By KEVIN HOOVER
Indie filmmaking is cool. Budgetary constraints be damned; directors with a camera and a little gumption can shoot their script this morning and have it on a screen near you before nightfall. While the notion of making a movie may seem accessible to anyone with an iPhone and an idea in today’s world, things were much different back in 1972. Back then, the big studios controlled the cinematic landscape. They had money; they had the equipment and famed actors, too. But most important of all, they had distribution. So while goliaths like The Godfather and Deliverance were playing to packed houses across the country, THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK, a small documentary about a hairy ape-like entity known for distressing the residents of Fouke, Arkansas, was rolling across less than a dozen screens in the deep south. And just like its big-budget brethren, it would spawn a legacy that continues to influence to this day.
Bigfoot; Small Budget
In Hollywood’s paint-by-numbers system of moviemaking, Charles B. Pierce was coloring outside the lines. An advertising man and TV personality in the Arkansas market, his passion for entertaining was a lifelong affair. “My dad was a performer ever since he was a little boy. He was a prankster, and he loved to scare people,” remembers Pamula Pierce Barcelou, the eldest of Charles’ children. “When he was 18 years old, he was working for the Arkansas NBC affiliate in El Dorado-Monroe. The group that owned the affiliate moved us around a lot so they could train him all over. We lived in places like Shreveport (Louisiana), Texarkana, and Beaumont (both in Texas).”
Texarkana would prove to be a fortuitous stopover, not only for the inspiration it provided for two of his most popular projects (the other being 1976’s The Town that Dreaded Sundown) but also for the connections it afforded. “We were living in Texarkana, about 11 or 12 miles away from Fouke. Dad was producing a kiddie television show –The Laffalot Club, for which he would occasionally star on as the character Mayor Chuckles. He also had his own ad agency and was doing commercials for businesses in the area: banks, department stores, but most importantly, for Buddy Ledwell and Ledwell and Sons Trucking Company. My dad loved John Ford and old Hollywood, and that inspired him to shoot these trucking commercials that would win awards.”
Had it not been for the relationship with Buddy Ledwell, BOGGY CREEK may never have gotten off the ground. While trying to secure financing for his venture, Pierce knocked on a lot of doors. The director may have won over the elementary set with his after-school show, but his debut feature was going to require a bankroll far exceeding anything he’d worked on before. Investors weren’t receptive to his ideas; Buddy Ledwell, however, trusted the visionary upstart and believed that his story had legs. Already familiar with his directorial talent, Ledwell would agree to finance the majority of the approximate $160,000 budget. A wise decision, as the film would go on to gross more than $25 million which, when adjusted for inflation, equates to more than $150 million.
Horror By Any Other Name
Horror movies aren’t often bestowed a G-rating, a distinction the MPAA usually reserves for animated flicks, but that’s exactly what THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK was awarded. This was of no matter to Pierce, who always maintained that what he was making was a documentary. Pamula recalls, “It wasn’t initially meant to be a horror picture, it’s just that the subject matter is naturally scary.” Such a rating should come as no surprise when dissecting the material on display, as there’s very little violence. There’s no salty language or nudity, either. From the outset, his intention was always to make something that families could watch together without being ashamed or embarrassed. But while viewers gather ’round and while away an afternoon with a fun creature feature, for the real-world residents who’ve encountered the monster first hand, the ordeal was frightening. “Many of the scenes were taken from accounts by those who’d lived them.” Pamula continues, “I remember hearing that when my dad went down to meet the townspeople, he was writing everything they were telling him. He was only putting a picture to their words.”
The Fouke Monster tale persists even to this day. As it goes, in the early 1970s something ambushed Bobby and Elizabeth Ford at a rented home they shared with Bobby’s brother Don and his wife. The perpetrator smashed open a window screen and, upon hearing the commotion, the siblings gave chase with guns in tow. Even with both men firing, they were unable to verify if they’d wounded or killed their attacker, having lost it under the cover of night. The Fords maintained that what they saw was a large biped, ape-like in appearance, with a foul odor. Though they never found a body, the family did discover several tracks on their property that weren’t similar to those of other animals native to the area. Around the same time, other residents were also making reports about unexplained tracks and claw marks around their own homes, as well as the unexplainable slaughtering of family pets and livestock.
The Ford incident would make headlines and ultimately inspire Pierce’s feature, but many townsfolk didn’t appreciate the attention. Fearful of what Fouke’s perception could become, most chose to wear their experiences close to the vest. “When you live down there and see something like that … a lot of those people never told anyone. They were afraid of being teased. Of those willing to talk, many of them didn’t want their real name used and they didn’t want their story told.”
