Wednesday 8 September 2010

Track of the Moon Beast (1976)

Director: Dick Ashe
Stars: Chase Cordell, Donna Leigh Drake, Gregorio Sala and Patrick Wright
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.

Track of the Moon Beast is one of those unfortunate films that are doomed to be remembered for the wrong reasons, not that there are any good reasons to remember it. Unlike many of the films I've reviewed for Cinematic Hell, it's not 'so bad it's good', it's so bad it's just bad. Shot in 1972 but not released until a distribution deal could be reached in 1976, that perhaps explains why Dick Ashe never made another film. He'd moved up from assistant director positions on a couple of other films to helm this solo, but then... nothing. His work is no worse than what you'd see on any random TV movie in the seventies, just as the cast easily fit that bill too. None of them seem quite right but they're not really awful. In almost every way this film is just forgettable, but it has a way of striking a nerve for people as something more. In particular, Kevin Murphy, a writer for MST3K, explained that the character of Johnny Longbow was one of the best they'd encountered.

He's John Salinas, a professor of anthropology, but his closest friends call him Johnny Longbow, a tribal name given that he's Native American. The actor playing the part is Gregorio Sala, who has done precisely nothing else and about whom nothing much seems to be known. In comparison, Chase Cordell, the film's star, made three other films and a few TV episodes here and there, but never again as the star; and Donna Leigh Drake, who plays the leading lady, is a court reporter and country singer: as Donna Leigh Scott, she's half of Sugar Magnolia. She did return to film a decade later for bit parts in two movies, Prime Risk and The Return of the Living Dead. They're not exactly names but they did other things on screen. Yet Sala, who has more charisma than both put together, was never heard from again. Go figure. At least he's famous, courtesy of MST3K, who love him right down to the way he lists off the ingredients in his famous soup.

I think what makes Johnny Longbow special, beyond the easy way in which Joel and the bots can turn his name into something sexually suggestive (hey, it's even translated in the film itself as 'warrior's bow that reaches long to its mark' so Murphy and his fellow writers had it easy), is that he's so cheerful all the time. He's even cheerful when being solemn, like when he gets to the end of that ingredients list. 'Onions...' he says, as if there's nothing in the world he'd like to do less than finish that sentence. He's cheerful when we meet him, leaping out from behind a rock in the desert, after playing a dumb practical joke on his former student, Paul Carlson. He's cheerful when this film finally lives up to its title and turns into a monster movie. He has to fight to not be cheerful when he saves the day at the end of the film, but it's just inherent. So perhaps it's Gregorio Sala's cheerfulness that has led to this picture failing to find deserved oblivion.

The story is mostly a run of the mill monster movie. Carlson is a minerologist, having switched from anthropology while a graduate (as cheerfully explained by Longbow), and the practical joke serves as an introduction to Kathy Nolan. She's supposed to be a New York photographer but she seems much more like a brain dead bimbo who believes that scaring someone she's never met is a perfectly valid use for a tribal mask borrowed from a reservation museum. Naturally they hit it off immediately, as he's stripped to the waist in the desert heat and she's wearing dyed blonde hair and short shorts. She also has trouble meeting his eyes, focusing instead on his bare chest in a strange role reversal. That's usually the man's problem when confronted by a notable rack but I wouldn't chalk the switch up to clever writing or acting. Drake is as stiff as the rocks around her and writers Bill Finger and Charles Sinclair apparently got worse since The Green Slime.

Anyway, Paul and Kathy head up 10,678 feet (he counted, apparently) into the mountains to see a meteor shower dance over Albuquerque. You see, an asteroid has crashed into the Moon, but even though it added a substantial new crater in an explosion that was 'beyond the end of the Richter scale,' it's supposedly no threat to the Earth at all. It'll just generate some pretty lights, that's all, nothing to worry about, but if you believe that, you've never seen a monster movie. There is one twist here, though, because the meteor doesn't bring the monster with it, it brings only the spark of the monster. You see, one fragment decides to fly at a ninety degree angle to all the other fragments and strike Paul right in the head. Let me repeat that just in case it didn't sink in. Paul Carlson is hit in the head with a meteorite. There's blood on his head and he has moon shrapnel in his brain but he just shrugs it off. ''Tis but a scratch,' you might imagine.

