It’s a safe wager that if you gathered up, say, 100 film fans and surveyed them on the identity of “the worst director of all time,” the answer would probably come back as Edward D. Wood Jr. And they would be wrong.
Ed Wood, for all his ineptitude and naivete, is simply the most infamous bad director of all time. That’s what happens when you have a film like Plan 9 From Outer Space on your resume, which was first enshrined with the “worst movie ever” title in semi-official fashion when it appeared prominently in Michael and Harry Medved’s Golden Turkey Awards in 1980. It actually helps that despite all their flaws, Wood’s movies are, by and large, amusing viewing experiences that lend themselves to cult screenings because watching them really doesn’t hurt that much. They’re the sort of classic, z-grade, no-budget shlock that is saved by their harmlessly earnest and generally sincere attitudes—just try listening to the alien dialog of Plan 9 without cracking a smile.
The films of Coleman Francis, on the other hand, do not provoke smiles. They don’t provoke laughs, either. Coleman Francis is the real owner of the “worst director of all time” distinction, but it’s not surprising that his work isn’t as well known, because once you’ve seen a Coleman Francis movie, the last thing you’ll want to do is see the others. What you’ll want is a time machine, so you can step inside and warn your past self not to engage in a terrible mistake.
With that said, the career of Francis is a fascinating one, with a surprising number of parallels to that of Ed Wood. I’m not sure if the two icons of bad cinema ever managed to meet each other in ‘50s/’60s L.A., but if they had, the resulting collaboration and combination of their acting stables would have been a momentous event in bad movie history, akin to the Yalta Conference between Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin. Likewise, I feel we should note that to really be “worst director” material, you need to have a multi-film career that received some kind of professional distribution. Thousands of would-be auteurs have shot handicam “features” from the comfort of their garages before disappearing off the face of the earth. “Worst” implies a greater determination—the ability to fail miserably, learn nothing from the experience, and then promptly fail again.
Ultimately, though, the reason that any of us still remember the works of Francis today is thanks to Mystery Science Theater 3000. As it did for Manos: The Hands of Fate, MST3k also injected fresh perspective into the filmography of Francis. The classic movie-riffing show featured all three of Francis’ feature films: The Beast of Yucca Flats, The Skydivers and Red Zone Cuba. It’s telling that they chose Francis—rather than the better-known Wood, MST3k tormented its captive satellite crew with films that were much, much worse.
Coleman C. Francis was born in 1919, lived through the Depression, and was apparently bitten by the acting bug in the ‘40s when he moved to Hollywood. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a pudgy, not particularly attractive everyman, he didn’t exactly find juicy parts forthcoming, but he did play bit parts in many films, including, oddly enough, the sci-fi flick This Island Earth, which went on to be featured in MST3k: The Movie. Already, though, you can feel a certain desperation to his career—the guy showed up wanting to be an actor, but didn’t even get a CREDITED role for more than a decade, playing a detective in the amusingly titled and Roger Corman-produced Stakeout on Dope Street.
Soon enough, though, Francis’ attention turned toward potentially producing and directing his own films. Perhaps he was frustrated with his inability to break through as an actor in Hollywood, but for whatever reason, Coleman Francis had a fire lit under him; a desire to prove himself as an artist. What he didn’t have was funding to get a film project off the ground.
In 1960, though, Francis had a streak of luck: He met the creative partner who would end up financing (and starring) in all three of his films, one Anthony “Tony” Cardoza.
Cardoza was a highly decorated artillery gunner in the Korean War who returned to civilian life and became a welder on jet engines, apparently socking away a fairly sizable nest egg. He displayed an interest in acting, although he was completely untrained—perhaps this is what supernaturally lead him to the office of Ed Wood, where he was cast in the director’s last “major” film, 1958’s Night of the Ghouls, which was not released in any real capacity until 1984 because Wood failed to pay the film processing lab and it was literally held hostage. After that experience, one can imagine Cardoza believing that working with Coleman Francis would be a step up, but this was not to be. Together, the two would begin collaboration on their first movie, The Beast of Yucca Flats, with Cardoza paying and Francis writing and directing. Cardoza reminisces about the entire experience, and about Francis, who he affectionately remembers as “Coley,” in this interview, which I’ve quoted throughout.
Stop for a moment and consider the “talent” involved in The Beast of Yucca Flats. Your director is Coleman Francis, a player of uncredited bit parts with no filmmaking experience and no idea of how to use a camera or shoot a movie. Your primary producer is Anthony Cardoza, an almost complete outsider to the film industry and welder by trade. Your “star”/antagonist is the hulking mound/former pro wrestler known as Tor Johnson, who famously starred in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space. And oh—Cardoza is also handling primary editing duties … which he had also never attempted on a feature film.
The result, unsurprisingly, is a hideous film, and undeniably the worst Francis ever made from a technical perspective. It feels like the longest, sub-60 minute “feature film” ever made. I strongly believe this is the worst pure cinematic experience that was ever showcased on MST3k —worse than Manos, worse than The Castle of Fu Manchu, worse than any of them. It’s what immediately comes to my mind when someone says “unwatchable”—the longest 54 minutes that a human being could theoretically spend in a movie theater, although I can’t imagine someone sitting down at the beginning and still being there in the theater, 54 minutes later, unless they suffered a massive stroke. Even Samuel Arkoff of American International Pictures, who produced dozens of the worst B-movies of his era, didn’t sit through this thing according to Cardoza.
The story, such as exists or can be inferred, seeing as the film doesn’t bother to provide you with anything to go on, can be summed up in a sentence: “A defecting Soviet rocket scientist (the brilliantly cast Tor Johnson) is ambushed by KGB agents and wanders into the desert, where an atom bomb test transforms him into a mindless, lumbering beast.” You know … in the general vicinity of Yucca Flats. Maybe. He then menaces a vacationing family, no doubt wanting to spend their holidays in the immediate vicinity of a nuclear warhead testing ground.
Wrap your head around this fact: The Beast of Yucca Flats contains no on-screen dialog during that 54-minute runtime. Rather, it seems as if Coleman Francis simply didn’t have any microphones on hand during the shoot, or no way of recording conversation or ambient sound out in the middle of the desert. It’s eerily reminiscent of a film like The Creeping Terror, where legend has it that the entire original soundtrack literally fell into Lake Tahoe and was lost forever. And so, Francis simply eschews such things as “conversations” for the most part. Any time there absolutely, positively has to be dialog, he simply recorded the actors later and added the sound in during long shots of characters wandering the desert from hundreds of yards away—far enough so you can’t tell if they’re actually speaking to one another. This also results in one of the most surreal work-arounds you’ll ever see, as two characters enter a home, the camera stays outside, they have a muffled conversation inside the building, and then reemerge. Brilliantly resourceful!
Coleman’s other, instantly un-missable way of working around the issue of sound is to fill the movie with nonsensical narration, which he supplied himself. If there’s one memorable thing about the film (which is otherwise an endless sea of forgettable ugliness), it’s those pieces of narration. They are, in a word, otherworldly. They appear in any given moment, with no rational prompting, and seem to be Francis simply philosophizing on unrelated topics. Very rarely can you connect any sort of tangible meaning between what Francis is saying and what’s actually happening on the screen. A selection of my favorites:
“Flag on the moon. How did it get there?”
“Boys from the city. Not yet caught by the whirlwind of progress. Feed soda pop to the thirsty pigs.”
“Nothing bothers some people, not even flying saucers.”
You should know without my saying so that there are zero flying saucers in this film, and even less reason to be talking about flying saucers.
In the end, after interminable scenes of police officers wandering up and down dunes in the middle of the desert with zero dialog, the protagonists are finally able to track down The Beast while flying a light airplane—this becomes a trademark of Coleman Francis films, but more on that later. They shoot him from their planes as they fly by, and as he lays dying in the desert, a little rabbit hops up and nuzzles his face. According to Cardoza, it was simply a baby jackrabbit that wandered into a live scene, inadvertently providing the film with its only 10 seconds of pathos. Which is to say, Coleman Francis was proven a worse screenwriter than a rabbit, which is a hell of an achievement.
And with that, dies The Beast of Yucca Flats.
Calling The Skydivers the best movie by Coleman Francis is like calling arsenic the most pleasant of ingestible poisons, but there’s little doubt that at the very least, it’s his most coherent film … which is still faint praise, because the plot is as twisty as it is inept. At the very least, Coleman springs for microphones so he can actually record his actors this time, but the trade-off is the fact that most of what he’s written for them to say revolves around coffee, cigarettes and the flying of light planes.
