Watching Five Million Years to Earth (aka Quatermass and The Pit) once again. I watched it last night too and while googling up some info on the flick I was saddened to see that Barbara Shelley passed on a month ago. She was just a few weeks shy of her 89th birthday. Though she is best known for her roles in string of Hammer’s quintessential horror films, I love her most as an unflappable scientist in this Hammer science fiction classic, one of my favorite films ever, and probably my very favorite science fiction film. (The original BBC four episode story, with a different cast, is also excellent.) Who knows how many times I’ve seen this movie since it first blew my mind when I was a teen, and it has only gotten better with age. Barbara Shelley was never better—subtle, smart, unflinching and beautiful—than she is here. Rest In Peace.
OK, The Cyclops from 1956 isn’t quite up there with Forbidden Planet or Invasion Of the Bodysnatchers or War Of the Worlds in 1950’s science fiction. It’s more down there with The Amazing Colossal Man, The Killer Shrews and From Hell It Came. I watched it anyway, every single frame. And I sometimes backed it up to watch the stupid parts over again. The over the top score in places helped. And that Gloria Talbot was cute as a bug, of which there were no giant versions in the movie. Giant lizards, a giant rodent, a giant snake and a giant hawk though. Plus the giant cyclops. Anyway, Lon Chaney Jr gets to be an idiot, and I didn’t recognize anyone else. Gloria Talbot, incidentally, was the great great great granddaughter of the guy who founded Glendale, tho’ I didn’t even know it was losted.
So at movie night last night the host said go ahead Brick, you pick the movie and I instantly picked The Beast of Yucca Flats before anyone could tear the keyboard from my cold dead hands. Alas I was mortified, as it was the edited for incredibly bad television version and the scene where the children feed soda to the pigs was cut, losing all that pathos and and rendering the complex multi dimensional narratives a confusing mess. Not even Tor Johnson’s wailing and stumbling and Russian scientist turned into a psychopathic killer by an unexpected atomic blast shtick could save it. Imagine a Plan 9 without the 9. I say stick to the Criterion edition, where the restored director’s cut shows the children feeding soda to the pigs as well as lots more driving around. There is also audio commentary by Tor Johnson and the pigs, as well as several clips from the original Broadway production of the Beast of Yucca Flats, with James Coco as the Beast.
As soon as that ended, the keyboard still in my colder and even deader hands, I selected Bucket of Blood, perhaps my favorite Roger Corman flick, full of stoned beatniks and uptight narcs and murderous artists (well, one) and bad poets and Paul Horn playing some truly gorgeous tenor sax, much cooler than anything he did inside the Great Pyramid. Indeed all the jazz—these are beatniks, remember—in the flick is cool, with Fred Katz providing his usual amazingly hip jazz score, or maybe his identically hip jazz score, since he handed Corman the same recordings for a couple different flicks, just changing the title on the can, figuring nobody would notice, which they did not. Which just goes to show you can never trust a cello player.
Finally, the evil artist hoisted on his own metaphorical beatnik petard beneath the jagged swell of saxophones and brass, it’s over. I hate when it’s over as I don’t think there’s another film quite like it. I sat back on the couch, they pried the keyboard from my cold dead hands and said I could keep coming to movie night but I couldn’t pick the movies. I said cool, Daddy o.
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.
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.
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.