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Sasquatch in The Seventies: A Bigfoot Movies Primer

 

Back in the 70s, many kids (not to mention many adults) thought that monsters were real.  In some places “Nessie” the Loch Ness Monster was the favorite, but in my hometown on suburban Long Island, Bigfoot was king.

Most of us had seen The Legend of Boggy Creek, or at least one of the Six Million Dollar Man Bigfoot episodes, and what we liked about Bigfoot was the sense of power: Bigfoot as a big hairy monster-guy who was strong enough to do whatever he wanted.

Playing games in the schoolyard, we’d argue over who got to play Bigfoot like we argued over who got to play Superman or The Hulk.

Now, decades later, revisiting Bigfoot movie classics, the appeal seems very different: it’s Bigfoot as rural nostalgia.

Far from symbolizing the coming of a new age of monsters, Bigfoot seems to symbolize the passing of an old age of wilderness.  Folk music, nature footage, wild animals, autumn leaves, bubbling streams: these, and not monster fights, are the hallmarks of the Bigfoot movie.

Within film history, the Bigfoot subgenre might be likened to 1950s Westerns (or early-60s Westerns like Lonely are the Brave) that show a consciousness that the Old West is passing away.  Whereas earlier Westerns celebrated the wildness of the frontier, these later Westerns lamented the end of the frontier.  Bigfoot movies have a similar lament, but by introducing the possibility of a monster, they temper their sadness with mystery and anticipation.

Let’s take a moment to differentiate the North American Bigfoot/Sasquatch from the Himalayan Yeti/Abominable Snowman.  The myths are similar, but they originated on opposite sides of the world.  People who believe in such things claim that the parallel myths are evidence that the creatures are real.

Several old horror-adventure films feature Yeti, including The Abominable Snowman, Man Beast, and The Snow Creature.  But those films were from the 50s.  Our business is the 70s.

Here, then, is a run-down of the Bigfoot movies of the 70s, with brief comments on each, and then some comparison to Bigfoot TV shows of the time.  I’ve written more extensively on several of these movies in my Claws & Saucers guidebook (see www.clawsandsaucers.com for info), but I hope you’ll enjoy my remarks below.  Here we go, in chronological order:

Bigfoot (1970)

This one appeared before the subgenre came into its own, but it does fit the “rural nostalgia” pattern, featuring many shots of trees, hills, forest animals, and pleasing deep colors in skies or leaves.

It’s a sort of exploitation comedy, and is best known not as a Bigfoot movie but as a John Carradine movie.  You can laugh at Carradine’s smarmy businessman character as you laugh at the obviously fake ape suits worn by the Bigfoot family in the woods.  So silly are the suits, that you will be reminded of the classic “Little Fur Family” children’s book by Margaret Wise Brown.

The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972)
 

This is the archetype.  It’s a little hard to believe that this slow, repetitive, fake documentary from Arkansas was a hit.  But the key is to see it as an eerie mood piece, a longing for the freedom and the beauty of dying wilderness, and not as a horror movie or even a monster movie.  You should at least watch the first 15 minutes and the last.  Id almost like to hear that terrible cry again,” says the narrator, “just to be reminded that there is still a bit of wilderness left, there are still mysteries that remain unsolved, and strange unexplained noises in the night.

Bigfoot: Man or Beast? (a.k.a. “Big Foot Man or Beast,” 1975)

This is the most respected of the real documentaries (as opposed to the fake ones), and it’s easy to see why.  It swells so fully with rural nostalgia that it borders on nature worship.  It rejoices that much of the Northwest is “uninhabited” and “unexplored.”  Most of the interviews take place in the woods.  One witness recalls “anguish” in the creature’s cry.  Lots of attention is given to the famous 1967 Patterson footage – still often seen as genuine.  The entire second half follows various expeditions led by charismatic Bigfoot hunter Robert W. Morgan: hiking, climbing, camping.  Bigfoot lives “with nature,” says Morgan.  “We, unfortunately, live in spite of it.  He’s part of nature; we create our own.  Perhaps… we can learn from him.”

The Mysterious Monsters (a.k.a. Bigfoot: The Mysterious Monster, 1976)

Reworking his popular 60-minute TV special Monsters! Mysteries or Myths? (1974), documentarian-director Robert Guenette here created the oddest of the real Bigfoot documentaries.  Instead of emphasizing interviews or expeditions as in Bigfoot: Man or Beast?, Mysterious Monsters emphasizes drawings, photos, or re-enactments of Bigfoot encounters in Boggy Creek style.  You might find it funny, but you might find it weird and even scary, as many fans did in the 70s.

