The poetry of the Beast of Yucca Flats

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

There is about four hundred times as much narration as dialog in The Beast of Yucca Flats and yet there’s very little narration either, just lots of very slow action footage, with random atmospheric moments, all of it shot silently, with sound dubbed in later. Characters talk with their back to the camera so you won’t notice. Cars run. Sometimes you can hear them. Sometimes you don’t. A man runs. Someone shoots at him. The utter lack of continuity gives it the same sense of time as the aliens in The Arrival, a thought that actually occurred to me while watching The Beast of Yucca Flats, I am embarrassed to admit. I mentioned it to my wife and she just stared at me. As the narrator says, nothing bothers some people, not even flying saucers (not that there are any flying saucers in The Beast of Yucca Flats). The result is that each dollop of narration stands out like a random snip of a 1950’s pulp murder mystery intoned like bad beat poetry, always on the prowl, looking for something or somebody to kill. Quench the killer’s thirst. Instead of bongos and saxophones we get Tor Johnson’s occasional growls and wails (he is the noted scientist turned into a beast by an unexpected atomic blast), plus a weirdly musical score (they must have spent the budget for sound on the score.) The words themselves become addicting. There is a theme: Yucca Flats. The A-bomb. Joseph Javorski, noted scientist. Progress. Especially Progress. It’s pops up at random times, like a cop trapped in the wheels of Progress, or as boys from the city, not yet caught by the whirlwind of Progress, feed soda pop to the thirsty pigs. Or even metaphorically: flag on the moon. How did it get there? It’s what gives this film its intellectual cachet above and beyond, say, Attack of the Giant Leaches, with which this shares a DVD. It’s what turns this from being merely an incredibly bad science fiction movie into an appallingly bad use of the English language, those pseudo deep hard boiled snippets of narration full of meaning and heaviness. You have to resist dropping them into your own writing, it’s so easy. Find the Beast and kill him. Kill, or be killed. Man’s inhumanity to man. Reading this review it’s hard to tell what I wrote and what I copped from the script. I am ruined.

Phantom Planet

Still mining the Mill Creek 50 flick SciFi Classsics collection while waiting for the cable box to arrive so I can watch news 24/7 like everyone else. But in the meantime I’m finding occasional gems like the obscure Phantom Planet (1961). It was either written or directed or produced by a guy that used to write arrangements for Fred Waring but something must have happened, some bad booze, maybe, or some early LSD, as this flick is about as far removed from Fred Waring as Sun Ra. It’s not art, sure, but it’s wildly imaginative with some very striking effects–and concepts–for 1961. Surely Kubrick and Roddenberry loved it, as they both copped ideas, and not just sorta copped them either but flat out lifted whole scenes. The flick is sort of a cross between a very low budget Forbidden Planet, space opera Outer Limits, and any number of 1950’s science fiction radio shows (such as Dimension X or X Minus One), as radio allowed for just about anything, as long as listeners could imagine it. Here they tried to apply that to the silver screen (or a drive in screen anyway) and the result is no Zontar the Thing From Venus but some occasionally dumb but very entertaining science fiction. I suppose that stoned out of your mind it’s even better, but I was high on life. Well, life and coffee. Oh–that’s Richard Kiel in the solar monster suit, his first role, I think, and Francis X Bushman is the wise old alien. Plus enough alien babes to satisfy your inner Kirk.

They Came From Beyond Space

So They Came From Beyond Space (which they didn’t, they came from the moon) is not 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nor is it Five Million Years to Earth or Day of the Triffids. But it’s not an English Zontar the Thing From Venus either. It’s fast moving, bizarre, at times idiotic, even utterly idiotic, yet at times sort of inspired too and the plot twists about enough to keep you wondering and not wandering. The hint of a romantic subplot is mercifully quashed and all in all it’s more like a rejected Avengers pilot meets early Dr. Who meets a 1960’s Flash Gordon had there been one with scattered momentary pretensions to James Bondishness. It’s an Amicus production and, though no Hammer, they had their moments. So this wasn’t one of those moments. Still, in the context of the wasteland of this Mill Creek SciFi Classics fifty flick box set, it was thoroughly entertaining. Then again, you’re talking to a man who just wrote an essay on The Wasp Woman.

