Sunday, January 25, 2009

Remembering Godmonster of Indian Flats

By Steve Stones

On a recent On-Demand cable program, Something Weird Video voted the monster from Godmonster of Indian Flats as the number one "worst monster of all time." The monster is certainly no Creature From The Black Lagoon or Godzilla. I’ll give my vote to the carpet shag monster in The Creeping Terror as the worst monster of all time. This monster comes in second place as the worst. The monster even shuffles and struts like Ro-Man in Robot Monster.

My initial interest in Godmonster of Indian Flats came from hearing that Stuart Lancaster played a major role in the film. Being that I’m a huge fan of Russ Meyers’ Faster Pussycat, . . . Kill, Kill!, and Lancaster’s performance in that film, I wanted to track down this film to see Lancaster’s performance. The film is so rare that I was unable to find it in any of my film encyclopedias.

A young sheepherder named Eddie arrives in Reno to chance his luck at slot machines. He wins big and is invited by a group at the casino bar to join them for a party at their hotel. They drive Eddie to another local bar, where a girl in the group steals Eddie’s money from his coat pocket. The group doesn’t believe him when he suggests she has stolen his money because they are a part of the plot to steal his money too. After beating him up a bit and throwing him out into the street, he is picked up by Dr. Sirus Clemens. Clemens is the chairman of the anthropology department at the local university. Clemens is conducting experiments on animals at his lab at Indian Flats.

Meanwhile, Charles the town mayor, played by Stuart Lancaster, spies on the local citizens with his telescope. He speaks highly of himself and his restoration of Comstock Historical Society. Throughout the entire film, he dresses as if he is living in the time period of the Civil War. Perhaps this is because he claims Ulysses S. Grant once stood on his balcony and gave a speech. This is the same balcony he spies on locals with his telescope.

While falling asleep in a sheep stable, Eddie has strange hallucinations of being attacked by a herd of sheep. Dr. Clemens awakes him to find a sheep has given birth to a deformed infant. The infant is loaded into a truck and accidentally dropped as they make their way to Clemens’ research lab. Clemens conducts experiments on the beast.

An emissary from Wright International Inc, Christopher Barnstable, arrives in town to persuade the locals to lease their mines to him and his company. Charles refuses to cooperate and persuades the locals to do the same.

Dr. Clemens and Eddie’s girlfriend Mariposa go to the local Chollar Mine to investigate the soil in the mine. Clemens finds the skull of a deformed animal and concludes that the yellow gas in the mine has something to do with the local monster legend of the mine.

The locals hold a town parade and fair. Barnstable participates in a shooting range game. The sheriff fakes the death of his dog and blames a stray bullet from Barnstable’s gun as the culprit. His plan is to get the local citizens upset with Barnstable so that they will not lease their mines to him. The plan works, and a fake funeral for the dog is held by the townspeople.

Barnstable has a brawl with one of the locals in a bar. The two later shake hands and the man invites Barnstable to his home after closing hours. After another disagreement, the two get into another fight. Barnstable is knocked unconscious. The man shoots himself in the arm and places the gun in the hand of Barnstable. He is hauled off to jail with the charge of attempted murder. The jail looks more like a storage room with a fence.

Charles and the locals try to hang Barnstable without a proper trial. Barnstable escapes and is picked up on the road by Mariposa. The locals form a lynch mob and chase after Barnstable. They chase him to Clemens’ lab, where the deformed monster breaks loose and attacks the mob men.

Conveniently, this draws attention away from Barnstable, and the mob chases after the monster. What follows is one of the most unintentionally hilarious scenes in the history of monster movies. The monster struts across a local park and crashes a picnic being held by children. The children flee as the monster eats their hot dogs. Apparently the monster prefers wieners to children.
The mob closes in on the monster and lassos him with ropes to keep him contained. Dr. Clemens injects the monster with a tranquilizer as he begins to disintegrate into yellow gas. The same yellow gas Clemens discovered in the Chollar Mine.

In the end, Charles tries to make a circus attraction of the monster by putting him on display in a cage. The locals push the cage down the hill in a truck into a garbage pile where the truck explodes, destroying the monster.

Like so many cult films, this film was difficult to view the first time I watched it. The subplot of Barnstable and his conflicts with the local citizens seemed to distract a bit from the main plot of Clemens’ experiments on the monster. After viewing it at least two more times, I began to appreciate it much more. Lancaster always puts in a great performance in any film he stars in.

