The “Nothing But a Camera and Costume” Genre
You would need a pretty big dumpster to accommodate all the films that have been made with nothing but a camera and a costume. Films like Attack of the The Eye Creatures made by Larry Buchanan in 1965 for $25,000. No, that’s not my typo in the title that is how the title appeared on the screen. I suppose for $25,000 dollars a proofreader was out of their price range. The film is almost unwatchable but the best part is the costumes.
The filmmakers were only able to afford two or three costumes but wanted an invading mob of eye covered aliens. They decided to divide the few costumes they had amongst several actors giving one actor the top half and another the bottom half and another the gloves then used a lot of bushes to cover up the missing bits. The bushes were not very effective and sporadically revealed glimpses of jeans and sneakers, but the film illustrates the true heart of the “nothing but a camera and a costume” genre.
Octaman was filmed on location in Mexico by Harry Essex in 1971 for $250,000 dollars. Even with an adjustment for inflation it is hard to see a $225,000 dollar difference between Octaman and Attack of the The Eye Creatures. Both provide a treasure trove of cautionary tales for aspiring film makers, and especially editors. Its as if these films were edited with a blunt knife and some Elmers glue. They weren’t so much edited as they were cobbled.
The first “a” in Octaman really bothers me. The prefix is “octo” as in eight, you can’t just change it to “octa.” It doesn’t make any sense. I had a suspicion which was confirmed by a little research. Harry Essex is from New York City. Wikipedia didn’t specify which burrow but I’m guessing Brooklyn, as in “Yo! Octaman, octa dis!”
Octaman has a sister movie that came out the same year. For 75,000 dollars Don Barton made Zaat. Both Octaman and Zaat use the radioactive mutant trope to explain the existence of their costumed monsters but Octaman manages a plot, formulaic as it may be, whereas Zaat is a mess. Actually in many ways Zaat is the most entertaining of the three films mentioned so far. Its failures are more pronounced and as a result the whole the films is wildly unpredictable. You wouldn’t have guessed that the monster would have a giant, badly drawn chore chart scrawled on his wall or that the movie would have a break for a couple of hippies to sing a folk song on the guitar and flute.
Three years prior to Octaman and Zaat there was yet another fish-human hybrid monster movie. Apparently it was a rich vein. In 1968 René Cardona directed a Mexican luchador movie called The Batwoman. This film can’t truly qualify as a member of the “nothing but a costume and a camera genre.” Its not that it is of better quality but it has many more elements to offer the viewer. You have the shameless appropriation of Batman, the wrestling scenes, the very, very long wrestling scenes, and besides the monster costume there is another costume that upstages the fishvillian’s. Batwoman’s costume or lack thereof reveals some of the most outrageous curves ever to grace the silver screen. Her anatomical proportions make it difficult to pay attention to anything else.
Predating all of these masterpieces were films like Robot Monster (1953) and Invasion of The Saucer Men (1957). I can’t include Creature From The Black Lagoon, its too good. On the other hand Robot Monster is not only a prime example of the “nothing but a camera and a costume” genre but the costume is one of the most memorable of the group. The makers of Robot Monster were working on a $16,000 dollar budget so the terrifying monster from outer space was a gorilla suite with a space helmet. Actually buying a gorilla suit was not in the budget so they made it from scratch. If you are going to go through the trouble of making a costume from scratch why make it look like you combined two badly made store-bought Halloween costumes?
It is important to include an addendum to this newly coined genre. There is a subgenera I would entitle “Nothing but a camera and some shit I found in the garage.” This special label belongs to one film in particular, The Creeping Terror. This very special film was made in 1964 and directed by Vic Savage. The monster seems to be an actor under an old rug with some stuff glued to it. Apparently the original costume was stolen by the costume designer when he found out he wasn’t getting paid. In the two film stills below you will find it impossible to make out what you are looking at but both shots are of the “terrifying” monster.
However what truly makes this film shine is the sound. For reasons not fully known the original sound was not used and a professional voice over artist was hired to narrate the entire film, including all the dialogue. So when, for example, we have the hysterical teenager talking to the local policeman, instead of hearing the two characters talking we hear the narrator explaining what they are saying while we watch the scene. It is a unique experience.
Overall the “nothing but a camera and a costume” genre is mostly comprised of films motivated more by profit than by expression. The directors and producers are more capitalists than auteurs, but often in their abject failure these films provide some very fine entertainment, or a at least an excuse to lie on the couch and avoid doing the dishes for another hour and half.