Say “Hi!” to obscuro director/actor/screenwriter Coleman Francis. Mr. Francis got his big Movie Cultdom break when three of his amazing features appeared on TV’s Mystery Science Theater 3000. Other than being awful films featuring light aircraft, they have few thematic links in common. The putrid Skydivers was a crime/skydiving picture. The startling Red Zone Cuba (released as part of the MST3K video series) was a cynical anti-commie military flick starring Francis himself. (Imagine Curly Howard as played by Broderick Crawford and you’ll be in the right general area.) This astounding film featured an opening (and pointless) bonus cameo by Bad Movie demi-god John Carradine, who also sang the theme song (!). These two films are quite wonderful, and when I come across “clean” copies they’ll take their rightful place of honor on our little website.
Still, the most famous of Francis’ pictures (a comparative statement, of course) is his 55 minute marvel Beast of Yucca Flats. This is partly because any sci-fi or horror film is to some extent a cult movie. The fact that it stars Ed Wood, Jr. perennial Tor Johnson adds slightly to its marginal fame. And while few people are really aware of how vast the Bad Movie Universe is, consider this: Tor Johnson, who starred in three Ed Wood movies, including Plan 9 From Outer Space, may well have made his worst film here, with another director. Certainly the notion that Plan 9 is worse than Beast of Yucca Flats is debatable.
Lastly, there’s the bizarre element that Beast shares with its more famous Bad Movie relative, The Creeping Terror. Both films somehow lost their synchronized soundtracks (actually, Beast looks like it was purposely shot in such a fashion as to not require a soundtrack. Presumably, this was done to save money by winnowing down the shooting schedule). Narration was added in post-production, instead of looping in dialog. That’s right. There’s little “dialog” in this flick. Instead, we’re treated to a collage of visuals ruminated over by an omniscient narrator.
Adding to the laughs is some of the most mind-boggling narration this side of the master, Ed Wood himself. Getting to watch Tor run around in ragged clothing, like TV’s Incredible Hulk, is a treat for any Bad Movie connoisseur. The ponderous, repetitive narration about Mankind, Science, Justice and other Big Topics so solemnly intoned here is the cherry on the sundae.
We open in what appears to be a cheap motel bathroom. A cute woman with a pixie haircut is “drying” her (dry) face. She’s topless. Why do I mention this? First, I’ve never met a guy who thought a movie was hurt by having a naked woman in it. Second, because this is the only naked women in the picture. Now it seems to me that when a movie’s opening shot is of a totally gratuitous naked lady, that they’re creating an expectation that more are on the way. And if, as is the case here, you only have one naked lady, why use her up in the first minutes of the film? You’re just making everything else that follows even more desultory. Why not put her in the middle of the picture in order to wake up the audience? Anyway, while she “dries” herself, we see raggedy panted and shoed legs outside the bathroom. Having completed the first of her two functions, our heroine comes out of the bathroom.
She sits on her bed, looking up to see the (mostly offscreen) menace about to take her life. Her expression remains completely blank as she beholds this visage. It seems to me that most nearly naked women, upon seeing a crazed, mutated Tor Johnson standing uninvited in their bedroom, would act shocked or frightened in some way. But not our heroine. True, she grimaces in pain (sorta) as she’s being strangled. Still, her lack of reaction prior to the actual choking remains somewhat perplexing. Anyway, having been killed (her second function), we are treated to the charming sight of the body being rearranged on the bed, obviously to facilitate a little postmortem horseplay. Yes, nothing says “Entertainment!” quite like necrophilia (though the featured close-up of Tor’s big ass is a close second).
We cut to a small airplane landing at a desert airstrip. As it taxis in, the Narrator begins his spiel. “Joseph Javorski,, recently escaped from behind the Iron Curtain. Wife and children, killed in Hungary. His aide carries a briefcase, secret data on the Russian moon-shot. Joseph Javorski’s destination: Yucca Flats. And a meeting with top brass at the A-bomb testing groundsâ€¦” Our Ã©migrÃ© scientist turns out to be none other than Tor himself. (Tor? A rocket scientist?! Even a Russian one?!â€¦) The moon-shot data is merely a MacGuffin, there to move the “plot” along. The same with the locale. I mean, why would “big brass” meet a defected rocket scientist at the “A-bomb testing grounds”? So that Torâ€¦well, you’ll see.
