The Jersey Devil has been a frequent documentary film subject, such as in New Jersey Network’s 1972 documentary, but its fictional screen time seems to start rolling in 1993 on the popular television show “The X-Files.”
The program deals with an FBI paranormal investigation unit led by agents Dana Scully and Fox Mulder, the latter played by Princeton University graduate David Duchovny, Class of 1982.
In this program, the fifth in the show’s first season, the unit is dispatched to Atlantic City to investigate human remains that seemed to have been gnawed by a human-like creature — one similar to the legend of a large creature roaming the woods.
While a visit to the nearby Pinelands provides some details, Mulder hits pay dirt when he interviews an AC skid row resident. The down-and-outer provides a sketch of the creature that immediately lets viewers know episode writer and series creator Chris Carter substituted the state’s dreaded winged-horse-headed creature for a more pedestrian and Sasquatch-like figure.
He says in a published interview that he wanted to explore the idea of a missing link that resisted any form of evolution. He also saw Atlantic City as “an interesting place to put a de-evolved, or a less evolved character,” adding that, “Atlantic City almost represents the decay of Western Civilization.”
While “X-Files” is standard fare, the show is a Garden State disappointment. It promises a Jersey Devil, but instead delivers a large, nude, Bigfoot-like woman chomping down derelicts. And the Vancouver, Canada, locations are visually and geographically a world away from Atlantic City. Nevertheless, it is fun and worth a free look.
The Jersey Devil also made a few guest television appearances but in different manifestations. In a 2007 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles episode, a diminutive red devil rips up a diner kitchen before getting into a couple of minute fight with one of the turtles. See it on Youtube.
It wasn’t until 1998 that the Jersey Devil got big screen time with a small budget film with a big impact: “The Last Broadcast.”
The documentary-style film focuses in on the final tapes created by a pair of hosts of a public access paranormal show who perished on a midnight trek to the New Jersey Pinelands to locate the Jersey Devil.
Created by then-Bucks County-based filmmakers Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler, the lean film created for around $900 shows an understanding of pacing and slowly ratchets up interest and suspense — before letting it dissipate.
While no Jersey Devil is actually seen in the film, and the film’s conclusion seems more handy than creative, there is a presence throughout of something mysterious and evil.
In addition to being one of the first feature films to exploit the Jersey Devil legend, it also made history as the first feature film to be shot using everyday digital technology — with no film used. While it reportedly made only about $13,000 domestically, it grossed $5 million internationally.
The film is also forever connected to the more successful “Blair Witch Project,” which came out around the same time and had a similar plot. View it online here.
A bigger budget production with some film star power, “The 13th Child: The Legend of the Jersey Devil” followed in 2002.
The story follows a New Jersey prosecutor’s office agent (Leslie-Anne Down) investigating a series of grizzly killings in the Pine Barrens. Soon she encounters Mr. Shroud (Cliff Robertson), a person of Native American decent with a secret.
Although the film uses the Leeds legend in the title, Michael Maryk and Robertson’s screenplay ignores the legend and connects the story to the pre-Colonial Lenape legend.
Moody scenes and New York City-based composer Peter Calandra’s dissonant score contribute to the tension that leads to the climax when a fanged, gooey creature emerges from the ooze to exact revenge on the unfortunate person who had desecrated the bones of the forest spirit.
But that brief dramatic monster-moment isn’t enough to make up for the film’s murky plot and clumsy dialogue, and audiences booed during its theatrical release. (I didn’t but wished I had).
Pretty soon, the distributors noticed they had a monster victim of their own, yanked it from the theaters, and re-released it on video.
Yet it still has some interest. Other actors include “Blue Lagoon” frolicker Chris Aikens and familiar sit-com actor Robert Guillaume, and the filming locations include the New Jersey State House in Trenton, the Wharton Tract, and the mansion and village at Batsto. Take a look at it here.
Paterson-born director/writer Dante Tomaselli’s 2006 “Satan’s Playground” is the exact opposite of the “The 13th Child” and goes all in on the winged Jersey Devil and Mother Leeds.
