Now, I can tell I have you thinking two things here. First, you’re wondering what the Johnstown Monster is and, second, you’re wondering what mystery about it has been solved. A headline like this is the kind of thing you expect from a Nessie or Bigfoot site when writing their latest article about how they’ve solved the mystery of the monster’s identity and determined the Loch Ness Monster is an overweight eel that hasn’t had sex in over fifty years. This would not be that type of mystery solved article.
No, this is about a movie. This is about the identity of a movie I’ve been trying to find the identity of for decades now. The mystery for me was what was the name of the movie I watched many moons ago in my long-forgotten youth. The answer I have finally found is 1971’s The Johnstown Monster.
Sometime in the late 1970s or the early 1980s, I, still very much a young lad, caught a movie on TV about a legendary lake monster that was apparently MIA. Here’s what I remembered.
The town around the lake was going through a long spell of being economically depressed and many of the jobs that were still there were only providing enough for people to only just get by. However, the town did have one thing going for it when it came to claims to fame. It had a lake monster with some level of regional notoriety.
However, there was a catch with the local monster. In a time when interest in such long-established and legendary creatures was growing to insane levels and people could point to places like Loch Ness to show what kind of cash cow this could be if you got a nice tourist trade built up around your monster; their local lake monster hadn’t been seen in a very long time. However, this absence was actually a part of the local legend. According to that local legend, their lake monster had periods of great activity throughout the centuries immediately followed by almost 100 years of its absence during which it was believed to be in a hibernation-like slumber somewhere at the bottom of the lake’s dark depths.
Much of the story around the legend is encapsulated in a song the locals sing multiple times throughout the film. It’s actually fairly catchy.
Well, what do you do when you have a perfectly serviceable lake monster legend but your monster doesn’t want to wake up long enough to help you rake in the big Nessie bucks? The answer is simple. If you’re the industrious children of Johnstown, you build a lake monster.
The children, later with the help of a local eccentric homeless fellow, build a monster on a weighted platform that floats just below the surface of the water. The monster itself is largely a skin put together around an inflatable body with a few solid pieces here and there. The kids run hoses from the monster to an air pump in a small boat. They cover one end of the boat so no one can see the pump. They also use this boat to tow the monster from a distance rather than have it drift aimlessly based on the winds and currents. When they need the monster to make an appearance, they pump it full of air and it raises above the surface. When they need it to disappear again, they open the emergency release valve and the air rushes out of the monster with enough speed that it sinks due to the platform’s weight even before it has completely deflated.
They give their monster a test run and even snap their own picture of it. The picture causes a stir and the local buzz begins. They begin to take the monster out on almost but not quite carefully planned runs to increase the interest and start drawing people to the town. This begins to succeed. One person who comes to town is an American skeptic with a bit of cash. Upon seeing the monster from a tour boat, he decides to hire his own boat and start hunting the monster to prove or disprove its existence.
Eventually, this leads to more activity on the water and more difficulty for the children to have their monster make appearances without being discovered to be a fake. However, there’s a day with so much focus on the lake that they decide they have to risk at least one more quick appearance. They prepare and plan and on the big day they set out to give the town one more (or one last) big appearance of the Johnstown Monster.
Enter- Mr. Murphy and his infamous law. On the big day, they make their monster surface in all its glory and every eye and camera turns to it. The American skeptic also turns his boat towards it and opens the motor’s throttle up. The kids decide to cut the appearance of the monster short and try to submerge it, but the air release valve jams. They can’t deflate or sink their monster and the skeptic’s boat is closing fast.
They can’t pull their boat up next to their monster over the risk of that giving the game away, so one of the kids gets into the water to try to rip the hoses out or puncture the monster. I seem to remember the kid getting himself tangled up in the hoses, but I’m not 100% certain here. The skeptic gets close enough to see the monster is a fake and begins to crow about proving there is no monster. Then they see it. After almost a century’s absence, this is the day the monster wakes up- perhaps due to all the activity on the lake.
