Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961) – MST3K Review

This episode has the audacity to feature two short films before diving into the feature. The first is called Money Talks. A young man is bemoaning his lack of funds. He whines loudly enough that Benjamin Franklin rises from the grave! Well his shadow does at least. The founding father dispenses some solid financial advice and our young protagonist turns his monetary life around.

Up next is Progress Island. This was made by the Economic Development department of Puerto Rico in 1973. The short tells you all the reasons Puerto Rico is so darn amazing. It uses commanding narration, lots of montages and a super funky and hip (for the early 70s) soundtrack. It comes across as a bit desperate to tell you the truth.

The Beast of Yucca Flats was written and directed by Coleman Francis, which should tell you enough right there. But I suppose I can provide a bit more information. A defecting Russian scientist, Joseph Javorsky (Tor Johnson), arrives in the US with a suitcase full of secrets to share. Little does he know that the KGB has sent two crackerjack agents to take the briefcase and kill Javorsky. A shootout and chase ensue, but Javorsky manages to escape… right into an A Bomb testing site.

Well he gets irradiated and mutates into a lumbering murderous beast (hence the name of the film). The rest of the movie is comprised of him stumbling around, murdering random folks and waving a stick. A couple boys get lost in the desert, which is supposed to create tension. There are also two local cops who try to hunt him down, but really stink at their jobs. While The Beast of Yucca Flats isn’t all that scary of a monster, the movie itself has been known to cause brain damage.

Movie Review:
I think someone enhanced their chocolate milk,
if you know what I mean.
Lets start with the short film Money Talks. This is one of those educational shorts that is actually filled with good advice and solid points. It provides a nice introduction to planning and saving that any kid who is picking up some spending cash should know. It tries to shake things up by having Ben Franklin appear and dispense the wisdom in an attempt to keep the whole thing from feeling like an accounting seminar. I’m sure, on some level it could work, especially in the time it was made.

But our cruel cynical modern eyes will find most of this too goofy to take seriously. It is overly earnest in its approach. Our protagonist comes across as a whiny dork, and not an everyman. The silhouette of Ben Franklin ends up looking a bit noire and kind of creepy at times. For all that, the message is solid and handled well enough.

Historical beauty? Check. Fuzzy Guitar soundtrack?
Double check!
On the other hand you have Progress Island, which is way too eager to please and excite. It throws every trick in the book at the viewer to convince you that Puerto Rico is the next big thing. No matter what you need in life, Puerto Rico has it. Want a lovely vacation spot? Head to Puerto Rico. Want a solid education? Head to Puerto Rico. Want some cheap labor for your plant? Head to Puerto Rico. That last bit seems a bit odd to have in your sales pitch, but there it is.

There is actually some really lovely camera work in this short. Puerto Rico offers a lot of picturesque areas, so I’m sure the camera crew had plenty to work with. The whole thing goes wrong in the narration, which is constant and emphatic. YOU WILL LOVE PUERTO RICO! Combined with the ultra-dated soundtrack with fuzzy guitars and wacka-jo-wacka action, it becomes really hard to take seriously. Even the hyper-active editing to connote how modern and lively the island is, feels like the hard sell being slammed down. It’s an abrasive short on a lovely island.

One of the most questionable nuclear scientists
ever put on film.
Coleman Francis got his first opportunity to direct a film in 1961. He tackled the mutated monster genre and called it The Best of Yucca Flats. He got Ed Wood favorite, Tor Johnson to play the lead role, roped in a bunch of friends and family to cover the rest, and then trundled out to the California desert to do some shooting. This is the result.

In some ways you can tell this is a film by a first time filmmaker. It is way too long for its subject, but only clocks in at 54 minutes. Scenes are poorly edited, acting is questionable and there are scenes where everything is framed badly. The pacing is a slog. There are no interesting characters to latch on to. There is little to no tension. There is really nothing here to make a compelling film.

And yet, it has so many bizarre quirks and oddities, that in its own way, it is a fascinating watch. Not a good or entertaining viewing experience, but one that you find hypnotic in its horrible execution.