Where Man or Beast sees nature as friendly and pretty, Mysterious Monsters sees it as sinister and strange.  Where Man or Beast features chipper banjoes and harmonicas, Mysterious Monsters features atonal violins and percussion.  These documentaries make fitting counterpoints to each other.  View them both, and you can enjoy the paradox of Mother Nature’s dangerous beauty.  Although sensationalized when compared with Man or Beast, it has a lot more action and variety.  So it’s worse as a documentary but better as a movie.  I think it’s great.  Peter Graves is the narrator.  The hypothetical reconstruction of Bigfoot culture, from 80:00-85:00, is the highlight.  Being that this is the 70s, Nessie gets about 10 minutes toward the beginning.  At 56:00, Graves consults a police psychic!

The Legend of Bigfoot (1976)

This brief half-fake documentary consists mostly of nature and travel footage.  It feels like a one-man show, with the narrator boasting of his lone ventures into uncharted Alaskan wilderness.  Once again you’ll get rural nostalgia, although some of the footage shows dead, wounded, or trapped animals.  It’s an obvious imitator of its predecessors but not bad in itself.

Creature from Black Lake (1976)

Many people love this one, but they love it as a Buddy movie rather than a Bigfoot movie, as we follow two college students from the North investigating Bigfoot in the South.  Again we get a longing for wilderness, but here the emphasis shifts toward country people rather than country animals.  The sincerity and simplicity of simple country life, small towns, and lazy days: this is what the filmmakers most admire.  A very pleasing movie.

Curse of Bigfoot (1976)

While hilariously incompetent, and a treat for “bad movie” fans, this is really an old Aztec Mummy imitator reworked in 1976 to cash in on the Bigfoot craze.  It doesn’t fit with any Bigfoot patterns because it’s not a real Bigfoot movie.

Sasquatch: The Legend of Bigfoot (1977)

This is my favorite, partly because it takes us to the Pacific Northwest where the real Bigfoot legends originated.  It is filled with nature footage, filled with idealistic narration.  It was quite an experience to watch the wildlife on every side,” says the expedition leader, “as we plunged deeper and deeper into this primitive country.”  Action is very brief, but the mood is surprisingly uplifting.  As you watch, you really feel like you’re in another time, another place.

Snowbeast (1977)

If Bigfoot and Yeti myths are parallel, it is natural to combine them on film.  From Snowbeast, we learn that Bigfoot doesn’t roam only in the West or only in the South because there are hundreds of them roaming around all over the country.  It’s a slicker movie than its predecessors, made for TV but with some known stars (including Yvette Mimieux from The Time Machine) and a decent budget.  But it’s not bad.  Snow-capped mountains are part of the appeal, although the emphasis is more on ski action and – briefly – light gore.




Manbeast! Myth or Monster (1978)

This is the last and least of the era’s feature-length documentaries.  Man or Beast and Mysterious Monsters are much more fun, but Manbeast takes itself seriously and offers several things that its more famous predecessors don’t, including extended footage in the Himalayas, and extended interviews with European and Russian researchers.  Where Man or Beast follows Robert W. Morgan’s exhibitions, Manbeast follows Peter Byrne’s.  It has some fun re-enactments with actors in ape suits.  As for rural nostalgia, it contrasts the “lush and green” world of long ago with the logging and destruction of the present.  Byrne himself is an ardent conservationist.  The documentary has a serene mood, and it evokes sympathy for Bigfoot who, if real, is surely heading for extinction.

Capture of Bigfoot (1979)

By 1979, the subgenre was nearly spent, but this late entry opens with rural nostalgia and folk music, as Bigfoot fans in the 70s would expect.  Later, it’s more of a cheap action film.  The story takes place in winter, and the monsters have white fur, so it’s a Yeti movie more than a Bigfoot one.  It’s pretty bad.




Revenge of Bigfoot (a.k.a. Rufus J. Pickle and the Indian, 1979)

This one is apparently lost, and more of a comedy than a Bigfoot movie, but I wanted to mention it for completeness.

Screams of a Winter Night (1979)

It’s really an anthology picture in the Amicus tradition, but the first story features a Bigfoot stalking young lovers in the woods.  It’s simple and brief, with little connection to real Bigfoot stories, but this sincere low-budget picture isn’t bad for horror fans.

Night of the Demon (1980)

I’ll include this since it was made in the 70s and prominently features a savage Bigfoot.  The monster attacks and kills at least a dozen victims.  It’s an exploitation picture, not really a Bigfoot one, but – wow – it’s fun for unrestrained gore.  Some parts are funny on purpose.  Watch it if you like to think of Bigfoot as a savage killer.



