"It happened... TWO MILLION YEARS AGO!" These are the first words we hear in Curse of Bigfoot. The movie then attempts to bring us back to the present... in real-time.
We open with eerie music — not only eerie, but eerily familiar music. On the screen, we see what appears to be oddly-colored smoke. Before long, we begin to suspect that the "oddly-colored smoke" is merely a normal, cloudy sky depicted on badly-faded film stock. At last, the "smoke" (or whatever it is) clears, and we see before us a stretch of palm trees and swamp. Ah, we think: Florida. Seems like an odd place to set a movie about the cryptic man-beast of the Pacific Northwest, but perhaps they'll explain.
Enter the Stentorian Narrator (it's never a good sign when a movie begins with a Stentorian Narrator). "It happened... TWO MILLION YEARS AGO!" he says. He goes on to explain that what we're seeing is one of the "steaming swamps and prehistoric jungles" of the ancient past. And we think: uh, no. That's Florida.
The Stentorian Narrator gives us some highly questionable information about the evolution of hominids. For example, he tells us the emergence of modern man occured some time in the Pleistocene epoch, which is a solid statement... but he refers to this as "just thousands of years ago", which is a drastic understatement. You might get the impression Man went directly from walking upright to bulding the pyramids... He also refers to the earliest hominid as "a monster of evolution" — which isn't very fair, even if you do buy the whole teleological assumption that Man is the be-all and end-all of life on Earth1. He goes on to tell us that Man's evolutionary development did not come about smoothly and gradually, but rather in bursts; this may indeed be true. Unfortunately, he follows this with the far less supportable statement that early man was frequently "terrified... by the appearance of a monster from the past!"
At this dramatic point in the narration, we get a good look at our monster — it's never a good sign when we see the monster before the opening credits. It's worse when we not only see the monster, but the costume turns out to be a complete embarrassment. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is the half-human horror that our cast will be fleeing from for the rest of the movie:
If the movie's footage is to be believed, this is the monster that so terrified Early Man that it caused him to drop his ketchup bottle:
Now that we've had our worst suspicions confirmed, the title credits begin, over the imposing backdrop of ruined Anasazi cliff dwellings & pueblos; and we...
...wait a minute. We started this movie expecting Oregon; the prologue made us expect Florida; and now we're in the Arizona desert? Hmm. I suspect we're not in Kansas anymore2.
After a montage of archeological sites in the Southwestern desert, we find ourselves looking up at the sun through the leaves of some deciduous trees. I have no idea where we are now; it's never a good sign when a movie switches locations so many times in the first five minutes. The camera takes us to the front of a small house. We see the house from various angles... the porch... the window... and then we're back to the sun shining through the trees.
Suddenly, we catch sight of a crusty-faced zombie shambling through the trees!
The zombie's make-up is just about as bad as the costume on the monster we saw in the prologue, and I suppose that gives us some kind of continuity... Still, there's no getting away from the fact that we're looking at a zombie, a walking dead guy in an old-fashioned button-up coat, and definitely not Bigfoot. It's never a good sign when the movie switches monsters on us without even a w... oh, you get the idea.
Meanwhile, the camera continues its unhealthy fascination with the outside of the house.
In the front yard, an adorable black lab notices the zombie and starts barking. After a long moment, the dog's owner comes out of the house, and we get the awful suspicion that these establishing shots of bright, cheery sunshine are supposed to represent the middle of the night. Sure enough, she berates the dog for waking up the neighbors. When the dog seems likely to keep barking, she gives it a bowlful of milk. We get to watch the happy dog drink the entire bowl of milk, while the woman babbles endearments and the zombie gives us a slow-motion illustration of Zeno's Paradox.
Sated by the milk, the dog remains silent as the zombie continues his glacial advance. His intended victim is equally obliging: she sits still, staring straight at the dog, never moving her head even slightly and thus never catching a glimpse of the monster looming behind her. Just as the zombie is about to lean forwards and — I don't know: bite her? kiss her? ask her for directions? — just as he's about to do something, for land's sakes... the teacher switches off the power to the movie projector, and we find ourselves in a high school classroom circa 1975. Yes, it was all a film-within-the-film. The students complain that the teacher turned off the movie just as it was getting to the "good part", which makes us wonder if they were watching the same footage we were.
