59. THE BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS (1961)

“There’s a rare kind of perfection in The Beast of Yucca Flats — the perverse perfection of a piece wherein everything is as false and farcically far-out as can be imagined.”–Tom Weaver, in his introduction to his Astounding B Monster interview with Tony Cardoza

Beware

DIRECTED BY: Coleman Francis

FEATURING: Tor Johnson

PLOT: Joseph Javorsky, noted scientist, defects to the United States, carrying with him a briefcase full of Soviet state secrets about the moon.  Fleeing KGB assassins, he runs onto a nuclear testing range just as an atom bomb explodes.  The blast of radiation turns him into an unthinking Beast who strangles vacationers who wander into the Yucca Flats region.

Still from The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961)

BACKGROUND:

  • The Beast of Yucca Flats can always be found somewhere on the IMDB’s “Bottom 100” list (at the time the review was composed, it occupied slot #21).
  • All three of the films Coleman Francis directed were spoofed on “Mystery Science Theater 3000“.
  • Tor Johnson was a retired Swedish wrestler who appeared in several Ed Wood, Jr. movies.  Despite the fact that none of the movies he appeared in were hits, his bestial face became so iconic that it was immortalized as a children’s Halloween mask.
  • All sound was added in post-production.  Voice-overs occur when the characters are at a distance or when their faces are obscured so that the voice actors won’t have to match the characters lips.  Some have speculated that the soundtrack was somehow lost and the narration added later, but shooting without synchronized sound was a not-unheard-of low-budget practice at the time (see The Creeping Terror, Monster A-Go-Go and the early filmography of Doris Wishman).  Internal and external evidence both suggest that the film was deliberately shot silent.
  • Director Coleman Francis is the narrator and appears as a gas station owner.
  • Per actor/producer Tony Cardoza, the rabbit that appears in the final scene was a wild animal that wandered onto the set during filming.  It appears that the feral bunny is rummaging through Tor’s shirt pocket looking for food, however.
  • Cardoza, a close friend of Francis, suggests that the actor/director may have committed suicide in 1973 by placing a plastic bag over his head and inhaling the fumes from his station wagon through a tube, although arteriosclerosis was listed as the official cause of death.
  • The film opens with a topless scene that lasts for only a few seconds; it’s frequently clipped off prints of the film.
  • The Beast of Yucca Flats is believed to be in the public domain and can be legally viewed and downloaded at The Internet Archive, among other sources.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Tor Johnson, in all his manifestations, whether noted scientist or irradiated Beast; but especially when he cuddles and kisses a cute bunny as he lies dying.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Coleman Francis made three movies in his lifetime, all of which


Trailer for The Beast of Yucca Flats with commentary from director Joe Dante (Trailers from Hell)

were set in a reality known only to Coleman Francis.  His other two films (The Skydivers and Night Train to Mundo Fine [AKA Red Zone Cuba]) were grim and incoherent stories of despairing men and women in desolate desert towns who drank coffee, flew light aircraft, and killed off odd-looking extras without finding any satisfaction in the act.  Though his entire oeuvre was more than a bit bent by his joyless outlook on life, his natural affinity for the grotesque, and his utter lack of attention to filmic detail, this Luddite tale of an obese scientist turned into a ravening atomic Beast survives as his weirdest anti-achievement.

COMMENTS:  Touch a button on the DVD player.  Things happen onscreen.  A movie viewer becomes a zombie.

The Beast of Yucca Flats is widely recognized as being one of the worst movies ever to get a commercial release, but in the rush to point out its obvious flaws, few emphasize how weird this movie is.  It’s true that Beast can be relentlessly, maddeningly dull—thus the Beware rating—but the same is true of many 1960s B-movies: The Terror, The Screaming Skull, Revolt of the Zombies… the list could go on and on.  The paradox of this film is that, while Beast is boring, it’s boring in an interesting way.  Little happens in the narrative sense, but the film is stuffed full of strange non-sequiturs.  The desolate desert footage is soothing, the lack of dialogue otherworldly and dreamlike.  The film has the ability an absorb you into its irrational hypnotic rhythm, if you let your mind go and stop fighting it.  Absurd, oblique, and clumsily ironic narration, coming at the movie from some slanted angle, is the capper that puts it over-the-top, transcending the realm of the merely incompetent to reach the truly lunatic.  Where other Z-grade movies of the period are boring and predictable, Beast is boring and unpredictable; you can hardly comprehend how such a uniquely soporific thing exists.  It leaves a gentle welt on your soul.