There’s a flash of the monster under the water, bouncing the fake monster and capsizing the skeptic’s boat. The skeptic almost drowns before being pulled from the water by (I think) the kids. He and the children make it to the shore as everyone looks on in wonder at the appearance of the real Johnstown Monster.
For years after I saw this film, I remembered the basic look of the fake monster, the basic story, the song the locals sang, and the appearance of the real monster looking like they used stuffed lizard’s head. I kind of thought there was a sighting of the real monster earlier in the story than just the end, but only the quickest flash of one. I also remembered the accents not being American. What I couldn’t remember was the location of the story, a single name from the story, or, duh, the name of the film.
Periodically, from my late twenties to just recently, I would remember the film and dig around to try to find out what it was. I don’t even think I ever really wanted to see it again as much as I just wanted to know what it was. This became an occasional drive me insane moment every few years as it would pop up in my memory for no reason and I’d suddenly start looking again only to find absolutely nothing about.
Googling it was an exercise in futility. The various keywords you would use for a search would get hundreds or even thousands of hits, but they would almost all be related to monster hoaxes or the top twenty films and TV shows out there dealing with lake monsters. Refining the search was almost impossible because, again, I couldn’t remember a single name in it and all I could narrow it down to with regards to location was it was likely set in the UK or maybe in Australia or New Zealand. I also sometimes questioned my memory as to whether or not it was a lake monster. The lake they filmed on was huge. It was so huge, in fact, I occasionally wondered if it was set on a seaside town with a large bay rather than in a town with a large lake next to it. That only, naturally, gave me more Google hits that were even less useful for determining the identity of the film.
A few years ago, I decided to use the resources of social media when the memories of this movie hit me out of the blue once more. Two good friends of mine who are incredibly knowledgeable when it comes to movies in general (and monster movies in particular) identified the movie. They determined it was the Wonderful World of Disney’s two-parter from 1971 titled The Strange Monster of Strawberry Cove. Both of them also said it wasn’t a particularly good film.
A quick look at the story description for The Strange Monster of Strawberry Cove shows that it has many surface similarities with the plot. I was mostly willing to take this as an answer, but I had a few minor quibbles that I attributed to bad memory on my part after decades of time passing. This film was set in America, so accents I remembered wouldn’t be there. But I only really remembered the kids having accents. Maybe the leads were playing kids not local to the area and they were using the idea of them drawing on stories from back home in the UK, I thought. I didn’t remember a subplot with crooks, but, to be honest, I didn’t reliably remember 85% of the movie. If the subplot didn’t grip my preteen brain, I could have forgotten it. I didn’t remember the kids wanting to defend the name of a teacher who claimed the monster was real being central to the building of the monster, but, again, I would freely admit I didn’t reliably remember 85% of the movie with any real clarity. I just remembered highlight scenes.
I did have two big problems I couldn’t quite write off as easily. Their names were Burgess Meredith and Agnes Moorehead. They both starred in The Strange Monster of Strawberry Cove. Because of Batman and Bewitched among other TV shows and movies, I knew who both of them were at a very early age. I wasn’t sure how I wouldn’t remember them in it at all.
However, there was no way to check on this. The film wasn’t available streaming or as a disc and the only upload to a video site that hadn’t been caught and pulled by The Mouse’s lawyers was a YouTube video of about 90 seconds length showing a first sighting of the monster. It mostly looked like it could have been from the film I remembered. Also, when looking it up, I found more than a few discussion threads where people were trying to identify a lake monster movie they remembered from years gone by. A lot of those had people discussing this who apparently saw both films and merged them in the heads over the years. I say that because people who were told it was The Strange Monster of Strawberry Cove and looked up the story details were accurately describing scenes from both films while putting them together as a single whole.
I wasn’t quite happy with the overall revelation about this being the film I remembered and several people chiming in to back up the opinion that, yeah, if you were only a little older when seeing it you might find that it sucked. However, bad film or not, I had a name for the film and it would finally stop randomly popping up in my head and driving me nuts over not being able to nail its identity down.
