Film #110: The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961)

film 110 the beast of yucca flats

Rating: 1.5/5
Enjoyment rating: 5/5

“Flag on the moon, how did it get there?”

Time for another bad movie classic, Coleman Francis’ directorial debut, The Beast of Yucca Flats. I couldn’t even count how many times I’ve seen this film, but it never ceases to be anything other than a joy to watch. It’s currently sitting at #89 in IMDb’s Bottom 100, though in the past it’s been among the top (bottom?) ten, and Francis’ other two films (The Skydivers, Night Train to Mundo Fine) have also featured until recently – now it seems there are just too many dodgy, terrible comedies around taking up all the space.

Like The Creeping Terror and Manos: The Hands of Fate, The Beast of Yucca Flats was shot without sound. Unlike the aforementioned films, it attempts to conceal this deficiency by almost never showing its characters speaking – in fact, I can think of only one instance where anyone other than the Beast himself is shown talking (and, curiously, the Beast’s grunts were dubbed by the director, not the man on screen, Tor Johnson, meaning that although we see him as he makes noise, the sounds we hear are not his own). Instead, Francis either shoots his cast in long shot or, disconcertingly, only shows the reaction of the listener, while the speaker remains off-camera. In theory it shouldn’t necessarily be as bizarre as it is – there’s an argument that showing a speaker talking makes the image redundant, precisely because we can already hear them – but it is sufficiently unconventional that it just draws attention to the filmmaker’s limitations, rather than hiding them. It doesn’t help, of course, that the dubbed dialogue is minimal, or that the actors are utterly terrible, or that the script doesn’t require even the slightest hint of character development. Some characters aren’t even given names, though they play fairly important roles: the Beast’s first victims are introduced by the voice-over narration simply as “man and wife.”

Whereas the voice-over narration in The Creeping Terror (and in plenty of other films) attempts to infuse the film with sincerity and importance through a literary, solemn style, here the voice-over (uttered by Francis himself) sounds like an abridged version of the film’s production notes. Its phrasing is bizarre, filled with incomplete sentences and strange non-sequiturs like the aforementioned (and frequently repeated) “flag on the moon” quote. “Nothing bothers some people,” the voice-over intones. “Not even flying saucers.” This in a film with no flying saucers or alien threat whatsoever. And, like his voice-over and limited dialogue, the narrative is so meagre that it barely fills the brief 54 minute running time. Tor Johnson plays Joseph Javorsky, noted scientist, who escapes from behind the Iron Curtain with a suitcase full of secrets, only to be transformed into an atomic beast after being chased onto an atomic testing site in Yucca Flats by rogue Communist assassins. Following this tragedy, he roams the barren desert killing random people “travelling east, west, north and south” before encountering the Radcliffes, whose two sons are “adventurous boys” who decide to wander off. Meanwhile, Joe and Jim, desert patrolmen, have somehow inexplicably discovered the existence of the Beast and decide to “shoot first, ask questions later,” resulting in a direct North by Northwest homage and a potentially fatal case of mistaken identity, as Hank Radcliffe (the father) gets repeatedly shot at by Jim, high above in a light aircraft.

Although practically nothing happens, and the film is actually rather slow and uneventful, it’s quite mesmerising. Every remark uttered by the voice-over is a classic – in his solemn tone, Francis repeatedly, inexplicably refers to the “wheels of progress,” states the obvious (“a man runs. Somebody shoots at him”), and constantly introduces characters: “Joseph Javorsky, noted scientist.” “Joseph Javorsky, respected scientist, now a fiend.” It’s a necessary addition, really, because the characters are less people than hollow representations of people – indeed, the only person with even the slightest bit of depth is the Beast himself, poor Joseph Javorsky. Yet he is also the most ridiculous – Tor Johnson, a former Swedish wrestler best known for his work with Ed Wood, is the least believable nuclear scientist I’ve ever seen in cinema (yes, even worse than Denise Richards’ Christmas Jones in The World is Not Enough). Obviously hired to play the Beast role, rather than the scientist role (as it turns out, the suitcase full of secrets is nothing more than a massive McGuffin, like most things about the film), the already large man was severely overweight and his struggles are evident at all times – he can barely move. Anthony Cardoza, the film’s producer, has said that the crew had to literally pull Johnson up the cliff for the cave scenes, and Cardoza himself put on enough weight during filming (because Johnson insisted on inviting him around for dinner so often) that he appears in the film twice as two different characters, and is unrecognisable.

