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WILD MAN OF THE NAVIDAD

 

"BAD NIGHT ON THE NAVIDAD" (Or: "Wild In Texas")

By Dr. Abner Mality

The Navidad River flows through the rough scrub of rural south central Texas, a muddy and meandering waterway with little distinction. The river makes its way past many small towns in this remote area,such as Halletsville, Sheridan and the rather grandly monickered Sublime. With an official population of 75, Sublime is little more than a dirty wide patch in the road. But this miniscule dot on the map is home to one of Texas' biggest mysteries...one which has made its way to the screen as "The Wild Man of the Navidad".

Filmed in the location where the actual events took place, "The Wild Man of the Navidad" is a greasy, sweaty throwback to regional grindhouse cinema of the 70's. It's the kind of movie that might have been on a triple-chiller horror bill at the local drive-in with "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "The Legend of Boggy Creek". Both of those films are huge influences on the style and content of "Wild Man...".

I'm going to dig into the movie later, but for now, let's take a look at the "true" history of "The Thing That Comes", otherwise known as The Wild Man (or Woman!) of the Navidad...

In the 1830's, before Texas was a Republic and later, State, white settlers had set up small towns along the Navidad River in what is now known as Lavaca County. The area was rugged but teeming with game. In 1836, the settlers first noticed that food and tools were taken from their farms without their notice. Never were money or other valuables stolen. In fact, if a fat pig was taken from a farm, it would later be replaced by a thin one! Occasionally, stolen knives and tools would be returned, cleaned and sharpened as if by an expert.

Bare man-like footprints were found in the countryside. The slaves of the area, many directly off the boat from Africa, called the mysterious visitor "The Thing That Comes". Occasionally, figures were seen scurrying across the countryside, always evading every attempt to catch them. They were said to have dark skin and long flowing hair. Many believed that the main culprit was a woman because of this. One theory had it that it was a family of three.

Many attempts were made to catch "The Wild Man" over the years and most failed. The elusive being was a master woodsman. In 1842, the Wild Man's lair was found, complete with stolen tools, a snare for catching game and a Bible. Unlike the Wild Man of the 2008 movie, this character seemed harmless and hurt no one, though he angered many ranchers with his theft of livestock.

In 1850, 14 years after his first recorded appearance, the Wild Man was finally captured by a large posse. He was treed by dogs and finally brought down. Who or what exactly was the Wild Man of the Navidad? He was indeed a man...an escaped slave who had been captured in Africa where he was said to be a prince of his tribe, brought to Texas and then escaped. He used his skills and cunning to live on the land and avoid capture for all of 14 years. He was cleaned up by his captors and then immediately made a slave again, sold to P.T. Buckford of Victoria county and renamed "Jimbo". Jimbo remained a slave until after the Civil War, when he was freed and lived quietly as a normal man until dying in 1884.

That would have seemed to solve the mystery of the Wild Man of the Navidad but some disputed that Jimbo was the source of all the reports. Several witnesses were very insistent that what they saw was a wild WOMAN complete with breasts and a furry pelt. The more remote parts of Texas have been a fertile ground for reports of Bigfoot and other monsters. Occasionally sightings of strange creatures are still made in the bottoms of the Navidad River system.

The stories resonated in the minds of two young film students from Texas A&M, Duane Graves and Justin Meeks, who had studied their craft with Kim Henkel, one of the co-writers of the original "Texas Chainsaw Massacre". With Henkel's encouragement, the two had it in mind to shoot a low budget fictional horror film based on the Wild Man legend. One final piece of the puzzle was necessary for them to come up with their film.

Dale S. Rogers was a secretive and strange inhabitant of the Sublime area who had a fantastic tale to tell. He and his family had owned a large parcel of woods near the Navidad River for decades...where they kept a secret from the rest of the community. The land was the home of a "wild man"...more than an animal, less than a man...who kept to himself. Rogers and his father before him had even laid out food for the lurking creature and made sure that he was left unmolested in the river bottoms. This meant keeping hunters and trespassers out.