Scenes of Tor wandering around the desert comprise
83% of the film.
Like Red Zone Cuba and Skydivers before it, The Beast of Yucca Flats has some seriously bad camera work and editing. Being the first crack by Francis, he actually improved in his next two features. But this film is the worst. His technique for low angle close-ups starts here. I wonder if this was done so that he could insert them anywhere he wanted a transition or shift. The action scenes are tracked and framed poorly. Other times the scenes are so badly lit or captured from such a distance that it is hard to see what is happening. My screen shots make it pretty clear that this is a hard to watch.

The editing takes it to new level, with scenes cutting out for what appears to be no reason. Other times you get a series of inserts and edits, as if Francis was attempting a montage of some kind. But there is no flow or rhythm. The affect is pure confusion. You can’t tell if the images you see are related, or if they are affecting each other, or anything really. It starts to feel like a series of film sequences just slapped together to create some kind of story.

There is a story here. Javorsky becomes The Beast of Yucca Flats, kills a few people and then is killed by two police officers. But the film seems confused on who it is following and whose story we are working with. Is it the Beast? Is it the cops? Is it the lost kids? No idea. And the film never seems to make up its mind. Too much time is spent with all these storylines when they seem to be doing nothing more than walking around or climbing up and down desert landscapes. No characters are actually developed or created.

"Night on Butt Mountain"
Part of the problem is that the film was made without any synched sound. Or maybe the tapes proved to be unusable with all the desert background sound. In any case, nearly all the dialogue is added later, and very obviously. I’m thinking that Francis knew this was going to happen, because some of the odd framing in the film is designed to block out the characters lips. There are many shots of people from behind, or in shadow or talking off screen while we see a reaction shot. It actually makes the film very surreal in parts, almost David Lynch like. I don’t think Francis was going for surreal, but it is an interesting concept.

I have to mention that Tony Cardoza makes an appearance in this film too. Luckily he doesn’t have to deliver any dialogue (not even lines delivered in post). He plays one of the KGB agents sent to hunt down Javorsky. Yes he’s the least threatening gunman I’ve ever seen, but he does get blown up by an atom bomb, so there is that. The Beast of Yucca Flats is actually filled with familiar faces from the world of Coleman Francis, including coffee loving Joe from Skydivers and Cherokee Jack from Red Zone Cuba.

Tor Johnson plays the beast, and obviously he is here for his looks. Just like Ed Wood, Coleman Francis has Tor wander around the screen, bellow and threaten, and just act like he was a brain dead version of Lobo from Bride of the Monster. Thing is, Tor looks like he’s having trouble moving around. He has no speed, and even though he’s a big guy, he doesn’t seem to have much muscle mass. The result is a large fat man wandering in the desert with some make up on his face. Because Tor can’t move fast, it becomes very hard to believe that he could catch anyone fleeing from him. The most believable scene occurs at the end when the cops think they’ve downed him and get too close. It seems that Tor wasn’t dubbed most of the time, but he doesn’t have any actual lines, just grunts, howls and moans.

Tony Cardoza is a deadly KGB agent.
Instead The Beast of Yucca Flats has another character that does most of the talking: the narrator. It is Coleman Francis himself. He tells us the story, giving us background on Javorsky, the two cops, and the young boys. I suppose this narration is supposed to build the characters, but most of the time it just sounds like filler exposition.

Nearly all the lines in the film seem to ramble and shamble around (kind of like the Beast himself). It is something that Francis always seems to capture in his scripts. Here the narrator provides line after line of randomness. But the thing is, I don’t think these lines are as chaotic as they appear.

Coleman Francis had some very definite themes in his films. Red Zone Cuba was really his most obvious take on these themes, but The Beast of Yucca Flats has plenty of them too. Over and over again, Francis’ narration talks about the characters caught in the wheels of progress. Looking at it from that way, all the events in this film are because of the United States desire to obtain the best technological information. The line that stands out for so many viewers (including Mike and bots) is “Flag on the moon. How did it get there?”

Another character lost in the endless background
of the low angle shot.
Francis implies that our astronauts made it to the moon because they obtained knowledge and secrets from other countries. So Javorsky’s arrival in the United States is going to bring about some more technological change, but the cost is high. Javorsky is destroyed as a man. Innocent people are murdered. Children are threatened. In the end, the whole thing is pointless because Javorsky’s mind is destroyed and his secrets in his briefcase are burned up by the atomic blast (the camera holds on the image of the burning suitcase to make this point clear).

