feat

Creature of Destruction

“There is no monster in the world so treacherous as man.”

So we are reminded at the beginning of Larry Buchanan’s Creature of Destruction and, just in case we forgot, at the end of the film as well. I like a film with a message, but the message is considerably less interesting if the film has to print it out for you. But hey – at least the guy was trying, which is more than can be said for most films. And in the end, this film is made in the tradition of sci-fi and horror films of days gone by, when such films had messages and delivered them with all the subtleties of a stoic military general surveying some scene of mass carnage and reflecting on the follies of man. Creature of Destruction is Buchanan’s homage by way of remake. In this case, it’s a remake of 1956′s The She-Creature, a movie that never exactly called with deafening thunder to be remade.

Larry Buchanan is a name both well-known and much-feared among fans of the lower echelons of cinema. On the cinematic food chain of respectability, Golan and Globus make Dino De Laurentuus seem respectable. They in turn are made to look respectable by Roger Corman. And Corman is made to look respectable by Larry Buchanan. Below Buchanan is the No Man’s Land where dwell filmmakers like Harinam Singh. Buchanan was best known for taking minute budgets and turning them into films that looked like they had minute budgets. Some directors known how to stretch a low budget and make the film look extravagant. Others get a huge budget and churn out cheap looking garbage. With Buchanan, he had very little money, and that’s what it looks like.

Feeling particularly frisky one day, American International, the company whose triumphant logo brands many of the world’s worst and most entertaining films, decided to commission a series of made-for-television features based on previously released theatrical films. They needed filler, and since they had very little time or money for the project, they figured it’d be easier to dust off an old film rather than come up with a new one, sort of the mirror opposite of what Hollywood has been doing in recent years by remaking any and every television show from the 60s and 70s with bloated blockbuster budgets.

Buchanan was given the film industry equivalent of milk money and sent on his way to remake such pseudo-classics as It Conquered the World (his version was Zontar, The Thing From Venus), Invasion of the Saucer Men (The Eye Creatures in Buchanan’s filmography), In the Year 2889 (his version of The Day the World Ended) and The She-Creature. Buchanan was chosen presumably for his ability to make movies that were shockingly boring, but not quite so boring that you’d feel the undeniable urge to turn them off. They had a sort of grimy appeal I liken to the guy I once saw at a Shoney’s All You Can Eat breakfast bar who had a cereal bowl full of glistening link sausages. You know you’d be better off if you turned away, and yet you can’t help but glance over and watch as he crams spoonfuls of greasy sausage into his salivating, gaping maw. And then you realize with horror and awe that he’s actually crumbled up strips of bacon onto the sausages as a topping.

While I’ve seen all of the films Buchanan based his remakes upon, I can’t claim to be especially familiar with the work of the man himself, having seen only Naked Witch and Mars Needs Women before sitting down to watch Creature of Destruction. I never really considered this a particularly glaring deficiency in my schooling, and after finishing my third Buchanan bonanza, I still maintain that opinion. The biggest detriment to Buchanan’s work is that he’s almost competent. His films are by no means stellar, but he knows how to make them, even if they’re made on the cheap. He can focus a camera, and most of the time he even knows how to light a scene. Not creatively, mind you, but at least you can see what’s going on. This isn’t a Doris Wishman movie. But because his films lack the mad disregard for anything and everything that becomes the benchmark of a Doris Wishman or Ed Wood Jr. film, he also fails to capture their outrageous appeal. At the family reunion, Ed’s movies are the fun-loving gay Southern Queen cousin in a velvet jacket while Doris’ movies are drunk and telling you some lurid burlesque tale about a fling in 1947. Buchanan’s films, on the other hand, are the slightly grumpy uncle on the front porch who only talks about financial issues. You don’t particularly dislike the guy, but when it comes to family dysfunction, his is not nearly as interesting as most of the others.

There are moments, however, when Buchanan almost approaches a Ray Dennis Steckler-esque sense of surrealism, though Buchanan lacks Steckler’s eye for a good shot. Say what you will about Steckler’s limitations, he was able to capture some really interesting images for his films and made his budgetary constraints and lack of experience work for him. Once again, Buchanan is undermined by the fact that he’s not as crazy as he should be to come up with something really sublime.

