Retro Review: Radioactive Russian Rampage

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The Beast of Yucca Flats
Written and directed by Coleman Francis
Copyright 1961

courtesy Wikipedia
courtesy Wikipedia

I’d previously mentioned how sci-fi/alien invasion movies of the 1950s and 60s tended to be of the space-brothers-saving-us-from-nuclear-annihilation vein; as a lot of monster movies from the same era seemed to feature antagonists that came about by playing with nuclear bombs, maybe they were on to something. We had giant ants (Them!), a giant dinosaur/reptile (Gozilla), and today’s guest of honor, a mutated Tor Johnson (yep, him again) in The Beast of Yucca Flats. If B movies have taught us anything, it’s that exposure to the massive amounts of radiation released by an atomic bomb detonation will cause anything caught in the blast to experience changes to their genetic structure (well, when the blast doesn’t immediately vaporize you); our pal Tor is no exception to the rule.

The 1950s were a touchy time: the US (and much of the free world) was still smarting from World War II just a few years earlier. The use of atomic weapons on Japan may have helped hasten the end of the war, but it also started, after Russia developed their own nuclear weapons, the Cold War. Duck-and-cover drills were the norm for school children the country over. The looming threat that at any moment, those Crazy Commies would lob nuclear annihilation over the North Pole, was constant. Bomb shelters (for all the good that they would’ve done) were a common feature of many back yards across the US. This fear, sadly, became another part of the background of day-to-day life across much of the “civilized” world for the next 40+ years, until we were kind of numb to it – that is, until Hollywood started capitalizing on it.

While there have been many movies that have realistically looked at the topic of impending or an extant nuclear holocaust (1959’s On the Beach, 1964’s Fail Safe and 1984’s Threads are some of the better known – and chilling – examples), cheapie movie producers were more than happy to use the shadow of certain doom to make a buck or two. B movies with irradiated animals (like the aforementioned Them! and Godzilla) or the effects of radioactivity on humans (The Incredible Shrinking Man and its movie polar opposite, The Amazing Colossal Man) were churned out by the dozens. The Beast of Yucca Flats was one of the worst of this trend.

***POTENTIAL SPOILERS FOR A 50+ YEAR OLD MOVIE***

In Beast, Tor plays defecting Russian (um …) nuclear scientist (… sure) Joseph Javorsky. As turning traitor with a noggin full of potential state secrets about a supposed Soviet moon landing was frowned upon by the Kremlin, it’s no surprise to find the big guy being chased by a couple of KGB goons. The pursuit merrily continues across the desert until the three of them drive into a nuclear test range. With no lead-lined refrigerators available to climb into, the resulting blast takes out the Soviet agents, while turning Tor into a huge, hulking, bald… well – nothing’s really changed about him. I guess the dried oatmeal looking makeup stuck on his face is supposed to represent radiation burns; and he’s a mindless, murderous killing machine, so there’s that. Oh, and his shirt’s shredded: a sure sign of a homicidal, nuclear powered monster.

At any rate, after this, fun abounds as Hulk Tor traipses around the nearby desert, randomly strangling slow-moving people.  He begins his murderous rampage by throttling a man and choking unconscious his female companion, taking her back to his place in a cave for – I don’t even want to know. Why being irradiated would turn someone into a murderous, rampaging monster, one can only guess; cranky, maybe, but I don’t know about murderous.

Tor attacks!
Tor attacks!

Soon, we come across a family – dad Hank (Douglas Mellor), mom Lois (Barbara Francis) and two boys, Art and Randy (Alan Francis and Ronald Francis) – on a road trip. (If you think you’re seeing the surname “Francis” a lot, it’s no typo; the actors playing the mother and her two boys were director Coleman Francis’ wife and sons, respectively.) Sure enough, while Hank is fixing a flat tire, the boys wander off into the scrub and are imperiled, threatened by a deranged, plodding Swedish wrestler with Malt O’ Meal stuck on his face.

Hank goes out into the desert, searching for his lost offspring and finds himself not in danger from Tor so much, but, rather a local sheriff’s deputy, Jim Archer (Bing Stafford). Equipped with a rifle and a small plane with which to fire it from, it seems the deputy is the literal embodiment of the old axiom, “Shoot first and ask questions later.” Acting on reports of people turning up dead along the desert highway, he’s decided that the boys’ father is the killer, based solely on the fact that Hank is the only person the sheriff sees running around the wastes; screw due process! The sheriff’s department finally figures out a giant, irradiated Russian is the real culprit and take him down, ending the threat to people slowly wandering down the desert highway. Once again, the roadways of the desert Southwest are free from the menace of a grumpy Tor Johnson.

To the movie’s credit, it moves along at a pretty brisk pace and you never feel like it’s dragging; as is evidenced by the short movie description above, it’s, not surprisingly, a short movie, clocking in with a lean 54 minute running time. Acting-wise, well… when your movie’s lead actor is Tor Johnson, everyone else in the movie is great by comparison.

I'm not crying, you're crying!
I’m not crying, you’re crying!

The most baffling thing, though, and perhaps working in Johnson’s favor, due to his Swedish accent (he was a bit hard to understand in Plan 9 From Outer Space), is the fact that Beast contains very little dialog coming directly from the actors; most of the movie is narrated. A lot of the time, if a character actually is talking, they’ll have their back to the camera and the only reason you know they’re “talking” is that their head bobs slightly and the other person is staring at the talker intently, sometimes nodding their own head. I don’t know if the soundtrack was lost of if this was done intentionally on the part Coleman Francis.

As so much of the movie is narrated, we are treated to some of the greatest lines ever written for a film. In a stern and stentorian voice, the All Knowing Narrator provides us with the following partial sentences and unrelated topics (“flying saucers?”):

“Flag on the moon – how did it get there?”
“Nothing bothers some people, not even flying saucers.”
“Touch a button, things happen. A scientist becomes a beast.”
“Jim Archer, Joe’s partner, another man caught in the frantic race for the betterment of mankind. Progress.”
“Boys from the city. Not yet caught by the whirlwind of Progress. Feed soda pop to the thirsty pigs.”
“A man runs. Someone shoots at him.”
“Yucca Flats. The A-Bomb.”

Pure gold.  Every syllable.

Must be love ... right?
Must be love … right?

As with a lot of B movies from this time, The Beast of Yucca Flats is fairly easy to find, if one were to want to see it (which one should). {Hint: check the Internet Archive.} Be warned, though, if watching this with children; inexplicably, the movie starts off with a totally disconnected from the story in any way, shape or form topless scene. It has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the movie, not fitting in anywhere in the rest of the chronology or narrative of the film; I guess Francis wasn’t one to waste film – or a gratuitous boob shot.

See all our retro reviews here.

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Jay McDowell

Jay McDowell is a walking vault of completely useless knowledge & trivia (great for a game of Trivial Pursuit, lousy in a zombie apocalypse). He saw a certain movie set in a galaxy far, far away in the theatre at the age of five & never looked back, pop culturally speaking. He watches an unhealthy amount of truly atrocious sci-fi & horror B-movies (he watched ‘Manos’: The Hands of Fate with his new bride on their honeymoon; inexplicably, she’s still with him). Episodic television was ruined for him by Lost. He thinks pizza is Nature’s perfect food, encompassing all five food groups (meat, dairy, grains, vegetables & grease) in every bite.

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