Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Beast of Yucca Flats (Cinema Associates, 1961)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I ran a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 presentation of The Beast of Yucca Flats, a particularly bizarre and inept 1961 production from co-producer/director/writer Coleman Francis (one of those marvelously reversible names, like Nelson Eddy or Elton John), who’s been compared to Edward D. Wood, Jr. in the pantheon of wretchedly bad directors. Actually, Francis makes Wood look like Fellini by comparison; for all their ineptitude — their bad acting, weirdly elliptical writing, mismatched cut-ins of stock footage and overall technical crudity — Wood’s films have a crude energy to them that makes them considerably more watchable than the total dreck from a lot of sub-“B” directors of his time. Wood also had access to a first-rate cinematographer, William C. “Big Bill” Thompson, who made his movies look good — clear and well-lit (which doesn’t always work to their benefit: the beauty of Thompson’s lighting in the graveyard scenes of Plan Nine from Outer Space just makes the cheapness and tackiness of the set, including the cardboard markers at least one actor actually knocks over, that much more obvious) — and Wood also had something of a story sense: as silly as some of the plot events are in Wood’s films, at least they have some degree of dramatic coherence.

Besides co-producing (with Anthony Cardoza, who backed him on two later films, The Skydivers and Red Zone Cuba), directing and writing, Francis also edited The Beast of Yucca Flats (as “C. Francis”) and cast his wife and their two pre-pubescent sons in key roles. Though Francis was an actor himself — his most famous credit in that profession was in a small supporting role in the John Wayne Viet Nam war epic The Green Berets — he fortunately refrained from giving himself anything more than two bit parts and the task of narrating the film. Yes, Creeping Terror fans, this is another movie in which virtually all the dialogue we hear was recorded after the film was shot (with silent cameras); Francis wrote a narration that would supposedly clarify what was going on (though it’s so elliptical one gets the impression he was trying to emulate Allan Ginsberg — including repeated references to “a flag on the moon” that anticipate the real event by eight years but otherwise have no relevance to what passes for a plot in this film) and delivered it himself in the most pretentious, hammy tones he could muster in front of the recording mike.

Much of this film does have dialogue in the ordinary sense — voices on the soundtrack representing conversations between the people we see on screen — but those, too, were post-recorded; and Francis, a laughably inept director in almost every other function of filmmaking (and an even worse editor!), at least was savvy enough to station his camera miles away from the people supposedly talking, and often station them with their backs to the camera, so he wouldn’t have to worry about having to match lip movements with dialogue. The “plot” of The Beast of Yucca Flats, to the extent it has one (narrative incoherence is actually an acknowledged Coleman Francis trademark!), concerns Russian nuclear scientist Joseph Javorsky (Tor Johnson, practically defining “miscast”), who is flying into Yucca Flats in a small general-aviation plane (are we supposed to believe he flew all the way from Russia in that?) to meet his American handlers so he can defect — only the appointed rendezvous place is also the site of a U.S. nuclear weapons test that’s about to go off any moment, and sure enough that ol’ debbil radiation gets hold of Dr. Javorsky and turns him into the titular Beast, though all Francis does to represent that is have his makeup man, Larry Aten (who’s also an actor in the film), plaster Tor Johnson’s face with something that looks like cottage cheese (which seems to be the standby for moviemakers anxious to create an on-screen monster but without the resources to do a genuinely convincing one).

Johnson hobbles along and moves slowly to suggest “beast-ness,” but that doesn’t matter much because he hobbled and moved that way before his supposed transformation — and one has to feel embarrassed for him, not only that Plan Nine from Outer Space isn’t the worst movie ever made, it’s not even the worst movie Tor Johnson ever made! In the opening sequence, a woman is strangled in a hotel bedroom to the sound of a ticking clock (which the MST3K crew mocked by doing a 60 Minutes announcement!) — we never find out by whom, or what this has to do with anything else in the movie (is it the Beast? Supposedly he hadn’t even been created yet!) — and later the Beast encounters a couple on the road, murders both the man and the woman, then takes the woman to his hideout in a secret cave (which he’s somehow established in the hour or so he’s been in the U.S. at that point) and seems, if not positively necrophiliac, at least utterly unconcerned that his new girlfriend is dead. Later she’s rescued by two cops, Jim Archer (Bing Stafford) and Joe Dobson (Larry Aten, who’s a better actor than he is a makeup artist), who seem to spend most of their time doing cliff-climbs because Yucca Flats is so craggy that seems to be what they have to do to have a chance to catch the local crooks. (At least Francis gives us a lot of choice footage of their asses.)

Yet another couple, Hank and Lois Radcliffe (Douglas Mellor and Barbara Francis), pull up at a ratty gas station in Yucca Flats, and their sons Randy (Ronald Francis) and Art (Alan Francis) run off and stage an embarrassing chase scene with the monster — and the cops nearly shoot Hank thinking he’s the monster even though he’s a lot smaller, younger, has hair and doesn’t have cottage cheese plastered all over his head. The film creaks to a close with the Beast getting picked off by a rifle shot from an unseen shooter — which Filmfax contributor Matt Sanborn describes as “another Francis motif — shooting someone from off screen so the audience has no idea who did it, even though it is crucial to the film’s resolution.” The “dead” Beast gets his face licked by a rabbit — an accident during shooting — and Tor Johnson is clearly alive in the final frames, which in a modern movie one would assume meant they were setting up a sequel but in this one only leaves one regretting that Barbara Francis wasn’t as hip to the technical side of filmmaking as Alma Hitchcock (who noticed that Janet Leigh was shown swallowing after she was supposed to be dead in Psycho, so her husband re-edited the film to put a freeze-frame on Leigh’s face before the footage of her swallowing).

Though only 57 minutes long, The Beast of Yucca Flats seems to go on twice as long — its page credits two cinematographers, John Cagle and Lee Strosnider, whose collaboration produces one of the most physically murky movies ever made, its black-and-white images blurring into an indistinct gray that makes it quite hard to tell what’s supposed to be going on — and in order to fill it out the MST3K crew showed a couple of shorts that seemed to turn them on far more than their feature did. One was a 1951 high-school educational short in which a dorky-looking student laments that he’s $1.50 short of the ticket he needs to go to the high-school dance that weekend, and he gets a nocturnal visit from Benjamin Franklin who lectures him about the need to budget and save his money; the other was a promotional film for Puerto Rico that seemed to be pushing it both as a tourist destination and a giant open-air sweatshop for U.S. employers looking for cheap labor costs while still being able to slap their products with a “Made in U.S.A.” label (plus ça change … only now the favorite destination for this sort of thing is Saipan), shot in runny picture-postcard color and with dorky narration, ill-synchronized music and an overall air of desperation that inspired the MST3K crew to more and funnier jokes than their feature did!