Charles B. Pierce at 2008 Little Rock Film Festival

From Arkansas Times' Derek Jenkins' recap of the 2008 Little Rock Film Festival:

The single most striking development in the second year of the festival had to have been the inclusion of Charles B. Pierce. The cult favorite is an Arkansas treasure and there couldn't be a more appropriate namesake for the festival's Arkansas award. He seemed truly touched by this honor, and I hope his spirit can wiggle its way into the hearts and minds of all Arkansans. If Christopher Crane and the “Keeping it Natural” panel can make good on their plans for an incentive package aimed at encouraging a native industry, there'll be plenty of room for people like Charlie Pierce within our borders.

Link to original article at ARKANSAS TIMES

CHARLES B. PIERCE RETROSPECTIVE by Derek Jenkins for Arkansas Times

Charles Pierce retrospective

“The Legend of Boggy Creek” (1972) “Bootleggers” (1974) “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” (1976)

by Derek Jenkins, Arkansas Times

Updated: 5/15/2008

Link to original article at ARKANSAS TIMES

Back in the day, regional filmmakers were a scrappier bunch than the current crop of nominally independent filmmakers. They pulled together shoestring budgets from a variety of interests, often used locals for talent and wheeled and dealed their way into drive-in theaters all over the South. Their outputs often raked in voluminous dividends, though only relative to their modest budgets.

Charles B. Pierce, Arkansas's own maverick regionalist, qualifies as a state treasure not because his films are especially great, but because his spirit of determination separates real independence from the stale marketing category we call the independents. His films may have been made with the largest possible profit margin in mind, but there are endlessly easier ways to make a fast buck. Filmmaking in the '70s was a much more harrowing task than today's technology allows. His work had to have as its root a genuine love for moving pictures.

The Little Rock Film Festival, by choosing to celebrate such a filmmaker, puts the spotlight on a man who is perhaps most widely known as the butt of jokes on “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Maybe some of his pictures err on the side of schlock, but three of his earliest works, all screening at the festival, are more than ironic curiosities.

His first film, like those of many regionalists', traffics in localized hysteria. “The Legend of Boggy Creek” presumes to track sightings of the legendary Fouke monster in southwest Arkansas. The film is a pseudo-documentary that employed the talents of many locals, some of whom claimed to have actually seen the creature. Its episodic re-enactments were effective enough that the film made a whopping profit.

Pierce followed up the success of “Boggy Creek” with two ambitious period films. The first, “Bootleggers,” is lovingly and often inventively shot in an uncharacteristically wide angle that hints at Pierce's loftier goals for the film. It focuses on Othar Pruitt (Paul Kaslo), the once-carefree scion of a family of bootleggers as he seeks vengeance for the death of his grandfather, played by the great Slim Pickens. A good deal of the film recalls a Depression-era “American Graffiti” — the fast cars a little ricketier, but soaked in the same warm nostalgia. However, the sunny, banjo-picked soundtrack of Pruitt's youth soon gives way to darker measures.

(The film would make an interesting double feature with a more recent Arkansas picture shot in the same territory: “Chrystal,” directed by Little Rock's Ray McKinnon, whose dogged pursuit of his own productions might make him the modern equivalent of Pierce.)

The second, “The Town That Dreaded Sundown,” is another feature based on “true” events, a serial killer film following in the footsteps of grislier fare like “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Black Christmas.” As in “Boggy Creek,” Pierce strains for the veneer of documentary, and the film sometimes plays like a proto-”Unsolved Mysteries,” complete with a narrator (Vern Stierman from “Boggy Creek”) with unsettlingly wooden tones. The film is buoyed by some great performances by professional actors. Andrew Prine's Sgt. Ramsey is particularly good, as is the veteran character actor Ben Johnson as a Texas Ranger brought in to track down the killer. Pierce himself turns in a fine comic performance as Sparkplug, the hard-headed, hapless, but cocksure patrolman.

Through it all, audiences must keep in mind the manifold difficulties of financing such projects. Pierce didn't have to produce his own films. A talented artistic director, he eventually was nominated for an Emmy for his work on somebody else's project. His own were more than prospective cash cows. Sheer will played a large role in their making.


In Search of a Story

Washington Post, The (DC) - May 19, 1979

Author: Gary Arnold

"The Evictors," a haunted house melodrama from the regional filmmaker Charles B. Pierce, is a decided improvement on his last feature, "The Norseman," but it poses no threat to "The Amityville Horror" or "The Shining." Slipped into town without advance notice, the film may be too obscure and expendable to cover the overhead at the theaters booking it. I was the only customer at a suburban theater the other night-my first truly private screening since keeping "Uncle Joe Shannon" company a few months ago.

An Arkansan now based in Shreveport, Pierce made his commercial reputation with a low-budget horror melodrama, "The Legend of Boggy Creek ," after a carrer in advertising. The horror genre seems to put less strain on his limited resources and rather stilted techniques than historical adventures like the oafish "Norseman" or ponderous "Winterhawk."

Pierce and cinematographer Chuck Bryant exploit the setting for some palpable, if predictable, shivers. The production also benefits from decent performances by Jessica Harper and Michael Parks as the couple who discover they've moved into a house with a deadly heritage and Sue Ann Langdon as a friendly, crippled neighbor. Pierce's fundamental deficiency is a haunted house story clever enough to be satisfying. The explanation for the evil occurrences in "The Evictors" really won't do. It's too literal-minded to be mysterious or credible-a double-edged letdown.

