Cult Classics: The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra

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B-movies are like catnip to the well-attuned film fan. This low-budget dubious genre of film was first created by studios back in the day of double features, when cheaper, less-publicized films were produced to play before the main feature. When the “double feature” concept was phased out in the late 1950s, this casual label remained to refer to films by either genre, their low-budget nature, or for exploitation films.

Old B-movies are now well-loved by film fans for their signature aesthetic and unusual presentation of its materials (especially the wooden delivery of the C-list actors that starred in these films), and in our postmodern culture the familiar tropes of this vague genre often play for comedic effect. Even younger generations are so well-versed in the familiar elements of these kinds of films–clunky dialogue, overheated direction, cheap sets, bad editing, ridiculous plots and ludicrous monsters–that they can understand the stylistic jokes that refer to these kinds of movies when referenced in kids’ shows.

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A number of sci-fi and horror movies of the 1950’s and 60’s were often referred to as B-movies, back when these genres were the ghetto of film genres, and these often goofy movies found an appreciative audience with cinephiles who appreciated the humor of their earnestness and low-budget special effects, often watching these movies with their friends and making fun of them together. In one of the greatest strokes of brilliance in television, comedian Joel Hodgson realized he could make an entire show out of making fun of the B-movies of the past and created Mystery Science Theater 3000 as a result.

And filmmakers who were raised watching these films also started mining the B-movie aesthetic for humor: director Joe Dante would reference many stylistics of old horror B-movies in his work, and a lot of his (big-budget, mainstream) work could be traced back to these old schlock films, such as Gremlins, The ‘Burbs, and Matinee. Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino even took a big-budget gamble on making a double feature that paid homage to the drive-in B-movies of the past with Grindhouse. It flopped terribly but remains a rather brilliant send-up of these movies.

Maybe Rodriguez and Tarantino’s enterprise didn’t work because it was just too slick and big-budget, defeating the very purpose of the B-movie aesthetic–which was that the films looked low-budget because they were low-budget. Unlike the Grindhouse debacle, the film under consideration today truly was a smaller affair: made for just $100,000 and with a small cast and crew, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra successfully parodied the B-movies of the past. Shot on videotape and converted to black-and-white film in post-production, this incredibly goofy comedy involves a thick-headed scientist and his equally vapid wife as they attempt to vacation in the woods, only to become embroiled in a plot involving aliens, their escaped pet monster, the fake element atmosphereum, a doctor seeking the lost skeleton of Cadavra, four different animals turned into a human woman, and a speaking skeleton. It’s wonderfully silly and a cult classic.

The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra – A Cult Classic

Successfully capturing the elements of old B&W B-movies from the 50’s and 60’s that made them so unintentionally humorous to later audiences, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra is an obvious labor of love from its director, writer, and star Larry Blamire. Having written the film in just five days and filming it in ten, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra almost shouldn’t be as good as it turned out.    

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Or is that its secret? Maybe its quick creation was a secret strategy by Blamire, aping the quick-and-dirty low-budget productions of the original B-movies it parodied. It worked, as the aesthetics of those old monster and alien sci-fi films are replicated–and on videotape, no less! Perhaps the transfer process to black-and-white film in post-production also helped achieve its visual success: while straight video would be too clear and polished-looking to look like an old film, transferring it to black-and-white film degrades the quality just enough to make it look like good 16mm stock.

But the visual aspect of the film is probably the least interesting part of The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra. Its real appeal is in its weirdly specific parody of an old sci-fi B-movie and the types of characters that populate these old films. Set in 1961, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra follows the adventures of rather thick-headed scientist Dr. Paul Armstrong and his wife Betty as he looks for a fallen meteor in the area while they stay  in a cabin in the woods. Elsewhere nearby, Dr. Roger Fleming seeks the Cadavra Cave, where he seeks a lost skeleton (hence the title).