The Skydivers is presumably supposed to be a “crime thriller” of sorts, but essentially one without identifiable protagonists, as each of the characters is equally awful. Cardoza is promoted to the bigtime in honor of footing the bill for Coleman Francis to make his second feature, playing lead character Harry with all the charisma of a stuffed and mounted safari acquisition. Much of the plot revolves around the cast of characters cheating on and betraying one another in circular fashion, which I’ll try to expressly sum up below:
Harry owns a skydiving school/business in the desert, which he runs with his wooden wife Beth. Harry is cheating on Beth with the sultry Suzy, but Suzy is also cheating on Harry with idiot mechanic Frankie, who is employed by Harry. Beth, meanwhile, begins to cheat on her husband with one of Harry’s friends, Joe. In the end, some people perish via skydiving, and others get shot in the desert out of the window of a light plane (a pattern is emerging, take note).
The Skydivers is 20 minutes longer than The Beast of Yucca Flats, and I can assure you that the bulk of this time is spent in two ways:
a. In long, rambling sequences of Harry and various other characters sitting around the kitchen table and discussing how much they enjoy coffee and cigarettes, and
b. In stock footage sequences of people skydiving, which Francis apparently found quite exciting.
It’s a film that fully lays bare a few of the director’s quirky little obsessions. It’s not clear whether he actually feels strongly about coffee and cigarettes, or whether it was simply useful as a prop to pad the runtime of his movies, but each tends to feature long scenes of people smoking and drinking that contribute absolutely nothing to the plot.
Even more prominent is Francis’ fixation on light planes, which borders on some kind of undiagnosed filmmaking mania. Every one of his movies features them in a key scene, although none more than The Skydivers, where they take up a huge chunk of screen time. He displays the singleminded interest of a young child—perhaps one with Asperger’s—who is only able to talk about a single topic like stock cars or model trains for hours on end. I like to imagine members of the crew asking “Uh, Coleman, why all the planes?” and the director replying with the simple, clueless enthusiasm of Marge Simpson:
Neat indeed, Coleman.
Still, if you’re looking to expose yourself to the work of Coleman Francis for the first time, The Skydivers is the most endurable of his films, presumably helped along by the additional salve of MST3k riffing. You might even make it to the end and think “Well, this wasn’t that bad,” but I’m warning you: Progressing on to The Beast of Yucca Flats or the next film would be a mistake. That next film, by the way …
If The Beast of Yucca Flats is Coleman Francis’ worst film from a technical perspective, then Red Zone Cuba is his worst movie from any other perspective one might use to assess these things. It’s his most loathsome movie, for certain. It’s his ugliest, most dispassionate film. It replaces much of the mind-numbing boredom of Yucca Flats with scenes of terrible people doing monstrous things that will make you actively hate everyone involved with the film. If I could erase one of the three from existence, it would no doubt be this one.
Originally titled Night Train to Mundo Fine, its casting is notable for two reasons. First, in a sign of how desperate things had become, Coleman Francis takes on the lead role of “Griffin” himself, supported by Cardoza and one more unlucky bit player from The Skydivers who was “promoted” to a lead role. Sporting a shaved head and rotund figure that makes him look like Curly from The Three Stooges, Francis is a deeply unlikeable actor and character, but more on that in a moment.
The second notable aspect of the casting in Red Zone Cuba is that the film also features the biggest star that Francis was ever able to trick into appearing, albeit briefly. The great John Carradine, famed for The Grapes of Wrath and paterfamilias of the Carradine clan of actors, plays a train engineer in the opening sequence, which is simply used as a framing device with the entire story told in flashback. He also sings the opening song for some inexplicable reason; a particularly head-scratching move considering that Carradine was not what one would call a singer. Unfortunately, it’s likely that the stately Hollywood character actor was simply willing to do whatever would get him paid at this lowly point in his career, which also saw him star in terrible movies such as Billy the Kid vs. Dracula and another MST3k stinker, The Unearthly.
