Unsung Auteurs: Charles B. Pierce

August 25, 2021
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: Arkansas-based horror and western indie original Charles B. Pierce.

Few directors can claim true auteur status across multiple genres, and Charles B. Pierce is one of them. Even more impressively, the two genres that he commanded with such originality and quiet power are wholly disparate ones that rarely cross paths, and that rarely find favour in one director. The late Charles B. Pierce showed nearly equal flair and interest in the western and horror genres, and in hindsight almost feels like two filmmakers sharing one body. “He loved Westerns and he loved horror films, and everything he did was personal,” says Charles B. Pierce’s daughter, Amanda Squitiero, in Daniel Kramer’s excellent profile piece in Filmmaker Magazine.

A TV art director, one-time TV weather man, children’s television performer, and advertising business owner, Arkansas-raised Charles B. Pierce almost stumbled into filmmaking when he received inspiration from a series of lurid newspaper headlines in the small Arkansas town of Fouke. These heralded sightings of a Bigfoot/Sasquatch-like creature that quickly earned the uncomfortable moniker of The Fouke Monster. Decades before the ground-breaking The Blair Witch Project, Pierce cobbled together what little resources he had, and inventively created a cheap, on-the-fly semi-documentary based on the local myth. Cast with local non-actors and eventually released in 1972 as The Legend Of Boggy Creek, the film became a big hit at regional drive-ins, and ended up earning in excess of $20 million.

Charles B. Pierce

As the key owner of the film, this pretty much set Charles B. Pierce up to make a variety of films on his own often strange and unusual terms throughout the rest of his career. Working well outside of the traditional studio system, and often far away from his Hollywood in his hometown of Arkansas, Pierce’s films have a distinct feel and flavour, while still cutting across a wide variety of feels and moods. His first major feature film was the raucous 1974 action comedy Bootleggers (featuring one of the earliest major roles for future Charlie’s Angel Jaclyn Smith), which despite its rich regional flavour, is something of an anomaly on the director’s resume.

A big part of Charles B. Pierce’s cinematic heart would lie with the sensitive, poetic western, often torn by violence, but never driven by it. In this sense, he was a noted acolyte of the great John Ford, but while Pierce embraced traditionalism, his films also boast that indefinable sense of looseness and earthiness utterly peculiar to the 1970s. The writer/director also had a genuine interest in and affinity for America’s indigenous peoples, with Native American characters playing a major part in nearly all of his westerns. And though they were unfortunately often portrayed by non-indigenous actors – a sad blight on most westerns until the 1980s – Pierce’s Native American characters were rich and three dimensional, unlike many of their cinematic counterparts and forebears.

A scene from Winterhawk.

Charles B. Pierce’s first western was 1975’s Winterhawk, a rich and haunting adventure featuring a fine cast of western character actor legends (Woody Strode, L.Q Jones, Leif Erickson, Denver Pyle) in supporting roles, and a strong leading turn from Michael Dante as the eponymous Blackfoot chief desperately trying to source a cure for his tribe’s small-pox infection. Wholly sympathetic to its principal’s cause, the film is also notable for the appearances of Sacheen Littlefeather (who Marlon Brando infamously sent to accept his Oscar for The Godfather) and Dawn Wells (who was famous for playing Mary Ann on Gilligan’s Island and would appear in two more films for Pierce).

The excellent Winterhawk would set something of a template for Pierce’s westerns to follow, all of which highlight the director’s affinity for the natural environment and love of shooting on location, his immersion in character, his continuing fascination for the Native American experiences, and his predilection for casting western legends like Jack Elam, Dub Taylor, L.Q Jones and Ben Johnson.

Charles B. Pierce on set.

All of Charles B. Pierce’s westerns are absolutely well worth seeking out for fans of the genre, if you can find them: 1976’s The Winds Of Autumn (in which an eleven-year-old boy – played by Pierce’s son, Chuck Pierce Jr., who appeared in nearly all of his father’s films – tracks the killers of his family); 1977’s Grayeagle (with Ben Johnson’s frontier trapper on the trail of Alex Cord’s eponymous Cheyanne warrior, who has kidnapped his daughter, played by Natalie Wood’s sister, Lana Wood, in an obvious homage to The Searchers); 1983’s Sacred Ground (Tim McIntire’s mountain man inadvertently makes his home on sacred Paiute burial grounds, and ends up at war with the tribe); and 1988’s Hawken’s Breed (which follows the relationship of Peter Fonda’s loner frontiersman and Serene Heden’s Shawnee woman), on which the director had an unhappy experience due to being denied final cut. Pierce also helmed the barely released 1998 mountain man western Chasing The Wind (his final film), which now appears to be near impossible to see.