Harper, last seen navigating through the spooky obstacle course of Dario Argento's "Suspiria," threatens to squander a unique presence and promising talent on marginal horror vehicles. She provides a more sensitive and intelligent image of vulnerable femininity than second-string movies like "The Evictors" usually recruit, but they don't enhance her image in return. It might help if she hooked up again with the first-string filmmakers who originally used her well-Brian De Palma and Woody Allen. It would be reassuring to hear her sing and play comedy once more.

Parks has lost his good looks and leading man potential, but he appears to be evolving into an agreeable character actor as his features prematurely age and thicken. Parks now resembles Ben Johnson, of all unexpected transformations, and the resemblance is reinforced here by his impersonation of an easygoing, drawling Southwesterner.

Parks and Harper are scarcely what you'd call sexy or scintillating together, but they're a rather endearing image of a married couple, the sort of pleasant, unaffected folks one could feel protective about when they appear threatened. Instead of sticking to the feeble twists and revelations he had in mind, Pierce should have calculated his mystery story to take advantage of this protective instinct.


The Scowling, Bionic 'Norseman' With a Southern Accent

Washington Post, The (DC) - August 1, 1978

Author: Gary Arnold

Twenty years ago a rousing, handsomely mounted adventure movie called "The Vikings" enjoyed a considerable vogue at my high school. For weeks classmates derived great amusement from yodeling invocations to Odin down echoeing corridors.A playful interlude in which Kirk Douglas and several other performers walked the oars of a Viking ship as it glided across a gorgeous Norwegian fiord was an overwhelming crowd-pleaser. So was an unintentionally funny line entrusted to Tony Curtis.

Curtis and Douglas costarred as half brothers condemned to mortalenmity. The younger, illegitimate sibling, Curtis never learns that he and Douglas were fathered by the same insatiable patriarch, a lusty Viking chieftain played by Ernest Borgnine. Douglas is informed of the fraternal connection shortly before facing Curtis in a climactic swordfight. It proves a fatal eye-opener.

Customarily ferocious and merciless, Douglas hesitates when he has a chance to deliver a death blow. Curtis seizes the opportunity to kill Douglas. Joined by heroine Janet Leigh, Curtis knits his brow and asks, "Why did he hesitate?" An instant comic sensation, this line inspired constant sarcastic limitation. It swiftly became a catch phrase, recalled whenever someone made an inexcusably out- of -it remark.

Fond recollections of "The Vikings" must have been batting around the belfries of Lee Majors and B-movie producer-director-writer Charles B. Pierce when they joined listless forces for "The Norseman." Their collaboration proves inexcusably oafish. "The Vikings" had its occasional howlers, but they added a gauche charm to a fundamentally sturdy and appealing piece of hokum. The laughs were incidental. The only thing "The Norseman" is good for is an occasional derisive laugh.

Majors evidently aspires to swash-buckling roles, but a decade or so of TV stardom seems to have drained him of the necessary dash and enthusiasm. The freshness be projected in "The Big Valley" has long since vanished. Now he seems to specialize in scowling, sullen hostility, monotonous to behold and difficult to fathom.

Cast as a Viking warrior called Thorvald the Bold, Majors leads a rescue mission to the vicinity of Tampa, where a tribe of Indians has blinded and enslaved an earlier party of explorers led by Thorvald's father, protrayed by Mel Ferrer behind a long silvery mane and longer silvery whiskers. The ostensible period is the early 11th century, a detail that makes the Florida beach locations and Thorvald's seamanship look absurdly farfetched. The sight of Deacon Jones as a token black Viking comes as a hilarious surprise, particularly after a prologue singing the praises of a hardy breed of blond giants.

That breed must have shipped out on a more plausible expedition. Only Pierce's ineptitude as an action director spares Majors' loutish crew from instant annihilation at the hands of savage aborigines, who look every bit as authentic as the Norsemen. The fight scenes are are rendered in a remarkably ill-timed, ineffective slow motion, presumably inspired by the cliched action sequences of "The Six Million Dollar Man." One seems to be watching a batch of bionic redskins and bionic Vikings playing interminable games of chase.

Majors projects so little animal magnetism that one can't help wondering how Thorvald became known as The Bold. His southern accent is surely centuries ahead of its time, Chuck Pierce Jr., cast as Majors' kid brother, has and even more pronounced accent. Obviously, it would have been unreasonable for the director to correct an anachronism in his son's performance that he permitted in his star's.

Although relegated to a backup role, Cornel Wilde seems more robust and commanding than Majors. Jack Elam cuts a grotesquely diverting figure as a hunchback Viking wizard, and kathleen Freeman looks even more preposterous as his Indian counterpart, a gibbering crone who carries around a staff that appears to have a floppy stuffed raven mounted on top.

Pierce has no discernible aptitude for pictorial storytelling or sensory stimulation. Even scenic landscapes look pale and stale from his klunky camera positions. At best he shows a pleasing affinity for outmoded dialogue, reviving such chestnuts as "What say you?" and "So be it," not to mention the chewier "This day is far from over" and "Let it be written that the name of Olaf will live in the land of the Norse."

Pierce may rationalize "The Norseman" as the best adventure movie imaginable without the financial resources of a major studio, but it's impossible to believe that he could have done better on the budget of a "Superman" or "Apoclaypse Now." After six features his technique still looks incorrigibly amateurish. Bush he began in "The Legend of Boggy Creek " and bush he remains.