You see this mistrust of the United State government very clearly in Red Zone Cuba as well. While the theme is a bit oblique in The Beast of Yucca Flats it is there, and it does help explain why Francis has all these ironic lines about progress.

If it sounds like I’m giving Coleman Francis too much credit, well I’m not. I think people write off his movies as pure garbage. But I really think he was trying to say something in his films. It’s never a happy message, and his dreary and dower camera work makes the whole thing harder to watch. But the man had a definite theme to his films. Even a stupid monster movie like The Beast of Yucca Flats has this.

Tor is blinded by science!
But the movie fails in delivering its message. Most folks won’t notice this theme, because it is delivered so poorly. The movie also fails as a monster flick. Francis never builds any tension, suspense or dread. The endless scenes of people wandering in the desert or flying over the desert, or running through the desert don’t do anything but slow the pace of the film down. The irony is all these moments are filled with rapid cuts, angle changes and some interesting camera work. The scene where the father is chased by an airplane and shot at has some intense camera work that actually puts you in the action. It is a technique that I haven’t seen done again until 1998 in the film Pi where the lead actor wore a camera rig that locked the camera to him and kept his face in frame while the background moved around him.

It doesn’t matter. Francis keeps any of these long scenes from having any affect on the plot or the characters. People just wander around looking lost and hopeless (even the monster). It does create an atmosphere of doom, but little else.

One bright spot of the film is the ending, which according to stories was completely spontaneous. Francis captured the moment and used it to end the film. As the beast lays dying on the ground, a small rabbit hops up to his body and nuzzles him. He pets it and dies. It is actually the most effective scene in The Beast of Yucca Flats, and it keeps the film from being the absolutely worst film I’ve seen. But in all honesty it is probably right behind Monster a-Go Go. And that is not company you want to keep. So how do Mike and the bots hold up to this beastly film?

Episode Review:
"Listen to the dark voices... yes!"
This was the final Coleman Francis film that Mike and bots got to tackle, and they saved the most painful film for last. It is ironic that Mike started to lose his mind while watching Red Zone Cuba because The Beast of Yucca Flats is a much worse film. Still the boys give it one of their best tries, and things start off really well with some fun riffing of the short films.

Money Talks is a pretty straightforward piece, so the riffing is pretty straightforward as well.  Most of the riffs are solid, but unremarkable. When Benjamin Franklin’s silhouette appears Tom gasps and says, “Alfred Hitchcock!” But there is no mastery of suspense displayed after that. Instead they have some fun with the fact that our young protagonist is seeing ghosts and having full-blown conversations with them. In addition, the young man keeps seeing all kinds of things in his mirror – other than his reflection. After one such vision Crow remarks “That was my darkest vision yet.” I also love the moment where Tom impersonates the boy’s mom and says, “Are you talking to the founding fathers again?” Reminded me of a similar riff in This Island Earth “Are you boys making an Interossiter up there?”

All these folks could work for you, just come to
Puerto Rico.
That short is fun, but Progress Island is the real treasure here. In some ways the riffing reminds me strongly of the material we’d get in the Sci-fi era, much faster, much snarkier and a touch too mean spirited. But that doesn’t keep it from being really funny. And seriously, the short is really asking for it. The way it paints Puerto Rico as an amazing paradise of cheap labor, and does so with reckless abandon makes the whole thing seem desperate and insincere.

So the boys go to town. They riff on everything and everyone on screen. The hilarious ultra-mod 1970s score doesn’t help, but provides the boys with a quick rhythm to move the riffing along. Same with the rapid editing used to connote progress. But the winner is the narration, which is so over blown, but offers so many perfect pauses. The result has the riffing team adding all kinds of additional insights to the narration.