The story of of Red Zone Cuba is at least fairly easy to understand. A trio of goons, led by Coleman Francis as Griffin, join a paramilitary force to participate in the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, but things quickly go south. They’re imprisoned by Castro but eventually escape back to the U.S., searching for a mine filled with treasure after learning about its existence from another imprisoned soldier. Viewed from an extreme distance, it just seems like a blend of “war film” and “heist movie” elements.
But oh, it’s the route we take to get there that is so appalling. The Bay of Pigs invasion is laughably, insultingly tiny in its staging, with less than 10 guys vaguely wandering up a beach before being captured. There’s long segments of soldiers languishing in Cuban prison and then being executed. And in its most horrible moment, Griffin and Co. return to the U.S., saunter into a greasy diner, and proceed to kill the owner for absolutely no reason. Their method of doing so? They march him off into the country and then DROP HIM, STILL LIVING, DOWN A WELL. For no reason. Oh, and then they return to the diner so they can rape his blind, widowed daughter, which is mercifully omitted from the MST3k cut. Let me remind you—these are the film’s protagonists doing these things, with the film’s director and writer carrying out the rape scene. WTF, Francis?
What a likable bunch of viewpoint characters.
It’s an astoundingly depressing and mean-spirited movie—positively hateful, really. Even its idea of “karma” is totally unsatisfying. After police catch up to the trio, Cardoza and Guy #3 surrender, while Griffin is chased into the desert by … wait for it … cops flying a light plane, who shoot him down as he runs. Yep! It’s true. In three feature films by Coleman Francis, ALL THREE of them end with characters being gunned down in the desert by police in a light aircraft. It makes one wonder if Francis would have continued with this obsession had he directed six or 10 or 20 films. It could be like Troma’s famous car crash —just end every single movie with people running through the desert before getting shot by cops in a light plane, until 20 years down the line, film students are dissecting Coleman Francis auteur theory.
And as if it needed to be said, the fact that Red Zone Cuba is by far the longest film by Coleman Francis doesn’t do it any favors in the watchability department.
After Red Zone Cuba hit the market with a resounding thud, it’s hard to tell whether Francis intended to continue directing more films. Regardless, his health had begun to deteriorate, he put on a bunch of weight and the rigors of making unsuccessful movies likely helped lead to all the same stress-related vices that Ed Wood experienced. Legend has it that Francis was a drinker, but Cardoza said he preferred “Asprins and Coca-Cola” during their time together, which “gave him a lift and kept him awake.” Whether that’s a doctor-recommended cocktail, I’m not entirely sure.
Either way, Anthony Cardoza decided to take his own time off from the movie industry at this point, although he later returned to produce more films, including biker flick The Hellcats, which was much more financially successful but also had the honor of again being featured in an MST3k episode. Around the same time, he also had some kind of falling out with Francis, and the two were never close again. According to all the information I can find, Cardoza is still alive today, at the ripe old age of 85. (EDIT: I was sent a tip today, a week after this article went live, that Cardoza may have just passed away. I sincerely hope I am not somehow responsible for this.)
The final chapter of Francis’ story is much more macabre. With his benefactor gone, financing more films certainly wasn’t an option. The last time Cardoza saw his former friend, his weight had ballooned drastically, and he was sitting on a bus bench, looking “three sheets to the wind.” Not too long afterward, Francis died in rather mysterious fashion. To quote the interview with Cardoza, which seems to be the only account of his death:
“Coleman Francis’ body was found in the back of a station wagon at the Vine Street Ranch Market. Nobody knows why. I don’t know, he doesn’t know—he’s dead! [Laughs] Nobody seems to know. There was a plastic bag over his head and a tube going into his mouth or around his throat. I don’t know if he committed suicide, or … I have no idea. Never looked it up because we were on the outs at the time.”
Thus passed the worst film director of all time, a man responsible for some reprehensibly poor films, seemingly unmourned even by the partner he collaborated with to create each of the movies we know him for today. It’s a life story that would almost certainly be unknown without the exposure of MST3k, but like Ed Wood, Coleman Francis never lived long enough to see anonymity become infamy. One wonders how he would have worn the title of “worst director”—with shame, or with pride? Regardless of the artistic merit of his work in Hollywood, though, he certainly deserved a better end than he got.
But at least he didn’t get shot in the desert from the window of a light plane.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor, and he’s obviously fascinated by bad movies. You can follow him on Twitter.