (ensconced on a slow-moving boat) prowls the Arkansas swamp, its eye falling on turtles, beavers, snakes, and other denizens of the wild.

These “nature” shots vividly capture the unspoiled beauty of the region, and set-up the film’s central conceit, that there’s “still a bit of wilderness” and still “some mysteries” to explore in the far corners of the world. 

Here, in this untamed, unexplored terrain, there be dragons.

The next scene, in order, is just as strong, for certain. Old Jimmy remembers back to his youth, and his one-time run across a giant field, when he first heard the cry of the monster.

I was seven years old when I first heard him scream,” says Jim.  “I was scared then, and I’m scared now.”  

This line is not only chilling, but the images that go alongside it are remarkably evocative of childhood, a time of discovery, freedom, and even sometimes fear.

Pierce’s camera follows little blond-haired Billy on his run through the woods and field, and times, the audience actually tracks right alongside him, from above, as if positioned from a low-flying helicopter. 

These well-crafted shots suggest the boy’s momentum, his isolation, and the size of the wide-open field.

Again, the feeling is that out there, beyond the horizon, possibilities and mysteries lurk. The shots of Jimmy running through the field, untended by parents, unprotected by society, remind me very much of feelings that many of us experienced children in the 1970s, when we first left the confines of home (and the eyes of Mom and Dad) to go play. 

For me, there were railroad tracks and a field near my suburban house in New Jersey, and my parents would often permit me and my friends to play there, under the bright blue sky, for hours at a spell. The path along those tracks became an opportunity for play and discovery, and the occasional jolt, for certain (hobos!). 

The opening moments of The Legend of Boggy Creek ably and artfully suggest both the liberty of childhood -- when your time was your own, and discovering the world was a constant adventure -- and the outer limits of that liberty: the fear of interfacing with something mysterious or truly scary.

I admire the first several sequences of The Legend of Boggy Creek for so ably, and with such stunning imagery, capturing these not easily-described notions  Many more expensive films fail to resonate so effectively, or capture these feelings of childhood so lyrically and memorably.

But before long, The Legend of Boggy Creek starts to fall apart.

Is it a coincidence that so many of the residents who have seen the creature are named Crabtree?  The film introduces us to Smoky, Fred, Travis and James Crabtree, who all have stories to tell us about the Fouke Monster.  The story doesn’t stand up, since so many witnesses come from one family.

Similarly, the monster’s activities -- stealing pigs, turning over flower pats, and causing a fatal heart attack in a family cat -- don’t exactly rise to the standard of “hair raising” encounters with the Fouke Monster.  These sequences don’t provide one-to-one evidence that the beast was responsible for the damage.  Is it the monster’s fault the cat died of fright?

And the folk songs, which elevate Travis Crabtree and the Monster to quasi-mythical status, undercut the film’s questing, even elegiac tone.  It’s difficult to take the search for the monster seriously when the soundtrack singer warbles “Here the sulfur river flows…this is where the creature goes…safe within the world he knows."

By the same token, descriptions of the monster’s “sour, pig-pen” stench tend to undercut the horror of the storytelling.

It seems apparent that The Legend of Boggy Creek owes both its remarkable strengths and its notable weaknesses to its nature as a low-budget, regional film. It is not an extruded-by-committee Hollywood product. Accordingly, there are moments of pure beauty and even poetry here that a Hollywood film might not stop to recognize or plumb.  But then there are also the described moments of bizarre, laughable narration and action that, similarly, would get re-shot if overseen by the movie industry.

To love The Legend of Boggy Creek -- as I do love it -- you must take the good with the bad, and understand how those qualities are all wrapped together in an inseparable, once-in-a-life-time cinematic package. 

The Legend of Boggy Creek is a time capsule of the 1970's, and yet it is more than that too. At its best, it is a reminder to all of us that there are more things on Heaven and Earth than is dreamed of by our science.

And more so, the film reminds of a wondrous quality about children. Childhood represents a time in which people are, without reservation, open to the possibility of magic in their everyday lives. 

Kids can even find that magic right over there, down by Boggy Creek...

1 comment:

  1. It's interesting to note that the poster art for this film was painted by the great Ralph McQuarrie of Star Wars fame while he was working as a gigging freelance illustrator.


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