Rogers kept a detailed journal of his recollections of the Wild Man, including some ragged but chilling line drawings. He scoffed at the idea of the Wild Man being Jimbo and swore that the Wild Man...or creatures like him...had always inhabited the Navidad River area. Due to unforeseen circumstances, Rogers was forced to finally open the forbidden area to hunters...resulting in bloody mayhem.

Rogers has left Texas to relocate in Arkansas but not before Graves and Meeks got a hold of his journals. HERE was the story they would tell! A combination of rotgut horror in the "Chainsaw" tradition mixed with the pseudo-documentary feel of "The Legend of Boggy Creek", full of plenty of unhealthy rural atmosphere.

It is to the credit of these young fellow that "Wild Man of the Navidad" emerges as a true and faithful homage to those rural horrors of the 70's drive-in circuit. A lot of low budget film-makers have tried to capture the grit and grain of those old classics, but "Wild Man..." really does feel like something you'd see on a hot summer evening on a Texas outdoor movie screen, complete with RC Cola and hot buttered popcorn.

The movie was filmed in small towns such as Whitsett and Pleasanton, not far from Sublime. Much of the cast were amateurs taken right from the local area and while these homegrown actors lacked polish, they looked absolutely authentic. Because they were, I strongly suggest watching the hilarious "Character Study" featurette on the "Wild Man..." DVD, where these folks talk candidly and humorously about their experiences making the movie.

I'll take a further look at the success of the movie later, but for now, let's recap the grisly events of "The Wildman of the Navidad". As our gravel-voiced narrator says, they are "wretched but entirely true".

A queasy mood is immediately established as a local redneck hunter and his young son bring down a buck deer in the thorny thickets along the Navidad. A close-up focuses on blood bubbling from the bullet wound and the glazed eyes of the dying beast. The hunter forces his traumatized kid to watch as he guts the deer and annoints his son's forehead with a drop of blood. "It's all part of the ritual," drawls the hick." Just as my pappy did with me". This sort of unhealthy, inbred feeling of degeneracy permeates the movie and makes the inhabitants of Sublime cinematic kinfolk to the rural creeps of films such as "Deranged", "Race With the Devil" and of course, "Texas Chainsaw Massacre".

Dale S. Rogers (played by Justin Meeks himself...and quite well) is a bespectacled, quiet man who is in a world of trouble. His wife Jean is a virtual vegetable due to a traffic accident, wheelchair-bound and unable to speak. Her drugs and care require a lot of money from Dale...money which mostly goes to pay her caretaker, a shirtless and grubby Mexican fellow named Mario. Dale slaves at a local welding shop for drunken boss Jack (Mac McBride, who also narrates the film) and puts every dollar towards Jean's care. Dale has no idea that when he's not home, Mario is sexually molesting the helpless Jean.

One day, virtually on a whim, Jack fires the "weirdo" Dale and replaces him with Karl, who's a source of the local rotgut moonshine. Without money from the welding job, Dale will have to put Jean in the nursing home. He has only one alternative but it is a forbidding one. For years, Dale has refused to let anyone hunt on the rich bottom lands his family has owned for generations. This is despite hunters offering big money to stalk the territory. Dale knows that the land is inhabited by a skulking "Wild Man" and that if others invade the Wild Man's territory, all hell might break loose. Dale even leaves skinned rabbits and other scraps outside his shabby house for the Wild Man to take as a "peace offering".

Now, Dale must make an awful choice. Finally, he breaks down and opens his land to hunters. First on the scene is drunken Karl, who spies something large lurking in the thick brush. He takes a shot at the figure and a hideous scream fills the air. The Wild Man has been hit...and now, indeed, all hell breaks loose in Sublime.

Now a word about the Wild Man himself. If you're expecting a Bigfoot type character played by a guy in a gorilla suit, guess again. This Wild Man is quite different than what you might expect. We see flashes of a huge figure wearing a bulky crude outfit made of animal skins. It's obviously somebody (or something) wearing very primitive camoflage. The Wildman seems to have razor sharp claws...which we eventually learn are sharpened deer antlers that he uses to gut his prey, both human and animal. The directrion of Graves and Meeks is brilliantly clever in what is suggested about the Wild Man is more than what is shown. He fades into the rough landscape like he's a part of it. It's more than an ape-like critter...but seems much more savage than a mere man living wild.

