October 31, 2017

THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK & BOGGY CREEK II: AND THE LEGEND CONTINUES...

The 1972 directorial debut from Charles B. Pierce, THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK, feels like a film meant for a small audience. The subject of the film is the Fouke Monster, a Bigfoot-like cryptid that allegedly dwells in the swamps and countrysides of Fouke, Arkansas, a small town with less than 1,000 inhabitants. It’s difficult to imagine that anyone outside The Natural State had ever heard of the Fouke Monster before 1972. It was a small town legend, confined by city limits. Pierce brought it to the national stage.

THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK was a major financial success, raking in an estimated 25 million on a meager $100,000 budget. It created the template for the docu-horror and the television series In Search Of…. It’s impossible to imagine films like THE LAST BROADCAST and THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT existing without it. It might not get name dropped a lot in conversations about influential genre films, but make no mistake, the influence of THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK lives on today, strong as ever.

But influence aside, THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK is not some little seen masterpiece. I wrestle with even calling it a good film. It’s a curio piece, for sure, a film that should be seen by every genre fan simply for what it represents, for the impact it had, and for the sake of historical perspective. However, the film itself is fairly tame and has been rendered all but obsolete by time. For a first effort in the docu-horror sub-genre, it works quite well. As a straight forward horror film, time has robbed it of its charms.

The film begins with some lovely nature photography. Woods, fields, swamps, rivers, etc. We see a young boy running through a field. A narrator chimes in to explain what we’re seeing. This is him as a boy, scared shitless, running to get some help. His mother spotted the creature again, a hulking, hairy beast that lurks around their property. The boy’s story is disregarded by some townsfolk. THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK, we surmise, is a film made by that young boy, now returned to the area as an adult to tell others about the legend that has haunted him since childhood.

This is of course a total ruse. The narrator is a work of fiction. All the on-screen encounters with the beast are fake, nothing more than reenactments. THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK is just a ghost story we are being told, but instead of a bonfire, we’re gathered around a cinema screen. I imagine these were the tales adults told to children in Fouke, Arkansas. “Better get to bed or the Fouke Monster will get ya”. For people whose homes looked out upon the woods and fields at night, THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK must have scared them to death.

But for someone like myself, viewing the film in 2017 from the confines of a concrete jungle, THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK is just a repetitive experience with a few good moments to break up the overall monotony. And it is a repetitive experience. The majority of the film is nothing more than dramatizations. Here we see a man chasing off something in the dark with his rifle. Next we see the monster terrorizing some girls in a small home in the woods. Now we see a young boy coming face to face with the beast while tracking a deer. The film is a long list of monster encounters, some of them good, some of them bad. The final third of the film is its strongest. It settles down for a lengthy tale of an encounter with the beast, one that quickly becomes a mini-home invasion thriller, albeit one in which the trespasser has giant fake claws.

Because this is a docu-horror and not a full blown mockumentary, there is no grand narrative to all of this, no connective tissue holding the film together. It is simply a collection of mini-horror flicks, a series of encounters that builds ever so slightly in intensity as it goes on. THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK made a killing at the drive-ins and it’s easy to see why. The episodic nature of the film works well in that environment. People coming in late wouldn’t miss anything. You could dive in and out of the film while diving in and out in the backseat. Trips to the concession stand wouldn’t ruin the experience. Sitting down on the couch and watching the film in one uninterrupted go seems like the wrong way to watch it. Undivided attention is a negative here.

Turns out, telling the tale of Boggy Creek as an honest to goodness narrative film would be a negative too. Tom Moore’s RETURN TO BOGGY CREEK, a 1977 follow up, ditches the docu-horror formula for a family friendly nature adventure narrative, killing any chills (and box office appeal) along the way. The proper sequel to the film would come when Pierce returned in 1985 with BOGGY CREEK II: AND THE LEGEND CONTINUES.

Like RETURN TO BOGGY CREEK, Pierce’s sequel tries to play it straight, with a traditional narrative in lieu of the docu-horror style of the original film. Taking a page out of his own THE EVICTORS formula, Pierce does include a few reenactments of encounters with the beast, the best (and most hilarious) involving a man in an outhouse. As the film plods along, it pays homage to several horror films, most notably CUJO, JAWS and ALIEN. The beast looks better here than it did in the original. In the 1972 film, it was just a large man covered in shag carpeting wearing monster gloves. Here, the beast actually looks like a proper Sasquatch.

Unfortunately, that’s the only positive about the film. BOGGY CREEK II: AND THE LEGEND CONTINUES is simply awful, a tiring, dull and uninteresting mess of a movie whose best scenes are those it shamelessly rips from other films. There’s a reason it found its way onto Mystery Science Theater 3000. It’s laughable and inept, certainly a career low for Pierce.

