Saturday, April 4, 2015

Forgotten Films: The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra


By Steven Rosen
(2004; previously published)

LOS ANGELES – When people saw the weird and hilarious trailer for “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra,” they assumed it was a joke. There was no such movie, they thought – which could have been one reason this strange movie did so poorly in theaters earlier this year.

After all, how can clips from what looks like a forgotten low-low-budget black-and-white sci-fi movie from the early 1950s be promoting an alleged new movie? And one “from the company that brought you ‘Lawrence of Arabia?’” This has got to be a put-on, right?

Now that “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra” is being released on DVD on June 22 in a special edition, people will see it is a joke. The movie is a loving spoof of clumsy but inadvertently inspired sci-fi movies of the 1950s like “Robot Monster” and Ed Wood’s “Plan Nine From Outer Space.” The kind of movies kids used to spend Sunday afternoons seeing at neighborhood-theater triple-bills.

The plot, according to the production notes, features “foil-covered aliens, space toys and a Fay Wray-esque heroine who actually feels for the misunderstood mutant.” And that’s just the start – there’s also an evil skeleton and a woman who is actually a human incarnation of several wild animals. (And she eats dinner like a wild animal.)

The trailer takes the overall spoof one step beyond. Michael Schlesinger, a Dayton native who as vice president of repertory sales for Sony Pictures discovered the independently made film, is responsible for that. And he’s proud of it.

He licensed music from 1940s-era Universal Pictures horror movies to give the trailer a sense of nostalgic gravity. And he wrote a self-consciously portentous voice-over script that promises “a cast of thousands” and “cost of millions’’ even as the trailer itself pictures four actors in a plywood space ship.

The trailer also says the film was shot in the non-existent camera process known as Skeletorama. And, since Sony is releasing the film under its Tristar banner, Schlesinger felt free to promote “Skeleton” as coming from the same company that brought audiences “Lawrence of Arabia.” (That was from Columbia Pictures, now part of Sony.)

The result? “Some people aren’t sure from the trailer if the movie is real,” Schlesinger said. “I went to see ‘Triplets of Belleville,’ and four people in front of me were watching the trailer and a woman asked that.”

He helpfully leaned over and told her “Skeleton” was indeed a real movie. “I told her the rights to Skeletorama alone cost a fortune,” he said, laughing.

But others get the goof and consider it a riotous exception in a field – movie trailers – that usually seeks to portray its product as a virtual shoo-in for Oscars. Even if the film is a dead-on-arrival stinker.

“Matt Groening said the trailer was the funniest thing he had ever seen, which is now officially the best compliment I’ve ever had,” Schlesinger said.

Schlesinger, a 53-year-old film buff, is the chief studio backer of “Lost Skeleton.” The movie was made independently by writer/director/star Larry Blamire, producer F. Miguel Valenti and a game if small cast in various Los Angeles locations. Schlesinger saw it at a Thursday-night independent-film screening at Hollywood’s American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theater, where he is a board member. “I get in free,” he said.

He found the movie amusing. “One thing I like is that it’s good-natured, not mean-spirited in the way so many spoofs are these days,” Schlesinger said. He also liked the way the premise is played straight-faced, like a Christopher Guest movie.

The crowd at that screening also loved the film, and the discussion that followed was enthusiastic. And when Schlesinger learned during the question-and-answer period that “Skeleton” had been made for about $100,000, he really flipped.

“That’s when I said to myself, I’ve got to have this movie,” he said. “It’s guaranteed to be a cult classic, and maybe it could be something more. And since it only cost $100,000, how could it lose? I went to Sony, and they said, ‘Sure,’ but I’d have to do all the work on it myself.”

Schlesinger was ready. He had moved to Los Angeles in 1981, having previously booked in the mid-1970s an experimental Cincinnati repertory-cinema program while working in Dayton for the theater’s owner. That earned him a job with a Cincinnati film-booking agency – eventually he became a part-owned of The Movies art houses in Cincinnati and Dayton. Since arriving here, he has handled theatrical bookings of classic films for several studios. (For the past 10 years, he has been at Sony Pictures.)

He was involved in the 50th anniversary re-release of Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” and the subsequent green-lighting of “It’s All True,” a documentary about Welles’ aborted film project in Brazil.

That documentary filled in a crucial missing episode in film history. Welles was in Brazil, working on a never-finished project also called “It’s All True,” when his studio butchered his follow-up to “Citizen Kane,” “The Magnificent Ambersons.” Many say Welles never regained his standing in Hollywood, or his confidence in his work, after that experience.

“Lost Skeleton” is hardly Wellesian in its ambitions or accomplishments. But it is a lot of fun – and Schlesinger is having a lot of fun trying to market it. “So far, everybody who sees it seems to love it,” he said.

And he’s talking about the film, not just his trailer.

(Steven Rosen’s E-mail address is

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