He won’t be remembered well. His name and face won’t be part of the 2011 Oscar “In Memoriam” celebration of famous film personalities past. For many, he will always be the consummate motion picture rogue, an ex-ad man turned self-taught director who created two of the ’70s most shocking drive-in experiences – 1972’s The Legend of Boggy Creek and 1977’s The Town that Dreaded Sundown. The former focused on a Bigfoot-like creature that supposedly stalked the population of Fouke, Arkansas since the 1950s. The latter was an Unsolved Mysteries style exposé of “the Phantom Killer”. Together, they gave Charles B. Pierce a foothold in the final phases of exploitation, the moments before schlock became softcore – and then went totally XXX.
Pierce is the perfect Tinseltown afterthought, a man driven by the dollar to make the kind of product he thought would line them up outside the local Bijou. If he had greater artistic aspirations, his mediocre returns almost always usurped them. He got his start in film as a set decorator, working on such noted offerings as The Phantom Tollbooth, Dirty Dingus Magee, and Roger Vadim’s first American movie Pretty Maids All in a Row. All throughout his time behind the lens, he would return to said craft, contributing to blaxsploitation gems like Coffy and big budget releases like The Outlaw Josie Wales and The Cheap Detective. Wanting to test the talent waters outside of his role as part of the ancillary crew, he found backing for his attempted epic, The Legend of Boggy Creek. The rest, as they say, is cheddar cheese history.
For any teenager growing up in the ’70s, The Legend of Boggy Creek was a crazy right of passage. It was school yard conversation fodder, either as bragging rights or bullshit outing. Everyone in the neighbor would head over to the local theater, pluck down their lawn maintenance allowance, and wallow around in Pierce’s proto-mock documentary until their still developing shorthairs were alarmed and tingling. It was complete auditory and videographic overload – scenes of Arkansas locals chewing the cud about the creature. Faked attacks and eerie distant shrieks. As Pierce politely and effortless pulled the yarn, adolescents ate it up by the big hairy bucketload.
Boggy Creek was indeed a huge passion pit hit, the kind of mindless make-out catalyst that got the girls closer to their companion and the guys good and adrenalized. You didn’t need to follow it too closely to catch on, and there was plenty of heavy petting material provided so that you could get down to business and still get your Bigfoot on. More than the latter day late comer In Search of… or equally celebrated TV specials and documentaries, Pierce provided the kind of urban legerdemain that would stay with his unsuspecting viewers for decades to come. Boggy Creek also seemed to kickstart a whole obsession with these so-called ‘monsters’, revitalizing such worn-out creatures as The Abominable Snowman and that famous Loch’s Nessie.
Pierce’s next venture, the hillbilly comedy The Bootleggers is now mostly known for an early career appearance by future Charlie’s Angel Jaclyn Smith, and a pair of revisionist Westerns (Winterhawk and The Winds of Autumn) went nowhere. Realizing that scares were where the scratch was, Pierce picked up on the story of a ’40s era serial killer who wore a flour sack over his head. Looking like a model for Jason Voorhees circa Friday the 13th Part 2, the fiend responsible for what would then be known as the “Texarkana Moonlight Murders” was never caught. Pierce utilized that “he’s still out there” ideal to forge his plotline, placing craggy Oscar winning character actor Ben Johnson as a Texas Ranger in hot pursuit. The result was another memorable mid Me Decade movie experience (and iconic movie poster). The Town that Dreaded Sundown ended up a competently creepy true crime caper.
He would continue to challenge his perceived commercial cache – hooking up with Lee Majors for a misguided Viking film set in Florida (?) called The Norseman, offering yet another Native American tinged horse opera (Grayeagle) and another fact-based farce known as The Evictors. Another Western (Sacred Ground) and Pierce was plumb out of bankability. He tried reviving his Fouke fortunes with another tread into Bigfoot territory, but The Barbaric Beast of Boggy Creek, Part II, later retitled Boggy Creek II: And the Legend Continues (and ripped apart satirically by Mystery Science Theater 3000) was abysmal.
Instead of staying with the fictionalized fact approach, it was a standard fright film with Pierce and his real life son escorting two semi-hot college honeys through the infamous swamp, all under the guise of doing “scientific research” into the beast. More nighttime attacks, endless expositional conversations, and a run in with longtime Pierce company member Jimmy Clem (as perhaps the smelliest redneck in the entire bayou, Old Man Crenshaw) added to the craven craptacularness. Throughout, you could see Pierce striving to recapture the old magic, to find the elusive spark that made his first foray into the material a “legend”. This time, it remained impossible to locate.
One more awkward oater (Hawken’s Breed), and a late in life look at storm chasers (Chasing the Wind) and that was it for the Pierce directorial oeuvre. He continued to ply his proficiency at set decorating, but by the mid-’90s he was done there as well. Naturally, the Internet and the mass hysteria discovery of likeminded lovers of all things Boggy brought the filmmaker back to prominence, though rumor has it that he bristled at the notion that his efforts were often ‘so bad’, they were ‘good’. Right up to his death, he was determined to recapture the past, to use the new technology and medium as a means of reestablishing the Charles B. Pierce brand. Instead, as with all quickly fading flights of nostalgia, he was pushed back into the annals of slop cinema history and quickly compartmentalized.
Which is unfair, really. Few filmmakers can count one movie that maintains its initial impact, that stays with a viewer long after its release, let alone secures that memory for decades to come. In Pierce’s case, he has two – albeit both with a rather limited group of avid aficionados. The Legend of Boggy Creek has been celebrated by countless critics, including the Drive-In dandy himself, Joe Bob Briggs. The Town that Dreaded Sundown is even begrudgingly acknowledged by Steve Miner and Sean Cunningham as a huge influence on the introduction of Camp Crystal Lake’ favorite mutant murderer. Though there’s still a lot to laugh at, Charles B. Pierce deserves a modicum of respect for what he accomplished. Few will remember, but those who do can’t forget.