Was there ever a more perfect pairing of movie critic and movie than Judge Bill Gibron and The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra?
None can stand its mental power!
Is it possible to make a bad movie on purpose? No, not the kind of rip-roaring flops Tinseltown tosses out, like so much desiccated carp, onto the mainstream market every year. We are discussing the true titleholders of bilious blunders, the grade-Z schlockmeisters that forged the unforgettable dreck we've all grown to love. Now, many of the classic examples of foul filmmaking are not the result of someone's clever conception or purposeful pointlessness. Indeed, most cinema de-farte is crafted with a super serious intent to make something significant and/or saleable out of incredibly limited resources: financial, technical, and personal. Ed Wood, that weird wunderkind of the incoherent classic, never once thought he was making crap. Just listen to the cockamamie speeches he scripted for Bride of the Monster, Glen or Glenda, or the penultimate Plan 9 From Outer Space, and witness a man marveling in his own truncated thought process. Ray Dennis Steckler wasn't out to spoof specific genres when he turned gypsy curses and showgirls into The Incredibly Strange Creatures That Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies. The fundamental flash found in his buffoonish Busby Berkeley dance numbers is enough to convince you of that. No, most mind-bendingly bad film comes out of a straight-ahead desire on the part of a sincere simpleton to tell a tale, no matter how amateurishly or ineptly one goes about it. From Ted V. Mikels to Larry Buchanan, there is more of an artistic than autistic temperament careening through these lamentable unintentional laughfests.
So when the trailer to The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra was unveiled last year (seemingly out of nowhere), bad film fans rejoiced. Finally, it seemed a smart update on that classic form of Saturday night Creature Feature fare was being attempted, with all the miscreant elements intact. Some minimal box office and a DVD release later, we now have a chance to view this spirited throwback in the privacy of our own homes and judge whether it matches the classic crap for sheer stupidity.
Facts of the Case
Dr. Paul Armstrong and his picture-perfect pearled wife Betty are heading to a cabin in the mountains, so that the scientist can find a fallen meteor and experiment on it. Seems the space rock contains the ultra-rare atmospherium, a substance providing unlimited something or other. It must be pretty powerful stuff, because when an alien ship from the planet Marva crash-lands on Earth, the extraterrestrial beings inside require the essential element to power their rockets. Also, a legendary creature—the Lost Skeleton of Cadavra—needs the mineral to rejuvenate his bleached bones and rule the world. Dr. Roger Fleming also wants to control the continents, and he schemes with the skeleton to steal Armstrong's astral findings. Little do they all know, but the space travelers are also after the chunk of space junk and have an escaped Mutant on their side to help the cause.
We bad movie buffs are a touchy bunch. Mess with our hackneyed heroes and we come out swinging like grade-schoolers in a fistfight. Laugh with us, and life is a nice thick slice of mile-high coconut cream pie. Laugh at us and this pissed-off posse will geek you to death with details and dimensions only untold viewings of classic crappy cinema could provide. So it's the brave buckaroo who takes on the theater of trash and lives to blog about it, so much so that examples are few and far between. Most of the time, miscreant motion pictures are culled and coddled, discovered and whispered about until a comfortable cult has built up around them. See, bad films are awarded that title, not just created out of thin air.
Then along comes Larry Blamire with a deadly desire. He wants to craft, from the very bottom up, a totally talentless work of epic ineptness. He wants to populate his pic with all manner of master thespians, bestow a nostalgic ideal onto its plotting, and shoot the self-sentient shivers and quivers among the very locations favored by past perpetrators of the pathetic: Corman and Castle, Arkoff and AIP. Wearing a belligerent buffoon-proof vest and an innocent desire to evoke, his fractured flick would be both a schmaltzy send-up and terrific throw-down, a randy remembrance of tainted things past positioned as an affectionate homage to the horrible. The result was, and is, a sci-fi horror comedy called The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra and it's a fun, if flawed, festival.