Such is the case with Creature of Destruction. It’s not good, but it’s not one of those “so bad it’s good” movies all the kids speak of these days. At its best, it’s maybe marginally bad to the point that it becomes mildly amusing. Although the whole hook of old films was to hold off on revealing what the monster looked like so as to drum up anticipation or mask budgetary constraints on the make-up department, Buchanan hits us face first with a wet fish and gives us the monster in the opening shot. In fact, he gives us a goodly portion of his entire finale in the pre-credit sequence. Just as he repeats the quote at the beginning and end of the movie, so too does he, well, repeat the ending for the beginning. Take that for what you will. If you like to cut a man some slack, you can call it a subversion of the traditions and expectations of the classic structure of a sci-fi monster movie. Larry knows how the game is played, and he’s turning the rules inside out from the get-go as a clever way to comment on the genre as a whole. Or you can simply look at it as filler.

If there is any subversion going on (the case for which is strongest when one takes into account the abandoning of the original’s run of the mill happy ending in favor of a far more downbeat finale), credit for that probably goes more to frequent Buchanan scriptwriter Tony Huston, who also penned The Eye Creatures, Zontar, Curse of the Swamp Creature, and Mars Needs Women. His work here is, like Buchanan’s largely competent. Too competent, perhaps, for its own good since a movie of this nature generally benefits from a few howlers when it comes to bad dialogue. Nothing here really fits the bill. No one says anything particularly insightful or idiotic, and no one in the audience is going to go home quoting their favorite lines — good or bad. Most of what’s said, like most of what’s done, is simply there, with nothing to distinguish it as memorable on any side of the bell curve.

The plot revolves around a celebrated hypnotist, if such a thing exists. In the movies, these guys often perform before a captivated audience of dapper men in tuxedos and women in fancy cocktail dresses. In reality, they work primarily at Six Flags. I can’t say for certain whether or not there was a time when the elites of American society sat in rapt awe as they watched a hypnotist make some woman repeat facts in a monotonal voice, but based on my knowledge of contemporary culture and the fact that unless you have an annoying amateur magician for a friend, you never hear about any famous hypnotists, my money is on the belief that perhaps these guys were not as popular with the jet set as movies sometimes make them out to be.

It doesn’t help that their supposedly astounding stage shows are so often studies in tedium beyond comprehension. I mean, how many times would you really want to go watch the guy from Devil Doll make his ventriloquist dummy fetch a ham sandwich? It’s a constant problem in film, that we’re presented with a character who is supposed to be incredible at what he does despite all on-screen evidence to the contrary. Think about how many movies have been made about great fictional directors and, when you see samples of their work presented to you as a film within a film, it’s junk? Same goes for movies that tell us a character is a brilliant writer then assaults us with samples of his writing that would hardly qualify for publication by Harlequin Romance.

Such is the case with Creature of Destruction amazing Dr. Brasso, played with goatee-sporting “mysteriousness” by Les Tremayne. Tremayne’s performance is suitably hammy in that “I have mental powers beyond your comprehension” sort of snobbery all world-class mesmerists and mind readers seem to have. Tremayne’s no rookie when it comes to film. Before assuming the role of the brilliant but slightly mad Dr. Brasso, he’d appeared in Angry Red Planet, Slime People, and Monster of Piedres Blancas among many others. But he’s far more famous as a disembodied voice, having served as a narrator or voice on the radio for movies such as Goldfinger, Forbidden Planet, and King Kong Versus Godzilla before going on to a long and steady career as a voice actor for cartoons. Like everything else in this film, his performance is suitable to the point of being not worth talking about.

His brilliant and shocking stage show consists of making his assistant sit there for a spell while he rambles on, wrapping things up with a dire prediction that a murder will occur, which is sort of like predicting that a traffic accident will occur or that terrorists may strike somewhere in the world within the next two years. When that very night sees a couple murdered, all fingers point to the one guy in town who minces about dressed like a circus ringleader while making bold predictions about murder. We, of course, know that the murders are being perpetrated by a googly-eyed sea monster that vaguely resembles Mer-Man from Masters of the Universe, only in a regular black wetsuit. It’s the kind of monster suit that makes you appreciate how realistic the monsters were in the old Ultraman shows. The thing that sets this monster apart from most other monsters is that it can haul ass when it needs to. Where as most monsters are content to lumber or lurch, our Creature of Destruction is more likely to break out into a jaunty jog. It can even creep stealthily like a ninja, which at least gives it a real-world basis for being able to pop up and surprise people. Most monsters just depend on the sudden inexplicable deafness and blindness of their prospective prey.

