Monday, July 15, 2019

“Shoot Our Breakfast to Us with a Cannon” - The Crater Lake Monster (1977)

While nearly all lake/swamp/bog monster movies are bona fide classics (see, for instance, Bog and Island of the Fishmen), one of them rises above the others. Of course, I am referring to stop motion enthusiast William R. Stromberg's only directorial effort, The Crater Lake Monster (1977).

Here are some examples of your universe's top critics' reactions to the film. The famed critic swedzin writes, eloquently if incorrectly, "...don't come near this film, it's bad, boring, lame, it doesn't apply to your mind, it just repel off your head. Nothing special happens… just boring, boring stuff." Even more famed critic callanvass writes, "This is one of the worst movies i have ever seen it's EXTREMELY boring with lots of boring dialog and has some VERY annoying characters and a laughable looking creature." And the still more famed critic MooCowMo writes, "The Crater Lake Monster is easily one of the most awful, amateurish film I've ever seen."

Needless to say (as I always say), these critics are quite mistaken. Please read on to experience the wonders of The Crater Lake Monster...

The film begins with the camera flying across a lake, quickly establishing the mysteries: Is this Crater Lake? Is there a monster? The answers will be revealed in due time.

A man known only as Doc sits on the porch of his cabin, reading a book by the dim light of a lantern in broad daylight (or rather, in cinematic terms, broad day-for-night-light; reportedly, the distributor Crown International Pictures forgot to tint nighttime scenes). His paleontologist friend Dan runs up onto the porch and tells him about an exciting discovery. The crotchety Doc replies, “I wish you’d start making your discoveries in the daytime for a change. You’re always bugging me at all hours on the night.”

They race away in Dan’s van; Doc has left so hurriedly that he leaves the fire burning on the porch.

They drive to an old mine, where they don hardhats and carry flashlights into the dark. Dan explains that the mine used to be an “Indian cavern” (whatever that is). “We’ve broken into a new tunnel that I believe will confirm all the legends we’ve ever heard about this place.”

“Well, here it is,” Dan says.

“Here is what?” asks Doc in an example of what English teachers might call nonparallel sentence structure.

Dan and his assistant Susie show Doc a cave drawing of men with spears fending off what appears to be a plesiosaurus!

Dan takes this as proof positive that some dinosaurs survived all the way into the Age of Man. (For the sake of movie thrills, we will gloss over Dan’s understanding of the term “proof positive”.)

The audience is unable to process the importance of this amazing discovery, as the film cuts to a flaming meteor crashing into the lake.

The meteor collapses the mine tunnel, and Doc, Dan, and Susie run for their lives.

The next morning, Doc meets Sheriff Steve (played by co-screenwriter Richard Cardella) at a local diner. The purpose of their meeting is never explained, but they decide to drive together to join Dan and Susie, who are planning to dive into Crater Lake to find the meteor. For some reason, Steve doubles as a boat pilot, taking them to the middle of the lake, while Dan scans the lake with binoculars for no apparent reason.

Based on no information whatsoever, they stop the boat and Dan and Susie, wearing wetsuits, jump into the water.

As they sit in the boat, Doc and Steve explain the plot. The pipe-smoking Doc says that Dan is upset about what happened last night. “He uncovered some old cave drawings, and I’m afraid this meteor robbed him of his discovery. But he still has to try to get back into the cave. It’s too damned important not to.”

“Why doesn’t he just give up?” asks Steve, sensibly.

“Dedication,” replies Doc. “Almost every museum in the country has one of his artifacts. I know he may seem a bit zealous, but he has reason to be.”

Against all odds, Dan and Susie find the meteor within minutes, though it is too hot to bring out of the lake. They do not mention the giant egg that sits about a foot away from the glowing red meteor.

Later, a hiker is attacked by something that emerges from the lake and takes on the camera’s point of view. Fortunately for the audience, the filmmakers do not waste time with suspense tactics, and they show the magnificent Crater Lake Monster almost immediately.

The man trips over his camp chair and screams. The filmmakers cut to a poetic wide shot of the lake as the hiker meets his presumed demise.