Then, earlier this week, while looking for something else totally unrelated to either of these films, the keywords I was using popped a YouTube hit for The Strange Monster of Strawberry Cove. It was the complete film. This is it for as long as The Mouse’s lawyers let the upload survive.
At first, I ignored it. Then, against my better judgment, I started skimming the film on YouTube. None of the settings looked right. No accents at all that would sound like they came from the UK or down under. This monster was a paddleboat model the kids sat in and not an inflatable monster they pulled from a distance. Perhaps most importantly because of my strongest memory of the film I saw way back when, there was no song about the local legend of the monster.
I moved to the last 15 minutes of the film. This absolutely wasn’t the film I remembered. The good news in that was it meant the film everyone was saying kind of sucked wasn’t the film I remembered so fondly. The bad news in that was I was going to be once again getting frustrated every few years trying to find the name of the movie and talking to people about it to blank stares.
Then, late Friday night after work while watching The Witcher and wondering why Henry Cavil was auditioning to be Christian Bale’s Batman voice stunt double, I started playing around on Google not expecting to find a thing. I found this instead.
It was a page devoted to something called The CBS Children’s Film Festival as hosted by Kukla, Fran, and Ollie. I wasn’t quite sure why this was getting a hit. I didn’t remember this being hosted by Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, and I did know who that was. I also didn’t think it was on CBS when I saw it. I wanted to place it on cable, not rabbit ears television, and I seemed to remember seeing it more than once in the same month indicating a cable channel. But, what the hell, I could do a quick search on the page for keywords. Couldn’t hurt. I got this when I put “monster” in the search.
Even better, the listing had a link to YouTube where there was the only video apparently out there showing any of the movie. It’s only about 7 minutes, but it’s the right seven minutes to confirm that this was the movie I saw way back when. Right look, right setting, right accents, and, most importantly, right song.
Having a name to finally look up, this film apparently didn’t kind of suck. Most of the people who saw it and partially remembered it (without blending it with the other movie) almost across the board remembered it very fondly. There were even some threads indicating it was periodically shown on the air in parts of the UK up through the early 2000s and the now parents who were the kids who watched it way back when still found it enjoyably charming when watching it in recent years as adults with their children. The threads also indicated it’s never really had any significant home video release.
One of the people behind or associated with the Kulka webpage apparently won a 16-mil copy of the print on an eBay auction some years back and started making DVD-R copies for sale at cost to the forum members. The last post in that thread was 2015 and the various contact links are no longer active. So, for anyone else who remembers the film fondly and was hoping to find it, you’re likely out of luck.
That’s really something of a shame. With all of the films out there being rescued from total obscurity to become films in cheap collections or on a single limited print run disc from specialty distributors, this is a missed opportunity. In this day and age, I doubt the film would ever be a huge mainstream seller on DVD or Blu-Ray. But it would certainly have been a good film to have in a collection or even as a limited print run disc. I have no doubt a lot of adults seeing the video ads would snap it up just on the power of nostalgia alone.
But, for me, at least right now, I’m just happy the mystery is solved. This is no longer that thing that pops up in my head every few years and drives me nuts because I can’t figure out what it is and absolutely no one I talk to knows what it is. The movie was The Johnstown Monster and it was, for me, a highly enjoyable movie from that time of my youth when lake monsters where all the mainstream pop culture craze and I was of that age where I wanted to believe and consumed anything and everything about the subject matter. Plus, it really does have a catchy little song.
Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek who, while enjoying most everything fandom has to offer, finds himself most at home in the horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction genres. He has in the past contributed to websites like Needless Things, Nerdy Minds Magazine, Gruesome Magazine, and others while occasionally remembering to put up the odd musings on his own blog. He’s been a guest on several podcasts from the ESO Network, on Decades of Horror, and on the Nerdy Laser. He is also a regular co-host on The Assignment: Horror Podcast as well as the primary writer for its affiliated blog.