It’s yet another case of “you can’t beat the original”. While THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK is pretty damn far from perfect, I still think it’s a film worth watching. Personally, I don’t believe in monsters, gods or ghosts. I don’t believe in the Sasquatch or the lake monsters or spectral entities. But I certainly love the docu-horror. I grew up with re-runs of In Search Of…. I could spend hours watching wholly ridiculous, obviously fake shit like MonsterQuest or Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World. I find the idea of monsters fascinating. Part of me wishes they were real, that there were beasties and creatures of legend lurking in the forests, waiting to terrify hikers and trespassers.

Unfortunately, the only monsters that exist are human. But when I sit and watch a film like THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK, I get to be a kid again, curious of what may lurk outside the comfy confines of city living. It might not be the best example, but it deserves respect for being a true trendsetter. Without it, the landscape of horror would look quite different.

October 30, 2017

THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN

It’s been less than nine months since the end of World War II. The year is 1946 and the setting is Texarkana, a two county region encompassing the twin cities of Texarkana, Texas and Texarkana, Arkansas. The town is experiencing an economic upturn. Home sales are up and demand for automobiles is exceeding supply. Local business is roaring back to life. Patriotism is high. Morale is high. For the citizens of Texarkana, life is good.

Then, on the otherwise quiet evening of March 3rd, a young couple parked on a lover’s lane is attacked in the night by a large man with a sack over his head. Though badly beaten, the couple survive. No evidence of sexual assault is found, but the back and breasts of the young woman were bitten severely, almost like they had been chewed on. This seemingly isolated incident would be the start of a series of mysterious murders all carried out by a single man, a Phantom Killer whose reign of terror would hang like a shadow over Texarkana for the three whole months.

THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN is unarguably the most well known film by Charles B. Pierce. It is certainly the most influential. The film is a proto-slasher, released in 1976, two years after BLACK CHRISTMAS and two years before HALLOWEEN. I’ve argued before that while HALLOWEEN was the popular progenitor of the slasher film formula, it was the FRIDAY THE 13TH franchise that truly began the slasher craze. And make no mistake, the FRIDAY THE 13TH franchise owes quite a bit to this film, especially the character of Jason Voorhees.

The first time we see the Phantom Killer, all we see are legs and boots walking down a wet city street at night. The opening scene of FRIDAY THE 13TH, PART II introduces Jason the same way. The look of Jason Voorhees is clearly taken from Pierce’s film, with both killers donning cloth sacks over their heads. It cannot possibly be a coincidence that these nearly identical looking killers both wield a pick ax near the end of their respective films, could it? Of course, the folks that made FRIDAY THE 13TH, PART II have never owned up to their shameless theft from this film, nor have they ever admitted to stealing some of their kills from Mario Bava’s A BAY OF BLOOD. But no matter. The influence is obvious and well… it isn’t like the slasher film wasn’t a self cannibalizing machine anyway.

But for as influential as the film was, it still remains to this day an overlooked cult classic. I can kind of understand why. If you simply walked into this film without knowing a little bit about the docu-horror style of Charles B. Pierce, the film might come off as laughably weird. For starters, the film is narrated, a standard Pierce trick that probably caught a few cinema goers off guard back in the day. Because of its episodic narrative, the narration is useful in keeping us up to date with the when and the where of all this stuff. Our omnipresent narrator also introduces new characters with a short biography and even explains away events that may test audience credulity, like why a police officer doesn’t bother to even take a shot at the Phantom Killer’s car as it drives away.

The addition of a comic copper (the comic relief patrolman, Benson, is played by Pierce) and a few chase scenes that wouldn’t feel out of place in a low budget 70s cops and robbers flick might feel at odds with the more serious nightmare material, but they work rather well in the context of the docu-horror. And as for the slasher elements, well… There’s a reason this film has generated a cult following over the years. When night falls and the film slips into horror movie mode, it is seriously chilling stuff. The violence is neither graphic nor exploitative. It is presented matter of factly, coldly and brutally. Pierce never lingers on gaping wounds or flowing blood, choosing instead to focus on terrified faces, all wide eyes and trembling lips. The killer is menacing, the sparse soundtrack fits the mood, and the moon drenched environments are dripping with atmosphere. The horror elements here are among the strongest stuff the 1970s genre machine ever produced.

THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN takes many, many liberties with the truth (but of course it does; it’s a docu-horror, after all) in favor of an exaggerated, almost mythic take on history. As a result, the two lead cops on the case, a world famous Texas Ranger and a stalwart Deputy Sheriff, have a climactic chase with the Phantom Killer in broad daylight. The Phantom Killer captures two teenagers and murders one of them by tying a knife to the slide mechanism of her trombone, stabbing her to death while simultaneously mocking her. In the film, the Phantom Killer’s final target, a housewife played by the lovely Dawn Wells of Gilligan’s Island fame, engages in a bit of cat and mouse with her attacker.

In reality, no one except the victims ever laid an eye on the Phantom Killer and those who survived all gave conflicting accounts of his appearance. No chase between cops and killer ever occurred. In reality, the woman murdered on the night of April 13th played an alto saxophone and that instrument was not used in her murder. She had been shot to death, not stabbed. And in reality, that housewife, after being wounded, ran away into the night, looking for help. The Phantom Killer did not give chase.