Sheriff Steve takes a phone call from a witness who saw the monster in the lake. This allows for some well-timed comic business in which Steve uses a flyswatter to kill a fly, then checks off a new score on a sheet of paper taped to the wall. (Humorously, the paper is never explained, so the audience is left to wonder what the two hash marks next to “Flies” might mean. Did the flies kill Steve two times? We will never know.)

Next, Steve investigates the disappearance of a bull on Mr. Ferguson’s ranch. Steve speaks to Mr. Ferguson: “As you and the Cattlemen’s Association know, Mr. Ferguson, rustling’s still a problem in some parts of the country, but I can’t figure why anybody would come all the way up here just to steal your bull.”

Elsewhere, the monster glides through the lake, its stomach presumably full of fresh beef.

Later, in an eerie sequence inspired by Jaws (1975), the monster stalks a fisherman rowing a boat on the fog-shrouded lake. The fisherman falls into the water and we see his legs kicking underwater before he sees the monster emerge in front of him.

The monster’s powerful jaws bite down on the man’s legs.

Arnie and Mitch, the comical yokels who rented the boat to the fisherman, complain about the lack of working motors for their rental boats. “See this oar?” says Arnie after rowing another boat. “You’re lucky I’m too pooped out to beat you over the head with it.”

Arnie and Mitch retrieve the fisherman’s empty rowboat, which is spattered with blood even though the fisherman died underwater a few feet away from the boat. Of course, they call in Doc and Sheriff Steve, all of whom stand together on the dock. “What does Arnie and Mitch have to say about this?” asks Steve, though Arnie and Mitch are standing right next to him.

Doc replies, also as if Arnie and Mitch are not right beside him, “Well, he said he spotted the boat just drifting. Went out to bring it in, and...this.”

Next, we are introduced to a husband-and-wife magician-and-assistant team driving from Las Vegas to Los Angeles through Crater Lake. (Note: In my universe, there is a Crater Lake in Oregon as well as one in Larsen National Forest in California near Sacramento; neither is between Las Vegas and Los Angeles.) The magician is a mustachioed man with Shakespearean elocution who looks a bit like Mr. Brent Spiner wearing a disguise.

The magicians’ car overheats during the drive, and they pull into a service station operated by Walt Disney.

Weirdly, Mr. Disney suggests the couple rent a boat and take it out on the lake because it is romantic in moonlight. “Sounds like a good idea,” replies the magician (even more weirdly).

After they rent a motorboat whose motor Mitch has fixed, we watch Arnie and Mitch get into a comedic tussle worthy of Gillian and the Skipper due to the fact they have to walk to a dance party. The tussle consists of about five minutes of comedy gold, at the end of which both men are soaking wet in the shallows of the lake. The comedic mood is shattered, unfortunately, by the discovery of the missing fisherman’s severed head, which appears rubbery enough to have been in the lake for months.

Sheriff Steve bags the head to take it to Doc, and he warns Mitch and Arnie not to let anyone out on the lake. The two yokels argue about going out on the lake to find the magician couple. “You want to try to explain it to Steve if he comes back before they do? He’ll throw us so far back in the jug they’ll have to shoot our breakfast to us with a cannon.”

Out on the lake, something bumps into the magician couple’s boat, so they “floor it” and drive it right up onto a beach.

The monster soon appears from the water. In a ploy that must be described as odd, the magician douses the motorboat with gasoline and lights it on fire. This has the apparent effect of boring the creature so much that it eventually turns away and slinks back into the lake.

In what appears to be another movie altogether, a Sam Elliott lookalike drives through a small city to a liquor store (a liquor store, it must be added, that sells t-shirts that say “Booze” on them). Mr. Elliott robs the store, shoots the clerk and an old lady, and then carries his paper bag of booze back to his car.

Back at Crater Lake, in an extended (i.e., long) comical sequence, Mitch and Arnie get drunk at their cabin, ignore their two black cats and three dogs, then stumble drunkenly through the forest because they feel they need a walk. “Arnie, you know where we’re at?”

“Sure. In the woods.”

Crickets chirp and an owl hoots, the only indication that the forest walk scene is set at nighttime (or, more accurately, day-for-night-time).

