It’s been a little while since I’ve added another entry to the Morbid Curiosity Files; it was due. And for today’s selection, I decided to go with an obscure little monster film set in my home state of Oregon: 1977′s The Crater Lake Monster. This film was directed, produced, and co-written by William R. Stromberg, who never directed, produced, or wrote anything else before or since in his career, so you know it’s got to be good.
The film never actually mentions Oregon by name. It still has to be Crater Lake, Oregon, though, because the road markers (clearly made for the film, as they aren’t official signage) clearly identify the location as Crater Lake, and there’s only one Crater Lake in the United States. In actuality, the film was shot at Huntington Lake, California, an artificial reservoir. I looked up its filming location because although the surrounding forestry of Northern California is close enough to pass for Oregon, Huntington Lake is very obviously not Crater Lake. It’s missing a few things that people who have actually been there would know to look for. Minor things like “The Old Man of the Lake”, a large tree stump that’s been floating there for a century. The surrounding tourist-oriented areas. Wizard Island. The crater.
You know, little things.
Hey guys, what are you looking for? Oh, just a basic resemblance to where we’re claiming to be.
The very obvious visual differences between where they shot the film and where they claim the film is set are just the beginning of this film’s total divorce from reality. Now, I’m not going to pick on the film for having the basic premise of “a meteor lands in Crater Lake, causing an ancient plesiosaur egg to hatch”. I’m actually OK with that. It’s a monster movie. There are certain separations from reality that you simply have to accept as part of the genre, and that’s one of them. Sci-fi movies have noisy explosions in space, action movies have heroes that keep running with a full clip of bullets in them, and monster movies have ancient dinosaurs reawakened by freak occurrences. If you’ve got a problem with that, you’re watching the wrong kind of movie. What I do have a bit of a problem with though, is that the two paleontologists who saw the meteor land — Susan and Dan Patterson (Kacey Cobb and Richard Garrison) — are unable to approach the meteor half a day after it lands because the water around it is “90 degrees”. Now, if we’re assuming Fahrenheit degrees, that should be uncomfortable, but approachable. It’s more understandable if it’s Celsius. Except, of course, that this is a meteor that landed, not only in a lake, but in a lake that’s cold enough to preserve a tree stump for over a century. I don’t know how hot meteors typically are when they land, but there’s no way that heat hasn’t dissipated even a few hours later.
Welcome to Crater Lake. Please leave all inconvenient laws of physics at the town border.
Time passes, though the transitions between scenes don’t do a very good job of indicating just how much time without helpful dialogue cues (on the order of “Hey, wasn’t it two months ago when that meteor landed?”) The plesiosaur that hatched is now fully grown, has cleared the lake of fish, and is now after bigger fare. Sheriff Steve Hanson (Richard Cardella) is getting calls of strange monster sightings, and missing cattle. Yes, cattle. No, nobody is keeping their cattle in a nice little lake house. But that’s not stopping our intrepid monster, as this is one plesiosaur that has learned to use its flippers to crawl up on land and go for extended walks.
Of course, Hanson’s troubles are about to get worse than just some missing cattle. Chronic drunks and certified idiots Arnie and Mitch (Glen Roberts & Mark Siegel) run a boat rental service on the lake. And while a good part of the film is dedicated to their bickering and vaguely comic antics, they aren’t here just to serve as comic relief. Their boat service is instrumental in turning this from a stupid science fiction movie into a stupid horror movie. A U.S. Senator takes a day trip out on the lake to fish, and doesn’t come back. When his boat turns up without him, Arnie and Mitch investigate, only to find nothing at first. When, later, his head turns up without the rest of him, Dr. Richard Calkins (Bob Hyman) examines it and concludes that the damage done could only have been caused by a hither-to unknown animal out on the lake. Our plesiosaur is now a man-eater.
Sheriff Hanson forbids Mitch and Arnie from going out on the lake or renting any boats, but of course, the idiots don’t mention to him that they’ve already done so. Ross and Paula Conway (Michael F. Hoover and Suzanne Lewis) were three hours away from Vegas according to Ross (note: Google Maps says Crater Lake is 13 hours away from Vegas) when their car broke down. With nothing better to do while it’s being repaired, they went down to the lake to enjoy a moonlight boat ride, and here their dialogue takes another of the film’s patented breaks from reality as they discuss the beauty of the night sky, with Paula commenting on how beautiful the stars are.
Especially the big bright one that’s casting those mid-afternoon shadows.
Eventually, after an incident involving a liquor store robber leading him on a wild chase, Sheriff Hanson is in a position where he can see the monster for himself and realizes what is terrorizing his town. He wants to shoot it, but paleontologist Dan wants to keep it alive for study. Arnie wants to keep it alive because of the boon to tourism it could be. So Dan hatches a plan: They can lead it to a bay and trap it, where the “steep walls” will keep it from escaping back onto land again. I didn’t quite catch the name of the bay, or at least, I’m not sure I did; it sounded like “Bass Bay”, but to the best of my knowledge, there is no such bay in Oregon, nor any that sound close to it. Of course, that’s the least of the problems with this plan. The big problem is… it’s a bay. However high the walls are, there’s at least one part that isn’t walled, because bays are connected to the ocean. And, being a bay, it must therefore be on the coast. Guess where Crater Lake isn’t?
Crater Lake is in Mount Mazama, part of the Cascade Range of mountains. It’s one of two major ranges running the vertical length of Oregon; the other being the Coastal Range. Even if you know nothing about Pacific Northwest geography, I’m sure I don’t have to spell out where the Coastal Range is located. So their big plan for safely trapping the prehistoric monster that has developed a taste for human flesh is to lead it approximately 200 miles west, over a mountain range, into a bay where it can then escape into the ocean and terrorize the entire coast for the rest of its natural lifespan. (Incidentally, you know what body of water does have moderately high walls? The real Crater Lake. On account of being in a crater.) Of course, when their initial plan goes awry, their final plan involves attacking it with a bulldozer.
A plesiosaur’s natural predator.
As much as I’m picking on the writing, it may come as a surprise that I’m not attacking the acting much. That’s because although this was the solitary film for nearly everybody involved — though Michael F. Hoover and Mark Siegel each went on to careers in visual effects — the acting isn’t the worst part of this. It’s not great, mind you — and Suzanne Lewis does a particularly terrible job in one scene — but although nobody here would get cast in the lead in a real production, if they had small roles they probably wouldn’t stand out as being bad actors. It’s just that since they have large roles here, the fact that they’re not experienced actors is readily apparent. It’s amateurish, but not awful.
The same could be said of the special effects. The dinosaur isn’t going to hold up to Jurassic Park or anything like that, but for a low-budget film produced in the 1970s, it’s actually not half bad. Sure, it’s clearly a rubber monster, and it doesn’t move particularly well. But it does, at least, bear a decent resemblance to what we think a plesiosaur looks like. I have to be fair and praise the things the film does passably well.
Unfortunately for the film, that still leaves a lot. Because the positives are only mildly positive, and the writing is profoundly on the negative side of things. This is a great movie for a particular kind of audience — the kind that loves to riff on movies. It would have been a natural for Mystery Science Theater 3000, and if you have a group of friends who love to watch bad movies and tear into them, this is a prime candidate. I was laughing several times throughout the film because it was just so hilariously badly written. This is truly a lost gem of cinematic garbage.