Saturday 28 April 2012

Godmonster of Indian Flats
(Fredric Hobbs, 1973)

When we last encountered cracked conceptual genius Fredric Hobbs on this blog, he was busy trying to squeeze our brains through the sieve of the unforgettable Alabama’s Ghost. Needless to say, after a few months spent recovering from that experience, I was primed for more, and thankfully, so was Hobbs. In the brief window between wrapping up work on his magnum opus and witnessing its presumably disastrous unveiling on the grindhouse circuit, some damn fool gave Fred the green light once again, and production began almost immediately on 1973’s ‘Godmonster of Indian Flats’.

Perhaps they figured, well, how far off the rails can he go with a straightforward monster movie anyway? I fear you and I both know the answer to that question.

Having said that though, it’s clear from the outset that ‘Godmonster..’ is a far more low-key affair than ‘Alabama’, rarely seeking to replicate the overdriven freakery and psychedelic excess of its predecessor. More of a slow-burner in the weirdness stakes than an OMFG mindblower, close attention and contemplation nonetheless reveal it to be an equally inexplicable proposition; a bilious and indigestible film, by turns frustrating, whimsical, beautiful and genuinely upsetting, ‘Godmonster..’ is unmistakably the work of a creative mind running on a completely different set of rails from the rest of mankind, and for that alone it should be celebrated.

As Hobbs relates in an interview (more of a vast, disjointed monologue really) conducted by Stephen Thrower for his indispensable book Nightmare USA, the seeds of ‘Godmonster..’ were sewn largely from the director’s connections with the community of Virginia City in Nevada, a former goldrush city built on the profits of gold extracted from the legendary ‘Comstock Lode’, and subsequently preserved for the ages as a kind of period-authentic tourist town.

Hobbs created much of his best-known artwork during sojourns in Virginia City, as well as assisting in the restoration of town’s historic buildings and co-authoring the book ‘The Richest Place on Earth: The Story of Virginia City and the Heyday of the Comstock Lode’ (1978). So setting his film there, taking advantage of unusual architecture, awe-inspiring scenery and the goodwill of the local community, must have been a no-brainer really, and indeed ‘Godmonster..’ is in many ways a tribute to the strange atmosphere of Virginia City – full of local tales, local people and local peculiarities, even if it is not, I should imagine, the kind of homage many residents might have anticipated.

In classic ‘50s monster movie style, the film posits an isolated laboratory in the hills outside the town, where Dr Clemens (“head of Anthropology at the University of Reno”) and his perpetually dazed flower-child assistant Mariposa are working on unspecified matters requiring a great deal of secrecy and isolation. (In another great example of Hobbs’ knack for enhancing his movies through use of ‘found’ locations and props, Dr Clemens laboratory is housed in an incredibly sinister looking concrete pile that is apparently an abandoned US government cyanide factory.)

One night, Doc Clemens encounters Eddie, a simple-minded local sheep-farmer who has ended up penniless after a night of drinking following a fruit machine jackpot in Reno resulted in his being fleeced and run out of town by the Virginia City locals. Drunkenly collapsing amid his beloved sheep after the Doc drives him home (“how’s God’s children tonight?” he asks them), Eddie witnesses something that the film seems to invite us to interpret as a divine/miraculous happenstance.

First he sees a blinding light in the sky, and glimpses strange, swirling creatures in the darkness above him. Churning, super-imposed sheep imagery fills the screen and loud bahhing mixes with religious choral music on the soundtrack as a flash of lightning descends from the heavens, and Eddie awakes to find himself cradling a mewling, misshapen mass of newly-birthed sheep-flesh.

When he checks in on Eddie the next morning, the Doc apparently recognises the birth of this misbegotten creature as “an amazing event, almost incredible from a scientific standpoint… possibly the result of chromosomic breakdown and cross-fertilisation”, and immediately rushes it back to his lab, installing it in an incubator for further study. And, just when we’re wondering why the head of an anthropology department would need a fully-functioning medical lab equipped with a high-tech incubator and an all-purpose assortment of other mad scientist equipment, Clemens helpfully fills us in at length regarding the reasons he really came to the Comstock – namely, the investigation of “..a certain theory of cellular realignment..” inspired by unusual fossil imprints found in the abandoned mines, and goldrush-era legends concerning a supposed ‘mine monster’. Pity the poor clerk at the University of Reno who had to process the invoices for that one.

Meanwhile, back in town, other business is afoot, and Hobbs wants to make sure we know all about it. Mayor Silverdale – patriarchal head of the Virginia City Historical Society and also, allegedly, of a secret society known as the 601s who ‘protect’ the city’s interests – is having breakfast with one Mr Barnstable (played by Alabama himself, the one and only Christopher Brooks). Barnstable has come to the town on behalf of a Howard Hughes-esque billionaire named Rupert Reich with the intention of persuading the townsfolk to sell their mining concessions, allowing the Reich Corporation to commence a programme of economically-devastating industrial stripmining.