The class is dedicated to... well, we might be charitable and call it "cryptozoology", but let's just be honest and call it Boogeyman Studies 101. After all, it seems to be taught with the intellectual rigor of your average episode of "In Search Of...", minus the charm of Leonard Nimoy. Yes, even back in the 70's it seems our tax dollars were being used to fund a high school class on the serious study of myths and monsters (including, by the way, a few topical movie references to exorcisms and Great White Sharks). I think we are back in Kansas.
It's the last class of the year, and the teacher is expecting a special guest speaker to come in and tell them all about his personal experiences. Years ago, the guest speaker had a face-to-face encounter with the creature known as... Bigfoot. Unfortunately, the speaker hasn't shown up yet, so the teacher has some time to kill. And kill it he does, ruthlessly. Under the excuse of telling the kids about the history of Sasquatch sightings, he interrupts Curse of Bigfoot for a seven-minute educational film on the logging industry...
Eventually, the film gets back on-topic, as it shows us the story of how two loggers were apparently attacked by a Sasquatch. We're treated to long, long sequences — almost a minute longer then the interminable logging footage — of one or both men walking through the woods, interrupted on occasion by POV shots accompanied by heavy breathing, or by shots of hairy feet in the underbrush. When the attack finally occurs, it's mostly off-screen. We may wonder why the movie is being so coy, since the prologue wasn't shy about revealing the monster suit.
(In a few minutes, our question will be answered.)
So here we are, half an hour into an eighty-eight minute movie, and the plot hasn't even begun to get moving. I was tempted to describe all these false starts as "padding", but that wouldn't be true: the idea of "padding" suggests that there's some existing substance to be filled out. As Gertrude Stein said about From Justin to Kelly, "There's no there there."
Finally, just as one of the high school students is bringing some sense back to the class by mentioning that one of the monsters they're talking about may have been invented, the long-awaited guest speaker shows up. He appears in the doorway unnoticed while the boy is speaking... and immediately starts castigating the poor kid for daring to suggest that monsters might not be real.
The mystery guest turns out to be an ex-high school science teacher named Roger Mason. Mason is every kid's worst nightmare of a teacher: he's bitter and withdrawn, and has a tendency to go off on his students over his own personal issues... Although he does recover himself and apologize to the students for his outburst, as he begins his talk we realize that he's an awful public speaker.
Mason warns his audience that the ordeal he and his students went through fifteen years ago was so horrifying that several of the students involved had to be permanently institutionalized. Since it's clear the real body of the movie will be Mason's flashback, we worry that we may end up the same way... or at very least, that we'll have to put up with his stilted narration for the next hour. "Let me start... at the beginning," he says, and we cringe. Haven't we been stuck at the beginning for the last thirty minutes?
As the "flashback" begins, we're in for yet another shock: it's the return of the Stentorian Narrator from the opening! At least he's not Mason, and at least he doesn't start in again by declaiming: "It happened... TWO MILLION YEARS AGO!" However, the Narrator does inform us that "it began a year ago", which is enough to make even seasoned Bad Movie viewers start to whimper softly — after all, we've just been informed that the events occured fifteen years ago. Does this mean we're flashing back from a flashback? Is it now sixteen years ago? Perhaps two million and sixteen years ago?
From this point on, the movie looks like it dates from the early sixties at the very latest. It's obvious that this main part of the movie is a fragment of unfinished film from an earlier production, which has been — ahem — "creatively expanded" with new scenes. I've seen websites that date the original movie back to 1958; I have no idea how accurate this is, nor if it was directed by the man credited with the "finished" version from the 70's. We've been promised a Special Edition DVD for years now, which was supposed to include a mini-documentary on the evolution of the film — evolution! ha, ha! — but since we're still waiting for the disc, I'll just have to keep guessing.
It is clear that the reason the new footage doesn't show us the Bigfoot costume very clearly is that the film-makers no longer had the original Bigfoot costume. Certainly the costume didn't look sturdy enough to last all the way through filming (and I've never heard of hominid extinction being blamed on "a touch of the moth"). There's also a good possibility that they used their only monster suit in the big Creature Destruction scene at the end of the movie.
