Reptilian Jeckyl and Hyde Monstrosity!
This month I’ve been focusing on werewolf films. Most if not all of our lycanthrope friends transform into wolf-like entities under the rays of the full moon. Here’s a film that features a dabbling scientist who becomes a scaly beast under exposure from ultra-violet light from the sun!
Anticipating the B-Movie Cast discussing this cult favorite this sunday, I thought I’d tackle Robert Clarke’s The Hideous Sun Demon (1959).
This is actually a later, independent entry into the atomic-age mutation cycle of sci-fi/horror films. I liken it a bit in spirit to the John Agar film Hand of Death (1962), which also features a tormented scientist filled with rage and an unorthodox skin condition. In Sleaze Creatures (1995), author David Earl Wort considered “Sun Demon” to be an obscure film. I guess it might be considered obscure to a woman I once dated who thought Bela Lugosi was a soccer player (that relationship lasted a few months). However, I saw it regularly on various UHF (that’s 300 MHz to 3 GHz for you techies) stations growing up in Northwest Indiana in the 1970’s (I miss channels 32 and 44). It wasn’t obscure to me. I do agree that the film falls under the “sleaze” catagory in being tacky and cheaply made. There are also film-noirish crime moments, with police cars flying around, cops with guns and tough guy dialogue. So, what’s this film about?
Two new solar exploratory satellites No. 1 and No. 3 discover that harmful radiation is bombarding the earth. Dr. Gilbert McKenna (Robert Clarke) is a research scientist working for Atomic Research Inc. Early on he is “soaked with radiation” due to an apparent accident at ARI, and admitted to a nearby hospital. A physician notes that McKenna shows no after-effects of radiation poisoning, even after 5 or 6 minutes of unshielded exposure to a new and unknown radioactive isotope. McKenna is kept in the hospital under observation. While taking a break on the roof of the hospital McKenna takes in a big dose of sunlight and transforms into a hideous scaley-faced reptilian beast.
The monster makeup is unique in the history of film, and looks like layers of pinecone scales carefully applied on actor Robert Clarke’s face. The makeup was done by Gianbattista (Richard) Cassarino who was a film buff and part-time actor. There is virtually zippo written about the guy available on-line, but he is the cop that fights the sun demon at the end of the film. Robert Clarke noted that he originally approached Jack Kevan (Universal-International) to build the sun demon, but wanting at least $2,000, Clarke opted for film buff Cassarino (see T. Weaver, Return of the B Science Fiction and Horror Heroes, 1999). The make-up looks terrific.
McKenna’s physician explains McKenna’s condition by way of the “recapitulation theory” (or ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny), which basically says that as animals develop from embryo to adults they go through successive ancestral stages of development. This same theory also pops up in The Maze (1953) and later in Ken Russell’s Altered States (1980). (BTW, I love the “effects of radiation” slide show presented by the doctor that shows an ant that becomes a wasp, the house fly that becomes a velvet ant and a grasshopper becomes a tarantula!).
While various doctors and friends search for a cure, McKenna goes on the lam in a sweet 1956 MG A MkI, slams down some bourbon, slaps around a tough guy and picks up/stands up one voluptuous torch-singer lounge babe (Nan Peterson). During this time frame his skin becomes more sensitive and his transformations are more frequent. In a sequence reminiscent of several werewolf films, he has a bad nightmare and goes on a killing spree, including a non-PETA friendly sequence involving a dog. Enter the police. In an accident, McKenna runs over a cop and the search is on, culminating in weird camera angles and a confrontation between reptile and cops at an oil refinery.
The Hideous Sun Demon is a lot of fun and one of my favorite monster films of the 50’s. Robert Clarke produced, directed, wrote and starred in this low-budget gem. Wow – They don’t make ’em like they used to!
Check out this Mexican lobby card:
The characters and events depicted in this photoplay are fictional. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.