Understandably, Silverdale – whose desire to preserve the status quo upon which his power rests verges on fascistic paranoia – is less than sympathetic to Reich’s overtures. When the charismatic Barnstable refuses to take no for an answer and leave town though, Silverdale and his cronies decide to take more drastic action.

Somewhat uniquely, this action consists of seeking to ruin Barnstable’s reputation in the eyes of the townspeople by encouraging him to take part in a shooting contest during the town’s ‘Bonanza Day’ celebrations, then framing him with the death of a beloved local dog (whose owner, the local sheriff, instructs the beast to play dead).

Several long scenes are spent elaborating the details of this unfeasible ruse, as we hear about how the dog has been deposited with the sheriff’s nephew in Albuquerque for safe keeping, and witness the tearful funeral that is held for the purportedly slain mutt in the town’s central church. (“He was only a dog, but he filled out lives with joy and gaiety.. until a bullet struck him down” opines Silverdale’s lackey Maldove in the midst of the most solemn and overblown dog funeral oration in cinema history.)

In spite of his new status as a pariah and dog murderer though, Barnstable continues his quest to try to win over the townsfolk, experiencing much toing and froing and double-crossing that we won’t bother going into here, until he eventually finds himself on the verge of being lynched by the black-shirted 601s, after discovering that Silverdale has already gone over his head and sold out the town directly to Reich.

Escaping the lynch mob with the help of brothel proprietor/clairvoyant Madame Alta, Barnstable seeks sanctuary with Doc Clemens at Indian Flats, and it is during the subsequent tear gas assault by Silverdale’s men that the now fully-grown ‘Godmonster’ makes its inevitable escape.

It must be said at this point that, in purely technical terms, ‘Godmonster of Indian Flats’ is not really a great work of cinema. In keeping with what you might expect from a largely unheralded regional genre film, the pacing is pretty sluggish and the direction perfunctory (give or take the occasional moment of oddball inspiration). In spite of the remarkable shooting locations and the often astounding imagery presented on-screen, Hobbs works predominantly in bland medium and long shot, with camera movement clearly at a premium. Unconvincing post-production audio inserts are sometimes used to enhance or replace dialogue from original shoot, whilst the music track is largely comprised of stock ‘suspense’ cues and outdated theremin jams seemingly pulled straight from a ‘50s sci-fi/monster flick.

The performances – though less blunt than those in ‘Alabama’ – are still of the declamatory, am-dram variety common to many off-the-map independent films, meaning that if characters don’t QUITE enter a scene with the fingers looped in their belt buckles and say “WELL, I DO DECLARE..”, they constantly seem to be on the verge of doing so.

Not every story needs nuanced, method style intensity to get where it’s going though, and likewise, ‘Godmonster..’ doesn’t really *need* to be a great technical achievement to make its point, when the wayward imagination and unguessable sideways logic that Hobbs packs into his screenplay instantly serves to separate him from the Don Dohlers and William Grefes of this world.

By necessity, ‘Godmonster..’ is a slower, more realistic venture than ‘Alabama’, but even in his most earth-bound moments, Hobbs can’t help but get a bit weird. In the film’s opening few minutes depicting Eddie’s night out in Reno, rows of slot machines wheeze and drone like part of an alien landscape, as salty characters ramble their way through sprawling mouthfuls of quintessential Hobbsian dialogue. (“It’s getting’ up into drinking time… it’s the golden hours, boy… full of banjo-dust and starry-eyed broads, lookin’ for a good time…”, announces one Elbow Johnson, apropos of nothing, as he props up the bar.)

Elsewhere, Hobbs’ obvious love of street parades and Western culture is in full effect as he comes on like some cranky, cowboy Fellini during the scenes depicting Virginia City’s ‘Bonanza Day’, filling the screen with leering, drunken faces, blaring oom-pah bands, cheering prostitutes, pie-eating contests, railroad spike-driving demonstrations, sixgun-blasting yahoos and you name it.

As the film progresses, it starts to accumulate some heavy psychedelic and spiritual undertones too, regardless of Hobbs’ apparent efforts to try to ground his tale in scientific/economic reality.

Making their way through Virginia City’s hilltop graveyard, Eddie and Mariposa witness Madame Alta pushing her face against the branches of a tree, apparently in some kind of supernatural trance. Sitting beneath an impressive obelisk (‘Captain Storie’s Monument’), Eddie gives his own impressionistic account of the ‘Godmonster’s birth (“when I had this.. vision.. it seemed like the whole sky opened up.. filling the barn with gold-dust..”) whilst Mariposa chimes in with some trippy local folklore (“the Indians say they owe their origins to the marriage of a white wolf and a princess.. the wolf turned into a rock at the summit of Sugarloaf Mountain”).

Occult vibes continue to predominate when Alta gives Mariposa a particularly eerie fortune reading, warning her against “..a great machine, a machine of science, a machine of death..” as bead curtains swing in the breeze and the theremin goes into overdrive. “I’m clairvoyant remember… I see in the dark” Alta announces, before the scene cuts to a POV shot of railway tracks rumbling through the darkness in an abandoned mine tunnel.

