originally published June 30, 2013
In the pantheon of terrible movies – and that is a substantially large pantheon to be sure – the most gratifying and darkly satisfying to sit through are inevitably the classic sci-fi and monster movies of the 50’s and 60’s. These are films made with low budgets, cheap special effects, and pure hearts. It is a noble ambition to seize a few reels of celluloid and, while flying free of the Hollywood studio system, attempt to make something beyond this world.
These films are the easiest to mock, which is why a show like Mystery Science Theater 3000 could enjoy a lengthy run. Its audience consists of viewers who enjoy throwing their own one-liners at sub-standard theatrical fare when the tethers of proper decorum allow it.
Bill Beard, my film studies prof for the last three years, abhors MST3K and its ilk. He feels these movies deserve the respect of being watched through the lens of a movie-goer from that era, unaware of CGI, untainted by the masters at Industrial Light & Magic, and with a heart open to the shocks and wonders of creepy monsters and devilish aliens.
I could see his point, but some of these flicks are just downright goofy.
Like Eegah, a 1962 film that actually lends artistic credibility to Pauly Shore’s Encino Man. It’s the story of a woman who comes across a giant caveman in the California desert, at which point creepy hijinks ensue. Notable B-Movie director Arch Hall Sr. put up the money for this mess, and cast himself and his son in the lead roles because why the hell not? He wanted to make his son, Arch Hall Jr., into an all-around music and film star like Elvis, so he made sure to include a pair of crappy rock ‘n roll songs in the soundtrack.
The end result is a half-beach party movie and half-monster flick. The budget was a modest $15k, but with just over $3200 in box office numbers, I’d say this was a certified flop. The one winner out of this movie was the guy who played ‘Band Member’ in the background – that was Deke Richards, part of the Motown songwriting team who would go on to write “Love Child” for Diana Ross & The Supremes, as well as “ABC” and “I Want You Back” for the Jackson 5.
Here’s one worth tracking down. The Beast of Yucca Flats stars Tor Johnson, the former Swedish wrestler who hammed it up as an alien in Edward Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space. This time Tor takes on the challenging role of a Soviet scientist transformed into a groaning, mindless beast by a hearty dose of radiation. The film opens on a woman being strangled after getting out of the shower, her lifeless body then molested by the unseen killer. After that disturbing scene, not the woman, her murder, nor her killer are ever mentioned again. Ever.
The movie was shot without audio. A voiceover narration fills in a lot of plot points, and any character dialogue or gunshots are carefully placed so that the speaking character is facing away from the camera or else way off in the distance, and the gunshots occur out of frame. But that’s okay – characters who do sustain life-threatening injuries from the bullets in the story quickly recover and continue on as though nothing happened. This movie is 54 minutes of pure quality.
Let’s leap back to 1953 for a moment, and contemplate the brilliance that was Robot Monster. In the not-too-distant future, the evil alien Ro-Man has wiped out all of humanity except for eight people who have developed an immunity to his death ray. This hideously executed high-concept B-Movie made the ultimate narrative mockery of its audience at the end by (SPOILER!) making the entire thing a dream by one of its characters. Fuck you, movie patrons! It was all a lie!
A little credit though for writer/director Phil Tucker, who stitched together this drek for only $16,000 but still managed to earn a cool million at the box office. Maybe this was due in part to the exquisite costuming of Ro-Man, who was supposed to appear as a robot but because they couldn’t afford a good costume wound up being a guy in a gorilla suit wearing a diving helmet.
Tucker also managed to nab Elmer Bernstein – perhaps because of some blackmailing situation – to craft the film’s score. Bernstein is best known for his work on The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and The Ten Commandments. I’m betting Robot Monster didn’t crack page one of his C.V.
The Creeping Terror won’t give you nightmares, unless your greatest fear is wasting 75 minutes on a schlocky waste of celluloid. This one is about a slug-like creature that lands on earth and terrorizes a small American town. The spaceship landing was created by using footage of a rocket taking off and simply reversing it. Hey, it was 1964 – maybe that’s what people thought it would look like.
Stirling Silliphant was a successful screenwriter, penning scripts for The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno and one of my favorite films, In The Heat of the Night. It was Robert, his half-brother (I don’t want to say Fredo-esque, but come on) who wrote the screenplay for The Creeping Terror. But the lion’s share of the blame for this mess should probably drop its staining goo onto the shirt of the director/star, Vic Savage.
Somehow, Savage lost the original soundtrack to the film, resulting in yet another attempt at voiceover narration and post-production dialogue fill in order to keep it from being a silent movie. Only this time the narration was so poorly executed, at times it bleeds right overtop the dialogue, rubbing out key discussions by the characters.
The special effects look to be sub-par, even for this genre of low-budget wonkiness. A couple of times, as the giant slug-thing wanders about, it becomes painfully obvious that the creature consists of little more than some shag carpeting thrown over a pair of unfortunate actors, whose sneakers are clearly visible underneath.
Look, I have no problem with cheap movies. Sometimes their charm and best efforts outshine their flaws and shortcomings. But often they don’t. That doesn’t make it any less fun to sit and watch them, but it does mean that you’ll probably be viewing them with a skeptical and mocking eye, not with the generally sincere gaze of a naïve and open-minded patron from the time.
That’s okay. I think that makes it even more fun.