Rana: The Legend of Shadow Lake (1981)

Rana: The Legend of Shadow Lake (1981)‘Half man, half frog and half l don’t know what.’

A young boy finds a prehistoric bone on an island in a remote lake. The local university sends a professor to investigate, and a small logging crew tangle with the old man who lives in the woods. They are looking for gold, which the hermit believes is protected by the spirit of the lake…

In the half-dozen or so years immediately following the runaway success of Steven Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’ (1975), it seemed that every body of water in the world was inhabited by dangerous and mysterious creatures. Rural Wisconsin was no exception. Regional filmmaker Bill Rebane had already ensured his place in the hallowed halls of cult cinema by sticking carpet samples onto his Volkswagen to create ‘The Giant Spider Invasion’ (1977) and within a few years had graduated to this brew of ancient Native American myth, survival adventure, hidden treasure and frog people.

The film mostly unfolds in an extended flashback as a grown up Kelly (Glenn Scherer) explains to his girlfriend (Doreen Moze) why they are spending their vacation in a cabin on the island. So most of what we see involves him as a young boy (Brad Ellington) accompanying his forest ranger father as they helps local boffin (Karen McDiarmid) and her niece (Julie Wheaton) investigate this mysterious fossil. Things turn ugly when the nearby logging crew reveal that their not interested in trees so much as gold, and the local hermit (Jerry Gregoris) express his dissatisfaction with their scheme via the medium of his shotgun. Gregoris is the last descendant of the original Native American tribe who lived in the area and made offerings to the spirits of the lake.

Framing stories are usually a device to paper over the cracks when a film has financial issues; a fate which befell Rebane’s first picture, the dreadful ‘Monster A-Go Go’ (1965), which was eventually finished by splatter king Herschel Gordon Lewis. Here, there’s no real other evidence of a troubled production, just the inevitable abundance of chat over action, which is almost guaranteed in the low- budget arena. Most of the cast have very limited other credits; Scherer having a few small roles in higher profile projects such as ‘Cocoon: The Return’ (1988) and Alan Ross going on to write Rebane’s next film, ‘The Demons of Ludlow’ (1983). But, given that, the performances are mostly naturalistic and that helps to get the audience through the 90 minute runtime.

Rana: The Legend of Shadow Lake (1981)

‘You don’t want to go there, sir! Not to the lake, sir!’

And help is needed, because the real problem here is that the film drags. Rebane conjures little suspense from various cast members wandering about in the woods, and some of the music cues are a little odd. The final reveal is also an underwhelming ‘man in a monster suit’ moment and, although I’ve seen worse, it’s not exactly impressive. The story is half-baked too, with the use of Native American mythology verging on window dressing, but the results are workmanlike if you’re not too critical.

A fairly typical example of the sort of low-budget filler that was a staple of the home video rental market in the early 1980s.

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The Demons of Ludlow (1983)

The_Demons_Of_Ludlow_(1983)‘Oh my god, that’s it! Efram Ludlow’s ghost is in the piano!’

A small town’s bicentennial celebrations are enlivened by the arrival of an old piano sent from England. It once belonged to the founding father of the town and his descendants have returned it as a goodwill gesture. Or was their motive something slightly more sinister?

Bill Rebane is what is rather euphemistically called a ‘regional filmmaker.’ In other words, micro-budgeted productions shot entirely on a small-town location, usually with the co-operation and sometimes the participation, of local residents. Rebane’s stomping ground was rural Wisconsin and he is best remembered amongst enthusiasts of low-budget films for his epic monster fest ‘The Giant Spider Invasion’ (1975). Although the title infers lots of outsized critters, there was in fact only one, and it bore an unfortunate resemblance to a furry Volkswagen with some legs stuck on. No matter. By the 1980s the emerging video craze meant a ready-made market for low-budget horror and Rebane dived right in.

This film tells the tale of a rural community, blighted for the last 200 years by a curse placed on them by founding father Efram Ludlow. He was packed off to England after some unspecified activities that incurred the displeasure of the local populace. Perhaps he was wearing black t-shirts and listening to heavy metal? We never really find out. Anyway, his descendants send back his old Joanna and, despite the town elders seemingly in the know about this curse thing, they put it on the stage in the Town Hall. After that, some weird stuff starts to happen, mainly involving an out of control smoke machine and some garish, multi-coloured lighting…

Things go from bad to worse when a young girl is dismembered, and there’s no local law enforcement to help. The Mayor seems disinclined to ask for any official assistance either, on the grounds that no-one can help. Apparently, this is entirely up to him! In the best tradition of ‘Jaws’ (1975), he’s worried about what all these pesky demons will do to the local tourist industry, even though there’s six feet of snow on the ground, and not even a glimpse of one single, solitary holidaymaker. Hell, the town doesn’t even seem to have any streets!

It’s easy to forget that some of the things that we take for granted today, even on low-budget projects, probably weren’t available to a filmmaker like Rebane back then. Things like a decent colour process, fluid camera movement, slick editing, and a good sound mix. All are noticeable by their absence here. But some of the other deficiencies aren’t so excusable. The ghostly piano is a white upright model, but sounds an awful lot like a harmonium, and one of the characters refers to it as such, which probably means the prop department didn’t really deliver. They also come up short with the ancient manuscript, which is a large scrap of tatty paper. We never see what’s written on it, because it’s only ever filmed from behind with characters holding it up!

The_Demons_Of_Ludlow_(1983)

‘Son can you play me a memory? I’m not really sure how it goes…’

Also there’s an obvious lack of available interiors for filming, so we get a parade of repetitious scenes, and a snail’s pace. ‘Do you know anything about that piano?’ asks nosey reporter Stephanie Cushna, to which the scintillating answer is ‘No, l’m sorry I don’t.’ End of conversation. Yes, the script is desperately poor, and never gels into anything remotely approaching logic or common sense. There’s a ghostly girl in period dress, floating pokers, some homemade gore, and sword wielding soldiers (or are they pirates?), but nothing really works.

lt’s fairly clear Rebane was aiming for something in the ballpark of John Carpenter’s ‘The Fog’ (1980) but you won’t be surprised to hear that he doesn’t even come close. To be fair, some of the cast give credible performances, including Cushna, and Carol Perry is a surprisingly natural presence as the bullying piano player, but there’s little they can do to make sense of it all.

A more fully developed storyline and a better script would have helped immensely, but the obvious lack of available resources and expertise were probably always going to be too great a challenge to overcome.