Beast is weird from start to finish.  It begins with footage of a pretty brunette woman toweling herself off after a shower.  (Some cuts feature brief topless scenes, others pick up about 20 seconds in after she covers herself).  She sits on the edge of her bed and dries her gams.  The only noise is the insistent ticking of an alarm clock.  A man enters the room.  With his tattered shirt and broad frame, he’s obviously intended to be an irradiated Tor Johnson, although his face is never shown.  Totally silent, the woman barely reacts as the assailant strangles her into unconsciousness or death (it takes about ten seconds).   The clock stops ticking.  The unseen man carefully places her motionless legs on the bed and climbs aboard.  There is a brief shot of her lifeless head bouncing up and down as something shakes the mattress.  Then, sinister music plays and the title card goes on screen.  It’s only later that we realize that this timeless scene of voyeurism, murder and necrophilia has nothing to do with the rest of the movie.

The ending is equally absurd.  The Beast is finally defeated, and as he lies there pre-rotting in the desert sun, a wild rabbit comes up to the dying monster and nuzzles his shirt pocket.  With his last ounce of strength, the Beast grabs the cute bubby-wunny, as if to choke it, but ends up placing it by his lips for a kiss.  The impetus for the Beast’s sudden change of heart from thoughtless strangling monster to tender patron of nature is inexplicable.  Supposedly, a nuclear blast turned him homicidal in the first place; why would the knowledge that one is dying and an act of kindness from a friendly rabbit reverse that genetic mutation?  Did the Beast actually have free will all along?  Meant to sum up the film’s theme—nature=good, progress=bad—this laughably overwrought attempt at climactic pathos goes down as one of the most ironically unpoignant scenes ever filmed.

In between these two narrative bookends that are as misshapen as Tor Johnson’s beefy thighs lies a movie that is bewildering and exasperating.  You have a grossly overweight Tor Johnson, as “noted scientist” Joseph Javorsky, waddling onto an A-bomb testing range to escape KGB assassins who are badly pantomiming a gun battle.  The ensuing blast catches his briefcase on fire and leaves him with a little bit of wadded up toilet paper and pancake makeup stuck on his face.  The effect of the radiation is to turn him into an unthinking Beast who strangles random passersby.  Children wander into the desert after feeding pigs soda pop.  A glimpse of a patrolman’s wife (Marcia Knight, who would later play the femme fatale in Skydivers) falling out of her negligee injects a much needed shot of cleavage into the movie.  Most absurd is the local police’s reaction to the news that a Beast is roaming the post-nuclear wasteland.  Their official policy is to take to the air and shoot at anything that moves.  Watching the airborne cops snipe, North by Northwest style, at an innocent man wandering the desert searching for his lost children is hilariously tragic.  (It’s OK to laugh, because after his bullet-ridden corpse tumbles into a ravine, the poor father turns up later, none the worse for wear).  “Man’s inhumanity to man,” muses the narrator, though “man’s stupidity to man” would be a sager observation.  The entire movie is small bits of insanity occasionally popping to the surface in a sea of long-take, poorly framed shots of the Mojave desert, with a plump, angry Tor popping into frame every now and then and waving a tree branch.

Even with all this illogical nonsense, the movie would not go over-the-top in weirdness without Coleman Francis’ narration.  Though the delivery is polished, the narrator’s script seems improvised, stream of consciousness.  Sometimes, he just describes what’s going on onscreen with deadening obviousness, as if he’s accidentally reading the stage directions (“A man runs, somebody shoots at him”).  Other times, the pronouncements are so obscure that they approach surrealist poetry: “Flag on the moon… how did it get there?”  The also narrator reminds us, apropos of nothing, that some people aren’t perturbed by flying saucers.  But no matter how opaque and Zen the narration becomes, one thing is clear: the narrator is not a fan of Progress.  Innocent victims of the Beast are “unaware of scientific Progress,” until they get choked to death; or, as the narrator puts it, they become “caught in the wheels of Progress.”  Guileless children are described as “not yet caught in the whirlwind of Progress.”  All those old, Late Late Show atomic monster flicks were, of course, about sublimating the fear of nuclear annihilation into an easy to understand symbol of evil that could be conquered by the movie’s end.  Yucca Flats seizes on that observation like it’s a grand revelation on which man’s continued survival depends, brings it right to the surface with painful literalism, and inadvertently makes atomic age anxiety appear utterly ridiculous.  After listening to the “omniscient” narrator whine on about the generic evil of Progress, you may feel a strong urge to go out and pave the Mojave.

As loony as the narration may be, it’s delivered with absolute conviction, and in a brilliant, haiku-like cadence that’s mesmerizing.  The short phrase bursts… set in matched pairs or triplets… become strangely poetic.  The power of their form is in a war with the nonsense of their content.  It’s as if Francis was blessed with the soul of a poet, a natural talent for lyricism, and then cursed with nothing but the most feeble insight into the human condition.

