The Wild Man of the Navidad

“Those of you foolish enough to continue with this experience will have a buffet of blood and guts; hair-raising adventures; frightening monsters; the deaths of teenagers; sexual deviancy; and all of the other things that you do not want your children to see.”

— Kim Henkle Wild Man of the Navidad.

The DVD’s introduction by Kim Henkel, producer of Wild Man (and Tobe Hooper’s original Texas Chainsaw Massacre), sets a fittingly exploitative tone. Throughout every moment of this movie it is obvious we are watching a detailed homage to the drive-in fright films of the ‘70s: it lifts its unforgiving atmosphere and explosions of visceral violence from Chainsaw Massacre; its proto-slasher sensibility from Charles Pierce’s The Town that Dreaded Sundown; and practically everything else from another Pierce film, The Legend of Boggy Creek.

But where Boggy Creek had Bigfoot, Wild Man has its titular terror.

The Texan legend of the Wild Man of the Navidad — a seldom-seen man-monster that supposedly prowls the Navidad river bottoms, stealing tools and breaking into kitchens for food — has existed for almost 200 years but, rather than film any of the established stories about it, co-writer-directors Duane Graves and Justin Meeks opted to present a fresh Wild Man tale. To this end, they apparently invented the otherwise unknown (and untraceable) figure of Dale S. Rogers, on whose journals they claim to have based their script.

Done out of his job under the gloriously grizzly Boss Man Jack (William McBride), and with a stroke victim wife (Stacy Meeks) and her secretly perverted carer (Alex Garcia) to support, Rogers (Justin Meeks) is seriously short of cash. To make money he has only to open his estate to deer hunters but knows that, if he does, he will likely be offering up a stream of sacrifices to the Wild Man, which has for years lived undisturbed on his land.

There is some obligatory agonising over the decision, but eventually, of course, he welcomes the hunters and, of course, waves them off to bloody doom.

As all low-budget horror movies must, Wild Man understands the importance of the unseen and the power of delayed horrification. The evocative locations and lively editing are probably the film’s greatest strengths and maintain the eerie, slow-burn build up through scenes often over-reliant on performers who struggle with their parts.

Much of the film’s cast are non-professionals who were recruited from small town Texas with posters reading, “Wanted: Large, Hairy White Men”. Whilst the cast cannot be criticised on these criteria, it fails to fulfil the expectations more usually made of an ensemble; although everyone in Wild Man looks perfect for his or her part, their acting abilities are sub-standard by any standard.

Bob Wood is a perfect example. Visually, not even the late “Popcorn” Sutton could have been better cast as aged moonshine merchant Earl Smith. With his chest-length wire wool beard and deep-wrinkled, sun-toughened skin, Wood is irresistible to the eye.

The difficulties arise when he starts to speak. Whilst his authentic accent adds an invaluable sense of place, when combined with a non-actor’s total inability to enunciate, it makes his appearances a hindrance rather than a highlight.

The same is sadly true of a number of Wild Man’s other actors: practically everyone in the film would have made an excellent extra, but very few are — physically, facially or vocally — able to communicate with an audience well enough to warrant their playing major parts in a motion picture, no matter how small-scale.

Ironically, the DVD’s 18-minute “making of” featurette reveals the cast to be a fascinating assortment of oddballs who, when simply allowed to be themselves, are worthy of extensive screen time. Freed from the unfamiliar demands of learning lines, hitting marks and essaying emotions they aren’t feeling, the interviewees emerge as such likeable and charismatic characters that, watching them, we wonder if Graves and Meeks would not have been better abandoning Wild Man and shooting instead a Vernon, Florida-style documentary on those they chose to cast in it.

It is not its cast, though, that hamstrings this movie. Whilst remarkably skilled at recreating the texture and tone of the films that inspired them to make Wild Man, Graves and Meeks prove themselves unable to recapture any of the charm and invention of those movies. Their aim, according to this disc’s directors’ commentary, was to make a film that not only looked and felt like the grindhouse fare of the ‘70s but also could have been an example of it that was somehow left unseen until 2008. It is this that stops Wild Man of the Navidad from displaying any originality or acknowledging that movies have moved on since 1972.

There are so many duplications of bits of Boggy Creek (shots, plot points, visual stylistics, lines of dialogue, character names and details) that these references cease to be knowing nods to the initiated and become simply imitation for its own sake.

Although at times funny and frightening, Wild Man is ultimately only a tribute to films far better than it is. Subsequently, regardless of whether they’ve seen Charles Pierce’s movie or not, anyone attracted to the idea of this DVD would just be better off buying a copy of The Legend of Boggy Creek.

RATING 5 / 10
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