When the voice over declares “Luxury Hotels!” over a shot of a huge building, Tom adds “Are desperately needed.” When the narrator exclaims “Yes, Puerto Rico offers something for everyone.” Crow adds, “Like flights out.” During a scene of folk dancing that seems to be filmed very strangely Mike says, “Yes no matter what the culture, folk dancing is stupid.” As Progress Island wraps up Mike says, “I’d like to apologize to all the people of Puerto Rico… that we didn’t offend.” As nasty as it does get, the writers of The Amazing Colossal Episode Guide say that the target was the short itself, not the Puerto Rico in particular. It was all done for some fun, and not meant to hurt any feelings. Still we saw this kind of thing again in The Final Sacrifice with some Canadian bashing and Invasion of the Neptune Men when the boys go off on all things Japanese. Just saying.

Another victim, caught in the wheels of progress.
When the movie finally starts the boys seem ready and raring to go, and this is a good thing, because The Beast of Yucca Flats is a real slog. In a way it helps that they have taken on Francis’ previous films, and they use those as leverage for this one. This means there a plenty of callbacks to riffs and situations in Red Zone Cuba and The Skydivers, especially since many members of the cast return for this one. One of my favorites is when Tom says, “I love how deep Tony Cardoza gets into his parts.” And Crow responds, “Yeah he just goes in there and sits.”

There are plenty of riff about Tor Johnson, a gent who has appeared in a couple of their films before. Tom does a pretty good imitation of Johnson’s distinctive voice, and adds all kinds of dialogue to the film. Including a variation on everyone’s favorite line, “Time for go to bed” from The Unearthly.

They have a good time with Francis’ narration. Often they are lost with the rambling sentences. When the narrator says, “Flag on the moon. How did it get there?” Mike responds with “These are all just random thoughts folks.” The whole “Flag on the moon” line became a reoccurring riff used in many later episodes whenever a character said something bizarre or non sequitur.

Flag on the moon. Tor put it there!
Most of the riffs in The Beast of Yucca Flats end up revolving around how punishing the movie is. About half way through Tom says, “So anyway, you can see how this all adds up to a movie.” Later on as Tom stares at another scene of craggy terrain as Tor wanders around he says, “You know, this isn’t very flat.” Crow adds, “I get the Yucca part.”  Tom’s final thoughts, “This movie stops at nothing… and then stays there.

The host segments, much like the narration in the film, are pretty random. It all starts with Mike and bots attempting to wallpaper the satellite of love. The results cause Gypsy to leave the room screaming. The Mad Scientists gloat because they are introducing Proposition Deep 13, which turns out to be the two shorts and the film. The goal? To drive Mike and the bots completely insane and break them once and for all. They treat the whole thing like a political campaign. At the first break a space trailer turns up filled with party kids. Crow joins in the fun, but Tom scares them away. At the next break Crow keeps asking Mike if it 11:30 and then time for lunch. This is based on something that actually happened in the writing room on a regular basis. When we join the boys next time Crow is hosting FAP – the Film Anti-preservation Program. It is meant to let films like The Beast of Yucca Flats rot in peace. He offers that other films like Aspen Extreme or Stop or My Mom Will Shoot are perfect for this treatment. After the film ends, Mike and the bots have survived and deliver a glowing victory speech. The Mads deliver their concession speech.
Hey Crow, Martin Scorsese called. He said
you're a bad bad robot.

The Beast of Yucca Flats really is a victory for Mike and the bots. They take one of the worst films ever made (and I don’t use that term lightly, I’ve seen The Room), and make it very funny. Still, it is a dreary slog of a film and if you aren’t in the right mood, even the valiant effort by our guys may not be enough to help you. Riffing on Progress Island makes this worth checking out. As impressive as the feat is, I can’t in good conscience recommend this episode to everyone. If you’ve seen and enjoyed the riffing on Red Zone Cuba, then this give this a shot. But if Skydivers bored you to tears stay far, far away.

I give this three flags on the moon out of five.

This episode is available on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 collection, Volume XVIII.


  1. There are very few monster/horror/scifi movies vintage 1930-1964 that I didn't see as a kid. In the pre-cable days of my youth there were few options, this stuff ran on the independent channels, and at that age I figured any monster was better than no monster. Some movies strained that tolerance. This was one of them.

  2. You are not alone. I ran into someone who had the same reaction. Loved monster movies, but really couldn't stand this one. MST3K does their best, but it really is an uphill battle.