Thursday 14 January 2010

The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961)

Director: Coleman Francis
Stars: Douglas Mellor, Barbara Francis, Bing Stafford, Larry Aten, Linda Bielema and Tor Johnson
I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

How bad can a movie be when it begins with a surreptitious yet entirely gratuitious nipple shot? Well, the answer is really, really bad. This is the worst film I've ever seen, currently ranked 22nd on the IMDb Bottom 100, though bizarrely that still makes it the highest rated of the three features that Coleman Francis wrote and directed. It's a sheer joy to see it again, to remind myself of how truly awful it was while simultaneously torturing members of my family in the process. I simply couldn't think of a better choice to begin a set of reviews of the worst of the worst films to ever escape from Cinematic Hell and disgrace us with their presence. It's also hardly a coincidence that my hosts at Cinema Head Cheese have shot an unauthorised sequel almost half a century later, Return to Yucca Flats: Desert Man Beast.

That nipple, a fleeting thing in a 1961 movie that makes you rewind the DVD to make sure you saw right, belongs to a young lady who is promptly murdered in utter silence and then ignored for the entire rest of the film. We don't know who she is, where she is, what she's doing or even why anyone would want to kill her and then lift her legs up onto the bed in some sort of caring gesture. It doesn't matter because this is Coleman Francis cinema and if you try to read meaning into it, then you're either insane or you're Coleman Francis returned from the dead. Maybe you're both. In fact that sounds like a great plot suggestion for the Cinema Head Cheese folks that might just get me a screen writing credit for story: Coleman Francis returns from the dead to stalk the makers of Desert Man Beast.

Unless you were actually in the film, you're really here to watch Tor Johnson earn his final screen credit after a career full of highlights such as Road to Rio with Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour; State of the Union with Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn; and, of course the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Carousel. No, I'm not kidding, but if you're reading this then you probably know him best from Ed Wood movies like Bride of the Monster, Night of the Ghouls and Plan 9 from Outer Space. If he wasn't immortal after those, he would be after this. He's Joseph Javorsky, a high profile Soviet defector who flies into Yucca Flats with secret data on the Russian moon shot safely stowed away in his briefcase.

Unfortunately he can't be too important in the grand scheme of things because the US government sends precisely one, count him, one agent (and a chauffeur) to meet his plane by a remote desert shack and protect him from the nervous looking KGB agents who are waiting there to kill him. 'Mr Javorsky, get in the car,' he tells our hero, because he's not too quick and KGB bullets apparently aren't enough of a hint. They race off at low speed and find themselves run off the road right by the hand painted Yucca Flats missile base sign. The black guy dies first of course, but then he's the chauffeur, and our hero can survive such bad marksmanship by simply wandering off into the desert with a wave as if to say, 'You can't shoot me, I'm Tor Johnson.' It would work for Chuck Norris, you know it, and it works for Tor because for some reason the KGB agents who crossed half the globe to wipe him out just can't be bothered any more.

Tor Johnson was a force of nature and it would take nothing short of an atomic explosion to take him down, so naturally that's what we get: a huge stock footage blast that wipes out the bad guys and leaves poor old Joseph Javorsky, scientist, transformed into the beast of the title, a fiend, a monster, a prehistoric beast from an atomic age. We get all these descriptions from the director's narration because he couldn't afford sound equipment and so had to fill up the vast 54 minute running time somehow. It's a slow, stream of consciousness thing that makes us wonder what Francis was taking at the time. 'Flag on the moon. How did it get there?' he asks. 'Secret data. Pictures of the moon.' Maybe we could rearrange all these phrases into something that makes sense, but that would take a sadder man even than I. Send your ideas in on the back of a postcard. Somewhere, someone might care.
There are other folks in the story, if you're really paying attention. There's a vacationing couple who have the sheer unadulterated bad luck to break down in the middle of the desert right in front of our trusty old atom scorched killing machine, so that's the end of them. What's most amazing here is how this four hundred pound radioactive Russian can sneak in and out of the back of the car without anyone noticing, incuding the young lady in the front seat. Maybe he's a ninja. Then again she didn't notice the vast sprawling atomic explosion that happened five minutes earlier, so she's hardly reliable. She's also soon dead, at the hands of the beast.