What of the Six Million Dollar Man “Bigfoot” episodes, you may ask?

Well, there are three of them, including “The Secret of Bigfoot” (2 parts, early 1976), “The Return of Bigfoot” (2 parts, late 1976), and “Bigfoot V” (1977).  These episodes are great fun, partly because “Secret” features Andre the Giant, because “Return” and “V” feature Ted Cassidy (Lurch!), because “Return” features a hideously bearded Jon Saxon, and because both “Secret” and “Return” feature Stefanie Powers in a tight blue jumpsuit.  “You’re like a breath of fresh air,” says Powers to Steve; “not only attractive and witty… but also bionic!”

All the SMDM Bigfoot episodes are filled with great action, fun music, and the funky “bionic echo” sound effects that made SMDM (and to a lesser extent, The Bionic Woman) such hits on 70s TV.  “Return” is my favorite of the episodes because it reaches epic scope, something not easily achieved on a small screen on a TV budget.  The volcano is plainly (a) fake or (b) stock footage, but it somehow looks good!  All the actors, Lindsay Wagner in particular, are convincing.  Bigfoot looks amazing – he’s probably the best-looking of all the Bigfoots of the 70s.

But… and this is a big but… the SMDM Bigfoot is not a “real” Bigfoot; he is a robot.  More than this, he is a robot created by aliens.  It’s pretty unnatural.  He has a mind of his own, and he has some raw grunting Bigfoot appeal, but we see his wires, transistors, control box, etc, and we are never allowed to forget he is really a robot.  Watching the SMDM episodes, you find yourself realizing that he doesn’t even need to be a Bigfoot robot; he might as well be a bear robot or man robot, or regular robot with no disguise at all.

This robot aspect explains why the SMDM Bigfoot episodes feel so different from the Bigfoot movies of the time.  The emphasis is on technology, not nature.  The “Return” episode, great as it is, has scarcely a single scene in the mountains.

The final “V” SMDM episode does offer many mountain wilderness scenes, so perhaps it is fitting that this episode also suggests that somehow the robot will eventually turn (mostly?) organic.  It’s pretty far-fetched that the aliens somehow set up a hibernation chamber that will transform machine parts to organic ones, but this is as close as SMDM gets to giving us a “real” Bigfoot, so fans might forgive the strange logic.  Actually, this third episode is oddly touching at the conclusion.

Bigfoot is mentioned in one episode of the Isis TV show (“Bigfoot,” 1975), but the supposed beast turns out to be a gentle mountain man with a beard and long hair.  It’s a letdown, although anything involving Joanna Cameron in short skirts and tall heels can’t be a total waste of time.

Bigfoot also appeared in a short-lived Bigfoot and Wildboy TV series made by the Krofft Brothers, 1976-77.

You can find clips at YouTube, and the theme song is fun, but Bigfoot speaks English and is more of a caveman than a “real” Bigfoot.  Aliens, mutants, and other unrealistic elements are prominent.  This series (like Land of the Lost, Far Out Space Nuts, and other Krofft Brothers stuff) is aimed at young kids, so it’s rather simplistic and uninteresting compared with SMDM.  Same goes for the deceptively-titled Return to Boggy Creek (1977) which is a simplistic kiddie movie with no connection to the real Boggy Creek.  Entertainment for kids, rather than rural nostalgia for adults, is the point.

Instead of watching the kiddie fare, you should check out the Bigfoot episode of In Search Of… (1977) if only to spend 22 minutes with Leonard Nimoy.  “In our modern world of concrete and steel, we’re far removed from the Indian lore of Bigfoot,” Nimoy tells us.  “It’s hard to imagine any corner of our crowded world where a giant man-like creature could roam free.”  It seems that rural nostalgia did make its way from the silver screen to the television screen after all.



What about quasi-Bigfoots?

In a blog post from 8/29/12, film historian John Kenneth Muir speculates that Star Wars‘ Chewbacca was partly inspired by the Bigfoot craze.  I think he’s right, and I’ll also add Cha-ka from Land of the Lost.

Muir attributes Bigfoot’s popularity to general fantasy appeal: in the confused days of the mid 1970s, people simply wanted to believe something fun and inspiring.  If Bigfoot could exist, Muir says, then “magic and innocence could still exist too.”

I agree with this, and I suppose this helps explain the popularity of Nessie, or ghosts, or ESP, or whatever else people wanted to believe at the time.  But in Bigfoot movies, the appeal is a little more specific.  In these movies, rural nostalgia – with its mix of wildness, mystery, and beauty – is the key.

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