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 Alpha Incident (1978)

The Alpha Incident (1978)‘I keep looking at my hands waiting for them to turn blue or fall off or something…’

A probe returns to Earth from Mars, bringing with it a deadly virus. The U.S. government orders the genetic material shipped to a secure facility in Denver, but the shipment is breached during transit…

The notion of a top secret alien germ being sent across country via commercial freight is somewhat hard to swallow in this late 1970s science fiction ‘thriller.’ The fact it’s being done to ‘avoid publicity’ is doubly ridiculous, as is the fact that it’s being guarded by just one man disguised as a train conductor. This government bio-chemist/hitman (Stafford Morgan) is not the sharpest knife in the drawer either as he takes a kip on the way, failing to realise that drunken train guard (George ‘Buck’ Flower) will go back to the freight car and attempt to open one of the crates. The fact that Flower has been continuously grilling him about the shipment obviously wasn’t much of a giveaway.

Once the breach is discovered, the two are quarantined, along with railway employees Ralph Meeker, Carol Irene Newell and John F Goff at the rural Moose Head station. Back at base, two top scientists search desperately for a counter-agent. It’s not that bad a setup, but when our five mismatched heroes become isolated, the film grinds to a complete halt. Goff does try to make a run for it and Morgan shoots him in the arm. However, after a quick bandage job from Newell, it heals completely as it never gets mentioned again or affects Goff in any way. Beyond that incident, there is almost no character or plot development whatsoever. It is discovered that the virus acts during sleep so the challenge is to stay awake to survive. Unfortunately, that’s something that applies to the audience as much as to our protagonists.

Producer/director Bill Rebane is somewhat of a cult figure in certain circles, his reputation mainly resting on the unintentional hilarity of ‘The Giant Spider Invasion’ (1975) which famously featured a furry Volkswagen in the title role.  He’d begun his film directing career with the wretched ‘Monster a-Go-Go’ (1965), which ran out of cash and was finished by none other than splatter king Herschell Gordon Lewis. It was almost a decade before he gave us ‘torchlight’ for aliens in ‘lnvasion from Inner Earth’ (1974), moved onto giant arachnids and then went back to an extra-terrestrial threat with this low-budget effort. All Rebane’s films were made in rural Wisconsin, usually with the assistance of the local townspeople.

Ralph Meeker is undoubtedly the biggest name ever to grace a Rebane movie. He’d played Mike Hammer in Robert Aldrich’s highly regarded noir ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ (1955), and taken prominent roles in ‘The Dirty Dozen’ (1967), and Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Paths of Glory’ (1957) among others. Unfortunately, despite a long and solid movie career, the 1970s had not been kind and he’d been relegated to guest roles on network TV shows and a handful of films including Bert I. Gordon’s woeful ‘The Food of the Gods’ (1976). He’s completely wasted here, saddled with an almost invisible character who seems barely conscious even when he’s awake.

The Alpha Incident (1978)

‘The horror…the horror…’

Having said that, the cast is far stronger than usual for a Rebane film, so we are spared the usual stilted line readings and wooden performances. These actors are professionals with other credits, rather than friends and family members. Flower appeared in over 150 films, including a couple of episodes of the ‘Back to the Future’ series, as well as for John Carpenter and other directors plying their trade toward the edges of mainstream cinema.

Rebane wasn’t finished here, even if subsequent efforts reverted to more of the ‘homemade’ kind of pictures that were his stock in trade. ‘The Capture of Bigfoot’ (1979), ‘Rana: The Legend of Shadow Lake’ (1981) and ‘The Demons of Ludlow’ (1983) followed and his last film to date is ’Twister’s Revenge! (1988), the story of a computerised monster truck. In 2002, he ran for the position of governor of Wisconsin.

A reasonably professional production sunk by a story that goes absolutely nowhere.

Invasion From Inner Earth/They (1974)

Invasion From Inner Earth (1974) ‘Dr Frankenstein, what are those strange lights in the castle this evening?’

Owners and guests at a remote lodge in snowy Wisconsin discover that the outside world has descended in to chaos. Communication blackouts have swept the nation and a mysterious plague has decimated most of the global population. The group struggle to find the answer to what’s happening with one of them convinced that the events involve flying saucers.

Bill Rebane was a ‘regional’ filmmaker. That’s a euphemism for films usually shot in rural locations, involving the local population and very little budget. Typically, the finished product would show in a couple of theatres in the immediate locality. This was only Rebane’s second film and it had been almost 10 years since his debut, the appalling ‘Monster A-Go Go’ (1965) which was finished by an uncredited Herschell Gordon Lewis when production folded due to lack of money. Here, the complete lack of budget also shows through in a wearisome talkfest that has less action than a convent on a Saturday night.

The story opens with chilling scenes of mass panic, crowds of people running down the street fleeing an unknown menace. Unfortunately, these shots last less than 10 seconds(!) and after some likewise brief, and rather dodgy, UFO SFX, we’re firmly entrenched in the snowy Wisconsin woods for the rest of the film’s 94 minute running time. There’s a limited cast, of course, focusing on the brother and sister who run the lodge, debutants Nick Holt and Debbi Pick, and the group of four scientists who’ve been collecting ‘readings’ in the woods. Things wouldn’t be complete without a painfully contrived (and motiveless) conflict between Holt and argumentative Andy (Robert Arkens) or lots of forced wackiness from oddball Sam (Arnold Didrickson).

What the film is most famous for is its’ alien SFX. These consist of orange spotlights moving across the walls in gloomy rooms, and a stilted voice on the short wave which hilariously tries to convince Peck it’s just a normal person ‘testing the equipment’. Holt does manage to get someone genuine on the radio at one point when everyone is desperate for answers, and is informed that’s ‘it’s all over’ and ‘there’s hardly anyone left.’ You think he might ask for some clarification, but no. Pointless, apparently. Another triumph is the vivid portrayal of a crashed light aircraft realised by a couple of small bonfires in the woods and absolutely no wreckage. In terms of the story, the scene is completely redundant, but I guess it adds a few minutes to the running time.

Invasion From Inner Earth (1974)

‘Breaker, breaker, we’ve got E.T. in the hen house, do you copy?’

Just for good measure, the title makes absolute no sense whatsoever, although this may have had more to do with the distributor than the actual filmmakers themselves. The musical soundtrack sounds suspiciously like it was sourced from a library. Why else would the opening credit sequence featuring a plane flight be accompanied by something that sounds like a cheap recording of a spaghetti western theme?

Rebane went onto greatness with next film ‘The Giant Spider Invasion’ (1975), which was bolder with its SFX, and has earned quite a reputation in cult movie circles. Mainly due to its furry Volkswagen monster. Holt, who gives easily the most natural performance here, went onto bits on TV shows like ‘Battlestar Galactica’ but didn’t make it out of the 1970s after a fatal motorcycle crash.

As always, a certain amount of admiration is due to a small, independent filmmaker who produces a feature length movie against the odds, but, as is often the case, the result here is just over an hour and a half of painful tedium with the (very) occasional piece of unintentional silliness that breaks the monotony.

There may be a great movie to be made about extra-terrestrial torchlight, but this isn’t it.

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.