It's my duty to point out that these are but two of the blatant plot inconsistencies to be found in this scene. Besides the angle the meteorite takes and besides the fact that our hero survives a blow to the skull with apparently no ill effects, this moon rock is cold to the touch so they can just pick it up to take with them, leaving behind a radioactive handkerchief. Kathy, who, you'll remember, is a professional photographer, also doesn't bother to take pictures of any of this. Even though she's in New Mexico to document the religious customs of the local tribes, she's naturally already booked to take pictures of NASA moon rocks the next day. Paul takes her to his place (well his mum's place) to show her Ty, his pet monitor lizard (it's short for Tyrannosaurus). And of course the token Native American in the film is an expert on tribal mythology. It's good to see plot building but it's rarely so blatant as this. Every part of this story is badly telegraphed.

Now, I realise that monster movies aren't usually well regarded for their well defined characters but there's a particular lacking in character motivation here. Worst is Kathy Nolan, because she serves absolutely no purpose to the plot and is obviously there because she looks good in a pair of short shorts. She's a damsel in someone else's distress. The distress is all Paul Carlson's but he doesn't seem to care in the slightest. He shrugs off getting hit in the head by a meteorite. He collapses the next day when Kathy takes a photo of him but he shrugs that off too, even when his vision is affected. He doesn't go to a doctor, he takes Kathy and Johnny to see some Keith Carradine wannabe singing California Lady while he tries not to collapse. This is the only song Frank Larrabee has ever played in a film so we get to hear the rest of it even though our heroes head home so that Paul can show his manly chest and Johnny Longbow can wax philosophical.

Johnny says Paul has been a loner for a long time. Kathy has already pointed out that she thinks he's lonely. So naturally in his hour of need, they leave him alone to feel terrible, look at Ty and the Moon and clutch the moon rock. There's nothing to be worried about there, right? It's not as if he's about to turn into a giant lizard monster out of Native American myth and murder a drunk while his wife refuses to let him in. That never happens, right? They obviously haven't watched enough monster movies. What I didn't expect was that when confronted with a bloody murder, the cops call in an anthropologist who suddenly decides that his field is in medicine. Yep, Johnny Longbow is on the case. Why not Budd Keeler, his student who can do birdcalls? Why not Kathy Nolan given that she changes her focus every time we need her to be something different? Maybe they just needed someone cheerful to look at the humungous lizard footprint.

These cops certainly don't want to follow the standard monster movie textbook. The rules say that the heroes should be able to work out the impossible within the film's running time but the authorities should never believe them until they actually see the monster. Even when confronted with a blatant footprint outside Sid Harris's house and a bloody slash carved into the wall above it, they're not supposed to come to the conclusion that the perp is a seven foot walking lizard. Maybe one might quietly believe it through some personal phobia, but he'll keep quiet for fear of being laughed off the force. Here the chief calls in an anthropologist to explain it to him. Where can we find a seven foot walking lizard, he asks, as if they want a description for a sketch artist. I wonder what would happen if someone saw this movie, decided to kill their wife and proceeded to explain to the New Mexico cops that it was really a baby tyrannosaurus. He'd be fine, right?

Maybe we're supposed to be distracted from such idiocy by Kathy Nolan, who is kind enough to wear a different sexy outfit every time she's on screen. They're all designed to show off her legs to the maximum, whether they be short shorts, short skirts, see through woollen things or just hot pink ensembles that don't cover much. I have to admit that she's pretty good eye candy but I still didn't miss lines like, 'Harris was killed by some kind of thing that was nearly seven feet tall, had hands with claws on the fingers and walked on feet like I've never seen before.' That's a line from the police chief, who obviously hasn't seen Creature from the Black Lagoon. So now that we know who the monster is, where it came from and what it can do, all we need to know is how he will be taken down in the end, and, sure enough, that's the next scene. We head out into the desert so Johnny Longbow can demonstrate his aptitude for archery with self made equipment.

