Monday, February 12, 2018

"I Have a Magnificent View of the Canyon" - Godmonster of Indian Flats (1973)

It is time to turn our attention to artist Fredric Hobbs's final film, Godmonster of Indian Flats (1973), a well mounted combination of Western and monster movie that for some reason is not as revered in your universe as it most definitely should be.

For example, reviewer emm writes, evocatively to be sure, "It's another no-budget creation that is by far remaining to be extremely unusual to this day....It also has what may very well be the looniest, dumbest ending ever recorded on film!" Reviewer PaJRJ writes, "This is an awful movie that takes itself way to[o] seriously." Reviewer Michael_Elliott writes, "Yes the acting, directing, cinematography, music score and everything else here is simply bad but you expect that out of a movie like this."

All of these reviews, and more, are entirely wrong about the film. It is clearly not a "no-budget creation," it does not take itself seriously as it is filled with humor, and the acting, directing, cinematography, and music are highly professional. I can only respond by pointing out the many positive qualities of this powerful and artistic film, so please read on...

The film opens with majestic views of the mountains of the American West, accompanied by the heavenly voices of a choir. We watch as a batch of sheep is delivered onto a pickup truck, and we marvel listening to the sounds of the sheeps’ baas, expertly recreated by human sheep imitators.

In the existential sequence that follows, a man wearing a fur vest and cowboy hat walks into the Primadonna casino in Reno, Nevada. The casino is empty, but when he puts a silver dollar into a slot machine and wins $200, the casino is suddenly full of people, all of them winning coins from slot machines. (It is my understanding that this is typical of gambling casinos in Nevada.)

At the bar, the young man in the fur vest meets a group of partiers. “It’s gettin’ on into drinking time,” a man named Elbow John says. “It’s the golden hour, boy. Full of banjo dust and starry eyed broads lookin’ for a good time.”

The partiers take a massive convertible outside Reno to Virginia City, passing a billboard for the Bucket of Blood Saloon. They arrive at Virginia City, a much smaller town than Reno, and start drinking in the crowded saloon. The difference between Reno and Virginia appears to be about 100% less gambling and 200% more banjo playing.

The young man in the fur vest, Eddie, gets tossed out of the “tourist saloon” but he catches a ride back to his sheep farm with Dr. Clemens, the chair of the Anthropology department at the university in Reno. Eddie explains his situation, and it’s the typical story: son of deceased Basque immigrants working on a small Nevada sheep ranch. “My life was always pretty well laid out for me. Just me and the land.”

As most of us would do after a drunken night, Eddie walks through the sheep pen, picks up a lamb, and sits down to cuddle it to sleep. But tonight is unusual: He sees weird lights in the sky, and glimpses of a bony monster that sends the sheep on a rampage, some of them rearing up on their hind legs.

The next morning, Dr. Clemens and a young woman named Mariposa drive back to Eddie’s farm. They get out of the car and lean over the fence of the sheep pen. “This is where I left him last night,” says the anthropologist before the two of them call for Eddie.

They find him buried in hay, screaming. He is next to a bloody sheep that somehow Dr. Clemens identifies as a “half-formed embryo, alive and breathing, possibly the result of chromosomes breakdown and cross-fertilization.” They decide to take the bloody specimen to their laboratory in Indian Flats.

Meanwhile, the town patriarch is using a telescope to spy on both Eddie’s ranch and the local saloon, in front of which prostitutes are fanning themselves. “Tourists,” says Charles Silverdale, played by Stuart Lancaster, veteran of Mantis in Lace (1968) and many Russ Meyer films. “Every year they come like locusts.”

Silverdale also watches Dr. Clemens drive through the desert to his massive anthropological laboratory located in what appears to be an abandoned factory.

Fortunately, the lab is equipped with a sheep-sized incubator, oxygen, and all the latest technology, not to mention pens full of rabbits.

Back in town, we find there is controversy between the historical society, represented by Charles Silverdale, and the forces of progress, represented by Mr. Barnstable, who represents investors who want to buy the entire town for the mining rights.

Suspicion begins to fall on Dr. Clemens as both the town sheriff and the town refuse collector infer that unusual occurrences are occurring at the lab.

During a romantic interlude at a hilltop cemetery, Mariposa says to Eddie, “You care about your flock, don’t you? They’re like your children.”

Eddie responds by recounting his drunken experience the night before. “It seemed like the whole sky opened up, filling the barn with golden dust and the sheep started moaning and spinning around my head. And I looked up, and the sky was on fire. Oh, it was beautiful, like in the Bible.”

