Schlock Value: The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961)
In the 1950s, Swedish professional wrestler Tor Johnson was picked up by schlock legend Ed Wood to be featured in a couple of movies, most notably Bride of the Monster and Plan 9 from Outer Space. Due to his huge size, he was a natural choice to play big brutish monsters (nevermind the fact that he couldn’t act worth a damn). In the early ‘60s, with his movie career nearly over, Johnson was recruited by Anthony Cardoza and Coleman Francis, two horribly inept filmmakers, to make a film that is now considered by many to be among the worst ever made, even surpassing Wood's Plan 9. This week, in honor of the late George “The Animal” Steele, who played Tor Johnson in the 1994 Tim Burton biopic, Ed Wood, I’ll be taking a look at the 1961 monster flick, The Beast of Yucca Flats.
Okay, first off, the poster - which looks like it was designed by a middle-schooler with a basic knowledge of Photoshop, is one of the most boring I’ve ever seen. Despite being the film’s main draw, Tor is barely featured, just crouched over a body with his face obscured in shadow; his big black silhouette just stuck in there in the background; and a blonde woman is sort of cut-and-pasted into the corner. No scream, no panicked expression. Nothing. Not even the font is exciting. If this poster were a box of cereal, it would be the plain white box with the word “cereal” on it in black letters. The trailer, though, I have to say is much better. While it doesn’t give you much in the way of plot, it does feature lots of Tor in awful makeup, rampaging through the desert, strangling people, chasing down children, and throttling law enforcers. Clearly, as anyone who has seen Bride of the Monster or Night of the Ghouls can tell you, this role was right in his wheelhouse. Over the sounds of lightning-fast percussion, the sensational voice over invites you to “see a man turned KILLER, see a woman RAVAGED, see one of the most exciting movies EVER MADE, see The Beast of Yucca Flats.” Okay, now I’m on board.
The film opens, as many great thrillers do, with a senseless murder. A young woman is strangled to death by an unseen assailant, presumed to be Tor Johnson. I say “presumed” because we never actually find out. The scene is given no context, nor is it ever addressed later in the film. All we have to go on are the killer’s massive hands. Following that rando murder, we’re introduced to Joseph Javorsky, a “respected scientist” from the Soviet Union. We know he’s a respected scientist because the narrator reminds us of this fact many times over the course of the film. Yes, the narrator. Apparently, no one recorded sound during this production, so the entire thing watches like a bad Twilight Zone episode narrated by the director, Coleman Francis. Given Johnson’s general lack of talent, something tells me any attempt at a Russian accent would have been disastrous, so maybe it was for the best. Anyway, Javorsky has defected from the Soviet Union, and lands in the Nevada desert, carrying a briefcase of Soviet secrets. With KGB agents hot on his tail, he takes off into the wilderness of Yucca Flats, a famous nuclear test site. Although his escorts are killed by the KGB agents, Javorsky does manage to escape. Unfortunately, he wanders into the blast radius of a nuclear explosion, which transforms him into a monstrous beast (kind of like a really bad Incredible Hulk).
From this point on, the film introduces a handful of new characters who mostly serve to be victims of the new mutated atomic rage monster, starting with a couple who's car has broken down on the side of the road. Their deaths draw the attention of police officers Jim Archer and Joe Dobson who begin scouring the surrounding area. Meanwhile, a vacationing family stop at a roadside service station. The children wander off (of course) and encounter Tor-Hulk. Chaos ensues as the father heads out in search of the missing kids, only to be mistaken for the monster by an armed police helicopter pilot. The film keeps trudging on, building all the way to the inevitable showdown between the two cops and the titular beast. Who will survive, and what will be left of them? Honestly, it doesn’t matter.
Look, there are good movies, there are bad movies, and there are movies that are so bad they’re good. The Beast of Yucca Flats falls firmly in the "so-bad-it’s-good" category. It’s a true exercise in incompetence. The script is lousy, the acting is worse, the cinematography is uninspired, the directing is amateurish at best, and the production value is nil. The fact that it fails on absolutely every level makes it a spectacularly bad, but often hilarious viewing experience. None of the actors, and I mean none of them, look like they have any business being in a movie. Even in some of the more tense sequences, they seem like they’d rather be doing something else. They have no real sense of urgency, no real emotions. When they’re killed on screen, you can almost hear them thinking, “Okay, yes, this is my death scene, I’m dying now” as they collapse to the ground. They don’t even do us the courtesy of dying in some over-the-top hammy fashion. To his credit, Tor Johnson does everything expected of him and is, by that logic, the least disappointing member of the cast. After all, how difficult is it to lumber through the desert, moaning, flailing your arms, and tossing some people around? As for the sound, or lack thereof, I was expecting it to make the film difficult to get through, but the narration is actually very entertaining. When Coleman Francis isn’t describing the action on screen or reminding us every few minutes that Joseph Javorsky was a “respected scientist,” he speaks a lot of nonsense, and occasionally waxes philosophical about the whole situation as if this whole thing is some sort of morality tale.
I spent much of The Beast of Yucca Flats in total disbelief, my mouth agape at how truly terrible it was, but I would be lying if the sheer ridiculousness of it all wasn’t enough to make it a worthwhile experience. Is it worse than Plan 9 from Outer Space? Absolutely. Is it boring? Absolutely not. At a lean 54 minutes, there’s really no compelling reason NOT to watch it. There are episodes of television that are less fulfilling. You can find it as part of Mill Creek Entertainment’s 50 Horror Classics, or you can check out the MST3K version on YouTube, which I can only imagine is made better by all the jokes. For now however, you can check out the trailer below, featuring commentary by noted cult director Joe Dante.