by Glenn Lovell
One of the year’s more energetic exploitation offerings, the bayou-set “Creature” borrows trappings from “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and the 1959 cult item “Alligator People” and, for at least three-quarters of its running length, scores very high on the fright-meter.
Directed and co-written by Fred M. Andrews, a longtime production designer, this low-budget entry heaps on the gore and the T&A ‒ genre staples ‒ and can best be described as “Swamp Thing” with teeth, razor-sharp teeth.
The first thing that catches your eye is the poster: Andrews’ monster, a demonic Ninja Turtle, is front and center. For good reason. Designed by Jerry Constantine, the mutant alligator with leering “Man Who Laughed” rictus can stand proud beside Ridley Scott’s original Alien and Victor Salva’s Creeper as one of the most original screen monsters we’ve seen in a while.
When it comes to Lockjaw, as he’s known, Andrews doesn’t stint on close-ups. Indeed, one of the best (read most nauseating) sequences in the film finds a petrified victim staring long and deep into the big guy’s reptilian orbs.
Our story opens with three couples heading down the road to New Orleans. Outside of Fort Collins, they pull into “Choppers,” a gas station without gas but plenty of local curios, including three good ol’ boys who warn, “Best watch your step ‒ worst things than gators.” Rod Zombie regular Sid Haig plays the owner of the establishment; Jimmy (David Jensen), busy chopping bait, waves hello with what’s left of his hands. “He can count to five, but six he has to pull down his zipper,” snorts his buddy, a wily Cajun (Wayne Pere).
Back on the road, Oscar (Dillon Casey) regales his friends with the story of a “Southern-fried version of Bigfoot.” Told in flashback, it’s a creepy tale of incest and revenge. Seems a guy named Grimley (Daniel Bernhardt) went crazy when his sister was carted off by an “ancient white lizard.” Eventually Grimley changed into his sworn enemy, became a mutant gator that gurgle-growls and walks upright.
You’re right, it does sound pretty dopey. To his credit, Andrews mostly eschews the camp elements and concentrates on hardcore fright. He’s abetted by a talented ensemble ‒ led by Lauren Schneider as the group’s tease and Mehcad Brooks as the brawny former Navy SEAL ‒ and atmospheric, russet-toned cinematography by Christopher Faloona. Unfortunately, “Creature” trips up in the homestretch, when a decent rampaging monster movie turns into a backwoods conspiracy number, complete with blood sacrifice and what seems a record number of false endings.
Lest we be accused of biting (off) the hand that feeds, we should add that “Creature,” overall, delivers the goods in old-fashioned, knee-to-the-jugular jolts.
CREATURE With Lauren Schneider, Mehcad Brooks, Sirenda Swan, Dillon Casey, Sid Haig, Daniel Bernhardt. Directed by Fred M. Andrews; scripted by Tracy Morse, Andrews. 93 min. Rated R (for nudity, graphic gore)