Film Torments: The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961)
THIS time on Torments, Dan regresses to the vision of an all-time low.
The Beast of Yucca Flats is the worst film I have ever seen. For long-time readers of the Torments I’ve written, or anyone who knows me personally, that is a bold claim, but it is also true. I have seen The Room; Neil Breen’s filmography; Plan 9 from Outer Space; Transformers: Age of Extinction; Reefer Madness; Tentacolino; Rapsittie Street Kids: Believe in Santa – none are as willfully, resolutely, unceasingly terrible as The Beast of Yucca Flats. They’re not even close.
It’s also a slow, bizarre descent into cinematic madness, orchestrated by a talentless auteur with a sightless need to inflict his misery on his audience. Enter Coleman Francis, a man described by Ed Wood himself as a director who “didn’t know what he was doing”. A jobbing actor throughout the 50s, Francis struck figurative gold in a partnership with producer Anthony Cardoza, who went on to appear in Yucca Flats and Francis’ later films, The Skydivers and Red Zone Cuba. A welder by trade, Cardoza was a complete outsider to the film industry. Francis had 10 credited episodes of television directing under his belt. The film took a year to shoot because Cardoza could only shoot weekends. He also edited the film, with no prior experience. We are in the hall of the immortals.
Yucca Flats takes place in the titular region, infamously known as an atomic test site. A Soviet scientist named Joseph Javorsky (400 pound Swedish wrestler and Ed Wood accomplice Tor Johnson) is defecting to America, with a suitcase in tow. He is ambushed by undercover Soviet operatives (who transported him over in the first place), fleeing into the desert and accidentally stumbling into the Yucca Flats testing site. Transformed into the Beast, he proceeds to slowly wreak easily-avoidable havoc throughout the Mojave desert.
What’s immediately striking about the film is how there is no soundtrack; or, at least, it was filmed without a soundtrack. The Beast of Yucca Flats is technically a silent movie; all of the sounds you hear in the film (like you’re gonna watch it) were added in post-production, presumably in an underwater shed on the moon with a lifetime’s supply of Quaaludes. Synchronising audio to lip movements is complicated, however, so Francis didn’t bother – when characters speak, they are either off-screen entirely or in the far distance. Sometimes, characters will flap their mouths and no sound will come out at all.
In order to “mask” this fact, and presumably in lieu of title cards, Francis decided to include narration to fill in the gaps in the story. Voiced by Francis himself, this narration has to be heard to be believed, and even then I’m not entirely sure. Here are some examples: “Secret data. Pictures on the moon.” “Flag on the moon. How did it get there?” “Touch a button. Things happen. A scientist becomes a beast.” My personal favourite occurs when a family, driving through the desert, passes by a random person on the road. Our narrator pauses to reflect, “Nothing bothers some people. Not even flying saucers.” There are no flying saucers in the film.
The bizarre, staccato narration and the awkward silence surrounding it contributes to a surreal, otherworldly atmosphere that, unfortunately, doesn’t mask the tedium of the film itself. The early scenes involve Tor Johnson shuffling through the desert with atomic scars (wet tissue paper) on his face, strangling a random couple and sulking in a cave. The second “act” revolves around Jim and Joe, police officers, the former a Korean War veteran, searching the wastes for Javorsky. Nothing happens. The third “act” is a pair of parents searching for their lost children, the husband avoiding getting circle-strafed by the insane ex-paratrooper chasing him down, North by Northwest-style, in a Cessna, as Jim fires a rifle at the stranger through a window from the moving plane. And then Tor Johnson gets shot, cuddles a bunny, and dies.
The film is the longest 54 minutes to ever take place. Time seems to melt when you watch it; the fabric of the space-time continuum morphs around it and, no matter how little happens, nothing seems to be achieved. Five minutes in, the editing proves this as a gunfight between US and Soviet officials rages. The scene occurs as follows: Shot of US man firing the gun. Five seconds pass. Reverse shot of Soviet man firing his gun. Five seconds pass. Shot of US man looking bemused. Shot of US man reloading for 15 straight seconds.
Later, the camera actually falls over during a close-up on a concerned passer-by. Elsewhere, it sways drunkenly while trying to focus on a central figure. Camera movements in general seem completely improvisatory, almost as if there was no concept of shot composition or rehearsal, or figuring out where a shot should be at any given moment. Sometimes, the camera cuts to actors who are visibly waiting for their cue. This happens at least four times. The worst is when the child actors wait for their cue, start walking for half a second, sit down, and then it cuts away again. It is astonishing. I’d call this outsider art if Francis hadn’t had, albeit scant, prior experience. It is straight incompetence to a staggering degree, on every conceivable plateau of artistic ambition.
I haven’t even covered the acting, or pantomiming in this case. You’d think Tor Johnson, as a former professional wrestler, would be able to express an emotion or thought through physicality, but perhaps his advanced age and 400-pound bulk prevented him from doing so. Here, he puckers his lips and clenches his fists with the conviction of a goldfish. Beastly! All the other actors are uniformly terrible; I don’t think we see so much as an eyebrow raise, even from the man running for his life from a plane-flying maniac. He looks like he’s going for a morning run.
And then there’s the opening for the film, which sums up everything to come while simultaneously having, quite literally, nothing to do with the rest of it. A half-naked woman (completely nude in some prints) is attacked and murdered by a bulky assailant. Seconds after she is strangled in bed, the camera cuts to her dead body on the bed, as the bed creaks. The implication is that the murderer is having post-mortem intercourse. This scene has absolutely no connection to the rest of the film and is never referred to either visually or through dialogue. Why was this scene filmed? “Coley liked nudity,” Cardoza suggests, possibly throwing his hands up in the process.
With that, I rest my case. The Beast of Yucca Flats is the single worst thing I have ever seen and Coleman Francis is the worst film-maker to ever live. (R.I.P.) Bar none. No exceptions. I don’t recommend watching the film. I do, however, recommend reading this line from the narration:
Boys from the city, not yet caught in the wheels of progress, feed soda pop to the thirsty pigs.