Two University of Chicago students interested in discovering the legendary creature bigfoot take a road trip down to Oil City, Louisiana where there have been multiple reports and sightings of a ape-like man wandering in the Bayou and even an attack on a local trapper, witness by the gruffy drunk, Joe Canton. Met with stern resistance from the Oil City Sheriff Billy Carter and some reluctance from scared locals in the Bridges family after an mortal encounter with the beast that killed two of their family members, the students dig in and continue their swampy-laden search for bigfoot as well as finding the time to mingle with Louisiana women. When they discover the mythical beast actually exists, nothing can stop them into catching sight of the creature or maybe even snaring it, not even the Sheriff’s threat of jail time if they don’t high tail it out of town could persuade their mania, but their expedition deep into the swamp and coming in proxmital contact with the aggressive primate outlier may prove to be a fatal mistake rather than a claim to fame.
Having searched high and low for many years to review just any Bigfoot film that’s above average worthy has been a wearisomely long and arduous task. A slew of movies dedicated to the big hairy fella have been nothing but a mockery, whether intention or unintentional, of the Sasquatchsploitation horror subgenre. Instead of being subjugated to the countless, blasphemous modern tales of the mythical monster, I had to travel back in time to 1976 to retrieve what I’ve been searching for in the last decade or so. The late J.N. Houck Jr’s “Creature from Black Lake” fulfills a great need with very little in its idiosyncratic cast and its obscure visibility of the creature that creates upscale mystery. The based out of Louisiana “Night of Bloody Horror” and “The Night of the Strangler” director, whose father, owner of The Joy Theaters, already had an established footing not only in the movie business but also in the horror genre when helming a script penned by Jim McCullough Jr. as his first grindhouse treatment blessed by his father, producer Jim McCullough. McCullough Jr. co-produces the film under the Jim McCullough Productions banner along with William Lewis Ryder Jr. serving as executive producer of the shoot shot on location in Oil City and Shreveport, L.A.
“Creature from Black Lake’s” cast is a distinctive assembly as aforementioned earlier. Not only do they play their roles well by incorporating localisms where needed but they add a blend of intensity with chunky bits of comedy marbled through a storyline that’s half-anecdotal and half-present action. University of Chicago students Rives (John David Carson, “Empire of the Ants”) and Pahoo (Dennis Fimple, “House of a 1000 Corpses”) set course to Oil City, Louisiana where an indistinct creature is suspected to be in area based of science and suspected fish stories told by local kooks and drunks that turned out to be horribly true. Rives and Pahoo, who in McCullough script is constantly chaffed about his unique name but shrugs and deflects like he’s done it all his life, interview Oil City residents who believed to have bare witnessed firsthand the beast’s atrocities that has taken the lives close to them. These Bayou denizens are enriched by veteran actors with robustly created caricature personalities. Surly voiced with bulging, wild eyes, typecasted western actor Jack Elam had branched out from films like “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” and “Once Upon a Time in the West” to play a similar grouchy character dwelling in the swamps as a trapper. Elam’s great a feigning an intoxicated mess as you can literally taste the alcohol sweat from his porous skin sheltered by an unkempt beard and a loose fitting crumpled up onesie that’s staple motif for any drunk Cajun or drunk cowpoke, so Elam was fairly comfortable in the role. Dub Taylor is another big old-timey name in the western genre and rarely saw horror as a place to call home. For Taylor, his role as Grandpaw Bridges gave the actor a chance to play an old hayseed complete with a solid effort in Cajun English. Taylor’s lively at times with an animated excitement but can turn somber and stern as soon as his character’s scorned and calls for a more serious tone. Compared to Elam and Taylor, youngsters Carson and Fimple pilfer very little from the veteran’s epic role characteristics but do fine in their own rite with carrying the hunt’s harrowing third act. Bill Thurman (“‘Gator Bait”), Jim McCullough Jr., Cathryn Hartt (“Open House”), Becky Smiser, Michelle Willingham, and Evelyn Hindricks round out “Creature from Black Lake’s” cast.