By the way: have I mentioned we've changed location again? Forget Oregon, Florida, Arizona or anywhere else: now we're going to Ivanpah, California! (Oh, the frog of my mind is ill-prepared for the industrial-strength blender which is Curse of Bigfoot: I'm spun, I'm shredded, but I end up going nowhere but in circles.)
Amazingly enough, young Mr. Mason is played in this earlier footage by the same actor (Bob Clymire) who plays the old, embittered Mr. Mason in the newer bits. Here the younger, less crabby Mason has brought seven of his advanced students to an archaeological site, where they're to participate in an extracurricular summer program headed by Dr. Bill Wyman. Now, the Stentorian Narrator has taken pains to remind us that "archaeologists are highly-trained, specialized scientists"... bear that in mind as you see the expert guidance Dr. Wyman gives his students.
For instance, Wyman gives an impromptu translation of some ancient pictographs on the side of a cliff. "They tell of the history of a great Indian tribe, one that lived around here thousands of years ago," he says. "There were two chiefs in the tribe, and many many braves. They hunted the deer and the rabbit with bows and arrows." Fascinating. I wonder how many research grants it took to come up with that information? It's amazing he neglected to throw in the words "heap big" while he was at it.
Wyman is helping the kids get a feel for field work, expecting them to find nothing more than a few uninteresting shards of pottery, when he suddenly exclaims over a simple rock one of the boys has picked up. It's not a very interesting-looking stone, and the boy has kept it just to add it to his rock collection. But Wyman recognizes it as an eolith, a Palaeolithic stone tool so old the "Pala-" and "-ic" have worn off its description. A human artifact this old should not have been lying around on the surface; yet this is where the boy found it.
Looking around, the group notices a small outcropping just over the place where the eolith was found. It's barely visible, so it could be that some early human artifacts have lain there unnoticed. Wyman, Mason and the boys climb up the cliff to investigate, while — big surprise here — the girls wait below. If only there was a coffeemaker nearby...
Up on the cliff, the men-folk find a stone with some curious and apparently man-made marks on it. Wyman suggests that it may be as old as a hundred thousand years (!). The boys decide to try to pry it up and take it back with them, though the rock seems to be stuck in place with a curiously cement-like mud. The stone turns out to be a seal for some sort of cave; when it is finally pried loose, weird smoke pours out of the opening.
If the guys would only stop and listen to the soundtrack, they'd realize opening the cave was a very bad thing to do: in the background, we hear the most familiar bit of science-fiction library music ever. High strings and vibraphone: you probably know exactly which music I mean, and if you don't recognize it from my description, you will when you hear it. As two of the boys and Dr. Wyman prepare to descend into the darkness, we're treated to even more stock library music, this time a cue which had been used to great effect in The Blob.
The intrepid archaeologists have no lamps, but surprisingly enough they don't need them. They are able to see perfectly well in the lightless cave (we, on the other hand, could use a little extra light). Apparently, what they've found is an indescribably ancient Self-Storage unit, full of pottery and other artifacts which are all whole and perfectly preserved. Wyman theorizes that pots of burning herbs might have been sealed into the cave to keep everything from deteriorating.
The biggest discovery comes in a far chamber of the cave: one of the boys comes across an ancient mummy encased in mud. Obviously, this is a find of overwhelming archaeological importance, so Wyman has the kids leave everything exactly as they found it. Then they go back to get help from the Museum, so a team of seasoned professionals can come out, photograph everything in its undisturbed state, and begin the slow, painstaking examination of these priceless relics in situ...
Of course you realize I'm kidding. What Wyman really does is this: he lets the kids pick up the ancient pots and carry them around thoughtlessly; he lets them take armfuls of stuff out of the cave so they can "examine them properly" outside; and, of course, he relies on a bunch of high school kids and their teacher to rig up a gurney so they can yank the mummy out of the cave and haul it by truck to somebody's shed.
After the mummy has been moved, one of the boys thinks he sees the mummy's hand begin to twitch...
Chances are I know what you're thinking at this point. What on earth does an ancient Indian mummy have to do with Bigfoot? Nothing at all, really. This flick started life as a movie called Teenagers Battle the Thing, and while there may have some intended connection with the first big Bigfoot craze of the late 1950's, the finished product was explicitly tied in with ol' Sasquatch to capitalize on the real Bigfoot craze of the 1970's3.
