“Flag on the Moon!”
The Beast of Yucca Flats, and the Fantastic Failed Films of Coleman Francis
Even those who aren’t fans of the “so-bad-they’re-good” genre of B-movies are aware of its most notorious auteur, the man considered by those who aren’t devotees of the subject to be the worst filmmaker ever—Edward D. Wood, Jr. However, to those of us who exist on a steady diet of the works of directors such as Al Adamson, Andy Milligan, Mike & Roberta Findlay, Bob Cresse, and other ultra-low budget, exploitation filmmakers, Ed Wood is far from the bottom of that particular barrel. Far below Eddie lays the domain inhabited by those who aspire to Ed’s level of talent, paltry though it is. That is where we find Coleman Francis, the Unimonster’s unquestioned king of bad moviemaking.
Born in Greer County, Oklahoma on January 24th, 1919, Coleman C. Francis relocated to Hollywood in the late 1940s to become an actor. Though he found steady work through the 1950s, mainly in television, these were largely bit parts and uncredited roles. His first screen credit was in the 1958 low-budget feature Stakeout on Dope Street, notable primarily for being the debut film of director Irvin Kershner, who would go on to direct such films as The Eyes of Laura Mars, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.
Though Francis’ filmography is, thankfully, short, with only three films as director, each entry in that list stands out as a tutorial on how not to make a movie. From his directorial debut, 1961’s The Beast of Yucca Flats, to The Skydivers in 1963, in which he gives full reign to his fascination for films set at airports or in some way involving general aviation, and ending with his final film in 1966, Night Train to Mundo Fine, better known as Red Zone Cuba, Francis’ movies stand out as monuments to poor filmmaking. Produced by Tony Cardoza, a welder who had become Francis’ business partner, and scripted (barely) by Francis, the movies feature bad acting, horrible dialogue (when there was dialogue), and production values that would embarrass a high school class play.
Francis’ first effort, The Beast of Yucca Flats, is his best-known film. It is also his most amateurish effort, filmed without a soundtrack, without professional actors, without money, and without any measurable amount of talent. The lack of a recorded audio track meant that there was no way to synchronize dialogue to the film, so Francis eliminated most of the dialogue, replacing it with an expositional voice-over, by Francis himself, filled with non sequiturs, including the well-known (and ridiculed) “Flag on the Moon … How did it get there?” in the midst of a car chase, and long droning passages intended to advance the meager plot. What dialogue is present comes when the speaker is off-screen, or with their backs to the camera.
The plot, such as it is, involves Joseph Javorsky, a defecting Soviet scientist, played by Tor Johnson, who arrives at a small Southwestern airstrip, where he’s ambushed by KGB agents and pursued into the desert. Unfortunately for him, he’s chased onto the site of a nuclear test detonation, and the radiation from the blast (which he inexplicably survives) transforms him into a mindless, homicidal beast.
The Beast then attacks a man and woman whose car has broken down on the highway, a highway that is conveniently close to the site of the Atom Bomb test (it is, as is everyone and everything in this film, located within easy walking distance of a nuclear explosion). The Beast leaves the man’s body lying beside his car, and carries the woman off into the desert, her purse at the scene of the crime the only clue to her presence.
The dead motorist is soon brought to the attention of Joe Dobson … Desert Patrolman, who we are told has been “… caught in the wheels of progress.” (How, or why, this is so is left up to the viewer to decide.) Joe informs his partner, Jim Archer, of the murder, and both men are soon driving into the desert. Why? We’re not completely certain, except that we know it somehow involves “progress.”
They find the woman, miraculously still alive, though she dies as soon as they try to move her. The scene shifts to a service station on the desert highway, as the Radcliffe family stops for gas. As the proprietor (Coleman Francis in a cameo appearance) services the vehicle, Art and Randy, the family’s two small boys, “… not yet caught in the whirlwind of progress, feed soda pop to the thirsty pigs.” (These are Coleman’s sons, Ronald and Alan Francis, and their mother is played, as one might expect, by Coleman’s ex-wife, Barbara.) Meanwhile, Joe and Jim, Francis’ answer to Barney Fife and Roscoe P. Coltrane, have decided to put Jim’s experience as a paratrooper to use—they will take to the air, and when they spot the killer (without so much as a clue as to what he looks like), Jim will parachute out and kill him (because arresting him would apparently be, oh, I don’t know, too much like “progress?”).
Shortly thereafter, and as predictably as the rest of the movie, the family’s car suffers a blowout, and as the father changes the tire, the boys wander off into the desert. He goes off in search of the pair, leaving Mrs. Radcliffe at the car to await his or the boys’ return. True to form for a Coleman Francis film, Yucca Flats’ top cops spot Radcliffe from the air, assume he’s the killer they’re hunting, and strafe him repeatedly, wounding him in the process. He manages to make his way back to the car, and then, in what must’ve seemed like a burst of inspiration to Coleman, he takes off, leaving his wife stranded at the side of the road. As the remainder of this sad collection of non sequiturs winds down to its inevitable dreary conclusion, the two trigger-happy cops finally catch up to the right killer, free the Radcliffe boys, and watch Tor Johnson give his best impression of Lennie from Of Mice and Men as the Beast dies.
Coleman Francis’ Magnum Opus, let alone his other films, might have wound up forgotten footnotes in Exploitation film history, had it not been for the 1990s phenomenon known as Mystery Science Theater 3000. The series, which aired from 1988 to 1999, endeared itself to millions of fans by taking such examples of low-budget dreck, movies that, quite deservedly, had been forgotten and ignored, and openly mocking them. The works of Coleman Francis were tailor-made for such treatment, and The Beast of Yucca Flats (Season 6, Episode 21) was one of the series funniest and best-loved episodes. It was the third and final film from the director that had been featured on the program in its sixth season, and Kevin Murphy, one of the series’ writers and the voice of Tom Servo, summed up the experience in The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide (Bantam Books, 1996): "Coleman Francis uses edits like blunt instruments. He uses blunt instruments like blunt instruments. His major themes are death, hatefulness, death, pain, and death. He looks like Curly Howard possessed by demons from Hell. He tried to pass off Lake Mead as the Caribbean Sea. His films have the moral compass of David Berkowitz."
A fitting way to sum up the filmmaker who aspired to the reputation possessed by Edward D. Wood—but was never quite good enough.
Creature Feature © D. Dyszel 2019
Dick Dyszel - Voice Actor