A speeding ambulance brings ailing scientist Robert Clarke to the hospital, a victim of extreme radiation poisoning. To everyone’s surprise, he awakens from the initial trauma with no apparent ill effects. They should know better – this is Hollywood in 1959, where radiation doesn’t make you sick. It mutates you into a hideous scaly monster, which is exactly what happens as soon as Clarke is taken out for a sunbath. The title beast is indeed hideous, looking like a cross between a werewolf and an iguana.
According to the doctors in the film’s far-fetched explanation scene, the sun now triggers a de-evolutionary reaction in Clarke’s mutated cells. Not wanting to be under the microscope of the medical community, Clarke secludes himself in his shuttered house in the hills, only emerging at night – or at least a not-too-craftily photographed day-for-night. The lonely brooder begins to drink even more heavily than he already did, even considering suicide at one point.
On one of his nightly rambles, he meets up with a blonde torch singer (the pneumatic Patricia Manning) in a seedy saloon. When her beau shows up, a serial-style barroom fistfight ensues, after which Clarke takes his new friend for an after-hours drunken spin in his convertible.
A reckless night on the beach later finds the playboy scientist oversleeping, making it necessary for him to ditch Manning without so much as a “good morning and thanks for the sex.” Instead of making for the nearest shelter, the hungover monster drives all the way home, where he hides in the cellar with his pickled eggs.
His neglected assistant (Nan Peterson) brings in a thick-accented specialist, who tells him his condition might be helped. He also advises that he stay put indoors until treatment can begin. But Clarke just can’t stay away from his bleached blonde siren, which leads him to a beating, a murder, a manhunt and other disasters.
In another universe, this might have been titled The Hideous Booze Demon. With his poisoning accident alluded to as being caused by Clarke’s hangover, his binge drinking, his scuffles in taverns and nocturnal wandering, the analogy to alcoholism is inescapable. Clarke has more trouble with moonshine than sunlight. He even keeps a bottle hidden in the glove compartment of his roadster.
I can’t say whether Clarke had this particular take on this tale of a man on the road to self-destruction in mind when he came up with idea for The Hideous Sun Demon. Sadly, the DVD doesn’t feature a commentary track, which would’ve been a natural. The curious had best seek out Clarke’s book To “B” or Not to “B” – A Film Actor’s Odyssey, a sample of which is included in the liner notes.
Robert Clarke was sort of a B-movie Cary Grant in the 1950s. After starring in several science fiction pictures (including Edgar Ulmer’s The Man from Planet X), and knowing there was money in monsters, he got the bug to make some movies himself. With his inspiration taken from Robert Louis Stevenson and money taken from his in-laws in the singing King Family, Clarke was well on his way. He produced several more independent productions (such as Ulmer’s Beyond the Time Barrier), but Hideous Sun Demon is the only film that credits him as director.
Quite a few members of the King Sisters and King Family (which had a shockingly popular television show in the 1960s) show up in minor roles. Clarke’s sister-in-law Marilyn King dubs Patricia Manning’s songs. Clarke met much of the cast and crew while taking a film writing course at USC. Some went on to be familiar faces on shows like The Twilight Zone and Perry Mason. Some were never seen again.
The DVD packaging follows the gaudy design that graced the recent tape release, but the menu design is much more attractive. Image’s transfer is unfortunately burdened with poor sound and a scratchy picture. However, it’s likely as good as this neglected feature ever got, and it’s good enough that you can plainly see the glare filter spun in front of a shot of the sun. The trailer looks much worse, but is a wonderful example of bombastic 1950s ballyhoo. Perhaps someday there’ll be a “special edition” of this title, remastered and including that audio commentary, as well as the 1983 comic re-dubbing of the feature called What’s Up Hideous Sun Demon.