Track of the Moonbeast (1976) -**½
I know what you’re thinking: “Track of the Moonbeast, eh? Werewolf movie. Got it.” Not quite. It’s true that, in terms of general plot structure, this movie is pretty much indistinguishable from every werewolf flick made before the 1980’s, but the details of the story make it something altogether loopier. The titular Moonbeast is no werewolf, but rather a were-monitor lizard, and he gets that way by being hit on the head with a meteorite of lunar origin! Not only that, the ancient folklore that comes to the rescue in determining how to deal with him comes not from medieval Eastern Europe, but from the Navajo Indians!
So how do we know the offending meteorite is of lunar origin? Because there’s a great big asteroid about to smack into the moon as Track of the Moonbeast opens, and the story of the impending celestial collision is all over the TV news. All the scientists whose jobs are to make predictions like this believe that the impact will spray the Earth with fragments in the following days, leading to some of the most spectacular meteor showers in living memory. The majority of this debris will burn up in the atmosphere, of course, so stargazers seeking to witness the showers should have nothing to worry about. Ha. Ha, I say!
Anyway, while most of New Mexico is in a tizzy over the coming fireworks, a young man named Paul Carlson (Chase Cordell, from Terror in the Jungle and The Sins of Rachel) is digging for Indian artifacts out in the desert. He is snuck up on and surprised by his old college professor, John “Johnny Longbow” Salinas (Gregorio Sala), photographer Kathy Nolan (Donna Leigh Drake), and two of Salinas’s current students, Budd Keeler (Tim Butler) and Janet Price (Francine Kessler). They were just headed back to Johnny Longbow’s place on the reservation for an “authentic Indian supper,” and they’d like to know if Paul wants to come along. Sure he does, especially once Kathy switches on that big sign over her head that reads, “I am your love-interest, dumb-ass.” A very efficient love-interest she is, too, for only a few hours later, Paul is taking her up to a secluded ridge where he likes to go whenever he feels like getting away from it all. They happen to get there right as the much-vaunted meteor shower is starting, and from their vantage point high above the light pollution of the nearest town, they get a really stunning view of it. But that view gets a little too stunning when one of the larger meteors doesn’t quite burn up on reentry— a fragment about the size of a golf ball comes streaking straight at Kathy, and grazes Paul’s temple when he jumps on her to knock her out of its flight path.
Paul begins having weird, intense headaches the next morning, and something very strange happens to him when he and Kathy go to the local museum to see the collection of moon rocks. One of the rocks— it looks a lot like the one that landed on the ridge the night before— shoots Paul in the head with a little beam of energy when he gets within arm’s reach of its display cabinet, knocking him briefly unconscious. That’s nothing compared to what happens after the sun goes down however. A few hours after moonrise, Paul is stricken with a case of the sweats, and awakens only to transform into a big, humanoid lizard. Lizard-Paul sneaks out of his house and goes on the hunt, killing a drunk who had just staggered home from his big night out with the bowling league. The drunk’s wife has a fatal heart attack when she gets a look at the thing that did in her husband.
Don’t ask me why Johnny Longbow is the first person Police Captain Mack (Patrick M. Wright, from Revenge of the Cheerleaders and Frightmare) calls in to help with the investigation. An explanation is offered, but I personally don’t buy it for a second. I mean really, what possible connection could there be between the expertise of an anthropologist specializing in the Indians of the American Southwest and a crime scene where the only real clues are a set of hand- and footprints indicating that the culprit was a seven-foot lizard that walks like a man? Be that as it may, Salinas brings Captain Mack by the office of the paleontology department head at his university. What this scientist has to say is enough to suggest that Mack might just as well have left it all up to Johnny Longbow. After having a look at the cast the police made of the creature’s footprints, he identifies it as a lizard of the genus Varanus, with the caveat that its bipedal stance would also place it as a descendant of the famed Tyrannosaurus rex. Yeesh. Look, Varanus is the genus wherein you’ll find all the monitor lizards— the Komodo dragon and its kin. So far as genetic analysis and the fossil record will allow us to determine, the lineage of today’s lizards and snakes diverged from that of the archosaurs— crocodilians, dinosaurs, and ultimately birds— in the mid-to-late Permian period, around 260 million years ago. Tyrannosaurus rex, on the other hand, lived much more recently— in the neighborhood of 70 million years back, during the late Cretaceous. In other words, there’s just no way for both of the things Salinas’s buddy says about the monster to be true. “Head of the paleontology department,” my ass!
