Tuesday, 29 July 2008


Coleman Francis, 1961, USA

To the "bad film" aficionado, there is nothing quite like the consummate incompetence of an old B-monster B-film. "The Beast of Yucca Flats" is a fine example of that complete ineptitude. Every scene aches with poor timing, bad narration or dialogue, weak or nonexistant acting and action... you see better on youtube these days. But it takes a special lameness to elevate a film to cult bad status, and "Yucca" has it. Hmm, being English, I briefly but stupidly misread the title as meaning some menace of a housing estate of some kind; but nope, Yucca flats is open terrain used for - uhoh - ATOMIC TESTING!! What will it be next? Ants? Scorpions?? Coyotes??? No, it's Tor Johnson! He's a - ahem - Russian agent defecting to the USA, carrying a suitcase full of secrets that actually provides the film's one notable special effect.

Wait, first, a pre-credits sequence that has a breast-bearing woman being murdered in her room by over-sized hands. Well, we would guess these are the hands of "The Beast", and although we don't see his face, those hands and that butt which blocks out the screen and alludes to necrophilia look big enough to be Tor's. This poses a chronological and narrative quandary: since Tor spends all his time raging from a cave out on the flats, whose home is this and at what point did he commit this murder? And who the hell was she? The only plausible explanation is that this is Tor's murdered wife, mentioned in narration... but those hands are so big... can't... compute.... we soon discover that, no, the scene was just there for the titillation. To the "ominous" sound of a ticking clock - and boy, those clocks sure ticked loudly in those days, huh? - this has to be the most quiet and sleepiest murder ever put to screen. Actually, this will be typical of the entire film: people don't seem to die; rather they fall into states of chronic drowsiness. Hmm, same as the dialogue, which seems to get more disinterested as the film goes on. You can also practically see and hear the man with the stick trying to prod the actors to, you know, do something. But not the narrator. Oh no. Not him. He's got things on his mind. Important things. Frightening things. Prophetic things. Appalled. Random. Things. Progress. Science. Inhumanity. Fate. Coyotes. Flying Saucers. Well, it's hard to tell why he mentions flying saucers, but one obviously fluttered through his mind when giving his droll running commentary. "Nothing bothers some people. Not even flying saucers," he says. Man, that's so good, I'm making it as a reusable by-line and quote for a long time to come!

According to (the wonderful) jabootu.com, the soundtrack for "Yucca" was lost and so what we have is quite a disjointed experience. No natural ambience, just sound effects trowelled on and dialogue recorded with a tin can found on the flats replacing a more costly microphone. It all fits together with all the finesse of Robot Monster's expressive hand gestures to his dialogue: almost. Not quite. Figuratively. But what this does mean is that we get the priceless narration, which surely marks out "Yucca Flats" from its bad movie peers. "Flag on the Moon. How did it get there?" he says, apropos of nothing. Oh, wait, this is some cool, abstract reference to Professor "Tor" Javorsky's "secret plans" with which he arrives at Yucca flats. But uhoh, Russian agents are waiting with their sneaky plan of trying to kill him a the airport with open gunplay and follow-on car chase. The most somnambulistic car chase in cinema. Geez, even the cars looks like they can't be bothered. They seemingly chase all day into the night... no, wait, it's day... no: night... no: day. There's finally a stand-off: guns fire randomly and unconvincingly; some guys fall asleep... oh, they are dying... Tor simply walks away. At a snail's pace. He looks like walking is going to make him pass out. He's a big guy ... I guess the bad guys never went to target practice.
He's also a big Swedish former wrestler... hmm, wonder if that will come in handy later? But what do you know, Tor "flees" from his assassins into an atomic testing zone!!
His briefcase smoulders.
And that is the best visual and effect of the film.

Ah, to be fair, not even director/writer/narrator Coleman Francis can quite ruin the natural stark beauty of "Yucca Flats". And we'll see a lot of them. Otherwise there's a moment of random cleavage from character Jim Archer's wife, but we don't see her again and otherwise it's the flats for us. The beast kills a young couple who stop out on the highway, or at least grapples them into heavy slumber. I could mention how badly staged this is - Tor seems to be in the back seat one moment, without the woman noticing, then he's outside... oh what's the use? It's quite painful watching Tor - all Beasted up with what looks like randomly applied flour patches on his face - trying to lumber across the flats with the woman under his arm. He looks likes he'll have a hernia at any moment, and you keep waiting for him to drop her. No monstrous striding for Yucca Beast, just some awkward lumbering. You'd think that there might be some military presence, the flats being the site of atomic testing and all; and you might expect to see a soldier or two, what with all that "killing" going on. Surely they've seen the "Beast Kills Man and Wife" headline? But nope, what we have instead are dumb-ass Jim and Joe from the Sheriff's department. Their plan seems to be focusing on a single plateau - they must have had a map of the vast flats and just stuck a pin in someplace - which just happens to be where Tor-Beast is hiding out, fondling his female's hair. Now, the whole scenario concerning the unreachable plateau is the subject of much head-slapping from almost every review on "Yucca". But not this one. It's just plain stupid though. Anyway, Jim and Joe get to Tor's corpse bride... wait, no, she's alive (??!), and they... wait, no, she's dead (!!?).

Next up are a family who stop at a gas station - "Boys from the city, not yet caught in the whirlwind of progress, feed soda pop to the thirsty pigs." - And, hey, there's a coyote. Tor could do with a radioactively enhanced coyote. Sure! "Coyotes... once a menace to... travellers...missile bases... run them off their hunting grounds." Oh. Oh well. That's out then. No atomic coyotes after all. Anyhow, after the thrilling gas station visit, the family go out onto the open road and get a flat tyre in the Beast's general vicinity. Well, it looks like the exact same spot as the attacked travellers earlier... The two boys wander off like tumbleweed and when their dad Hank goes in pursuit, the cruel Tor-like hands of fate, or "man's inhumanity to man", intercedes and - for no good reason - he is mistaken for the killer. This'll be the shoot first, questions later philosophy of Jim and Joe who are flying around Yucca, searching for The Beast. It's not quite "North By Northwest", since (a) it is absurd they would open fire, and (b) they aren't really flying, now are they? Just a camera tilting up in a close-up of the plane window. Anyway, he gets back to his wife, leaves her there, takes the car to get help (!!), and.... bah. The kids just happen to stumble on the Beast, who dynamically WALKS after them and somehow herds them into his formerly inaccessible cave. Beast returns home and expresses his rage at finding the woman gone by throwing a rock and making bad I'm-A-Monster grunts.
ARRGH! fumes Tor.
The kids get out, the Beast WALKS in threatening pursuit, Jim and Joe attack him, there’s a bit of a struggle in which The Beast exhibits some strangely Swedish wrestler-like manoeuvres. He's dead... Jim and Joe are relieved. A little bunny rabbit - according to legend, unscripted and seizing its chance at scene-stealing brilliance - hops up to the body of The Beast who then comes awake again - Tor Johnson apparently also seizing his moment at unscripted and improvised pathos - kisses the bunny and expires. Hmm, Jim and Joe didn't really check he was allll dead then.

"The Beast of Yucca Flats" oozes desperation. It's desperate to pad out its barely-an-hour running time. Desperate to create tragedy, creeping menace, narrative, action.... desperate to make one minute look credible. It's tough to sit through all in one go. Take a pillow. But it is enjoyably bad, although it can't even muster enough energy to be wonderfully bad, like "Robot Monster" and Tor's other crowning achievement, "Plan 9 From Outer Space". I guess they tried. But when a small desert bunny out-does everything else in a 'monster' film, you know that film is in trouble.

No comments: