The first ten minutes are a little slow. You might be tempted to walk out of The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra and go to the concession stand for a box of Jujubes. Don’t. You’ll be missing the funniest low-budget-’60s-sci-fi-spoof-with-a-talking-skeleton of the year. Never mind that it was made in 2001. Obey the skeleton. Forget all about Mesa of Lost Women. This is the one you’ve been looking for. But a word of advice: For best results, this movie should be viewed under the influence of your favorite intoxicant, preferably in the company of a group of friends or an audience of like-minded individuals, similarly impaired. Obey the skeleton.
Writer-director Larry Blamire’s story line is admirably stupid. A nice scientist and his wife go to a remote canyon in search of a meteor and encounter a bad scientist, his squirrel-turned-sexpot girlfriend, a pair of aliens from a crash-landed spaceship, a mutant monster and, most horrific of all, the Lost Skeleton of Cadavra — seemingly a pile of bones in a deserted cave but in reality a fiendish mastermind (“None can stand its mental power!” screams the film’s advertising art) — who proceeds to use his empty-skull persuasiveness to turn everybody — scientists, aliens — into his slaves. Everybody in the movie is looking for the same thing, “that rarest of all radioactive elements, atmosphereum.” But the Lost Skeleton obviously needs it worse. He’s ma-aaa-d.
Ever since Roger Corman complained that high-tech special-effects shops — and audience expectations of amazing spectacles — ruined the market for the brand of humble sci-fi and horror flicks he made in the 1950s and 1960s, the filmmakers who admired Corman, Ed Wood, Al Adamson, and other Hollywood mavericks on the cheap end of the scale, and who dearly loved those Saturday-afternoon or midnight-show shockeroos, have been paying tribute to them. At some point in the late 1970s cheap movies became incredibly more expensive to make, but fans of weird, no-budget pics weren’t satisfied with glossy production values alone. To them, fleets of star cruisers and hordes of CGI giant insects are missing the point. It was always the writing — absurd plots married to eccentric characters — that really turned us on.
The skeleton is the real star of Blamire’s delightfully skewed sci-fi spoof. Somehow, even in his desiccated state, the Bone Daddy can undermine mental processes for miles around, just like the disembodied head in The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. Best of all, he talks like a slapstick comedian. Imagine Shemp Howard saying his lines. In fact, Blamire’s head-scratcher dialogue would sound ridiculous in anyone’s mouth. Sample: “I fear I’m afraid we’re dreadfully lost, I’m afraid.” Or: “Come. Go. The atmosphereum awaits.”
You have to have pretty good actors to say lines that bad. Blamire himself appears in the, uh, pivotal role of the nice scientist, Dr. Paul Armstrong, alongside his All-American dim-bulb wife Betty, played beautifully by Fay Masterson (Eyes Wide Shut, The Man Without a Face). Just as soon as we meet them, we realize we’re in some parallel plane of existence. Betty: “It’s almost as if you’ve been doing too much science.” Paul: “Too much science? Seriously, Betty, you know what this meteor could mean to science. If we find it, and it’s real, it could mean a lot. It could mean actual advances in the field of science.” They even perfected a way of standing still that looks wrong. Paul and Betty’s awkward social situation at their country cabin with the aliens is a classic.
The aliens, Kro-bar (Andrew Parks) and Lattis (Susan McConnell) from the planet Marva, are husband and wife just like Paul and Betty, except that they’re new in town. The laughs aren’t strictly from Conehead-ville, though — Parks and McConnell play their material straighter, which makes it funnier. Get a load of them trying to negotiate a staircase for the first time. By the time the bad scientist Dr. Roger Fleming (Brian Howe) and his “wife” Animala (Jennifer Blaire, Blamire’s real-life spouse) arrive at the cabin for a disastrous dinner party, the movie is too far gone for anything less than a rubber-headed mutant monster to save it. The mutant, a sort of three-eyed frog in a lizard-skin muumuu, is the only character the evil skeleton cannot control (he’s portrayed by Darrin Reed, who doubled as the film’s production manager). Meanwhile, Animala livens up the story with a repertoire of cute head fakes and a sexy kitty dance. She is formed when the bad scientist picks up the aliens’ discarded Transmutatron molecular scrambling device. He aims it at a couple of small forest creatures, and ZAP! Animala appears. Throughout, except for the antics of Animala and the Skeleton, the mock-domestic situations are a straight lift from 1950s TV and movie land. Dig Paul’s joshing with his wife and the aliens’ cocktail party inside their spaceship.
The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra has everything going for it — cheap effects (the rocket ship, created by someone called Joey Saccadonuts), cheesy animation (the meteor shooting across the sky), point-of-view shots through branches, otherworldly acting, silly props like the Transmutatron (a caulking gun with a plastic nozzle attached), the blind worship of technology, and lines such as “I’m a scientist. I don’t believe in anything.” And of course, it’s in black-and-white. Blamire and his crew set the action in Bronson Canyon and Lake Arrowhead outside of Los Angeles, where Teenagers from Outer Space (1959), Robot Monster (1953), the magnificent Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and numerous other ’50s sci-fi flicks were shot — the perfect locations for practicing mind control on beings who have no minds. Blamire and company are reportedly planning a new creature feature, Trail of the Screaming Forehead.
All the actors — notably Blamire and Masterson — deserve praise for wading into this, but in all fairness, the skeleton takes the prize. You couldn’t imagine Sean Penn or Bill Murray playing that role with half the joie de vivre. If the Lost Skeleton had been given the Murray part in Lost in Translation, for instance (think how out of place he’d be in Tokyo), the bony star would be up for an Academy Award(TM) right now. And he’d win the Oscar(TM), have no doubt. Then he would enter politics, capture the Democratic nomination, and go on to win the presidential election and move into the White House — all this without a First Lady, or even any skin. Our leader would then be free to achieve world peace and balance the budget. Believe it. Obey the skeleton.