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The Beast of Yucca Flats

Series info on UEN-TV

After Americans unleashed the atom bomb to end the Second World War, we were left to grapple with the monstrous implications of this deadly technology. Science fiction proved an important medium for the expressing (albeit sometimes exploiting) concerns about the moral risks of developing nuclear weapons. Some Atomic Age productions yielded artistically sophisticated films that challenged viewers to think and feel their way through issues of global import.

And others were just plain funny.

"The Beast of Yucca Flats" (1961) falls into the latter category. Written and directed by Coleman Francis, this film is an example of artistic ambition far exceeding artistic grasp. In it, former wrestler Tor Johnson (the actor who played Inspector Dan Clay in "Plan B From Outer Space") plays a U.S.S.R. scientist transformed into a mindless killer when exposed to a radiation blast on a weapons proving ground in Yucca Flats, Nevada. The movie pairs its wholly sincere message about the way nuclear weapons turn scientists into murderous monsters with so much goofiness that the movie is an accidental spoof of itself.

Coleman himself plays the first noteworthy character—the narrator who speaks in a sort of turbo-charged haiku. Take, for instance, "Touch a button / Things happen / A scientist becomes a beast" or "Jim Archer / Joe's partner / Another man caught in the frantic race for the betterment of mankind / Progress." But unlike most film narrators, this one is no minor player who merely gets things started and ties things up. This guy is responsible for explaining pretty much everything throughout the film. (Good thing, too, since the events barely make sense even with his help.) To our delight, his profundities are uttered with a weight that is most wonderfully unsupported by the performances they embellish. While Johnson's character runs for his life from the Soviet thugs bent on reclaiming the secrets in his briefcase, the heavyset actor manages a gait no faster than leisurely amble. On the other hand, a man who has been wounded by gunshot manages to jog a good distance over rough terrain at an impressive clip to escape an airborne pursuer (a lawman who simply assumed the innocent man was The Beast and started a-shootin'). And after all that exercise, the wounded guy has enough energy to chat with his wife, hop in his car, and drive into town. Perhaps it helps that he doesn't actually bleed. (The wife, incidentally, is left alone in the desert despite the maniac raining bullets from the sky, a lack of water, and "blistering" desert heat. Granted, she's hoping their kids show up—they wandered off, looking for another film to be in.)

Weird technical choices, quite likely the result of a small budget, add to the hilarity. Characters are never shown when they're speaking unless their backs are to the camera or the shot is too far to show their mouths. The voices sound like they were recorded in a miniscule broom closet when the characters are shown roaming the wide-open Flats. What's more, the muzzles of the guns that play such a large role in the action are never shown when fired, possibly because the visual effects would have been too costly. The result is that the film acquires a strange, oblique quality that verges on—or even crosses into—the baffling.

In short, if an entire society dreams through its storytelling, then sci-fi and horror films might be the nightmares in which we grapple with our collective fears. And "The Beast of Yucca Flats" is the story in which we turn those fears into the stuff of side-splitting laughter.

The Science

Landon Weeks

Landon WeeksLandon Weeks, UEN media production assistant and film student discusses the low budget movie Beast of Yucca Flats and how digital technology has changed how films are made and released.

Paul Ramsey

Paul Ramsey and StudentsTeacher Paul Ramsey and students from the Academy for Math, Engineering and Science (AMES) discuss the film “The Beast of Yucca Flats.”


More Science to go with the Show

Related Resources

Film & Media Arts - University of Utah

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Academy for Math, Engineering and Science

Careers in Film and Video

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