Wednesday, August 22, 2007

the beast of yucca flats: man's inhumanity to man

In this film that marked the beginning of the abysmal oeuvre of cult filmmaker Coleman Francis, Tor Johnson, a Swedish wrestler and one of the many lucky people to star in Plan 9 From Outer Space, plays a Soviet scientist Joseph Javorsky, who has defected to the United States. Fleeing from some KGB assassins with a briefcase presumably full of Russian military secrets, he wanders into the desert (supposed to be Nevada, given that it's supposed to Yucca Flats) close to a nuclear test site; as a reward for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he is transformed into a beast. The film then explores the familiar arc laced with victims, a hunt and the eventual death of the monster (complete with a hint that there was some good left in him by having him kiss a passing bunny before breathing his last).

As an added bonus, he also gets to be the only person in the film to have his lips seen on screen when mouthing dialogue (growls, to be precise). The film was filmed as a silent movie with all the aural attributes looped. Given that money was not really a key contributor to this film, all the scenes are filmed so that there was no problem synchronising audio to picture -- you never see someone's face when he/she is speaking, you never see firearms fire (you only hear sounds), you don't even see the tips of the guns.

Augmenting the experience of viewing this low-budget wonder are the pre-credit sequence and the terse, omniscient, redundant voice-over narration, whose script comes close to being an aural equivalent of the inter-titles in silent movies.

The film opens with a sop for those that patronised such B-movies in return for some salacious goodies: accompanied by the eerie (yet rather effective) diegetic ticking of a clock, a woman emerges from the shower. After she has treated viewers to a nip slip, the dame's subsequently strangled to death by a mysterious pair of large hands and laid to rest on her bed. Even though those hands look like Tor's, there is nothing to prove that this sequence has anything whatsoever to do with the rest of the film.

The pièce de résistance is the narration that mixes socio-philosophical commentary with irony and combines prolixity and a Hemingway-esque style to produce a collection featuring riffs on progress:

Vacation time. Man and wife. Unaware of scientific progress.

Joe Dobson. Caught in the wheels of progress.

Another man caught in the frantic race for the betterment of mankind. Progress.

Boys from the city. Not yet caught in the whirlwind of progress.

notes on cause and effect:

Touch a button. Things happen. A scientist becomes a beast.

A man runs. Somebody shoots him.

notes on social habits:

Vacation time. People travel east. West. North or south. The Radcliffs travel east, with two small boys, adventurous boys. Nothing bothers some people. Not even Flying Saucers.

There's an argument to be made for the intent of the voiceover and it's interesting to see the similarity to silent movie inner-titles, but it's hard to keep a straight face listening to short bursts of words that distract you from the surreal speechless low-budget action on the screen.

Having relished this shorter-than-an-hour challenge to science (radioactive fallout can lead to necrophilia in large heavy men) or family norms (kids are extremely stupid and annoying, can't really figure out when they're lost and don't have a clue about caves), one is keen to explore the other gems in Coleman's canon (some of which even made the grade on MST3K)

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