The wrath of the Wild Man is now unleashed on whoever trespasses on his territory. A father and son hunting team much like the one the movie started with are caught in their tent by the furious monster and torn to shreds. Where the movie was subtle and uneasy in the opening half, now gory mayhem starts to reign and our directors don't spare the red. Intestines and other body organs fly through the air with gusto. The Wild Man chases another hunter to a standing tower and, in one of the movies best scenes, knocks the entire structure over, ripping the unlucky redneck to pieces. Local rube Vern and his trailer park wife stumble onto the Wild Man's lair...hung with human bones in a scene reminiscent of "Texas Chainsaw Massacre". Vern's too busy pinching his wife's ass to notice the monstrous figure lurking behind a tree...until it's too late. Badly wounded, Vern makes it back to town, where he utters the film's best line: "He tore my wife in two!"

The Wild Man is not content to kill just trespassers. In a terrifying scene, he breaks into Dale's house and goes on a rampage while Dale and the incapacitated Jean cower in a closet, barely daring to breathe. This is a brilliantly directed scene, as once again, only hints of the Wild Man are shown, but you know something big and terrible is roaming through the house. Upset at not catching Dale and Jean, the Wild Man ventures into Sublime itself and slaughters a sleeping couple.

The whole community is now in an uproar when bodies are found and Vern makes his crazed report. Sherrif Pierce, the one member of the community besides Dale who seems to be a normal and decent human being, knows what's going on. He learned the secret of the Wild Man from Dale's father. In a surprise moment, he chooses not to blame Dale. But he has to put together a posse to go into the bottoms to flush out and kill the Wild Man.

Pierce puts together the posse and a scruffier band of hillbillies has rarely been seen. Chief among them is scraggly-bearded local moonshiner Earl, played with authenticity by local barber and character Bob Wood. The posse heads into the thickets in search of the Wild Man. But in this case, the hunters are also the hunted...

This movie claims to recreate the dusty, murky atmosphere of 70's drive-in cinema and it succeeds with flying colors (and viscera). Others have made the claim that it looks like it was found after being in a vault for 30 years and I can back that up...right down to the grain in the filmstock and the crackle and hiss on the soundtrack. The choice of Graves and Meeks to use almost all local actors worked for me. Some of these folks are atrocious in terms of acting talent but they look and sound exactly like what you'd find in a 1970's Texas backwater. I am hoping the real residents of the area are not as sleazy and inbred as they are portrayed here. With the exception of Sherrif Pierce and the local reverend (played by the real area pastor), they are a mighty unsavory lot and local watering hole "Red's Bar" is full of sweaty, evilly grinning faces.

The film has a harshly lit, garish look to it. The Navidad River bottoms seem dry, dusty and mean...this is not green, lush territory. Most of the plants look like they are as thorny as hell and on the verge of dying from thirst. The direction lingers on blood, decaying animals, clouds of flies, dust and grease, giving the area an extremely unwholesome and eerily lonesome quality.

A lot of people with the last name of Meeks appear in the cast and credits of the film. This really takes you back to the days when low budget film-makers would call all their friends and family to work on the movie. That's the way that Charles Pierce, director of "The Legend of Boggy Creek", did his movies and it looks like a hell of a lot of fun to me.

I'm not sure if this ever played theaters or went directly to video. I am hoping that somewhere in rural Texas, on a hot night full of mosquitoes and bright moonlight, this was shown on the big outdoor screen, in full of a crowd of pick-ups parked on gravel. That's the way this should be seen.

At any rate, if you are as sick of "quick jump" horror-film making, bad CGI and bland teenybopper actors as I am, head down to Sublime and see if you can get yourself a hunting license. I hear there's plenty of good hunting and fishing down along the Navidad River and nobody's seen anything down there for a few years now. At least, as far as I know...