The plot is standard haunted house fare: a group of people (here a North Jersey family that includes an autistic teenager, an unmarried mother and her child, and a spunky eye-rolling woman and her older and hefty husband), are in unfamiliar territory (the Pines), get stranded (stuck in the sand), and look for help from the closest house they can find.
Unfortunately for the family members, the old place belongs to a fortune teller, Mrs. Leeds. Reminiscent of the Addams Family’s “Ma-ma,” this mistress of the house presides over a family of a couple of cartoonish “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” offspring — a mute clown-dressed killer daughter and a half-witted son. But the other member of the family is the winged devil flying overhead and picking off individuals here and there. Add devil worshippers and police officers getting whacked with frying pans and this intentionally over-the-top grotesque film filmed at Whitesbog Village in the Pines either derails or delivers the train wreck it set out to be. It’s available on DVD.
“Leeds Point,” made in 2008, is a low-budget film striving to be an earnest horror mystery. The film centers on the killing of a group of campers at the Leeds Point — the Atlantic County town where the Jersey Devil was born.
The community members begin to suspect the stepfather of one of the slain campers as the killer. The innocent man attempts to exonerate himself, and with the help of a newspaper reporter who believes the father is innocent starts an investigation that leads to a conclusion that neither wants to believe: The Jersey Devil did it.
Eventually the two track the devil to its home within a home and confront it. Hampered by production values and acting, the old-style story filmed in Brick and Jackson, New Jersey, lets the audience imagine the monster.
Its writers are two Jersey boys, Brick’s Jeff Heimbuch and Whiting’s Santo Scardillo, who also directs this interesting home-brewed addition to Jersey Devil story telling. See it for free on Youtube.
“Carny,” the 2009 SyFy television production, gets high marks for presenting the Jersey Devil in its horrific splendor. However, forget about New Jersey.
For some reason, the story opens with after the Jersey Devil has been captured and sold to a carnival in Nebraska. Of course, the creature escapes and creates mayhem until people get their thoughts together and figure out how to fight back. Popular actor Lou Diamond Phillips is the star of this predictable film that simply uses the Jersey Devil as a plot element without fully exploiting its background or home state. It’s available online at www.youtube.com/watch?v=MI-UrodCa0o.
“The Barrens” is “Saw II” and “Saw III” director Darren Lynn Bousman’s 2012 story of an increasingly troubled man retracing his youthful camping days with his father by taking his family to the Pinelands — with the forests near Toronto, Canada, standing in for New Jersey.
Suffering from a dog bite fever received when the man decided to strangle his family dog and unnerved by the disappearance of nearby campers, the man believes the Jersey Devil is in the woods and insists his family move deeper into the forest to save themselves.
The Kansas-raised Bousman also wrote the screenplay, which was inspired in part by his youthful reading of a book with the Jersey Devil legend. But the inspiration here is more in the vein of the “Saw” franchise, leading the man, his family, and the audience to a grim encounter with evil.
Meanwhile Lee Albright of Albright Productions in Colorado is in the process of making what he hopes will be “the” Jersey Devil film audiences have been waiting for, “The Jersey Devil — the Legend Lives.”
With a production team, screenplay, and some resources already in place, Albright is in the process of raising $1.5 million to get the production rolling.
A Camden native — his dad worked at RCA — and 1962 graduate of Woodrow Wilson High School, Albright says he learned about the Jersey Devil when he was in grade school and during camping trips to the Pines.
He also taught as part of the New Jersey folklore curriculum when he was a South Jersey grade school instructor.
His interest in filmmaking started as a youngster at the ARLO Theater in Camden and after seeing a Hopalong Cassidy cowboy movie.
He says the desire drove him to create his film company in 1987 in Haddon Heights.
During a recent telephone interview, Albright says the company produces films for business and government agencies as well as his own projects — such as the short historical film “The Hamilton-Burr Duel,” available on DVD.
He moved the enterprise to Colorado after he spent his honeymoon there in 1992 and decided to stay.
