"Word of advice to any future directors out there: never put a word like “hideous” in your title. It’s just too tempting for movie reviewers to use it against you." - Kelly Parks, feoamante.com
Showing up to work drunk, again, Dr. Gilbert McKenna accidentally exposes himself to a massive dose of spaaaace radiation. But instead of getting super powers like that oh-so-cool Human Torch guy, Gil instead develops a strange skin condition. If caught in the direct sunlight Gil "devolves" (yeah, I know, we'll get to it) into a grotesque reptilian creature, a fact he first learns by scaring little old ladies in the park. While his medical colleagues (and for some inexplicable reason, his girlfriend Ann) work on a cure, Gil locks himself away, venturing out only at night to get drunk (again), curse his fate, and hang out with Trudy the town floozy. Unable to completely avoid the sunlight, Gil has a few of his "episodes", getting successively more violent with each one. In quick order he goes from crushing rats to mauling the floozy's regular Saturday night boyfriend to gleefully running over cops in his car. It all leads to a final showdown atop a water tower.
Hollywood has given us a long and distinguished line of sympathetic creatures, from the misunderstood Frankenstein's Monster to the tortured Wolfman to the heartsick King Kong. They may scare us, but something about them tugs at the heartstrings, eliciting our empathy even as we gasp in terror. Not so with the Hideous Sun Demon. Whether as man or monster, he's just an a-hole.
Producer-director-writer-lead actor Bob Clarke claimed that his intention was to update Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for the atomic age, with Gil as the beleaguered scientist struggling to contain the monster within himself. Maybe so. But the idea might have worked better if the protagonist wasn't a self-absorbed alcoholic womanizer who recklessly endangers everyone in the area by playing around with fissionable material while under the influence. By the time Gil is curled up in a fetus position crying out, "No one can help me, what I've got is DIFFERENT! Why me? Why me? WHY ME!!", all you can think is, "Because you deserve it you insufferable jerk."
But other than that, The Hideous Sun Demon is just good old B-Movie fun. How can you not like a movie where they could only afford the top half of a rubber monster suit? (The Sun Demon wears khakis throughout the film.) Or how about when Gil first sees Trudy in a seedy bar faking her way through playing the piano, her hands flailing about like she's tenderizing meat? (Nan Peterson, who played Trudy and whose next role would be the lead in Louisiana Hussy, was probably not hired for her musical talents.) And how cool is it that, rather than ponderously lumbering through the woods like some idiot slasher, the Sun Demon just gets in a car and drives wherever he wants to go? How many other B-Movie mutants rack up a body count by hit and run?
Now I know you're probably thinking the incident in which Gil runs over the cop could be considered an accident because, after all, reptiles aren't considered very good drivers. And, unlike most lizards, Gil's eyes are on the front of his face, so his peripheral vision isn't that great to begin with. But that's no excuse. I watched the movie and he ran over that guy on purpose, no matter what scientific theories you toss my way. Actually, that's another thing which adds to the movie's absurdity. The Hideous Sun Demon is one of those productions that proudly wears its bad B-Movie science on its sleeve for all to see. After Gil's initial transformation, the movie grinds to a halt for almost five minutes as the lead scientist gives a lecture IN DETAIL on why all of this is actually possible. You see, it's based on Ernst Haeckel's Biogenetic Law, first proposed in 1866, which claims that an embryo fully repeats the evolutionary process of its species before it's born. In other words, a human being starts out as a single cell organism, then becomes a fish, then a reptile, and finally a mammal. So you see, all Gil did was reverse this process and "devolve" himself back into a reptilian state, just like he was back in the womb again. (Well, except for being 5' 10" and dressed in khakis.) It all seems to make perfect scientific sense.
Except, of course, that it's all crap. You see, poor old Haeckel verified his theory through the visual inspection of dead fetuses and without the benefit of our modern lenses. These days, with the ability to actually take a microscopic peek inside a living pregnant woman, biologists have learned that some of Haekel's "proofs" (i.e. fetal gill slits) aren't what he thought they were. (I guess, even in science, looks can be deceiving.) Plus there's the fact that evolutionary theory isn't really about a neat linear process anyway; it's about entire species haphazardly adapting traits over a long period of time. If you think about it, the idea that human women carry inhuman eggs which undergo a series of transmutations of species and end up being human beings EVERY SINGLE TIME really pushes the envelope of credibility just a little too far. Let's face it, we start out as tiny single-celled humans and we end up as crotchety old humans. So even if it was somehow possible to miraculously reverse the developmental process, no human (not even an atheist) could ever "devolve" into another species.