Hot on the monsters heels is your standard issue ineffectual cop who blames everything on Brasso without any real evidence, even when it seems murders are being committed while Brasso is in the company of the police. The cop is played with acceptable bone-headed stiffness by Roger Ready, another Larry Buchanan regular who also appeared in Mars Needs Woman and Curse of the Swamp Creature. Helping the cop out is a brilliant – or so they say – military parapsychologist named Dell and played by Aron Kincaid. Kincaid wasn’t a Buchanan staple, but he is another actor that went from sundry bit-parts to fairly steady work as a voice actor for cartoons, having worked on such series as Transformers, Batman: The Animated Series, Smurfs, and the life-affirming Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n’ Wrestling. Before that, he had parts in a number of teenie bopper movies, possibly in hopes of grooming him to be the next Frankie Avalon, or at least the next Tommy Kirk. He wound up being closer to something like the next Arch Hall Jr., and he looks really out of place a military officer with a floppy pompadour. I know standards change over time, but I’m pretty sure there was never an era where “floppy pompadour” was a regulation military haircut.

It turns out, just as in the original film, that the monster doing the killing is a psychic projection of Brasso’s assistant, a manifestation of her primeval ancient soul that appears when she is under deep hypnosis. Brasso apparently knows this but doesn’t much care. He’s too busy dreaming of the day he’ll be taken seriously as a scientist and can finally join the ranks of all those other rich and powerful hypnotists. So he’s evil, but in a really uninteresting way.

Buchanan employs a variety of cost-cutting techniques in order to bring his modest tale in under budget. The entire opening sequence – which is also most of the closing sequence – is shot with no sound. Generic “menacing” music was dubbed in later. Shooting without sound was one of Buchanan’s favorite tricks. Naked Witch, like this movie, relies heavily on post-production narration, looped music, and even a cheap intro (Naked Witch‘s intro is a series of shots of a book). Not having to shoot synch sound means, for starters, Larry doesn’t need soundmen on location. He also doesn’t need to shell out for sound film. He uses the no-sound trick frequently. He also finds a way to shoot a number of scenes with dialogue in a way that allows him to simply dub it in after the fact. People are filmed from far away, or with their backs to the camera, especially in outdoor scenes. There are a couple musical interludes as young teens shimmy to the beat on the beach that manage to eat up several minutes of time without needing to synch up the sound to the action.

Aside from a couple lengthy songs, we get a lot of scintillating scenes of hypnotism. The original film was a plodding 77 minutes of excruciating tedium, and Buchanan faithfully recreates every minute and then some. Filler is another good way of padding a film without impacting the budget, and what better way to pad a film than with long scenes of a guy in a top hat muttering, “Your eyelids are growing heavier. You want to sleep.” I’ll spare you the obvious joke about how effective his cooing was on me. Hypnotism, beach party musical interludes, and repeating the same scene at the beginning and end of the movie – not bad.

And of course, there’s our theme, the one about the dark heart of man. “Man is the most dangerous creature of all,” or “Man is the true monster” is not what you might call a ground-breaking or unique theme, and the film delivers it with a clumsy and obvious thud. But in this day and age of plotless, meaningless reality television, I’ll take any theme and be happy with it regardless of how heavily it’s hammered down my throat. Actually, no. I take that back. From what I’ve seen, reality television also teaches us that man is the true monster. Alas, the folly of man! When will we learn? How many she creatures, creatures of destruction, and From Justin to Kelly‘s must we create before we learn not to tamper in god’s domain?

The end result of watching a film like Creature of Destruction is sort of like letting out a complacent sigh. It’s better than a sigh of frustration, but it sure isn’t a sigh of pleasure. It’s the cinematic equivalent of the age-old “What do you want to eat?” “I don’t know. What do you want to eat?” conversation. It gets the job done eventually, and the results aren’t entirely awful. They’re not awful in that way that leaves you with very little to say about the matter except, “Eh.” Should you watch Creature of Destruction? Eh. Is it a bad film? Eh. Is there anything in it worth seeing? Eh. Is the monster goofy looking? Yep, it sure is, but even a goofy monster suit can’t make a dull film that much more interesting. After all, there are plenty of entertaining monster movies with equally appalling or even worse monster suits.

It’s a curious middle of the road, existing neither in the realm that is entertaining nor in the realm that is horrible. It’s boring, but not in a way that had me clambering to stop the movie. It is, ultimately, a perfect summary of my attitude toward any of the Larry Buchanan films I’ve seen. “Eh” and an indifferent shrug of the shoulders. I can’t bring myself to skewer it any more so than I could bring myself to praise any aspect of it.

And in case you forgot, “There is no monster in the world so treacherous as man.”