Monday, July 30, 2018

"These Are Not Natural People" - Curse of Demon Mountain (1977)

Curse of Demon Mountain (1977) aka The Shadow of Chikara is something of a supernatural horror Western, which alone is enough to recommend it, but the starring presence of Mr. Joe Don Baker pushes the film into classic territory.

Some of your universe's reviewers fail to appreciate this film under any of its titles. For example, reviewer William on IMDB sums up the movie thusly: "Pretty amateurish film with bad sound, bad lighting, and a cameo by Slim Pickens." Reviewer Mr. Pulse writes, "Joe Don Baker has made some slip ups in his time but truly, Demon Mountain, or Shadow of Chikara as it is listed here has to be up at the top of the heap. The film hurts. I mean physical torture." Reviewer Ben Larson writes, confusingly I must say, "Well, they head to the cursed mountain, and they find diamonds along with the curse - too bad."

The film must be reviewed objectively, and clearly I must be the one to do it. Read on for details about the classic Curse of Demon Mountain, starring the classic Joe Don Baker...

The film begins, as do so many classics, with an informative text crawl about diamonds found in the volcanic mountains of northern Arkansas. These diamonds are named The Uncle Sam Diamond, The Star of Murfreesboro, and the Star of Arkansas. The text ends with “All are gems of purest quality.”

After the information is presented, the film moves on to a battle of the Civil War. We are introduced to Confederate Captain Wishbone Cutter, played by the great Joe Don Baker, who is told by a subordinate, “There is artillery there, there, and there.”

Mr. Don Baker responds, “Damn.”

(It must be said that few cinematic pleasures are more effective than the sight of Mr. Joe Don Baker in a Civil War uniform.)

Under orders, he leads his soldiers to certain doom. After much violence, Mr. Don Baker calls for retreat. His men are overwhelmed by the Union forces, to the immortal strains of the classic song “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by the band The Band.

Mr. Don Baker, after killing a Union soldier by throwing a tomahawk, learns from his dying commanding officer, played by Slim Pickens, that the Buffalo River hides a fortune in diamonds.

“Watch yourself on that mountain,” says Mr. Pickens. “It’s spooky up there.” It seems the Native Americans are afraid to go to the section of the river on the mountain, which makes it the perfect place to hide diamonds.

Mr. Don Baker returns to his home, only to find that everyone believes he was killed, including his wife—who, incidentally, looks like a suspect in a 1970s TV detective show. With nowhere to go, Mr. Don Baker and a half-Native American, half-Irish friend named Half-Moon O’Brien decide to team up with a geologist friend (one of many geologist friends, perhaps) to look for the diamonds.

The group is immediately attacked by an unseen enemy firing arrows. While making a hasty retreat, Mr. Don Baker rescues a woman played by a dazed Sondra Locke, impressively carrying her on his back while riding a horse.

After they dump Sondra Locke in a river to snap her out of her daze, she strikes up a quick romance with the geologist. She also describes the people who attacked her: “They were strange. They were almost naked and their bodies were painted all silvery.”

At night, in a suspenseful sequence, Half-Moon O’Brien is attacked by an arrow and sees a patch of mist floating through the forest. After the attack, Half-Moon says, “It’s a strange people, Captain. Why do they track us so cleverly then strike just once? And then disappear?” He adds, “They move like a fog through the forest, leaving no trace.”

“Well, if you’re trying to scare me, you’re doing it,” says Mr. Don Baker.

The next night, their horses are cut free. Half-Moon tracks the horses, finally bringing them back in the morning. The horses are covered with claw marks. “I fear no man, Captain, you know that,” says Half-Moon. “But these are not natural people. They’re spirits. Demons.”

Soon they meet two crazy old men in the woods, one of whom doesn’t talk but rather dances and plays the harmonica—his name is Dancer.

