Friday, November 29, 2019

The Man who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot - a thing of beauty

DISCLAIMER - My blog is an attempt to show respect to films some small minded, intellectually dishonest hipsters automatically label "bad". There is no film I discuss here that I believe to be bad at all.  The title of the blog comes from a discussion that took place some years ago when I was trying to explain the appeal of these films. The title is not meant to suggest I think these films are bad in the least.  Remember - ART IS ART!

I feel as though I’ve rewritten this essay about two dozen times. And then some reactions to a tweet sent by someone I greatly admire brought me to the point where I rewrote it again.

Perhaps some of you reading this know I don’t often discuss “newer” films.  With a handful of exceptions, I generally keep my cinematic ponderings to the 50s through the mid-90s.  I have my reasons for my general enjoyment and respect for that time period of movie making.  Nevertheless, there have been two recent films I will be writing about – and my thoughts today are on the film The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot.

Certainly, the title alone makes it difficult to provide any spoilers as the man in question, Calvin Barr, portrayed impeccably by Sam Elliot, does in fact kill Hitler and some decades later, bigfoot. But the story is so much more than that. Or at least it is to me. And a certain trend has endeared this movie to me all the more.  For the record, I am not vain enough to tell you that what I take from the film is what the creators had in mind at all.  But I believe film, like all great art speaks to each person and meets them where they are at.

I suppose a general synopsis of the film is needed before I begin to pontificate.  We meet Calvin Barr in 1987. Having had the honor of growing up around the men who fought in the second world war, Elliott’s quiet stoicism is familiar to me (and probably many people my age). He is at the age where one begins to take stock of their life and what will be left behind when they leave.  We are shown in flashbacks, with the younger Barr played perfectly by Aidan Turner, of Barr meeting the love of his life – a romance cut short by the war and we proceed to see Barr’s infiltration of a Nazi base to put an end to Hitler.

We meet a man who may have saved the world (although to do that he would have needed to kill Stalin too I suppose) but, takes no joy in having done it. This rings true to me. I can’t speak for others, but the men I have spoken with who fought in WWII, Korea or Vietnam took no joy in what they did – even if in doing so they saved others.  I never pushed the question, but I assume the reason for that is no person wants to take joy in death, even death perpetrated for the greater good (or at least perceived that way at the time). 

Back in 1987, Calvin gets a haircut from his brother Ed portrayed by comedian Larry Miller (a fave of mine) in a truly awe-inspiring dramatic turn.  He opens up to his brother about what weighs heavy on him.  The scenes between these two really affected me – in one scene Calvin asks to just sit next to his brother and say nothing.  And yet, as they sit there quietly, everything that needs to be said…is said.

We hear through news broadcasts of strange disappearances in Canada – what is going on?  A serial killer perhaps?  Representatives from the US and Canadian governments pay a visit to Barr and tell him what is killing people – Bigfoot, who carries disease and is wiping out people and animals at an alarming rate.  It turns out Barr is immune…and a tracker.  And once again Calvin Barr is called on to save the world.

I will leave some of the surprises and subplots for you to discover on your own – and I truly hope you do.  I always hope people will take the time to catch some of the films I write about if they haven’t seen them prior – but, I especially hope that is the case with this film. And, I’ll admit, much of that has to do with my age.

A quick perusal of my social media lately has introduced me to the phrase “OK Boomer”.  Now, I can take a joke as much as the next person and if I couldn’t take a bit of ribbing from time to time, I doubt I’d have any friends at all.  And, some of the “OK Boomer” things I’ve seen have been pretty funny.
And some of it hasn’t.

I’m not a boomer.  Missed it by two years.  And, of course, neither is Calvin Barr. But, there is a subtext to the “OK Boomer” trend that is a bit more nefarious than it seems on it surface.  And there was something about watching this film and seeing some of my peers dismissed and their views denigrated by the Boomer response that whipped me into a bit of a frenzy.

Calvin Barr is haunted by time…and regrets.  I would suggest that anyone who has actually tried to live a life will find that life, even one well lived, comes with regrets.  It is as unavoidable a part of life as breathing. Humans have the gift (or curse) of introspection and reflection. As one gets older, decisions are not made merely based on the facts at hand but with the weight of experience as well. Both Barr brothers deal with this.  In fact, Ed says of his brother “I didn't get to know Calvin the way a brother should, but I'll miss him. I always...missed him.”  When Calvin and Ed sit quietly, they are speaking and I think we they are talking about are their regrets – regrets of time lost, words said…and not said.