The Monster Unleashed
The director knew he had a hit on his hands – he just had to get it in front of moviegoers. Calls to distributors proved fruitless. Refusing to let his work drift off into obscurity, he employed the rarely (at the time) used technique of four-walling. Named for the four walls of a theater – a misnomer of sorts considering BOGGY CREEK was a drive-in darling – the term refers to the tactic of a film’s owner renting out screen time in exchange for all revenue generated by ticket sales. “It was the most amazing thing. He was four-walling at the time, as he couldn’t get a distribution deal. He started with showings in Texarkana and then starts playing a second location in Shreveport. Both were selling out and people were camping in line just to get a ticket. Dad loved to load the family up in the car and drive around to each theater to see how long the lines were. At the time, ticket prices were about $2 apiece, and there was a stretch of four towns – Texarkana, Shreveport, El Dorado, and Monroe – that would wind up being a weekly $40,000 run. He would carry all this cash around in brown paper bags in the trunk.”
Having established itself as a regional success, Charles B. Pierce’s little documentary, which studios previously hadn’t given a second thought, was now a bona fide money-making commodity. An eventual partnership with South Carolina-based Howco International Pictures would provide large-scale exposure across the country, and no longer was THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK relegated to being Texarkana’s best-kept secret.
Fouke in Focus
THE LEND OF BOGGY CREEK has transcended time in a way that other properties could only hope to achieve. “I think people love the subject matter,” Pamula says. “The fact that it was done as a documentary; the format really stands up. It harkens back to a simpler time and place.” And for those few hours when viewers were getting lost in the sulfur bottoms of Fouke, for nearly 50 years, they were doing it with a shoddy reproduction. For all its fame and recognition, once the late ’70s rolled around, showings became sparse. “The movie was a pioneer in so many ways. It was one of the first feature-length documentaries and one of the first public displays of a Bigfoot-type creature. It was influential in launching the field of cryptozoology (the study of creatures whose existence has yet to be proven). You’d think something so important would at least be the occasional ‘feature of the week,’ yet more often than not it aired late at night.”
Those who were able to secure a copy for their home video libraries were often disappointed. Abysmal sound and grainy, distorted visuals – the result of bootleggers out to turn a quick buck – plagued the film’s legacy and tarnished its reputation. “For nearly 50 years, BOGGY CREEK has lived on with a really poor print, a pan-and-scan. But that’s such a testament to the strength of the story, that people wanting to see it would put up with inadequate renditions.” Realizing that something needed to be done to quash the ever-steady proliferation of subpar transfers, Pamula set out to develop a definitive version of her father’s magnum opus, with audio and visuals that could outperform even the original due to production limitations of the era. However, finding a suitable source to work from seemed nearly impossible. A chance listing on eBay in 2017 provided a glimmer of hope, but after winning the auction and receiving the print, Pamula discovered that vinegar syndrome had ravaged it to a degree that restoration was going to be too time and cost-intensive. Reaching out to Steve Ledwell, Buddy Ledwell’s son and heir to the film’s copyright seemed like a logical option, but once again Pamula came away empty-handed. “All prints were shipped back to Mr. Ledwell. Each consisted of five reels, there were 650 individual copies, and they all showed up at the same time! If they had slowly staggered in, perhaps there would have been at least a few good copies out there. He was so inundated with a film that he had everything burned, which is why there was never anything worthwhile to source from.”
Going on a tip, Pamula’s search for a suitable source would carry her across the pond. “The British Film Institute has a policy where, if your picture plays over in the UK, the producers have to deposit a copy with them.” Turns out the BFI had two, one of which was shipped stateside at Pamula’s behest. Once received, the visuals were rehabilitated by experts at the George Eastman Museum, but to capture the essence of Fouke, it was imperative that the sound quality fall nowhere short of superlative. Thus, the audio files were turned over to the award-winning Audio Mechanics sound restoration studio, renowned for its services on countless big-budget movies and the Academy Awards. Their efforts would ensure that every bullfrog croak, every bar of “Nobody Sees the Flowers Bloom but Me, “ and every blood-curdling scream could be presented with crystal-clear acuity. In THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEP, atmosphere is everything, and after 50 years, the atmosphere was finally back.
With the goal of producing the first-ever official release achieved, Pamula has since turned her attention to making sure the new print is presented to as many fans as possible. She’s currently in the process of booking showings at drive-ins and other local theaters around the U.S.; apropos considering her father’s efforts in the past. Alongside the Blu-ray, the film is also available for rent or purchase on Google Play, iTunes, Amazon Prime, and YouTube Movies.
THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK is an example of indie filmmaking at its finest, yet the path to worldwide recognition was perilous from its inception. The southern-fried movie about a little Arkansas town and its favorite monster became far more successful than most would have ever considered it would. At risk for living on only through inferior replications, Pamula’s dedication to preserving her father’s catalog all but guarantees that his body of work can continue to entertain in ways that he had always envisioned. “When I was a little girl, I’d build a pallet under my dad’s desk and pretend I was his assistant. He’d look at me say ‘one day, you’re going to run my business.’ Today, I’m doing just that.”
Visit legendofboggycreek.com to purchase THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK blu-ray and to stay updated on upcoming theatrical screenings