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One night, another meteor falls, which both doctors observe, but this is the landing spaceship of the aliens Kro-Bar and Lattis. Stranded on Earth until they can find the element atmosphereum to power their ship, their pet mutant escapes and wreaks havoc on unsuspecting locals. Dr. Fleming finds the Cadavra Cave and inside uncovers the Lost Skeleton. However, the skeleton has powerful telekinetic powers and soon takes over Dr. Fleming, commanding him to find some atmosphereum to bring him back to life. And it just so happens Dr. Armstrong found some atmosphereum in that meteor he was seeking.

Kro-Bar and Lattis disguise themselves as humans using a device called a transmutatron and attempt to befriend Dr. Armstrong and his wife to obtain the rare element they need while Dr. Fleming–having observed them using the device–transforms four separate animals to create an Animalia to assist him. The aliens call themselves Turgaso and Bammin to pass as humans but Dr. Fleming soon tricks them into helping him get the atmosphereum. The skeleton is resurrected and the aliens, realizing they’d been tricked, then create an alliance with Dr. Armstrong and his wife, but the skeleton seeks to make the female alien his wife while also soundly mocking everyone around him.

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As you can tell, the plot is rather ridiculous, which is much of the point of the film. But besides the silly plot, the dialogue is wonderfully absurd, as well. Delivered with all seriousness, lines like “As a scientist I just wish I could appreciate more things like cabins… bicycles…,” “Even when I was a child, I was hated by skeletons!” “I’ve got to get that meteor but how? How? There must be a way inside that cabin. Think! Think! Cabin… cabin… cabin.” “You are different from the other humans. More disgusting, I think.” and other gems.

But just single lines don’t convey the wackiness of the dialogue–exchanges take on increasingly weird dimensions when the characters bounce off each other. Some examples include:

Betty Armstrong: Wher-where am I? What happened?

Dr. Paul Armstrong: It’s alright Betty, you were just doing some very stupid things.

 

Skeleton: [using mind control] Bring the meteor to the skeleton.

Kro-Bar: [using mind control] Bring the atmosphereum to Kro-Bar and Lattis.

Betty Armstrong: I must make a skeleton meatier using a crowbar covered in lettuce.

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Skeleton: [telepathically communicating] You must find the atmosphereum.

Animala: Amish Terrarium. Must find Amish terrarium.

Dr. Paul Armstrong: I don’t understand. Why does she need an Amish terrarium?

Betty Armstrong: Don’t the Amish live in open air, like us?

Dr. Paul Armstrong: Of course, Betty, it’s absurd. Putting the Amish in glass cases would be inhumane.

 

Dr. Paul Armstrong: [Thinking] Hmm… I wonder.

Dr. Roger Fleming: [Thinking] Hmm… I also wonder.

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Besides this, the film is filled with small touches of humor, such as its announcement at the beginning that it was filmed in Skeletorama, or a number of characters shrugging off strange occurrences by just saying “Oh well,” or the completely insane character of Animalia who simply cannot pass for human, or the bellowing telepathic voice of the skeleton, who condescends to everybody constantly. It’s a movie overstuffed with funny bits, running gags, and silliness that the 90 minutes it runs comes across like you’re watching a retro sci-fi movie from another dimension, one that knew immediately that these old cheesy B-movies would be watched for their comedic value more than their quality.

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But the quality of The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra isn’t lacking: it knows exactly what it’s trying to do and succeeds splendidly at its task. In fact, this film did so well for its indie filmmaker that he went on to make sequel of the film in the same style, The Lost Skeleton Returns Again. Further, he continued his parody comedies in Dark and Stormy Night, which sends up haunted house and murder mystery films, and Trail of the Screaming Forehead, which amusingly parodies  Invasion of the Body Snatchers, only this time the aliens are foreheads. Yes, it’s as strange as it sounds and Blamire hits the nail on the (fore)head yet again in that movie, as well.

For fans of B-movies–or more accurately, for fans of the wild cheesiness, wacky plots, and narmy dialogue those movies produced–The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra is not to be missed. Even though it hasn’t gathered the acclaim and audience as many cult films have (in fact, it’s been surprisingly low-rated by many critics), it’s a comedy cult classic whose cult maybe hasn’t been founded yet.

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Categories: culture, film

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