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Movie of the Week: The Hideous Sun Demon (1958)

Another low budget movie that I've neglected to watch is now another low budget movie that I adore! Oh, The Hideous Sun Demon (1958), where have you been all my life? I tell you, with The Phantom from 10,000 Leagues (1955), The Killer Shrews (1959), The Brain That Wouldn't Die (1962), and now this one, I'm becoming a grade-Z movie advocate and aficionado. It's been a good year for discovering this about myself.


Following the success of The Astounding She-Monster (1957), actor Robert Clarke turned into a one-time director to make The Hideous Sun Demon, filming over the course of 12 weekends, using a cast of friends and family and a crew of USC film students. Yes, there are many comical flaws, some of which I'll obligingly list below. However, there are also some surprisingly terrific aspects that I'm more eager to share.


Let's get the flaws out of the way first. They can be categorized under "production values." The sound is bad. The acting is… not great. The shot composition is off-center; there's a lot of space above the actors' heads that's captured in its scenes. You can't tell when it's day or night; thankfully that's a big part of the story. The fight scenes are laughably choreographed. It feels like it runs longer than 74-minutes.


Now the terrific… Even with its poor production values, the physical picture looks good. I mean, it looks like film, not video, and the location shots add texture and depth. I realize much of this depends on the print, but I'm comparing apples to apples with other movies of its kind. (I watched it on a DVD-R from Sinister Video, by the way.) Among the three cinematographers, they get the camera in some interesting places for some unique shots.


For example, in the final third of the film, the camera peeks through oil rig equipment to spy on the action. The final shot is spectacular, filmed (I assume) from the top of the storage tank from where the action concludes. Other interesting shots based on camera placement (and POV shots) come quickly and don't linger, providing variety that keeps you involved in what's happening and helps propel the action forward.


Short shots really contribute to scenes with the monster to make them surprisingly effective. For example, the first time we see it is when Dr. Gilbert McKenna (Clarke), exposed to a new radioactive isotope and transformed into The Hideous Sun Demon, briefly looks into a mirror and then smashes it. Although it breaks this rule later, a couple scenes show the monster only sparingly and it looks really, really good.


In fact, I don't think the monster ever looks bad. Production designer Richard Cassarino performed a miracle with only $500, even for the late 1950s. It may have been a mistake for it to go shirtless for the finale, but it's almost constantly in motion, so there's not time to focus on the part of the costume that's curled up and coming out of its pants. I really like the design of the monster, too. I think Cassarino could have gotten a job doing make-up.


The script (Clarke's idea written by E.S. Seeley Jr.) is a mix of flawed and terrific. I really like the reverse-The Wolf Man (1941) story (sunlight, rather than a full moon, is the catalyst for McKenna's transformation.) Rather than borrowing from only existing films, I see influences on films and TV of the future. Much of the film reminds me of the similarly themed The Incredible Melting Man (1977), and the climax reminds me of the finale of The Fugitive (1963-67.)


The science gets really wonky, too. Instead of stopping with a simple explanation that makes relative sense, doctors Buckell (Patrick Whyte) and Stern (Robert Garry) want to discuss evolution. That makes sense, too, up to a point. But, I'm pretty sure one of them said that "each individual (human) goes through this process before birth." I'm no medicine man, but I don't think I went from reptile to human being in my mother's womb.


All of these qualities, good and bad, make The Hideous Sun Demon something far less than "hideous" to watch. It's incredibly fun! I think what seals the deal for me is the main character. Like Larry Talbot, Gil McKenna suffers psychological trauma over what he has become. McKenna's case is darker though because he's more selfish and is (probably) an alcoholic and womanizer. It gives the movie a little something extra… an edge.


Screenplay by E.S. Seeley Jr.

Additional Dialogue Doane R. Hoag

Original Idea Robert Clarke, Phil Hiner

Directed by Robert Clarke, Tom Boutross

Starring Robert Clarke, Patricia Manning, Nan Peterson, Patrick Whyte, Fred La Porta Released August 29, 1958 RT 74 min.

Home Video Sinister Cinema (DVD)

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