They Came From Beyond Space

The Wasp Woman

Not only is The Wasp Woman the greatest guinea pig morphing into white rat and we’re not supposed to notice movie ever (apparently the pet store didn’t have any baby guinea pigs), but Fred Katz’s score is brilliant. It’s so strange how these American International flicks have some of the finest jazz soundtracks in all of filmdom. Like who’s playing this alto saxophone solo underneath the meathead delivery men trying to pick up on the secretaries? Though I think I heard this same alto solo in Bucket of Blood when a crazed beatnik was covering a dead cat (as in kitty cat, not hepcat) in modeling clay. It was probably the exact same solo in The Haunted Sea that I heard between fits of giggling at a profoundly dumb sea monster. I remember reading that Katz sold Roger Corman the same score over and over and Corman never noticed. Serves him right for not being musical. Meanwhile, Wasp Woman is having a bad morph day. The music suddenly swells into a cacophony like Sun Ra and crashes to a halt, Wasp Woman dead, though the kids in the back seats never noticed. It was a drive in double feature anyway and who knows, they might be humping their way through the exact same alto saxophone solo in the next flick. Popcorn anyone?

Hellzapoppin’

I have one of those Mill Creek comedy collections, full of mostly completely forgotten comedies from the 30’s, 40’s and early 50’s, mostly B flicks, some lousy, some with moments, and some really funny. They range from sophisticated–the nearly completely forgotten Animal Kingdom, a Noel Coward thing from 1932 written by the same guy who did Philadelphia Story and a real gem–to virtually plotless Hal Roach things that are excuses to pull out every slapstick bit he ever used in a silent short. I’d never actually seen Olsen and Johnson and gotta admit in their couple films in this monstrous box set (fifty movies!) they completely break me up, much funnier than Abbott and Costello, and their physical comedy bits are really similar to the Marx Brothers, you can certainly get the feel of the vaudeville both came from. In fact, that led me to Hellzapoppin’ on YouTube (a beautiful print), which was the Universal Studios version of Olsen and Johnson’s huge Broadway hit Hellzapoppin (Universal’s grammar nazis insisted on the apostrophe). The Broadway show was, by all accounts, the most anarchic thing in the history of American entertainment, utter madness, script be damned, incredibly loud, with action on the stage, behind the stage, in the audience, in the aisles, and in the lobby as people left. None of its 1,404 performances were alike. Skits could be dropped, or stopped midway, or completely altered, or destroyed by manic improvisation. Musical numbers rarely made it uninterrupted. Shills planted in the audience would start yelling or weirding out or heckling or loudly announce, over and over, they were going to the bathroom. Things were dropped from the rafters onto the audience, and buzzers jolted them out of their seats. The fourth wall was not just broken through, it was shredded, it was inverted, it was drawn on, it was pulled inside out, it had its own fourth wall (would that be a fifth wall?) Critics hated it. Audiences loved it. It was vaudeville’s last crazy act, really. That was our grandparents’ and great grandparents’ world, vaudeville, this sort of unapologetic cornball Yiddish and yokel and music hall madness. It’s the anarchy you see in the early Marx Brothers flicks, in Duck Soup and Monkey Business and Horse Feathers, before MGM tamed them. Universal tamed Hellzapoppin, too, or tried to, with an inane love story and too many uninterrupted musical numbers (though Martha Raye was no comic slouch, and there’s a killer jazz and lindy hop bit, just perfect, perhaps the best swing dance movie scene ever). But Olsen and Johnson (and screenwriter Nat Perrin, who also wrote Monkey Business as well as conceived and wrote the original Addams Family) manage to keep the anarchy going, with the fourth wall shattered in a zillion pieces. The first fifteen minutes apparently come closest to the dementia of the live show, and it is probably the most intensely manic comedy I have ever seen on film including the Marx Brothers. It’s more low brow than the Marx Brothers, with none of their intellectual cachet, and I imagine neither Olsen nor Johnson ever sat around the Algonquin Round Table, but it is absolutely insane. Wonderful stuff. If you’re a fan of screwball comedy in its purest and most uncompromising form, or just want to see what it was that died when vaudeville died, I imagine Hellzapoppin’ (apostrophe’d) is essential. Besides, it has the hippest Citizen Kane reference ever: “I thought they burned that thing.”

