Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Beast of Yucca Flats -- the evolution of a cult film

The Beast of Yucca Flats 1961, 54 minutes, B and W. Anthony Cardoza, Executive Producer, written and directed by Coleman Francis. Starring Tor Johnson as Dr. Joseph Javorsky. Cast includes Francis, Larry Aten, Bing Stafford and Conrad Brooks. Schlock-meter rating, 3 stars out of 10. ... However, years later and several viewings later, this film has grown on me -- I'll give it five stars.

By Doug Gibson

The Beast of Yucca Flats is actually playing Thursday, Oct. 25 in Salt Lake City. Courtesy of the Utah Education Network, it will screen as a Halloween feature at the City Library, Chapman Branch, 577 S. 900 West. Film is free and popcorn, contest contest and games are planned. That's significant and we need to give this ultra-cheap, kitschy 55-minute film its due -- it has persevered. It's gone from simple schlock to unique so-bad-it's-good cult film status. Heck, it even survived a MST3K riff. Here, for the record, is my several-year-old review after my first viewing.

Few films are as inept as The Beast of Yucca Flats. After watching it, I'm convinced that a talented group of ninth graders with a few thousand dollars and a long weekend could do a better job than Tor Johnson, Coleman Francis and company. (Nah, I take that back several years later) The plot? A woman is murdered. A defecting Russian scientist (Tor Johnson) is attacked in a desolate part of Nevada by communist agents. An atom bomb explodes. Tor is turned into a mutant beast who wants only to kill. Tor kills, then chases a hapless family through the Yucca Flats. Finally, two inept cops kill Tor. (Yeah, the plot is the same)

Be forewarned: The preceding plot summary is far more exciting than this dog of a film. (NOT TRUE ON RETROSPECT) There is virtually no action, (wrong) and when Tor is on the chase, his big, aging blubbery body inspires far more pity than fear. (Today I change pity to fascination; Tor looks ill and is very obese, but give him credit for lumbering around a very hot desert outdoor set) Francis shot the film without dialog, which was dubbed badly into the finished film. The viewer rarely sees lips move when actors speak. (This adds to a unique, other word-type surrealism to the film. No one seems to be looking at each other, even when they speak. In fact, for all his grunts, Tor the beast appears to be the best listener) Also, the self-pretentious Francis adds ridiculous, over-the-top narration, spoken like a man on LSD. My favorite meaningless phrase is "Flag on the Moon." (NOT TRUE ANYMORE: the bizarre narration adds to the film's outlandish plot and conspiracy. In this film, everyone looks disgruntled and depressed or lazy. I love the scene where one of the desert cops is roused from looks like a bout of morning sex with the missus or mistress. As he leaves, to narration, the broad in the bed gives him a look of utter disgust and cynicism. It somehow seems very appropriate for the bizarro world director Francis has unleashed.)

It merits three stars only because The Beast is Tor Johnson, whose always fun to watch bellow. Those who dare watch it should see the MST3K version. At least there's a few laughs. (Doug Gibson speaking: I must admit, adding to this a few years later after originally writing the review, the film has grown on me. It is bad, but unique and strangely watchable; a real cult film. I give it an extra star!) (and now I've added an extra star. (Also, I neglected in the original review to mention the nude scene prologue, which makes no sense. A young woman gets out of the shower. Sits down a very depressing cot-bed, and is squeeze-strangled to death by a fat, meaty hand that look like Tor's. But why, the good Dr. Javorsky has yet to be nuked? Ah, the intentional nonsensical plot of a cult cheapie!

Notes: Ed Wood actor Conrad Brooks has a small role; Cult figure Titus Moody helped with production; Coleman Francis directed three films spoofed by MST3K: Beast, Skydivers, and Red Zone Cuba; Francis' wife and sons were in the film. The non-MST3K version has a very brief nude scene. "Beast of Yucca Flats" is essentially a silent film, with narration and brief dialog, obviously recorded since you don't see the speaking actors' faces. The entire film can be seen on YouTube and is part of the UEN Sci-Fi Friday cycle of movies. (I'll add that this cheapie played the third or fourth bill of drive-ins and grindhouses for more than a decade -- I guess that nude scene paid off. I read somewhere that originally, the producers could not find a distributor so a movie house was rented in San Diego. Apparently, the film sold well here, and Tor was mobbed by fans.)

-- Doug Gibson

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