Apr 1, 2013

Cape Canaveral Monsters (1960)

Writer-Director: Phil Tucker
Producer: Richard Greer
Music: Guenther Kauer
Cinematographer: W. Merle Connell
CCM Productions; 69 min; B&W
Cast: Jason Johnson (Hauron), Katherine Victor (Nadja), Scott Peters (Tom Wright), Linda Connell (Sally Markham)

One Saturday night, or more accurately, Sunday morning in the fall of 1989, I was scanning the listings of TV Guide and caught a listing for Phil Tucker's Grade Z science fiction epic, Cape Canaveral Monsters, scheduled to air on City TV at 4:30 that morning.  Having seen Robot Monster (1953) by the same director, I was excited at the rare chance to see his "other" science fiction film that I had only read about in Michael Weldon's "Psychotronic" Guide.  Putting the VCR to work, I had also elected to watch the recording in progress for as long as my stamina allowed.  And what little I did catch before nodding off was enough to make me love this little movie forever.

The lo-fi quality of the film is established right away with these two cartoon spheres zooming in and out on a black background (something that Norman McLaren would’ve made the first week of animation class), as a booming female voice is heard on the soundtrack: “I TOLD you we would find suitable bodies here, Horaun!”  Then we see these two tiny pieces of animated light on a rocky shore as a man and woman leave their idyll on the beach and get in the car.  Before you know it, the little spheres jump into the heads of the people in the automobile, instantly causing the car to veer out of control and kill them both (I guess these extraterrestrial beings, who cause so much mayhem in the next hour, don’t know who to operate a vehicle). (In one inspired shot, we see a mannequin arm dangling out the rear window.)  But wait!  Because the spheres had entered these human bodies, we see these bloodied corpses come back to life and struggle their way out the passenger’s side of the car.  “Horaun! Your arm!” the woman cries, and reaches back into the seat to collect the missing limb dangling from the smashed rear window.

This lively opening remains one of my favourite bad movie moments: it is a piece that seems made for the wee hours of the morning, where such surrealism can joyously tickle one's oxygen-deprived brain cells, before daylight emerges to wipe away all of the mysteries of the night. This scene fills me with juvenile nostalgia just thinking back on it.  Upon revisiting this movie after several years, however, expecting to rekindle that same kind of innocence, I was surprised to find that beneath the tacky production values and choppy plot, this is a much more bleak film than I remembered all those years ago, and one perhaps encapsulating the career of its creator, the enigmatic Phil Tucker.

Tucker is best remembered today for his masterpiece Robot Monster, in which a creature in a gorilla suit and diving helmet terrorizes the last few surviving humans on earth.  Its scant hour-long running time is a spirited piece of pulp, featuring a menace whose greatest threat is shaking his fist, a bouncy glockenspiel score by a young Elmer Bernstein, and such avant-garde touches as incongruous footage lifted from One Million B.C.  Had he made just this one picture, Tucker’s name would still be high in the annals of “so-bad-they’re-good” movies.  However in short order, he partnered with comedian Lenny Bruce on the sleaze classic, Dance Hall Racket (1954), and Dream Follies (1953)- one of the several burlesque pictures that the bargain basement auteur would make throughout the 1950s.

Yet still, little remains known about this cult figure (I deliberately ignore a short section on Tucker in The Golden Turkey Awards, because I question its authenticity). One most notorious piece of publicity surrounded Tucker’s threat to commit suicide shortly after the release of Robot Monster (not because of the film’s bad reception, as it was most commonly believed, but over his being cheated of profits from the movie, because it did make money).  But, because Tim Burton made Ed Wood instead of Phil Tucker, and no one has written a book-length study of his work on the level of those for Andy Milligan or Al Adamson, one could say that this auteur is one of the last frontiers of bad filmmaking to be re-discovered.

Despite that most of Phil Tucker's filmography is easily found on DVD today (mostly on the Something Weird label), Cape Canaveral Monsters (1960) remains the dark horse of his career (in more ways than one). It is just the kind of movie one would expect to find relegated to a mere two-line blurb in TV Guide, banished to the most obscure hour for a meager appearance to the scant few who would be watching it in the semi-conscious state that this film evokes (with his choppy narrative that resembles dream logic).  As of this writing, it has never had an official home video release (Republic currently owns the rights... what are they waiting for?).  Few have seen it, and many more should.  One’s inability to find more production history, posters or stills for to the picture makes this equally as enigmatic as its creator.

Like many of his Tucker’s films, this too is hokey, threadbare, and sometimes lethargic. The plot revolves around extra-terrestrials Hauron and Nadja, who assume human bodies to freely move about and thwart missile launches at Cape Canaveral, thus delaying Earth’s advances in the space program so the alien race can move in and conquer.   While we’ve often seen variations on this idea in the most generic 50’s sci-fi, the movie also adds a busy subplot of the aliens back in their ship, hidden in a cave, transporting human specimens back to their home planet for study.  Thus, in between missile launches, Hauron searches for unwitting victims in Lovers Lane!  Thank goodness the aliens’ fiendish plot is uncovered by young scientists, and would-be lovers, Tom and Sally (played by actors who are perhaps too old for their roles, but weren’t all young lovers in 1950s movies played by thirty-five-year olds?).

