Saturday, February 22, 2014

Who Watches the Watchlist :: Clearing Out the Amazon Instant Que :: Joe Don Baker Goes Where Eagles Dare You and Pays the Price in Earl Smith's The Shadow of Chikara (1977)

Our film today opens in the thick of the American Civil War. Specifically, when Confederate Captain Virgil 'Wishbone' Cutter (Baker) and his 1st Arkansas regulars are ordered on a suicidal cavalry charge into the teeth of a fortified Union artillery position. This goes about as well as you'd think, and as the rebels retreat (-- very effectively to a haunting cover of 'They Night they Drove Old Dixie Down'), Cutter's first Sergeant, Kane (Pickens), is mortally wounded. But before he dies, he reveals a secret to his beloved Captain; seems he left a stash of diamonds found along the Buffalo River, which he hid in a cave, and manages to croak out a basic map on how to find them. Generous, yes, but his last words prove dire when he warns his new heir to be careful while rooting around on this specific mountain. For something strange goes on up there. Something so strange and dangerous, even the Indians won't set foot on it. Well, no. Not something. Some thing...

When Amazon Instant coughed up the title and I gave it a spin, considering when Wishbone Cutter a/k/a The Shadow of Chikara was made (1977), after that cryptic opening set-up, I nearly exploded with glee, thinking I had stumbled upon a potential Joe Don Baker versus  Bigfoot movie. Alas, turns out that notion was too good to be true. It's not a Sasquatch roaming around our mystery mountain, but something perhaps even more strange and twice as deadly. Even on top of that, some of you may be dubious about the whole diamond angle. Well, turns out Arkansas is fairly famous as being one of the rare places outside of South Africa where diamonds have been found and mined -- our film opens with a scrolling prologue, explaining this diamond distinction of our locale. There was even a diamond rush when the first stones were found in 1906. So, our film, if anything, is only guilty of jumping the gun a bit. 

But honestly, the quest for these diamonds is a bit of a macguffin in Earl E. Smith's film, who wrote and directed this odd opus. Smith had been part of Texarkana mini-movie mogul Charles B. Pierce's entourage in the 1970s, writing the scripts for the highly successful pseudo-documentaries The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972)  and The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976). And I assume it was while filming the ladder that he crossed paths with Barbara Pryor, the wife of David Pryor, who was serving as the governor of Arkansas at that point. Not content to be a politician's wife, Ms. Pryor kept working outside of her husband's sphere, running Pierce's production office and serving as a script supervisor on The Town that Dreaded Sundown.

Once filming wrapped on that picture, Pryor and Smith formed Fair Winds Productions, and secured financing for another feature set and filmed in their home state; a haunting western with some heavy supernatural overtones. Borrowing most of Pierce's crew, including cinematographer James Roberson, editor Tom Boutross, and Jaime Mendoza-Nava for the score, filming commenced almost immediately. And just like with Pierce's pictures, their film just oozes a true documentarian's eye and a sense of rustic bucolic-ness, which helps ground the film, considerably, once you realize we're basically looking at a mash-up of John Ford's The Searchers (1956), John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), and William Girdler's The Manitou (1978). And so help me, it works.

Stick with me, here, and see for yourselves, as we pick things up as the war ends and Cutter is mustered out. He returns home to find his house has been commandeered by the occupying Union forces and his wife (Dano, who, to be fair, was told her husband had been killed in action) shacking up with the Yankee commander. Cutter loses it over these developments, and after a fairly nasty dust-up, which he loses, with nothing left and looking for a fresh start, our *ahem* hero, along with his trusty Indian scout, Half-Moon (Houck Jr.), decides to seek out Kane's treasure and stake out a claim in case there is any more precious stones lying around.

