Although no one doubts their physical prowess, it’s no secret that today’s professional wrestlers are as much actors as they are athletes. When a movie needs a certain type of personality, the filmmaker can usually turn to a grappler who wants to make a name for himself in Hollywood, whether as a hero, like Roddy Piper in John Carpenter’s They Live, or as a villain, such as Tyler Mane in Rob Zombie’s Halloween. Starting in the 1930’s, 400 pound Swedish sensation Tor Johnson blazed the acting wrestler trail, becoming one of B-movie legend Ed Wood’s favorite oddities in the process. He had recurring roles in Wood films like Bride of the Monster and the classic Plan 9 from Outer Space, but it was a film that wasn’t directed by Wood, 1961’s The Beast of Yucca Flats, which would go down as Johnson’s last credited film.
Tor Johnson is Joseph Javorsky, noted scientist (the narrator even says so). Javorsky is a Russian nuclear physicist who, while in the process of defecting to America, gets caught in a gunfight between his American escorts and a group of Russian assassins. During the battle, Javorsky is chased out into the desert near Yucca Flats where he comes across a nuclear bomb test in progress. Radiation from the blast turns him into an angry monster, and he feels the need to kill every person who has the misfortune of crossing his path as he wanders the mountains and deserts. Meanwhile, a vacationing family driving across the country stops for a rest break and their two sons wander off. Their father, Hank (Douglas Mellor from The Lost Boys) goes in search of them, but the police mistake him for the crazed killer that they have been hunting in the desert. Hank has to avoid the police and the beast in order to bring his kids home safely.
The Beast of Yucca Flats was written and directed by Coleman Francis, one of the lesser-known B-movie legends. Francis is often overshadowed by men like Roger Corman or Ed Wood, but he was definitely cut from the same cloth. Francis made movies the B-movie way: cheaply and quickly. The Beast of Yucca Flats is the epitome of this shoot-and-go attitude. Francis cast his wife, Barbara, and his two sons as principal characters in the film, played a handful of roles himself, and assigned just about every crew member multiple jobs on the set. There are practically no visual effects (aside from a stock footage atomic blast) and limited props and costuming. The film has the look and feel of Coleman Francis taking his family out one weekend and shooting a movie.
One of the most fascinating aspects of The Beast of Yucca Flats is its use of sound – or its lack thereof. The film was shot silently, with Francis taking great pains to keep any diegetic sound sources just off screen. All of the audio dialogue and effects were added later, and the way that conversations occur so that the camera cannot see the participants’ mouths is nothing short of genius. The narrator (voiced by Francis himself, of course) moves the action along, giving the film a grade-school documentary feel to it with double-meaning lines like “touch a button…a scientist becomes a beast” and “kill, or be killed…man’s inhumanity to man” that are so well written that they sound silly, but fit in perfectly with the spirit of the film. And he tells the audience at least three times: “Joseph Javorsky – noted scientist.” Perfect.
Tor Johnson had one of the most unique looks of anyone who has ever been on camera. His enormous size, his bald head and his frightening grimace all came together in an iconic image that, in the years since his death in 1971, has gained him a cult following among sci-fi and horror fans everywhere. Johnson was a complete role-player; there were a very limited number of parts that he could play and, lucky for him, the filmmakers around him realized this fact. He was always perfectly cast, and his performance as Joseph Javorsky and the titular Beast in The Beast of Yucca Flats was a great example of a trademark role.
Wrestlers have been making movies ever since Tor Johnson became a B-movie star. In fact, in an insanely inspired casting coup, World Wrestling Federation superstar George “The Animal” Steele played the part of Tor Johnson in Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic Ed Wood, completing the circle of outside-the-ring activity. At least if anyone ever decides to reboot The Beast of Yucca Flats, they know where to go for the lead.