He adds, regarding the embryo, “And then, this little thing was born, screaming before my eyes.”

(It must be emphasized that part of the genius of this film lies in the fact that the audience saw lights in the sky, but no golden dust or Biblical spinning sheep.)

The conversation between Eddie and Mariposa only increases the suspicion of the townspeople, as the interlude is observed by a mourning woman dressed to the nines in funeral garb who rushes away to spread gossip.

In fact, in the next scene, Mariposa finds out that she and Eddie are being watched when the town fortune teller so informs her. The fortune teller sees disaster in the future and says, “You must leave this place before you destroy us all.” She adds, “You got to get out of here now.”

Mariposa is confrontational. She stands up and says, “Please, I have to go now.”

Undeterred by the psychic, Mariposa joins Dr. Clemens for a trip into an old mine. After a few seconds of digging, the anthropologist unearths a cache of old bones that had been buried by at most two inches of loose gravel.

Then some gas rises out of the dirt. “It’s phosphorus yellow!” Dr. Clemens yells, though the gas is red.

On the way out of the mine, the doctor explains the properties of phosphates gases and how they are used in the production of fertilizers. “I would surmise at this time that there is a definite relationship between the yellow phosphorated gas in the mine chambers and the mine monster legend. And I see a further similarity to the substance the hybrid discharged when I took it out of the incubator.”

As usual, their conversation is being watched by another mysterious stranger.

The film then moves on to one of its big set pieces, set at Virginia City’s Bonanza Days.

Among other celebratory activities, for some reason, Bonanza Days involves putting children into barbecue grills.

Tragedy strikes at the festival when Barnstable, the man trying to buy the town for its mineral rights, drunkenly fires a pistol during a shooting game and hits the sheriff’s dog. However, we see from the start that the dog is only playing dead, and we infer this is a clever and sophisticated ruse to make Barnstable feel guilty, and to turn the populace against him.

“Well, son,” says patriarch Mr. Silverdale, “you have just created a most unfortunate incident. The whole thing’s quite nasty.”

Barnstable replies, “Hey, Silverdale, these things do happen, you know.”

The scene cuts to the inside of a large chapel, where we see mourners paying tribute to a white, dog-sized casket.

“He was only a dog, but he filled our lives with joy and gaiety until a bullet struck him down,” says one eulogizer.

Barnstable attends the funeral, having fortunately packed a funeral suit and black top hat for his trip, but he is rebuffed by the dog’s grieving owner.

After the funeral is over, the conspirators reveal to each other, perhaps futilely, that the dog is not really dead. They reveal this by lifting the casket, which is empty, but which resounds with the sounds of a dog barking cheerfully.

Silverdale waxes eloquent: “No billionaire opportunist will every own our lands, no cyanide gold and silver processing plants will pollute our air.” He pounds on the empty casket three times for dramatic effect.

At the anthropology lab, Dr. Clemens, wearing his white lab coat and stethoscope like all anthropologists, decides to leave Mariposa in charge while he grabs a meal. However, she is busy making out with Eddie, which causes the now-grown embryo to start growling like a tiger.

Meanwhile, back at the Bonanza Days festival, townsperson Philip Maldove gets drunk, antagonizes Barnstable, and finds himself at the business end of a half-dozen cream pies thrown by children at a pie-eating contest. Humiliated and covered with whipped cream, Philip returns to his house and cleverly makes use of the cream by shaving, using the whipped cream instead of shaving cream.

Then he loads his pistol and goes out to find Barnstable at the saloon, where he makes friends with his enemy and invites him back to his house. Suggestively, he says, “I have a magnificent view of the canyon.”

Of course, once they are at Philip’s place, he attacks Barnstable with a wine bottle. Imaginatively, Philip shoots himself in the shoulder and frames Barnstable, resulting in Barnstable’s incarceration--shirtless, for some reason--in the town jail, where he must watch the tank-topped sheriff.

As the final act begins, we see a posse of white men congregating in the desert to chase down the framed (and, incidentally, incarcerated) black man Barnstable. One of the posse says, “A hundred years ago we would have lynched him!”

Back at the jailhouse, the sheriff eats a steak and pees while the black-clad posse members stride into the jail and kidnap Barnstable.

They drag him back to the desert, where they have suspended a noose from a mining scaffold.

