Oftentimes low-budget producers and neophyte directors turn to 1950s science fiction as a target for satire and parody. Films like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and Plan 9 from Outer Space have been spoofed and derided ad nauseum for years in films like 50 Foot's 1993 remake, Plan 10 from Outer Space (and Plan 12 from Outer Space, and...), and openly ridiculed on TV shows like Elvira and Mystery Science Theater 3000, as well as the occasional feature like It Came from Hollywood.
Rarely are these misbegotten projects made by filmmakers who actually like or understand the nature of the films they're sending up, and rarer still are they actually funny, striking that delicate balance between an affection for the genre with a recognition of its sometimes silly cliches and successfully translating this into humor.
But Ted Newsom and Wayne Berwick's The Naked Monster (2005 - well, sorta) succeeds in doing just that. Though it's overlong and will appeal mainly to an audience weaned on the myriad films it references, this Naked Gun-style genre parody has a lot of funny material, and its genuine fondness for its subject and game cast of genre veterans make this a must-see for sci-fi / fantasy / horror fans.
The story, such as it is, follows the well-trodden set-up used in monster movies like The Creature from the Black Lagoon and Them!, namely career-minded female scientist (Brinke Stevens) hotly pursued between monster action by two rivals: local Sheriff Lance Boiler (R.G. Wilson) and Jeff T. (for "Trouble") Stewart (makeup artist John Goodwin). Joined by experienced monster-fighter Col. Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey, reprising his character from The Thing), this fearless foursome battle the colossal, three-eyed Creaturesaurus (Erectus).
Modeled after, among other things, the Jim Abrahams - David Zucker - Jerry Zucker Airplane!, The Naked Monster has all the advantages and disadvantages of that type of rat-a-tat comedy. The mix of verbal and visual humor flies fast and furiously; the film is basically a joke machine. If a gag falls flat don't worry - you got three more coming in the next 30 seconds and maybe you'll like one of those. This relentless firing of jokes like bullets out of a machine gun comes at the expense of characterization and story, but since the genre's iconography are already deeply engrained in the film's target audience anyway in the end it doesn't really matter.
Newsom's script very wisely varies the humor from wild sight gags and bizarre non sequiturs to plays on words, in-jokes (Tobey: "I'm outta shape - the last big battle I had was with Billy Jack back in '71"), and unashamed bawdiness. Where unfunny monster spoofs pointlessly try to one-up the films they parody with dialogue that merely if extravagantly exaggerates the kind of scientific mumbo-jumbo found in such pictures, Newsom's dialogue is played with straight faces and often is funny precisely because it's only very slightly askew - an exchange between Boiler and Stewart, on the trail of the monster: "Just what are we looking for?"
"I'm not sure. It's like art. I'll know it when I see it."
The Naked Monster incorporates a veritable mountain of stock footage from '50s genre films but perhaps the film's greatest achievement is that the (ahem) new footage and stock shots are often ingeniously cut together. Very often the inter-cutting is used for budgetary reasons, to create scenes of spectacle otherwise impossible for such a low-budget film, but at times this works so wonderfully well that viewers probably won't notice, for instance, that shots of Brinke Stevens supposedly flying over the ocean aboard a helicopter actually have her looking out the window of an ordinary automobile.
At other times, the cutting allows for some very funny gags, such as a clip (from Gorgo) featuring a religious "The End is Near"-type nut ranting amid panicked citizenry. In The Naked Monster he screams "Scientology! Scientology! Free personality tests! Aieeee!"
Besides Tobey, the remarkable cast includes John Agar, Robert Clarke, Robert Cornthwaite, George Fenneman, Robert Shayne, Paul Marco, Gloria Talbot, and Les Tremayne, all of whom have since passed away, some quite a few years ago. (The project began around 1983-84, and was still shooting as late as 1998 or '99, when this reviewer was enthusiastically recruited for a bit part.**) Thus, watching The Naked Monster is at times bittersweet, but most of these genre vets seem to be having fun. A brief conversation between Tobey and Cornthwaite, for instance, both in character from The Thing, is a highlight. Newsom's dialogue here is priceless, and though both actors are more than 30 years older, they're still in top form.
The younger cast of professional actors, semi-professional industry people, and amateurs is generally good. Stevens comes off best; she has a real flair for this sort of comedy, giving a wonderfully deadpan, slightly cynical performance in the style of Barbara Stanwyck (in her screwball comedies) and Suzanne Pleshette. Fan favorite Bob Burns has a funny scene as an inept Naval officer, while Newsom himself is very funny as the William Castle-like producer who introduces the film: "Sure it took us 12 years and $375 million dollars, but onscreen it looks like a million bucks!"
The Naked Monster runs 86 minutes but would probably play a lot better cut even tighter, say trimmed of another 15 minutes or so. The style of humor tends to tax the viewer after an hour, and the climax drags on much longer than it should.
Video & Audio
The Naked Monster seems to have mostly been shot in Super-8 and finished on video, with the stock footage (which accounts for upwards of 20% of the picture) derived from various sources. This mish-mash of production formats and cinematographic styles, combined with some headache-inducing blue screen mattes and digital tweaking, make this presentation hard on the eyes and best viewed on smaller screens and from a distance. There's also lot of damaged Super-8 film footage, as well as a fair amount of digital artifacting in the full-frame transfer, so be warned. The audio, a mix of stereo stock music, on-set and post-dubbed dialogue, is a bit better. There are no subtitle options.
Extra Features or: Ted, put down that Powerbar!
Newsom explains at the start of the Audio Commentary with Directors Wayne Berwick & Ted Newsom that he "had managed to push the wrong button" earlier that evening and thus they were watching the film and recording their comments for the second time that same night. This may account for the eccentric, often giddy but very entertaining content of this track. Newsom spends the first several reels gnawing on a gooey nutrition bar and slurping a Diet Coke, resulting in a commentary that sounds like this: "When I first...slmmmbrshnee...approached Tobey...nmmmg, smmms...I went to his apartment over on Magnolia, and...mmmnnng, sssslurp, etc." After finishing his supper Newsom, with Berwick more or less along for the ride, launches into a rambling confessional straight out of Sherman's March (1986). Not exactly reticent, Newsom discusses everything from Tobey's grumpy dissatisfaction with the project to a realization that many actors in the cast are no longer speaking to him. ("But," he jokes, "I'm checking my messages when I get home.")
Also included is a good Still Gallery, six minutes worth of Deleted Scenes best left deleted, a brief but enlightening Video Documentary, and a 16-minute Interview with Kenneth Tobey.
Mainstream audiences probably won't know what to make of The Naked Monster, though in the right frame of mind (say, a drunken fraternity party) they might find it hilarious.
But if like me you're a fan of '50s science fiction films, The Naked Monster is a warm and frequently funny spoof made just for us. At the end of the film Newsom appears on camera to pay a brief but heartfelt tribute to the actors who, a half-century ago, battled Brains from Planet Arous and Colossal Men and Deadly Mantises and, in Newsom's words became our "heroes." They were indeed. And it's this affection combined with the filmmakers' imagination and ingenuity that makes The Naked Monster the great pleasure it is.
**Full disclosure: I've known Ted for years. And yes, I am speaking to him.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.