Saturday, December 14, 2019

Tor Johnson IS "The Beast Of Yucca Flats"!

Tor Johnson in the role that made him shameless: "The Beast of Yucca Flats".

Hello from near and far, movie lovers.

Ever wonder how a scientist become a beast?

He wanders onto the nuclear testing grounds of scenic Yucca Flats as an A-bomb is being exploded.

Ever wonder what the scientist does after he becomes a beast?

He staggers around Yucca Flats strangling people, threatening lost kids and dragging around the corpse of a female victim.

Beauty and the Beast of Yucca Flats

And that, in a nut shell, is the plot of "The Beast of Yucca Flats" (1961), the first film directed by the one-man cinematic suicide squad known as Coleman Francis.

A hefty bit player who began his career in Poverty Row westerns, Francis turned to directing in the late 1950's. His films were ultra cheap B and W monstrosities that focused obsessively on light planes, skydiving, rabid anti-communism and endless coffee drinking. His directorial style consisted mainly of jump cuts, continuity errors and actors playing multiple roles. Coleman surrounded himself with a stock company of family and friends who possessed even less talent than he did. Tony Cardoza, for instance, who worked with Coleman as an actor and producer, was actually a welder.

Of course, in the realm of Junk Cinema, having talent is both over-rated and not required. I mean, making movies? What could be so hard? Point the camera, turn on the sound, people start talking, right?

 French New Wave great/auteur Jean-Luc Goddard once said all you needed to make a movie was a gun and a girl. However, Coleman Francis did Goddard one better: he proved you could make a movie where the actors kept their backs turned away from the camera 85% of the time AND their lines were actually narration Coleman (and a few of his cast members) dubbed in later so they wouldn't have to worry about sound synchronicity. Plus, Coleman Francis had Tor Johnson for his main character! So who's the real auteur now, tough guy?

Ah, Tor Johnson, the 300-pound Swedish ex-wrestler and Ed Wood cohort. It's quite a feat to be the best thing in a Coleman Francis movie, but Tor pulls it off.

Director Coleman Francis smells something bad. Maybe it's his movie?

Before our actual movie begins, there is a pre-credit sequence where a woman (Mary Torres) finishes a shower and gets ready for bed. She's then suddenly strangled by the unidentified Tor; later he violates her corpse. In some versions of "Beast", this sequence is quite graphic (the MST3K version edits it down). Still, it's ugly and gratuitous; reports indicate Francis liked this kind of thing. Yuck. Fast-forward to avoid this part.

 Our tale begins with the "noted scientist" Joseph Javorsky (Tor) defecting from behind the Iron Curtain to the U. S. of A. He carries with him "secret data" on the "Russian moon shot" that will answer the question currently perplexing our government officials: "Flag on the moon. How did it get there?"

My guess is someone put it there, but that's just me.

Unfortunately, the secret data will have to wait because "two of the Kremlin's most ruthless agents" (one being Tony Cardoza in a felt Fedora) have tracked Javorsky down. Amid a hail of bullets and the screech of tires, the Yanks and the Commies begin a cat and mouse car chase that dead ends at scenic Yucca Flats.

While the agents continue to pick each other off, Tor (brief case in hand) toddles away to safety. More bad news: a nuclear bomb is being tested at that very site and at that very moment. Suddenly, KABOOM! Stock footage of a nuclear mushroom cloud appears and we assume everyone is a goner. However, Tor is neither fried to a crisp or vaporized into mist; instead, he survives the blast and becomes the Beast of Yucca Flats. How? Director Francis is a little vague on the details, verbally shrugging, "Touch a button, things happen. A scientist becomes a beast."

Actor/producer/welder Tony Cardoza as "one of the Kremlin's most ruthless agents."

While Tor stumbles around Yucca Flats as "a prehistoric beast in the nuclear age...killing just to be killing" (more about that later), Coleman announces "vacation time", so we meet up with a "man and wife unaware of scientific progress." Perhaps our couple is unaware of said "scientific progress" because they're dealing with car trouble. As hubby checks under the hood, Tor sneaks up and strangles him. The wife, busy smoking her cigarette, notices nothing until Tor creeps up and strangles her. Then the beast pulls her out of the car and drags her out into the desert.

Since it's still vacation time, we see a family driving up to a gas station skeezier than the one featured in "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." If you look closely, however, you'll see director Francis is the proprietor of the place; he's the one lounging in a sun chair, feeding half his sandwich to a chained dog. Francis' cameo is also accompanied by my favorite voice-over in this entire crazy movie: "Nothing bothers some people--not even flying saucers."

Ain't it the truth.

After the family tanks up and their two boys "feed soda pop to thirsty pigs", our travelers hit the road and promptly get a flat tire. While mom and dad are otherwise occupied, the boys (Coleman's own kids Ron and Alan) wander off. Little do the tykes know, they're putting themselves in the path of Tor. They're also putting their father Hank in Tor's field of vision, as he's left their cat-eye glasses wearing ma alone by the roadside to go off and search for them.