This is a melding of fact and fantasy, packaged as a piece of sensationalized media. Plenty of folks took umbrage at it even existing, especially city officials in Texarkana, many of whom were not at all happy with the advertising claim that the unknown assailant might still be walking the streets of the city 30 years later. That’s the kind of thing that can put a dent in tourism. The film ends on a meta note, with a line of people standing outside a Texarkana theater waiting to buy tickets to see Pierce’s film. The camera glides along at ankle level before coming across a pair of shoes, not so subtly suggesting that these shoes belong to the Phantom Killer. It’s a cheap scare tactic, sure. The killer is still out there. He could even be standing right behind you. Boo.

But the final moments of the film illustrate the entire point of the docu-horror. They’re films about how we contextualize history in cinema. About how we sensationalize, place emphasis on perhaps the wrong events, draw conclusions based on after-the-fact conjecture rather than evidence. This is tabloid history. THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN was certainly about the Phantom Killer and his (or her) reign of terror, but it’s also about how a very real murder spree has become a glamorized, mythic urban legend. It’s about how we revel in and ultimately romanticize the idea of “the guy who got away with it”.

October 29, 2017

THE EVICTORS

With only three days left until Halloween, I thought it would be nice to take a trip through the very small collection of big screen horror films from cult director Charles B. Pierce. Pierce’s horror filmography consists of four films, all of which are tied together by a central conceit. They are all, to one degree or another (or not really at all), based on true stories. THE EVICTORS was the third of the four horror films Pierce directed, followed only by a belated sequel to his 1972 directorial debut, THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK. For that debut picture, Pierce created a style that could best be described as docu-horror, a mix of urban legend, fact and fantasy all told in the style of a large scale reenactment.

Unlike faux-documentaries or found footage films, both of which are designed to make you believe that the film you are watching is a real life document of events, the docu-horror asks you to believe only in the truth behind the events being depicted. Everything else is self-aware artifice. They are presented with on-screen narration that provides exposition, sometimes break the fourth wall, and contain scenes which depict events for which there were no eyewitnesses (ie. the murders committed in THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN).

Pierce’s docu-horror style went on to influence everything from In Search Of… to all those terrible programs about “real life” ghost hauntings that air during the afternoons. The self aware nature is where the difference lies between the docu-horror and true crime films like ZODIAC.

THE EVICTORS, the second to last horror film Pierce would direct, is more true crime than docu-horror, even though there simply isn’t any evidence that this “based on a true story” story is based in truth at all. This is the odd man out in Pierce’s horror filmography (hence, we're looking at it first), with the director completely dumping his docu-horror style for the film. In fact, one of the only stylistic carryovers here is the period setting. Like THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, THE EVICTORS is set in the 1940s, seemingly for no other reason than Pierce wanted to make yet another period film.

THE EVICTORS follows a newly married couple, Ben and Ruth, as they settle into their new home in a small Louisiana town. At first, everything goes quite well, even if the townsfolk are a bit standoffish. But then one day Ruth finds a letter in their mailbox. It reads “I want you to move”. A traveling salesman tells Ruth all about the dark history of her home. Ever since the late 1920s, people living there have met sticky ends. Whether by accident or foul play, no one living in the home stays living for very long. 

This revelation leaves Ruth a bit shaken, but Ben… well, Ben is preoccupied with his work. For a brief time, things return to normal. But then Ruth begins seeing a strange, tall man in a hat lurking around the house. Slowly but surely, she begins to suspect that someone wants her and her husband gone. Or worse.

This is a lovely and effective film. Overflowing with atmosphere, Pierce moves along several different sub-genre lines, from proto-slasher to home invasion to psychological horror to giallo-esque crime thriller. Unable to resist his docu-horror urges, a couple past events are dramatized here. Drenched in sepia, these two murder set pieces are great, creepy stuff. When we’re not indulging in side stories, the main action in THE EVICTORS moves at a swift, relentless pace. Lacking the melodrama and humor of Pierce’s past efforts, this is a lean machine, moving briskly from plot point to plot point with very little in the way of downtime.

There are moments here that recall THE UNINVITED, THE SHINING (which was released a year later), HALLOWEEN and THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. It feels like a traditional bit of classic horror cinema, a change of pace from Pierce’s more loosely constructed docu-horrors. If the film has any glaring problems, they all have to do with the mystery thriller elements that creep into the narrative around the halfway mark. Anyone paying attention will figure out just why the lovely Jessica Harper and her on-screen husband Michael Parks (both of whom are fantastic here) are being targeted. The resolution of the mystery thriller side of the proceedings is a bit repetitive (two characters basically meet the same fate) and the final scene of the film feels downright ridiculous. But overall, THE EVICTORS is a great little thriller and a true high point in the career of Charles B. Pierce.