To kick off 1959, we start with an indie. Robert Clarke was no stranger to sci-fi. He starred in The Man From Planet X ('50) and Astounding She-Monster ('58). Later in 1958, he set about producing an indie film of his own. He wrote the concept, produced, co-directed and starred. Typically, one-man-shows stumble in the watchability department, usually for lack of judicious editing. The Hideous Sun Demon was a personal project, but not too bad. It was being done as frugally as possible, but kept pretty closely to its borrowed storyline. The result was a watchable B sci-fi that mixed several familiar themes, especially: Man turned into a monster.
Quick Plot Synopsis
Dr. Gilbert MacKenna is taken from an atomic research lab, to a hospital. He had mishandled some rare isotopes and lie unconscious. He recovers, seemingly with no ill effects, but when convalescing in the sun, he becomes a reptilian man. Total darkness restores him. A Dr. Stern recites Ernst Haeckel's 1870s theory on Embryology to explain to Gil's colleagues that Gil's body evolves backwards when exposed to sunlight. Gil grows restless in his solitary beach home. While in a bar, he picks up the busty piano player, Trudy. They drive to the beach for some flirting and innuendos of impropriety. Dawn comes, he turns into the demon, so abandons Trudy. Colleagues Bucknell and Ann (who is keen on Gil) arrive to try and help him. Gil later returns to the bar. Trudy's thug friends beat Gil up. Trudy takes pit on him, taking him to her apartment to recover. George finds Gil there. They fight, but in the sun, Gil becomes the demon and kills George. The demon flees into the hills. There is a manhunt all over Los Angeles. Gil is hiding in an oil rig shed. He is befriended by little Suzy, but this eventually alerts the authorities. The police chase him, into the sun, where he becomes the demon again. They pursue him to an oil storage plant, and eventually up on top of a giant oil tank's framework. There, a policemen finally shoots the Demon. He falls to his death. The End.
Why is this movie fun?
While not especially deep, the story moves along with only a couple slow talky parts. A man-in-rubber-suit monster movie is fun in itself. Several familiar tropes are also fun to spot, as are some of the points cited below in the Notes section.
Cold War Angle
This is more of a nuclear dangers cautionary tale than anything involving Cold War thinking.
Mr. Atomic Hyde -- Clarke himself said the inspiration for Sun Demon was the 1931 movie classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which impressed him as a boy. He wanted to create a modern version of Stevensen's tale of a man struggling with two natures. There are some obvious similarities, but there are some notable differences as well. Both were pairings of outwardly nice doctor types with cruel beastly selves. Yet, Jekyll's Hyde was his own inner animal nature. Clarke's demon was an externally imposed mutant. This rather crucial difference makes the modern pair less poignant. Mr. Hyde lurks within all of us. The Sun Demon was just a one-time freak.
Popular (Erroneous) Science -- One interesting point in Sun Demon is debunked "science" living on in popular culture as if it were still legitimate scientific theory. To explain what happened to Gil, Dr. Stern tells Bucknell and Ann, how "the human being goes through the same evolutionary process in the womb...passes through a state similar to a fish...then a reptile...finally a human being. Gil, he says, has somehow gone backwards in evolution, back to a reptile. What is fascinating, is that this Embryologic Recapitulation Theory had been debunked 50 years or more earlier. Zoologist Ernst Haeckel promoted the theory back in the late 1800s. He had convincing drawings to support his theory. Trouble was, "Haeckel altered the illustrations of them to fit his theory." (W.R. Thompson, "Introduction" reprint of Darwin's Origin of Species, 1956, pp. xv-xvi)
Yet, even though Haeckel's theory had been bunk for decades, the script of Sun Demon shows how popular "wisdom" hangs onto what it's been fed as "science" and is very slow to let go of it.
Good Girl / Bad Girl -- As a sort of feminine parallel to Gil & Demon, the movie gives us Ann and Trudy. Ann is the sweet, sensitive, modest and wholesome girl, and a research assistant to boot! -- the kind most mothers would like their sons to bring home. She is humbly and respectfully loyal to Dr. Gilbert MacKenna. Trudy, on the other hand, is the blonde tart in deep plunging neckline dresses. She's a bar singer. She happily goes off with a man she's known for only an hour, to sleep with him on a beach. Mother would not be pleased. In this, Sun Demon echos Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde which had Muriel, Jekyll's proper-woman fiancee and blonde floozie Ivy Pearson. Trudy's ample and showcased cleavage was, no doubt, a selling point for the teen male ticket buyer.
Pity Party -- When Gil returns to being human, after having killed George the Hood, he lapses into an (over) passionate rant. "Why me? Why did this have to happen to ME?" Maybe because he was a foolish boozer mishandling dangerous materials? One wonders if the screenwriter intended the irony as a subtle commentary on mankind. So many ask "why me?" as if innocent, yet had actually, via prior choices, put themselves into the trouble.
Animal Cruelty -- One scene was deleted in the television versions. At one point Demon Gil catches a rat in his basement. He squeezes it to death -- complete with dripping blood. No one likes rats, but it was a bit graphic. The Demon also beats a dog (not really visible), which hits closer to home. Clarke was pushing the edges of acceptability. The squoze rat, apparently, was over the line.
Bottom line? Sun Demon is no classic, as it rehashes familiar ideas. Yet, it's fairly well directed and has some visual interest.