Oct 4, 2010

Track of the Moon Beast (1976)

There's something refreshing about seeing a little movie like this.  Track of the Moon Beast is one of the countless regional films made during the last golden age of the drive-in. Produced in a location light years removed from Hollywood, seldom employing name talent, these films also had an authenticity for their time and place that any studio product would lack. This down-home kind of charm would be completely lacking from screens in just a few years, as movies (even those made for the direct-to-video graveyard) became more generic. Also, viewing some of these films like The Alien Encounters or Ghosts That Still Walk would become all the more personal, as everyday people (like you or me) in drab everyday locations (like yours or mine) are seen encountering unusual phenomenon. And in many instances, we are further endeared due to the fact that with these same resources, we could have made these movies too.

To be sure, this drive-in filler would never win any awards for acting or direction, but it is charming for all the reasons mentioned above, and it is an absorbing low-key thriller that updates the Wolfman formula to the space age. Astronomer Paul Carlson, who maintains a lab in the rural American southwest, has the misfortune of being nearby the impact of a meteorite crash, as a stray fragment from the lunar rock lodges into his chest. Whenever there is a full moon, he turns into a murderous beast. This of course causes problems for him and his new girlfriend Kathy.

The makeup effects by Rick Baker and Joe Blasco provide for a decent lizard-like monster roaming around the arroyo. (In fact, the lizard suit is worn by Blasco, who would have just recently made the nifty parasite creatures for David Cronenberg's They Came From Within). However, even more fun to watch are the interesting visual effects of starscapes, and the trippy solarization used in the film's climax.

Yet like the old Wolfman pictures, the monster seldom appears. These filmmakers take a refreshingly old-fashioned approach to this formula by emphasizing character over body count. Instead the movie focuses on the doomed romantic leads, and Paul's growing realization that his alter ego is responsible for the strange deaths around town culminates in his conceding to destroy himself before more people die. On paper this sounds interesting, but unfortunately, this intriguingly fatalistic tone has to be delivered by two lead actors Whose. Delivery. Is. Much. Like. This.

This film was made in an era when movies had developed a sympathy towards Native Americans (seen in films like Little Big Man or Soldier Blue), but it is still unique to see a major role for a native character in a picture like this, who saves the day no less! Granted, Johnny Longbow (Paul's scientist friend), who joins Kathy in a race to hopefully save Paul from himself, comes to the rescue with -ha ha- a bow and arrow(!), but this bit of cliche is actually integral to the plot. Throughout this minor character-driven drama, there is also a sly context of how the white race stereotypes the native people, and it is subtly satirical to see Johnny use those very cliches in the climax.

Track of the Moon Beast has an unfairly bad reputation, largely because it was included in the "Mystery Science Theatre" TV series. Granted, it is a slow picture because it relies so much upon two wooden leads to carry the narrative, but kudos to the filmmakers who tried to make a little picture with some substance. It is a diverting enough drive-in picture for a weeknight.

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