The Crater Lake Monster: An amateur effort, but a very skilled one

The Crater Lake Monster directed by William R. StrombergThe Crater Lake Monster directed by William R. Stromberg

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsMy bad, and all that, but for some reason, I had long assumed The Crater Lake Monster was a product of the late 1950s – a black-and-white cousin of such other films dealing with thawed-out critters returning to harass modern man as The Monster That Challenged the World (1957) and The Monster of Piedras Blancas (1959). Of course, I was incorrect in that surmise, and the picture in question turns out to be from the year 1977, and filmed in beautiful supersaturated color, to boot. Still, this film’s heart seems to be very much with the great sci-fi pictures that had been produced two decades earlier. A minor and modest entertainment at best, it yet succeeds as a pastiche of its ’50s antecedents, and indeed, had it been filmed in B&W and featured some vintage automobiles, might have been able to fool many other folks as to its year of birth.

In the film, coscreenwriter Richard Cardella plays Sheriff Steve Hanson, who is in charge of the peaceful, picturesque little town of Crater Lake, somewhere between L.A. and Las Vegas. The plummeting of a sparkling meteorite into the local lake spells big trouble for Hanson, the townsfolk and some visiting tourists, however, as the superhot chunk of space junk soon warms up the lake’s waters and acts as an incubator of sorts for a plesiosaur egg that had long lain dormant in its icy depths. And before long, a fully grown plesiosaur – think of the head and body of a brontosaurus, but substitute seallike flippers for the legs – with a decidedly nasty disposition and a hunger for meat is seen waddling and chomping its way through the area! It would seem as if Hanson, along with the town’s doc, a visiting archaeologist and his girlfriend, and the area’s two doofus boat renters, Arnie and Mitch, will have their hands very full, eliminating – and perhaps even capturing – the prehistoric menace…

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews“A beast more terrifying than your most frightening nightmare,” the original trailer for The Crater Lake Monster proclaimed, and while this amusing bit of hyperbole is of course patent nonsense, the film’s creature nonetheless is a most pleasing creation. Brought to life via Harryhausen-like stop-motion animation courtesy of David W. Allen, the plesiosaur is fairly awesome to behold, and to the film’s credit, we do not have to wait more than 15 minutes before getting our initial glimpse. (I always got impatient, when I was a kid, if a film withheld that first look for too long, and I suppose I haven’t changed much!) The creature looks most impressive every time we see it, even when director/coscreenwriter William R. Stromberg gives us a long shot of the lake, with only the monster’s head and neck briefly emerging from it. Indeed, the entire film LOOKS just fine, with rich colors and lovely scenery (the picture makes nice use of its Huntington Lake and Palomar Mountain, California, locales), shown to good advantage on its current Rhino DVD incarnation. As for the film’s acting … well, I’m not saying that the Academy egregiously overlooked anybody here, but the thesping is nonetheless better than you might expect. Cardella, in the lead role, is especially good as the befuddled, tough, scared but dependably capable sheriff; indeed, an unexpectedly charismatic portrayal from this relatively unknown actor. Anyway, those are the film’s not inconsiderable virtues, which are, unfortunately, counterbalanced by a goodly share of drawbacks.

It’s hard to put a finger on any one reason, but Crater Lake Monster exudes that indefinable sense of an amateur effort, albeit a very skilled one, and featuring those excellent FX. As detailed on a certain Wiki site, the film had a troubled production vis-a-vis financing, and I suppose that all involved did the best they could under the circumstances. The picture features some blatantly goofy humor, thanks to those cracker-barrel numskulls Mitch and Arnie (we get to see the two argue constantly, fight, toss each other in the lake, get drunk, stumble around in the woods, etc.), but these scenes also allow us to get to know the characters better, and thus to actually worry about them when they are in peril. What is worse than the inane humor is the ease with which the plesiosaur is ultimately dispatched; a horribly rushed, unbelievable and anticlimactic denouement that should leave very few viewers satisfied. And then there is the matter of time elapsed in the film. We are told at one point that it had been six months since the meteorite plunged into Crater Lake, although there is absolutely no way for the viewer to have realized this; indeed, all the occurrences in the film seem to transpire over the duration of around 72 hours. So yes, the film most certainly is a minor effort, and a mixed bag at best, but still most undeserving of the lowest “BOMB” rating that the wet blankets at Maltin’s Movie Guide have chosen to bestow on it. The film is especially perfect for the kiddies and those with an abiding love for 1950s monster fare, not to mention those who are suckers for stop-motion FX. In all, a nice try, from a group of filmmakers whose heart was certainly in the right place…

Researchers from the local university make an astounding discovery in an ancient cave near Crater Lake. Breaking into an unknown tunnel they find prehistoric paintings on the walls that depict humans battling a gigantic dinosaur. But weren’t dinosaurs extinct by the time man arrived on the scene? The answer isn’t long in coming. A meteor has crashed into the lake incubating an egg that lay dormant for ages. A monstrous aquatic dinosaur emerges from the depths wreaking havoc on the once-peaceful town. The researchers Dan Susan and Doc come up with a daring plan to capture the beast alive for the sake of science but they’ll have to race against time and a dedicated sheriff Steve Hanson who’s ready to blow the creature back to kingdom come.

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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2 comments

  1. Crater Lake, somewhere in the dense forest between LA and Las Vegas, and not to be confused with the *actual* Crater Lake in Oregon.

    I laughed out loud about six times reading this review, Sandy! I especially enjoyed the comment about the Academy not egregiously overlooking anyone!

  2. sandy ferber /

    Glad you enjoyed it, Marion. I’m partial to that phrase “superhot hunk of space junk” myself….

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