Few of the audience in my theater even blinked when Peter Graves turned up on screen in MIB 2. The venerable mission-assigner delivered some exposition in a hokey 70’s alien documentary ("Mysteries in History") with 70’s Doctor Who production values. Most of the theater shrugged. "Old stars need work," they probably thought. I knew better. I'd seen Mysterious Monsters.
I'd seen it lots of times.
So many times, in fact, that I'd memorized every commercial on a disintegrating videotape that I treated like a holy relic. So many times that I can still sing that jingle for the local Ford dealer jingle thirty years later.
After all, what was more thrilling to a young monster kid than a Bigfoot/Loch Ness Monster/Yeti documentary? Especially narrated in the dramatic tones of Peter Graves.
“The facts we are going to present are true," Peter Graves declares that the beginning. "This may be the most startling film you'll ever see." I was hooked. Like many children, I haunted the 000.00 section of the library, where one of its subjects was labeled wonderfully at my local branch “controversial knowledge.” You find two types of subjects there: information technology or the Jersey Devil.
Man, I believed everything as a kid. That list of things Jeanine Melnitz rattles off in Ghostbusters? All of it. Hell, I did my 7th grade science project on pyramid power experiments from the Osborne World of the Unknown UFOs.
It was an interconnected world of weird we believer kids lived in, as intricate as any comic universe, which is why Peter Graves resonated with me. He had a Mission.
When the world was young, and the long POV shot of a guy grunting in an ape suit could still make us hold our breath, the Mysterious Monsters came to tell us that it was all true. With copious reenactment shots and some crazy methods, Peter Graves wanted all of us to believe. The show mostly focuses on Bigfoot, with the Yeti and the Loch Nessie Monster being the Marvel cameos of the film for us true believers.
It’s probably a familiar format to most of my readers. A breathy Graves introduces the mysteries of Bigfoot, Nessie, and Yeti before a slew of eyewitnesses and talking head scientists while camera-mugging reenactments do their level best to make us clap and say, “I do believe in cryptids!”
I’ll give them this; the used their travel budget. Graves rides helicopters over the Pacific Northwest, tromping through beautiful scenery to harangue expert after expert. There’s stunning Loch Ness footage, including gorgeous details of Urquat Castle, a place I still resolve to visit before I die. The interviews aren’t a slouch either, with such important names as Grover Krantz, Peter Byrne, and Tim Dinsdale, it’s a history lesson on early cryptozoology.
How are the monsters, you’re asking? The Bigfoot suit looks pretty good for low-budget 70’s; believe me, I’ve seen much worse cinematic fare from that time period. What stunned me was the variety of suits. You got the main Bigfoot, pictured above. You have the Yeti, with its interesting face suggesting a Fu Manchu mustache.
Then for family scenes, there’s more sasquatch suits, each slightly different.
Trust me, from one schooled in the genre, I was not expecting this level of effort.
How’s their Loch Ness Monster? Nonexistent.
For paranormal films of this time period and well into the future, Nessie was a budget saver, a Lochtease. We cryptid kids hoped to see something cool, but every segment on the Scottish water was pretty similar. An ape suit was easy, but no move company that wallowed in budget mysticism would pop for the special effects needed to bring a plesiosaur to even subpar screen life.
No, we would only be treated to the same old photographs and painting on the screen each time, and we'd like it.
It’d be hard to match the spell-binding effect Nessie photos had with special effects anyway, especially with one only three years old at the time of filming.
Nessie was the cryptozoological rock star who never comes out on stage. Bigfoot was the reliable opening band. I guess that makes Mothman that weird prog rock band whose concert you got high at once.
Also of note are the really fun graphics...
...and newspaper clippings the film throws up on screen.
These kind of documentaries thrive on eye candy, and Mysterious Monsters has it in droves.
But this is early in the genre of paranormal documentaries, and therein lies the fun, because Peter Graves throws spaghetti at the wall and hits gold.
