Somehow, it’s September of 1972; and somehow we are with a young man and woman atop Sandia Peak; and, somehow, it’s late at night, although it was just the middle of a sunny day when we started driving up here; and—somehow—the sky is storming, wild with thunder and lightning, even though we’ll soon be able to easily watch a meteor shower.
We are about 12 minutes into a notoriously bad movie, and very little that is happening here will make any sense at all.
Paul, the young man, dressed all in black, stands beside Kathy, the young woman, dressed in high-waisted denim shorts and a denim shirt, in front of a windswept tree.
“You can see quite a distance up here,” Paul says. “Although we’ve got a lot more air pollution than we used to . . . that’s Albuquerque over there . . . and that road leads to Santa Fe, northeast. And the river’s over there.”
Below them, 1972 Albuquerque shines with a dull luster, its east and west sides mostly dark, still mostly open desert.
“Where are we exactly?” Kathy asks, as if Paul hadn’t just been describing where they were to someone who, one scene before, anyway, had seemed to be from the same region.
“I’m sorry, we’re on the top of Sandia Crest . . . it’s 10,678 feet up—or down—depending on where you are, and your point of view,” Paul replies, as if getting paid by the word.
Suddenly, cartoonish meteorites begin falling diagonally across the city—and falling all around them—and one almost crashes into Paul, knocking him conveniently on top of Kathy. Unbeknownst to Paul, however, a fragment of the meteorite has entered his forehead and become lodged in his brain and will, when the Moon is full, turn him into a murderous half-human/half-lizard monster.
This is Track of the Moon Beast, a low-budget science-fiction horror film shot in 1972 but generally listed as a 1976 release, as it took that long for it to find distribution—that is, to find its way onto late-night TV and the flickering screens of a few drive-in movie theaters. Its actors were unknown and inexperienced; its director, Dick Ashe, had only sexploitation films such as Girls Are For Loving on his résumé; its lighting was mostly nonexistent; its sound was muddy; its special effects were not special; its camera work and editing were chaotic; and its script was written over a single weekend, resulting in laughable dialogue, erratic pacing, and a nonsensical story. And yet, Track of the Moon Beast has its charms—especially for anyone from Albuquerque or the East Mountain Area, where it was filmed, as it’s inadvertently a documentary time capsule of both.
Near the beginning of Track of the Moon Beast, we meet Paul, a muscular mineralogist/former anthropologist who’s hard at work on an archeology dig. He does all kinds of science, apparently. Anyway, next, we meet Johnny Longbow, Paul’s Native American anthropologist friend who’ll show up again and again to make speeches about semi-relevant lore. And then we meet Kathy, a leggy, fashionable photographer. Paul meets Kathy at the same time we do, and yet the rest of the movie unfolds as if they’re an inseparable couple that has always done everything together.
After that night up on Sandia Peak, after their expository conversation, and after the meteorite hits Paul, enters his brain, and begins turning him into a were-lizard, every time the moon is full, Paul begins brutally murdering people, leaving behind only blood and his monstrous tracks—the tracks . . . of a moon beast!
The story is pretty random. Why would a meteorite—even one knocked off the moon by another meteorite, which is the story here—turn someone into a lizard? But its locations offer a delightful glimpse into another time. There’s the Geology Museum, in UNM’s Northrup Hall, where a moon rock in a terrarium sends a beam of light into Paul’s head. There’s Kurt’s Camera Corral, in Albuquerque, where Johnny Longbow develops some film that’s never again mentioned, and never explained. There’s the aerial tram, which a Paul-like mannequin jumps out of, in an imaginary suicide, and there’s State Road 44, near Placitas, on which Paul wrecks his motorcycle. There’s also the road up to the Crest, which Kathy parks along while searching for Paul, and there’s Route 66 through Tijeras Canyon, which Johnny races along to stop Paul, a moon-rock-tipped arrow on the seat beside him.
In one scene, earlier on, Paul and Kathy and Johnny take a break from all the madness to attend the concert of local singer-songwriter Frank Larrabee performing “California Lady,” in a style reminiscent of Jim Croce. (Stop by the Corrales Community Library sometime, and you’ll find a wing still named after Larrabee).
As for the movie’s other actors, they’ve mostly faded away, although Leigh Drake, who played Kathy, did have a small role as a police dispatcher in the cult-classic The Return of the Living Dead. The film’s locations at least have gone on to bigger things—Albuquerque, for instance, has seen its population more than double—and the film itself has gained an unplanned reputation that’s kind of kept it alive. It’s been famously mocked by Mystery Science Theater 3000, a show whose characters crack jokes over the entirety of terrible movies (“This film was lit with a spelunker’s headlamp,” said one), and the Internet Movie Database, which catalogues the details of 3.4 million movies and TV episodes, ranks Track of the Moon Beast as the 57th-worst movie ever.
Anytime we try to create something, we take a risk—the risk of failing, of looking stupid, of wasting our time and effort. But even our failures are, in a way, successes, because they’re proof—proof we tried. They show the world that we lived—and that we weren’t just sitting around and waiting. Track of the Moon Beast succeeds at approximately zero things as a movie. But in its attempts, it gave us something else—proof of a time before this time, proof of a place in an earlier state, proof of a now-lost world that was actively moving toward us.
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