Fortunately, Barnstable is resourceful. He manages to escape and jump into a convertible driven by Madam Alta, the proprietor of the house of ill repute. Of course, they drive to the anthropology lab, reasoning that Dr. Clemens will help them.

However, Philip, Silverdale, the sheriff, and the posse have tracked Barnstable to the lab. They shoot gas canisters into the building, causing explosions and chaos.

“We’ve gotta save the creature!” exclaims Mariposa. But of course it escapes and participates in the customary rampage.

In the commotion, a rather cowardly Dr. Clemens points out Barnstable’s position to the posse. They proceed to beat up the defenseless black man.

However, justice, in the form of a sheep-shaped godmonster, intervenes. It pushes a posse member off a low precipice, killing him, and then lopes off into the desert.

They decide to track down the godmonster. “Maybe the monster is some sort of sign, a messenger,” says Mariposa. “Anyway, I hope I find him first.”

In fact, she does find the monster first, as she skips through the scrub of the Nevada desert. She reaches out to pet the creature. “I’ve been following you all the way from the glory hole,” she tells it. Unimpressed, however, the monster runs away.

Of course, Silverdale has no choice but to declare martial law in Virginia City, taking over the TVs and phone lines.

Next comes perhaps the film’s most famous set piece, as we witness the godmonster’s attack on a children’s picnic.

“Do you believe in the monster?” the children say. “I don’t believe in the monster. Stupid adults believe it.”

The godmonster shuffles toward them and they start screaming and running. The godmonster, possibly depressed by the rejection, starts eating their hot dogs.

The godmonster also manages to blow up a Chevron gas station; the building explodes rather than the gas tanks or pumps, however. Fortunately, the godmonster is not affected by the explosion.

When the posse catches up with the godmonster in the mountains, they circle it with their horses and capture it with ropes.

The climax occurs after the godmonster is brought back to a garbage dump outside town and Silverdale announces a somewhat confusing mix of announcements about the beast’s ability to draw tourists as well as about his own selling of the entire town to the mining concern. This last announcement results in a riot as the townspeople realize Silverdale has sold them out, but Silverdale tries to distract them by yelling, “Feast your eyes on the eighth wonder of the world!”

The townspeople next turn on the godmonster, screaming, “Kill it! Kill it! It killed my son!”

In their attempt to kill the beast, the townspeople file past its cage, throwing paper cups at it.

The ending becomes quite existential as the townspeople continue running past the creature’s cage and down a sandy hill. Silverdale orders his men to run down the townspeople with horses. “Kill them all!” he says, laughing maniacally.

Some of the townspeople begin throwing garbage from the landfill at other townspeople while Silverdale, now insane, yells, “We are the custodians of an era!”

Somehow, the truck on which the godmonster is caged gets pushed over the edge of the dump.

The truck explodes for no reason, killing the godmonster.

Silverdale continues his rant: “Violence in the name of justice controls the masses! It always has! Do you hear me, Barnstable? I beat you! Time is the eternal judge of events!”

The film ends on Silverdale's insane ranting as chaos envelops the town.

Like many of the revolutionary classics we discuss here at Senseless Cinema, Godmonster of Indian Flats defies expectations and contradicts our prejudices. Nowhere is this more clear than in the film's treatment of politics, as it depicts capitalism and racial justice going hand-in-hand (in the character of Mr. Barnstable) while conservation and historical preservation are presented as misguided to the point of insanity (in the character of Mr. Silverdale). Science and religion--merged through the characters of Dr. Clemens, Eddie, and Mariposa--are presented as mild-mannered pursuits that are manipulated by the more powerful forces of capitalism and environmentalism. Even the titular godmonster--product of science and religion--is a helpless wanderer and a literal sheep, doomed to be captured and exploited by Silverdale.

Director Fredric Hobbs was a sculptor famous for his driveable sculptures before he began to direct films in 1969. Presumably, the moviegoing audience did not appreciate his cinematic masterpieces, and his directing career came to an end with Godmonster of Indian Flats in 1973, which can likely be seen as an attempt at mainstream success, with its traditional monster-movie plot augmented with fascinating characters and political subplots. Unfortunately, mainstream commercial success was not to be had, and Mr. Hobbs returned to the sculptor's studio. If only the man had continued his work in the director's chair, we might have seen further meditations on science, religion, and politics that only the visionary Mr. Hobbs could have created. Alas, further films were not meant to be, and our world is consequently impoverished by the absence of cinematic gifts of such potential, such power, such vision. Alas, indeed.