August 1, 2019

Films From Beyond’s Public Health Alert for Summer: Stay out of the Sun!

Poster - The Hideous Sun Demon (1958)
Now Playing: The Hideous Sun Demon (1958)

Pros: Effective monster mask/suit; Adds an unexpected alcoholism angle to its twist on horror movie themes.
Cons: The monster doesn’t have a lot to do until the final third of the film; The protagonist is so self-destructive he becomes unsympathetic at the end.

There’s bad news for those of us with extreme melanin deficiency. The killjoys at the Food and Drug Administration report that all that sunscreen we’ve been slathering on ourselves to keep from sizzling like a ribeye on the grill may not be so good after all. It seems that all those chemicals they list on the tube in micro-sized print -- the ones that end with -zone, -lene, -phate, -oxide, etc., -- can get absorbed through the skin (duh!), fan out through your bloodstream and potentially invite cancer cells to come party with them in your body.

While the media coverage of this development has been uniform in cautioning that the harm has not been definitively established and no one is recommending throwing out all of your sunscreen (at least not yet), I do find this quote from a article a bit concerning:
“The editorial [in the Journal of the American Medical Association] also calls for sunscreen manufacturers to commit to more safety tests, claiming that industry leaders have been hesitant to do so in the past. ‘Despite multiple efforts by the FDA to persuade sunscreen manufacturers to conduct key safety studies, the manufacturers have failed to produce such data, forcing the FDA to conduct its own studies,’ the editorial states.” [Maggie O’Neill, “FDA Warning Says the Chemicals in Sunscreen Can Be Absorbed in Your Bloodstream,” May 7, 2019]
So let me get this straight. A product that Americans coat themselves with to the tune of millions (billions?) of fluid ounces every year is not officially regulated (well hey, it’s not a food and it’s not a drug, so there you go), no one outside of the industry knows if it’s really safe or not, and if anyone on the inside has a clue, they’re not saying. All the government regulators can do is ask pretty please for more data, which they’re not getting, and only now, after all the ships have sailed and all the barn animals have disappeared, are conducting their own safety tests. Forgive me while I do a slow burn.

I suppose at this point I will have to trust the corporate media and keep applying all those -zones, -lenes, -phates and -oxides to my precious skin until some authoritative source tells me to stop. I don’t have much choice. I need my sunscreen to avoid living like the world’s most pathetic vampire. I don’t exactly turn to dust and blow away in direct sunlight, but within minutes, I feel my skin gently sizzling, and in no time at all I look like the main course at a Red Lobster.

On the upside, I have what you could call a very patriotic complexion. I start out white, then I add red stripes and patches where I haven’t applied the sunscreen well enough. The network of blue veins that I’ve developed in my old age completes the effect. No matter what time of year, I’m ready for the Fourth of July.

Robert Clarke as Dr. Gilbert McKenna, The Hideous Sun Demon (1958)
Mild-mannered scientist Gil McKenna contemplates the new
FDA report as he bakes under the summer sun.
But it could be so much worse. Like the poor protagonist in The Hideous Sun Demon, I could have been exposed to radiation causing me to transform into a reptilian monster whenever I stepped out into the sun. (And then the FDA -- or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission -- would politely ask the atomic lab for data about radiation that turns people into humanoid lizards, and no doubt be told to mind their own business. But I digress.)

Typical of B sci-fi of the time, Sun Demon showcases the mutating effects of radiation, but instead of amazing colossal men, radioactive dinosaurs, or giant insects, the result is a human-sized scaly monstrosity. (Of course, the very low budget in the ballpark of $50k precluded anything more sophisticated than a man in monster suit and mask.)

Although born out of atom-age fears, the Sun Demon is more closely related to the classic horse and buggy-age horrors of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Universal’s Wolf Man than the irradiated creatures that had paraded across drive-in screens in the ‘50s. Like Dr. Jekyll, a mild-mannered scientist (Gilbert McKenna, played by writer-producer-star Robert Clarke), morphs into a dangerous throw-back on the evolutionary ladder. Like Dracula, the night is his friend. And like Larry Talbot, Gil McKenna is a tortured soul.

Unfortunately, the cut-rate production values make the Sun Demon a poor cousin to his cinematic antecedents. To make matters worse, the film spends far too much of its short 74 minute runtime on dull scientific exposition and clunky dialog, while showing the hideous monster only sparingly until the denouement.