The film’s notoriety is undoubtedly helped by the inclusion of Johnson, a cult star in his own right, but it’s a thoroughly strange experience, one verging on surrealism. Despite being shot on location (there are only two interior shots in the whole film, one which opens the movie and is impossible to situate within the rest of the narrative, but does feature female nudity – in fact, Cardoza has claimed that this is the only reason for its inclusion) the editing has rendered the landscape entirely incoherent – the chase between Jim in his airplane and Hank on the ground is a spectacular example of how illogical the whole film is, with the landscape changing drastically from shot to shot.

While I would definitely argue that The Beast of Yucca Flats is a perfect example of “so bad it’s pleasurable,” others have disagreed, and I can understand why. Sections drag, while the narrative is so sparse and irrelevant that in many ways the film could be shown as a silent film. Long passages contain little or no dialogue (although when the voice-over does interrupt, it’s worth the wait) and the music, which, possibly because of the amount of times I’ve seen the film, I now think is fairly effective, transpires to have been taken from another, earlier film, The Astounding She-Monster. Imagine my surprise when I watched that movie yesterday, having discovered it on Youtube, straight after watching Yucca Flats, and was instantly bombarded by the exact same riff! It’s a small world – and an even smaller one when it comes to bad 50s movies, clearly. Regardless, Francis’ film is one that is difficult to forget – it’s a hypnotic, surreal, and downright weird little movie, with characters that look like people but act like robots, where cars drive with their headlights on despite it being daytime, where a scientist is turned into a beast yet none of the people living in the vicinity of the atomic testing site seem affected at all, where husbands abandon their wives in the middle of the desert, where desert patrolmen parachute onto plateaus for no reason, where no one seems to ever die, despite being shot repeatedly, and where an errant wild rabbit provides a final moment of unexpected poignancy.

Bonus: you can watch The Beast of Yucca Flats on Youtube here!


Film #109: The Creeping Terror (1964)

film 109 the creeping terror

Rating: 1.5/5
Enjoyment rating: 5/5

“He slowly asked Bradford what was in store for humanity. Bradford was pessimistic, but implied that maybe all was not lost. After all, he told him, the vastness of the universe was incredible.”

Sometimes I worry that giving a film a low rating will deter people from watching it. Of course, sometimes the low rating should be taken on face value, and he movie should be avoided at all costs. Other times, however, the low rating doesn’t even remotely reflect the sheer enjoyment that can be experienced watching a film that is technically terrible. This is, I suppose, my way of saying that some films are “so bad they’re good,” although I’m loathe to use that phrase because it’s so problematic. More appropriate is to describe such films as “so bad they’re pleasurable” and, as pleasurable experiences go, The Creeping Terror is way up there.

Actor-director-editor-producer Vic Savage’s film is, on the surface at least, a fairly standard 1960s teen-oriented sci-fi picture: a rocket lands, an alien emerges, and chaos ensues. Narratively it’s no more or less interesting than so many of the other low-budget drive-in movies of the times, but aesthetically it’s quite fascinating, and rumours and myths have followed the movie around for years. It gained notoriety when it was included in the Medved’s hugely influential Golden Turkey Awards, nominated for the “most ridiculous monster in screen history” award (eventually losing out to Ro-Man of Robot Monster fame), then featured in their follow-up Son of Golden Turkey Awards, where it won the “most laughable concept for an outer space invader” award. The aliens, which are most frequently described as “carpet monsters”, are a sight to behold – gigantic slug-type creatures with tentacle-covered “faces” and huge mouths for people to helpfully climb into. The Medveds claim that at one point you can see the shoes of one of the students beneath this giant, moth-eaten rug-creature, but I’ve looked pretty carefully and all I’ve ever spotted is a pair of big fluffy monster feet (and the Medveds were not particularly known for their accuracy, preferring to repeat stories that emphasise the wacky regardless of the truth).

