"The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra" is a terrifyingly cheap-looking B-movie comedy mocking terrifyingly cheap-looking science-fiction B-movies. As such things go, this one has its moments.
Written and directed by Larry Blamire, "Lost Skeleton" dreams up a meteor that's crashed to earth in 1961 somewhere in a remote forest. (The location looks suspiciously like -- and is -- Bronson Canyon in Los Angeles, where many classic sci-fi flicks were shot.) Serious-minded Dr. Paul Armstrong (Blamire) arrives with his comically supportive wife Betty (Fay Masterson) to find it. The meteor contains an element called "atmosphereum," which apparently is such a crucial intergalactic find that the shipwrecked space aliens Krobar and Lattis (Andrew Parks and Susan McConnell, respectively) need it to power their busted spaceship back to planet Marva.
Elsewhere, Dr. Roger Fleming (Brian Howe), another, more diabolical scientist in the same woods, discovers the titular lost skeleton in a cave. The sack of bones is eager to resume its quest for world domination but can't do a thing until it gets its hands on some atmosphereum. There's also some business with the Marvans' pet monster (Darrin Reed) run murderously amok and Dr. Fleming's nutty idea to use the aliens' "transmutatron" to turn a bunch of forest critters into Animala (Jennifer Blaire), who's just a pretty woman in a cat get-up.
The daffiness can be downright infectious -- every day on this set must have been Halloween. Most of the fun comes in the clever first half, which showcases Blamire's skill at wringing the dialogue of old creature features for laughs. "It's like you're doing too much science," complains one character.
Unfortunately, Blamire has put a complex story on a frail chassis -- it could hold any one of its subplots, but not all of them, and certainly not for an hour and a half. Its refusal to shift to a higher gear or simply end sinks the otherwise spot-on spoofing. And while the film gets by on its inoffensive glibness, it's weighed down by the very elements that make even the kitschiest B-movie classics seem draggy.
You root for Blamire to take the film's stunted budget over the top (or further beneath it, as the circumstance seem to call for) and flaunt the strings flying the spaceships and jerking the skeleton, but this doesn't quite pan out. You want the movie to have more fun with its tinfoil and stop pretending it's steel.
Wesley Morris can be reached at email@example.com.
("The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra": **1/2)