TV discussion

Throwback 30: Bigfoot and the Hendersons

Bigfoot. One of the world’s biggest mysteries. Is he real, the missing link between man and ape, a myth born out of human kind’s biggest fears and legends passed down through the ages, or just some hillbillies dressed up in a gorilla suit?

Who knows? However, there have been stories and sightings of Bigfoot or Bigfoot-like creatures in various places around the globe; and even the legendary David Attenborough is on record as saying that the abominable snowman could potentially exist. Yet(i) as of 2017, there is no credible evidence of some giant man ape roaming remote parts of the world.

Sasquatch has not been the subject of many a movie; and, in fact, most movies about ‘him’ are horrors – that is, except this one, Chill Out, and Scooby Doo – but one of the most popular is Harry and the Hendersons (aka Bigfoot and the Hendersons in the UK). Tracking down a copy (for free) to re-watch ahead of writing this article to see if it stands the test of time proved most difficult. It seems a copy of the movie was as elusive as the real Bigfoot. Perhaps it would have been a better idea to have gone hunting for it in a run down Blockbuster Video?

Writer/Director William Dear’s 1987 movie stars John Lithgow as the father of the Henderson family who, while out on a family trip, hits a Bigfoot with the family car. Thinking they have killed the cryptid, they take the body home only to discover that he is still alive, quite friendly, and is being pursued by an animal hunter whose fragile reputation is on the line. As you can imagine, much hilarity and japes ensue.

At 110 minutes, the runtime is far too long for what should be a breezy creature-comedy that tries to imbue itself with pathos. Bruce Broughton’s score is very typical of its time period, rendering the movie more cheesy than fun or light-hearted. The humour is exceptionally broad as slapstick prevails over any attempts at quick-witted dialogue or deep meaningful messages; but ultimately, this is a simple and inoffensive family film aiming to entertain children and adults of all ages. There’s little doubt that “Average American Family” that “just got bigger” is meant to reflect the primary audience for this fantastic story.

Despite a sequel never materialising, it became popular enough that it even spawned a TV show that lasted three seasons, although none of the film’s cast returned, except for Kevin Peter Hall, the man in the suit. Already standing tall at 7′ 2½”, Peter Hall would end up a whopping 8ft when in costume. The insanely talented seven-time Oscar winning American make-up artist Rick Baker (of Men In Black, An American Werewolf in London and not forgetting Norbit fame) was responsible for the design of Harry, who is on record as saying it is his favourite creature that he has worked on. Evidently the Academy also felt the same way, awarding Baker ‘Best Makeup’ for his efforts here.

The cast is actually pretty strong. Alongside Lithgow, Melinda Dillon – herself Academy Award nominated for best supporting actress for her role in Close Encounters of the Third Kind – plays the Henderson family’s matriarch while Poirot actor David Suchet is the enigmatic and legendary Bigfoot hunter Jacques LaFleur. Hell, even the in-suit performer of Harry played Predator in the first two movies in that franchise. Ironically the actor who played the dad in the show, Brian Steele, made a career out of playing movie monsters and actually played Sasquatch himself in 2014’s Exists, a horror with Bigfoot as the antagonist.

Bigfoot and the Hendersons is far from perfect. Against other family comedies or feel good movies from my childhood, it just cannot compete. I would not rate it as highly as Homeward Bound, Batteries Not Included, Flight of the Navigator and so on. However, the movie certainly has its moments and is remembered fondly by lots of people, possibly more due to nostalgia than for any real tangible reasons (Baker’s costume design aside).

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