A short history of Bigfoot in the movies

For such an elusive beast, Bigfoot has been captured on film quite a few times. As Exists arrives on disc, we take a look...

Earlier this year, a group of Russian explorers went out to the woods near Adygeysk in search of Bigfoot. And they came back with what they claim is video evidence of the creature’s existence: their footage shows, pretty clearly, a large human-shaped being lumbering through the woods, and they even filmed some of its footprints as further ‘proof’.

Then, a month later, footage captured by the US National Parks Service caught what appears to be a Bigfoot wandering about Yellowstone Park with the bison. Both videos have made headlines around the world, as people argue back and forth about whether or not Bigfoot exists.

Legends about Bigfoot-style creatures have probably existed for as long as people have been scared of getting lost in the woods. After all, there are all kinds of dangerous animals out there. Why not a huge, furry, stinky humanoid with giant feet? The idea of coming across a Bigfoot in the wild is terrifying, but the creatures are also legendarily elusive. So maybe we should just stick to watching movies about them. Luckily, there are quite a few of those. Let’s take a look back at the history of Bigfoot movies…

The Snow Creature (1954)

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Monster movies were all the rage in the 1950s, with classics like Creature From The Black Lagoon, Godzilla, The Fly, The Thing, The Blob and many, many more hitting cinemas and terrifying audiences. So maybe it’s not a surprise that the first known yeti movie comes from that decade, too. It’s not very well known, though, and that’s because no-one liked it.

The Snow Creature follows a group of explorers to the Himalayas, where they’re planning to study plant life but end up capturing a yeti. When they take it back to America, though, border control isn’t convinced it’s not human, and the rest of the film is mostly taken up with that philosophical/bureaucratic debate, with minimal yeti chaos. Maybe the most interesting thing about this movie is that it was directed by Billy Wilder’s brother, W. Lee Wilder, and written by his son, Myles Wilder. But this is definitely no Sunset Boulevard.

Also, this seems like a good time to talk about the yeti/Bigfoot thing. For the purposes of this article, we’re going to assume they’re basically the same thing, but from different parts of the world; kind of like how there are Asian and African elephants, but they’re both recognisable as elephants. Yeti are normally found in Tibetan mountains, while Bigfoot is generally in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, but beyond that they seem pretty similar. Onwards!

The Abominable Snowman (1957)

There were a couple of other yeti movies in the ‘50s, but the most significant is probably The Abominable Snowman. A Hammer Horror movie starring Peter Cushing, it’s another one about scientists heading out to the Himalayas and running into a yeti. The production values are better than the earlier movie, though this one, too, is ultimately more concerned with human nature than with monsters.

Because when Cushing’s Dr Rollason gets to spend some time with the creatures, he realises that they’re a peaceful species, and that charging in to try and capture them, even in the name of scientific curiosity, isn’t morally right. The movie ends on a quiet note, as he decides to deny the existence of the yeti in order to dissuade other explorers from chasing after them. It’s not the kind of message you often get in monster movies – no-one argued that the Gillman ought to just be left alone to chill out in his lagoon! – but it’s one that we’ll return to in later Bigfoot movies.

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The Legend Of Boggy Creek (1972)

For a while, Bigfoot movies fell out of fashion. But in the ‘70s, they came back into vogue. The Legend Of Boggy Creek was a mockumentary about Bigfoot, shot on a super low budget in and around Fouke, Arkansas. There really were Bigfoot sightings around the town in the early 1970s, with the cryptid accused of molesting livestock and attacking local families, so there was a ready-made story there just waiting for a filmmaker to come along and film it.

That filmmaker was Charles B. Pierce, who would go on to direct The Town That Dreaded Sundown in 1976. To finance the film, he borrowed money from a local trucking company, used an old camera, and hired mostly locals and students to play themselves in the film. It’s an approach we’re used to nowadays, with so many ultra-low budget horror movies flooding supermarket shelves, but for 1972, it was pretty enterprising. And considering its humble origins, it was incredibly successful, making $20 million at the box office and spawning a string of sequels.

While it may not have added much to Bigfoot mythology, it did at least contribute to bringing the creature back into the public consciousness.

Horror Express (1972)

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In the same year, one movie did something pretty weird with the Bigfoot legend. In Horror Express, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing play rival scientists on board the Trans-Siberian Express. Lee’s Professor Saxton isn’t exactly travelling light: his luggage includes a crate containing a Bigfoot-like creature he caught in Manchuria and believes to be human evolution’s missing link.