This strange thread of mystical / emotional logic, which seems to be embodied by both of the film’s noteworthy female characters - in stark contrast to the boorish materialism exhibited by most of the males - is further explored in one of the film’s most peculiar and memorable scenes, when Mariposa corners the escaped monster and tries to communicate with it and soothe its anger. Engaging it in a kind of strange, cosmic dance, she attempts to lead it down the mountain…until Eddie stumbles onto the scene and thoughtlessly hurls a rock at the frightened creature.

And at the emotional heart of the film of course lies the ‘Godmonster’ itself. Designed and created by Hobbs in his trademark ‘eco-art’ style, it is one of the most hilarious, pitiful, godforsaken beasts imaginable - a shambling bag of fur and bone that looks like the contents of a KFC bucket wrapped up in a moth-eaten carpet, topped with a head that could have been stolen from a mummified camel. With opaque, black eye sockets, the creature appears to be blind, swinging a grotesque, overgrown limb ahead of itself like a kind of primitive feeler as it endeavours to keep its unstable frame upright.

Probably the most achingly sad creature ever created for a movie, just seeing the poor thing (which looks to be about the size of a large cow) painstakingly drag itself up the hillside on underdeveloped legs, shuffling about confusedly as Silverdale’s rough-riders surround it with lassos, is absolutely heartbreaking.

Only the cruel idiots who make up most of this film’s cast of characters could possibly deem this unfortunate animal a ‘monster’, and even its obligatory ‘rampage’ is lovably pathetic (it inadvertently destroys a Chevron gas station when it knocks over a petrol pump, then frightens some children by stealing their picnic food).

After the creature is captured, Silverdale calls an impromptu gathering at the town dump, and, absurdly, announces the poor beast – now confined in a giant parrot cage strapped to the back of a pick-up truck - as ‘the eighth wonder of the world’, outlining his plans to make a fortune charging tourists to see it.

The assembled townsfolk recoil in horror when the repugnant sight of the wounded, hog-tied beast is revealed (“kill it, kill it!”, someone shouts in disgust), and the crowd, who by this point have caught wind of the fact that Silverdale has sold them out to The Reich Corporation, attempt to charge the creature, pelting it with rubbish as the gathering collapses into chaos.

Coming totally out of the blue, the sheer, directionless frenzy that follows is really quite unsettling. “Kill them, kill them, run them down!”, Silverdale yells to his outriders as they lay into the crowd. A frightening and tragic scene of destruction ensues, as cars burn, citizens scream in each other’s faces and fight in the dirt, and horses trample screaming innocent bystanders. It’s not exactly the Odessa Steps I guess, but something about the modest staging of the scene, the way Hobbs is able to suddenly create a kind of apocalyptic fervour with about forty extras and a few cars and horses scattered around a bit of Nevada wasteground, is truly horrific.

In the end, the selfish, squabbling humans barely even notice as the long-suffering ‘Godmonster’ is pushed down the slope to its fiery death; a failed messiah whose brief and pointless tenure on earth has yielded nothing but pain, confusion and fear. As it suffocates beneath a mountain of burning trash, perhaps it remembers those few fleeting seconds of inter-species communication, when Mariposa led it in that strange dance on the mountainside, before a well-aimed rock ended even that glimmer of mutual recognition.

“People have said, ‘Why does everyone go crazy at the end?’,” recalls Hobbs in the Thrower interview. “Well it’s in the dialogue – they’ve been had! Even the distributor, who’s a smart guy, said, ‘Everybody goes nuts at the end! Is that what you always do, Hobbs? In every movie you make everybody always goes nuts at the end!’ I said, ‘No, for chrissakes listen to the dialogue!’ It’s in there – people in the crowd shouting ‘Silverdale’s got our money!’ But you know what? The images were so strong that nobody listened. That’s why some of my movies fail, in some things. People say, ‘Oh, the story’s weak, Hobbs doesn’t know how to do stories.’ That’s bullshit! My imagery is so powerful that they can’t listen.”

As the film ends, the camera pans upward to frame Silverdale, still ranting like a maniac, as a charred, apocalyptic landscape stretches before him. A few sheep graze contentedly as noxious sulphuric gas seeps up from earth around them, and the theremin wheezes on tunelessly.

Thus ends the cinematic career of Fredric Hobbs, wrapping up the strange tale he’s been stringing us along with for 85 minutes in about the bleakest, most misanthropic manner imaginable.

Some may question the proposition that independent American cinema has been significantly poorer for his absence in subsequent decades, but it’s certainly been a hell of a lot less strange, and that, I think, is a shame.


The Goodkind said...

Thanks for bringing this one to light again. I loved the heck out of it when I saw it and reviewed it years ago and have been thinking of revisiting it. Maybe I'll go for Alabama's Ghost instead.

Ben said...

Yeah, 'Alabama's Ghost' is astonishing viewing - well worth seeking out if you've not seen it before.