Radiation and ’50s sci-fi go together like glowing peanut butter and jelly: the theaters and drive-ins were packed with them, some good and most not so swell; regardless of quality, they were churned out for the teenage masses to devour like a box of buttered corn. This brings us to The Hideous Sun Demon (1959), a low-budget number that has had viewers oscillating between gem and garbage since its release.
Personally, I hew closer to the former verdict than the latter; The Hideous Sun Demon is filled with uneven performances, a few slow spots, and some ludicrous dialogue. However, it also takes an earnest stab at an alcohol allegory, mixed in with a neat twist on The Wolf Man and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and pretty cool makeup. For me, ambition will always gain the upper hand.
Premiering in August of ’58 on a double bill with Roger Corman’s Attack of the Crab Monsters, Hideous garnered no praise from critics, but was wide released in late ’59 by Pacific International Enterprises and made back its meager $58,500 budget. Hey, most of these B rollers did, especially with that cost and the voracity of an audience with a hunger for any kind of monster to make out to.
We open on a blaring atomic alarm bell warning that something has gone amiss in the lab; this proves to be true as Dr. Gilbert McKenna (Robert Clarke, who co-directed, co-wrote the treatment, produced, and made the cucumber sandwiches) is rushed on a stretcher to the hospital after being exposed to radiation (and the isotopes and the badness that occurs in all of these flicks). Gil, who also has a helluva drinking problem, becomes agitated with his stay (and his state) and flees the hospital. However, when he is exposed to the sunlight, he becomes… well, you know; and he starts mowing down anyone who gets in his way, much to the chagrin of his chaste lady, Ann (Patricia Manning – The Alfred Hitchcock Hour) and fellow scientist Dr. Frederick Buckell (Patrick Whyte – The Twilight Zone).
During his “lost weekend,” Gil comes across a lounge singer (Nan Peterson – The Twilight Zone) in a smoky bar and immediately sets off with her. Her mobster boyfriend isn’t too keen on the idea, and makes the mistake of roughing him up… in the daylight. This leads to another rampage, and Gil, beyond help, finds himself cornered under the blazing sun. Will he get the medical attention he needs, or perish in the name of science gone wrong?
Well, I’m sure you know the answer to that one. The Hideous Sun Demon certainly pays no mind to such foibles as subtleties or subtext; and why should it? None of the other atomic flicks did; radiation and the follies of man result in destruction, be it giant spiders, bees, dinosaurs, or women. But Hideous doesn’t dwell on the cause and the inherent evil behind it; no, it wants to look at the struggle within. Here, radiation is a mere MacGuffin.
Auteur Clarke had made some back end coin off his previous picture as an actor, The Astounding She-Monster (’57), and decided to parlay that into this (one and only) directorial feature, made with a mixture of USC students, family, and friends. (Some pros as well; you’ll be able to spot who is helping out and who is trying to make a living quite easily.)
And I have to hand it to him; the easy way would have been to focus on the government and the use of isotopes, etc., but instead he chooses to spotlight the disease, not the cause. Alcoholism is a heavy load for a monster mash to carry. Looking to Dr. Jekyll for inspiration, Clarke spends as much time with Gil and his withdrawals as he does with the beast within, exposing the rot underneath the good. Gil’s cries for help may seem overdone in this setting, but to an alcoholic, they would seem all too real.
However, it is hard to view that message with the Z stigma the film carries; Clarke himself helped with a re-cutting and dubbing à la Woody Allen years later, which, while showing him being a good sport, undercuts his efforts somewhat.
Of course, at its core and heart, Hideous is a Z-er with good intentions and some solid results; the makeup on the demon is quite effective, meant to resemble a lizard, but coming out more bedrock than bedeviled. But it works and the seams don’t show, which is a micro-miracle unto itself. Our little demon does some damage as well: strangulation of men and dog and a serious stick whupping are a few of the ways that he takes out his rage. Oh, and a rat gets squeezed to death. Clarke surprisingly isn’t messing around.
At the end of the day, The Hideous Sun Demon will probably just be seen as an entertaining potboiler from a more innocent time, and it is that; but between the insistent glare of the sun and the monster on the run, a little bit of pathos gets through.
The Hideous Sun Demon is available on DVD from Image Entertainment.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: SILENT RAGE (1982)