You’d think the new Hulu docuseries Sasquatch was going to be about Bigfoot, the massive legendary creature supposedly inhabiting the forests of North America. The title hints at it. And by God, when I watch a show called Sasquatch, I want it to be in some substantial way about Sasquatch.
But it isn’t, really.
Sasquatch is actually about self-described “gonzo journalist” David Holthouse looking into three gory killings supposedly done in 1993 by a rampaging Bigfoot in the “Emerald Triangle” of Humboldt, Trinity, and Mendocino counties in Northern California, where generations of ex-hippie cannabis growers have built a lucrative empire. Only it turns out the murders were done by humans, “who are the real monsters”.
That’s about the level of profundity the series achieves.
It’s a shame too, because there’s some good material here, and the overall idea is a compelling one — the intersection between crime, dark human tragicomedy, and supernatural terror in the deep woods of the American Northwest. David Lynch has set the standard for mining this very specific subject with his various iterations of Twin Peaks.
But there’s no such insightful intelligence or artistic vision controlling this docuseries. The flourishing Bigfoot rumours in the Emerald Triangle are presented early on as silly, though there’s a nice animated sequence recreating the initial report, witnessed by young Holthouse, on the mysterious and brutal event: a hysterical tweeker claims to have seen the torn up bodies that supposedly mean a Bigfoot attack. Even in rumour, a Bigfoot has never committed a bloody attack on anyone — the most anyone’s ever claimed is having large rocks and chunks of wood thrown at them, accompanied by weird chuffing noises and an occasional “bluff-charge” through the underbrush.
“But this wasn’t a rip-off!” shrills the tweeker. It turns out the pot crop the three Mexican men were guarding was torn up but not stolen, giving rise to the Killer Bigfoot story.
Producer/investigator Holthouse and director Joshua Rofé — the same team that gave us Lorena, the Lorena Bobbitt docuseries for Amazon in 2019 — work hard to keep the Bigfoot angle alive, but have absolutely no feeling for the material. As soon as they acknowledge that spreading rumours of Bigfoot rampages is a strategy of the major pot farmers to tamp down trespassing and to terrorise their seasonal immigrant workers — particularly any who might decide to go into business for themselves — you know what the score is on the murders.
The rest of the Bigfoot material feels like padding. It includes an elderly pair of bickering Bigfoot believers having an on-camera spat about their various levels of supernatural beliefs, and an interview with Robert “Bob” Gimlin of the notorious 1967 Patterson-Gimlin footage of Bigfoot shot in Humboldt County, triumphantly retelling his tale. That’s intercut with and contradicted by an equally eccentric-looking old guy who claims Roger Patterson and Bob Gimlin paid him to wear the Bigfoot suit and filmed him stomping away from the camera, all as part of a hoax.
It’s obvious early on that the only scary figures in this landscape are the heavily armed pot farmers who have their crops guarded by dogs and hired muscle, in certain notorious cases the Hell’s Angels themselves. No one who lives in Northern California has escaped hearing tales of the Emerald Triangle and its perils.
In the 1980s and ’90s, massive law enforcement raids under names like “Operation Green Sweep” and CAMP (“Campaign Against Marijuana Planting”) put many of the Humboldt County pot farmers out of business through arrest or bankruptcy. Those who’ve stuck it out have been radicalised. Holthouse reports that many today booby-trap their land with explosives, bear traps, and lines strung with fishhooks at eye level.
The documentary traces the region’s tendency toward “Gold Rush” hysteria, including the literal Gold Rush of the mid-19th century that enriched a few and beggared many. After that died out, the logging industry took over, deforesting huge swaths of land, and featuring its own brutal racket of racism and labor exploitation. Pot farming is just the latest cash crop nightmare to infest the area, even if it supposedly started with idealistic back-to-the-land hippies. When Holthouse first visited in the early 1990s, an atmosphere of bad vibes was already hanging over it:
It was sketchy as hell, man. I don’t know how else to describe it. There’s this stereotype, I guess, of the scene up there, the Emerald Triangle, of being a bunch of hippies living in a dope-scented utopia. Living off the land and off the grid. That existed at the time, and exists now. But that’s not the world I was in, and that’s not the world this documentary series takes place in. This is a world of booby-traps and automatic weapons.
Sasquatch lays great emphasis on the extreme danger of this world, for we’re told pot farming has only gotten more hazardous since legalisation with harder drugs now a big part of the Emerald Triangle’s economy — “a river of meth running through it,” as Holthouse puts it. Director Rofé makes much of how often Holthouse courted terrible danger in nosing around:
David … was going to meet a potential source, very much from that underworld and [he’d] say, “Here’s where I’m going to be. If you don’t hear from me by this time, that’s bad.”
Yet for all the peril of the situation, we see Holthouse score interview after interview, starting with phone calls featuring disguised voices sounding deeper than Darth Vader’s. These readily lead to meetings in supposedly secret places, such as the parking lot behind a popular local hangout in broad daylight, upon which the informant blabs about who probably shot whom and buried them in the woods.
More loquacious than any is Holthouse himself — a big, shambling, self-aggrandising guy who claims that as a reporter, he’s always been able to infiltrate strange, violent subcultures like the Neo-Nazis, street gangs, and people running illegal cockfighting rings, because “criminals tend to trust me.” Personally, if I were a criminal, I wouldn’t tell this guy the time of day, he’s so obviously a gabber.
But for all I know that’s the truth of these subcultures and those who investigate them — it would certainly explain Holthouse’s career. The people with the most to hide shoot their mouths off, the “Mr Big” with absolutely nothing to gain by ever saying a word to an investigator about anything agrees to a lengthy phone interview. It turns out, in Sasquatch, that the whole key to the alleged 1993 triple homicide that sparks the initial “Bigfoot” story is getting ahold of somebody to find the bodies who’d be sure to talk his head off about the whole bloody scene, thus diverting suspicion from the actual killers. One imagines it was no problem finding a babbler.
It makes the show more entertaining if you think of it as raw material for a Coen brothers film, something along the lines of Fargo (1996), featuring the Coens’ basic take on Americans as an almost unbelievably garrulous people, constantly yammering and spilling everything we know to any random stranger who asks. Even people who should never, ever talk about their illegal activities, or their knowledge thereof, yak away like mad, tripling their chances of screwing everything up and getting caught. In Sasquatch, the topper would be the investigator who’s so busy jabbering about his own exploits, he never does solve any crimes. The whole thing makes one nostalgic for the old-world Mafia dedication to “omertà.”
A lot of Sasquatch would be funny if a strain of true anguish didn’t run through the lurid shenanigans. There’s a young Mexican woman interviewed named Diana, living in California since she was a child, and mourning the murder of her uncle who was shot to death in his tent guarding pot crops, likely by the same type of people who presumably killed the three Mexican men in ’93. Her need to know who killed her uncle and why is so poignant it makes you feel ashamed for watching the entirely unserious, exploitative hijinks of Sasquatch.
Eileen Jones is a film critic at Jacobin and author of Filmsuck, USA. She also hosts a podcast called Filmsuck.
Featured image: Hulu