The Beast of Yucca Flats/Atomic Monster: The Beast of Yucca Flats/Girl Madness (1961) -***
If it weren’t for the name Coleman Francis on the credits, you’d swear at first glance this was an Ed Wood film. Francis, after all, isn’t nearly as well known, and The Beast of Yucca Flats has pretty much everything Wood was notorious for: a tragically miniscule budget, absurdly overwrought yet somehow still wooden acting, a menace far less menacing than the film would have us believe, a title that seems not quite appropriate to the movie’s subject matter in a way you can’t initially put your finger on. Hell, it even has ex-wrestler Tor Johnson in a major role!
Johnson (whom Wood had directed in Bride of the Monster and Plan 9 from Outer Space) plays— get this— a Russian rocket scientist who would like very much to defect to the U.S. with explosive information regarding a secret Soviet landing on the surface of the moon. But unfortunately for him, Dr. Joseph Javorsky has been trailed by KGB agents! The agents engage him in one of the least thrilling car chases of all time, and eventually pursue him onto the grounds of a USAF H-bomb testing range. Your guess as to why there was no security perimeter around the test site is as good as mine. Be that as it may, the ensuing explosion kills both KGB guys, but Javorsky is either more or less lucky, depending on your perspective. Far from dying, the scientist is instead transformed into a murderous monster— a transformation that is effected by affixing some crummy burn makeup to half of Tor Johnson’s face and tearing his clothes in an artfully disheveled manner.
Javorsky’s first victims... no, wait. See, I’m not really sure just who the first victims of the monsterfied scientist are supposed to be, because there’s this scene right at the beginning, before the main action starts, that depicts Javorsky breaking into a house and killing a naked girl as she dries herself off after a shower. At that point in the movie, we haven’t even met Javorsky yet, and as the film wears on, it becomes increasingly evident that there’s simply no way to work that opening scene into the narrative structure of the film. Apart from the excuse it provides for blindsiding the audience with a couple of bare tits right off the bat, there’s really no reason for the scene’s existence at all. So perhaps we should just disregard the Toweling-Off Girl, and officially designate the Car Couple as victims number one and two. Javorsky comes upon them while their car is parked by the side of the road on his first night of monsterhood, and for reasons Coleman Francis apparently didn’t feel like going into, Javorsky kills the man where he stands, but carries the woman up into the stretch of craggy hill country where he has made his lair before doing away with her. The next day, highway patrolman Joe Dobson (Larry Aten) finds the dead man and his car, and passes on the word that there’s a killer stalking the desert. Enlisting the help of Jim Archer (Bing Stafford), army paratrooper-turned-policeman (and “another man caught in the frantic race for the betterment of mankind”— so sayeth the narrator), Dobson heads out into the sun-scorched wastes to catch the murderer.
The two cops hit a snag, however, in that the slopes leading up to the high country are too steep to be scaled without specialized climbing equipment. Yes, I know— a fat tub of lard like Javorsky somehow pulled it off while carrying the dead weight of an unconscious woman, but never you mind that! The slopes are too steep, ya hear?! Faced with this setback, the policemen head back to the barracks to hire a plane, which will take Archer aloft with a parachute and a sniper rifle— ‘cause, you know, he was a paratrooper once. Dobson sends Jim off with the admonition, “If you see anything up there, shoot first and ask questions later.” And these men are both police officers. My god...
As an illustration of what can go wrong when the cops are given instructions like that, consider the following scene. A family of four on a cross-country trip get a flat tire not far from the scene of Javorsky’s rather mild rampage. While Hank the father (Douglas Mellor) changes the tire and his wife, Lois (Barbara Francis— apparently Coleman’s wife), stands uselessly on the sidelines, the two boys (Coleman and Barbara’s kids) run off and get themselves lost in Javorsky’s hills. (But... too steep...) When Hank goes looking for them (Too steep, damnit! Toosteeptoosteeptoosteeptoosteeptoosteep!!!!), Jim spies him from the airplane and starts shooting. Apparently he really will be asking his questions later. And while the hapless traveler is being hounded across the desert by the trigger-happy cop, his sons are running for their lives from a club-wielding Javorsky. (Javorsky, however, is much too fat to run. Never fear, though— he somehow stays right behind the two kids anyway!) Archer finally meets the real killer when he parachutes to the ground after wounding his totally innocent target. Rendezvousing with Dobson for a mopping-up foray into the hills (which now even a ‘56 Ford can climb...), Jim at last crosses paths with the boys, who still have Javorsky hot on their heels. Two hits from Archer’s rifle bring the irradiated scientist down in one of the sorriest anticlimaxes of the Atomic Monster era, after which a cuddly little desert rabbit hops over to the dying Javorsky and snuggles with him during his last moments on Earth. And before you ask, no— I don’t understand what that’s supposed to be about, either.
Okay, so does it strike anybody else as odd that a movie which takes place primarily in super-rugged hill country should be called The Beast of Yucca Flats? It’s a minor quibble, I know, but it’s one that sets the tone for the whole movie. The Beast of Yucca Flats will have even the most uncritical of viewers saying, “You guys really didn’t think this thing out too clearly before you rolled the cameras, did you?” Its most glaring flaw— and the source of most of its entertainment value— is the narrator, Coleman Francis himself. As is often the case in really shitty movies from this period, the narrator is our constant companion, but The Beast of Yucca Flats carries this common defect to extremes heard almost nowhere else. Indeed, taking into consideration the fact that what little dialogue there is has obviously been overdubbed— and in such a way that the person talking is almost never onscreen at the time, at that— it’s tempting to speculate that Francis originally attempted a conventional dialogue track which came out so badly as to be almost totally useless. Maybe the audio track we eventually wound up with was the result of a desperate attempt to salvage the film after too much of the budget had already been spent to permit a full-scale recreation of the original dialogue. What’s more, that narration takes the form of a nearly continuous stream-of-consciousness ramble, which frequently abandons all efforts to convey substantive story information. Whenever Javorsky appears onscreen, Francis can be counted upon to wax poetic: “Once a brilliant scientist, now just fatty grease for the wheels of progress.” And even when he sticks to the usual expository function of a movie narrator, Francis is still apt to say things like, “Boys from the city, not yet caught up in the whirlwind of progress, feed soda pop to the thirsty pigs.” Note, too, that both the examples I just quoted inexplicably link the accidental irradiation of a defecting Russian scientist and his subsequent reign of terror as a strikingly ineffectual monster with “progress.” This, in fact, is a theme that runs throughout the narration for the entire length of the film. No matter what’s going on, Coleman Francis finds some way to hook it back into his favorite topic. It is here that The Beast of Yucca Flats is at its Woodiest; with all that “progress” claptrap, you’d swear it was Criswell delivering the insane voiceover. The movie’s worth it for that alone.