A car arrives, stopping nearby. The narrator clues us in: “These men are also from behind the Iron Curtain. Two of the Kremlin’s most ruthless agents. Their orders? Get the briefcase. Kill Javorski.” It’s a little hard to follow the confusingly edited, uh, montage that follows, but basically the Commies open fire. A gun battle ensues. The American agent herds Javorski and his aide into his car (a battered old station wagon) and drives off. I must say, it’s easy to see why the Soviets lost the Cold War. After all, two of their “most ruthless agents” can’t hit Tor Johnson with repeated gunfire. In spite of the fact that Tor’s about seven feet tall and weighs approximately five hundred pounds.
An “exciting” car chase ensues. Perhaps as a “homage” to Tor’s favorite director, Ed Wood, the scene immediately cuts from daytime to nighttime. Plus the scenery keeps changing (when the film isn’t so dark that you can’t see what’s going on). First, they’re driving through a forest. Then the desert. Then they’re still in the desert, but on a road. Then on a road bordered by mountains. Then on a road where the other side’s bordered by mountains. This goes on for some minutes. They drive past a plywood sign obviously made for the film (by somebody’s kid, by the look of it) that reads “Yucca Flats”. (Wow!) The first car pulls over. The driver gets shot. Hmmm, maybe the authorities should have sent more than one guy.
The aide stays behind to provide cover fire for the ponderously fleeing Tor, who has the briefcase. Though ruthless, the Russians are also polite, waiting for the aide to reload his revolver before shooting him. Considering the pace Tor is maintaining whenever we cut to him, he should be, oh, six or seven yards away by now. Even at this speed Tor ends up removing his jacket and tie to keep from overheating. For some reason the Russians dither around, and then walk back to their car.
The Narrator comes back for a short bit. “Yucca Flats,” he monotones, “The A-bomb.” Sure enough, A-bomb stock footage explodes. Over-exposing the film indicates the power of the blast. The dastardly Russians are (presumably) killed. Tor (much closer to the explosion, but, you know, he’s Tor) survives the blast, but the briefcase is incinerated. That’s OK. Now that it’s caused the car chase, resulting in Tor wandering around for the A-bomb blast, we don’t really need it anymore.
A car pulls over to the side of the road (I think. The film is pretty murky right here). The guy driving the car, whom the narrator alerts us is “unaware of scientific progress,” gets out to check the engine. His wife stays inside the car, puffing on a ciggie. The car has the engine to the rear, like in a Volkswagen bug. So with the hood up, wifey can’t see her husband getting strangled by Tor. That done, Tor begins to sneak up on the woman, sitting in the car. This is reminiscent of Tor sneaking up on a guy’s wife who’s sitting in a car in Plan 9 from Outer Space. Hilariously, the attack comes from the rear seat. Yeah, Tor, who weighs like 400 pounds (really) managed to open the door of this wee car and sneak into the backseat without her noticing. Right.
She soon succumbs to his attack. Although for all the struggle she puts up, she more resembles someone falling asleep (as do the other victims). At this thought, I come fully awake myself, fearful that maybe I’m being strangled. Nope. I was just nodding, nearly napping. During the assault, all we see are of Tor are his “scarred” hands. In fact, his hands and forearms are all we’ve seen of the “mutated” Tor up to now. Apparently, they’re saving the full visage for a “shock effect” later in the movie. Tor opens the door and removes the woman’s body, taking it back into the desert with him.
We follow Tor as he ambles around the desert, carrying the body at his side. Unfortunately, this provides the Narrator with an opportunity to get philosophical: “Joseph Javorski. Noted scientist. Dedicated his life to the betterment of mankind.” Yeah, the irony. Wow. Really makes you think, huh? Yep. Hoo, boy, what’re the odds, huh. I meanâ€¦Uh-huh. Anyway. Back on the road, another car finds the first and pulls over. Seeing the husband’s body, the driver jumps back into his car. We then cut to another car (I guess), driving around. It stops at a diner, and the Narrator informs us that this guy is “Young Joe Dobson. Desert Patrol.”
