DirectorJoy N. Houck, Jr.
Release Date(s)1976 (August 30, 2022)
Studio(s)Howco International Pictures (Synapse Films)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: B-
Like monster movie fans in general, connoisseurs of cryptid cinema tend to be a fairly forgiving lot. Many sins can be forgiven, as long as the beast in question delivers the goods, and even if it doesn’t, sometimes there’s still plenty of entertainment value to be had in the pure schlockiness of the proceedings. Some films such as Night of the Demon manage to skate by on sheer nuttiness alone—when you have a monster that rips out someone’s intestines and then wields them like nunchaku against the survivors, what else could you possibly need? Yet there are plenty of cryptid films that work well enough on their own terms, and Creature from Black Lake is one such film. You don’t have to be part of the target audience in order to appreciate what it has to offer. As a no-budget production, it still has plenty of rough edges, but there’s more going on here than you might expect. The acting is variable, but the characters are likable, and they have a surprising amount of depth. At its core, Creature from Black Lake is as much an exploration of culture clashes as it is a cryptid film.
Rives (John David Parsons) and Pahoo (Dennis Fimple) are two college students from Chicago who travel to Louisiana in order to investigate the tales of a bigfoot-type creature that lives in the bayou. (You would think that students would have learned by now never to travel into the wilderness to study cryptids or other paranormal phenomena, but they never seem to grasp that fact.) Most of the residents in the area want nothing to do with them, and the local sheriff (Bill Thurman) orders them to get out of town, but they eventually find a few folk who are willing to talk to them. Yet because of their unfortunate tendency to handle people like a bull in a China shop, the duo ends up having to face the beast alone. Creature from Black Lake also stars Jack Elam and Dub Taylor.
While the primary conflict in most cryptid films is between man and beast, that’s secondary to Creature from Black Lake. The real dramatic conflict here is between these two presumptuous outsiders and the local people who don’t want to be treated like rubes. Rives and Pahoo aren’t particularly likable at first, but they do exhibit growth throughout the film. Most interestingly, the locals exhibit far more depth than the Southern stereotypes in a typical Hollywood production. Everything is elevated by the presence of veteran characters actors Thurman, Elam, and Taylor, especially since they were given interesting roles to play. Thurman’s sheriff has a nice moment near the end that proves there’s more to him than meets the eye, but unexpectedly, it’s Taylor who’s really given a chance to shine in the film. He’s quite good in a touching scene where he reveals the pain hidden behind his outward bluster. (Of course, Elam pretty much plays Elam, but there’s nothing wrong with that.)
Part of the reason why Creature from Black Lake elevates itself from the pack is that it was a regional production. Director Joy N. Houck, Jr. and producer/writer Jim McCullough, Jr. were both Louisiana natives, and the film was created for their local market. Yet it’s still professionally made, and it looks quite good thanks to the fact that they brought in Dean Cundey as cinematographer. (Cundey had shot Where the Red Fern Grows two years previously for Jim McCullough, Sr.) Editor Robert Gordon did a great job of cutting around the budgetary restrictions. The attack scenes are pretty effective, with only quick glimpses given of the creature in order to hide the limitations of the cheap suit and makeup. He also did a nice job of creating a car crash for a flashback entirely through editing, since the production couldn’t afford to actually wreck the car.
The one thing that Creature from Black Lake doesn’t do is provide an explanation for the titular beast. This isn’t a misunderstood monster, or one that simply wants to be left alone; instead, to paraphrase Richard Masur in John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, it’s just weird, and it’s definitely pissed off. Some mysteries are best left enigmatic. Yet Creature from Black Lake does take the time to explain what’s driving the characters on both sides of its cultural divide, and that’s why the film still stands out today. Come for the cryptid, but stay for the dramatis personae.
