Creature from Black Lake Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: December 13, 2022 (LE released August 21, 2022)
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono
Subtitles: English SDH
Run Time: 95:10
Director: Joy N. Houck, Jr.
There’s a hairy humanoid beast lurking in the Louisiana swamps, but only trapper Joe Canton (Jack Elam) has seen it and lived to tell the tale, and the other residents of Oil City, Louisiana don’t talk about it. But that’s not about to stop intrepid grad students Pahoo (Dennis Fimple) and Rives (John David Carson), who are determined to track down the Bigfoot-like creature. Defying local sheriff Billy Carter (Bill Thurman), the duo trek deep into the wilds of Black Lake and a series of frightening encounters make it clear the monster is no mere legend. (From Synapse Films’ official synopsis)
No North-American-made cryptid, mythological creature, or legendary monster has a bigger pop culture, ahem, footprint than Bigfoot. Filmwise, the sasquatch’s snowbound Asian cousin, the yeti, got the jump, beating it to screens during the 1950s with movies like W. Lee Wilder’s Snow Creature (1954), Ishiro Honda’s Half Human (1955), and The Abominable Snowman (1957), which Val Guest made for Hammer Studios. But the ‘70s, the ‘70s belonged to Bigfoot, beginning with Robert F. Slatzer’s Bigfoot (1970), starring the patron saint of B-movies, John Carridine, and two of Robert Mitchum’s sons, John and Christopher. The decade’s tastemaker, though, was Charles B. Pierce’s The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972), one of, if not the originally found-footage/mockumentary horror movie. Within the decade, Pierce’s film led to one unofficial sequel, Tom Moore’s Return to Boggy Creek (1977), other Bigfoot mockumentaries – Lawrence Crowley’s Bigfoot: Man or Beast? (1972), Robert Guenette’s Bigfoot: the Mysterious Monster (1976; culled from Guenette’s made-for-TV special Monsters! Mysteries or Myths?, 1974), and Ed Ragozzino’s Sasquatch, the Legend of Bigfoot (1976) – and, of course, exploitation fodder, like Michael Findlay’s Shriek of the Mutilated (1974).
One film that borrows several ideas and its basic structure from Pierce’s groundbreaking film, minus the found-footage accouterment, was Joy N. Houck Jr.’s Creature from Black Lake (aka: Demon of the Lake, 1976). In this case, the titular creature is the Fouke Monster, a swamp-bound Arkansas variation on the Bigfoot legend that is also the subject of The Legend of Boggy Creek and all its official and unofficial sequels/remakes. Or at least a Louisiana-born version of old Fouke. While stifled by its limited ambition and tiny budget, Houck Jr.’s film narrowly avoids the schlock labeling of Shriek of the Mutilated and James C. Wasson’s gleefully gory Night of the Demon (1980), thanks to its character-driven script by writer/actor (and son of the producer) Jim McCullough Jr., a better-than-average cast, including industry veterans Jack Elam and Dub Taylor in supporting roles, and striking photography from cinematographer Dean Cundey, who was still two years away from his star-making work shooting Halloween (1978) for John Carpenter. If you aren’t in the right mood, it can be easy to dismiss Creature from Black Lake as a typically silly drive-in monster movie, but, when all of these advantages are working in concert, it’s a uniquely cinematic take on the faux-naturalism of The Legend of Boggy Creek. At its best, it overcomes its slowest moments between moody scares with easygoing comedy and folksy charms.
Previously, actor-turned-director Houck Jr. had made a pair of mad murderer movies called Night of Bloody Horror (1969) and The Night of the Strangler (1972), though Creature from Black Lake winds up following what would become the camping slasher template over the next decade, particularly James Bryan’s so-bad-it’s-good favorite, Don’t Go in the Woods…Alone! (1981) and Jeff Lieberman’s fantastic Just Before Dawn (also 1981). Creature from Black Lake isn’t nearly as violent as either of those films or even similar, PG-rated woodland horror movies, like William Girdler’s Grizzly (1976). Like Just Before Dawn, it deals with post-Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) themes of rural vs. urban and North vs. South (the urban people even travel to the boonies in a similar-looking van), though the monster really is a giant ape creature, not a wild woodsman or feral hillbilly. The rural/Southern folks also aren’t treated like psychotic, inbred malcontents, just somewhat spurned misfits who want their fair shake in life and to be left alone. They’re more worried about being made to look like “a bunch of dumb rednecks” than they are with the boys from Chicago uncovering some kind of cannibalistic conspiracy. There are references to the Vietnam War, too, for good measure.
Creature from Black Lake was, according to the back of the box, a “late-night TV favorite,” which kept it in the public eye, along with at least four different official VHS tapes in the US (some under the alternate title Demon of the Lake). Most DVD versions came from budget labels and were, unfortunately, digitized video transfers, cropped from 2.35:1 to a cramped, ugly 1.33:1. The best I was able to find was a fuzzy 1.85:1 version. Synapse Films’ Blu-ray is a much-needed HD, 2.35:1 upgrade that goes the extra mile with a 4K restoration of the original 35mm camera negative. The results would likely be phenomenal, even if we weren’t comparing them to smudgy, cropped trash. Cundey’s deep-set, widescreen compositions often depend on harsh contrasting shadows, yet, if the black levels are pushed too hard across the board, the naturalistic interiors and deep dark night scenes turn to mud. This 1080p transfer delicately balances everything just right to ensure we get the mood without losing the necessary detail. Grain levels appear natural without clumping or disappearing behind clunky digital noise. The colors are vivid and consistent, though not so saturated as to risk of overall verisimilitude.
Creature from Black Lake is presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio and its original mono sound. Dialogue and incidental noises are a bit on the flat and echoey side, but this is due to the original recording quality, not track compression or avoidable muffling. The added effects, mostly of the nature and creature variety, and music, on the other hand, sound great, crisp, and clean. The bone-chilling Bigfoot roars are quite loud, but never peak or buzz. Composer Jaime Mendoza-Nava’s music is a nice mix of classic, ‘40s-’50s era horror tactics and (then) modern pop sensibilities, mainly a wah-infused electric guitar track. During the climax, he drops all pretense and directly rips off John Williams’ Jaws chase theme. There is also a closing credit song, “Exits and Truck Stops,” written, composed, and sung by actor/screenwriter Jim McCullough Jr..
Commentary with Michel Gingold and film historian Chris Poggiali – Screenwriter, author, and one-time Fangoria editor-in-chief Gingold and Temple of Schlock, Fangoria, and Rue Morgue contributor Poggiali discuss the making of Creature from Black Lake, and the history of Bigfoot cinema and Southern exploitation movies, locations, the careers of the cast & crew, and how the film was received.
Swamp Stories (19:05, HD) – Director of photography Dean Cundey reminisces about his education, early career in low budget independent movies, his time on location shooting Creature from Black Lake, working on creature makeup along with the photography, working with the cast & crew, TV/video versions cropping his original widescreen compositions, and Ralph McQuarrie’s one-sheet poster design.
Theatrical trailer and radio spot
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.