The guy who found the body drives up and informs Joe of the situation. Dobson jumps back into his car and takes off. More car driving footage. He sees the car, and pulls over. This is all accompanied by THIS IS EXCITING! music blaring on the soundtrack. In an “artistic” moment, the music cuts off exactly when Dobson leans into the car and turns its headlights off. (Wow!) Finding the corpse, Dobson looks around, as the Narrator clues us in: “Joe Dobson. Caught in the wheels of progress.” This will become a regular refrain of the Narrator’s. As he looks around, the Narrator helpfully keeps us apprised: “A man choked to death. A woman’s purse. And footsteps on the wastelands.” Joe spins, jumps back into his car, and drives off. This restarts the “EXCITING!” music.
In an, uh, artistic, er, example of “crosscutting”, we jump back and forth between Dobson’s car and Tor hiking around with his “friend”. Dobson eventually stops at a house. Inside, a guy gets out of bed, affording us a gander at his busty wife in her low-cut nightie. Helpfully, she leans into the camera three or four times to make sure we don’t miss anything. This is the house of Jim, Joe’s partner. (Man, they must have spent hours on the character’s names for this picture. Did they really need a Jim, Joe and a Joseph Javorski?) Joe fills Jim in as he gets ready to come along.
We cut back to the Mrs., for a look at her legs this time as she climbs back into bed. The pair drive off. We cut back to Tor, still walking around the desert with the body. At a cave entrance, he puts her down. Then he, uhâ€¦well, you know, displays his affection for her. (Yuck!) Luckily, the camera doesn’t follow any of this in any real detail. All we actually see is Tor sniffing her hair. A camera cut reveals that Joe and Jim are searching the desert on foot. They should have the entire area covered in, oh, eight or nine hundred years. Tor leaves his, uh, girlfriend, grabbing a convenient wooden staff near the cave entrance as he departs.
It turns out that Jim and Joe are in the right area. Apparently they’ve been following Tor’s tracks. A neat trick, considering that the surrounding terrain is rock. The Narrator tries to create tension by stating that the patrolmen are climbing up a sheer rock face. If they slip, they’ll plunge to their dooms. Yeah, like we believe that the clumsy, bumbling Tor could have climbed up anything one tenth as difficult as he describes. Maybe Tor’s just more agile when he’s off camera. After the “climb”, the guys end up directly in front of Tor’s cave. Walking forward, they see the woman’s body left lying there. Since the guys’ faces are off camera, and they don’t have to match lip movements, our heroes engage in some actual “dialog.”
Preposterously, they relate that the woman’s alive. “Let’s take her down,” they say, somewhat negating the earlier narration regarding how difficult and hazardous the climb was. Grabbing her, they begin shuffling down a gentle slope. Apparently, they choose to climb up a 1,000 ft rock face to one side of the cave, instead of utilizing this easy route. So I guess that we’re to regard these two as idiots. A dialog exchange reveals that now the woman’s died (?!). “No doctors can help her,” Joe muses, “Maybe angels. But not doctors.” (Wow!)
Back in front of the diner, a boy sells a guy a newspaper. In big type, the headline screams Beast Kills Man and Wife. The guy laboriously grabs the folded paper under the kid’s arm instead of the proffered one. That’s because they only printed the one dummy newspaper, and they didn’t want to anyone to notice. Oops, sorry. We cut back to another car driving down the lonely highway. It’s the Radcliff family, father Hank, mother Lois and the two boys, Andy and Art. They stop at a gas station. The attendant, sleeping under a tree (?), gets up to serve them. The boys wander out back, where a hodgepodge of garbage, unused lumber and feed animals is kept. They share their sodas with the pigs penned back there. They see a coyote. Their parents call them, and they tell their mom about the pigs and “cy-ote”. Mother warns them to stay away from them “cy-otes”. They get back in their car and drive off. Wow, that was a great sequence.
Jim and Joe are seen engaged in another laborious climb, as they try to reach the “Plateau”. This is in spite of the fact that the Narrator informs us that you need to jump from an airplane to get there. Actually, wouldn’t a helicopter be better, as it could land on the plateau, or hover directly above it? Apparently, they made it to the top anyway, for next we see them climbing down (isn’t that an oxymoron?) as the Narrator informs us, “But the killer’s not on the plateau.” OK, is everyone else as confused as I am? I mean, why were they climbing up there anyway? If you can’t get up there without an airplane (although I guess you can, as Joe and Jim apparently got up there), how would the killer get up there? Particularly Tor. I’d just wait until he died of exposure myself. Speaking of which, how’s he getting the vast amount of fluids that would be required to sustain him? Wouldn’t he be dead of dehydration by now?