It all starts when the butterfingered Dr. McKenna drops an exotic new radioactive isotope in the lab, passes out, and is exposed for several minutes. His colleagues, Drs. Ann Russell and Frederick Buckell (Patricia Manning and Patrick Whyte), and his primary physician (Robert Garry) are baffled that he’s not showing any of the typical symptoms of extreme radiation poisoning. They wisely keep him in the hospital for observation.

Soon, the sun hits the fan. The doctor prescribes a bit of sun and fresh air for McKenna, so a nurse wheels him up to the solarium on the hospital’s top floor. After a fitful nap under the noonday sun (with no sunscreen!), McKenna wakes up and proceeds to scare the daylights out of a little old lady sitting next to him on the terrace. He races back to his room and for a split second sees a terrifying lizard-man staring back at him from a mirror before he smashes it.

In full Bill-Nye-Science-Guy mode, the doctor patiently explains to Ann and Frederick that the exotic radiation McKenna was exposed to causes his cells to mutate to a prior evolutionary stage -- a walking lizard -- but only when exposed to direct sunlight. The colleagues are alarmed, but still hopeful something can be done. McKenna on the other hand completely freaks out, checks himself out of the hospital and goes into hiding at a remote estate on the California coast.

Gil McKenna (Robert Clarke) is about to meet 'bad girl' Trudy in The Hideous Sun Demon (1958)
McKenna does his best Philip Marlowe imitation as he
watches Trudy croon a torch song at the local dive.
Earlier, Frederick had gently suggested to Ann that Gil’s drinking may have been a factor in the accident. Frederick’s assessment is confirmed when Gil decides to drown his sorrows in booze instead of seeking a cure. This is an interesting development for a ‘50s B sci-fi picture, and may at the time have caused some head-scratching among audiences used to seeing heroic (and sober) scientists successfully battling atom-spawned monsters.

The picture takes a noirish turn at this point, as McKenna, trying to avoid becoming a lizard-man by day, turns into a lounge lizard by night, throwing back drinks at a local dive while listening to Marilyn Monroe wannabe Trudy (Nan Peterson) croon songs at the piano.

Gil doubles down on his bad choices by hoisting a few with the torch singer, who of course has a sleazy jealous boyfriend (Peter Similuk). After a dominance-establishing fistfight, McKenna whisks Trudy off in his convertible to find a secluded beach for some moonlit romance. They indulge in some PG-rated horseplay, then, with the voluptuous Trudy wrapped only in a towel, Gil awkwardly celebrates the night with a bottle of whiskey he brought along.

In the morning, Gil wakes up on the beach, Trudy sleeping next to him. With the sun rapidly rising, he races to his car, leaving the confused woman on the beach to fend for herself. He’s already turned into a lizard-man when he pulls up to the house. Seeing Ann’s car in the drive, he climbs a fence and enters the house from an upper story to avoid running into her. She finally finds him, human again, in a dark cellar where he’s gone to de-tox from his reptilian state. After Ann tearfully pleads with him, Gil agrees to get help from a worldwide authority on radiation poisoning, Dr. Jacob Hoffman (Fred La Porta).

Patricia Manning and Robert Clarke, The Hideous Sun Demon (1958)
Ann tries to coax Gil out of the storage closet.
Drs. Hoffman and Buckell join McKenna at the house, where the seemingly ungrateful patient barks at Hoffman as he examines him. Cool as a cucumber, Hoffman calmly tells McKenna they will keep him at the house for a few days for observation before transferring him to the hospital, but under no circumstances should he leave the house, even at night (why they can’t transfer him right away under the cover of darkness is a bit of a mystery). Of course, we all know that alcoholics channeling their inner lounge lizards are their own worst enemies, and Hoffman’s warning will go unheeded.

Right on cue, the fretful patient wakes up in the middle of the night, needing a drink and just perhaps, needing to unleash his reptilian alter-ego. With no one at the house to watch him (?!), in a head-slappingly self-destructive move he heads right back to the bar where the girl he left stranded on the beach is a regular. Of course, he’s beaten up by the sleazo boyfriend and his gang, whereupon the astonishingly understanding Trudy takes pity on him, dusts him off, and takes him back to her apartment.

The next day, the boyfriend shows up at Trudy’s and discovers Gil there. At gunpoint, he forces Gil out into the sunlight to get what’s coming to him. Instead, the sleazeball gets his just deserts at the hands of an enraged lizard man. When the police investigating the murder show up at Gil’s place, things quickly go downhill from there…

Gil McKenna makes for a very interesting and unique B sci-fi protagonist. I can’t think of any others off the top of my head suffering from such a double whammy -- mutating radiation poisoning and alcoholism. Instead of the more conventional hubris that brings about the hero’s fall, it’s a plain old addiction that causes the tragic accident in the first place and greases Gil’s descent into chaos. The lizard-man is not a metaphor for addiction, it’s part and parcel of it. Sun Demon is the “Lost Weekend” of B monster movies.

