Aptly, Phil Hall’s latest journalistic endeavor, “The Weirdest Movie Ever Made: The Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot Film,” is this author’s weirdest book to date. I doubt that anyone needs to run to their favorite search engine to inquire about what may be the most famous home movie apart from the Zapruder film. Hall never directly states his “belief,” or lack thereof, in the authenticity of the 1967 film’s claim to have captured footage of an actual Bigfoot; his agnosticism spreads over the book’s 100 plus pages. Smartly, authenticity is not Hall’s point of entry, because belief, in anything, is an abstraction, despite claims made to the contrary by every pedigree of zealotry. Rather, Hall’s approach is a quirky look at a quirky corner of Western mythology. The Patterson-Gimlin film may indeed be the weirdest movie ever made; even weirder in that its weirdness lies in the zealotry of its primary filmmaker and the ballooning mythology of this (roughly) one-minute home movie.
In short: the Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot film is a religious film in every way, and Hall captures that pulse. His observations in Chapter 2 are shrewdest, beginning with a brief explanation of “cryptozoology” that segues into examples from the Bible. Job is one of several books that mentions creatures like a Leviathan, a Behemoth, and a Ziz. In the longer version of the Book of Daniel (included in Catholic and Orthodox canons, relegated to the Apocrypha in Protestant bibles), the hero of the tale slays a Babylonian dragon by overfeeding it. Of course, St. George also slew a dragon. Hall, who should perhaps consider a theological vocation (we need more pragmatic theologians with a sense of humor), astutely reminds us that St. George is, naturally, more known for his dragon-slaying than for his piety. That makes for far more interesting reading than a saint praying at the altar.
There’s a St. George spirit in Roger Patterson. Already ill[efn_note]Patterson died in 1972, only five years after releasing his footage.[/efn_note] with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Patterson became obsessed; not with an unseen deity above, but with an unseen mythological creature below, on Earth and in hiding. And why not? Who wants to wait for heaven after death when we can find Eden here? And what better way to find Eden than through the discovery of one of its hidden creatures? Whether Patterson set out to find and film the creature, or create it for a disbelieving world, is irrelevant. It’s his religious zeal, magnified by failing health, that produced a one-of-kind home movie. This is really the Genesis of Hall’s book. He punctuates his narrative with “Bigfoot Interludes,” such as “Why did the Sasquatch cross the road?” complete with whimsical illustrations by Jose Daniel Oviedo Galeano. These interludes, with accompanying text (that includes occasional typos, which I suspect are intentional and add to the weirdness), are akin to the children’s Bibles found in Sunday School rooms across the country; a necessary, lighthearted break from all the surrounding adult devotion. We get both child and adult with Patterson, who really is the most interesting and complex character in the book. Bigfoot herself is what she is in the footage; merely a phantasmagoric flicker, not unlike a briefly seen Bela Lugosi in Plan 9 From Outer Space. It’s Patterson, especially once you read his biography, that looms largest here. In that, he is a bit like that uncanonized saint of weird movies, Ed Wood, Jr. With both, appreciation for what they created is far more accessible when you are familiar with their biographical bullet points.
Hall’s book zig-zags; you may find yourself convinced the film’s an elaborate hoax, only to find yourself wondering if there’s actually something to it in the next chapter. However, even Bob Gimlin, who Patterson relegated to the role of sidekick, has wondered aloud recently if Patterson pulled a epic prank which used him as more an audience member than a participant. In the end, there’s considerably more evidence pointing to a fake than something authentic. (Orson Welles would be proud.) There’s even speculation and rumor (supplied by John Landis, although reliability and Landis are oil and water) that John Chambers, who did the makeup work on Planet of the Apes, created a Bigfoot suit for Patterson (Chambers denied it).
Prank, however, isn’t the right word. A religion needs both a figurehead and a product, be it a church, a book, or a film; and Patterson ambitiously anointed himself as Pope and prophet in providing that product, whether it’s “real” or myth. Debating the matter is ultimately pointless, so Hall take us past all that to the film itself, how it stands as “the weirdest movie ever made,” and its considerable influence on pop culture. Movies (The Legend of Boggy Creek and sequels) were made, and Leonard Nimoy, Peter Graves, the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman all addressed the Bigfoot legend in their respective television shows. How cool is that?
In the book’s standout Chapter 6: Cinematic Appreciation, Hall addresses the Patterson-Gimlin film’s effectiveness as a film, discussing its “fourth wall” moment; when Bigfoot turns and the watched becomes the watcher. This one-minute film provides a jump scare worthy of Hitchcock or The Exorcist. Indeed, I remember, as a child, seeing the Patterson-Gimlin footage for the first time, and the subtlety of that moment made the hairs on the nape of my neck stand on end in the same way as when I saw the alien wife of Unearthly Stranger removing a roast from the oven without gloves on. There is a similar alien-in-our-midst quality to Patterson’s Bigfoot; made all the more effective and haunting in its brevity, silence, and “what if?” possibility. It is that simple turn of the creature which sealed the film’s legendary status.
Hall provides a summary: “Sure, you can make your own Patterson-Gimlin film with an iPhone and your mom’s faux-fur coat, but there’s still no beating the original for sheer weirdness. We still want to believe. And if that means heading to YouTube to watch a grainy, 50-year-old clip by a couple of Bigfoot believers and allowing our imaginations to run wild? So much the better.”