Trapped

Watched an old noir I’d never seen before, Trapped, with Lloyd Bridges as the anti-hero, a moltenly sexy Barbara Payton before she’d carrie fishered herself into oblivion, and the guy who played proto-Bones in the Star Trek pilot “The Cage”. It was a fast, tough and heartless tale in glorious black and white set in Hollywood and downtown LA with terrific location footage c. 1949. Any movie that says we’ll meet on Fountain is cool by me. Amazing finish where the old Red Line cars slept at night. Also, 1949 had the goofiest cars ever. Damn, like bulbous tin cans or huge aluminum shoes. Anyway, the ending is an appropriate shocker of dubious moral certitude. Amazing what a world war will do to society’s underpinnings.

A stream of consciousness review of Alfred Hitchcock’s Secret Agent

Just watched Secret Agent. One of Hitchcock’s sillier films, but I loved it nonetheless. John Gielgud’s character was another of Hitchcock’s pompous twits, Peter Lorre plays a crazed Mexican general apparently on the run from Mexico during their revolution, Robert Young is a characteristically swell American, a million laughs, and then, uncharacteristically, a noirish cad, and of course there’s Madeleine Carroll again, after having just seen her and her legs (and Robert Donat’s hand) in The 39 Steps. She’s nearly as stunning here, down a notch only because of the weaknesses in the script. What a beauty she was. Radiant. I would have been so madly in love with her at the time were I a Brit, unless I was a pompous twit. She slaps Gielgud for his wanton twittery, he slaps her back. The English you know, I’d like to see him try slapping an Irish dame that way. But that is halfway through the film. Flashing back to the beginning, there’s a creepy opener of an air raid, you can hear the rumbling hum of a zeppelin, the periodic explosions of the bombs (dropped back then by hand), the searchlights seeking it out although, in 1916, the German airships were far out of range of any aeroplane and vulnerable to only the luckiest shot of the luckiest gunner. London sat in the dark, helpless. We don’t know that now, we have images of the Blitz and dogfights and batteries of anti-aircraft guns, but British audiences watching this in 1936 or so would have remembered that terror vividly. Very unsettling. Indeed, it wouldn’t be until the V-1s that London would hear the buzzing and wait helplessly for explosions again. But both they and the silent V-2s make for lousy cinematography and scarcely ever made it into movies. No Mrs. Miniver heroics, though I believe Robert Taylor chats up Vivien Leigh while ducking a zeppelin raid in Waterloo Sunset. But I seem to have drifted off into the wrong film. Getting back to Secret Agent, it’s about this time that three of the leads zip off to fun and intrigue in Switzerland. They meet Robert Young there. There are a couple of astonishing sonic sequences, one involving a Swiss Alpine chorus singing tunes that seem to hearken back to ancient harmonies, accompanied by coins swirling metallicly about bowls. Stunning. Just as stunning is the long scene of pipe organ dissonance in a mountain church. Never mind what or how, just wait for it. Creepy and gorgeous. Indeed, far from me to leak any of the plot, but it ends in a bewildering train trip to Constantinople though whether they are Turkish or Bulgarian soldiers on board with them I couldn’t quite tell, nor understand just why English spies and a defrocked Mexican general were allowed on military trains with such ease. And the events highlighted in the newspaper headlines at the film’s conclusion refer to Allenby’s (Trevor Howard in Lawrence of Arabia) Palestinian campaign in 1918, while Secret Agent begins in early summer of 1916 and seems to run on for only a fortnight if that, indeed ending before the Battle of the Somme even commences (as there is no mention of it). I’m certain English audiences would have noticed this, one armed Tommies complaining loudly in the lobby afterward till plied with a dram or three at the local pub. And I too was thoroughly confused at this point, even straight and sober as I was, though to be honest I could care less that the plot seemed to have gone off the rails somewhere east of Zurich and had entered some sort of wormhole through space and time, 1916 rendered into 1918 like magic. It’s Hitchcock, why ask for an explanation. Besides, many of the English audience would have read the Somerset Maugham novel anyway, and could have filled in the details apparently excised from the screenplay by the chapter full. Then, as I was busily looking at Madeleine Carroll, the film suddenly ended in one of Hitchcock’s beloved disasters. The screech of metal and madness and irony. A few laughs even. The leads that didn’t die live happily ever after humping their way through the rest of the war. The end. Fortunately no children or puppies were blown up in the making of the picture, nor kitty cats skinned and eaten. Not exactly a classic, but who gives a fuck. It’s Hitchcock.

Up next is Jamaica Inn. Don’t know if I’ve ever seen that one either.

Secret Agent

John Gielgud, Madeleine Carroll, Peter Lorre, secret agents.