Genuflecting at the altar of American Intl. Pictures, and channeling the drive-in aesthetic of the early ’70s, “The Wild Man of the Navidad” mixes homage with horror for a pretty potent dose of movie moonshine. Festival success is a given; cult status is already achieved, judging by the Internet. Adventurous programmers might find “Wild Man” a lucrative midnight offering to the B.O. gods.
“Wild Man” is “based on the journals of Dale S. Rogers,” who’s credited as an executive producer and is played in the film by Justin Meeks, who along with partner Duane Graves performed most of the tasks on a movie evidently made on a shoestring. But the production’s tongue-in-cheek attitude makes one wonder if Rogers is as much a figment as the Wild Man himself — or less, since the movie supposedly is based on a legend told along the Navidad River about a bloodthirsty creature who’s made cameo appearances locally for almost 200 years. The story, we’re told by Sam Elliott-soundalike William “Mac” McBride,” is “wretched … but entirely true.”
“True” or not, “Wild Man” has a dramatic locomotive quality as well as a palpable pensiveness that keeps one watching. That one of the “Wild Man” producers is Kim Henkel, of the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” suggests a kinship with that seminal horror thriller, but it turns out to be less than one might expect. Yes, the landscape in and around the south Texas town of Sublime spells stark, raving American lunacy. Various characters (many of them played by locals), seem to be in equally uncertain possession of their sanity and their teeth. From the cheesy, retro opening credits to the boxy one-shots to the reverse zoom on the moon just after a murder (it’s electric), all indicate that helmers Graves and Meeks know their ’70s exploitation.
But much of the violence, while effective, is off-camera or out of frame, or denoted by some random organ meats hanging in the sagebrush. “Wild Man” evokes an era not only pre-CGI — and pre-torture porn — but pre-comedy-horror. And one in which implication was a virtue: What we don’t see can be much more frightening than what we do.
Which brings up the movie’s major misstep. While he’s an imaginative creation, the Wild Man himself (Tony Wolford) is given too much screen time. The first rule of special effects is that a less is more, and the more we see of the shaggy, fanged, pelt-wearing beast, the less effective he becomes.
But terror isn’t the movie’s only mandate. From the overcooked music to the great use of insects to the Erskine Caldwell ethos that seems to infuse everything, “Wild Man” is immersed in American grime. Rogers the character is a meek, easily buffaloed Texan who lives in a ramshackle house with his near-comatose, wheelchair-bound wife (Stacy Meeks), and a housekeeper (Alex Garcia) who molests her whenever he gets a chance.
The nightly ritual is to leave a skinned rabbit on the doorstep, to appease the monster who’s outlived Rogers’ father and grandfather. Rogers has kept his land off-limits to hunters for years, but when he loses his job to Karl, the town drunk (Charlie Hurtin), he relents. And when Karl shoots and wounds something he can’t quite see in the undergrowth, the Wild Man decides detente isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Alcohol is a wild card in “Wild Man.” When he mixes up a bad batch in his still, bearded moonshiner Earl (Bob Wood) tells Sheriff Lyle (Edmond Geyer): “Half the people in town are nitwits now. You take that in there, they’re all gonna be brain dead.” As a result, a boozy haze hangs over Sublime, raising questions about men and monsters. It’s an interesting angle in an interesting film
Production values are precisely retro ’70s.