[May 24, 1961] Progress? (The Beast of Yucca Flats, by Rosemary Benton)

May 1961 has been a busy month for movies!  We’re up to three: Gorgo, Atlantis, and…well, see for yourself what guest writer, Ms. Rosemary Benton, has been so kind as to present:

Oh my, was this a lesson is poor filmmaking and truly a dark day for the science-fiction genre.  The tale ofThe Beast of Yucca Flats is short, but very baffling. 

Here’s the set-up: Soviet agents have been dispatched to apprehend and execute Dr. Joseph Javorsky, a scientist defected from “behind the Iron Curtain,” carrying top secret documents about the Russian “Moon Shot.”  A firefight commences leading to a car chase onto a plain which we see, via a small hand painted sign, is the Nevada Test Site (NTS) Yucca Flats.  The US agents then stop the car in order to continue the previous gun fight (which makes no sense; they must be heading to the military base at the nuclear testing facility, Why stop?) Needless to say their exchange leads to a pursuit on foot into the surrounding wastes, when FLASH! a nuclear bomb is detonated.  The last that is seen of the poor doctor is a hand reaching towards a flaming briefcase.  When next we see Dr. Javorsky, the radiation exposure has turned him into a mad strangler – The Beast!

Immediate points of contention when addressing this film include stilted performances, shots that are so dark they’re black, and a rambling plot that seems to jump around in time.  The cinematography is directed with little regard to continuity: characters will be stumbling toward camera left when just a moment prior they were fleeing from camera right.  Interestingly, the film was recorded with no audio, so when a character has dialogue, the lines are delivered with the actor facing away from the camera, off camera entirely, or in a scene so dark you can’t make out anything.  All sound – special effects, music, and dialogue – were very clearly added in post production.

Thankfully this was the second film in the double feature I saw, because I can’t imagine who would brave this film hoping to see what follows it.  Going on about the technical quality of the film in any aspect would be a pointless adventure.  So instead I let my mind wander, and as I was sitting in the theater for a seemingly endless amount of time I was drawn to several interesting aspects of the film’s production.

As a project funded on a shoestring it’s not surprising to see members of the cast double up on roles. Larry Aten, the actor portraying patrolman Joe Dobson, was credited as both an actor as well as the makeup artist.  Unfortunately I don’t know his work from anywhere else, but amazingly, there was one actor whose career I was very familiar with.  Character actor Tor Johnson plays the titular Beast of the film, bringing with him his infamous white eyed visage and staggering gait.  Given his prior film history, I knew that his name popping up in the introductory credits heralded a film that would be assuredly terrible, but fascinatingly so.

Tor Johnson started out as a wrestler known as The Swedish Angel.  The first credited role Johnson landed was a background part on the acclaimed history-drama show You Are There.  Johnson continued finding bit roles in television before breaking into movies via 1955’s Edward D. Wood Jr. picture, Bride of the Monster.  Two years later, Johnson again starred in an Ed Wood film, The Unearthly.  Then came Night of the Ghouls in 1958, written, produced and directed by…you guessed it: Ed Wood.  By the time Johnson starred in (Wood’s) Plan 9 From Outer Space , it was clear that the man had found his niche.  In fact, it was downright odd to see him anywhere outside of an Edward D. Wood Jr. production, but I will admit that if anyone had to portray a radioactive scientist turned strangler, former wrestler Tor Johnson was a good choice.

Coleman Francis, writer, actor, director, editor and co-producer of The Beast of Yucca Flats, is another name that I recognized from television and film.  As a thespian, you might remember him from Sargent Preston of the Yukon , or Dragnet.  Uncredited roles of his include the power plant phone operator in the 1954 science-fiction film Killers from Space and the express delivery man from the 1955 jewel This Island Earth .  Judging by the number of functions he managed in The Beast of Yucca Flats, it was clearly his passion project . Having that much control over a project could have allowed Francis to create something very different.  That isn’t what happened, but nonetheless there’s an outsider quality to the film that, although not nearly as clever as Francis thought it was, deserves some consideration.

In a better film with a better script, the ever present narration (written and read by Coleman Francis) might actually have come off as clever.  However, weighed down by odd timing and working in tandem with a poor plot, the words come off as pompous.  Francis’s narration consists of the repetition of key phrases which are supposed to draw a correlation between the plot and larger world issues.  The repetition of the word “progress” is a particular favorite of his.  “Progress” is synonymous with Dr. Javorsky, or more specifically the Beast.  Joe Dobson is, “Caught in the wheels of progress” as he surveys the first victims of the Beast.  “Progress” said as the highway patrolmen are getting into their car to look for the murderer of a young couple.  I can only assume that, according to Coleman Francis, scientific progress has a price that must be paid in blood and futile efforts. 

Take Joseph Javorsky who lost his whole family in Hungary and now, just when he was about to meet with the American scientific and military community, is caught in an atomic blast that turns him into a strangler and who is then hunted down and shot.  A poetic criticism of the advancement of science, but impossible to take seriously when there isn’t any scientific basis for the conflict of the plot – which, again, is about a man who is driven to murderous strangulation after being caught in a blast of radiation.

The Beast of Yucca Flats is almost a creature of a bygone era if one only looks at the way that it was filmed and written.  There are hints, however, of a new emergence in science-fiction and film that I believe Francis was aware of when he made his movie.  More and more young people can afford their own entertainment, which translates into profits for anyone who can hold their attention.  To that end The Beast of Yucca Flats attempts to be both a titillating “creature feature” and a cautionary tale of science.  As a creature feature, it conforms to the metaphor of creature/alien/monster serving as the embodiment of all that is wrong with the world. Through science gone awry this creature/alien/monster has struck at the hand that created it.  Such cautionary tales of science featuring a centralized menace are plentiful in science-fiction and include such memorable movies as Godzilla, King of Monsters! from 1956, Them! (1954), and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). 

Where earlier science fiction films predominantly try to present as fantastical but scientific, The Beast of Yucca Flats nearly glosses over any real science.  The disaster that is supposed to spawn the Beast is highly illogical, and the film misses that crucial science-fiction scene where the characters try to figure out why radiation would turn someone into a mad strangler.  It’s a pretty major deviation from the last decade of the genre’s formula, but one that I imagine we will see more of in the future as focus in science-fiction cinema shifts to accommodate the emerging teenage movie-going population . It can certainly be expected that marketing to a young audience will include more nude scenes as in the uncut opening of The Beast of Yucca Flats

Would I recommend that anyone see this film?  No.  It’s a poorly made movie that was released on the popularity of the science-fiction genre, but does nothing to further it.  Aside from being insultingly dumb, it’s a boring film with only the wacky collection of cast members going for it.  It is always entertaining to see Tor Johnson reprising his Lobo character, but in this case take a pass and make sure whatever double feature you see with The Beast of Yucca Flats shows the film second, not first.

[Ms. Benton has neglected to rate this gem.  1 star?  2 stars?  6?  And I have to wonder what the first movie of the double-feature was…]

5 thoughts on “[May 24, 1961] Progress? (The Beast of Yucca Flats, by Rosemary Benton)”

  1. My deepest respects to Ms Benton for sitting through this, and I hope the earlier film (curious here, too) did something to make up for it.

    Hollywood does seem to be a culture where ‘science’ is considered a shopping mall to buy the latest toy.

  2. I managed to catch this one (or it caught me.) I guess the “uncensored” version is playing in one of those “adults only” theaters downtown, because the version I saw didn’t include the nudity mentioned in this review.  In any case, it’s astonishingly bad.  It makes the ones Johnson made with Edward Wood look professional.  Enjoy it only with some folks in the audience to make fun of it.

  3. I find that I’m simply too stunned by what I’ve read here to have much to say (and that as someone with a relative working at AIP). But I felt that Rosemary’s sacrifice should be acknowledged. She really gave one for the team here.

  4. Yeah, *sniff* it was a supreme sacrifice *dabs eyes*. Thank you for the kind words and for reading the article. It’s hard to follow such reviewers as the the crew of the Satellite of Love, but it was worth it for the glory of Galactic Journey!

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