One of the stories the Medveds relate regarding The Creeping Terror concerns its strange use of a voice-over narrator and the obviously dubbed dialogue. There are a significant number of films of the time that were shot MOS (without sound) as a cost-cutting measure, with dialogue dubbed in afterwards (Manos: The Hands of Fate does this, though poorly; Beast of Yucca Flats is also clearly shot without a soundtrack; there are plenty of other examples) and, on the surface at least, it seems that The Creeping Terror is no different. Legend has it, however, that the film’s strange (lack of) sound is a mistake, the result of Savage accidentally dropping the sound reel into Lake Tahoe. It’s a great story, one that emphasises incompetence and stupidity, highlighting the conditions by which these older bad movies were made, and it would be great if it was true. However, just a few years later, the Medveds don’t mention this, reporting instead that the style was intentional rather than accidental. Regardless, the myth is still repeated – it’s far more interesting than the mundane truth, after all. While I don’t want to claim that the initial tale is accurate, there is evidence in the film to support such a claim, namely that the film appears to be shot precisely as though it had sound. Characters have long conversations with each other, filmed in classic shot-reverse-shot technique, prioritising the speaker, yet what we hear is the voice-over narrator relating the conversation in distinctly literary tones. As an example: “the sergeant reported seeing an amazingly large creature in the aft section of this strange craft. He further reported that it was secured by a kind of metal harness, but that the creature could still move around somewhat, and for that reason they had not gotten too close to it. There was no trace of either Ben or Jeff. The colonel ordered continuous guard duty around the spaceship, and decided to set up a temporary military headquarters at the sheriff’s office in town.”

It would be quite fascinating to get a lip-reader to watch The Creeping Terror, to see what the characters are actually saying during these scenes – they’re clearly speaking to each other, but we’re rarely privy to their conversations. There are occasional moments of dubbing, and at times it’s clear that what they are saying doesn’t correspond correctly with either the added voice-over or the dubbed dialogue: at one point, a woman (soon to be eaten by a Terror) clearly mouths “there there” to a baby, although we hear her say “poor baby”; later on the voice-over narrator claims that the sergeant tells scientist Bradford to “go to hell,” but this is immediately followed by the sergeant saying “get out of my way!”

So why is the film so enjoyable? Partly it’s because of the visible and aesthetic badness, further emphasised by the voice-over, which speaks in such serious tones, and infuses the film with a bizarre contrast between what is being shown, and what we are being told. There’s plenty more badness on show, of course – the acting is non-descript (and further limited by the voice-over’s insistence of speaking on behalf of the characters, making their appearance on screen frequently redundant), for example. Mostly, however, it’s the Terrors themselves. These creatures are brilliant – physically absurd, technically inept, ludicrously conceived. The people who get devoured (and there are plenty – it’s a pretty impressive death count) have to advance towards the creatures, rather than the other way around, and then either get “swallowed up” by inserting themselves into the conveniently positioned mouth-hole, or the Terror appears to just flop down on top of them. It’s delightfully bonkers, incredibly kitsch when viewed today and, at a short 75 minutes, never gets boring. It might be currently sitting on IMDb as the 30th worst rated film of all time, but for sheer entertainment, surely it would be among the top.

Bonus: You can watch the whole film on Youtube here!

Film #61: It Conquered the World (1956)

film 61 it conquered the world

Rating: 3/5

“You think you’re gonna make a slave of the world… I’ll see you in Hell first!”