Cinematographer Dean Cundey shot Creature from Black Lake on 35 mm film using Arriflex cameras with Todd-AO 35 anamorphic lenses, framed at 2.39 for its theatrical release. It’s never been seen in that format again since 1976, aside from any revival screenings, as most previous home video versions have been panned and scanned at 1.33:1. (There was a single DVD that was reframed at 1.85:1, but all of the others were 1.33:1.) This Synapse Films Blu-ray release is the first to maintain the correct original theatrical aspect ratio, and just as importantly, it uses a new 4K scan of the 35mm camera negative. While it’s still not perfect, to say that it’s a drastic improvement would be an understatement. There’s very little damage visible, other than some minor speckling in a few of the darkest shots, but they’re barely noticeable elsewhere. The contrast range is excellent, with deep blacks that don’t overwhelm the subtle details. The colors are well-saturated, perhaps a bit too much so at times. Some of the flesh tones are overly bronzed or reddish, though not consistently so—Dub Taylor’s weather-beaten face looks even more weather-beaten than usual in a few shots, but relatively natural in others. (Strangely enough, some of the grass looks a little dull, but that might accurately reflect the time of year in which the film was shot.) That minor nitpick aside, this is a splendid presentation of a film that’s never been given its fare shakes on home video.
(Note that there’s an odd piece of editing during a shot at 22:30 where a few frames from the following shot are flash cut into it, two different times. That was present on earlier versions, so it’s deliberate, and not an error with this master.)
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. It’s doubtful that the original magnetic elements were available, so this track was probably derived from the 35 mm optical soundtrack. It’s clear enough, though since the overall high end is rolled off, the dialogue can sound a bit muffled. (A few of Jack Elam’s lines are difficult to understand.) The score by Jaime Mendoza-Nava also lacks air in the upper frequencies. Still, everything sounds clean, and there’s little noise or other artifacts.
Synapse’s Blu-ray release of Creature from Black Lake is a single disc that comes with an insert featuring the iconic original poster art by none other than Ralph McQuarrie. There’s also an exclusive slipcover designed by Justin Coffee, limited to the first 2,500 units, that’s only available directly from Synapse Films and DiabolikDVD. The following extras are included, all of them in HD:
- Audio Commentary with Michael Gingold and Chris Poggiali
- Swamp Stories (9:05)
- Original Theatrical Trailer (1:01)
- Original Radio Spot (:35)
The commentary features horror scholar Michael Gingold, contributor to Fangoria and author of Frightfest Guide to Monster Movies, as well as film historian Chris Poggiali from Temple of Schlock. They did their homework before recording, and they give plenty of information about the cast and crew, including many of the local actors who only play a single scene in the film. They describe Creature from Black Lake as a Macon County Line kind of movie, which is an apt description. They also provide an overview of the development of the Bigfoot and yeti genre, including giving a shout-out to The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot (which always scores points in my book). They close by reading some of the original reviews for the film, which were obviously mixed, but sometimes sympathetic. This is an energetic and entertaining commentary from two people who obviously love both the film itself, as well as the genre that birthed it.
Swamp Stories is an interview with Dean Cundey, produced by Michael Felsher through his Red Shirt Pictures. Cundey says that making Creature from Black Lake was fun because it was different than what he had been doing at the time, especially since it was shot on location in Louisiana. The locals were actually delighted to have the film crew out there, unlike the way that residents of Los Angeles tend to react. Cundey also discusses his involvement with the makeup effects, and the advantages of shooting anamorphic—he’s happy that the film is finally going to be seen in its proper aspect ratio. It’s a relatively short interview, but Cundey always has interesting stories to tell about his experiences, so it’s still worthwhile.
Cryptids are elusive by definition, but much of cryptid cinema has been equally elusive, at least as far as high definition is concerned. Yet 2022 has already seen Blu-ray releases of two cryptid Holy Grails in the form of Night of the Demon and Shriek of the Mutilated. Now, thanks to Synapse Films, we also have this lovely version of Creature from Black Lake to add to the mix, captured forever on a shiny metal disc. Physical media has accomplished what no hunter ever will.
- Stephen Bjork