Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, October 13, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 12

The War of the Gargantuas (1966)
Furankenshutain no kaijû: Sanda tai Gaira

“The War of the Gargantuas” is a widely loved monster movie. It has been cited as an influence on everyone from Guillermo del Toro to Brad Pitt. Where many of Toho’s other kaiju films have been filed as “just another Japanese monster movie,” this one struck a chord with a lot of people. The Japanese version is a loose sequel to “Frankenstein Conquers the World” while the American dub removed any references to the earlier film. Let’s see if we can figure out why this one is so beloved by so many people.

The opening scene features a giant octopus attacking a boat. The octopus is then pulled off by a huge, humanoid creature. A different man-like beast then attacks and eats the fleeing sailors. The media is driven into a frenzy as the same monster, a green-skinned beast named Gaira, attacks the city and eats several more people. A pair of scientists, who apparently helped raised the Frankenstein from the previous film, can’t believe that this violent new creature is connected to the docile Frankenstein. Turns out Gaira is the genetic off-spring of Sanda, a peaceful Frankenstein-like creature. The two monster brothers try to co-exist at first but soon the war of the gargantuas begin.

It wasn’t hard for the American distributors of “War of the Gargantuas” to remove any references to “Frankenstein Conquers the World.” The films are loosely connected at best. In “Frankenstein Conquers the World,” Dr. Bowen and Dr. Togami watched over a human-like Frankenstein Monster. The protagonists of this film are Dr. Stewert and his assistant Akemi. Bowen and Stewert are both played by American actors on loan to Toho, Nick Adams in the former and Russ Tamblyn in the latter. Both Togami and Akemi are played by Kumi Mizuno. However, the characters seemingly aren’t the same. Bowen and Togami were involved romantically. Stewert and Akemi’s relationship is more platonic. Furthermore, in a flashback, we see the doctors with a little Frankenstein. But this one is covered with brown hair, more ape-like then human. Though it’s not impossible to fan wank an explicit connection between the two, the only real uniting factor between he films is the use of the term Frankenstein. Even that is dropped by the end of the film, after the two monsters are named.

Part of the film’s reputation is owed to it being one of the more visceral kaiju films. Being human shaped, the Gargantua suits were less cumbersome then your usual kaiju get-ups. Thus the actors, Godzilla veteran Haruo Nakajima as Gaira and Yu Sekida as Sanda, are allowed a wider range of movement. Nakajima’s performance is practically acrobatic, