Saturday, 22 February 2014

The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra

Director: Larry Blamire
Writer: Larry Blamire
Producer: F Miguel Valenti
Cast: Larry Blamire, Fay Masterson, Jennifer Blaire
Country: USA
Year of release: 2001
Reviewed from: UK screener (4Digital)

The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra is a note-perfect recreation of a bad 1950s sci-fi B-movie. That’s the good news. The bad news is that this film is a note-perfect recreation of a bad 1950s sci-fi B-movie. In other words, it’s too exact, too precise, to its own detriment. In recreating the feel, tone, style, approach and attitude of its subject matter, Lost Skeleton has also recreated its entertainment value, which is limited.

Dodgy 1950s B-movies are rarely as good as you expect - or remember. The concepts are often brilliantly daft, the trailers warmly nostalgic, the posters insane - and YouTube-friendly, bite-sized clips can be uproarious. But sitting through the full 72 minutes or so can be a chore. I watched The Killer Shrews the other week and I had to work at it - and honestly that’s one of the more watchable films in this subgenre.

Larry Blamire is the man behind The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra. A bit-part actor who was in oddities like a docu-drama about the Mary Celeste and an episode of Cheers, Blamire wrote and directed this movie and also stars as Dr Paul Armstrong, a serious minded scientist wearing trousers so baggy that you keep expecting him to shout, “Hammer time!” Lost Skeleton proved a tremendous hit among ‘monster kids’ with the same cultural touchstones as Blamire and kicked off a mini-industry. His subsequent works include Trail of the Screaming Forehead, The Lost Skeleton Returns Again and Dark and Stormy Night.

I have seen the last of these at a festival and it is markedly superior to The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra. The question is: is that because Blamire has got better at the subtleties of his chosen craft, or just because the target - 1930s old dark house pictures - offers more opportunities for good gags and interesting characters?

Armstrong is married to perky blonde Betty (British actress Fay Masterson who was in Jupiter Moon!) and the two are looking for a meteorite containing the rare element atmospherium which may hold the key to something. In their isolated cabin, they encounter two other strange couples. ‘Bamin Taylor’ (Andrew Parks, who started as a child actor in the 1960s and was in episodes of M*A*S*H, Kojak, Murder She Wrote and Angel) and his wife ‘Tergasso’ (Susan McConnell) are actually Kro-Bar and Lattis, two aliens who need the same meteorite to repair their crashed spaceship.

On the other hand, Dr Roger Fleming (Brian Howe: Spy Hard, Evan Almighty, I am Number Four) is a rival scientist and a wrong-’un, seeking that same meteorite because it holds the key to reanimating the eponymous lost skeleton, a telepathic bag of bones which exists in a nearby cave and has plans to conquer the world. Somehow. Adopting the pseudonym Rudolf Yaeger, Fleming is accompanied by ‘Betty’, a sexy beatnik chick passed off as his wife who is actually Animala (Jennifer Blaire), an artificial woman constructed from woodland creatures.

These are nicely drawn characters with recognisable motivations and the plot is coherent. It’s just, well, not that funny. The humour comes from forced hesitation, slight incongruity and repetitive non-sequiturs. All hallmarks of a dodgy film, faithfully recreated with care and deliberation. I just wish there were a few more actual gags.

A goofy mutant turns up later on which would not look out of place in some of Roger Corman’s earlier efforts. Where the film does fall down however, atypically, is in the ‘special effects’ shots of the alien spaceship, which are (deliberately) cheap and wobbly and amateurish beyond anything that might be seen in even the dodgiest 1950s B-movie. I can’t help thinking of the superimposed V2 test-firing footage used in Missile to the Moon. Independent cheapo film-makers of this era were inventive, making do with what they had. But the spaceship in Lost Skeleton looks like something from a kids TV show spoofing Thunderbirds, not like the sort of cut-price effects that graced the films that this movie lampoons.

The acting seems fine inasmuch as we can tell behind the deliberately stiff performances, which all feel too restrained. Animala is the only character to really let rip, unfettered as she is by the straitjacket of pseudo-wooden performance. Look, the truth has to be told: there’s nothing intrinsically funny in watching people pretend to act not very well. Over-the-top awfulness can work, especially if it’s combined with an insight into the character behind the character, a pompous or foolish wannabe actor. But just acting stiffly like someone who’s not a particularly good actor pales very quickly and soon overstays its welcome.

Speaking of overstaying its welcome, the most inexplicable thing about this mostly spot-on spoof is that it is significantly too long. Look, here’s the 1950s B-movies reviewed on this site:

Nothing over 80 minutes and an average of 72, which as everyone knows is the standard length of a rubbish 1950s film. Even by the 1980s, the standard length of rubbish films had only stretched as far as 85 minutes. So what on earth is Lost Skeleton of Cadavra doing running to a full 90 minutes. Knocking 18 minutes of the film would not only have resolved this one anachronistic inconsistency, it might also have tightened things up a bit and injected a bit of pace into the proceedings.

As it is, the film sadly drags in far too many places. Which is what real 1950s B-movies often did, but that just brings me back to my original point that this is too accurate a copy. Spoof B-movies aren’t in short supply but the reason why something like Monster from Bikini Beach or The Pink Chiquitas or Attack of the Killer Tomatoes works is because they take their ideas to extremes. Lost Skeleton holds back and never seems to have the courage of its convictions. Maybe it’s too reverential, not savage enough. Maybe it’s too po-faced, not silly enough. Whatever, it’s sadly too long and unfortunately not funny enough.

I can imagine this going down a blast at conventions and festivals with the right sort of audience in the right mood, hooting and hollering at every pitch-perfect recreation of half-century-old incomprehensibility. But for a punter sat alone in front of the telly, there’s the curious situation whereby one can really, really appreciate the artistic and technical skill which has gone into this film - not to mention the love, passion and hard work - while just not finding it very entertaining.

All the main cast were in the sequel and in Blamire’s subsequent movies, as were Robert Deveau and Dan Conroy, who have small roles as a ranger and a farmer. Producer F Miguel Valenti produced both Lost Skeleton movies as well as corporate vampire comedy Netherbeast Incorporated and a couple of more recent, straight horror pictures: Eyes of the Woods and The Graves.

I feel bad for not liking Lost Skeleton more when others have raved over it but I suspect it’s a victim of its success. Having read laudatory review after laudatory review for several years and seen Blamire praised as the Messiah of monster kids, the actual film had a lot to live up to. The nub of it is: I’m this film’s target audience and I didn’t laugh out loud while watching it, I just smiled - and even my smile was wearing thin as we entered the 73rd minute with no sign of the end.

I’m going to give this a good rating which reflects the fact that it is very obviously a good film, it’s just not as good as it could or should be because the focus is too much on accuracy and not enough on, you know, jokes.

MJS rating: B+
review originally posted 5th April 2011

No comments:

Post a comment