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By Merle Bertrand | June 30, 2008

Directors Duane Graves and Justin Meeks pretty much reached their “Mission Accomplished” stage within the first five minutes of “Wild Man of the Navidad.” That’s because their whole intention in making the film was to capture the essence of the grind house/drive-in theater horror films from the 1960s and early ‘70s; something “Wild Man…” achieves just as soon as its wonderfully retro Lemon Pledge-yellow credits pop up on screen, set to its twangy Appalachian soundtrack.

It’s a gimmick that could easily have worn thin, however, except that the filmmakers follow through with a solid, if not particularly original narrative. Set in the rugged southeast Texas town of Sublime, “Wild Man…” recounts its titular Texas Sasquatch-ish urban legend, as chronicled by local handyman Dale S. Rogers (Meeks). A mildly eccentric loner ever since the mysterious death of his father when he was just a boy, Dale lives in a ramshackle clapboard house with his wheelchair-bound wife Jean (Stacy Meeks), and Mario (Alex Garcia), Jean’s superstitious and perverted nurse, who takes advantage of every opportunity he can get to grope and molest his silent, disabled charge.

All is well, in a depressing, dysfunctional sort of way, until Dale loses his welding job. Desperate for income to pay for Jean’s medical care, Dale throws open over 600 acres of land that’s been closed since his father’s death, for day hunting expeditions. He does so against the advice of Mario, who vainly warns Dales against angering the creature who lives on that land.

Dale should have listened, because faster than one can say “murderous rampage,” the Wild Man is no longer content with the raw, skinned rabbits Dale’s been placing outside for him every night, feasting instead on eager hunters.

A friend and colleague of mine, Scott von Doviak, wrote a book called “Hick Flicks: The Rise and Fall of Red Neck Cinema, which I reviewed here a year or so ago. If ever there was a new film that’s meant for the 2nd edition of this book, “The Wild Man of the Navidad” is it. Yes, the acting is a little stuffy and the story, a blend of Sasquatch-meets-the-legendary Chupacabra, is lacking in originality.

None of that really matters, however. Similarly, the townspeople in the film, while clearly not actors, are such characters visually and otherwise, that their lack of thespian skills doesn’t really matter. It actually sort of accidentally works for this film, given that this was the level of acting ability often on display in many of last century’s typical drive-in flicks, while the music and the rugged, desolate landscape also emerge as stars in this film.

Just like its models from some thirty or more years ago, “The Wildman of the Navidad” has its share of flaws and weaknesses. It also has a lot of heart and does a perfect job of being the kind of film Meeks and Graves meant for it to be.

So pass me the popcorn and hook that tin-horn speaker up to the driver’s side window. It’s time to go back to the drive-in.

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