After our protagonists leave the cabin of the crazy old men, the weather immediately turns snowy; the ground is covered with snow, though the filmmakers have not seen fit to show any snow falling. Also, we find out the crazy old men are part of a group of bushwackers who attempt to ambush Mr. Don Baker and his friends—after they leave the cabin, for unexplained reasons. The geologist, however, has a clever plan: of course, he has brought dynamite with him, so some well-placed sticks will cause a landslide, burying the bushwackers in their hiding place.

Mr. Don Baker says gleefully, “That’s a hell of a good idea.”

The plan appears to work as intended, though all of the bushwackers are not killed and are now intent on revenge.

In the next scene, all the snow is suddenly gone. Mr. Don Baker spots a rock near the hidden diamonds. Camping at night, they hear a scream and find one of the bushwackers with an arrow through him and blood on his face. The spirits are still following them. “I wonder why they’re mad at us,” says Mr. Don Baker.

“They’re demons,” replies Half-Moon.

The next morning, they find the hill where the diamonds are purported to be hidden. Half-Moon, surprised where they are (perhaps indicating his abilities as a tracker are less robust than previously indicated), says it is called the Mountain of Demons.

“You mean you actually believe there’s some connection between this place and the attacks on us?” asks the geologist.

Half-Moon explains the legend of Chikara, an eagle who protected people on the mountain but who was killed by a medicine man, though the spirit of Chikara came back and kills everyone. “Anyone who enters this sacred ground will die.”

Then he says, “You go ahead. I’ll catch up.”

They explore a cave with torches, repeatedly asking each other if they see rocks and replying that there are plenty of rocks but nothing valuable. Half-Moon says the mountain is filled with many, many caves.

The next day, a natural landslide results in the death of all the horses, as well as Half-Moon. Ms. Locke also falls off a cliff, but she hangs on, to be rescued by Mr. Don Baker, piggy-back style.

After the rescue, Mr. Don Baker realizes the stones must be in a deep pit at the mouth of the cave. The geologist is lowered into the hole, where he immediately finds some bags. (We view the entire sequence from the top of the cave, eliminating the creepiness of the dark hole but emphasizing the mechanics of lowering a man into a hold and then pulling him back up.) They open the bags and see the diamonds, which the geologist assesses with his handy jeweler’s loupe. “They’re diamonds all right.”

Mr. Don Baker cackles like a forty-year-old sideburned schoolgirl.

Exhausted, Mr. Don Baker sleeps while the others keep watch. Unfortunately for the geologist, an arrow slices through his throat while he is trying to have a romantic tryst with Ms. Locke. Mr. Don Baker and Ms. Locke hole up in the cave for the night...and nothing at all happens.

In the morning, however, the filmmakers make the bold choice (or perhaps a contractual obligation) to have Mr. Don Baker kiss Ms. Locke. She forgets all about the geologist and the two make love.

However, there are more mysteries to reveal. In the surprising and quite mystical ending, the true identity of Chikara is revealed, and more lives are lost.

Written, produced, and directed by Arkansas filmmaker Earl E. Smith--writer of The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972), The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976), and co-writer of the Dirty Harry movie Sudden Impact (1983) which stars Sondra Locke and her husband Clint Eastwood--Curse of Demon Mountain lives up to two-thirds of its title, as it features a curse and a mountain, though no actual demons. Ambiguously supernatural, it keeps its central mysteries going throughout much of the running time. One mystery is the identity of the ghostly killers who occasionally shoot arrows at people. The other central mystery is the subtle question of Joe Don Baker's character's sexuality, as he repeatedly insults Sondra Locke's character and threatens to leave her behind, despite carrying her piggyback multiple times. Only in the end do we see Mr. Don Baker and Ms. Locke in a surprising embrace, putting to rest the fascinating question of whether losing the Civil War has affected Captain Wishbone Cutter's sexual preferences.

Like diamonds found deep inside an Arkansas cave, Curse of Demon Mountain is a hidden gem made all the more powerful by the presence of national treasure Joe Don Baker.