As such, this busy plot line results in a lot of scenes with little continuity, and even less logic, especially in how things get resolved by scientific methods that perhaps won’t be questioned by the viewers as long as they failed grade eleven physics. And while there were surely cheaper science fiction films made in the day, this is the kind of movie featuring humans and aliens alike looking offscreen to stock footage shots of rockets and explosions. (But truthfully, since some of this film’s exterior footage is as grainy as the stock shots, sometimes the editing is seamless.)  Despite that Hauron spends half the film without an arm, no one bothers disguising that the actor’s left limb is hidden in his shirt. Since the aliens have the technology to travel across the stars and assume human bodies, even the most undemanding drive-in patron couldn’t suspend one’s disbelief at such props as a spotlight which acts as a magnetic field, or a telecommunications device that resembles a revolving pancake in a jar.  (Not even the bubble machine in Robot Monster approaches this level of lo-tech wizardry.)

Cape Canaveral Monsters indeed seems hokey and threadbare, but like works from such mavericks as Larry Buchanan or Edward D. Wood Jr. who had a lot to say for themselves even within the stifling confines of Grade Z movie production values, there is a some poetry going on beneath the surface, if one chooses to look. Despite how much one may titter at the tawdry production, it is evident that some of the humour in this dour little epic is intentional- call it Flash Gordon Meets Samuel Beckett. In a blackly comic first half, Hauron’s arm continues to fall off (first in a car accident, then by way of a hungry guard dog), and must find another arm to replace it, so he can remain in the human state he obviously despises. It is an interesting touch to see the aliens committing acts of evil while inhabiting decaying corpses! (Mounds of makeup are applied on the actors’ faces to simulate their crumbling host bodies.)

While retroactively it is an easy ploy to think of even these silly aliens as a metaphor for the Red Scare of the era, one cannot recall another pair of extraterrestrial villains that are so uncomfortably human. This matinee fodder brazenly injects Edward Albee into its plot with a pair of bickering aliens, who are either seen arguing or commenting on a previous fight. It is implied too that Nadja is a lusty Id to Hauron’s Superego, as she is less in a rush to transport these young Earth bodies away. Perhaps there is another matter of the human flesh she wants to investigate?

Because it is a science fiction picture, this movie is always compared to Tucker's other fantasy film, Robot Monster. However, since Cape Canaveral Monsters is written by its director, one is more inclined to compare it to another film he wrote as well as directed: his no-budget Sunset Blvd. knock-off, Broadway Jungle (1955).  Both of these movies feature raving lunatics in positions of power (in Cape Canaveral Monsters, it is not just the aliens, but the German scientist and the caricatured cigar-chomping military figures). Additionally, each film displays Tucker’s knack for choosing the most overacting thespians on the unemployment line.  Both works end on a sarcastic note, in which there is a draw between good and evil, and all the preceding action is a shaggy dog joke.  There is little levity in the cinema of Phil Tucker- perhaps having made a decade’s worth of desperate movies on the outer fringes of Hollywood would influence such pessimism.

Yet even in pictures written by others, many of Tucker’s works deal with repression.  Dance Hall Racket achieves a Dreyer-like kind of minimalism, whose non-existent art direction compliments the empty lives of its characters that briefly attain some affection that is as artificial as the silly palm tree behind them.  Dream Follies opens with a stifling shot that endlessly pans between office workers and the wall clock, as they count down the seconds to escape.  Likewise, Cape Canaveral Monsters is full of longing and unrequited desire.  Sally’s scientist uncle (who is conducting the missile launches) berates Tom for “making goo-goo eyes at my niece”.  (Yet, who can blame him?  She is a fox behind those glasses!)  In the scene featuring the double-dating young scientists, the first dialogue we hear is their complaints of being under the control of their parents at the base.  Likewise, it is implied that at least one half of the alien duo is repressed, as Nadja is eager to examine the human body in more ways than one.

Cape Canaveral Monsters would be the last time that Phil Tucker blessed us with his directorial gifts.  He would spent the rest of his career in post-production, even on such high profile films as King Kong  (1976) and Orca (1977).  His last feature credit was as sound editor on the Betsy Russell stinker Out of Control (1985).

Phil Tucker’s final foray in the directors’ chair was also a family affair.  Cinematographer W. Merle Connell had previously lensed or edited several of Tucker’s films.  (His daughter Linda plays Sally, in her only role.)  In one of his sporadic assignments as director, Connell had secured his place in exploitation cinema with the classic, Test Tube Babies.

It is also interesting to see Katherine Victor as the villainous Nadja. While rather unrecognizable beneath all that makeup, she is engaging as the randy extra-terrestrial.  The actress largely received employment in films by Grade Z director Jerry Warren, especially the classics Teenage Zombies and The Wild World of Batwoman.

Fittingly, Tucker’s career as a writer-director ended with the close of the 1950s.  As a freer, more hedonistic culture was to emerge in the swinging sixties, the repression that seemed so synonymous with his work (and that decade) would soon fade away.  Cape Canaveral Monsters is an appropriate swansong, as it encapsulates these themes,  but it is also representative of the joys to be found in the so-called “bad movies” that mainstream society likes to shun.  Despite their obvious shortcomings, there is much sincerity to be found in these misunderstood little children.

Since the tradition of the late night movie has all but disappeared since that night I first discovered this picture, the only way that Cape Canaveral Monsters can hope to find its deserving audience is on DVD.  And it wouldn’t be a moment too soon—it is time for Phil Tucker again.