#522: The Shadow of Chikara
Offbeat horror western has promising premise but can’t stick the landing
Initial release: July 15, 1977
Director: Earl E. Smith
Not that it has any bearing on the overall quality of a film, but sometimes you can just ask yourself of a movie plot, “would this have been a good Dungeons & Dragons campaign?” Earl E. Smith’s 1977 western creeper, The Shadow of Chikara, has all the elements needed for such a thing: a definable goal (find a stash of shining rocks what may be diamonds, its existence revealed to the party by a dying soldier,) a compelling setting (the wild and supposedly haunted mountains of Arkansas, shot on location,) and a party of shady characters, ranging from the rather amoral Captain “Wishbone” Cutter (Joe Don Baker,) formerly of the defeated Confederate army, to the ambiguous but seemingly demure Drusilla Wilcox (Sondra Locke, in a role a step down from The Outlaw Josey Wales,) plus a half-Cherokee tracker named Half-Moon (Joy Houck Jr. — his father owning the film’s distributor) and a geologist frequently referred to as Teach (Ted Neeley, clearly needing to pay bills after Jesus Christ Super Star.)
Of course, this is no mere tabletop campaign, but a film. While this is Smith’s sole directorial credit, he’s known for writing the screenplay for the early slasher flick The Town That Dreaded Sundown, also set in his home state of Arkansas, and The Legend of Boggy Creek, a half-serious docudrama about a Bigfoot knockoff known around rural Arkansas as the Fouke Monster. Clearly, rural Arkansas horror is what Smith specialized in; knowing that, we can see how The Shadow of Chikara, variously known as The Ballad of Virgil Cane, Demon Mountain (or The Curse of same), Shadow Mountain, Thunder Mountain and, curiously, Wishbone Cutter, might have been a passion project for Smith, and indeed the legend of a vengeful eagle spirit that killed anyone who got too close to a sacred mountain would have been ripe fodder for the kind of films Smith was involved in.
But unlike The Town that Dreaded Sundown and The Legend of Boggy Creek, The Shadow of Chikara (I refuse to call it anything else, as it’s clearly the best title of the bunch) missed out on the cult classic status that the other two films do. Part of it, I suppose, is the budget, which was clearly blown on a relatively unconvincing battle scene and the original rendition of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by Bob Dylan’s backing band; the film is almost entirely shot in backwoods Arkansas (isn’t this how the original Blair Witch kept costs down?) and the incidental music couldn’t even have a country flair, being instead the stockest of stock orchestral. Another likely cause is that — similarly to the fate of Boggy Creek and its sequels — the film barely exists anymore save for a miserable VHS transfer of a sadly abbreviated TV edit. To my knowledge, a complete, unadulterated print of the film is nowhere to be found. This results in some strange cuts and a generally incoherent film, complete with pan-and-scan and at one point just straight up a half-second of black as a fade-in from a commercial break wasn’t trimmed properly.
The Shadow of Chikara isn’t a good film. I don’t think the complete version would be much better. While Smith’s script is initially compelling, the constant hints that something is hunting (or haunting) the party never seems to go anywhere convincing, and what good cinematography there might have been with The Town That Dreaded Sundown cinematographer Jim Roberson behind the camera was butchered by the TV edit. (And this is to say nothing of the fact that this film was produced before the reports of animal abuse on the set of 1980 western Heavens’ Gate prompted Hollywood to permit the American Humane Association to monitor animal use on every production; though truncated by the TV edit, there is a scene in Chikara where real horses fall off a cliff in a landslide.) While some of the final scenes — namely, rescuing Drusilla from the side of a cliff, and the slow lowering of Teach into a yawning chasm to fetch a bag of the diamonds — offer some actual tension, much of the film is quite dull, even with a brief encounter of a strange pair of Confederate deserters who had no idea the war was over. (The more talkative one bidding farewell with the line “sorry y’all lost the war!” was a much-needed laugh-out-loud moment.)
Still, though, I think the premise has some merit. In a way, it feels like a worse version of Eyes of Fire, itself not a perfect movie, but of a piece with the tapestry of American folklore. It sits in that weird little box of obscure films that aren’t good enough to become cult classics but the near-loss of which is tragic regardless. I hope that some day a complete print is found and the film gets new life, like Eyes of Fire did.