The idea of making an Ed Wood film today (on black and white digital video, of course) must be tempting. How hard could it be? Plan Nine from Outer Space (1959) is practically a low budget how-to guide, with all the strings visible. Many have tried, but few have harnessed the satirical power of bad movies. Tim Burton paid homage in Ed Wood, and 1998’s I Woke Up Early The Day I Died used a Wood script. Other attempts to pay respect include Mystery Science Theater, and other compilations of old footage hosted by people like Sandra Bernhardt, Dan Ackroyd, and Elvira. Sometimes these are funny, more often not, as making unintentional humor intentional seldom seems to work.
The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra constitutes another attempt, lovingly based on bad, low-budget movies, borrowing from and referencing classics such as The Astounding She Monster (1958), Robot Monster (1959), The Brain from Planet Arous (1958), and The Day the World Ended (1956). The story follows jovial scientist Paul Armstrong (Larry Blamire, also the writer and director), and his adoring wife Betty (Fay Masterson) as they drive their snazzy convertible to a remote cabin in California’s Bronson Canyon (where all the films mentioned in the previous paragraph were at least partially shot).
Here they find an asteroid full of “atmospherium.” Little do they know that a less scrupulous scientist, Dr. Fleming (Brian Howe), is trying to get the atmospherium for himself, in order to revive the titular skeleton, resting in a remote cave (the same cave used in Brain From Planet Arous and 1956’s It Conquered the World).
At the same time, an alien couple, Kro-Bar (Andrew Parks) and Lattis (Susan McConnell), crashland a cheap-looking spaceship in a splotch of forest near the cabin. They also need atmospherium to fix their craft. Worse, they have lost their pet, a multi-eyed hulk of a mutant, now hunting and killing unlucky forest rangers. All meet up at the Armstrongs’ cabin, where Paul has the atmospherium meteor safely hidden on the living room table. Fleming borrows the alien couple’s transmutitron (a gussied-up caulking gun) to convert “four different forest animals” into the lovely Animalia (Jennifer Blaire), whom he teaches the rudiments of English so he can pass her off as his wife. The three couples share a bizarre dinner, during which they begin switching loyalties and so forth, especially once the booming voice of the skeleton back in the cave begins issuing commands.
There are two ways this might have worked better. The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra could have played it “straight,” pretending to be a genuine “lost” film from the era (see a similar project, as yet undistributed, that follows this tack, at www.brideoftheundead.com). Or it could have descended more fully into irreverence, using the bad movie material as a jumping off point, trashing the fourth wall, and introducing, say, hippie bikers (à la David Zucker or Mel Brooks).
Instead, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra opts for a middle of the road approach that is only sort of brave. The dialogue leans heavily on jokey redundancies, like “Together, you and I will conquer the world together” and “Let us ready the preparations,” alongside a wealth of in-jokes for the serious bad movie fan. It almost works as a satire of ’50s conformity, but it doesn’t scathe; it almost works as a comedy, but doesn’t take risks; and it almost works as a cult film. But you can’t set out to make a cult film, unless your name is John Waters, and even then he hasn’t got it right since Hairspray (1988).
If The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra was shown last on a drive-in triple bill back in 1959, I doubt anyone would have noticed it was “supposed” to be funny. Its comedy is just low-key enough to almost miss detection. On the other hand, it misses several key elements of a typical bad film of the era. Where is the ominous voiceover narration by someone like Paul Frees or Criswell? And what’s up with Dr. Paul’s hair? Blamire hasn’t dyed and cut his hair to resemble 1950s conformism, so he looks more like Bill Clinton than a scientist. He also lacks the All-American enthusiasm of John Agar in Arous and The Revenge of the Creature (1954), or the patriarchal authority of Jeff Morrow (Kronos  and The Giant Claw ).
If the men are bland, the women of Cadavra are topnotch, particularly Masterson as Betty. She infuses her stereotypical 1950s housewife with dewy-eyed warmth, busting the one-note character out into three dimensions, as if she’s tapped into some hidden well of all-encompassing love. After passing out because she’s been resisting the inter-dimensional commands of the lost skeleton, she wakes to gaze at her husband with such affection that it’s haunting, as if her devotion to her man is anchor enough to withstand even the cosmic pull from beyond the grave.
Similarly, Blaire is having a ball as Animalia, growling with blasé irony, slinking around in slick black hair and bodysuit, an obvious homage to Cat Women of the Moon (1953). She even borrows the bizarre woodwind dance music from that film for her sexy and amusing dance of seduction. Whenever Masterson or Blaire is on screen, the movie becomes more than just a bad film; it’s almost alluring.
Perhaps not incidentally, given the long shared history between women and monsters in bad movies, here the creatures are as compelling as their human female costars. The giant mutant costume is loaded with eyes and claws, and when he almost falls over while trying to carry Betty down the steep hillsides of Bronson Canyon, appreciative fans will instantly recall the poor guy in the gorilla suit and diving helmet in Robot Monster (1959), struggling to carry “Al-lice” around in the same manner. And like him, once he’s got her he doesn’t know what to do with her, except stagger around and wait for the hero to come rescue her.
Similarly, when the pretty cool lost skeleton comes to life, he’s content to strut around the forest, with Animalia and Dr. Fleming right behind him, then control the minds of the alien couple and commanding them to “Dance… dance!” (see: the Wood-scripted Orgy of the Dead from 1959). Perhaps man, in his infinite wisdom, will one day be able to re-access the primal power that feminism, pollution, and long work hours have drained from him. And perhaps one day, the earth will again be populated by Rock Hudsons, John Agars, and Richard Carlsons. Maybe The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra will become the cult classic it so wants to be. Until that day, die-hard fans of the cheap 1950s science fiction can take some comfort that Blamire and company have shown the period and genre reverence, along with all the ribbing.