Joe and Jim are back down now and go to their waiting car. They take a drink from a big water jug kept there. Say, here’s an idea, guys: Canteens. Check into it. Now we learn via narration that they didn’t get up all the way up! (So what was the damn point of this whole scene?! Wait, it couldn’t have been to waste time, could it?) Jim’s going to put his paratrooper training to good use, and parachute down to the plateau. This is so they can make sure that the killer’s not there. Again: Why would they think he would be? Isn’t the desert huge enough to search without wasting all this time on one point? And how would he get up there if it’s so inaccessible? Do they think that the killer parachuted up there? And if they have access to a plane, why aren’t they using it to conduct the search in the first place? It seems like this would be more efficient than climbing random rock formations (to say the least).
The editing here gets even more jumbled. We see a short sequence of the Radcliff’s car blowing a tire. The only problem is that the scene of the car “skidding” shows another car driving past. Now, how likely is it that this car wouldn’t stop and offer help to disabled passengers in the middle of the desert highway? Not much, so let’s pretend we didn’t see it. We cut to Joe and Jim driving up to a small airplane. Then we cut back to Hank Radcliff fixing his tire. His wife Lois notices that the boys are missing. Hank gets up to go look for them. We cut back to the plane. Jim, parachute at the ready, climbs aboard. Joe hands him a rifle and encourages him to, “Shoot first. Ask questions later.”
As we shall see, Jim takes this advise to heart. The plane takes off. Back at the car, the boys are nowhere to be found. Hank tells Lois to stay with the car while he searches farther out. We waste some minutes cutting back and forth from our various characters: Jim in the plane, Joe parking his car on the road, Hank searching, Lois nervously waiting, Art and Andy wandering around. This is supposed to be “suspenseful”, since we don’t know which character will have something “happen” first. Oh, it also wastes screen time. After all, they have 55 whole minutes to eat up here.
Finally, after 3 ½ minutes (!) spent in this fashion, Tor stumbles (literally, pretty much) back into the film. He spots the boys a ways off. Since they can only run about 80 times faster than him, we fear for their safety. We cut to Hank, running around. We cut to Jim, watching from the sky. Jim sees something, and opens the window. He unlimbers his rifle, and takes aim. He takes a shot. Unfortunately, it turns out that he’s shooting at Hank (!). Apparently, Jim is using the “Rules of Engagement” that were promulgated by the FBI at Ruby Ridge.
We cheerfully spend the next two minutes of screen time watching Jim flying around trying to peg this poor bastard. Finally, after around forty shots, he tags him. Hit, Hank rolls down a steep hillside. (By the way, what ever happened to Jim’s plan to fly to the Plateau?) Having shot something, Jim parachutes out of the plane to see what it was. The pilot radios Joe so that he can meet up with Jim. Viewing Hank’s body, the Narrator puts his two cents in. “Shoot first. Ask questions later,” he caustically repeats. Yeah, who would have thought that those order could go wrong? Oh, and need I point out:
a) that the scene is unbelievable,
b) that it seems to occur only because it was scripted to,
c) and then only so that the Narrator could point out that the orders were stupid (which we, in fact, caught when they were given), and finally,
d) that the above facts kind of diminish the “ironic” effect of the Narrator’s line?
Jim parachutes down. Cutting to Hank, we see that he’s only wounded. He gets up and staggers off before Jim can get there (probably a good idea). Jim lands, and begins following Hank’s trail. We cut to Lois. Hank runs up. She asks him why he’s running, but not why he’s shot. (Uh, he was shot. Wasn’t he?) He tells her to stay there on the road in case the kids come back. (Stay on the road?! After some nutball just tried to shoot him down for no reason?!!) Hank drives off to get help. We last see Lois standing alone on the desert road.