Thankfully, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra doesn't want to offend those hordes of parental basement dwellers. It hopes to avoid the direct snicker at the awkward, and schemes instead to pal around with the socially retarded, hoping that everyone sees the humor in its gentle ribbing of the rotten film variety and comes out smiling. And for the most part, it succeeds. From the opening credits that look like a lost William Castle exhibition to the simmering scenes of arcane dialogue, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra has its heart, and its memories of mediocre movies of the past, in the right place. It wallows in the no-budget regresses of '50s and '60s drive-in B-movie mania while also attempting to toss a little modernistic irony into the mix. For the sake of silliness, we get bad miniatures, props built out of household appliances, phony backdrops, archetypal costuming, zipper-backed beasts, and a slinky supernatural catwoman to round out the conscious clichés from crud's past. It then whips this concoction into a frenzy of foolish writing, arbitrary direction, miserable mise-en-scene, and unexplained pudding. Add in stupid dance scenes, a wisecracking pile of bones, and a monochrome modus, and you've got what the filmmaker thinks is a friendly, funny paean to pathetic pictures of long ago. Instead, what we have here is a direct assault on the beloved subgenre that is only about half as clever as it thinks it is.
The big problem with The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra is that it knows it is trying to be funny. It's making mistakes and goofing around on purpose. A crass crackup like Airplane! also contained some of the stupidest jokes ever fired at rapid speed, and most of Mel Brooks's material is so cornball that people make hominy grits from it. But these films played their lampoons deadly serious, never once letting the audience feel that the filmmakers were in on the joke. The reason we laugh out loud at movies like Plan 9 from Outer Space, Robot Monster, and Astro-Zombies is because they are innocently awful, examples of horrible, hideous movies made by people who thought they were creating something super…or at least earnest. Here, there is always a wink, an obvious nod to the crowd, as if to say, "Yep, we know this is dumb as dirt and dopey as a dribbling dunce, but laugh along anyway, won't you?" And sometimes we do. But instead of the humor sneaking up on us in witty wordplay or carefully crafted copying of Z-movie limitations, Lost Skeleton is trying to get away on fake, forced faultiness. We laugh at old movies because they are awful, not because they were trying to be awful. Here, Lost Skeleton hedges its bets, writes in the blatant badness, and hopes we titter like birds. Sometimes it gets very close—the pre-dinner conversation between the aliens, the married couples and the evil scientist and his animal clone is almost a classic, missing the memorable by about a single rewrite. But the rest of the time, the script is pointing its counterfeit finger, making an intentional point.
Indeed, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra forgets one of the cardinal rules of bad movie making: unless you give the actors awkward monologues full of internal logic gaps, run-on sentences, and contradicting ideas (peace by war, life via death, et cetera), all you'll have is droning drivel. Skeleton scuttles this gospel of the God-awful and, instead, hopes to make smart-stupid banter believable. All the characters speak in short but sweet quips, the kind of kooky dialogue first-year screenwriting students draft as part of an exercise in witty repartee. We never get that "he tampered in God's domain"-style line, or "he realized too late that man was a thinking creature"-ish quatrain to tickle our odometer of outrageousness. Instead, it's a bon mot bonanza.
Also, the plotting is too simple. There is no mystical ritual that has to be performed for the Lost Skeleton to live, no warped invasionary reason for the aliens to target Earth. Our inner frame fiend doesn't really make a memorable appearance until very late in the narrative, and then when he's roaming the countryside with some manner of bad intent, the film finally comes alive. Same with the interaction between the space jockeys and the planet's population. Though it is completely out of character for either creature, the bone dude's catchphrases ("I sleep now") and the ET's human moves make for genuine instances of jest. But then the marrow maniac is ditched for more endless shots of those awkward actors doing the Batusi for no real reason, and The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra loses its way again. With a mutant monster recalling ancient possibilities of putridness and a series of special effects that actually evoke the idiotic inventions of the past, Skeleton has all the essential vitamins for video vilification. But as it plays, it is a series of missed opportunities tied into what should have been a can't-miss premise.
