Sublime Incompetence: The Films of Coleman Francis
How "MST3K" Saved a Shlock Filmmaker From Oblivion
This may surprise some, but the truth is that Mystery Science Theater 3000, despite the merciless potshots it took at the films it lampooned over its ten year run (1989-1999), ended up being very beneficial to some of its experiments. Thanks to their treaments at the hands of Joel, Mike and the Bots, previously obscure B, C or Z-grade flicks that would otherwise have rotted in obscurity in some film vault somewhere were elevated to the status of cult flick. (This was even more extreme in some cases, like with the low-rent ghost hunter/murder mystery snoozer The Dead Talk Back, which, while made in 1957, didn't get released until 1993.) The most famous case, of course, is Manos: The Hands of Fate , the astoundingly awful 1966 cheapie that became the series' most celebrated episode and its worst experiment subject. Without MST3K , its hard to imagine anyone ever dressing up for Halloween as Manos' big-kneed, paw-happy henchman Torgo.
Yet with apologies to Manos , perhaps no filmmaker owes more of an ironic debt to MST3K than Coleman Francis. Born in Oklahoma in 1919, Francis made his way to Hollywood in the 1940s, where he worked in several movies in uncredited bit roles (including the noted 1957 sci-fi epic This Island Earth , which ironically became the subject of the MST3K movie in 1996) before finally "breaking out" as a cop in 1958's Stakeout on Dope Street. Appearing in dozens of films in supporting roles over the next couple decades (mostly B-flicks), Francis eventually, like many actors, got bit by the auteur bug and decided he wanted to direct.
As luck (or, given the results, a cruel joke by Lucifer himself) would have, Francis found himself a like-minded soul in welder-turned-actor Tony Cardoza (who, in order to prove his bad movie cred, had appeared in Ed Wood's Night of the Ghouls , which eventually went unrealeased for over 20 years because Wood couldn't pay the film processing lab). The duo, with Francis writing and directing, Cardoza producing and both acting, would go on to make a trilogy of films so staggeringly awful, so technically inept and so painful to watch that they come off as the cinematic equal of having a root canal with anesthesia. All three were later lampooned on MST3K and all three...well, see for yourself...
The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961)
Arguably the worst movie Ed Wood never made, Francis' debut "epic" is one of the most staggeringly inept entrees in the "nuclear-spawned creature runs amok" sub-genre. Tor Johnson, the human monolith best known for his roles in Wood's films, stars as a defecting Russian nuclear physicist (and you thought Tor being cast as an ace detective in Plan Nine From Outer Space was miscasting!) who gets chased by Communist agents into a nuclear testing sight. Bad timing, because a nuke test is under way and poor Tor is caught in the blast. Or, as the narrator says, "Push a button, things happen. A scientist becomes a beast."
It's at this point that one should mention another tie this film has with Wood's work; mind-bogglingly idiotic narration. Much like the equally atrocious Z-grade sci-fi flick (and fellow MST3K subject) The Creeping Terror, there's very little dialogue in this flick. Instead, to save money (or maybe he just lost the soundtrack), Francis serves as narrator, droning on and on in his monotone voice, which only makes the ridiculous dialogue he's spouting sound even more surreal. When, early on, he refers to a possible Soviet moon landing as, "Flag on the moon. How'd it get there?" you're instantly on notice to cover your ears.
From there, Coleman Our Heroic Narrator provides commentary as Tor, now mutated into a mindless beast (though he looks pretty much the same as before the blast), wanders the desert, aimlessly killing all in his path. He's pretty good at it too, given that even though he's roughly seven feet tall and 500 pounds, he's able to creep into a necking couple's back seat and kill them without them noticing him! Eventually, the authorities catch wind of the situation and take to the sky in light aircraft, intending to, as Coleman the Narrator puts it, "Shoot first and ask questions later." (Hey, Francis just described his filmmaking philosophy!) In the end, after much effort (turns out Tor's a harder target to hit than you'd think), the Beast is gunned down and dies while a cute little bunny rabbit nuzzles him. And while the audience is trying to figure out if Francis was doing a sudden shoutout to Of Mice and Men, the film suddenly ends.
One really cannot fully describe the incompetence of this film. The narration merely scratches the surface of it. Characters spend lots of time either wandering the desert or climbing up and down hills. The opening scene, featuring a naked woman getting strangled by Tor in a cheap motel room, is enough to make you contemplate ending it all. Tor doesn't have much to do except lumber around aimlessly, while his fellow Ed Wood crony Conrad Brooks makes an appearance as a Federal agent. (Look for Tony Cardoza too, appearing as a Russian agent.) The film is only 55 minutes long, yet watching it feels like the Bataan Death March. And through it all, Coleman's narration drones on. Some of the highlights:
"Shockwaves of an A-Bomb. A once powerful, human man. Reduced to...nothing."
"Boys from the City. Not yet caught by the Whirlwind of Progress. Feed soda pop to the thirsty pigs."
"A hundred and ten in the shade...and there's no shade."
"Coyotes. Once a menace to travelers. Missile bases run them off their hunting grounds"
"A man runs. Someone shoots at him."
Not even Morgan Freeman could make that sound compelling.
The Skydivers (1963)
After Beast , Francis had nowhere to go but up and his second flick, released two years later, is a decided improvement and arguably his best effort. That doesn't mean it's good , far from it, but this one at least has a tangible plot. What plot there is, however, contains more twisted and messed up soap opera intrigue than an entire season of Grey's Anatomy. And while Francis thankfully lays off of the narration in this one and lets his actors speak real dialogue, he indulges fully in another of his favorite obsessions; light planes.