Meanwhile, Joe meets up with Jim, and they drive off. The narrator again mentions the “blistering heat” as the guys drink deeply from their water jug. Leading me again to ask how Tor, not to mention the various Radcliffs, are doing so well in the desert with no apparent water supply. Back to crosscutting. Hank looks for help. The boys are wandering. Lois stands by the road. Back to the boys again. One of them asks the other, “Randy? [Randy?! What happened to “Andy”?!] Do you think we’re lost?” Uhm, haven’t hours passed since they left the car? (Or have they? One consistent element of Bad Moviesâ„¢ is the inability to gauge how much time is being covered by the film’s events.)
We cut back to Mom. Night falls as she holds her lonely vigil on the side of the road. As she sits down, tears begin to flow. Let me tell you, if they ever decide to remake this film, just take this scene, mix in Meryl Streep, and you’ve got the recipe for Oscarâ„¢. We cut back to the boys, who see some water. They run down to it and drink up. Meanwhile, we keep cutting to Tor, looking at something. My theory is that he’s supposed to have spotted the kids, but don’t quote me on that. The kids sit under a tree. We cut back to Mom, pacing. (It’s nighttime now. How did all these characters survive this long with no water? What happened to that one hundred and ten in the shade business?)
We cut back to the tree. You’ll be relieved to know that the kids are still there. We cut to Tor, staring at something (see my above theory). He walks forward a step or two, and looks harder. For a monster, he sure is cautious. A “Danger!” music cure blurts, and sure enough, Tor rears up and grunts (actually, it sounds like he’s yawing). Startled, the boys jump up. Apparently, Tor was about three feet away from them at this juncture. I guess he’s a lot more stealthy than you’d think. For some reason, the boys run right in front of him instead of in the opposite direction. Maybe it was supposed to be “exciting”.
Tor follows them for about three steps, waving his staff at them like a crusty old farmer chasing smoothers out of his watermelon patch. Needless to say, the kids quickly outdistance the less than overly-mobile Tor. We cut back to Mom, still worrying. Maybe she saw A Cry in the Dark. After all, if people didn’t believe Streep’s “A dingo took my baby!” line, then nobody’s gonna buy this story. Anyway, out of the entire desert, the kids end up hiding in, that’s right, Tor’s cave. Gee, what’re the odds, huh? And again, how did they get to the cave? Earlier in the movie, we saw the Jim and Joe climb up a shear cliff face in order to reach the cave. If you can just walk up to it, why’d they bother?
Tor, having giving up the hunt (oh, the irony, eh), stumbles back to his cave. The kids, seeing this, duck back deeper. Tor, expecting to find the body of the woman he had earlier brought there, is peeved at her absence. Making vague “Grrr!” noises, he hefts a toaster-sized rock up over his head. “The Beast, finding his victim gone,” explains the Narrator, “unleashes his fury.” On this cue, Tor tosses the rock and makes a “frustrated monster” scream. Oh, and he waves his arms like a pro wrestler threatening his next opponent (actually, Tor was a pro wrestler, soâ€¦). As you can imagine from the above description, Tor’s wrath is terrible to behold.
Exhausted by this primal display, Tor awkwardly lies down in the cave entrance to grab a snooze. Waiting a full two seconds to make sure he’s thoroughly asleep, the boys creep up to see if they can make their escape. They almost make a break for it, but Tor makes a noise, and they run back (this is “suspenseful”). Cutting to the road, we see some people milling around. The narrator informs us that it’s “Hank and some neighbors. The search narrows.” I guess Hank wasn’t shot after all. Good thing for him (and for Jim!) that Jim’s such a rotten shot. Still, Hank might want to discuss the “shooting at innocent people” thing with Joe and Jim’s superiors at some point. Back at the cave, the boys run for it, waking Tor in the process. He gives pursuit (well, sort of). In fact, he’s so mad that he throws another rock. Wow, the primordial savagery.
We cut to Joe and Jim, conveniently wandering near by. Unfortunately, the kids have allowed the camera to stray off them, leading to the inevitable result. Here’s a classic Bad Monster Movie® Rule: When running from an exceedingly slow monster, always stay in the same shot with it, preferably a long-shot. Do this even if it means slowing down, so as not to run out of frame. Because as soon as the monster is off camera, it can move as fast as it wants to. It doesn’t matter how big of a lead you had in the last long-shot. Following a shot of you alone on the screen, the monster will be either right behind or right in front of you in the next medium-shot.