All of this—the overdeliberate pace, the non-sequiturs, the hopping around in time and space, the grotesque fascination of Tor Johnson’s hideously beautiful face and grotesquely ugly body, the silent-movie feel. the misguided attempts at poetry that proffer the confused and banal as the profound—compromise the elements of a style.  It’s not a carefully composed auteurial style, but a style nonetheless, all the more dear and authentic for not being intended.  It’s a failure, to be sure, but it fails in a way that no one had ever failed before.  To watch a Coleman Francis movie is to see the unique and pathetic soul of a man captured on film.  That’s something you don’t see every day, and something precious.

The Beast of Yucca Flats has managed to evade analysis from mainstream critics, and is often dissed even by cult movie fans.  Yet, the film has earned itself a small but devoted following who are hip to its hypnotic charms; and it’s interesting to note that Beast has far more defenders than Francis’ other movies, which are more technically accomplished but also feature more conventional (if still incoherent) storylines.  The movie is a curio with a bad reputation that’s desperately in need of a little rehabilitation.  Bad movie lovers beware: this flick is special sauce, only for seasoned gourmands.  It has it’s share of risible moments, but it’s not a ceaselessly entertaining unintentional comedy like a Plan 9 from Outer Space or a Robot Monster.  It’s closest cinematic relative is probably the equally slow and bleak Manos: The Hands of Fate.  Another touchstone is the weird but slightly faster paced Horrors of Spider Island: I suggest watching that one first.  If you survive that viewing experience unscathed, move on to Yucca Flats, which is truly “the hard stuff” when it comes to minimalist exploitation films of the 19690s.  This is a movie many people want to see just so they can say that they’ve seen it.  You should, too.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…shot with virtually no dialogue and overlaid with hilariously pretentious and obtuse narration… the phrase “a flag on the moon” pops up so often it could be used in a drinking game.”–Cavett Binion, All Movie Guide (DVD)

“A senseless nonmovie, worse than anything Tor did for Ed Wood. Jr.”–Michael Weldon, The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film

“…the flat dialogue and wooden narration is almost absurd enough to distract viewers from [Francis’] cinematic incompetence. In short, a masterpiece of zero-budget camp with an unbelievably surreal edge.”–Sean Axmaker, Amazon.com editorial review

IMDB LINK: The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

The Beast of Yucca Flats: Free Download and Streaming – the full movie available to watch at Internet Archive

Return to Yucca Flats: Anthony Cardoza’s Tor of the Desert – interview with actor/producer Tony Cardoza at The Astounding B-Monster

The Beast of Yucca Flats at Jabootu’s Bad Movie Dimension – if you can’t be bothered to watch the movie, you can read Ken Begg’s sarcastic (and hilarious) plot synopsis, which covers every ludicrous detail

Episode Guide 621: The Beast of Yucca Flats – review of the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” treatment of the film from Satellite News

Another Beast from Yucca Flats? – The lowdown on a spoofy, amateur, direct-to-DVD “sequel” to the film

DVD INFO: As a public domain movie, The Beast of Yucca Flats is available in many different editions, although most are bare-bones affairs; I’m not aware of any DVDs that offer any extras.  The cheapest (and therefore most desirable) single disc edition comes from Alpha Video (buy). The Beast of Yucca Flats is frequently found bundled with other el-cheapo or public domain titles. The most impressive and economical of these multi-disc choices is Mill Creek’s Horror Classics 50 Movie Pack (buy), which also includes the certified weird Carnival of Souls; some good/weird movies in White Zombie and Maniac (1934); and versions of the silent classics Metropolis and The Phantom of the Opera, along with other “treasures” such as Creature from the Haunted Sea.  Finally, we should mention the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” version with snarky commentary from Mike and the bots; it can be found on the upcoming Mystery Science Theater Collection Volume XVIII (buy) along with humorous savagings of Lost Continent, Crash of the Moons and the Russian fantasy Jack Frost.

3 thoughts on “59. THE BEAST OF YUCCA FLATS (1961)”

  1. kudos on The Beast of Yucca Flats. Love Francis’ rambling mess. He deserves a slot right up there with Wood and Adamson.

  2. I watched the movie the other day, actually. Surprisingly, I actually sort of enjoyed it. The poetic narrative almost took me to grip. Perhaps this isn’t the best movie, but I like to think of it as a nice experiment, even if it is rather scrambled and messed up. I find myself interested in it in the same sense that I became interested in Gummo, another commercial and critical failure. And I’ve seen that movie so many times, I actually really like it now. So, on a note, even the most tangled projects can have a shine to it that attracts people to see something they never seen before.

  3. I watched this film only once, and for me, a lover of all things weird and b-movie, one time was one too many.
    This movie is so infamously bad, I had to see it.
    All I can say to anyone curious enough to watch this:
    Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enters Here.

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