Track of the Moon Beast (1976)

The Rising Moon Creates a Monster!

Cover image to 1976's Track of the Moon Beast

Mineralogist Paul Carlson (Chase Cordell) is observing a meteor shower in the New Mexico desert with his budding love interest, photojournalist Kathy Nolan (Leigh Drake). When a meteorite comes crashing toward earth and smacks Paul right in the forehead, the unthinkable happens: a fragment of the space rock bores into his brain, and now every time the moon is out, he transforms into a killer lizard-man!

The Lizard Man from 1976's Track of the Moon Beast

TRACK OF THE MOON BEAST (whose original working title was THE LUNAR ANALOG) gets a lot of guff, and a good deal of it is warranted. The script is weak, and the acting is often lackadaisical and wooden, and there’s not enough lizard-man in this movie that is literally about a lizard-man. The special effects are admittedly 20 years out of date, but if you squint really hard, that can also be seen as a somewhat charming throwback to a simpler time. The basic premise, though—a man turns to a lizard-man beneath the lunar rays—shouldn’t be thought of as any more ludicrous than the hundreds of werewolf flicks in existence. It merely seems that way because we’re not used to seeing it. The film even gives us some (completely imaginary) Native American mythology that relates to the unfolding events in order to give it more weight and substance. Or, at least, that was the intention.

Our reluctant antagonist Paul Carlson is supposed to be a responsible adult with a steady career, but he winds up coming across as nothing more than a big kid. He still lives with his mother (he tells this to Kathy on their first date), remains emotionally distraught over the divorce of his parents, and admits that his best friend is Ty, his pet Komodo dragon. After the murders begin, and Ty was found missing from his cage, he was apparently meant to be a red herring, but I find it hard to believe that anyone ever actually fell for it.

Kathy Nolan, Paul’s newfound lady friend, is a photojournalist in the area to cover a story on religious practices of local Native American tribes. She obviously falls in love quite quickly (or maybe she took a moonrock to the skull, too), because she’s willing to risk life and limb for Paul almost immediately after their first meeting. She gets one of the worst—and therefore one of the most memorable—lines in the whole film: “Moonrocks! Oh, wow!

The cast of 1976's Track of the Moon Beast

Johnny Longbow Salinas (Gregorio Sala) is a Native American anthropology professor, friend of Paul Carlson, and our protagonist. His tribal name of Longbow translates into “Warrior’s Bow That Reaches Long To Its Mark”, according to Paul, as opposed to just meaning, you know, a longbow. His most memorable moment is when he invites his paleface friends to an “authentic Indian meal”, which involves them all sitting at a picnic table and watching TV while they eat. When asked what is in his stew, he sighs a hearty sigh and wearily recites the ingredients from memory. Despite the fact that he may as well be reading a can of Dinty More, he assures them that “It’s an old recipe around here.”

This was scriptwriter Charles Sinclair’s final writing gig, but he had previously worked on the film noir CHASE A CROOKED SHADOW (1958). His co-writer on this film was Bill Finger, who helped create the Batman character with comic book legend Bob Kane. This wasn’t the only time that Sinclair and Finger worked together: they also wrote three episodes of 77 SUNSET STRIP (1961), the sci-fi film THE GREEN SLIME (1968), and yes, two back-to-back episodes of TV’s BATMAN (1966). They were old friends, and once even roommates, and it was Sinclair who found Finger in his apartment after he died of heart failure. For more about this dynamic duo, I recommend that you check out the blog of Marc Tyler Nobleman, author of the book Bill the Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator of Batman.

Director Richard Ashe had previously held assistant director duties on DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE (1970), A PLACE CALLED TODAY (1972), and GIRLS ARE FOR LOVING (1973). TRACK OF THE MOON BEAST was his first, and only, credit as primary director.

Most of our main cast had few, if any, additional credits to their name, but Patrick Wright, who played Police Captain “Mac” McCabe, worked steadily for nearly 30 years. His filmography reveals an expansive (and frankly impressive) career in cult cinema, as he took on roles of various sizes. Just a random sampling of his credits: CAGED HEAT (1974), CANNONBALL (1976), BARE KNUCKLES (1977), BENEATH THE VALLEY OF THE ULTRA-VIXENS (1979), GRADUATION DAY (1981), and MANIAC COP (1988).

It would be easy to dismiss the rest of the cast because of their lack of credits, but if researching these films has taught me anything, it’s that the interesting stories rarely begin and end with the films themselves. While it’s true that I have been unsuccessful in finding much of any information about Chase Cordell or Gregorio Sala, turning over every rock on the internet typically uncovers a few interesting tidbits.

For instance, Leigh Drake was married to actor Timothy Scott, who appeared in nearly 100 roles during his lifetime, beginning with Russ Meyer’s sleazy biker flick MOTORPSYCHO (1965). He played Messy James in two episodes of the BATMAN series—though not the two episodes from Sinclair and Finger. He worked on a number of Westerns, including THE BIG VALLEY, BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969), LONESOME DOVE (1989), and RETURN TO LONESOME DOVE (1993), earning him a 1994 induction into the Cowboy Hall of Fame. He passed away from complications related to lung cancer in 1995, at the age of 57. Since appearing in this film, the actress has reinvented herself as Donna Leigh Scott, and works as a court reporter as well as a singer. She belongs to the musical duo Sugar Magnolia and the group Circuit Riders, and is a member of the Academy of Country Music and the Western Music Association. She admits that the film is “absolutely awful”, but tells me that it earned her enough money to buy a house, so that has to count for something. She says that the film was edited differently from the way that it was originally scripted, and that’s part of the reason that it doesn’t always make the most sense. She is friends with actor Robert Redford, and says that he “teases me mercilessly about it”, but she is just happy that there are people out there who get some degree of enjoyment from it.

Detail of the lizard man from 1976's Track of the Moon Beast

The man inside the Moon Beast suit was Joe Blasco, in his only “starring” role. He was otherwise involved in makeup both standard and special effects. He worked on THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW (1968-1969), ILSA: SHE WOLF OF THE S.S. (1975), RABID (1977), and yes, even this film. Working alongside Joe Blasco on the makeup effects here was a young Rick Baker very early on in his career (TRACK OF THE MOON BEAST was shot in 1972, the year that he got his start, but not released until 1976). Baker of course went on to much bigger and better projects, including IT’S ALIVE (1974), AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981), VIDEODROME (1983), and more than 60 others.

The more human aspects of the makeup department, along with hairstyling, was handled by Tallie Cochrane. I don’t typically pay much attention to hair and makeup credits, but this one stands out. Not only was Tallie Cochrane the wife of actor Patrick Wright, but she was an actress herself. She appeared in a number of adult and exploitation films throughout the 1970s and 1980s, sometimes alongside her husband. The lovebirds can be seen together in THE CHEERLEADERS (1973), GIRLS FOR RENT (1974), THE CANDY TANGERINE MAN (1975), TANYA (1976), and a bevy of others.

But perhaps the most important credit here is that of Frank Larrabee, the folksy singer-songwriter who inexplicably had the opportunity to perform his song “California Lady” almost in its entirety during one scene in the film. He currently lives in New Mexico, where he breeds Appaloosa horses with his wife Melanie, and owns a construction company. He’s very active in his town, has been responsible for organizing a number of public concerts, has raised so much money for the public library that a wing was named after him, and reportedly is not very open to talking about the film, which I suppose is somewhat understandable.

He’s a pillar of the community, after all. He has an A-list reputation to protect from these B-grade horrors.


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