Jim takes aim and fires. Even Jim can’t miss something as big as Tor, and our mutated lead falls to the ground. He and Joe approach the body. Oddly, Jim fails to mention that there’s no way that this is the guy he was trying to kill earlier. Joe holsters his revolver and Jim lays down his rifle. Then they bend over the body (gee, what’ll happen nowâ€¦). Sure enough, Tor “rears” up (very slowly, and very awkwardly) and uses some wrestling throws on our, uh, heroes (I mean, I guess they’re the heroes. Right?)
After painfully rolling on the ground, Joe recovers. In a brilliant move, he chooses, rather than drawing his sidearm and dispatching Tor, to rush him and grapple with him! This is more than a little reminiscent of the “Brug Grapples the Cave Bear” scene from The Clan of the Cave Bear (see my review elsewhere). Needless to say, Joe ends up on his ass again for his trouble. Tor then turns his attention back to Jim. Since he’s the hero, he survives being strangled at least ten times longer than any of the other characters we saw get whacked (Horror Movie ClichÃ© #47). This allows Joe to finally draw his weapon and shoot Tor right in the nick of time.
Gathering themselves together, Joe and Jim head back with the kids. The Narrator comes on, for one last piece of Irony. “Joseph Javorsky. Noted Scientist.” Yeah, that added a lot. Thanks. We cut to Lois, still alone on the side of the road (?!). We see a bunny rabbit hopping around. The kids are reunited with their mother. (If you think this is confusing when reading it, try watching it!). Then we cut back to the bunny. Ah, it’s the filmmakers attempt to inject a final “poetic” note. The bunny bounces up to the still barely alive Tor. He nibbles some food they placed on Tor’s chest so that the bunny would approach him (although I don’t think we’re supposed to have figured that part out). Tor reaches for the bunny, but instead of crushing the life out of it, he gently caresses it, and then expires. Perhaps this represents the idea that Javorsky has regained his humanity before dying. To me, though, it represents the idea the Coleman Francis saw Of Mice and Men and decided to rip it off. Nice try, not.
IMMORTAL NARRATION (note: read aloud in laconic monotone, with dramatic pausing):
During the car chase, as two “ruthless” agents attempt to reclaim Tor’s briefcase. Presumably, the prediction that the Soviets would reach the Moon first came from Tor’s old co-worker, Criswell: “A flag on the Moon. How did it get there? Secret data. Pictures of the Moon. Secret Data, never before outside the Kremlin. Man’s first rocket to the Moon.”
After shooting the innocent Hank (er, I think), Jim meets back up with Joe, leading to this pretentious (and thoroughly nonsensical) musing by the Narrator:
“Twenty hours without rest and still no enemy. In the blistering desert heat, Jim and Joe plan their next attack. Find the Beast and kill him. Kill, or be killed. Man’s inhumanity to man.”
The Narrator, as is his wont, waxes philosophic throughout the film (all these utterances are complete):
“Touch a button. Things happen. A scientist becomes a beast.”
“Jim Archer. Joe’s partner. Another man caught in the frantic race for the betterment of mankind. Progress.”
“Jim Archer. Wounded parachuting on Korea. Jim and Joe try to keep the desert roads safe for travelers. Seven days a week.”
“Shockwaves of an A-bomb. A once powerful, humble man. Reduced toâ€¦nothing.”
“Joseph Javorski. Respected scientist. Now a fiend. Prowling the wastelands. A prehistoric beast in a nuclear age. Kill. Kill, just to be killing.”
“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. ”
“Boys from the City. Not yet caught by the Whirlwind of Progress. Feed soda pop to the thirsty pigs.”
“Coyotes. Once a menace to travelers. Missile bases run them off their hunting grounds.”
“A hundred and ten in the shade, and no shade. Jim and Joe try to make their way up to the plateau. To reach the top a man needs an airplane. A jump from a plane could land you on top.”
“Hours in the broiling hot desert sun. With no trace of the killer. To put Jim Archer’s paratroop training to good use, is the only answer. A trip up into the skies, and jump. And if the killer is on the plateau: Kill him.”
“Always on the prowl. Looking for something, or somebody to kill. Quench the killer’s thirst.”
“The pilot dropped his man. If Joe Dobson moves north, Hank will be caught in the middle. An innocent victim, caught in the Wheels of Justice.”
“A man runs, somebody shoots at him.”