In our jaded present, it’s hard to imagine that there was once a time when film audiences took the “based on a true story” claim seriously. At this point, we’re all fully aware that artists sometimes have to embellish the truth in order to prove a point – and sometimes simply to entertain. In fact, the very act of creating a faux-reality to tell a story has since evolved into an artform in and of itself. While Ruggero Deodato is often credited with having invented Found Footage with 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust (which would go on to inspire The Blair Witch Project, the film that popularized the aesthetic), the truth is that the genre and its current off-shoots have been slowly creeping into existence since the early days of cinema.
Pioneers like Benjamin Christensen (1922’s Häxan) and surrealist Luis Buñuel (1933’s Land Without Bread) were already experimenting with the idea of combining fact and fiction in convincing pseudo-documentaries, and that’s not even mentioning Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds broadcast. However, I’d argue that one of the most influential of these grandaddies of Found Footage is the fifty-year-old B-movie classic, The Legend of Boggy Creek.
Inspired by the popularity of the infamous Patterson-Gimlin film, which supposedly showed a real-life sasquatch trekking through Californian woods, then-salesman Charles B. Pierce decided to capitalize on the cryptid trend by loaning $100,000 from a trucking company and producing a monster movie unlike anything anyone had ever seen before. Borrowing from local stories about the “Fouke Monster,” a bigfoot-like creature that has allegedly roamed the Arkansas countryside since the 1850s, Pierce figured that the most cost-effective way to tell this story would be to sell it as a serious portrayal of real events.
In the finished film, the titular legend of Boggy Creek is told through a series of interviews and re-enactments, with the film claiming to use the real survivors and witnesses of these stories instead of actors. From one eerie encounter to the next, we slowly unravel the events that shook Arkansas to its core when an ape-like creature lost its fear of humanity and began to terrorize the locals.
While the film uses narration to fill in the gaps between the atmospheric documentary filmmaking and the re-enactments, there’s actually very little distinction between what’s real and what isn’t. You get the idea that Pierce is only accidentally stumbling onto a new kind of filmmaking instead of intentionally trying to emulate an existing form of media here. In that sense, the movie reminds me of Olatunde Osunsanmi’s Found Footage hybrid The Fourth Kind, which also combined several layers of fiction to make itself more credible, though Pierce is said to have actually borrowed from (and exaggerated) plenty of local stories in order to craft his cinematic experiment.
Some of these moments work extraordinarily well, such as the chilling final confrontation with the monster which feels just believable enough to be a true story (and I really appreciate small creative touches like implying that the hunting dogs are too scared of the beast to follow its trail as a way of getting out of actually filming an expensive hunt), but others just feel downright bizarre as audiences are left wondering who exactly is telling the story due to the filmmakers’ lack of diegetic awareness.
Regardless, this tiny backwoods production somehow turned into a bona fide blockbuster, raking in millions at the box office and becoming a staple of drive-in movie theaters and video stores alike. It also ended up inspiring a whole new generation of cryptozoologists with its seemingly serious take on the existence of unknown creatures. This success also led to a series of unofficial sequels and blatant rip-offs, with the only true follow-up (also directed by Pierce) being the 1985 film Boggy Creek II: And the Legend Continues – though you’re likely only familiar with this flick if you’ve seen the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode making fun of it.
Unfortunately, this success also shined a light on some of Pierce’s less-than-professional behavior during production and after the picture’s release. The filmmaker and his frequent collaborator Earl E. Smith allegedly took advantage of the inexperienced crew and some uneducated locals while also refusing to share their massive profits with the cast until a successful lawsuit. However, this didn’t stop the director from continuing his filmmaking career, as Pierce eventually moved on to even more iconic projects like 1976’s proto-slasher The Town That Dreaded Sundown, another spooky Arkansas yarn that combines fact and fiction in frightfully unique ways – though I’d argue that this one is even scarier due to its more grounded subject matter.
In any case, years after its initial success, The Legend of Boggy Creek became even more popular once it fell into legal limbo and somehow entered the public domain. While this wasn’t profitable for the filmmakers, it led to an explosion of TV showings and unofficial DVDs which continued the flick’s status as a cult classic (and is likely how the Blair Witch Project directors originally came into contact with the film). It was only in 2018 that Pierce’s daughter Pamula Pierce Barcelou finally managed to reclaim the rights to the film, spearheading a beautiful remaster that came out the following year, which is currently the definitive way to enjoy this 16mm classic.
At this point, The Legend of Boggy Creek is over 5 decades old, and while some horror fans might not connect with its strange presentation and overall shoddy production value (I mean, this is basically an anthology film about non-actors repeatedly encountering a man in a three-toed gorilla suit), I think it’s worth looking back on as a masterclass in cost-effective filmmaking and one of the most important stepping stones on the road to modern-day Found Footage.
But if you ever drive up Highway 71, don’t be surprised if you catch a glimpse of a big hairy creature in the shadowy wilderness…
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