Ever since the original King Kong amazed audiences with its cutting edge animation, stop-motion photography has been a viable alternative to costumed creatures in horror and science fiction movies. The nineteen seventies saw a nice little resurgence in stop-motion/live action monster movies, with the technique being used seemingly everywhere from Roger Corman’s Piranha to the Star Wars movies. At the forefront of the stop-motion movement was visual animator David Allen, and his work on 1977’s The Crater Lake Monster serves as a textbook example of the trend.
The Crater Lake Monster begins with a pair of scientists, Dan Turner (Richard Garrison, who played a doctor in A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master) and Susan Patterson (Kacey Cobb, otherwise known as “woman” from ”Misfits of Science”), summoning the town doctor (Bob Hyman, a desk sergeant on “Insight”) to a cave to take a look at some drawings that they found. To their amazement and surprise, the drawings depict people fighting a dinosaur, and they all take it as proof that dinosaurs inhabited the area at the same time as primitive man. Before their theory can even sink in, a meteor crashes in the neighboring lake, causing the caves to collapse and forcing the trio to escape in the nick of time. The meteor in the lake immediately raises the temperature of the water, killing all the fish. A bad fishing season is the least of the town’s problems, however, once the town’s sheriff, Steve Hanson (Richard Cardella in his one and only screen role), starts receiving reports of a large sea monster attacking fishermen and boaters. With the help (if you can call it that) of a pair of bumbling boat rental merchants named Arnie and Mitch (Glenn Roberts from The Evictors and Mark Siegel, “Guy #2” from an episode of “Three’s Company,” respectively), the authorities have to figure out where the beast came from…and how to stop it before it claims any more victims.
The one and only film credit for both men, The Crater Lake Monster was directed by William R. Stromberg and written by him and Richard Cardella (who also plays Sheriff Hanson in the movie). The cast isn’t any more experienced either, with most of their credits being bit parts and walk-ons. With the film’s weaknesses so blatantly on display, the whole production comes off as one big excuse for David Allen to make a monster…which he does, and it’s really cool.
David Allen cut his teeth doing animation for “The Gumby Show” and “Davey and Goliath” before jumping into feature films. His clay-model animation style is inimitable, and he quickly gained a reputation as a low-budget hero, providing the alien invaders in Charles Band’s Laserblast as well as Quetzalcoatl in Larry Cohen’s Q: The Winged Serpent. The plesiosaur that he designed and brought to life for The Crater Lake Monster is one of his finest creations, and part of why he is a legend today.
Like The Legend of Boggy Creek before it, The Crater Lake Monster is a product of its time period. The popularity of sensationalized television programs like “In Search Of…” brought the possibility of real life monsters such as Bigfoot and The Abominable Snowman into the public eye. The plesiosaur in The Crater Lake Monster is the spitting image of The Loch Ness Monster, right down to the camera angles that Stromberg uses to capture Allen’s creation. For the big action sequences, the monster utilizes Allen’s classic stop-motion fashion, but for simple stalking or swimming scenes, a life-sized floating head is used to portray the monster. The combination of the two is less distracting than it sounds, and the creature is a fun combination of miniature and practical effects, with no CGI whatsoever. And it’s great.
The Crater Lake Monster is full of unintentional humor, a fact that somehow makes the monster more believable. Sheriff Hanson is laughably inept, and the characters of Arnie and Mitch are almost slapstick comedians when they aren’t screaming their heads off. The supporting players are equally bad, with one man utilizing the worst fake accent ever to be heard in a B-Movie. Between the weak script and awkward acting, the audience finds itself waiting for the monster to make another appearance – and hoping that the creature eats as many cast members as possible.
Sadly, David Allen passed away in 1999. In today’s saturated world of CGI creature features, one only has to look to The Crater Lake Monster to recognize the fact that Allen was a highly underappreciated artist.