Naturally, since this is a horror movie, the creature escapes and wreaks havoc. But it’s not just dangerous because it’s bigger and stronger than the humans on the train – it’s dangerous because it’s the host of a kind of alien lifeform that’s been trapped on Earth for millions of years. And it’s capable of resurrecting the dead and stealing people’s memories. So yeah, this isn’t your average yeti movie, but it’s worth a look anyway.

Night Of The Demon (1980)

Skipping ahead a few years brings us to Night Of The Demon in 1980. Nope, not a remake of the Jacques Tourneur movie, more’s the pity. This Bigfoot movie was on the BBFC’s video nasties list, and was banned until 1994, when it was finally released with an 18 certificate – and almost two minutes’ worth of cuts. It’s worth talking about here because the other Bigfoot movies we’ve looked at so far haven’t been particularly brutal, even when the Bigfoot portrayed is a monster rather than a sympathetic creature.

Once again the movie begins with a professor setting out to prove the existence of Bigfoot. He takes a group of students out to the woods where there have been recent Bigfoot sightings, and most of them get killed when it turns out that not only is Bigfoot real, but he’s a rapist, and the villagers have formed a Satanic cult to worship the creature, which they take to be a demon. There are maulings and eviscerations and, er, well, one guy gets killed by having his penis ripped off. It’s not a pleasant film. At this point in Bigfoot cinema, the creature was very much a baddie.

Bigfoot And The Hendersons (1987)

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Jumping from Night Of The Demon to Bigfoot And The Hendersons (or Harry And The Hendersons, as it was known in the US) is a bit of a shock, then. Because Bigfoot And The Hendersons is a family comedy that depicts its titular creature, Harry, as a kind and gentle creature who should be protected from hunters and shadowy government agencies.

And although it received a panning from critics on its release, the movie was well-liked enough that it spawned a spin-off TV series that ran for three years from 1991 to 1993. Harry’s cuddliness went a long way to rehabilitating the image of the Bigfoot, and there were other sentimental movies produced throughout the 90s that also portrayed the creatures as friendly and lovable.

We haven’t got space here to go into detail about all the daft cuddly Bigfoot movies churned out in the 90s, but notable examples include Bigfoot: The Unforgettable Encounter (1994), which sees Bigfoot befriending an 11 year old boy, Little Bigfoot (1997), in which a group of kids have to save a mini-Bigfoot’s home from evil logging companies, Big And Hairy (1998) in which a Sasquatch joins a high school basketball team, and the TV movie To Catch A Yeti (1995), in which a yeti called Hank tries to escape a Bigfoot hunter played by Meat Loaf. No longer an intimidating monster, Bigfoot had been reimagined as a kind of fuzzy babysitter.

Abominable (2006)

It’d take a good few years for Bigfoot to start seeming scary again, but the mid-2000s saw several Bigfoot-themed horror movies released. Abominable restores some of Bigfoot’s brutality; it’s another ‘cabin in the woods’ type movie, with the added twist that its hero is a wheelchair-bound former climber who lost his wife in an accident and wants to save a group of friends from getting eaten alive.

There’s plenty of carnage here, though it’s nowhere near as grim as Night Of The Demon, and the Sasquatches definitely aren’t a peaceful species. Even Lance Henrikson doesn’t stand a chance against this version of the Bigfoot.

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Strange Wilderness (2008)

Despite Abominable and a handful of other low budget Bigfoot horrors, though, the creatures still hadn’t quite shaken off their comedy reputation, as box office bomb Strange Wilderness demonstrates. Produced by Adam Sandler, it starred Steve Zahn as a wannabe David Attenborough type who plans to make a name for himself by tracking down a Bigfoot.

Despite a cast list bulging with recognisable names, from Jonah Hill to Justin Long and Robert Patrick, Strange Wilderness has a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and is probably best forgotten about. Sorry for telling you it exists. Shall we move on?

Exists (2014)

Let’s fast forward in time to, well, now. With the shadow of Paranormal Activity still hanging over the horror genre, it’s perhaps not surprising that modern Bigfoot movies tend to employ the found footage conceit. They’re kind of the perfect monster for that format, since most of the ‘proof’ that they exist tends to be shaky cam footage shot by an amateur.

Enter director Eduardo Sanchez, one half of the directing team who basically invented the modern found footage film with The Blair Witch Project back in 1999. Returning to his roots here, Sanchez sends a group of young people off to a cabin in the woods, but there’s something fuzzy lurking in the woods, and it’s really not happy to see them.

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Without spoiling too much, Exists manages to cover a lot of Bigfoot bases, letting them be both scary and sympathetic. The balance ultimately tips in favour of scary, but then maybe that’s as it should be.

Now… who reckons that Russian video is actually a real Bigfoot, rather than just a man in a suit?

Exists is available on DVD and Blu-ray now.