The first bit of weird science Peter Graves rolls out is voice analysis computers. Using supposed Bigfoot recordings, Peter is lectured by a nervous-seeming lab tech on the differences between human sounds and Bigfoot sounds.
Peter is just as enthralled as you will be.
But then we get to the psychic.
Peter Hurkos claimed to have psychic powers caused by a head injury after falling off a ladder, giving him a cooler origin story then 87% of all comics character created in the 1990s. He seems to be the second-rate Uri Gellar, never quite convincing quite as many people but adept at scoring international television specials. To sum up, if Uri Gellar is the Stephen King of psychics, Hurkos is Dean Koontz. But he claims to have psychometry, the ability to pick up your college t-shirt and know just how many disgusting things it’s touched.
With this in mind, Peter Graves takes a Bigfoot footprint in a wooden case and presents it to Hurkos without comment. Keeping the case close, Hurkos pontificates on the mysterious unknown object in the box. “It’s half-man, half-animal,” he says with the bored look of someone negotiating Turbo Tax. “Weighs about, I would say, 500 pounds. It’s about eight to nine feet.”
I have seen middle school kids in my literature class read aloud with more excitement. Hurkos finally gets rolling as he describe a cave-dwelling, long-armed gorilla-like carnivore. Finally, he draws a picture of the savage man-beast.
I think I've seen that Bigfoot before.
..as the best part of the Buffy movie, searching for the basement of the Alamo.
Peter claims that Hurkos has no idea what's in the box. Still, I do find it a little unlikely that Hurkos didn’t know the name or subject of the special he was being filmed for. I will admit that’s more common with paranormal documentaries, getting a specialist to pontificate with a fake title and recutting things to fit the narrative. Still, my skepticism is rising.
Afterwards, Mysterious Monsters never quite reaches the heights of weirdness. We get some senior citizens stomping through a recreation, finding Bigfoot footprints. Then, after an extended sequence of old man shouting happily about stride lengths, we come to the money shot, the part that lived in my dreams for years. When I thought of The Mysterious Monsters, I pictured The Attack.
Horror-movie-victim-to-be Rita Graham is chilling in her forest adjacent house, watching TV, enthralled by footage of men silently eating.
She hears noises outside, and as the men on TV loudly discuss margaritas, a large shadow moves quickly across the window behind her.
She peers outside and--
Yes, I know. Most people would say The Legend of Boggy Creek probably did a better 70's Bigfoot scare. In my case, I was exposed to this first as a kid, so this was the shape of my sasquatch nightmares. According to AFI, the scene even inspired one minor moral panic after airing on television. It’s a chiller.
Rita’s screams attract her husband, and he runs in, probably wondering exactly how sanity-blasting the latest episode of “Men Kibitzing at a Buffet” could be. With his supposedly-terrified wife giving him the irritated look my wife does when she expects me to get rid of a spider, our hero loads his rifle, throws open the door, and just as he prepares to go toe-to-toe with the living legend, gun at the ready…
... our mysterious monster appears, glaring with a thousand-yard-stare...
…and Peter Graves cuts in as we move on to the next story.
A gunman and Bigfoot were eyeballing each other, a tumble weed rolling by as the theme from “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” all but started to play, and that’s it? I call foul, Peter Graves. What happened, did they both just swap insurance company contacts and part ways?
I’m certain that a large percentage of young viewers believed that Bigfoot slaughtered everyone in that house, ate the bodies, ran all over the house while howling for victory, and went back to the woods to take a victory crap.
After that, it goes downhill in the eyes of a hyperactive preteen. We get lie detector tests, we get hypnotists, and we even get famous cryptozoologist Grover Krantz getting more and more irate as he rebukes a skeptical primatologist. “I don’t know what the breast of a Sasquatch ought to look like,” Krantz says with growing irritation. Grover, I’m sure a five minute internet search could teach you more than you want to know.
