Sunday, January 1, 2012

Oddball Film Report: BIGFOOT (1969/72)

    Back in November, I celebrated my birthday (I have walked this earth a scant 30 years so far) by watching what has to be my favorite guilty pleasure, an obscure drive-in flick known as BIGFOOT. I'm not sure why, exactly, this film has such a grip on my heart. It's charming, entertaining if you're game, but there's no one on this planet (not even me) who will call it a "good" movie. So let me state right up front, while I may discuss some of the better elements on display here (like some nicely scripted moments or the odd nice camera move), BIGFOOT is, in nearly every technical manner possible, a very bad movie. The sets, for example, must be seen to be believed. The best of them looks like the most artificial set ever constructed for I Dream of Jeannie. Yet, the exterior shots feature some incredible scenery and expert use of existing locations (much of the wilderness exteriors claimed to have been filmed in locations where actual Bigfoot sightings took place). The editing, lighting, much of the acting, etc. ranges from terrible to uninspired. And yet, I love this movie. If for no other reason, maybe it's because BIGFOOT isn't nasty and cynical like much of the fare shot on a shoestring in 1969. In fact, if you didn't know better, you might think it had been shot in 1965 or 66 instead.

   First thing's first, a little back-story on the subject of today's feature. "Bigfoot" was invented in 1958 (59?), when the name was given to a "creature" which left huge footprints outside a logging camp in or near Washington state. The tracks have since been exposed to be the work of a practical joker. 

   Earlier in the decade, much hoopla had been made in the States of a discovery in the Himalayan mountains of large footprints. The locals claimed the prints belonged to the 'Yeti' of legend, a sort of furry man-like ape that occasionally wandered near civilization and abducted human women. The press sensationalized the find and dubbed the unseen creature "The Abominable Snowman."  At once, the movies tried to cash in and we saw the likes of THE SNOW CREATURE, MAN-BEAST, HALF HUMAN, and Hammer's THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN OF THE HIMALAYANS on theater screens throughout the 1950's. The 'Yeti' tracks were eventually determined to be those of a bear.

   In 1967 or 68, a hunter/documentary film-maker named Patterson and his friend managed to get a shot of a simian biped walking across an isolated bit of wilderness ('ironically', while scouting locations for a documentary he was preparing about the monster). Anyone with eyes could tell the beast captured on film was a guy walking along in a (shockingly ratty) ape suit that had been constructed for the occasion. Not long after, a man named Ivan Marx would make a career (and a feature film titled THE LEGEND OF BIGFOOT) of shooting badly-made ape suits and claiming the footage to be of actual monsters.

   Bigfoot first became a movie star around 1963, when an amateur film (about teenagers unearthing a clay mummy that turns out to be a bloodthirsty missing link) was shot, called CURSE OF BIGFOOT. Now, I can't confirm that the film was actually put into release after it was shot, but a 30-minute chunk of footage (actually about Bigfoot) was tacked on and the film became a staple on late-night television in 1976. The "CURSE" title has been attributed to the '76 version of the film. I'm not sold on that, however. The popularly-claimed title of the '63 version is said to be "Teenagers vs The Thing." That title just doesn't have the right sound for the era. (It sounds like the sort of cheesy title that would have been added to an 80's video release, and there just happens to have been an 80's video release of the original hour-long version under that title....) I suspect the CURSE OF BIGFOOT title was dreamed up in the 60's along with the movie. Despite the film being more of a mummy movie than anything else, "Bigfoot" was recent news and had the public attention. It would make perfect sense to work the name into the title of a new horror picture. (I'm quite fond of this 60's version of the film, despite it's many flaws.)

   Though Bigfoot would become a minor movie star in the 1970's through films like CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE, SASQUATCH : THE LEGEND OF BIGFOOT, THE CAPTURE OF BIGFOOT, and numerous other films, often of VERY poor quality (making the odd gem like CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE the black sheep of the genre), the first real Bigfoot movie was today's subject. That distinction would be robbed from the film, however, as it was held back from release until 1972 (the year of death for our leading lady, the beauteous Joi Lansing, sadly and darkly ironically from breast cancer). 