Regardless, all this talk of lizards that walk like men gets Salinas thinking. Among the artifacts he has in his possession is a painting— almost a comic strip, really— executed on buffalo hide by a Navajo artist some 400 years ago. It depicts a man getting zapped by something in the sky, turning into an enormous lizard, and then spontaneously combusting after killing a bunch of people and defeating a posse of warriors sent to deal with him. Say, you think that might be important later?
As for Paul, his headaches keep getting worse, and he transforms again the following night. This time he attacks a bunch of middle-aged men on an overnight fishing trip, but leaves at least one of them alive. This man confirms that the creature the police should be looking for is a huge, humanoid lizard, dressed in pajama pants. This story comes out right about when Salinas and Kathy take Paul to the doctor about his headaches, and an X-ray reveals the presence of something metallic inside the patient’s brain. Evidently, that meteor the other night did more than graze him; it must have air-burst from the pressure and heat, shooting a tiny fragment of itself through Paul’s skull. Subsequent experimentation reveals that the strange occurrence at the museum was due to some kind of electromagnetic reaction between the moon rock in the display case and the one in Paul’s head, and that gets Salinas thinking about his ancient Navajo comic strip again. Could the first panel, in which something from the sky is shown striking the Indian who later turns into a lizard-man, depict something like what happened to Paul on the night of the meteor shower? If so, that would mean that Paul is the lizard man. It would also mean that Paul can be expected to spontaneously combust if he isn’t cured soon, to say nothing of the effect that his continued transformations will have on his neighbors.
I’ve seen a lot of were-thises and were-thats over the years, but a were-monitor lizard is a new one on me. The most surprising thing about Track of the Moonbeast— surprising, that is, until you take a closer look at the credits— is how good the monster suit itself is. But as I said, the surprise factor there goes down substantially when you realize that the Moonbeast is an early creation of the celebrated Rick Baker. Fortunately, bad as the movie is otherwise, Track of the Moonbeast is nowhere near as much of an endurance test as that other early Rick Baker monster mishap, Octaman. (Although the Moonbeast does have that same puzzling arm-waving thing going that the monster in that movie did— where did the makers of cheap old monster flicks get that idea from, anyway?) My first thought upon seeing it was that this is the kind of movie “Mystery Science Theater 3000” increasingly turned to in its later years, as the supply of public-domain garbage from the 50’s and 60’s began to dry up. And in fact, it turns out that Mike and the 'Bots did indeed square off against it late in the show’s eleven-year run. The sheer madness of Track of the Moonbeast’s premise speaks, I think, for itself. This is further compounded by a plot in which dizzying lapses of logic come fast and furious, beginning with the biggest one of all— accepting, for the moment, that getting hit in the head with a meteorite could turn a man into a monster, why a monitor lizard, for Christ’s sake?! The acting all around is of such caliber as to suggest that the casting director did his or her job by walking into the nearest Burger King and shanghaiing everybody inside who was approximately the right age for one or another of the parts. And can somebody please explain to me why the Bud Keeler and Janet Price characters are even in this movie? I mean, it’s not like anything they do ever has any impact on the story— hell, they aren’t even Expendable Meat! All in all. Track of the Moonbeast doesn’t attain the level of masterful crappiness likely to make more than a few die-hards seek it out, but if you ever find yourself itching to test your mettle by taking a latter-day “MST3K” movie straight, it's about as amenable a choice as any.