Thursday, September 15, 2011
Oddball Film Report: TRACK OF THE MOON BEAST (1976)
Motion Pictures have always been divided into two classes, the studio productions and the independents. Mostly, this means films produced under the studio operation tend to be much slicker and more expensive fare, while independents are films made by individuals or small companies outside the major production houses in Hollywood (and come in varying degrees of quality). Today, 'idependent' films are usually assumed to be pretentious, artsy pictures designed to appeal to the intelligentsia, who salivate over anything that 'the masses' don't 'understand.' That's a fairly modern concept, however, as independent films are the very kind of cheap genre fare produced for the mass market, the junk that shows up on late-night television. Before video, in the glory days of actual film movies, there was a period in which it became economical enough to make movies that independent businessmen and regional talents started trying their hands at film production. The 1960's were the decade that saw the regional film really take off, as countless exploitation movies were ground out in states like Texas and, most visibly, Florida. By the 1970's, it seemed that just about everybody was trying to make a movie.
Naturally, genre fare was what got peddled most. They could be made on the cheap and would have a built in audience. Monster movies were a seemingly can't-miss market (and a bit more reputable than the even more base sexploitation field, which also flourished in this period). Thus, the early to mid 70's saw the period which gave us what I call The Regional Horror Flick. It seems that during this period, most every State in the Union tried to get a monster movie on the market. (Some States even had regional producers who made multiple films, such as Bill Rebane in Wisconsin and Charles Pierce in Arkansas, to say nothing of the continued output of independent producers in California, Florida, and Texas, like David Friedman, Doris Wishman, and Larry Buchanan, respectively.) Oregon gave us SASQUATCH, THE LEGEND OF BIGFOOT, Idaho got to the party late with THE BEING, and New Mexico offered THE TRACK OF THE MOON BEAST.
TRACK OF THE MOON BEAST was filmed in 1972, my sources say, but not released until 1976. The cast is filled with unknowns who never did anything else (although the cast isn't bad here, let me point that out. While none of them give the most natural performance, they do say their lines with a believable conviction), and the crewmen's names aren't likely to excite many movie nuts. The one name really of note, to a particular crowd, is that of Joe Blasco, who provided the effects make-up and even played the titular beast. Blasco provided some pretty good make-up jobs for assorted genre projects like THE CLONUS HORROR, THE TOUCH OF SATAN, and JOHNNY FIRECLOUD before going into television. He also headed up his own makeup school. His creature here isn't bad, what we can see of it anyway, coming across like a blackish cross between a gorn and a sleestak. The film itself is more or less a 70's version of a 50's monster movie (I'd wager the producers saw the film's future as being in television broadcasts, though I have no idea how much play, if any, it got), and a nicely professional -if budget conscious- production. (It was one of countless obscurities to be saved by the early video boom of the 80's.)
We open in the desert, where mineralogist Paul Carlson is digging around near an Indian reservation. In a rather limp bit, Paul hears some screaming echoing across the canyon and sees a rather goofy ceremonial mask. (Did the American Indians make a lot of stuff out of foil-covered paper?*) This is actually a prank being pulled by Paul's former Professor, Johnny "Longbow" Selinas and a couple of students entertaining a lady photographer, Cathy Nolan. She took a shot of Paul's reaction, which amounted to a blank gaze, but promises not to use the photo. Our romantic leads in place, Paul and Cathy begin to show interest in each other. Longbow sets things in motion by inviting Paul to join everybody at dinner.
(* I assume the mask is supposed to be silver, which many tribes actually did make wide use of. Well into the 20th Century, and probably today, many a tribe supported itself by selling silver trinkets to tourists. This mask really doesn't suggest an origin with the American Indians, though. If you really stretch your imagination, it looks more Mayan or Aztec.)