So Jake, you may be asking, what does this have to do with the “OK Boomer” meme? Well, I guess it is like this. I think each generation stomping around the planet right now should cut each other a bit of a break.  Parts of me haven’t changed – I have loved movies for as long as I can remember.  But at almost 53, I don’t know if I would even recognize me at 19.  And I think that is a good thing.  If anyone my age is unchanged from High School I think I’d feel bad for you.  I don’t think I’d much agree with 19-year-old me, but, I’m glad I had opinions at that age.  I’m glad I wasn’t just a blob of mindless nothingness, and I’m glad I’ve had three decades of experiences that have made me who am I today.

But, I’m also glad my kids are who they are as well.  They have not been idle bystanders, and I’m proud of that.  Do I believe when they are my age, they will feel the same about things as they do today.  On principle alone I hope not because I believe that means they stopped experiencing life and all it has to offer.  I hope they maintain a set of core beliefs but allow the lessons of living to teach them.

What I think the OK Boomer movement fails to realize at best, and chooses to mock at worst is, everyone comes to the table with the scars and regrets of fighting the battles day-to-day. So, just as I need to be less grumpy old man and realize the generation behind me is doing their best with the experiences that are building them, I feel that should be reciprocated. I’m not suggesting everyone needs to agree with one another – I fear a world of lockstep minions. I’m just suggesting each have some respect for one another because the opinions each hold are not snatched out of the ether but determined by what they experience day to day.

And that experience will bring about regrets…

Calvin and Ed Barr were honorable men – but that did not save them from regrets.  In fact, sometimes being honorable and making the decision for the greater good are the very decision that can cause the greatest pain of regret. And, I don’t know that I’ve seen a film recently that so poignantly portrayed that pain.  So, as a film with the unlikely title The Man who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot came to a close, I had to really take stock of my life.

So youngsters, before you let loose with your OK Boomer – take a moment to consider the ups and downs, pain and happiness and regrets that brought that person to the opinion or belief they have.  Likewise, Boomers and Gen X compatriots…maybe cut the kids a bit of a break. That was you once…and they are doing the best they can. In time, they will be you…but they must take the journey first.  Experience is earned… not given.

I watched this film on Hulu, but I will be picking up the physical media over the holiday season.  Do yourself a huge favor and check it out.  Come for the title…stay for the insight.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

The Genius of Charles B. Pierce

DISCLAIMER - My blog is an attempt to show respect to films some small minded, intellectually dishonest hipsters automatically label "bad". There is no film I discuss here that I believe to be bad at all.  The title of the blog comes from a discussion that took place some years ago when I was trying to explain the appeal of these films. The title is not meant to suggest I think these films are bad in the least.  Remember - ART IS ART!

Charles Pierce hard at work.

I consider the 1970s to have been a gift. So many great names come to mind when I think about that era and the amazing genre films it gave us. But I always feel like one name fails to get mentioned as often as it should - Charles B. Pierce.

Pierce, born in 1938, wrote and directed several great pictures.  But, perhaps his two best known and classic drive-in pictures, are The Legend of Boggy Creek and the truly spectacular The Town that Dreaded Sundown.

Classic newspaper ad

He began his career as a Television weatherman and afternoon kid's show host (not unlike the late, great Briggs Gordon who portrayed Uncle Briggs on WSIL's The Funny Company in the 70s until the early 80s.  A man who deserves an article as well).  From there he moved into commercial work with an advertising agency that was quite successful.  He took the success he had in commercial work and began a mockumentary style film about the Foulk Monster of Arkansas - a Bigfoot type of monster which had terrified the locals for a number of years.

In the 1970s, the topic of Bigfoot (or related creatures) was big business in books, television and especially genre pictures.  In fact, Pierce's work was not the first Bigfoot themed movie of the 1970s.  The John Carradine picture "Bigfoot" (yes I know 1970 is actually the last year of the 60s but work with me here). But in the 70s alone you also could enjoy The Legend of Bigfoot, The Creature from Black Lake, The Mysterious Monsters, The Capture of Bigfoot, and even the picture I discussed last week - Shriek of the Mutilated.  A search for Bigfoot on Amazon Prime or Hulu indicates the topic is alive even in the 21st century (although I'd have to imagine undisputed drone footage would be available by now to prove the existence once and for all).