The actors all give it the old collegiate attempt, though, never once letting on that this is some manner of mishandled spoof. Especially good are Fay Masterson as Betty Armstrong, about as close to necklaced perfection you'll get in a faux-'50s hausfrau this side of June Cleaver. Andrew Parks as alien Kro-Bar, and Susan McConnell as his mate Lattis, have their humanoid being act down pat, and, if given a little more to work with, could have been a nonstop source of spontaneous hilarity. Indeed, when they are standing at the cabin door wondering why it doesn't open automatically, they just miss turning the moment into something truly spectacular (they play confused and cowardly very well). But for every element that shines, another is as uninteresting as it is unconvincing. If asked to play Grizzly Adams or a member of the Loud Lumberjacks society, Brian Howe would be wonderful. But as an evil scientist bent on thwarting Armstrong and saving the Skeleton, Howe is horrible. He's more burly than badass, and never, ever develops the insane insidiousness we expect from such a crass character. Filmmaker Blamire, giving himself the role of Armstrong, manages the dry, dull delivery style of his character type well, but it's probably because he's equally arid in person. Somewhere on the cusp is Jennifer Blaire's Animala. The fact that, while being made up of four woodland creatures, she basically acts like a cat doesn't really dissuade you from her effectiveness. But she is not really given much more to do than inhabit that pixie-like coquette that usually ran rampant in retro films.
Kitsch and camp are hard to create outright. They need to be nurtured when they appear, or acknowledged as coming naturally to certain individuals. Blamire, as a director, probably couldn't concoct the tragically ludicrous out of a situation even if he had a dozen drag queens in a radar gun, ready to spray show tunes all over the screen. He feels a black-and-white world meshed with a gentle tweaking of the genre's conventions will recreate history. And he couldn't be more wrong. The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra is fun, but not fiercely hilarious. The components putter along nicely, but never really build up a good head of silly steam. The performers all try to pass off this pastiche as acceptable, when it is barely that. And our beasties are not very novel or reminiscent of the classic creatures, like the disembodied brains or killer brine shrimp. Besides, there is nothing here that can match The Twonky, the killer television chasing Hans Conried around his home in a boob tube terror treat. Or what about the flesh-craving carpet from The Creeping Terror, roaming the countryside, hoping people hop into its open mouth (since, as a limbless, slug-like being, it has no other manner of gathering prey). From the reincarnated reject as a stalking, slaughtering tree in From Hell It Came to a bunch of collies covered in bathmats called Killer Shrews, incredibly bad-looking and -acting monsters are not prefabricated and planned, but spring fully formed and intelligently stillborn from the brain of a true troubadour of the untalented. Larry Blamire's major mistake is that he failed to realize that knowingly creating a crappy creature renders it no longer bad. Similarly, thinking you're making a stinker doesn't guarantee the sweet smell of success. The Lost Skeleton Cadavra is such a semi-smelly celebration. You'll find it witty and warm. But it won't replace your real rotters from the golden age of atrocities.
Columbia TriStar, which should be given brownie points outright for taking on this title and turning it into a high profile release, goes a couple of giant steps further in making the DVD package for this independent spoof a real special edition. Along with two commentaries, a couple of featurettes, a series of classic trailers (including several from ballyhoo veteran William Castle), a blooper reel, a cartoon (Ub Iwerks's Skeleton Frolic) from the golden days of kiddie matinees, and a "virtual" realization of some fake merchandising products for the film, this is one jam-packed disc. As a matter of fact, with three hours of commentary and almost one hour of behind-the-scenes footage, we get extras that surpass the film's official running time by 250%. Sadly, some of that space causes video concerns for the title. Presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image, the transfer of The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra is pretty weak. There is massive pixelation and artifacting. Some may argue that this is the result of taking a color camcorder image (the film was shot on video), converting and compressing it into black and white, and then making the whole shebang conform to 16 x 9 parameters. But it really seems like the dancing dots are all over the print, meaning that there is never a time when this film doesn't look shabby. On the sound side, the aural aspects are first-rate. The Dolby Digital Stereo keeps the dialogue clear and the generic soundtrack material crisp.