There are a couple of local cops, desert patrolmen Joe and Jim, who are trusty reliable agents of the law. Joe drives over to see this car out on the road with a corpse behind it and a woman's purse and given that there's nobody around for miles, he pulls out his gun to protect himself from marauding jackalope or something. Then he drives away, leaving the corpse right there, to get his partner and wander around the desert, taking only the most treacherous routes, the ones nobody else seems able to find. Of course they fail utterly to find the beast because he's conveniently hiding under rocks playing peekaboo. Massive doses of radiation do wonders for the mind. Just ask Spider-Man. Or ask Coleman Francis. 'Touch a button. Things happen,' he narrates.

So the only thing for it is to put Jim's paratroop training to good use and head on up into the sky with a rifle. 'Shoot first,' his partner tells him, 'ask questions later'. Fortunately for the next vacationing family to conveniently break down on this very stretch of desert highway, Jim may have been trained as a paratrooper but he's such an awesome shot that he couldn't hit the back end of a barn with a cannon. Even lined up perfectly for a North By Northwest style swoop in open desert he can't take down a man running in a straight line at a consistent speed. The bullet ridden SLOW sign on the highway is still readable so perhaps he needs more practice. I hope Francis wasn't aiming at a Hitchcock homage, given that North By Northwest was only two years earlier. I hope he was just trying to pad out some film so he could narrate lines like, 'A man runs. Someone shoots at him.'

This innocent victim is top credited Douglas Mellor, the only member of this unfortunate family, the Radcliffes, not to be played by a member of the director's own family. The Radcliffes aren't too good at keeping their kids off government missile ranges where atomic bombs are being exploded, but then the Francises aren't too good at keeping their kids out of movies like this. They came back for The Skydivers two years later, but even they had given up by the time their dad made Night Train to Mundo Fine in 1966. That's one way to learn a valuable life lesson, but it's surely not for everyone.

Mellor is Hank Radcliffe, who gets to run away a lot. Barbara Francis is his wife Lois, who can't run so gets to stand at the side of the road a lot and look unhappy. She's probably still there now, given that after surviving the Cary Grant scene, Hank makes it back to the car and, get this, leaves his wife at the side of the road because hey, the kids might come back, and hightails it off to Tijuana or somewhere equally not full of maniac cops shooting at him from low flying aircraft. At least Ronald and Alan Francis get something to do as Randy and Art, names that presumably match their own initials just in case they got confused. Randy and Art get lost in the desert and get trapped in a cave and get chased by the beast and... no, hang on. I'm making this sound exciting. That can't be right. Let's go back to the narration. 'Boys from the city. Not yet caught by the whirlwind of progress. Feed soda pop to the thirsty pigs.' There, that's better.

I honestly don't think there's an exciting moment in this movie, but somehow I can't ever stop watching it. It's like a trainwreck of a film, and not even a noisy violent one, merely an old silent version where Coleman Francis narrates the action. The only thing inventive is how cleverly the camera avoids people's mouths while they're talking. We get to see their ears or the back of their heads instead, just so that we don't laugh at how badly any post production lip sync would have turned out. Like that was going to be the biggest problem this film ever had! The best example is when Hank and Lois Radcliffe walk back to their car to talk. They stand outside and chat while we watch their chests through the window, like the polar opposite of talking heads. Someone must have severed those talking heads and sent them off to an episode of Futurama.

The story is skimpy in the extreme but I can't poke holes in its logic because there isn't enough logic to poke at. I think that nuclear test that nobody noticed burned the script along with Javorski's briefcase full of secret Soviet moon data. Without that, the filmmakers couldn't even work out how many hours there are in a day, because our gunhappy patrolmen wander around for twenty hours in the blistering desert heat without it ever getting later than mid afternoon. My favourite plot hole is the way that Randy and Art get to drink from a spring because they naturally couldn't have seen a movie about the dangers of radioactivity. Which American schoolboys in 1961 would have known about something like that? It's not like it was the height of the Cold War or anything, right?

The only thing more inevitable than the stunned disbelief of any viewers the movie may have found is that Tor Johnson will be brought down in the end. After all, the narration rambles on about the wheels of progress like they'll lead us to our collective doom, because of course it's atomic energy that caused all the human suffering we almost witness rather than cops flying around the desert and shooting at anything that moves. The main reason that he'll be brought down though is that he's only just nudged out by The Creeping Terror as the slowest monster that cinema ever produced. He looks cool, because he's frickin' Tor Johnson, but how scary can he be when he can't run more than three yards at a time or stand up without the aid of a wall. He really didn't look in good shape in 1961, and that's before the atomic blast. At least he went out with a bang.

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