   1972 was a good year for Bigfoot, seeing also the release of the genuine hit THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK, a fake documentary* filmed by Charles B. Pierce of Arkansas. Pierce also helmed, among other films, the classic THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, and wasn't amused when his Bigfoot movie was sequelled by another production company. Decades later, Pierce would produce an official (if lame) sequel to his earlier masterpiece.

   (*The fake documentary was an economical way to make Bigfoot movies, and multiple films were done this way. Few were as outright fraudulent as Ivan Marx's THE LEGEND OF BIGFOOT, which claims to show actual Bigfoot creatures. The best I've seen has to be SASQUATCH, THE LEGEND OF BIGFOOT [not to be confused with the Marx film], which shows the fictional journey of an expedition searching the Canadian wilderness for the elusive monster. Breathtaking scenery is on display, as well as a better-than-expected script, decent acting, and sharp editing in what feels like a cross between a Mutual of Omaha special, a Dinsey nature film, and a horror-themed adventure flick. Not bad.)

Yes, if nothing else, the film has nice 

   Not much is known about BIGFOOT in terms of production history, because no one ever seems to've asked. The film is so obscure, in fact, that about the only way to see the film is to track down the VHS release, which is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain. The film screams out for a widescreen release, though that seems unlikely in the extreme. I have hopes, though, that Wade Williams or Image will dig up a pristine print and offer a nice letterboxed DVD one of these days (which, though unlikely, is possible, since I finally got those widescreen releases of DINOSAURUS!, BATTLE BENEATH THE EARTH, and THE GREEN SLIME that I'd waited so long for). 

   Given the general mood of the movie, it seems the film was cobbled together for chump change for an excuse to have a bunch of friends work together. There's a real feeling of fun here, and everyone seems to be taking the chance to camp it up and just have a good time. There are also scenes that seem to have been ad-libbed. The credit list is a veritable who's who of talent made up of fading stars, rising talent, and regulars toiling in the field of low-budget genre fare in the late 60's. The list is simply incredible. The seasoned movie nut will be in awe at the parade of familiar faces and the recognizable names in the production credits. The cast offers up John Carradine, Joi Lansing, Ken Maynard, John Mitchum, Christopher Mitchum, Judy Jordan, James Craig, Lindsay Crosby, Dorothy Keller, Doodles Weaver, Nobel 'Kid' Chissel, Nick Raymond, Sonny West, Ray Cantrell, Lois Red Elk, Jennifer Bishop, Haji, Eric Tomlin, seldom has a list of names presented such an across the board selection! (Making one wonder, where in the world is Gary Kent?) 

   Behind the camera can be found such familiar (to fans of exploitation pictures, at least) names as Anthony Cardoza (producer and bit part actor), James Gordon White (screenplay), Richard Podolor (score, though he remains better known for his pop tunes), Hugo Grimaldi (who acted as editor here), Bud Hoffman (co-editor), John Elliott (make-up, his first film work!), Louis Lane (also on make-up), Arthur Gilbert (unit manager), Christopher Mitchum pulls double duty as an assistant director, Harry Woolman (effects), and so on.  Most interesting may be this: Merci Montello, the really cute naked chick from SPACE-THING! and a hand full of other films, the December 1972 centerfold Playmate (as Mercy Rooney), and an early model for Rocketeer creator Dave Stevens, provided the Bigfoot costumes! What a business!

   Much of the rest of the cast and crew also worked on the better-than-average biker film THE HELLCATS, and/or the Coleman Francis disaster THE SKYDIVERS, and little else.

   The story is pretty simple, played a bit as a rural take on KING KONG. Bigfoot itself is even referred to as "the eight wonder of the world" in dialog and in a special credit for monster-portrayer James Stellar! We're served up a number of characters, and the focus shifts between them (in truth, the script isn't much of a problem. While there are some problems in story-structure, the character development isn't bad at all. With a bit bigger budget -and a shooting-style that opted for doing more than one take of everything- the film might have been pretty decent, but probably even more obscure than it already is). Mostly, we'll focus on Jasper B. Hawks and his long-suffering partner Elmer Briggs. Hawks owns and operates one of the last traveling stores out of his beat-up old station wagon, but he's always got his eye out for another attraction that can get him back into an arena where he can display his showmanship. Elmer is also a former carny so he sticks by Hawks as he wanders about the Nation, even if he'll complain about it the whole way.

