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Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Beast of Yucca Flats

This is another movie which is often called "the worst movie ever," and perhaps not unrightfully so. The Beast of Yucca Flats (BYF) was Coleman Francis's first screenplay, and his first attempt at directing. The result is too odd to be dismissed as mere amateurish errors. Francis may have tried too hard to put too much "art" into his first film, but lacked the filmmaking experience to succeed. Or, it may be like an un-hip square attempting beatnik poetry. BYF may be yet another example of where being both writer AND director is NOT an advantage.
On the surface, BYF is (or tries to be) in the atomic-monster sub-genre. In that, it's the usual cautionary tale of the dangers of nuclear testing. Yet, there are so many non-sequetors elements, that Francis is trying to say much more. For the vast majority of viewers, he's not successful. It's hard to cast BYF as sci-fi, as there is nothing beyond radiation as the link. It's more of an obtuse "art" movie which requires pondering. It's no quick invasion romp, or monster bash.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Joseph Javorsky (Tor Johnson), a defecting Soviet scientist, lands via a small plane in the Nevada desert. He escapes 2 KGB agents by running into the Yucca Flats nuclear testing range. A test blast transforms Javorsky into The Beast (Tor with radiation burn make up). The Beast strangles a man trying fix his car. He chokes the wife into unconsciousness and carries her to his desert cave. A sheriff is alerted to the crime scene. They find the almost dead woman and decide to mount an aerial search for the killer. Meanwhile, the Radcliff family on vacation has a flat tire while crossing that same desert. The boys wander off. The airborne sheriff spots the father in the desert, searching for his boys, mistakes him for the killer and starts shooting at him. The boys encounter the Beast, elude him and hide, ironically in the Beast's cave. They sneak out while he sleeps, but the Beast awakens and chases them. The two sheriffs catch up and shoot the Beast dead, eventually. Before he dies, the Beast kisses a rabbit. The end.

Beware Radiation!
The basic plot message (not the moral) is the tried-and-true theme of The Dangers of Radiation. Bombs, or being irradiated causes otherwise peaceable swedish wrestlers to become murderous beasts. This plot trope had been around a long time before Francis wrote BYF, so it seems unlikely he was all that invested in the message. The Quatermass Xperiment ('55) featured a man turned into a monster-blob by cosmic radiation. Amazing Colossal Man ('57) and its tribe, all spun off the same notion of a man exposed during a nuclear test. There are many others too, suggesting that Francis just re-used the notion as a framework for his other 'art' messages.

Cold War Angle
A defecting Russian scientist, nuclear tests and an radiation-created beast seem like components of a Cold War parable, but the connection is elusive. Soviet man-of-science Javorsky becoming the nuclear killer beast, may be the analogy, but this seems obtuse.

Tor the Terrible -- Tor Johnson, former swedish wrestler, starred in Ed Wood Jr.'s Plan 9 from Outer Space as a hulking zombie. His role here is virtually the same, just with radiation instead of aliens as the catalyst. Tor seems to have been chosen for such films for his mouth-agape, arms-outstretched hulking walk.

Faceless Words -- You never see anyone's lips move in this film. Clearly, Francis did so intentionally. Voices and effects were dubbed in later. Some say he was worried about synching the voices, but by 1961, synching was routine. It may have been to save money, or as an "art" feature. The voices seem to lay over the images, rather like a comic book's word balloons exist on a different plane than the characters. An attempt at surrealism? The narrator (Francis himself) explains things, or people "speak" when turned away from the camera or their faces not seen. Watch BYF for this. It is a filmography oddity.

They ARE After Our Women -- The Beast gives us the typical abduction scene. He kills the 4CV's husband, then chokes the wife to unconsciousness and carries her off. He pets her hair and once he has her at his cave, enacts some caveman kissing gestures towards her, definitely intended to push those tribal fear buttons. Beasts want our women!