Thankfully, the many bonuses lessen the image's irritating impact. The two commentaries—one exclusively crew and one exclusively cast—tend to cover some of the same ground. Since Larry Blamire was both director and actor, he is present both times and repeats anecdotes (finding locations, eating old mashed potatoes) and insights in each instance. Overall, the cast seems to have more fun with the alternate track, discussing line readings, wardrobe issues, and the lack of heat during the production (apparently, the places they filmed at experienced record low temperatures). Still, they add more details than the crew, who tend to remember odd aspects like how many takes it took to register a reaction shot, or the lighting requirements of a vacation cabin. All really enjoy watching the film and constantly chime in, MST3K style, with quips and riffs about the actors and direction. Along with specifics dealing with effects (broccoli trees? eBay props?) and "purposefully" created continuity errors, these commentary tracks are an excellent addition to the set. So are the featurettes, for substantially different reasons. The main behind-the-scenes sequence Obey The Lost Skeleton! is a very well done piece that, while repeating information, also highlights elements those exchanges missed. The actors are allowed more room to discuss details and the really low-budget production values are experienced first-hand in backstage footage.
American Cinemathéque is where The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra was first discovered (an executive for Sony, TriStar's parent company, was in the audience when the film was showed as part of the organization's screening), and it's great to have the audience introduction by Blamire and post-showing 30-minute cast and crew Q&A on this disc. The homemade video feature is hilarious—the participants are in perfect self-deprecation mode as they try to justify their painfully bad film and explain away the silliness. Equally engaging is the blooper reel. In this color cavalcade, you can see the Mutant, Betty's retro dresses, and the aliens' outer space wardrobe in all their tacky tinted glory. Besides, watching people stumble over intentionally inane dialogue is always funny. Along with a chance to see some really inventive "fake" products to tie-in with the film, and William Castle's mastery of the movie ad, this DVD provides as much fun as—maybe even more than—the film itself.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This film is a really close call. On one hand, it has incredibly clever moments of well-crafted daffiness—like the living room conversations or the dinner scene—that will surely tickle your funny bone. Then there is the perfectly realized throwback mentality, a true attempt at recapturing the tone and technicalities of classic bad B—or maybe it's Z—grade movie mania. It's actually unfair to judge this movie on one's love of other classic crap cinema. Since they are actually accidents of fate and human failure, to expect someone to accurately recreate that ideal is insipid. Better to judge The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra on its own merits, and as a spoof of Shock Theater stool samples, this is Ed Wood's lost last film, masterminded by Roger Corman and realized by AIP. Forget your bad movie bias and snuggle up to this bag of bones. You'll find he's a very funny fellow.
A critic must wade through a virtual tundra of trash on a daily basis to get to a single sensational work. Most of the time, the moviemaking is just plain mediocre, so uninspired that paying attention and then analyzing it requires a more than Herculean effort. Zeus himself would have a hard time holding back the lightning bolts from some of the urban thrillers, rap gangster dramas, and sophomoric gross-out comedies that come crawling out of the encoding factory and direct to your DVD shelves. So The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra deserves a heap of praise for merely being something different, an attempt to make an independent film that doesn't involve incest, self-esteem issues, or gay cowboys eating tapioca. Its nostalgic take on the tame terror tales, filled with fake beasts and awful acting, is friendly and very funny.
Still, the ingredients experimented with here are so beloved and/or berated by fans and antagonists that it was bound to step over the line, and many aficionados of foul film will cry a similar malodorous sentiment over its attempted archetype. For all it remembers fondly, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra blanks when it comes to what makes mythically muddled movies so sad. The hackneyed horrors we know and love came from a genuine, not a planned, ineptness. The laughs were unintentional because the movies were so superciliously serious. The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra will always be first and foremost a premeditated comedy. And that was its first mistake.
Though flawed, and somewhat foolish to think it could channel Ed Wood and Roger Corman accurately, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra is found not guilty and is free to go. The entire cast and crew are commended for trying to recapture the flavor of favored cinematic farts and are also free to go. Columbia TriStar is also acquitted and is praised for its in-depth DVD release.
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Scales of Justice
• Director and Cast Commentary
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