Rounding up a school teacher/mineral expert named Richmond (Neeley), our trio of diamond prospectors start fording up the Buffalo but don't get very far before coming upon the burning remnants of wagon surrounded by its former occupants. And while all signs point to an Indian massacre, Cutter finds the over-abundance of spent arrows confusing, noting how most local tribes are better armed than they are by now with repeating rifles. Even stranger, Moon doesn't recognize the markings on the feathered shafts. However, more arrows soon start flying, causing them to head deeper upstream, but not before stumbling upon a lone survivor, a woman, whom they snatch up before making their escape.

Obviously traumatized, Drusilla Wilcox (Locke) is little sketchy on the details of what happened. And while Cutter and Richmond argue about what to do with her (bring her along, take her back, or just abandon her), an agitated Moon is convinced they're still being followed but can find no mark or trace of a pursuer and begins to fear spirits of some sort might be after them. Things get even stranger from there as our group is constantly herded deeper into the forest and up into the mountains by these unseen archers. As for why, well, we're definitely heading into spoiler territory, so, fair warning for those who read on from here.

I'm not sure when I realized Drusilla wasn't what she appeared to be. The film camouflages her pretty well. Yes, she keeps disappearing right before any attack, but we kinda gloss over this because we are so conditioned to see her as a victim; a survivor of the massacre but not totally unscathed. It's never spelled out specifically but its implied she's been raped by her attackers, which is bad enough but, remember, in the eyes of her rescuers, she is damaged goods, defiled by savages and no longer fit for civilized society, which is why Cutter considers just abandoning her. However, she isn't what she appears to be. Not a victim at all, but perhaps the strangest bait in film history.

You see, after being sidetracked by a trio of bushwhackers, who are summarily dispatched, they find one of Kane's landmarks that points out where his hidey-hole cave is. Here, Moon recognizes the mountain as Chok-Oh-So-Be, the Mountain of Demons, and relates the tale of Chikara, the great spirit eagle, who did battle with a jealous medicine man looking to steal his magic. Chikara won this battle (sort of, in a Kenobi sense) and, feeling betrayed, cast out every Indian from his realm. And this legend is so deeply rooted it explains why no natives will set foot up there or face some nasty retribution of a supernatural order, meaning those can't be Indians shooting at them, right? Right. Thus, Moon is convinced their attackers must be some form of manifestation of this great spirit, while the others, well, not so much.  

And so, ignoring Moon's ever escalating warnings, they press on. But the closer they get to their goal, the troupe runs into more bad luck and misadventure. Reaching the cave, the search begins for Kane's diamond stash which proves maddeningly elusive. Meanwhile, Drusilla starts to subtly but deliberately set the men against one another. Then, things really take a sinister turn when Moon and Drusilla take the horses for water and, in the film's most notorious scene, Moon and all the horses are lost in a freak accident -- or was it?! he typed ominously -- when they fall off a cliff. (More on this in a sec.)

Somehow, Drusilla manages a handhold and is rescued by the other two men before she falls. Despite the loss of their friend, this rescue by rope gives Cutter an idea as to where Kane's diamonds might be. And after lowering Richmond into a deep crevice inside the cave, he finds the stash, whose contents are quickly confirmed to be diamonds. All well and good, but now they are faced with the daunting task of making the trek back to civilization on foot to exploit this new wealth. Agreeing to set out in the morning, the camp quiets down for the night. Richmond takes first watch and is joined by the girl outside the cave, who lures him deeper into the forest for a little spit-swapping, where they get separated until he sees something, recoils in horror, and promptly takes an arrow to the throat.

Fleeing back to the cave, Drusilla alerts Cutter and he quickly holes up for the expected siege -- which never comes. When the sun rises, Drusilla finally confirms she is, in fact, not human at all but a surrogate Siren for Chikara, luring any trespassers (-- including, we can assume, those settlers at the burning wagon) into letting their guard down before dispatching them, which she does again with Cutter, who realizes too late what she really is and becomes a permanent fixture of the cave. The deed done, our film ends with our vengeful spirit manifestation returning the diamonds from whence they came before spying a large eagle circling above. She then retrieves her bow and returns it to her master. She then spies two more trespassers heading up the mountain and quickly tears up her dress and lays herself out prone again, baiting the trap once more as we fade to the closing credits.