You'll have guessed that the mummified Thing does come back to life and go on a rampage. You may be surprised how limited a rampage he goes on, even for a movie from 1958: the total body count for the picture is one, and that's a character introduced solely to be killed. None of the protagonists are menaced very seriously by the monster, who stalks through the lemon groves without even running into Ray Dennis Steckler. As for the original title... there are teenagers, and there is a Thing; the Thing stands still obligingly while the teenagers soak it with gasoline and toss a flare at it. Does that constitute a battle?
And in case you're concerned by the fact I've given short shrift to the actual monster scenes in this movie, the fault is entirely the film's. Really, the only entertaining scenes in the whole movie take place while we're waiting for the mummified critter to wake up and get to rampaging. It's then that two of the kids decide to go into town... for "a bottle of pop". And said bottle of pop is going to cost ten cents, plus three cents for deposit4. They go into town in spite of the misgivings of the kid who thought the mummy moved... they don't take him seriously because he "watches television a lot." So a high school boy and girl go together into town... at night... in the dark... through the shadowy citrus groves... and what do they do? They buy a bottle of pop and come right back. There's not even a hint of naughtiness going on here. They even hold hands coming back — not because it's romantic, but because they don't want to get lost. Good grief. That mummy isn't the only thing that seems like it's been buried for a hundred thousand years.
Yes, this is a terrible movie; one of the worst, in fact. I think if you were to add up all the monster attack scenes, they would barely add up to a minute. On the other hand, if you were to sum the time spent on meaningless static shots, it would add up to TWO MILLION YEARS. Even so, I will be among the first in line to buy the Special Edition DVD... provided it ever comes out. The official web site for the company that was supposed to produce the DVD has been replaced by one of those annoying "placeholder" sites, so I have grave doubts.
I get the impression that the average Bigfoot movie is actually worse than the run-of-the-mill Giant Shark movie, Ginat Insect movie or Haunted House on Long Island movie. It may be that the whole idea of Bigfoot isn't really conducive to good film-making. According to "specialists" like the late Dr. Grover Krantz, encounters with Bigfoot suggest that the beast itself isn't very bright. For instance, reports suggest that when a Sasquatch attacks a building, he attempts to push it down from the corner. Nevertheless, I think if you were to hand a Sasquatch a movie camera, it would be hard-pressed to come up with something worse that Curse of Bigfoot, even if the Sasquatch in question didn't exist.
1. Actually, tragically enough, "end-all" may turn out to be an appropriate description.
2. And considering the movie's stance on evolution so far, we'd probably better stay out.
3. It may be difficult for those who weren't there at the time to realize exactly how popular Bigfoot was in the 70's. He not only popped up in the movies, but also had guest appearances on "The Six Million Dollar Man", his own TV series ("Bigfoot and Wildboy"), and several lines of action figures. I would have been nine when Curse of Bigfoot was released to television in 1976; and I remember that once I saw it, it immediately became an important part of my life. For reasons I can't begin to fathom now, at that time I actually liked the Bigfoot suit (it looks a little better in black and white); I can remember being a little disappointed that my Bigfoot action figure didn't look anything like it.
My action figure, by the way, wasn't the Kenner Bigfoot made to tie in with the "Six Million Dollar Man"; I spurned that incarnation, though my neighbor had one. No. Mine was a hard-plastic model with moving limbs. It was a snap-together, and think it had glow-in-the-dark teeth. I never attached the head to the body so I could make up gruesome demises for it. Nobody seems to remember this model... even on the Internet, where there's a site for practically everything.
I also seem to remember that the Bigfoot toy that came closest to resembling the crummy suit in the movie was the cheap, half-molded toy from an Evel Knievel Snake River Canyon play set... I think I had this, even though I pointedly did not have an Evel Knievel action figure. What was Bigfoot doing in the Evel Knievel Snake River Canyon play set, you ask? Like I said, Bigfoot was everywhere at the time.
And in case anyone is wondering, I am perfectly aware that "action figure" means "doll for boys"... I am not only unashamed of having played with "action figures", I'm unashamed of having played Curse of Bigfoot with my "action figures", using the green couch in our living room as the cliffs.
4. And that's about eight cents more than they spent on the Bigfoot costume.