Boggy Creek Lobby Card

Key to the thick tension of The Legend of Boggy Creek is the use of the mockumentary style of the film.  I wouldn't go so far as to say the film is a predecessor of the found footage film.  But the style is used in such a way one does get the feeling they are almost participants in the film and not simply observers. 

Seeing this film at the old Star-Vue drive-in was a thrill.  The movie unnerved me sufficiently as a kid I kept looking behind the car into the wooded area that surrounded the screen wondering what creatures lurked in the dark.  Realistically, probably just neighborhood kids hoping to catch a free movie but still...

Pierce's use of locals for the picture certainly adds gravity to the film.  Much the same way the first 15 minutes of 1999's The Blair Witch Project did.  Or, even to a greater extent, the classic Texas Chainsaw Massacre two years later. I think it is a commonality in the great horror films - that exciting but horrifying feeling you are watching something you weren't meant to see which makes you more implicated in what you are watching.  It is there to a small extent in Psycho, but it truly ramped up in the 70s with pictures like Boggy Creek, TCM, and with the killer POV motif, Halloween.

Boggy Creek Lobby Card

The picture was released in 1972, but I don’t recall seeing it until 1975 or 1976.  It was not unusual for films to make the drive-in circuit year after year, sometimes under different titles although that practice had declined significantly by the 70s.  For instance, I didn’t see The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or The Last House on the Left until the early 80s when those pictures would make the annual rounds.  Of course, with interest in Bigfoot being almost unwavering until the end of the decade, the film would manage to rack up profits for much of the decade.

As much as I adore The Legend of Boggy Creek, Pierce’s masterpiece would be the 1976 horror/mystery The Town that Dread Sundown which he directed from a screenplay by Earl Smith (also with a role in the film).  Part documentary and part conventional film, it tells the story of murder unsolved to this day in Texarkana. Over years of watching the film, I’m certainly not immune or unaware of some shortcomings.  But the deficiencies are few and far between and are in no way sufficient enough to reduce the overall classic nature of the film.  

...a true story

This film can also boast some amazing acting from the entire cast which features Ben Johnson, Andrew Prine, Dawn Welles and Charles B. Pierce himself as Patrolman A. C. “Sparkplug” Benson.  I may be a bit biased, but, I’ve always felt Pierce’s acting in the film is outstanding and he easily could have made a solid career as a character actor.

Pierce as Patrolman Benson

The film was successful enough, and ostensibly accurate enough, to generate a number of lawsuits from the families of some of the victims of the slayings.  In fact, just the legal wrangling after the films success is wild enough to write an entire essay detailing the complaints and the results.

The final sequence of the film is extremely well executed, and I think indicates the raw talent Pierce possessed.  A talent that was not entirely unnoticed as Pierce moved to California for a time where he became an acquaintance and associate of Clint Eastwood.

Pierce continued to work until 1988 and declining health began to take its toll. Even eventually having his arm twisted into making a 1984 sequel to Boggy Creek…which is not his finest work.  Pierce died in 2010 at the age of 71 living in a nursing home the last seven years of his life. However, Pierce left a rich legacy of amazing film.

In fact, his work made a significant enough impression that in 2014 “meta-sequel” also titled The Town that Dread Sundown.  The film is unique in that Pierce film is discussed and is, in fact, being watched by the residents in the park as the film opens.  It is an enjoyable film, but, one that is not altogether complimentary to Pierce or his son.  I would certainly suggest viewing it, but, being familiar with the original will help you enjoy the remake? reboot? Sequel? Even more.

I hope, as time goes on, Charles B. Pierce is mentioned along with the other titans of drive-in cinema. Although his work was not as visceral as H.G. Lewis or Romero I think film historians will one day discover his influence is felt in film today.  And I think every kid who got freaked out watching The Legend of Boggy Creek at the drive-in owes Mr. Pierce a sincere thank you…

The man... the legend

…so thank you Charles B. Pierce for being among those that made growing up in the 70s amazing!