The filmmakers follow up the forest walking scene with a thrilling car chase, as Sheriff Steve chases the man who robbed the liquor store, after said robber unadvisedly shoots at Steve from his moving car. Even more unadvisedly, the Sam Elliott robber drives his car over a cliff, jumping out at the last second. The chase continues on foot, past a series of cabins that look like they belong near Crystal Lake, and in the end Mr. Elliott is devoured offscreen by the Crater Lake Monster.

Sheriff Steve explores the lakeside and finally comes into contact with the monster; the scene is only barely affected by the fact it is set at night but shot in broad daylight. In a suspenseful sequence, he tries to start his police car while the monster approaches.

Steve succeeds, and drives straight to Doc’s house to get a witness, though we soon find out Steve carries a camera in his car and could have taken a photograph of the monster. When Doc and Steve return to the scene of the sighting, they find tracks in the sand, which Steve now remembers to photograph. They take the photographs to Dan and Susie, who identify the creature as an aquatic dinosaur. Susie explains what must have happened: “You know, down in the near-freezing mud of the lake there could have been a fertile egg. The meteorite crashed into the lake, warming the mud and water, creating a natural incubator. Dan, I think it’s possible! A living plesiosaurus hatched from a dormant egg hatched by some incredible freak accident!”

Steve wants to call in reinforcements, but the scientists and Doc argue to keep it their secret. Of course, they want to capture the plesiosaurus. Dan comes up with a plan to isolate the creature in Bass Bay. “We could lure it in there with a couple of dead steers and then dynamite the entrance once it’s in.”

Steve gives them 24 hours to carry out their plan. “My first responsibility is to save human lives, not sea serpents.”

Later, gas station attendant Walt Disney is, for some reason, operating some heavy equipment. After he sees the monster, he runs to the cafe, where Steve is conducting a town meeting. Steve, Dan, and Susie drive to the creature, who throws hay bails at their car. Mitch and Arnie, who want to protect the creature because it will mean tourist money for them, follow in their VW van.

The monster picks up Arnie in its jaws while Steve drives at it with a snowplow.

The snowplow blades dig into the dinosaur’s neck, quickly killing it.

With Arnie dead, Mitch is tragically alone. He mumbles about their rental boats. His final words in the film: “Damn you, Arnie.”

The End

First, I must confirm that this film has one of the finest, most accurate titles of any film ever made. It features a Crater Lake (though perhaps not the most famous Crater Lake) and it features a monster. Those annoying people who like to complain about inaccurate titles have no ammunition with this film, but that is only one aspect that makes The Crater Lake Monster a classic.

As far as I am aware, the 1970s are rarely considered the golden age of stop-motion animation, but there are so many examples of excellent effects work in movies with relatively low budget. The Crater Lake Monster, for example, features work by luminaries David Allen and Tom Scherman, with a crew consisting of Jon Berg, Randall William Cook, Jim Danforth, and Phil Tippett -- veterans of the Star Wars, Robocop, and Lord of the Rings movies, among many others. The Crater Lake Monster features a great deal of wonderful stop-motion animation; perhaps the 1970s should be reevaluated in terms of this nearly lost artistic process.

Among its many fine qualities, the film's willingness to put its creature front and center must be highlighted. So many monster movies tease the appearance of the monster for the sake of "suspense" or "tension," but first-time (and only-time, tragically) director William R. Stromberg shows a full view of the creature 14 minutes into his film. Each action sequence thereafter shows more of the monster, which results in a truly satisfying experience for the audience.

It is unfortunate that William R. Stromberg and Richard Cardella did not continue making monster movies. Their talents would have been welcomed even as the film industry moved on to science fiction epics. The Crater Lake Monster is a great example of mid-70s creativity and passion, a movie where stage magicians can crash a motorboat onto a beach and Walt Disney can run screaming from a plesiosaurus and world-changing cave paintings can be discovered and never mentioned again. Tragically, the days of such films are long gone, but it is truly wonderful that they are still available to watch, a visual testimony to an unacknowledged golden age we must make sure to treasure for the rest of our lives.