Trudy (Nan Peterson) screams as the Sun Demon kills her sleazy boyfriend
"Hey Gil, wait up, you forgot your sunscreen!"
The problem is, Gil’s alcohol-fueled self-pity and self-destructiveness chip away at the audience’s sympathy for the character. After he kills Trudy’s boyfriend, McKenna retreats back to the house, where he confesses to Buckell and Hoffman. By the time he’s worked himself up into a self-pitying lather and screams at Buckell, “Why should I be the one, can you answer me that, why me!!!,” you want to reach through the screen and slap him silly (I flashed back to the classic scene in Airplane! where fellow passengers are lining up to shake, slap and bludgeon a woman who is freaking out).

Another problem is the film’s slow build-up to the action-packed climax. The first two-thirds of the film spends a lot of time on a scientific explanation of Gil’s condition (with charts!), Trudy’s torch songs, unconvincing bar fights, and shots of waves crashing on the beach, while only teasing us with brief glimpses of the monster. The core of the monster action, set in a forbidding industrial area on the edge of Los Angeles, is crammed into the last twenty minutes or so.

Xandra Conkling and Robert Clarke share a cup of imaginary tea in The Hideous Sun Demon (1958)
I don't know about you, but that doll in the background
creeps me out!
In addition to the Jekyll and Hyde angle, the film pays homage to another horror classic, Universal’s original Frankenstein, by having a little girl discover the fugitive scientist in a dark equipment shack that she’s been using for tea parties with her dolls. As she peppers him with innocent questions, there’s more than a little suspense that somehow the sun’s rays will seep through and transform him in the middle of the tea party. It’s a nice touch that compounds the suspense as the police -- and fate -- converge on McKenna.

The Hideous Sun Demon was the brainchild of prolific B actor Robert Clarke. Among the many B pictures on his resume at that point were Val Lewton’s Bedlam (1946) and Edgar Ulmer’s atmospheric The Man from Planet X (1951). But it was his recent experience on the ultra-low budget The Astounding She-Monster (1957) that planted the idea to make his own picture:
“I made a nice piece of change for myself starring in The Astounding She-Monster, but more important than those paychecks was the fact that the experience gave me an awareness that a very profitable picture of that sort could be made for a very small amount of money… If a shoestring picture like The Astounding She-Monster could make a pile of money, why wouldn’t a picture of my own, made with a bit more of an eye toward quality?” [Robert Clarke and Tom Weaver, To “B” or Not to “B”: A Film Actor’s Odyssey, Midnight Marquee Press, 1996, p. 181]
Part of that eye toward quality was borrowing from the classics. Together with a technical writer friend, Phil Hiner, who was an aspiring author, Clarke developed a concept which “flipped” Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde plot from a physician drinking a potion which transforms him, to a scientist suffering chromosomal damage from a lab accident. They also borrowed from the 1931 Frederic March film, giving the character “two girlfriends, one serious and loyal [Ann], the other a ‘bad girl’ from the wrong side of the tracks [Trudy]. [Clarke, p. 182]

Robert Clarke in the full Sun Demon mask and suit
This is what might happen to you if you don't use sunscreen.
Or maybe if you do. Oh, to heck with it!
Using a non-union production crew recruited from local film schools, a mix of experienced and amateur actors willing to work on the cheap (e.g., the little girl, Xandra Conkling, was Clarke’s niece), and locations that were either free or dirt-cheap to rent, they shot the film on twelve weekends over the course of thirteen weeks.

Elsewhere on the blog I go into Clarke’s luck finding Richard Cassarino, the actor who developed the unique creature mask and suit on a next-to-nothing budget, and who also appears in multiple bit roles in the film.

For all its faults, The Hideous Sun Demon delivers an impressive monster and pays respectful homage to its horror roots. Clarke himself summed it up:
“[I] am proud about two things with respect to Sun Demon: One, that we had a good story (we followed a very good pattern laid down by Robert Louis Stevenson) and, two, that the picture has pace. That picture never stops. It moves. And to this day I have people telling me that it holds up and it’s still interesting and it engages their interest as an action/sci-fi/horror film.” [Clarke, p. 198]
Where to find it: stream it on Amazon Prime.

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