Pointless Cheesecake? -- The longer version of BoYF opens with a young woman coming out of a shower. She appears topless for a brief moment. She is later strangled in her bed. This is all before Javorsky becomes The Beast, so her nude scenes seem a complete non-sequetor. Is it a flash-forward? One of The Beasts victims we preview? Or is it Javorsky's wife back in Russia -- killed because he defected? Francis doesn't tie this one up. A second scene, when Sheriff Joe gets sharpshooter Jim out of bed, we're given long camera glances at his wife's bosom barely contained in a deep cut nightie. She obligingly bends over slowly (twice) to expose maximum cleavage. She then tucks her long legs back into bed. Again, a total non-sequetor. In fact, she's the largest figure on the (cheap) theatrical poster, even though she plays no role in the plot. Since a re-issue title for the movie was "Girl Madness", one has to wonder if Francis intended more than just a cheap use of boobs to boost interest in his audiences.

Alternate Narrative Agenda -- Nothing in the visual story is all that moving. A nuclear blast creates a beast. The beast kills, is hunted and eventually killed himself. It's in the narration that you get the idea Francis is trying to tell a much bigger story that is not coming off terribly well. Below are some narration snippets.
"Jim Archer, another man caught up in the frantic race for the betterment of mankind." Jim is the sharpshooter who hunts down Mr. Radcliff, not the Beast. "Shoot first, ask questions later." What sort of fascist law enforcement is this? Quite the ranger department out there.
About Hank Radcliff (the boys' father), "An innocent victim, caught in the wheels of justice. A man runs. Somebody shoots at him." Perhaps this is a commentary on the plight of the average man in the witch-hunt environment of the Cold War?
About the Radcliff boys, "Boys from the city, not yet caught up in the whirlwind of progress, feed soda pop to thirsty pigs.." Setting up the boys' innocence? A commentary on the frivolity of modern life?
About the gas station attendant napping in the shade, "Nothing bothers some people, not even flying saucers." The apathy of the masses? One can only guess. No one said anything about flying saucers. It's a radiated Beast movie.
Francis has something he wants to say, but it's not all that clear what it is.

Dangling Non-Sequetors -- There are so many loose ends in BYF that it's like a bad shag rug. Spotting them all can take several viewings. For example, Hank Radcliff was searching for his lost boys, but is shot at repeatedly by men in a plane. (echos of Hitchcock's North by Northwest) When Hank gets back to the road, he leaves his wife there "in case the boys return." Does he dislike his wife? He was just being shot at by men in a plane? Wouldn't she be in danger there? But that's not all. Hank does not go to the police, he summons total strangers to help him look for his boys. What? There are still men with guns in a plane. Does Hank know something about the local police that we don't? He was passing through on vacation. How could he know Jim and Joe were neo-fascist rangers? Why did he think the neighbors wouldn't want to shoot him too? There are many other such non-sequtors which will leave your mouth hanging open, a "what?" on your lips. Like a Rubik's Cube, they take a lot of effort to resolve.

Apocryphal Bunny -- It's been said that the jackrabbit which hops up to the fallen Beast at the end, was a wild one that just happened on the set. Tor, ad-libbed and kissed the bunny before "dying." Francis decided to keep it in the film. This smacks of fabricated urban legend. That bunny acts far too tame around Tor (who was himself surrounded by camera crew, etc.) for it to be a wild bunny. It doesn't struggle at all when Tor grabs it in his huge hand. Nor does it seem likely that Francis had no ending in mind for his movie so a random rabbit would suffice. For my money, Francis planned it all along. Just another random beatnik feature.

Car Nut Moment -- A tidbit only a car nut could love, is that the young couple (of whom the Beast kills the husband and carries off the wife) were driving a Renault 4CV! Here is an obscure little car. Designed in the 40s, while France was occupied by the Nazis, the 4CV was to be the French equivalent to the Volkswagen "Beetle," Manufactured between 1946 and '61, it also had a rear engine like the Beetle, but unlike the Beetle, had a reputation for being particularly unreliable. Not that many made it to the USA for that reason. Perhaps that is why Francis chose it for the hapless couple. If they'd bought American, they might have lived! That's a stretch, but a car nut might think this.

Bottom line? BYF is not an entertainment movie. It's a cryptic sci-fi "art" film by an artist who isn't especially gifted. Still, like a stroke victim mumbling at you, there is an urge to try to understand -- on the assumption they are trying to say something rational. Francis went to too much work on BYF to dismiss it as mere dementia.

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