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Friday, January 10, 2014

Track of the Moon Beast

This is one of those movies that is often panned as a “worst movie ever.” Track of the Moon Beast (TMB) is certainly a low-B indie production with a third-tier cast, but other “worst” films suffer more. Filmed in 1972, but released in 1976, did not help. Chase Cordell, who usually played bit parts like “Officer” or “Man #1” got his starring moment in TMB as the poor mineralogist named Paul who gets stricken by the moon chunk. Leigh Drake co-stars as his eye candy love interest, Kathy. Drake played in only two other films, as “dispatcher” and “officer”. Just about everyone involved, from producers to grips, were among the little nobodies of the movie industry. But, they all got together to make themselves a movie.

Quick Plot Synopsis
A huge meteorite collides with the moon. This impact sends billions of moon bits spraying off into space. Some fall into earth’s atmosphere. Watching the meteor shower is Paul, a mineralogist working the mountains, and his instant girlfriend, Kathy, a photographer. A tiny meteor fragment hits Paul in the head, leaving only a small scratch. They go to “his place” (actually, he lives with his mother, but she’s away). There is kissing. The next day, they attend a geology conference. Near one of the moon rocks, Paul feels sick. Later, they attend a folk-rock concert, featuring the “hit” song California Lady. Paul feels ill again, so Kathy takes him home. At night, when the full moon rises, Paul turns into a lizard man who likes to kill. He kills a drunk bowler coming home late. The sheriff is stumped by the gruesome deaths, so calls in Johnny Longbow, native american anthropologist. Johnny recounts some indian legends about man hit by lights from the sky, who becomes a lizard man. When Paul doesn’t get better, Johnny takes him to get tests. The X-rays show the fragment in his brain. Later, Paul turns into the Moon Beast again, and kills some campers. More doctors fly in to check out Paul. The fragment has broken up in his brain. Somehow, they just know that Paul will become atomically unstable and spontaneously combust. Paul and Kathy overhear this grim doctor talk. Paul wants to die as a man, not a flaming lizard, so runs away. Kathy covers for him. Unable to buy a shotgun, since there is an APB out for him, Paul goes up into the mountains to throw himself off, or something. Kathy follows him up to the mountains, totally devoted to the man she just met two days ago. Johnny has fashioned an arrowhead from one of the moon fragments, intending to shoot lizard-Paul. The added moon material should hasten the combustion. Kathy pleads for some other alternative that would keep and “Us”. But it’s not to be. Paul becomes the Moon Beast and freaks out Kathy. Johnny shoots lizardPaul. He, and/or the film, glow red for awhile before he is reduced to a small pile of burning paper. Everyone gets in their cars and leaves. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Fans of “so bad it’s good” films will find much to enjoy. The trope of something-turns-him-into-a-beast is tried and true (to the point of being threadbare). Despite being a product of the mid 70s, TMB has a very 50s feel to it. (the low-budget, extra-cheap 50s). And, there's something to be said in favor of Ms. Drake's nice legs.

Cultural Connection
Man’s Inner Monster — The trope is very old. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is an early iteration. The Wolfman in the 1940 and a score of low-budget films in the 50s and 60s. Culturally, there is an expectation that somewhere deep down inside of men, there lurks a monster. That’s what people call a serial killer or molester, or even a major swindler. Inside of mankind IS the capacity to do great evil. Stories like Dr. Jekyll and The Wolfman, et al, seem to be a way for the culture to look (via theatrical abstraction) at the face of that inner evil.

Wolfman Redux — The writers (Bill Finger and Charles Sinclair) did not work too hard to generate the story. The premise in TMB is essentially that of The Wolfman, but with a less mystical cause. But, in essence, it’s the same problem. Normal human by day, the rising full moon turns him into a monster that likes to kill. Both men, knowing the awful truth about themselves, want to die. To do so, however, takes a special weapon: a silver bullet, or an arrowhead of moon rock.