The then-recent Patterson-Gimlin film is shown, and we end on a series of clips where a Bigfoot clan searches for food as Peter Graves opines that Bigfoot is a peaceful creature who lives off the land and harms no one. That’s a pile of squatch-scat, Peter! HE STUCK HIS HAND THROUGH THE DAMN WINDOW. No one is safe.
The Mysterious Monsters is a scattershot of bizarre and banal things, and I attribute that to age. This is early enough in the history of Bigfoot shows that they weren’t even sure what would work. I realized how early in the genre when I notice there's not even the usual names popping up on the screen when witnesses and experts chime in. That got my curiosity flowing, and a quick website search tells me that Mysterious Monsters is much more original then I thought.
I had assumed it was 80's fare, but this was filmed in nineteen-seventy-six. I’m actually really impressed, considering that the great grand-daddy of the paranormal show, In Search Of, premiered in nineteen-seventy-seven. That's right, Peter Graves was recording monologue voice-overs to ape suit footage a full year before Leonard Nimoy did.
Can we stop for a moment to remember Jonathan Coulton recorded a love song about a one-night stand between Leonard Nimoy and Bigfoot?
The ancestors of In Search of were a series of TV specials on ancient aliens hosted by Rod Serling. Three had already aired by the time Mysterious Monsters hit theaters in March of '76. Mysterious Monsters was beaten to the punch by the '72 indie hit The Legend of Boggy Creek and the more general '75 Bigfoot: Man or Beast. Still, Mysterious Monsters remains something of an actual pioneer in paranormal television, a basal evolutionary ancestors to the shows that would dominate my childhood, Unsolved Mysteries, Sightings, and Beyond Belief.
Also, I skimmed Bigfoot: Man or Beast on Youtube, and it loses points for not having dramatic recreations of people flipping out at the sight of ape costumes.
I enjoyed the book Bigfoot, Yeti, and the Last Neanderthal because it summarized the entire Bigfoot phenomena so concisely that I thought it was the perfect one book to read as a primer. Mysterious Monsters does pretty much the same for the crypto-world as of the mid-seventies. It's a time capsule of the classic stories and conjectures many of us grew up with, and even if later findings and investigations cast doubt on some of the evidence, it's a fun walk down nostalgia lane with a brisk pace.
I did some research on the crew, and writer Robert Guernette, living documentary legend, had done so other stuff on the topic. Aside from psychics, UFOs, and an Orson Welles film on Nostradamus that scarred me as a child, he worked on a TV movie called “Monsters: Mysteries or Myths” just a year before he did Mysterious Monsters. Some info suggested it was back by the Smithsonian. Finding it on Youtube, I was confronted by two surprises.
One, it was also narrated by Rod Serling. Every time he talks about cryptids, you expect him to walk out behind a corner, look you in the eye, and start a monologue about a cryptozoologist who’s about to learn an ironic lesson.
Two, it had craploads of footage reused for Mysterious Monster! I recognized graphics, interviews, and ever whole reconstructions that had been reordered and dumped wholesale into the later movie. The movie I thought was surprisingly fresh and original was padded out the way I did my college essays on politics of the seventies!
So how do you get one Bigfoot movie that’s a remix of the other?
So here’s my hypothesis. Guernette gets funding, possibly from the Smithsonian, to do a TV documentary. Once it airs, someone realizes the company owns a whole bunch of assets that few others can match. They get a new host, recut the footage, and even license some mountain-climbing footage from the decade-old National Geographic short “Valley of the Yeti.” Taking this Frankenstein’s creation to the theater, they get a nice return on it, and cryptid-loving kids like my get a holy text, especially those lucky enough to tape it on cable and rewatch it again and again.
Joe Rizzo Ford is Number One…
In the interest of fairness, I must admit that there’s a book adaptation I’ve never read. That might be a blog post all in itself. Still, no matter how good it is, it can't match the dramatic confidence of Peter Graves.