More Ambition Than Talent (& Knowing It!): Larry Blamire’s “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra” (2001)

Showing three separate, colored, stylized shots from Larry Blamire's "The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra"

There’s nothing like a young artist’s early ambition whose talent has not yet come to fruition. Often, with pretension abound, the results don’t equal their enthusiasm and so what ultimately results is something less than amateurish. But hey, at least they are trying so who can fault them? (Only their embarrassment years later, perhaps? e.g., Stanley Kubrick’s Fear and Desire, anyone?)

The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra is a film that, much like Frank Whaley’s The Jimmy Show, has gone overlooked in recent years. While garnering initial praise, (unlike The Jimmy Show, which also debuted in 2001) Roger Ebert only gave The Lost Skeleton of Cadavara one and a half stars, noting, ‘The writer and director, Larry Blamire, who also plays the saner of the scientists, has the look so well mastered that if the movie had only been made in total ignorance 50 years ago, it might be recalled today as a classic. A minor, perhaps even minuscule, classic.’

Throughout his review, Ebert continually refers back to the camp 1970s film Trog, that no one would remember if it hadn’t starred Joan Crawford. His continual reference to this Crawford swan song borders on bizarre fixation. Clearly, this is not Crawford at her best. Or is it? In short, who cares? Did he even watch the film he is supposed to be reviewing?

So, what is the problem then? Ed Wood, who set out to make his films in earnest succeeded only because of his failure—and it is because of his failure that Ed Wood is still so beloved among sci-fi 1950s fans. Much like the 1950s camp classic Plan 9 From Outer Space, in The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, the aliens appear no differently than humans. (Rumor has it that Ed Wood was too lazy to give his aliens costumes.) In a world where everyone is stupid and the women are strangely submissive to their men, word salad abounds, as humans say things like, ‘Do you know what this could mean for science? This could mean actual advancement in the field of science.’ Or even: ‘You don’t believe those old wives tales about the Lost Skeleton of Cadavra?’ asks Ranger Brad, wherein Dr. Fleming responds: ‘I’m a scientist, Brad. I don’t believe in anything.’

Like with many bad sci-fi 1950s films, Cadavra’s concept is of course bigger than the minuscule budget and limited set allows. Basically, a crashed meteor has released the powerful element atmosphereum that, in a single teaspoon, ‘can get us to the moon and back six times.’ Dr. Paul Armstrong and his wife, Betty, are visiting the mountains near the crash site. Paul desperately wants to ‘do science’ but then Dr. Fleming, the evil scientist, wants the atmosphereum for himself so he can bring to life the Lost Skeleton of Cadavra and rule the world. Meanwhile, some aliens have crashed and lost their pet mutant, who is now terrorizing the locals (in a cheap, plastic costume with a mask). The aliens also want the atmosphereum to fuel their ship. Then there is Animala, an amalgam of forest animals created from what looks like a caulk gun. All this makes The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra quite the silly, albeit clever film.

Add to that the skeleton who is a character unto itself, often mouthing (not literally of course) statements like, ‘Now, I sleep.’ The narrative details are not as important as the wooden actors and forced, repetitive exchanges that succeed because of the obvious self-awareness. Indeed, subtlety is not something with which those of this era would be familiar.

So, this brings to mind the myriad of negative reviews. As with The Jimmy Show, perhaps the audience was expecting something different than the intended schlock. Yes, while Ed Wood’s Plan 9 has that ‘so bad it is good’ feel, it has been said that initially, Wood’s script was even worse—that it seemed like a seventh grader had written it. However, watching something that is trying to be bad and actually is bad is quite a different experience. The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra not only evokes the camp 1950s sci-fi classics, but it does so via its ‘pretending to be bad but really isn’t bad’ clever dialogue. This film is smarter than you think. The difference is that Ed Wood took himself seriously. Director Larry Blamire doesn’t.

In contrast, consider a successful B film like Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls that, while taking itself seriously, manages to accomplish an existential depth and eeriness due to the haunting use of daylight and shadow. As noted in my review, ‘As a B film, Carnival of Souls featured a small budget which works in the film’s favor, as the actors at times speak as oddly as she. They stand stiffly and move dreamlike—is this a dream?’ Here, the stiff acting works due to the wonderment of the film itself—is this a dream? Ed Wood’s films have no such delusions.

In short, context is important. This returns me to Ebert’s bizarre review where he admits that had The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra been made 50 years ago (from when he wrote the review in 2004), it would have possibly become a minuscule classic. Ok, so what? Why should today be any different? Firstly, had this film been made 50 years ago, it would have not had something from the past to reference. Instead, it would have been part of the rest of the schlock. Sure, Manos: The Hands of Fate is funny, but is it really that good? That’s where the subjectivity comes in. (While badly humorous, I admit I find it rather dull.) Art should stand alone independently of the when—does this entertain? Is it smart? If yes, then it has succeeded. When one makes a film like this, no one is trying to take over the world, except perhaps Dr. Fleming. But the skeleton hates him and ends up choking him. So that ends that. Let us all sleep peacefully as the skeleton, but not before a few laughs. ‘Now, I sleep!’

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More from Jessica Schneider: Where Else Is There? Reviewing Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking”, An Examination of Egos: Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” (1957)Heist Gone Wrong (& Right): On Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” (1956)