Amateur Hour — Many film critics kvetch about the low production values of TMB or the bad acting, etc. Granted, it’s not Casablanca, or even The Wolfman, but look at it this way. What if a bunch of people in the lower margins of the movie industry got together to do a movie themselves? An assistant director, Richard Ashe, would get to be The Director this time. Some associate producers on some obscure films would get to produce one of their own. A couple of writers (Finger and Sinclair) who wrote some television episodes, would get to do their own feature film screenplay. A guy who, up until TMB, played only uncredited bit parts or roles like “Man #2”, would get to be THE star. An attractive young folk singer thinks she’d like to try being an actress, gets to be the love interest. A whole bunch of other bit-part actors and actresses would get to play a character with a name! A singer who would have been in heaven to be a “one hit wonder,” gets to sing an entire song in the film. Woohoo! Don’t look at TBM as “bad” movie, but as a group project by a bunch of little nobodies you’ve never heard of, nor would again...but they got together and made a movie!

Worst Actress Ever? — Several critics have scoffed at Leigh Drake as being a terrible actress. Of course she was bad. She wasn't an actress. She was (and still is) a folk singer who may have attracted the producers’ eye (young, blonde, leggy) and said to her, “how would you like to star in a movie?” She should have said no? She gave it a shot. Yes, even Cordell (as wooden as he is) does manage to emote better than Drake does. Yes, she delivers her lines more successfully than with feeling, but watch her face, her eyes. She’s trying. She is a folk singer (band named Sugar Magnolia) trying to emote. One might suspect she did not get much help from her director — who had done a few jobs as assistant director in second units on some other obscure small films. “Yeah, Leigh, honey, that’s good enough. Next Scene!” Watch Drake freak out at the ending. The girl is clearly trying. Cut her some slack. Compare her to the two doctors, who may well be actual scientists told to go stand over there and read what’s on this card. TMB is their only film credit, and for obvious reasons.

Attempted Exploitation — For no particularly good reason, Ashe has actor Chase Cordell (Paul) appear rather frequently with his shirt off. Perhaps Ashe thought female viewers would like seeing a bit of amateur beefcake. Hmm. Maybe. For obvious reasons, Ashe has Leigh Drake appear only in very short skirts or shorts. Drake has nice legs and long legs, so Ashe sets up scenes and angles to show them off. They are almost more of the co-star than Drake herself. Clearly, the leggy exposure was expected to appeal to male viewers. There is a bit of attempted gore (ripping off a camper’s arm, etc.) but done so quickly and dimly (as befitting a small budget), that it would have little appeal to those who like that sort of thing. Ashe tried to jazz up the blandness of the script he had to work with. Chase’s chest and Leigh’s legs just weren’t enough. Lame lines are still lame lines.

Rock On — As thin as it is, the rationale behind the story, is that somehow moon rocks have an energy affinity for one another. While they’re on the moon together, all is peaceful and calm. But if separated, the moon rocks (somehow) transmit/attract energy from each other. Hence the fragment in Paul’s brain, when energized by the appearance of the full moon (the mother rock), causes him to mutate into a lizard man. Why not a squid man or an adorable puppy man, is never explained. Apparently, it’s just something innate in human DNA (our latent lizard-ness?), since it happened before to the indians. Paul was not a fluke, but a repeat.

Telltale Bumpers -- Proof that TMB was filmed earlier than '76 can be seen in all the cars that appear in the film.
They are all '71 or '72 Plymouth models. Note that they have the tidy little bumpers. Starting with 1974 models, (then) new crash impact laws required beefier bumpers. Since the tooling for most car platforms had a five year life cycle (or more), the expedient solution was to graft on honkin' huge chrome slabs.  These are what made '74-'76 models so, um, charming. Later refreshes of  model styling would absorb the honkin' huge impact absorbers to give absurdly large front and rear overhangs. The "charm" of late-70s, early-80s models. Newer materials would eventually let cars look a bit less absurd while fulfilling the law.

Bottom line? TMB is low-rent entertainment. It isn’t particularly sci-fi. It does take the semi-mystical premise of The Wolfman and try to give it more of a scientific spin. Moon Rocks, with a propensity to beam energy to each other…sometimes. Don’t expect a good movie. It will help. Expect an amateur production on a very low budget and at least give them some credit for trying.

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