Creature from Black Lake [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - America - Synapse Films
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (18th December 2022).
The Film

Spurred by the lectures of their University of Chicago anthropology professor (cameoing director Joy N. Houck Jr.) on sasquatch or bigfoot sightings and the possibility that they are evidence of a separate parallel evolutionary path from humans, former Vietnam vet Pahoo (House of 1000 Corpses's Dennis Fimple) and conscientious objector Rives (Empire of the Ants' John David Carson) decide to spend their holidays investigating the most recent reports of sightings in the area around Oil City, Louisiana that seem to contradict the professor's assertion that no human has every been harmed in an encounter with the sasquatch: among them the rantings of alcoholic trapper Jim Canton (Kiss Me Deadly's Jack Elam) who claims that his buddy Willy was dragged into the swamp by the creature and ripped to shreds.

Sheriff Billy Carter ('Gator Bait's Bill Thurmann) gives them a threatening warning against stirring up public panic with fairy tales and none of the locals will even admit to knowing Canton apart from young farmer Orville Bridges (screenwriter Jim McCollough Jr.) who tells them his grandfather's story of an encounter with the creature that lead to his parents deaths in a car accident. Grandpaw Bridges (The Wild Bunch's Dub Taylor) is reluctant to tell them anything for fear of being portrayed as a backwoods idiot until they offer him a reward; however, Pahoo and Rives soon wear out their welcome and it is only the ungodly roars of the creature preying on the Bridges' livestock at night that truly convinces them of the veracity of his story. Ultimately, it is not their persistence in investigating the sightings but their attempt to unwind with a pair of local girls both of whom are high school students and one of whom turns out to be the sheriff's daughter that lands them behind bars; however, that night behind bars puts them in the company of Canton who bursts in claiming the creature attacked his shack and is tossed in the drunk tank by the sheriff. Once he sobers up, Canton tells the pair of his discover of the forbidding hunting ground of the creature deep in the swamps where Pahoo and Rives venture, realizing only too late that is now them who are being tracked as human prey.

The sudden explosion of interest in bigfoot sighting in the seventies lead to a boom of exploitation works ranging from unbelievable documentaries like an episode of the In Search of... series to fiction films that purported to be true documentaries like The Legend of Boggy Creek and In Search of Bigfoot to more overtly fictionalized takes like the wild Shriek of the Mutilated (actually a yeti) and the gory Night of the Demon. Creature from Black Lake produced by Houck's theater chain owner-turned-distributor Joy N. Houck's Howco International which had distributed The Legend of Boggy Creek and for whom Houck Jr. had already helmed Night of Bloody Horror and Night of the Strangler, and scripted by McCollough Jr. whose producer father Jim McCollough would later helm his son's script for the better-known eighties regional slasher Mountaintop Motel Massacre falls somewhere in between, utilizing the scientific investigation angle while its exploitation elements are more tease than titillation; in that respect, more resembling some of the more drive-in friendly hicksploitation flicks of the period like Macon County Line (as cited in the commentary track).

What keeps the film watchable in between a few jolting appearances by the creature is the comic chemistry between Fimple who plays his character's yokel aspects with restraint and Carson who lets slip a certain ruthlessness beneath his character's easygoing, sensible countenance. Even the two top-billed "washed up" character actors Taylor and Elam get to do more than deliver exposition, conveying the psychological toll of their encounters with the creature. The tone is generally light, disarmingly so as the third act shifts into genuine horror and suspense in a single shot that could just as easily have turned out to be a false scare; and the possible loss of one character's life is deeply felt by both the other character and the viewer. Greatly aiding the film's atmosphere is the cinematography of Dean Cundey who would launch the Hollywood careers of this film's sound recordist Thomas Causey and assistant cameraman Ray Stella with John Carpenter's Halloween and prolific exploitation composer Jaime Mendoza-Nava whose works in the genre included such films as The Witchmaker, The Brotherhood of Satan, Grave of the Vampire, and Mausoleum among others.

Video

Distributed in the South by Howco International, Creature from Black Lake was largely seen elsewhere on television through Cinema Shares International who also had the overseas sales rights or on VHS from Vestron offshoot Lightning Video and Simitar Entertainment along with unauthorized editions under the title "Demon of the Lake" and the various DVD editions of the film sported the same squeezed and cropped presentations marring the original Todd-AO 35 scope compositions.

Announced by Synapse some time ago, their 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 2.35:1 widescreen Blu-ray comes from a new 4K restoration of the original 35mm camera negative and actually looks quite stunning for a low-budget regional production owing much to the rigorous approach to lighting of the night scenes by Cundey and the bright, sunny environs in which the silhouette of the creature is sometime the only dark element. There is absolutely no obvious signs of damage or wear which is a pleasant surprise considering that most of us expected from an eventual widescreen presentation some surviving projection print at best (according to the commentary, only one hundred and fifty prints were actually struck for its Southern playdates while the Cinema Shares logo on video releases suggests the use of a TV print or a master struck for overseas video sales).

Audio

The sole audio option is a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track that is as clean as the negative, delivering clear dialogue and a proficient if not particularly ambitious sound mix. Optional English SDH subtitles are included.

Extras

Extras start off with an audio commentary by author/filmmaker Michel Gingold and film historian Chris Poggiali who both start off relaying how they first encountered the film on late night television airings as children and their long-lasting affection for it. They discuss the Sasquatch exploitation film boom of the period and the more recent one and the origins of the production, the roles of the McColloughs and Houcks, the contributions of Cundey and Mendoza-Nava in seventies exploitation, the recruiting of professional actors, the identities of local cast members including Louisiana stage actors, and its "chill" mixture of humor and moments of poignant drama.

In "Swamp Stories" (19:05), director of photography Cundey discusses his beginnings in exploitation filmmaking after his UCLA education and his frustrations trying to convince low budget filmmakers to use scope formats and their perceived greater production value due to the added expense of the camera and lens packages, recruiting crew including Stella and Causey from these productions, as well as doing the make-up himself for the creature (which was ideal since he was given the creative license in how to discreetly reveal the creature visually throughout the picture). The disc closes out wit the theatrical trailer (1:01) and a radio spot (0:35).

Packaging

The disc is housed in a standard Synapse black case with single-sided cover, although a limited run of 2,500 copies ordered directly from Synapse Films includes an exclusive slipcover.

Overall

Falling in between the "true story" bigfoot documentaries and the wilds of sasquatchsploitation, Creature from Black Lake manages an uneasy balance between the light and the chilling.

 


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