“The Jersey Devil actually began percolating in the 1980s. I teamed up with the New Jersey Film Commission’s executive director and talked about making a film in New Jersey,” says Albright. “It was on the back burner and I finally got the initiative to resurrect it.”
He says that he and cowriter Skip Rose, “a buddy who lives in Swedesboro,” created a screenplay based on a story that appeared in a Hammonton Newspaper in 1938.
The account described Jeremiah Watson’s encounter with a creature whose description matches that of the Jersey Devil.
When the man continues to insist that he had an encounter with a mysterious creature, his fellow townspeople decide that he is crazy.
Albright says that while that fact-based 20th-century encounter is important, the screenplay is set in the present and involves a fictional story of Jeremiah’s now aged son, Jessie, who, upon hearing that the creature may be resurfacing, sees it as a chance to redeem his father’s name.
Albright says his treatment of the monster is different from other filmmakers’. “All the stories have a one-sided version of the beast, a blood-thirsty creature. But we bring out his human side because he was born human and was transformed into this creature. All the other films exploit the vicious side of him. But there is not one instance of a Jersey Devil killing.”
Trying to stay as true as he can to the myth, Albright says during the writing process he researched the story and spoke with people who had been involved with strange cases in the Pines.
But things then got mysterious. “When we were writing the screenplay we spoke with the chief of police in Mullica Township and asked him if he believed in the Jersey Devil. He said he was a tracker and had seen tracks and mutilations and couldn’t identify what had happened. Then he looked me in the eye and said he couldn’t disbelieve in it.”
Talking more about his approach to the film, Albright says, “People try to categorize the type of film you’re making — a romantic comedy or a number of things. (The Academy Award winning fantastic creature film) ‘The Shape of Water’ is as close as you are going to get to this. It is not a gasher, and there’s very little blood.
“It’s a very personal movie from Jessie’s point of view. What if you had a father who was considered crazy, and you had to prove otherwise?”
As he waits for filming to begin, Albright says, “We’re currently at the point of proof of concept — that we have something that is profitable and unique. We have developed a 3-D character that we have brought to life and can match anything from Hollywood.”
He goes on to say he envisions the film as being distributed as a feature film release followed by availability on DVD and streaming.
But he says it is mainly designed as a theatrical screening. “The Pine Barrens is a main character. It is one of the unique places in the world. It is beautiful. It has to be on a big screen. The key to the success of the movie is seeing the (Pinelands) through the Jersey Devil’s point of view as he flies over the Pines. You’ll be like on a roller coaster over the Pine Barrens. That is what (film’s approach) is designed for.”
He also points to the creature’s design that involved three artists and decades of research “I’ve had a file on the Jersey Devil for a long time. Anytime anything comes out in the paper I put it in the file.”
He says a good deal of descriptions came from 1909, when monster sightings occurred across New Jersey, and the Trenton Times decided to drop the name Leeds and christen it the Jersey Devil.
Albright says the look of his monster involved several artists. One is Michael Locascio in Fairlawn, New Jersey. “He did a sculpture of the Jersey Devil in flight. I contacted him and asked if we could incorporate some of the features — his sculpture has spikes in the back, and it looked neat.”
Another is Venezuelan artist Alfredo Rivera. “I sent him the copy of the Locasio image, and he created a model that is on the website.” And Kansas 3-D artist Kenray Barnabas enhanced the model that is in use on the website.
Albright says once the budget is in place he can then take advantage of the New Jersey Film Commission’s 35 percent tax break for filming in New Jersey and help reduce costs.
Going for the pitch, Albright says, “There is huge market for this in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania,” he says. “After (a theatrical release) we can go to DVD, streaming, and products —Jersey Devil Halloween costumes and Jersey Devil music.”
Albright says people can learn more at his website and advises they “take their time. And if they’re really interested we have a 38-page business plan.”
Then thinking back at his days as a boy in the Pinelands, Albright says, “There is something out there in those million acres. I want to present to the world what I think the Jersey Devil should be. Not what Hollywood thinks, it’s a mood — something you can’t put your finger on.