Directed by Roger Corman, It Conquered the World is best known for its baddie, an alien from Venus frequently described as a giant cucumber. It’s a surprisingly difficult film to get a hold of, considering its reputation and director – my copy is a second-hand VHS yet still manages to be one of the most expensive films in my collection. I bought it for two reasons: first, to see this infamous monster; and second, because it was later remade as Zontar: The Thing From Venus, by notorious badfilmmaker Larry Buchanan. Zontar is a pretty dreadful movie (which will be reviewed shortly), and I was curious to see how the two films compare. With regards to this film, I was pleasantly surprised.

Made right in the middle of sci-fi’s most prolific decade, It Conquered the World shares much with the other, better known films of the time. It’s now widely acknowledged that the sci-fi movies of the fifties exploited social and political fears – the threat of nuclear war or the spread of communism in particular – and this film is no exception. Lee Van Cleef is Tom Anderson, a scientist in direct communication with a being from Venus (or so he claims). Despite the scepticism of his wife Claire (Beverley Garland) and friend Paul Nelson (Peter Graves), neither of whom can hear anything other than static on Tom’s radio set, the scientist is convinced that the creature he’s communicating with is going to be of great benefit to mankind. Naturally, he’s deluded about its true intentions, and things rapidly take a turn for the worse.

It Conquered the World invites several comparisons. The alien, officially named Beluah by its creator Paul Blaisdell, lands on Earth and quickly stops all technology (except for that of its allies) – cars, house lights, telephones, even the water supply ceases instantly, at 3.03pm. Yet this is not a peaceful display of power, as in The Day the Earth Stood Still, but a way of stopping communications and making a human retaliation more difficult. It also has strange little flying creatures who bite human hosts and transform them into mindless pod people – like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (made in the same year), these people look the same, but they are all controlled by their Venusian leader. The idea of one’s neighbours, family and friends suddenly becoming the enemy, without any visible indication of their new status, is a recurring one in 50s sci-fi, perfectly capturing the social paranoia regarding the apparent threat of communism. This was the final year of the Second Red Scare in America, when McCarthyism had reached its peak – anyone could be the enemy. Here, Lou Rusoff’s screenplay makes the metaphor blatant, with characters at one point even specifically discussing communism – it’s obvious now, but it’s still effective.

Like many of Corman’s movies, there are several interesting aspects hidden below the drive-in, teen-friendly narrative. Tom’s wife is a headstrong and determined woman (in a decade when women are almost always secondary characters) – her actions may prove futile in the end, but she is a strong and self-assured character, who at least attempts to stop the madness going on around her. Tom himself is an interesting leading man – far more interesting than the more steadfast Paul. He is utterly convinced that he is helping humanity, but this deluded arrogance is what enables Beluah to come and (attempt to) take over the planet. Lee Van Cleef, a classic bad guy (dark hair, little moustache), is cold and scientific – ruthless even, and cruel to his wife in particular. Van Cleef plays well against the traditional “good” looks (both in terms of physicality and character) of Graves.

Ultimately, however, it is Beluah itself that is the most memorable character here. The creature is truly a sight to behold – its flying minions are daft and never particularly visible, but Beluah is eventually unveiled in all its glory. Officially it’s a kind of sentient fungus, which is in itself a unique and intriguing concept, but it’s difficult to take the thing seriously. What does impress is the actual size of the creature – it’s a cumbersome, awkward and immobile object, with a pantomime villain’s expression, but when shown alongside the characters, is impressively large. That’s about all that’s impressive, however – it fails entirely as a horrifying villain, but I can think of few other creations that really match it in terms of visual entertainment (perhaps the carpet monsters in The Creeping Terror come close; good ol’ Ro-Man should also get a mention).

Despite the obvious budgetary constraints, Corman does deliver. The film is surprisingly professional considering its meagre shooting schedule of just five days; it’s acted well, with a coherent narrative and some engaging, topical (if not particularly original) concepts running underneath. Viewed today, it’s enjoyably kitsch, predominantly because of Beluah. They don’t make ’em like they used to, that’s for sure.