Come sit around the campfire and let me spin you a tale of a more innocent time. 1972, to be exact. The year when a G-rated horror film like Charles B. Pierce’s The Legend of Boggy Creek could make a killing and become an absolute phenomenon. Not only did it cement the areas in and around southwest Arkansas as the United States’s prime real estate for bigfoot creatures and those that would capture the poor beast, it began a rash of independent, regional filmmaking that found its way onto double bills and in drive-ins across the country. You may not believe the tale but one such exists about a small southern burg, some folks who lived there, and the millions of dollars they printed out of thin air with little more than some competent nature footage and a stone-faced delivery of what amounted to a sideshow carnival attraction.
Wikipedia lists The Legend of Boggy Creek as a “1972 American docudrama horror film” which is, in reality, a bunch of words doing some heavy lifting in the service of a subgenre that really doesn’t exist. Part travelogue, part horror film, and part documentary, had The Legend of Boggy Creek turned out to be an industrial film for the Arkansas Department of Tourism that simply escaped the lab and terrorized the southern drive-ins for years, I would have been neither surprised nor mad upon discovery of the fact. For this is a film that is so non-traditional in structure, so bereft of narrative, and so bankrupt of actual scares, that it will likely, and sadly, eventually be lost to time as it’s tough to imagine generations unfamiliar with drive-ins and the type of films programmed for them cottoning to it.
But to understand The Legend of Boggy Creek’s inexplicable success and to get into its skin, the viewer has to cast themselves back to a time in which the vaguest of urban legends could wind their way through the media of the time and become sensationally real. If you never sat with jaw agape while watching an episode of Leonard Nimoy’s In Search of…, never had Orson Welles scare the absolute shit out of you by telling you the world was going to end in short order in The Man Who Saw Tomorrow, or who bought every single thing, no matter how fantastic, either Real People or That’s Incredible! put in front of you, The Legend of Boggy Creek might prove to be less than effective.
But for those on the ground at the time, The Legend of Boggy Creek was really something. You may have noticed that I really haven’t mentioned much about the film’s plot and there’s a very good reason for that as the film doesn’t have one. Instead, the film acts as the memories of a little-seen narrator (voiced by Vern Stierman) who recounts his time as a boy in the tiny town of Fouke, Arkansas, a blip on the map that is about forty-five or so miles south of Texarkana. A town with little more than a main street and numerous winding roads that lead back into a dark thicket of swampland and creek canals, Fouke would be a town you’d likely miss if not for its legend of the Fouke Monster, a giant, hairy creature who lives deep in the bottoms and emerges on occasion to terrorize the inhabitants of the town and all points surrounding same.
Like Oliver Stone’s JFK, the film throws a ton of information and anecdotes at the audience but ultimately presents a very weak case for its subject matter. When it’s all boiled down to the brass tacks, the Fouke Monster could just be an elaborate grift by the various members of the family Crabtree, a seemingly endless number of people who pop up throughout the film to make mention of their encounters with the monster. The film (almost laughingly) wants us to believe that about three different Crabtrees had some kind of encounter with the monster but never told one another for fear of disbelief, running counter to my experience with the way families communicate in rural parts of the country. Yes, I’m sure that over many drunken hunting trips, fishing excursions, and family get-togethers, not a one of them ever uttered a peep about their encounter. It’s actually easier to think that the Fouke Monster might have come about in conversation over a case of Coors and a dwindling fire pit in the same way the Amityville Horror scam was cooked up by deadbeats George and Kathy Lutz and underwritten by the terminally unserious Ed and Lorraine Warren.
Of course, veracity is hardly the point here. The Legend of Boggy Creek is really just a relaxed and lazy carnival ride and the more ingrained one is with this part of the country, the more tactile the experience will be. And it’s not without its moments of effectiveness. Some of the dusky shots surrounding the run down and rustic shacks still inhabited by people have an eerie stillness to them and Pierce does a good job keeping the creature mostly hidden by brush and quick edits. Disguised as a horror film, it is just as much a celebration of a tiny American community on the brink of extinction that has likely been given a 75 year lease on life due to this film.
Does shrinking this film down to television screens and forever anchoring it in living rooms diminish its power as a film? Certainly. But the film’s influence has a shadow that has been cast so long that it’s almost forever rooted itself as a piece of American folklore in that part of the country. The Fouke monster has spread into the southwestern part of Oklahoma where Bigfoot tourism creates no small amount of tax revenue. And could there be something to the notion that The Legend of Boggy Creek was one of the first films to graft a flimsy true and supernatural story onto film, thereby creating an entire phenomenon? Where the people who owned the actual Long Island Amityville house eventually had to remodel it to ward away tourists who would forever stop and snap pictures of it, Fouke has welcomed the attention. For the main highway into town has been renamed the Monster Parkway and there is most definitely a Monster Mart just to the north of the Boggy Creek Cafe.
“I’d still like to hear his lonely cry just to know that there is still a little bit of wilderness left and there are mysteries that remain unsolved,” the film’s narrator pleads at the end. Despite the cottage industry The Legend of Boggy Creek has created in its corner of the world regarding swamp monsters and the like, it never really creates the notion that there’s anything mysterious going on in Fouke. But what it has proven is that, no matter how sophisticated a society we become, there will always be plenty of carnival marks. And, for the sake of our sense of wonder, that’s not at all a bad thing. God bless America.
(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain