The Beast Of Yucca Flats should be used as an educational aid in film schools. It’s a treasure trove of lessons on what not to do when making a film. It could be just as useful to an acting school for the same cautionary reasons. Excusing Yucca Flats as simply low budget can not explain away its many unfortunate filmmaking choices.
For all its ham-fisted incompetence the film still has a ludicrous sense of jaded swagger. All of the actors seem half-asleep or hypnotized. They don’t know where to look or what their motivations are, so they badly pantomime what has been blocked out for them. Even when they get strangled or are startled they seem like they are in a deep fog. Their indifference makes them seem cool and aloof like they are too good for the film or just don’t care, but it’s the bizarre narration that really gives the film its attitude.
The whole film was shot without a mic, so the narrator and everything else was dubbed in post-production. The narrator sounds as if he was borrowed off some noir movie set. You can picture him squinting as he slowly exhales cigarette smoke under a streetlight. He doesn’t bother with stupid crap like prepositions and articles he gets right to the point. He introduces each of the characters, like Rod Serling in the Twilight Zone episodes. When we first meet our policeman hero he is learning about a dead body a bystander found on the highway. The narrator speaks in an almost bitter and exhausted tone like he’s disappointed with life.
Narrator: “Young Joe Dobson, desert patrolman.”
Bystander: “There’s a man dead. Back down the road.”
Joe: “Dead? How far down.”
Bystander: “Couple miles. Maybe more. Laying behind his car. Looks like he’s been choked.
Narrator: “Joe Dobson, caught in the wheels of progress.”
The world-weary narrator watches the movie with us and seems unimpressed. We see a car pulled off to the side of the road with a man trying to fix the engine while his wife has a smoke in the front seat. All the narrator can bring himself to say is “Vacation time. Man and wife. Unaware of scientific progress.”
The premise is simple enough a Soviet scientist who is defecting to the USA is trying to evade a couple of KGB operatives who are chasing him. They end up in the desert, where all b movies are made, and while they run around an atomic bomb goes off. The scientist, Joseph Jaworsky, turns into a blood-thirsty mutant and starts killing all the people who happen to be passing through the desert. The narrator explains, “Touch a button, things happen. (Long pause) A scientist becomes a beast.”
The scientist is played by Tor Johnson, the former wrestling champion of Sweden. This was actually his last film but he had had quite a career in the world of low-budget horror. He is a mountain of a man. When he stumbles across the couple vacationing in their car, he kills the husband, and then somehow manages to sneak his enormous bulk undetected into the back of a VW bug while the wife sits in the front seat oblivious. When he strangles her from behind she seems slightly uncomfortable for a moment and then gently closes her eyes and bows her head as if she has chosen this moment to take a nap. No tension, no fear, just doin’ what the director told her to do.
Joe Dobson has a partner. The narrator introduces him in his typical fashion, “Jim Archer, Joe’s partner, another man caught in the frantic race for the betterment of mankind.” It seems the narrator has a problem with modernity. When two young boys enter the film the narrator gives them the same treatment, “Boys from the city, not yet caught in the whirldwind (spelling reflects the pronunciation) of progress.”
All the dubbing must have been done in a small room with a lot of hard surfaces, perfect for simulating the open-air desert of California. It makes for a weird and annoying dissonance.
There is an awful lot of dead time in the film. Mostly we just watch people wandering around. Either they are hunting the monstrous mutant or they are innocently sitting around waiting to be victims of the monstrous mutant, either way, there isn’t much footage of the monstrous mutant which is why we are watching the movie in the first place.
The music tries to build tension but it is rendered useless by the plodding pacing. Finally, there is an attempt to emulate Hitchcock’s North By Northwest with the deputy flying in an airplane and trying to gun down a man he has yet to identify. The man is just a father looking for his lost children but I guess the deputy thinks the poor father is the mutant. The deputy finally shoots him down and as we regard his broken body in a ditch the embittered narrator simply says, “Shoot first, ask questions later.” A few scenes later he will say that the victim was “an innocent victim caught in the wheels of justice.” He brings a certain fatalist point of view to everything he utters. As the deputy parachutes down to inspect the body the narrator just says “A man runs, somebody shoots at him.” That’s it, that’s the whole statement. I guess it’s just a foregone conclusion. At least there is some footage of a guy parachuting, but like everything else, it is way too long.
The victim in the ditch was shot in the arm, and then in the stomach, or at least that is what it looks like, but then a few minutes later he is fine. No blood, no pain, just fine. Then there is more wandering and looking and wandering and looking. There is a whole genre of films that are made with nothing but a monster costume and a camera, but Beast of Yucca Flats goes one further and dispenses with the costume. They just dragged some actors into the dunes and started shooting. I suppose they did put some paste on Tor’s face and gave him a stick to wave around.
The cowboy cops eventually shoot poor Tor and put the film out of its misery. There is no resolution to the shooting of the innocent man or to anything other than “the beast” dying, but still, it’s a relief to see the words “The End” appear on the screen. I would be remiss if I did not mention that after the film was completed, Coleman Francis, the director, decided to add some nudity so he filmed a woman coming out of the shower and getting strangled by an unseen assailant. The scene closes with what looks like some immanent necrophilia. Francis tacked the scene onto the beginning of the film. It does not contribute to the story or ever get referred to but to use the narrator’s logic, woman takes off her shirt, woman is in a movie.
Thankfully The Beast Of Yucca Flatts (1961) is one of only three movies Francis ever directed. He spent most of his career as an actor. His resume is a long list of b movies ending with an appearance in Russ Meyers’ Beyond The Vally of The Dolls. At least he was able to touch greatness before leaving this earth.
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