   Again, the character development is pretty good, and since this pair is being played by John Carradine (as Hawks) and John Mitchum, you can't fault the casting. The weird thing, though, is how stiff everyone seems. If anything, the lesser actors come off more natural than the big stars here. Take Joi Lansing, for example, who has proven she can act (and sing and dance and do comedy) on many other projects (including a regular part on The Beverly Hillbillies). Here, she's so awkward, you'd think they just cast a model who had never been near a movie camera before (even odder is her sloppily applied pancake make-up that's all too obvious in close-ups). 

   Even former cowboy star Ken Maynard (his first film since 1944, I believe) seems to be just saying his lines rather than acting. The major exception here is John Carradine, who still manages to deliver a typically flawless performance (even if he takes the chance to camp things up a bit more than usual). I'd guess the whole thing was shot in single takes and without rehearsals, showing again just how much of a talent Carradine was (sad, that he would continually allow himself to be cast in downright garbage like 1973's SUPERCHICK. BIGFOOT was, even more sadly, probably the last really good lead part the man ever had).

   There are some bikers passing through town as well, when Rick and his gal Chris break off from their group to frolic in the woods (and Judy Jordan will do us the favor of spending almost the entire film clad only in a tiny green bikini). While Rick is checking his bike, Chris stumbles onto a weird graveyard. This is the burial site for Bigfoot (Bigfeet?) and Rick uncovers a particularly phony rubber ape mask. Hilariously, we cut to a living Bigfoot as it spies on them and we learn the dead Bigfoot is far more life-like! Rick is knocked out and Chris carried into the woods.

   Our film actually opened with Joi Lansing (supposedly playing a character named Joi Landis, but her character's name never comes up) driving onto a tarmac and climbing into one of the planes. She takes off (and her plane changes into a completely different make), filmed in such a way as to never let us forget that she's sitting in a stationary plane. Engine trouble occurs and she's forced to bail out as the plane crashes to earth well out of camera range (although a piece of stock footage from the planes POV showing the ground rush up while spinning out of control isn't a bad trick). Having landed safely (and instantly!), Joi strips out of her blue jumpsuit to show a peach-colored go-go dress (?) on underneath. Kept mostly off screen, one of the ratty-looking Bigfoot monsters attacks.

Joi Lansing ends her career on a 
high note.

   Joi and Chris will talk things over when we rejoin them in the Bigfoot camp, where both girls are tied to stakes. (It's never stated, but Joi seems to be a scientist of sorts -one of the prettiest ever seen!) Joi figures the sasquatch have been abducting women to act as breeding stock, as their race (which can mark graves but not talk or write) is dying out. Joi hasn't been touched since they brought her in, and she has the feeling they're saving her for something special. So Joi is our Ann Darrow stand-in, as Jasper will be our Carl Denham analog.

   Rick comes to and makes his way back to town. He tries to get the Police to help him track down Chris, but without success. Jasper and Elmer overhear this, though, and offer their services to find the monster (and the girl, too, if possible). The men are eventually captured as well, but nothing can remove the dollar signs dancing in front of Jasper's eyes. Rick's gang comes back into town to find him, and team up with a local named Hardrock (I assume his poker buddies are Koko and Joe) to rescue the men from the Bigfoot camp (which is suddenly much easier to find).

   Joi has been dragged off by the sasquatch and tied to a pair of trees (its here we fully enter KING KONG territory) as the even larger "Bigfoot" himself approaches (and boy is Bigfoot a mess, complete with obvious gloves and fur that looks like a bath-mat). 

   Back at the sasquatch lair, everybody else has been set free and the gang starts to head out. Jasper still wants to go after Bigfoot. Hardrock, his arm torn off in a previous encounter with the monster, is game to help Jasper if it'll settle and old score. (How is it Hardrock, a known local, can have his arm ripped off and the townsfolk not know about the monster? I guess Hardrock is supposed to be too colorful for folk to really take seriously, cheating at cards and living in a shack in the woods with his squaw wife, but you'd think people might have listened to his account of the monster when he stumbled into town with only one arm! Even if this happened 50 years ago, it must have been news at the time!) The kids aren't hep to go tracking down the big monster, until Jasper mentions money to those who'll help. Rick and Chris, having had their fill of the sasquatch decline and head back to town (why Chris isn't begging the others to go help Joi is a mystery, unless she feels threatened by the platinum blonde beauty with the amazing legs. Still, you'd think she'd say something).

