You don’t have to venture too deep into the Hollywood forest to find a crummy take on Bigfoot. But the hairy cryptid has also appeared in several projects that are actually worth watching. With Laika’s stop-motion film Missing Link out this week, it seemed like just the moment to celebrate eight of Sasquatch’s biggest screen triumphs.
Heading home from a camping trip, a Seattle family (formed by the same mold that created nearly every comedy-movie family in the 1980s; John Lithgow plays the nerdy dad) accidentally slams into a Sasquatch—but the creature isn’t dead, and once it awakens in the Hendersons’ home it’s just as startled as they are. It soon becomes clear that Harry, as he comes to be known, is no fearsome monster, though he does become a target of both media scrutiny and one particularly awful Bigfoot hunter as he fumbles his way around civilization, eventually finding a happy ending that allowed the movie to segue into a short-lived TV series. Special effects make-up wizard Rick Baker won one of his seven Oscars for bringing the movie’s gentle beast to life.
Also known by the more specific title The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas, this Hammer production stars Peter Cushing as a scientist who sets aside his botanical expedition when he meets a team of explorers led by an unscrupulous doctor played by Forrest Tucker. Their objective: to find the mythical Yeti, though as these things tend to go in Bigfoot movies, the Yeti are none too thrilled at having their high-altitude hideout invaded, and violence ensues.
Fortunately, Cushing’s character realizes that—much like the Hendersons’ hulking pal—these Snowmen really aren’t so Abominable, though they’re clearly not fans of human beings. Seeing as how this movie was made in 1957, and director Val Guest didn’t have the benefit of Rick Baker-level effects, the Yeti are revealed very selectively (an arm here, a pair of sad eyes there), a wise choice that lends a bit more suspense to this creature feature.
Given Bigfoot’s rise to pop-culture prominence in the 1970s, this list had to contain at least one exploitation movie from the era, and Bigfoot is the obvious choice. To be clear, this isn’t a high-art masterpiece, but for the Sasquatch enthusiast who also craves dynamite-tossing bikers, bikinis, freak shows, and the kind of production values only a B-movie can provide, this low-budget indie ticks every box.
The creatures themselves, who emerge from the woods with unsavory plans to kidnap human females, very strongly resemble average-sized people (carefully filmed from low angles) dressed in shag-carpet footie pajamas. But you can’t hate on Bigfoot too much—this is a movie that wants to entertain you while gently ripping off King Kong, and has a bonkers cast that includes pin-up model Joi Lansing, Lindsay (son of Bing) Crosby, John (brother of Robert) Mitchum, and acting legend John Carradine.
Exists was made by The Blair Witch Project co-director Eduardo Sánchez, and like that film, it’s a found-footage horror tale about camera-toting young people who run into serious trouble deep in the wilderness. Unlike the Blair Witch kids, however, the characters in Exists don’t set out in search of anything spooky; rather, their breezy jaunt to an isolated cabin (where there’s no cell service, no GPS, and oh yeah, nobody knows they’re staying there) takes a deadly turn when they realize there’s a large, hairy, unfriendly neighbor lurking in the woods.
The basic story follows the structure of your standard backwoods horror movie, where clueless city folk pay the price for pissing off the locals—except in this case, it’s an angry Sasquatch rather than an inbred family or a machete-swinging killer. Lots of familiar shrieking and shaky-cam in this one, but unlike Blair Witch you do actually get some glimpses of the monster.
Found-footage Bigfoot movie Willow Creek came out in 2013, a year before Exists, signaling a mini trend that’s perhaps due to the concurrent popularity of semi-serious TV series like Finding Bigfoot and Killing Bigfoot. Willow Creek is directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, who’s still probably best-known as a comedian but has directed several features and also created the IFC horror anthology series Misfits & Monsters.
Unlike the doomed 20-somethings in Exists, the two main characters in Goldthwait’s film—who are actually likable people; he’s a Bigfoot fanatic, she’s a skeptic who’s humoring her boyfriend—head to a Sasquatch mecca (roughly the site where the Patterson-Gimlin film was taken; see below for more on that) specifically to look for the big B. What starts off as a lighthearted journey soon takes a dark turn, and it all builds to an extended scene in which the petrified duo hide in their tent while something prowls around their campsite. In 2013, Goldthwait told IndieWire that one of the movies he had in mind while making Willow Creek was Grizzly Man—an unexpected but perfect reference point for maximum terror.
Lily Rabe (American Horror Story) plays a Forest Service employee who purposefully takes a lonely assignment while she recovers from a bad break-up. And while she does encounter Bigfoot during her time in the trees, Letters From the Big Man doesn’t venture down the horror path at all. Beautiful cinematography, a striking chamber-music score, and Rabe’s sensitive performance—not to mention the portrayal of Sasquatch as a thoughtful creature who very likely has certain magical powers that helped keep him hidden over the years—elevate this inspired tale into uncharted Bigfoot-movie turf. As is befitting Bigfoot’s presence as a sympathetic character in the movie, the “Big Man” costume (worn by the 6'5" Isaac C. Singleton Jr.) is unusually detailed and realistic...or at least as realistic as one could imagine a Bigfoot costume could be.
Speaking of Bigfoots you’d actually want to hang out with...when Jack Black’s rocker character J.B. snacks on some psychedelic mushrooms, he trips the light fantastic into a Sid and Marty Krofft-esque land where the very jolly Sasquatch (played by John C. Reilly, who also played Sasquatch when he appeared on the Tenacious D TV show) dwells. After J.B. transforms into Sasquatch’s son, “Baby Sass,” the pair float down a strawberry river and soar through the sky, as the film cuts away to (hilariously) remind us that J.B. is rampaging through actual dangerous dark woods, completely out of his head. There’s even a song: “Look into the Sasquatch eye, then you know that Sass can fly, Sasquatch is my Daddy and he’s going to protect me!” It ends badly but not tragically, and even though Sasquatch is a total hallucination, he’s still pretty damn memorable.
The Patterson-Gimlin film—the famous 1967 16mm movie shot in rural Northern California that purports to show you-know-who striding through the wild—is to Bigfoot fans what the Zapruder footage is to Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorists. It’s been studied and dissected from nearly every angle, but nobody’s ever been able to prove if it’s just someone wearing a gorilla suit...in a film shot by guys who were already pondering the idea of making a Bigfoot movie...or the real deal. Roger Patterson died in 1972 and Bob Gimlin is pushing 90; neither ever admitted to faking the footage. Why would they?
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