Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Hideous Sun Demon

The second half of tonight's crappy movie double feature is The Hideous Sun Demon (1959). It's an interesting movie in its own way, sort of a film noir-ish journey through the seedy underbelly of 1950s Los Angeles, with a protagonist who occasionally turns into a big scaly lizard monster.

He's minding his own business, you see, toiling away as an obscure atomic scientist, when an accident turns his life upside down. Which, his boss says, is the result of working with unusual isotopes while nursing a killer hangover. "Whiskey and soda mix, whiskey and science don't", he says. Our hero, you see, is a complete lush, and is about to become the ugliest mean drunk ever.

We don't actually witness the atomic accident in the movie. The filmmakers obviously didn't have the budget for that. Instead we get wooden actors on a cheap set discussing the horrible thing that just occurred to our hero offscreen. This happens more than once in the movie, and -- other than the sun demon suit itself -- there are no special effects in the film. On the bright side, a low budget also meant that they generally filmed on location rather than a sound stage or studio back lot, streets weren't closed off, etc., so you do get an interesting slice of the real 1959 LA with this movie.

Anyway, those unusual isotopes work their magic, and our hero soon discovers that exposure to the sun makes him temporarily "revert" to a reptilian form. The doctors say it's bound to get progressively worse over time until eventually he's all sun demon, all the time. 50s creature movies always had to toss in a sciency-sounding reason for whatever's going on, and this one is actually less stupid than most: We're briefed on the well-known (but long abandoned) theory that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny", and we're told that the isotopes have made the process reversible, so his cells periodically revert to their embryonic, reptilian stage. Complete fiction, obviously, but fiction cooked up by someone who paid attention in freshman biology. So there's that.

After he gets the bad news, our hero's life understandably goes off the rails -- even further than it already was. He quits his job, staggers around drunk in his isolated mansion (and how did he afford that swanky place, anyway?). He loses touch with coworkers, including a secretary who has a thing for him. She's nice and respectable and our hero never pays a moment's attention to her, even before he turns into a monster. He only goes out at night. He drives around in his flashy MGA sports car, and he hangs out in sketchy dive bars. He gets sorta-involved with Trudy, a Marilyn Monroe-sorta-lookalike nightclub singer who does the worst fake piano playing act you'll ever see in a movie. By "sorta-involved", I mean a not-at-all-ambiguous one night stand on the beach, which is something you usually don't encounter in 1959 movies. And the next morning he runs off and abandons her there because he's turning into a sun demon again. And later he shows up at the club wanting to see her. Naturally fisticuffs ensue with her mobster boyfriend and a few of his henchmen. Our hero ends up in pretty bad shape, and Trudy takes him in to nurse him back to health, or something. Mobster boyfriend shows up again & hauls him outside -- into the sun -- planning to finish the job. But round 2 is Sun Demon Smackdown time, and our hero makes short work of the mobster. Trudy sees him out the window, screams as he runs off (since she had no idea he was a hideous sun demon), and promptly vanishes from the film, never to be seen or heard from again.

A lengthy police chase ensues, into a strange landscape of pumps and tanks and oil derricks, and he offs a dog and squishes a couple of rats during the chase, because that's just how sun demons roll. Eventually he learns, as we do, that sun demons aren't bulletproof, and he plummets to his doom from atop a giant oil tank.

It turns out that the oil & gas scenes at the end of the movie were filmed in Signal Hill, California, which at the time was a major oil producing area near LA. Based on the photos I've seen, the landscape was even more surreal than what you see in the movie. The Wikipedia article has a panorama from 1923 that's just astonishing. There really, seriously, were tidy suburban houses and giant oil derricks all sandwiched together cheek by jowl. As the story goes, oil was discovered in Signal Hill right around the time the area was being subdivided and sold off for early suburban development. Many prospective homeowners decided there was more money in drilling for oil than in living here, and up went another derrick, even if there were suburban tract houses all around it. Imagine what it would have been like to grow up there.

Anyway, the key thing to understand about the movie is that our hero was already a drunk and kind of an asshole before he ever turned into an atomic monster. And everything that happens to him -- at least up to the point where he does in the mobster with his bare hands -- could just as easily have happened to him if he was a plain old non-reptilian boozehound on a downward spiral. It's a safe bet that the whole "sun demon" thing is a metaphor, and not exactly a subtle one.

The 50s were big on this sort of thing, movies about male anxiety and the awful things that happen if you stray from the straight and narrow for any reason. The Incredible Shrinking Man is probably the best of the lot, and The Manster is pretty entertaining, and there are countless others. The Hideous Sun Demon is far from the best, or the most entertaining, but you could probably get a term paper out of it if you needed to. Or a drinking game. Or both, most likely.

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