Appellate Judge Tom Becker thinks Jose Feliciano is the wild man of "Feliz Navidad."
History tells one story. Truth tells another.
It's huntin' season in Sublime, Texas (circa 1975), and in between hits of moonshine and spats of chaw, what ever'body'd like to see is ol' Dale S. Rogers open up the 600 acres of fertile forest land near the basin of the Navidad River. But Dale—who inherited the land as a boy when his daddy died that violent and mysterious death—is keeping that land locked up with a KEEP OUT sign right there for anyone who can read. And Dale's got his reason.
To help pay for care for Jean, his wife, who ended up in a "roller chair" after a terrible accident, Dale works as a welder. Somehow, the wages he gets doing these welding jobs for a guy who lives in a tarp shack are enough to pay for Jean's medicines and put food on the table, but when the welding job goes south, Dale decides to use what he's got to get what he needs. Over the protests of his Mexican home helper, Mario ("Dios! No, Senor!"), Dale opens the gates and rents out his land for day hunts.
What Dale and Mario know—and a few old timers suspect—is that there's a creature a'livin' in them woods—a demon? A half-man, half-animal? Nobody's sure what it is, but every night at 9 p.m., Dale puts a skinned rabbit out for its supper, and that seems to keep it quiet.
But now that new people are hunting on its turf, the…thing…is angry. There will be no more peaceful co-existence 'twixt Dale and beast.
And there'll be a heavy price to pay in Sublime, Texas.
Shot on the cheap and for the most part, played straight, The Wild Man of the Navidad is one of the best '70s drive-in homage films to come along in a while. Its inspiration seems to be little-known and briefly blazing auteur Charles B. Pierce, and Navidad comes off like the good-natured bastard child of The Legend of Boggy Creek and The Town That Dreaded Sundown, his two biggest hits. Like those two films, The Wild Man of the Navidad is based on an actual legend and purportedly true events—in this case, as recorded by the real-life Dale S. Rogers (who gets story credit here).
Unlike many such homages, this is not a film of broad winks and a constant barrage of show-offy pop culture references. Co-directors Duane Graves and Justin Meeks—who also plays Dale—have a real feel and a lot of affection for the period and the genre, and they style their film to look like it was made 30 years ago, not like a contemporary film trying to look like something that was made 30 years ago. So well do they hit their notes that The Wild Man of the Navidad is a dead-on re-creation of a low-budget, '70s exploitation programmer, and you'd be forgiven if you mistook it for an actual '70s production.
We open with a title card—yellow print on a black background, with the sound of an old projector behind it—declaring that "This Is a True Story." We get some twangy-but-solemn opening narration, in which we learn a bit about the legend as well as the "discovery" of the journals of Dale S. Rogers. We get slightly washed-out looking Texas vistas—Texas natives Graves and Meeks shot on location, and Graves' camerawork is fine and evocative. We get some nostalgically generic-sounding blues riffs and country tracks for a score. And we get local non-professionals playing both small and integral parts, performances that are equal parts clumsy and charming.
Aiding the filmmakers is co-producer Kim Henkel, who co-wrote and produced that quintessential '70s drive-in cult fav, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—which, if you believed the advertising, was also "Based on a True Story."
But The Wild Man of the Navidad isn't just a stunt. It's a fun exploitation film in its own right, filled with quirky characters, suspenseful set ups, creepy subplots, ludicrous low-rent violence, and a goofy-but-lethal man beast. It works best if you're "in" on the joke, but even those with little or no interest in the drive-in fare of yore can have a good time with this one.
The transfer on this DVD looks very good for the most part, although some of the very dark scenes appear a bit fuzzy, like a badly tuned TV (from the '70s, perhaps). Audio is a solid stereo track—a 5.1 would have killed the ambience.
There is a very nice selection of extras, starting with an anecdote-heavy commentary from Graves and Meeks, who are engaging and enthusiastic without coming off as pompous or obnoxious, as some indie filmmakers do when discussing their "labors of love." This is not a back-slapping fest of self-congratulations, but enjoyable tale of the journey that produced this film.
Co-producer Henkel, who met Graves and Meeks when they took his course in film school, offers a silly but cute intro to the film and the filmmakers. The filmmakers tell us a bit about themselves in the "Director Meet and Greet." "Behind the Screams" is a brief but interesting "making of," with "Pre-production Footage" kind of an extension on that. "The Hypostatic Union" is an early short film by Weeks and Graves.
"Character Study" is a great little 20-minute documentary that features interviews with some of the colorful, non-professional actors who made up the cast. This is actually a very cool featurette with a lot of neat anecdotes that have little to do with the movie, as well as some really funny stories about the adventures of making a no-budget film. Very funny and original. We also get a trailer for the film.
The Wild Man of the Navidad is a real treat. A must see if you're a fan of the exploitation genre, and certainly worth a look for those who'd enjoy something well-made and entertaining and a bit off the beaten path.
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