But hold on! There is still more plot to be had! Remember the husband unaware of scientific progress that Tor strangled a while back? A concerned motorist has found his body and promptly informs lawman Joe Dobson (Larry Aten). Joe, in turn, contacts his partner Jim Archer (Bing Stafford), who is busy having marital relations with his wife (Marcia Knight, the femme fatal in "Skydivers"). When Joe tells Jim duty calls, Mrs. Archer is miffed: she pulls a sour face and gets back into bed, annoyed that hubby's stupid job has once again played havoc with their sex schedule. Frankly, it's easy to understand Mrs. Archer's dismay--especially after narrator Francis informs us that Jim and Joe toil to keep the public safe "seven days a week"!

Dedicated lawman Jim Archer leaves his long-suffering wife post-coital--again.

When the lawmen reach the crime scene, they're greeted by "a man choked to death, a woman's purse and footprints on the wasteland." They decide to check out the surrounding area, despite the fact that it's "110 degrees in the shade and there is no shade." Eventually the duo stumble upon the dead wife laying in the brush (Tor has gone off somewhere and hasn't left a note saying when he'll return). After checking her pulse, one of the guy's concludes, "Well, doctors can't help her. Angels maybe, but not doctors." Eventually Tor does return and he gets so mad that his property is gone he lets out a loud, ferocious yowl...before quickly bedding down for a nap.

Now, let's see, we have Tor, the lost boys and their father all traipsing around Yucca Flats. But, look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's lawman Joe Dobson in a plane! Joe and Jim have decided the best way to catch their killer is to fly over Yucca Flats and "shoot first and ask questions later." With that philosophy in mind, Joe doesn't hesitate to pull the trigger when he spots an unidentified man on the ground below. Too bad it's innocent dad Hank looking for his sons. Joe repeatedly shoots at him, and Hank keeps falling down for dead, but in the end he evades the bullets. I can just imagine what's going through the dad's mind while all this is happening: "First, I get a flat tire. Next, the boys run off. And now some jerk in a plane is shooting at me! Man! This is the worst vacation ever!"

Joe parachutes into Yucca Flats and is met by Jim. While they continue their search, dad Hank returns to his wife and "rounds up some helpful neighbors" (which includes director Francis) to look for the boys. The boys, meanwhile, stop at a water hole for a quick drink and come face to face with Tor. "AAAH!" Tor screams. The horrified boys easily out run the Beast. However, because these kids aren't the sharpest tools in the shed, they also run straight into the Beast's cave--which is a real bummer, especially after Tor comes back and settles down for another nap. How will they escape without waking Tor? The answer is they don't, of course, but, thank their lucky stars, Joe and Jim have magically arrived on the scene. The lawmen shoot first and ask questions later, which allows the boys to escape unharmed.

That should be the end of the movie, but it isn't. See, being the Beast of Yucca Flats, and weighing 300 pounds, and being an ex-wrestler, Tor still has a lot of fight in him. So he knocks Jim out cold with one slap and puts poor Joe in a deadly headlock. Just when it looks like Joe is a goner, Jim wakes up and plugs Tor with more lead. Now he's dead. Exhausted, hot and covered in dust, Jim and Joe, their work done, stagger off camera, presumably to file their report and (in Jim's case) get back home in order to beg his wife for more sex.

Joseph Javorsky, "a once proud and humble man", is left to rot like a bloated corpse in the sun. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a baby Jack Rabbit with long ears hops onto the scene. He sniffs Tor and twitches his nose. Then, with his last ounce of strength, Tor wraps his big, beefy hand around the critter's neck. Is it goodbye bunny? No, at that very moment, the Beast of Yucca Flats expires, this time for good. The Jack Rabbit wiggles free and hops away. After surveying the scene for a second, narrator/director Coleman Francis can't help but have the last word, commenting, "Man's inhumanity to man."

I hope that isn't the Easter Bunny...: Tor and a furry friend have brief encounter.

That pretty much sums up the movie, too.

Made for the bargain basement price of $34,000 dollars, "The Beast of Yucca Flats" looks like it was shot through a coffee filter; everything looks black, grainy and gritty. The actors all look as if they were collectively sucking lemons off screen. Naturally, the flick went on to earn terrible reviews and is considered one of the worst science fiction movies ever made. One critic even went so far as to state, "The most enjoyable aspect of the film is it's remarkably short running time." The ponderous, pretentious and often nonsensical narration of Coleman Francis wasn't appreciated, either. Personally, I have always thought Francis intended his narration to be an "ironic" counterpoint to the action on screen. And I think the line "Nothing bothers some people--not even flying flying saucers" is hilarious. It makes no sense in the context of the scene, but it's weirdly perfect. To me, anyway.

The most famous sequence in the film--involving Tor and the rabbit--wasn't planned at all. According to Tony Cardoza, the baby Jack Rabbit just hopped on screen by itself. Tor, making his last film appearance, improvised on the spot. Luckily, the cameras kept rolling and caught it all. Such moments of movie magic are few and far between. Especially in a film like this.

Yet it isn't all bad. Despite its failures as a film, "The Beast of Yucca Flats" would go on to inspire the comic book/graphic novel/TV series/movie "The Incredible Hulk". Fans point out various plot similarities, proving that inspiration can truly strike anywhere.

So movie lovers, please always remember, and never forget, plan your vacations very carefully, pay attention to scientific progress and, above all, SAVE THE MOVIES!

Could "The Beast of Yucca Flats" have inspired "The Incredible Hulk"? Hmm...

1 comment:

  1. I wish I could say his other two movies are better. "Red Zone Cuba" is much worse and "The Skydivers" has a more cohesive plot--sort of. Best of luck with those.