Now, it may seem that I've just outlined the entire film, complete with detailed spoilers, but no: we're only thirty minutes into an eighty minute picture, so we've really only just begun. Whether there's anything to come that we haven't already seen is open for discussion, but if you can't write the rest yourself then you really haven't been paying attention. It really isn't the what that makes this film noteworthy, it's the how, or perhaps the why, because it's hard to imagine why anyone would write anything so mindnumbingly unoriginal. Charles Sinclair and Bill Finger are the folks responsible for the screenplay, seemingly a partnership as they share most of the same credits. You may be able to gauge their imagination given that The Green Slime, their previous film in 1968, was about a substance from an asteroid that turns people into monsters. Sound familiar? Finger's claim to fame is that he convinced Bob Kane to change Birdman into Batman.

I'd like to say that at least this double act provided a consistent storyline, but while it does move inexorably towards its inevitable conclusion, it gets more and more painful as time goes by. Our manly hero gets to go to hospital and be introduced to polka dot pyjamas, Kathy seems to give up on any attempt at a facial expression and it's left to Johnny Longbow to explain to us exactly what we're watching. At least we can enjoy watching Gregorio Sala strut his stuff, though you might call it a strange form of enjoyment to watch a man struggle with gloriously inept dialogue and plot progression. Somehow he remains stunningly sincere even when talking utter gibberish: he's part William Shatner, part Adam West, part scary sociopath given that he never gives up on the cheerfulness. What a shame Sala never acted again! It would have been fascinating to see him take the lead in a TV series like Kolchak: The Night Stalker. I'd pay to have seen that.

Somehow he resonates with emotional energy even though he doesn't have a clue what body language is. For Sala it's all in the intensity, and that's joyous to watch in a number of the later scenes. He shows the police chief outlandish slides of a four hundred year old deerhide, telling a story about a 'demon lizard monster' who apparently raped the natives, if the coloured pencil drawings by schoolkids are anything to go by. 'I know what you're thinking,' he tells the chief. At the NASA exhibit he holds up Paul's moon rock to another so one can zap the other one. 'I wish I was kidding Mac,' he says. 'I'm not! Now there is an answer and I think I know what it is and it makes me sick to think about it!' It's all gloriously out of control dialogue, that fits the rest of the film because nobody really talks like the people talk in this picture. The lesser actors get their tongues twisted over their lines all the time because they obviously can't believe them either.

The film would have succeeded much more if most of them hadn't shown up to be filmed, thus elevating Sala's role in proceedings. As pleasing to the eye as Leigh Drake is, it didn't take long for me to wish that she hadn't shown up either. Her role could easily have been consolidated into Sala's without much trouble at all, merely without the hot pink number, of course. There really wasn't much there to begin with except short shorts and a couple of screams and Drake didn't add anything to that at all. In fact her lack of expression only served to lessen the character and ensure that all we saw were the legs while the reasoning part of our brains switched off. Beyond the psychedelia at the end, Sala is all that the film really has because we're never shown any of the reptilian kung fu (snake style, I presume) that would have saved it just a little. Maybe we can find Sala and dig him out of retirement to make a sequel. That's the in thing nowadays, right?


Anonymous said...

typed "track of the moon beast, legs" cause of mst3k and got this. totally agree.

Anonymous said...

Excellent and well written review. I searched long and hard for any information on Gregorio Sala and nothing exists. I checked and the ony thing I could find are references to Track of the Moon Beast. I believe "Gregorio Sala" is not his real name. I would love to learn more about him. His acting was very good and it was a shame, as you noted, that he never acted again.

Johnny Longbone fan said...

2023, and I read this article looking for Johnny Longbone history from MST3K.
Great article!