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!

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Film #46: Bride of the Monster (1955)

film 46 bride of the monster

Rating: 3/5

“I was classed as a madman, a charlatan, outlawed in a world of science which previously honoured me as a genius. Now here in this forsaken jungle hell I have proven that I am all right.”

There will always be a special place in my heart for Bride of the Monster; as “bad” movies go, it’s one of my favourites and, as a Bela Lugosi fan, there is something undeniably special about his performance. Ed Wood’s third feature (following his transvestite exploitation film Glen or Glenda and crime/plastic surgery movie Jail Bait) is arguably his best, although some may prefer to describe it as his “least worst.” It is by no means a good film, though it falls short of being a truly terrible one; as Wood’s most narratively conventional movie, I’d be happy to state that it is generally no worse than any number of Poverty Row pictures and equally low-budget horrors of the time.

After so-called “worst film of all time” Plan 9 From Outer Space and Glen or Glenda, this is by far Ed Wood’s best known film. It sees Lugosi reprise his many, many roles as a mad scientist who inevitably gets killed by his henchman (former Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson as the mute Lobo), and features the most obviously fake rubber octopus ever shown on screen – stolen from a Republic Studios’ warehouse, it had previously appeared in the John Wayne film Wake of the Red Witch. Wood, however, forgot to also grab the motor for the tentacles so, when hapless victims are thrown into the monster’s lair, they have to flail around on top of what is clearly an inanimate object. George Becwar, who played Professor Strowski, dies a particularly undignified on-screen death; it’s perhaps no wonder that he complained so much about the sub-standard conditions of Wood’s set.

Bride of the Monster follows a fairly formulaic plot – after a number of people have gone missing near the old house in the swamplands of Lake Marsh, a plucky reporter (Loretta King) and her detective boyfriend (Tony McCoy) decide, separately, to investigate. Unbeknownst to them, Dr Vornoff (Lugosi) is responsible; not content with his gargantuan henchman and his monstrous giant octopus, he’s still trying to perfect an experiment that will transform normal people into a “race of atomic supermen!”

Yet despite the film’s narrative conventionality, Wood still manages to drop in some familiar tropes. Lobo develops an angora fetish when he saves Janet (King) from the swamp’s numerous creatures – it’s this fetish that causes him to eventually turn on his master. Even King’s character’s name is a recurring feature in Wood stories and films. As is now expected of the director whose directorial debut contained roughly 20% recycled footage, there are numerous scenes that are clearly taken from existing footage – most audacious are the scenes featuring a real octopus gliding around a tank, but a harrowing sequence in which Detective Dick Craig (McCoy) nearly becomes crocodile food is almost as memorable. It should be pointed out that the film’s final scene, in which the rubber octopus and Dr Vornoff are inexplicably destroyed by an atomic blast, happens not because of Wood’s incompetence, but because his financier demanded the inclusion.

While most of the acting is substandard, or average at best (despite Wood’s ex-girlfriend Dolores Fuller’s anger that she was edged out of the lead role in favour of King who allegedly pretended that she could offer financial investment to secure her spot, King is, as evidenced by the brief scene between the two, far less wooden than Wood’s previous leading lady), Lugosi is a delight. Physically, he’s a shadow of the man he was during his heyday – he’s gaunt and obviously elderly and infirm, but he displays a joie de vivre and an emotional vitality throughout. It was during the film’s post-production that Lugosi checked himself into rehab for his drug addiction, and Bride of the Monster shows him at his frailest. Yet, accounts of his professionalism are unanimous, and he delivers one of the finest speeches of his career in this film. His impassioned “home? I have no home” monologue is heartbreakingly close to the bone, right until he claims he’s going to conquer the world with his army of atomic supermen. Prior to this, he could be discussing his own life – outcast and abandoned by the people who had once praised him, dismissed as a hack, thrown into the wilderness of increasingly limited options and low-budget productions. Watching Lugosi here is not always easy – Wood makes him not just a mad scientist, but one with psychic and hypnotic powers, so that the man who was once Dracula could repeat motions (hand gestures, the piercing close-up of his eyes) that echo back to a far more lucrative and successful era – but, while reception of his performance may be tinged with a slight sadness at his decline, I can’t help but remain captivated. He dominates the film, even though he barely fills his suit and, among a cast of mediocrity, Lugosi is (metaphorically) heads above the rest.

So Bride of the Monster is conventional, but entertaining – it’s a brief 69 minutes in length, which ensures it finishes before it can become tedious. Bad movie fans can enjoy the many, many gaffes and the stilted dialogue, the failed gags, the sparse laboratory set, the inexplicable partnership between Captain Robbins and his pet bird, Vornoff’s dramatic statement that Janet will become a “Bride of the Atom” (the film’s working title), and the oddly ominous claim that the swamp is both “unnatural” and a “monument to death”. Yet it’s not necessarily as terrible as it’s been made out to be. Claims that Vornoff asserts Lobo is as “harmless as kitchen” when he’s clearly saying he’s as “harmless as a kitten” may have been validated by Wood himself, but he was doing himself an injustice by reinforcing such demeaning statements. Although, there is always the problem of the octopus. Oh, it truly is a thing to behold. Honestly, if Lugosi’s performance is the main reason to watch this film, the octopus comes in at a close second.