   Elmer has had his fill too, taking the chance to part company with Jasper. The others head off to find Bigfoot. Meanwhile, Joi is still tied to the trees as Bigfoot shambles closer. As Kong fought off a dinosaur that was trying to eat Ann, Bigfoot must wrestle with a bear that pops up to menace Joi. She manages to escape in the scuffle (which ends complete with Bigfoot beating his chest in about the most naked copy of Kong imaginable) and Bigfoot gives chase across some remarkable scenery. Joi's spectacular gams are highlighted as she runs barefoot across the wilderness. She was certainly a game trooper. 

   In this sequence, a simple, yet effective camera trick fosters the illusion that Bigfoot is actually about twice the size of his quarry (just about the only effective visual bit the film offers that doesn't involve the leading ladies themselves). Joi runs through the scene and darts off toward the horizon a few seconds before Bigfoot can enter the shot, thus keeping the illusion of size. Another trick is to film Joi's legs as she runs along, and then mirroring the action with Bigfoot, only with the camera pulled closer. It's simple, but it works. If only the rest of the movie followed suit.

   Eventually, Bigfoot grabs Joi and carries her to his cave where the others arrive before she can come to harm. Putting his captive down (and flashing her undies in the process), Bigfoot is assaulted with small arms fire despite Jasper's screams that he wants the beast taken alive. Bigfoot flees into his cave, one guy tosses some dynamite, and the horror is over. Jasper is left right back where he started. Hardock and his pal congratulate themselves on killing the monster, only to be rebuked by Jasper as he intones Carl Denham's infamous last line from KING KONG, only as might be read by Buddy Ebsen. "Was beauty did 'im in!" (And no, that really doesn't apply in this situation. It's not like Bigfoot had a chance to escape that he forsook because he was captivated by his beauteous captive.)

   As the others clear out, Joi wanders over to the sulking Jasper and wonders if its really all over. Jasper notices the aesthetic values of his new friend and begins making plans to showcase Joi in a road show where she'll tell her story of being a Bigfoot captive to spellbound audiences. This bit always brings a smile to my face, despite the fact that it runs counter to what has been established. Previously, Joi was a scientist/aviator (although we're never told what she actually does, so I assume the plane trip was for fun rather than business) with her brains in place. Now, she's an awed child who has fallen under the spell of Jasper's dreams of fame and fortune. Also, we finish with the pair walking away from the caved-in lair of King Bigfoot. You'd think a sharp trigger like Jasper B. Hawks would make sure to mark the area and return for the body, as well as the body (bodies, really) from the sasquatch graveyard. When all is said and done, Jasper actually has quite an attraction on his hands (and it's not like he'd be unhappy settling for a dead Bigfoot rather than a live one, as he'd earlier tried to make off with one of the sasquatch children when the larger ones got away).

    Also, you'd think Joi might be a little upset that nobody came to rescue her until after Jasper mentioned paying for help in getting his attraction.

   Some interesting things about BIGFOOT include the detail of the apes giving off a musky oder, as has been recorded in the modern myth, as well as the sasquatch being able to hide in the brush no matter how close you might be. (Bigfoot himself makes a bit of a racket, though.) One detail that shatters the senses, but is barely explored, is that "they bury they own dead!" This implies a structured society of quasi-humans instead of a lost breed of ape. Joi notes that the species is starting to die off, thus requiring breeding stock from the human race (and this has happened for a while now according to the dialog from the townsfolk). One also notes that Jasper and the others see a sasquatch only from a distance, and this leads to an ambush. The creatures are fairly intelligent, although their society has always been primitive. They've developed symbols, but not an alphabet, and they do their fallen kin the honor of a burial (even if they only cover them in about an inch of dirt). They don't do much with this, but they raise some interesting ideas.