Wow. The Shadow of Chikara is one strange bugaboo of a movie that tends to get under your skin and itches like crazy once exposed to it. Sure, I was disappointed when it turned out the mystery of the mountain wasn't a hairy bipedal cryptid of some sort, but what it turned out to be proved just as fascinating, especially how Smith's script keeps you guessing not necessarily as to who is after them but how it was done from the inside out. And again, considering when it was made, that Debbie-Downer ending should come as a surprise to no one. 

Dirty, crass, and unrelentingly brutal and bewitching, the film might not be historically accurate but bears a strange sheen that makes things seem a little too real. Case in point, the scene where Moon and the horses go over the cliff. At first glance, those falling horses look awfully real during that landslide and one would hope this was tragic accident caught on film at best and at worst they decided to put it in anyway. But scanning through it a couple of times, I can say those definitely weren't any kind of stuffed equine effigies. (Just watch the legs.) And having personally witnessed several dead animals being shipped off to the rendering plant, I have my suspicions that those were real dead horses (hopefully procured from the same kind of rendering plant) chucked over the cliff to get the shot. Any other option is freaking unconscionable. 

Aside from that disturbingly bizarre piece of verisimilitude, and Roberson stunning cinematography, most of the credit for the film's surprising effectiveness goes to the cast. Post his lambasting via Mystery Science Theater's take on Mitchell, Joe Don Baker gets way too much grief as an actor. Few played a hard-ass better than he did as far as I'm concerned, and here, he's involved in one of the nastiest, no-holds barred brawls I've seen him in yet -- topping even the one that gets the ball rolling in Framed. Locke brings her usual doe-eyed innocence to her part but you don't have to look to hard to see the damage and dementia behind those same eyes. It took me about half the movie to finally recognize Neeley. E'yup. This was his follow up film after playing our Lord and Savior in Jesus Christ Superstar (1973). Houck was no stranger to this kind of exploitation movie, but he was usually on the other side of the camera, directing the likes of Night of Bloody Horror (1969), The Night of the Strangler (1972), and Creature from Black Lake (1976). Also along for the ride are a trio of veteran character actors and genre stalwarts, Slim Pickens, Dennis Femple and John Chandler. 

This would be Fair Winds only feature, which would be released, initially by Howco International Pictures, and re-released under several different titles after: The Shadow of Chikara, Demon Mountain, The Ballad of Virgil Cane, The Curse of Demon Mountain, Thunder Mountain and Wishbone Cutter, which probably goes a long way in explaining why the film is currently wallowing in Public Domain purgatory. The print I watched, and the only one apparently available at this time, is a severely truncated TV print, with visible gaps in the film resulting in some atrocious edits and time displacement, and a lot of audio drop-outs to hide what little profanity there is. This, is too bad. Because whatever title you see it under, I think you'll agree that this film deserves some kind of restoration effort and a larger audience than its current small cult of fans. The Shadow of Chikara is far from great -- I'm not really sure if it even qualifies as good, but it definitely stick with ya. 

The Shadow of Chikara (1977) Fair Winds Production :: Howco International Pictures / EP: Barbara Pryor / P: Steve Lyons, Earl E. Smith / AP: Douglas Jackson / D: Earl E. Smith / W: Earl E. Smith / C: James W. Roberson / E: Tom Boutross / M: Jaime Mendoza-Nava / S: Joe Don Baker, Sondra Locke, Ted Neeley, Joy Houck Jr., Linda Dano, Slim Pickens


Anonymous said...

I thought Drusilla WAS Chikara. There's no reason a Native American spirit can't take the shape of a white woman.

W.B. Kelso said...

Very well could be. Or at least a manifestation brought on by the Great Spirit, who I think is the Hawk that Drusilla passes the bow onto at the end.

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