Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Crater Lake Monster (1977)

It is rather distressing to me, the facility with which people will place their trust in technology.  Perhaps it’s because I work daily with machines which appear to have been “updated” simply for the sake of being updated.  Perhaps it’s that (for all my claims to the contrary) I could very well be a Luddite at heart.  I don’t think that people who trust in ever-evolving technology (let’s call them “trusters” for the sake of brevity) are by any means less smart than me or that they’re easily duped, per se, and I can completely understand the desire of making things faster, more compact, and more portable.  Hell, I’ve been tempted on more than one occasion to purchase one of these newfangled e-readers.  But my main issue (which I’ll probably get over around the time I’m on my deathbed) lies in the nature of data storage.  

Let’s say, I buy a book.  So long as I take relatively decent care of it, I can keep this book for the rest of my life.  I can open it to any page at any time in an instant.  If I buy a digital edition of the same book, I have now linked myself to a device which requires power of some variety in order to read it.  I have to wait for said device to start up and say it’s okay for me to open up the book file.  If there is an issue that the data gets corrupted or lost, I now have to go through a process to try and retrieve that which I have spent my money on or risk having to buy the file all over again (unlikely maybe but certainly possible).  I’m sure there are some safeguards built in, possibly at point of purchase, to protect against this, and you can even back your data up (and give yourself some form of physical copy of the material, thus defeating part of the whole reason for downloading a book in the first place), though I would be wary of saving anything to ”the cloud.”  How do you know you’re going to be able to get to it?  How do you know your files haven’t been lost or corrupted in the cloud?  What if you’re experiencing problems with internet connectivity?  How do you protect yourself in a growing sea of cybercrimes as you expand your presence in the digital realm?  I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point.  Books rock.  You should read more of them.  And besides, I’m fairly confident that an e-reader doesn’t have that same pulp and ink smell which only a physical book can give you.

One evening, as Doc Calkins (Bob Hyman) is just relaxing at his cabin, he is startled by the sudden appearance of Susan (Kacey Cobb) who declares that her boyfriend Dan (Richard Garrison) has made an incredible discovery.  Racing to the mine-shaft-cum-archaeological-dig site, the trio wends its way down to a wall upon which have been painted ancient depictions of Native American tribes fighting with a (rather well-delineated) Plesiosaur.  At that very moment, a meteor streaks across the sky and hits the lake next door.  The force of the impact brings down the mine shaft walls and (I assume) floods the caverns with water.    Hitting up the mustachioed, limp-coiffed Sheriff Steve (Richard Cardella), the scientists try to investigate the meteor, but the heat is too much for them to handle.  Needless to say, the meteor’s vicinity to a dinosaur egg at the lake bottom will prove to have disastrous consequences for everyone.

I would wager that William R. Stromberg’s The Crater Lake Monster was produced solely to cash-in on the world’s fascination with the paranormal in general and the cryptid Nessie specifically.  It has the stop-motion wizardry of the late, great David Allen as well as Jim Danforth, Phil Tippett, and Randall Cook to recommend it.  That’s some lineup of talent, and when their work is onscreen, it’s as impressive as it can be.  However, I don’t know if it was due to budget or time concerns (probably a combination of the two), but the shots with the stop-motion creature are sparse, even though we get to see the beast quite well early on.  Consequently, the monster never really has any sort of personality for the viewer to discern, and the life-size model of the creature’s head is immobile, thus adding nothing of value other than something to physically grab a character onscreen.  It’s just a large, dumb animal which was birthed and developed unnaturally and wants to eat people. If this were a Nature Amok film, then having a creature of this type would be perfectly acceptable, acting as an unknown and unknowable quantity (after all, who among us can know what really transpires in the minds of Plesiosaurs?), but we see the thing when it’s around, and all of its attacks are telegraphed.  This is something of a letdown for someone like me who has been a massive fan of the artistry of stop-motion techniques for as long as I can remember.  But I suppose we take what we can take where we can take it. 

Nonetheless, the film does not follow a standard Nature Amok framework.  It does not follow a standard Creature Feature framework (and, to be sure, the two are quite similar).  It doesn’t even follow a standard Melodrama framework.  There is no evil corporation polluting the environment or threatening to kick the indigenous people off their land.  There is no big festival on the lake for the monster to disrupt.  There is no venal, (but not strictly) evil city council member/mayor who places his constituents lives in danger by ignoring the warning signs and allowing the annual regatta/swim meet/seasonal park opening to proceed.  Yet, we have come to expect a certain structure in genre films of this era.  We expect an inciting incident to hook us.  We expect a lot of exposition and filler, punctuated here and there with briefly satisfying bits to keep us from walking out.  We expect an ending that, even if it doesn’t bring the house down, fulfills something of the come-on which enticed us to see the film in the first place.  This is not to say that we necessarily need to see generic conventions (despite our anticipation of them), nor that a standard framework of any variety needs to be followed in a film, but we’re getting to that, as well.

The Crater Lake Monster both meets and subverts expectations.  It is, in fact, loaded with subplots which go on for far too long and contribute nothing to the story other than enabling the monster to (thankfully) make a few brief appearances.  So far, so good.  However, almost the entirety of the rest of the film has jack shit to do with any sort of hunt for the titular creature.  In fact, what the vast majority of the film centers on are the not-so-funny antics and misadventures of local shitkickers and boat rental magnates  Arnie and Mitch (Glen Roberts and Mark Siegel, respectively).  Like a Northern Californian equivalent of something Hal Roach or Mack Sennett would have produced (but not remotely as entertaining or sophisticated), this unseemly duo just sort of gad about, take advantage of the “squares,” get wasted on what I can only imagine is corn mash, and peregrinate through the woods, woolgathering about how they’re going to be successful one day.  The typically heroic characters for this sort of film, the lawman, the scientist, the old wise man, predominantly occupy the background.  In effect, it makes the film into a quasi-statement on hope and modernity.  Mitch and Arnie are low tech guys.  They can’t even fix their own boat motors.  They talk big about what they’re going to do, their future constantly ahead of them, never living in the moment.  The creature comes along, and the pair suddenly have something new (ironically from the Mesozoic era and therefore being both modern and primitive) on which to hitch their wagon.  However, their hubris in believing that this deceptively primordial animal can be mastered may very well prove lethal.  Arnie and Mitch’s dreams run into the reality of the modern world in which they are living.  It is how they adapt (or if they can) which will determine their survival.  And yet, even with all of that in mind, I still prefer physical books to digital files.  Oh, well.

MVT:  The monster is the headliner, and he (she/it) is the reason to watch.  That it gets short shrift is somewhat disheartening, but to be frank, I’ll take any excuse I can to marvel at a stop-motion monster.  Sure, they have an artificiality to them, but if that’s your argument for not liking them, I would suggest that you’re missing their charms entirely.

Make Or Break:  I was actually surprised that they showed the creature as clearly and for as long as they did for how early it first shows up in the film.  Essentially, the monster’s first appearance is both payoff and inducement, and that the rest of the film is so unusual in approach as well makes the whole movie stand just a few inches away from the rest of the crowd.  

Score:  6.25/10

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