How could a 1976 bigfoot feature be more surprising and compelling than any modernized version? Well, one of the biggest pros to “Creature from Black Lake’s” success is Jim McCullough Jr.’s script that’s surprisingly well written by the first go-around screenwriter and while I’m not primarily speaking on behalf of the principal leads’ motivation or the slightly lack thereof, there lies more interest in the quick-witted dialogue and the blunt banter to keep Rives and Pahoo from being dullards and to keep the story from being a slog. Another aspect that is sharp as a tack is Dean Cundey’s cinematography that keeps the creature firmly in the shadows, producing that suspenseful and mysterious “Jaws” effect where we actually don’t see the shark until the third act. Cundey, best known for handling the cinematography on titles you might have heard of such as “Jurassic Park,” “Death Becomes Her,” and “Big Trouble in Little China,” made a name for himself first in grindhouse horror and exploitation of the early 1970s. Cundey keeps the apelike creature shrouded from direct light, lurking mostly in the shadows with only a glimmer quickly streaking across the snarling face and an animalistic outline of its furred body and tall stature. The full effect of bigfoot is never directly in your face or full in view which can be best at times depending on the look of the creature. Cundey had partially designed the face of bigfoot and thus covering up perhaps his own shoddy work with how to film the titular antagonist of Black Lake. Now, Black Lake is an actual lake in Louisiana but is about 100 miles SE of Oil City and Shreveport and likely used a combination of Big Lake and Cross Lake that were near the majority of shooting locations to serve as representation of Black Lake. Where “Creature from Black Lake” struggles is with the Rives and Pahoo dynamic that barely tether’s to how their friendship, though diverse individually, becomes stronger up the end with a near death experience. Pahoo’s a Vietnam vet and with his wartime experience, he’s the more on edged character out of the two suggesting an underlining PTSD theme when the creature’s roar and circling of the camp puts Pahoo into an eye-widening internal panic. Rives is cool as a cucumber and is determined to prove something inexplicable in pushing forth and bagging a big hairy beast. At times, contention flares up between them but is quickly extinguished with a simple sharing of homemade fireside baked beans to sate Pahoo’s ever ravenous stomach. Their hot and cold amity and indeterminable mission into the Bayou shapes very unsatisfactory their resulting unbreakable bond that hints at something more than just friendship, as if there is metaphorical points of betrayal and forgiveness that makes their connection scar tissue stronger but are not clearly delineated.
Finally! A bigfoot feature that works mostly at every angle, is more than just palatable from a story standpoint, and has a formidable bigfoot presence that’s more than just a man in a monkey suit. Synapse Films restores not only “Creature from Black Lake’s” original widescreen 2.35:1 aspect ratio onto a high-definition Blu-ray from the dreadfully cropped VHS and TV versions but also restores the creature feature with a brand new 4K scan from the original 35mm camera negative. The result is phenomenal with a widow’s peak view and the grading is touch of tailored class that freshens the 46-year-old with new vigor. No instantaneous signs of compressions issues on the AVC encoded BD50 with inky black shadows and profiles that are sharp around the edges, never losing sight of image and never losing the quality. The Blu-ray comes with only one audio option – DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track. Not the best representation but perhaps the best that’ll get, some audio elements succumb to the production limitations, such as the stifled dialogue track early on in the film that leaves exchanges between Rives and Pahoo soft and scarcely perceptible. The dialogue issues alleviate as the story progresses, falling in line into an even keeled dual channel output. “Creature from Black Lake” has ample range between the booming closeup shotgun and rifle shots to the light tinkering of utensils and camping gear. We don’t receive much depth, not even with the creature’s roar as it thunders into much of audio space and overtakes everything else. Newly translated English subtitles are available. Bonus features includes an audio commentary with author/filmmaker Michael Gingold and film historian Chris Polliali, a brand-new featurette with cinematographer Dean Cundey Swamp Stories, the original theatrical trailer, and radio spot. The physical release comes in a blacked-out Blu-ray snapper, Synapse Films’ catalogue insert, and has Ralph McQuarrie illustrated cover art that’s an unmistakable masterstroke of his craft. The region free Blu-ray of “Creature from Black Lake” is rated PG and has a runtime of 95 minutes. If you’re on a quest to quench a midnight movie about bigfoot, journey no further as Synapse Films delivers one of the better, more comical and terrifying, Sasquatch movies of our time and in beautiful high definition!