Tony Cardoza takes center stage in this one as Harry, a small-town California loser who runs a jump school with his helmet-haired wife Beth. Harry is cheating on Beth with uber-oily town slut Suzy, who is also getting in on with pinhead mechanic Frankie. Beth, not one to be neglected, takes up with Harry's recently arrived old friend Joe. When Harry dumps Suzy and fires Frankie, the duo plot to get even by sabatoging his chute before a big air show. Harry dies and Frankie and Suzy get chased down by a cop in a light plane (Francis himself) and get gunned down. The end.
Seems simple? Well, it isn't. This doesn't even begin to describe the sudden continuity jumps, awkward dialogue and just plain sickening action that makes this such a torture to sit through. I can't tell which is more nauseating; the "romantic sequence" with the addict-thin Frankie and the dumpy, oily Suzy frolic on the beath like they were Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity , or the scene where Suzy seduces a Walter Mitty-like drug store clerk in exchange for the acid needed to sabatoge Harry's chute (thank God said illicit sex takes place off camera). And then there's the unbelivably bizarre cast of supporting characters that wander in and out of the film. (While riffing on the flick on MST3K , Tom Servo referred to this as an "I can't pay you, but I can put your name in the credits" thing and apparently that wasn't far from the truth.) Some of this rogue's gallery includes:
* Mikey, an apparently mentally-handicapped guy who takes photographs just so he can "sit at home and look at them."
* A Scotsman in full kilt and everything who talks like Scrooge McDuck.
* A guy carrying a guitar.
* A old lady with a straw hat.
* A buxom blonde giantess, dubbed by the MST3K guys as "Tom Boerwinkle" (the hulking white guy who played center for the Chicago Bulls in the 1970s)
* A greasy hood who likes jumping from planes because, as he puts it, "I feel real free up there in the high blue sky!" Until he crashes and dies, that is.
All I can say is, I hope these folks got their money's worth out of Coleman for their brief moment of cinematic glory.
Red Zone Cuba (1966)
Also known as Night Train to Mundo Fine , Francis's final flick arguably his worst, a mind-numbing, stupifyingly awful anti-Communist parable/heist flick that plays like Red Dawn For Morons crossed with a junior high glee club's version of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The film opens with a shock in that Francis, for the first (and only) time in his directing career, features a real actor in one of his films! In this case, it's the legendary John Carradine, it what may qualify as the most embarrassing of the many, many "I did it for the paycheck" roles he took in his later years. (Then again, when that list includes such ficks as Billy the Kid Vs. Dracula, Horror of the Blood Monsters, Frankenstein Island and The Astro-Zombies , one may have spoken too soon.) In what was no doubt a blessing for Carradine, he only appears briefly at the beginning to set up the film (my guess is he showed up on set one day, did his scene, made sure his check didn't bounce and got the hell out). However, he also sings (yes, sings ) the haunting theme song "Night Train to Mundo Fine" (hence the alternate title). As Tom Servo quipped, "Boy, they don't call John Carradine "The Voice" for nothing."
From then on, however, Coleman himself takes center stage as Griffin, an escaped con (looking like Curly from the Three Stooges gone to seed) who hooks up with two drifters, Cook (Harold Saunders) and Landis (Cardoza, who, like in Skydivers , acts with all the enthusiasm of a narcoleptic zombie). Together, the trio stumble their way into the Bay of Pigs invasion, where they get captured and manage to escape. Along the way, they drop a morose diner owner down a well and rape his blind daughter (how heartwarming!) before acting on a tip from a fellow soldier and going to look for a tungsten mine. Everything ends badly, Cook and Landis are arrested and Coleman ends up getting...wait for it...shot in the desert by cops in a light plane. (Ladies and gentlemen, the Coleman Francis theme - "Everyone gets shot in the desert from small aircraft!")
Oh God, where to begin? How about the fact that the Bay of Pigs is so cheaply staged that a mere eight guys make up the invasion force? (As Mike put it on MST3K sarcastically, "Wow, could you imagine being Castro and seeing that force swarming up at you?") Castro is played by Cardoza with a fake beard and apparently has his offices above a convenience store. The continuity breaks are so abrupt they might snap your neck. His dialogue is so muted that at times the characters sound like the grownups in Peanuts . Oh yeah, and Francis being Francis, he couldn't resist but end the film with a bit of inane narration: "Griffin. Ran all the way to hell...with a penny and a broken cigarette." Uh huh.
Being a Francis film, we get the usual array of whacko supporting characters, including Sergent Chastain (or "Justine," according to the MST3K gang), the gangly and depressive diner owner ("My name is Death, I'll be your waiter.") and hostile pilot Cherokee Jack (who's stilted declaration that "I'm Cherokee Jack" became a running gag for the MST3K gang). None of them gives a performance worthy of a sixth grade talent pagent and the biggest offender is Francis, who's utterly unlikable protagonist will make you root for him to get shot by the plane-riding cops (or as Tom Servo calls them, "the gay high school Secret Service"). In a way, Francis suffered a worse fate than his bullet-riddled convict. This was the end of the line for him as a filmmaker.
Red Zone Cuba, mercifully for moviegoers, was Francis's curtain call as a director. He continued to work in Hollywood until his death in 1973 at 53. (His final film role was as "Rotund Drunk" in the Russ Meyer/Roger Ebert spoof Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.) Sadly, like Ed Wood, he didn't live long enough to see his work resurrected and brought back into the limelight. Then again, maybe its for the best. When one's life's work is listed among the worst atrocities in cinematic history (all three of his films are routinely listed among IMDB's "Bottom 100" list), it may be best for one to remain blissfully ignorant.
"Shoot first and ask questions later."
Words to live by.