The Barnstable character seems like an attempt at making a racist comment in the film. He is African-American, and the locals treat him poorly after the fake death of the sheriff’s dog. A mob chases after him to hang him at the end of the film, after wrongfully accusing him of attempted murder, which also seems a bit racist to me. This may explain why Lancaster’s character is stuck in the time of the Civil War. He and his citizens still hold racist views about African-Americans, even though the film takes place in the 1970s. If you can get past this aspect of the film, you may want to give the film a try, if only to see Lancaster in another convincing role

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The forgotten Wizard of Oz

By Doug Gibson

Ever heard of Larry Semon? That's all right. Few have. He was a silent movie comic. His physical comedy and sad sack face made him very popular in one-reelers, but his character had a tough time creating pathos with viewers. He needed to be seen in small doses.
Semon had ambition, though, and in the mid 1920s he worked with the son of the late L. Frank Baum, to bring Baum's Wizard of Oz series to the big screen. The 1925 film (versions range from 72 to 81 minutes) is a curio. A huge flop at the box office -- it more or less ruined Semon's career -- it is nevertheless fascinating. It's a so-bad-it's-interesting ego trip from a star who desperately needed a director other than himself. Still, there are moments -- particularly at the beginning of the film -- that feature talented slapstick comedy. Yet, in this film are Semon, of course, big fat slapstick veteran Frank Alexander, a very young Oliver Hardy and Semon's very pretty wife, Dorothy Dwan.

Here's the film in a few paragraphs: We start in Oz, where Prince Kynd (Bryant Washburn) and the citizens are upset with corrupt leaders, including Prime Minister Kruel. The bad leaders consult the Wizard, a con man, who suggests they bring the lost Princess Dorothy back. We cut now to Kansas, where the womanly Dorothy (Dwan) lives with Aunt Em, (Mary Carr) a limp dishrag of a woman, and Uncle Henry (Alexander) a big, fat domestic abuser. He literally punches anyone he meets.

Competing for Dorothy's love are farmhands Semon and Hardy. There is a black farmhand named Snowball. Be advised the film is very racist and the character, played by actor Spencer Bell, is billed as "G. Howe Black." (Later in the film, Semon's character lets loose with a tasteless racist jab at Bell's character) Ths racism was unfortunately the norm for those times.

The film meanders on coherently while the characters are in Kansas. It's cliche-ridden, but there are talented, physical slapstick gags with Semon, Hardy and Alexander. There's a funny bit with bees, and another with a swing. But once the main characters are blown to Oz in a shack it loses all sense. The first nonsensical twist is having Aunt Em -- who is in the wind-guided shack -- disappear when they arrive. It gets worse: Semon turns into the Scarecrow, Hardy the Tin Man and Bell the cowardly lion, but they really aren't these characters. They are disguises. Alexander briefly turns into a good guy, then reverts to being a bad guy. Incomprehensibly, Hardy's Tin Man turns bad too.

Finally, Dwan's Dorothy more or less disappears from the film, becomes betrothed to Prince Kynd, and wants to see Semon's Scarecrow done away with, too! In fact, the film degenerates into a series of bad slapstick gags designed to showcase Semon trying to outwit the Oz folk who want to capture him. The Wizard (Charles Murray) is still hanging around. By then it's really no longer Baum's Wizard of Oz. It's just an overlong, badly paced Semon slapstick show.

As I mentioned, the film bombed. Semon's career was almost ruined. He puttered around in films for a few more years, then died young. Many believe stress over his bankruptcy contributed to his death. For a long time this film was considered obscure and very hard to find. Lately, though it has popped up on DVD, either as an extra to the 1939 The Wizard of Oz, or as the feature attraction in a DVD of silent versions of Baum's Oz tales (there are several as far back as 1910). It has also been shown recently on Turner Classic Movies.

I will say one good thing about the silent Wizard of Oz. Semon's Scarecrow very much resembles in looks and mannerisms of Ray Bolger's much-lauded Scarecrow in the later classic. It seems clear that Bolger did borrow from Semon's portrayal and also managed to bring the empathy to the character that Semon could not achieve. Cult movies fans should note that many of Semon's silent shorts can be purchased today via brick-and-mortar and online stores.