The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (2001)

In theaters this month - coming to DVD this summer.

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
See also:

It! The Terror From Beyond Space


Space Monster

The Thing From Another World

The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra

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Our rating: four LAVA® motion lamps.

"Yeah, yeah, I get it . . . 'Eyes Wide Shut.' "
When Dr. Roger Fleming confronts the aliens Kro-Bar and Lattis about their origins, Kro-Bar is taken aback.

"Aliens? Us? Is this one of your Earth jokes?"

"Oh, you shouldn't have said 'Earth jokes,' my love," laments Lattis, Kro-Bar's wife and co-pilot. "Don't you see how that gave us away?"

The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, an affectionate spoof of '50s-era science fiction films, often gives itself away with such Earth jokes as a subtle form of winking at the camera. Inserted into the dialogue are the kinds of comments that might once have been heard from audience members, or, in these days of cable television, from a trio of human and puppet quipsters silhouetted in front of the action. But all such ribbing on the part of this film is good natured -- Skeleton is more a paean to the amusement provided by classic b-movies than it is a scathing parody of the films themselves.

That's not to say that the picture doesn't emulate the tone and production values of movies like Plan Nine From Outer Space (the obvious source for characters for Kro-Bar and Lattis) and Creature From the Haunted Sea (almost certainly an inspiration for the design of The Mutant) to perfection. It does, complete with classic filler phrases like "Hmm... I wonder" and "Oh well," jumpy frames, and mismatched edits. (The movie was apparently shot on digital video, but is presented in black-and-white "Skeletorama," and appears very much to be a vintage budget film.) Like a color wash over the original naive earnestness of such films, however, lies a tongue-in-cheek glaze of self-consciousness that, as in the example above, doesn't entirely let the farce of the situation go unnoticed by those within it.

Insert your own tasteless
Karen Carpenter joke here.
Lattis (Susan McConnell) and Kro-Bar (Andrew Parks) steal the show from the nominal heroes, Dr. Paul Armstrong (writer/director Larry Blamire) and his doting wife Betty (Fay Masterson). The aliens worry about the discovery of their true origins and so do their best to mimic our strange Earth customs. (When asked to have a seat, they must remind themselves that the expression means to "fold yourself in the middle.") The Armstrongs are the kind of earnest '50s people who never really existed anywhere but in the movies, which of course means they are befuddled by anyone who isn't also that sort of person. The movie relies on the two distinct brands of hyperbolic naivete to provide comedy, and though that gag alone might quickly run out of steam, there is a Maguffin that comes to the rescue, driving the characters to further heights of silliness.

"We call it Riverdance from Outer Space."
Dr. Armstrong, who rarely lets more than ten minutes go by without reminding someone that he is a scientist, has come to a remote backwoods area (the usual California b-movie film locations like Bronson Canyon) in search of a recently-landed meteor that he suspects may contain that rarest of elements, atmospherium. Strangely, Armstrong's atmospherium detector (a barely-disguised vintage voltmeter) indicates that the atmospherium source is moving! Kro-Bar and Lattis, who know that the mobile source of atmospherium is their recently-escaped and murderous pet The Mutant (Darren Reed, under what must have been many layers of papier mache), arrive at the Armstrongs' rented cabin. After a few tense moments of negotiating the foreign concept of "stairs" and wondering why the cabin door won't open when they approach, they pass themselves off as the cabin owners.

Joining this group in the area is another scientist, the aforementioned Dr. Fleming (Brian Howe), who seeks the titular lost Skeleton in Cadavra Cave. The Skeleton, who has been lying inert in the cave for who knows how many years, turns out to be a bossy megalomaniac with a resonant bass voice. Somewhat displeased that his nap has been disturbed, the Skeleton nevertheless promises Fleming a share in his rule over the world if the scientist can provide the one thing needed for ultimate conquest -- awwwww, you guessed!

Rejected concept costume
for Godzilla vs Biollante.
One would think that a science hero and his beautiful wife, an exotic radioactive meteor, a pair of extraterrestrials, a mad scientist, a deadly alien beast, and a maniacal animated skeleton would be all one needed for a send-up of '50s science fiction, but Blamire rounds out the cast with the feral Animala (Jennifer Blaire), a creation of Fleming's. (He used Kro-Bar's discarded transmutatron ray to create himself a date out of several forest animals, naturally.) Animala is remarkably gifted with the power of human speech despite her beastly origins but, in the film's best physical gag, her lack of table manners provides a few behavioral miscues for the visitors from outer space.

It would be nice to say that the gags will keep you laughing non-stop, but things do bog down a bit in the third act. By that point, however, the affection built up for the actors should keep most audiences in their seats. McConnell in particular is sweetly comic in the role of Lattis, and Parks evokes memories of Dudley Manlove in Plan Nine so strongly that one can hardly be faulted for expecting to hear him shout out "Stupid! Stupid!" at any moment. That Blamire himself came to so perfectly embody the role of the manly and stupefyingly well-mannered science hero (think of an even more square-jawed Russell Johnson, if you can) is one of the film's great strokes of luck. That Fay Masterson, a natural fit for the role of the scientist's bombshell wife, would be willing to go from Eyes Wide Shut to a low-budget production like this one is another. Pondering the feline features of Jennifer Blaire one realizes that some things are beyond luck, and of course the part of Animala was written with her in mind.

Fay Masterson gets a good look
at her paycheck.
Even the best parody is at heart an extended in-joke, and your enjoyment of The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra will likely depend on how well you know -- and how much affection you hold for -- the movies it references. B-movie vets will be inspired to more than a few chuckles of recognition, but novitiates may find themselves wondering just how long these people are going to keep acting so darn weird. (And hey, can you believe that you can actually see the strings moving the skeleton?) To these folks, we say: watch for the details. As in last year's sex-comedy homage Down With Love (though obviously to a less lavish extent), a lot of attention was paid to matching the kinds of props and effects to those that would have been available to filmmakers in the '50s. From the cobbled-together transmutatron gun to the various spaceship models to the construction of the Mutant costume, a lot of work went into the period feel of the picture. It is an accomplishment not readily apparent to the casual viewer, but still an important one.

Skeleton will of course find a core audience that embraces its resurrection of what some consider to be a golden age of movies. Will it also charm those who have only a passing familiarity with the great b-movie legends?

Hmm. We wonder.

Review date: 03/05/2004

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