But who really cares? After all, this is just a movie with a guy in a rubber monster suit. (Not that there's anything wrong with that!) So as long as it's entertaining, most movie fans will be pretty forgiving when it comes to bad science. (Insert obligatory Star Wars comment here.) Of course, in real life it's different. In real life it's better if we try and get the science right. Both the Catholic Church and Galileo Galilei learned this the hard way when they butted heads over Galileo's theories about heliocentricity in the early 1600s. Everybody knows the story right? The Indigo Girls even released a song referencing it back in 1992. You know the words, "Galileo’s head was on the block, the crime was looking up the truth.” Emily Saliers wrote the song, but her singing partner Amy Ray had a degree in religion, so to believe they got the story right would seem to make perfect sense.
Except, of course, that it's all crap. As far back as Aristotle there were already scientists, including a number of Jesuits, who were speculating on the theory that the Earth revolved around the Sun. They were just hesitant to embrace it, however, because the theory contradicted the literal interpretations of certain Bible verses and, more importantly, couldn’t be proved as fact given the technology of Galileo’s time. (Even some of Galileo's own "evidence" was wrong. Scientists didn't authoritatively prove the theory correct for another 100 years or so.) Until it could be irrefutably proven, The Church had given permission to teach heliocentricity only as a theory, not as fact, and certainly not as reason to reinterpret scripture. Galileo, thanks mostly to a misunderstanding on his part, ended up doing both and getting in trouble with a Church tribunal. For his disobedience, he ultimately received a strict form of house arrest. So his crime wasn't looking up the truth and his head was never on the block. (Don't worry, you can't still sip your cappuccino to the dulcet tones of earthy folk rockers, just don't phone them up for your history lessons.)
Still, the Church tribunal did goof. As Pope John Paul II put it, "The new science, with its methods and the freedom of research which they implied, obliged theologians to examine their own criteria of scriptural interpretation. Most of them did not know how to do so. Paradoxically, Galileo, a sincere believer, showed himself to be more perceptive in this regard than the theologians who opposed him. "If Scripture cannot err", he wrote to Benedetto Castelli, "certain of its interpreters and commentators can and do so in many ways". "The irony of the affair" wrote Crisis editor George Sim Johnston, "is that Galileo's argument that Scripture makes use of figurative language and is meant to teach "how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go" was eventually taught by two great papal encyclicals, Leo XIII's Providentissumus Deus (1893) and Pius XII's Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943)." So it would seem that we've finally reached a point where we understand that religion does its thing and science does it thing and never the twain shall meet. That makes perfect sense right?
Nah, that's crap too. If we truly believe that the Church is infallible in her objective definitive teaching regarding faith and morals, then the Church is under an obligation to have some things to say about science. "Science and technology are ordered to man, from whom they take their origin and development" states the Catechism, "hence they find in the person and in his moral values both evidence of their purpose and awareness of their limits. It is an illusion to claim moral neutrality in scientific research and its applications." Science is still just a human act, and no human act is so methodical and controlled that it can't benefit from a little wisdom and guidance. Left on their own, scientists, like everyone else, can get offtrack and ultimately do something negligent or harmful. Like show up to work on a nuclear reactor drunk. Again.
A lot of people don't know that the Catholic Church still employs its own team of scientists comprised of both lay people and ordained priests. The Vatican itself houses one of the premier observatories in the world. The 80-member Pontifical Academy of Sciences (now over 400 years old) meets every two years to offer their findings and advice to the Church. The Academy includes many Nobel Prize Winners, including Stephen Hawkins, who offer council on issues such as the implications of genetics and environmental concerns. In 1996 the Academy was extremely influential in advising the Pope when he attempted to reconcile the theory of evolution with the biblical story of Creation.