Meanwhile, a meteor has struck the moon and debris from the impact is headed toward earth. Scientists predict the majority of the particles should burn off in the atmosphere, and provide nothing more that a harmless free fireworks display. Yeah, right. Our picture is called TRACK OF THE MOON BEAST, remember? In pretty short order, Paul and Cathy run off alone. They find themselves on a crest overlooking the city as the meteor shower begins. One of the stray rocks hits Paul in the temple, but as is later explained, Paul feels no pain due to the "great speed" of the object. Even if you accept this, the object moves across the screen at a much slower pace than a bullet, which has been known to cause great pain when it enters a human body. Cathy notices the scratch on Paul's forehead and tries to doctor it with a tissue, despite his claims of feeling fine. Still, Cathy is worried and Paul takes her back to his place where she can dress the wound. Before they leave the area, though, Paul finds the larger chunk of moon rock that grazed him and takes it with. As they go, however, they fail to notice the discarded tissue is now subject to a pulsating glow! For an extra bit of foreshadowing, a lizard has come to rest on the now irradiated paper. (I had hopes this meant a giant lizard would be roaming around, and a monster fight could break out in the last reel, but it was not to be.)
Since this is pretty much a science-fiction version of a werewolf story, we move in that fashion. Paul starts feeling woozy when he's out with Cathy and Longbow at a rock concert (the director's son's band, maybe? They have an entire song featured here) and his friends drive him home and put him to bed. Later that night, a monster kills a guy outside his house. Paul also wakes up to find his pet monitor lizard missing from his cage, which now sports a huge hole in the side. (Okay, we already know that Paul is a part-time monster. So, did he eat the monitor lizard? No trace of the animal is seen again. But I find it difficult to believe that a man-sized monster would be hungry enough to attack a guy after finishing off a whole monitor lizard. Plus, Monster-Paul's attacks are a bit messy, and there's no trace of blood anywhere near the lizard's cage. Did the lizard flee upon Paul's first transformation? Animals are always monster-sensitive, after all. But that doesn't work either, because there's no way a monitor lizard could inflict the kind of damage we see done to the cage. So what gives? This could have been a bit more dramatic if the lizard had died of shock during the night, something to keep in mind if there's ever a -yeah, sure- remake.)
While out with Cathy, Paul blacks out when a camera flash causes a spark to jump off a moon rock on display at the museum. The spark hits Paul in the spot where the fragment is. Longbow will later figure out that the pieces of moon rock react to each other with an electric charge when close enough together. This has something to do with why Paul changes into a monster when the full moon rises. (Just accept it, this is a monster movie.) Why does it turn him into a half-human reptile? You got me. At least when everyone figures out what's going on, Paul confines himself to a hospital for treatment. Other man-monsters like THE HIDEOUS SUN DEMON or John Agar's character in HAND OF DEATH tend to avoid hospital care under the theory that the staff doctors would waste too much time learning what the monster-ized scientist already knows. This usually leads to trouble, as you might expect. Having Paul be a scientist who doesn't know everything already (as most movie scientists do, no matter what their field) is a nice touch.
I'll avoid much else, should you wish to see the film yourself.
One bit I must comment on, however, concerns how Longbow figures out what's going on. This involves a series of slides showing a dear hide painting, one I think said to be 400 years old, showing how a similar monster ran amok and terrorized the Indians. So not only has a meteor hit the moon and sent a particle of moon matter flying at the earth which survived passing through the atmosphere and lodged itself in a man's brain twice in recorded history, but this also happened IN THE SAME GENERAL AREA OF THE UNITED STATES!!!! Think of the cosmic odds Paul beat to become the second lizard-man to stalk New Mexico! I'd want this guy buying lottery tickets for me!
Despite some silly twists like the one described above, TRACK OF THE MOON BEAST isn't really that bad. It moves at a healthy clip, doesn't run too long, and is fairly professional in its production values. It compares favorably with any number of modest drive-in movies produced around the same time. It's just too bad we don't see more of the monster since, being a Moon Beast, the black suit is only seen in the dark. The film also formed the base of a particularly humorous episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.