Back in the day, regional filmmakers were a scrappier bunch than the current crop of nominally independent filmmakers. They pulled together shoestring budgets from a variety of interests, often used locals for talent and wheeled and dealed their way into drive-in theaters all over the South. Their outputs often raked in voluminous dividends, though only relative to their modest budgets.
Charles B. Pierce, Arkansas's own maverick regionalist, qualifies as a state treasure not because his films are especially great, but because his spirit of determination separates real independence from the stale marketing category we call the independents. His films may have been made with the largest possible profit margin in mind, but there are endlessly easier ways to make a fast buck. Filmmaking in the '70s was a much more harrowing task than today's technology allows. His work had to have as its root a genuine love for moving pictures.
The Little Rock Film Festival, by choosing to celebrate such a filmmaker, puts the spotlight on a man who is perhaps most widely known as the butt of jokes on “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Maybe some of his pictures err on the side of schlock, but three of his earliest works, all screening at the festival, are more than ironic curiosities.
His first film, like those of many regionalists', traffics in localized hysteria. “The Legend of Boggy Creek” presumes to track sightings of the legendary Fouke monster in southwest Arkansas. The film is a pseudo-documentary that employed the talents of many locals, some of whom claimed to have actually seen the creature. Its episodic re-enactments were effective enough that the film made a whopping profit.
Pierce followed up the success of “Boggy Creek” with two ambitious period films. The first, “Bootleggers,” is lovingly and often inventively shot in an uncharacteristically wide angle that hints at Pierce's loftier goals for the film. It focuses on Othar Pruitt (Paul Kaslo), the once-carefree scion of a family of bootleggers as he seeks vengeance for the death of his grandfather, played by the great Slim Pickens. A good deal of the film recalls a Depression-era “American Graffiti” — the fast cars a little ricketier, but soaked in the same warm nostalgia. However, the sunny, banjo-picked soundtrack of Pruitt's youth soon gives way to darker measures.
(The film would make an interesting double feature with a more recent Arkansas picture shot in the same territory: “Chrystal,” directed by Little Rock's Ray McKinnon, whose dogged pursuit of his own productions might make him the modern equivalent of Pierce.)
The second, “The Town That Dreaded Sundown,” is another feature based on “true” events, a serial killer film following in the footsteps of grislier fare like “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Black Christmas.” As in “Boggy Creek,” Pierce strains for the veneer of documentary, and the film sometimes plays like a proto-”Unsolved Mysteries,” complete with a narrator (Vern Stierman from “Boggy Creek”) with unsettlingly wooden tones. The film is buoyed by some great performances by professional actors. Andrew Prine's Sgt. Ramsey is particularly good, as is the veteran character actor Ben Johnson as a Texas Ranger brought in to track down the killer. Pierce himself turns in a fine comic performance as Sparkplug, the hard-headed, hapless, but cocksure patrolman.
Through it all, audiences must keep in mind the manifold difficulties of financing such projects. Pierce didn't have to produce his own films. A talented artistic director, he eventually was nominated for an Emmy for his work on somebody else's project. His own were more than prospective cash cows. Sheer will played a large role in their making.