Terror at Black Falls

Produced, written, directed, and edited by Richard C. Sarafian, Terror at Black Falls was filmed in Arkansas in Scotland (Van Buren County) in 1959 and released in 1962. The low-budget, black-and-white Western was barely of feature length. A DVD runs sixty-eight minutes, but the movie was probably originally longer. Various sources say the film was seventy, seventy-two, or seventy-six minutes. It was the first film directed by Sarafian and may have been intended as his calling card film in Hollywood, a sample to show studios his ability.

The film’s loquacious narrator says that the movie tells “a true story” set “when Arkansas was part of the wild American frontier.” However, it was not based on a true story. Like another Western set in Arkansas, Woman They Almost Lynched (1953), Terror at Black Falls has no real Arkansas content and could have been set anywhere in the Old West. Both principled Sheriff Cal (House Peters Jr.) and small-time crook Juan Avila (Peter Mamakos) try to stop townspeople from lynching Avila’s son. The boy is killed, and Avila blames Cal as well as the people of Black Falls. Avila and his two remaining sons take over the saloon and take hostages. Avila threatens to kill a man every ten minutes until Cal faces him.

Peters provides the film’s wordy, often pretentious narration. Cal blames the townsfolk for Avila’s outburst. “We had created Avila.…We made him the animal he became.” Avila also makes speeches denouncing the town’s treatment of Mexicans.

Peters and Mamakos were both veterans of well over 100 television and film roles, mostly much smaller than their parts in Sarafian’s movie. Greek-American Mamakos, who specialized in ethnic parts, was listed first in the film’s credits but only fourth on the poster. Peters was the son of silent film star House Peters. I. Stanford Jolley, a character actor who played the most unlikeable of the conniving hostages, played an amazing 375 parts over the years, according to the Internet Movie Database. Sandra Knight, the film’s leading lady, had a brief career and was married for a time to future star Jack Nicholson. Residents of Scotland played some small parts.

Terror at Black Falls clearly had limited distribution. Variety never reviewed the film. Phil Hardy’s The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: The Western, which annotates 1,800 talkie Western features, confines Terror at Black Falls to an appendix listing unannotated B Westerns. Michael R. Pitts’s Western Movies calls Sarafian’s picture a “slow moving and not very interesting poverty row melodrama.” An anonymous contributor in Jay Robert Nash’s The Motion Picture Guide notes “an ending so bad it’s almost brilliant.”

In his autobiography, House Peters Jr. recalls that Scotland still had an unpaved dirt street, with buildings similar to those constructed in the 1880s. All the filmmakers had to do was to cover up advertising signs and gas pumps. Exteriors were filmed in Scotland, but the film’s interiors were shot in a vacant church in Kansas City, Missouri.

Peters was enthusiastic about his part and reported that Mamakos felt the same way. According to Peters, the executive who bought the film from Sarafian and tried to distribute it hired him to add the extensive, droning narration, without Sarafian’s permission. Peters wished Sarafian had been able to take more time during shooting, which was “handled in a rush,” and had kept control of his film through distribution: “It was a sad ending for a film that, in my opinion, had a great deal of potential.”

Sarafian worked mostly in TV in the 1960s. In 1969, he made his first major film, Run Wild, Run Free. It was followed by two notable titles, Vanishing Point and Man in the Wilderness (both 1971). Terror at Black Falls was photographed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Floyd Crosby, who also shot High Noon (1952). Another successful contributor to the movie was score composer Allyn Ferguson, who went on to a prolific career.

Most of Sarafian’s attempts at psychological suspense and social commentary in Terror at Black Falls fall flat, but the last scene is effectively grim. Avila reaches for his gun with the stump of his amputated hand. Cal does not shoot the helpless man, but his son Johnny kills Avila, shooting him three times. Johnny is the hope for the future for both his father Cal and his girlfriend Sally (Sandra Knight), but he is revealed as part of the continuing cycle of unnecessary violence.

The Arkansas State Archives has a collection of memorabilia for Terror at Black Falls, collected by Mary Jean Hall of Scotland.

For additional information:
Nash, Jay Robert, and Stanley Ralph Ross, eds. The Motion Picture Guide. Chicago: Cinebooks, 1987.

Peters, House, Jr. Another Side of Hollywood. Madison, NC: Empire Publishing, 2000.

Pitts, Michael R. Western Movies: A Guide to 5,105 Feature Films. 2nd ed. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2013.

Terror at Black Falls.” Internet Movie Database. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056570/?ref_=nv_sr_1 (accessed January 5, 2021).

Terror at Black Falls Movie Memorabilia Collection. Arkansas State Archives, Little Rock, Arkansas. Finding aid online at https://digitalheritage.arkansas.gov/finding-aids/360/ (accessed January 5, 2021).

Michael Klossner
Little Rock, Arkansas


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