   Still, they never look like anything other than guys running around in ill-fitting gorilla suits. One creature we see in close-up features bulging, blood-shot eyes with exposed veins running over his rubbery face. The child sasquatch is also afforded a close-up, much to the effect's detriment, as it looks like a kid with his face painted for halloween (and the rest of his costume consists of a huge wig of long frizzy hair and a baggy fur body suit). This creature is supposed to be a human/sasquatch hybrid. In the end, the monsters here make you appreciate how effective those giant cavemen were in the "Galileo 7" episode of Star Trek

   As noted, the sets here tend to be depressingly bad. Even the sets used to portray the interiors of Bennett's Store or the Police department's main office look less like real locations than they do the studio sets you might see on The Red Skelton Show or The Jack Benny Program over a decade earlier. The sets for various exteriors are even worse. Early on, Elmer goes to scoop a pail of water from a stream near the road, and it looks less realistic than the time Jeannie created a babbling brook in Tony's living room. You can actually see the walls of the set! (Also fun is the fact that after making the first couple of Bigfoot footprints, they seem to have accidentally broken one of the feet, as all the following prints are the same -I think right- footprint laid out in a normal, alternating pattern!)

   The set for the outside of Hardrock's cabin is probably the best, although you don't have to study it very hard to know its a fake. The worst is probably a set meant to depict a forest ranger station interior with a view to the outside (this for a gag where a ranger talks on the telephone to note they've never seen any such creature wandering around, as one slinks by the window behind him). As noted before, all this is countered by some breathtaking natural location work! I've seen few films this schizophrenic!

   One thing I'm real keen on here is the music, although I'm not sure why. While it sounds like library music, I'd actually lay you odds it was recorded for this film in particular. The score isn't really all that memorable, being fairly generic in about the lightest possible way. It sounds like a cross between the opening theme of a late-60's Sunday morning religious program on your local UHF TV station and the hunting show that would come on in the afternoon on the same channel. Yet, the music isn't terrible or anything. The 'adventure' theme here sounds like a cue you'd here on Land of the Lost, provided it were used for a comical scene where Holly was teaching Dopey how to pull a plow. The title theme tries for a somber, mysterious tone, yet always seems a note away from erupting into a song for that night's barn dance. Really weird stuff. Not bad, though, to my ears. I'll be humming the theme for a few days after I've watched the movie.

   Ultimately, when discussing BIGFOOT, words can't describe it. That makes my job here a bit more difficult than it needs to be. Terrible production, but I love it just the same. Maybe it's the setting, maybe the stars, maybe I just have a soft spot for Bigfoot movies and this is the only one to really capture the flavor of the areas where these stories emerge from. I just don't know. Maybe its that opening moment where we see Jasper and Elmer driving along in the woods and there's a bouncy tune on the radio, and Elmer is bobbing his head back and forth to the music and drawing a look of pity from Jasper. This embarrasses Elmer into stopping. Then we cut back a few seconds later and both men are bobbing their heads to the music.

    In the end, I think I've always been taken with the film by the reaction I had during my first viewing. It wasn't what I expected at all, but it was charming. Nothing nihilistic here. No comments about society. Just the story of a man trying to capture a monster by one of the back roads of our country. It's cute, for a monster movie, and we could all use a dash of cute from time to time (said the man whose job it is to draw cheesecake cartoons, and thus should be water-logged on cute). 

   I can only pray Image Entertainment releases a nice, widescreen version before my next birthday.

Joi, Jasper, and Hardrock.


  1. Years ago I read an article on low budget horror/ sci fi movies. The author stated, and I agree with him, that the female lead is the cheapest special effect with the most return for the budget. A busty, pretty girl delivers more than an expensive monster suit that should be kept in the shadows anyway.

  2. I'll go along with that up to a point, where it comes to depend on who is watching the movie. Most any kid who tunes in will want to see the monster, no matter how bad it may look (which is why that same viewer a few years later, such as myself, can have a certain amount of affection for any monster no matter how crummy it might look -such as the title beast in CREATURE OF DESTRUCTION, or ROBOT MONSTER). Once you hit your teens, then yeah, the girl becomes your focus and she becomes more important than seeing the monster. If I had been making BIGFOOT, I would have kept the monsters to the shadows and focused on my stars. (And I would have used a lot of close-ups to help take attention away from the cheap sets!)