On the other side of the burnished coin, of course, are Charles B. Pierce’s horror films. After the enormous surprise success of 1972’s The Legend Of Boggy Creek, the director returned to the genre with equal fanfare in 1976 with the wonderfully titled, utterly terrifying and occasionally curiously comical The Town That Dreaded Sundown. Based on a true life spate of killings by a hooded man that shocked the small town of Texarkana, Arkansas in 1946, the film is deliriously weird (its infamous “trombone scene” still rates as one of 1970’s horror’s most original and unsettling kill scenes) and oddly traditional (Ben Johnson is great as the old school lawman on the case) at the same time, and stands as one of the most fascinating scare flicks of the era.

A scene from The Town That Dreaded Sundown.

Perhaps not truly indicating the kind of filmmaker that he really was, The Town That Dreaded Sundown is unquestionably Pierce’s most well-known and still discussed film today. It’s a fascinating 1970s slasher, but is wildly different to everything else that the director did. Tellingly, producers Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story) and modern genre master Jason Blum remade The Town That Dreaded Sundown in bizarrely meta fashion in 2014, with a plot that actually involved Pierce’s original film and featured actor Dennis O’Hare playing his son, Charles B. Pierce Jr.

1979’s The Evictors was another unusual slice of oddball southern horror from Pierce, mixing elements of the Southern Gothic, haunted house melodrama, and the 1970s slasher flick, and boasting a mind-boggling trio of lead performers in Jessica Harper, Michael Parks and Vic Morrow. The film is characteristically rustic and earthy in tone, and Pierce again makes wonderful use of his locations. Almost completely forgotten today, The Evictors – like all of Pierce’s films – is truly worthy of rediscovery. Pierce’s final foray into horror came with 1983’s Boggy Creek II: And The Legend Continues, the ill-advised belated sequel to the film that started it all. The film was a complete failure, and Pierce has intimated that he went against his better judgement after being reeled in by the film’s producers. “I really didn’t want to do Boggy Creek II,” he has said. “It’s probably my worst picture. This time, I spent almost as much time on the creature suit as I did on the film itself.”

Charles B. Pierce on the set of The Norseman.

There are also two films on Pierce’s resume that sit outside of the western and horror genres. !997’s barely seen and barely feature-length (at a slim 72 minutes) Renfroe’s Christmas is a Christmas family film, while 1978’s The Norseman stands as the director’s only real big budget bomb. That said, it’s an absolute belter of a show, with The Six Million Dollar Man himself, Lee Majors, starring as Thorvald, an eleventh century Viking who journeys to America, where he tangles with the locals. A true boys’-own-adventure (Vikings vs. Indians? What?), the film is far more bloated and less controlled than Pierce’s other work, and resides well and truly outside of his wheelhouse, but it’s a wonderfully entertaining curio.

There is also another truly and typically strange footnote to Charles B. Pierce’s highly unusual career. In the 1980s, Pierce lived for a time in the small Californian town of Carmel, where he became friends with fellow resident, film icon and the town’s eventual mayor, Clint Eastwood. After sharing a story treatment that Eastwood liked, Pierce was brought on as a writer (his only ever credited “writer for hire” work) for the fourth in the Dirty Harry series, Sudden Impact (1983), which Eastwood directed. The film’s iconic, oft-quoted line, “Go ahead, make my day” is credited to Pierce, who has stated that it was a threat that his own father used on him when he failed to mow the lawn as a teenager.

Charles B. Pierce

A true independent and a true visionary whose fingerprints are on every single facet of his films (he even personally commissioned his films’ wonderful posters by the legendary Ralph McQuarrie), Charles B. Pierce (who sadly passed away in 2010 at the age of seventy) is an auteur in every sense of the word. Be it that his body of work is so curiously split between the horror and western genres, or because he worked so completely outside of the Hollywood system, Pierce’s utter lack of recognition (outside the smallest of cult circles) is nearly criminal. “He was so skilled at scraping together a way to do things,” Charles B. Pierce’s daughter, Amanda Squitiero, told Filmmaker Magazine. “He had a way to do anything. But he would laugh at himself because he couldn’t go out and do a gangster film or a standard love story. He always felt he would fall on his face, because he would only deal with subjects that touched him – specifically, films where he felt he had something to say.”

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Tamra Davis, Norman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins


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