The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra is an Example of (Intentionally) Bad Writing That is Very Good
The world is sort of crazy, I’m busy with my writing, and the movie theatres are closed. For these reasons, rather than seeking out new movies, I’ve been re-watching some of my old favorites, especially comedies. One such movie wearing out my DVD player right now is a very strange and obscure cult flick called, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra.
The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra has the feel of a bad, black-and-white monster movie from the 1950s, though it was made in 2003. A scientist named Dr. Paul Armstrong (Larry Blamire) and his wife Betty Armstrong (Fay Masterson), the wife of a scientist, are searching for a meteor made of a rare metal known as atmospherum. Dr. Paul Armstrong, a scientist who studies rocks, hopes to use the meteor to do science and better all of mankind through science for the benefit of all. (This is an example of the kind of intentionally repetitive dialogue that riddles the movie.)
Meanwhile, evil scientist Dr. Roger Fleming (Brian Howe) hopes to find and revive the famed Lost Skeleton of Cadavra in order to rule the world. Meanwhile, a married pair of aliens named Kro-bar (Andrew Parks) and Lattis (Susan McConnell) crash land their rocket and can’t get home. Meanwhile, the aliens’ escaped mutant rampages through the woods. Roger learns he can only revive the skeleton through atmosphereum. The aliens learn they can only fix their ship through atmosphereum. Everyone collides on the atmosphereum and hijinks ensue.
The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra is a movie you can really only appreciate if you’ve seen lots of bad movies, particularly bad monster/ sci-fi movies from the 50s. I did not have this background the first time my uncle showed the movie to me, and as a result, I was perplexed and sort of bored. It just seemed like a bad movie. However, after watching several episodes of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, I came to truly understand what bad movies were, making The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra seem like a brilliant parody and also, surprisingly, a pretty good movie on its own merits.
A lot of the humor of The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra comes from how bad it is. Bad dialogue, bad acting, bad special effects--it has it all. It’s intentionally and consistently bad. It’s so bad, it becomes funny. For example, here’s some dialogue from Paul and Betty, playing off the clicheé “foreshadowing via woman’s intuition” trope.
Paul: “Well, time to find a meteor. It looks like the perfect day for hunting space rocks, wouldn’t you say, Betty?”
Betty (staring in the distance, stone-faced): “Oh, Paul, I’m frightened.”
Paul: “What is it, darling? What’s the matter? Tell me.”
Betty (still staring): “I don’t know…. Nothing I can put my finger on. Not something I can see or touch or feel…. But something I can’t quite see… or touch or feel… or put my finger on.”
Paul (after a beat): “Oh, well. Shall we find that meteor?”
Betty (brightly): “Yes, of course.”
This isn’t even the best joke, but you get the idea. The dialogue is intentionally vague, repetitive, and exposition-y. The actors deliver it in a stilted, super-serious fashion, but with deft comedic timing. Enough of this terrible writing lowers your expectations, so that when genuine moments of wit or funny gags appear, they take you by surprise.
What’s really interesting to me is that, hidden in all the clunky dialogue, one-dimensional (yet oddly likable) characters, and vague explanations is a tightly-written plot. It’s a simple plot, for sure; I’m not saying that this is Inception or anything. But it has multiple threads that tie together to form a satisfactory climax. It has set-up and pay-off. It clearly explains the motives and actions of the characters. It has a theme, for crying out loud.
Now, if you’re used to good or even mediocre movies, this is no great feat. But if you watch bad movies, you take nothing for granted. I’ve seen movies that have no plot at all (Monster A Go-Go, Werewolf, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies), movies that have a plot but can’t convey what it is (Overdrawn at the Memory Bank, Space Mutiny, Future War), movies that have one simple plot thread that goes nowhere (Eegah, It Lives By Night, Boggy Creek 2: And the Legend Continues), and movies with multiple plot threads that can’t quite come together (The Girl in Gold Boots). Having a competent plot is a luxury. A luxury, I tell you!
But you may not notice this tight plot because of how the movie is paced. Between the endlessly repetitive dialogue, the over-explanation of obvious events, and the scenes that go on for too long, the movie can drag. Again, this is intentional, but it did not help my experience the first time I watched it.
If you are used to movies that have a tight plot and good pacing and internal logic and smooth exposition and competent execution--you know, a good movie--you might assume that all these elements are the same thing, conveniently lumped under the umbrella of plot. But when you look at movies that are bad, intentionally or not, you can see all the moving parts. It is possible to have a good plot and terrible pacing, and that separation makes you realize the value of pacing. Good pacing keeps the focus on what is important to the plot; it slows for drama and speeds for action; it keeps the audience interested. It is a skill unto itself.
And I guess that’s why I like to analyze bad movies as well as good ones (as well as good ones disguised as bad ones). I like to crack open the story and look at the separate pieces and understand what works and what does not. Movies like The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra makes those writing mistakes obvious, but it does so in a way that is fun and funny.
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Writer. Critic. Dreamer.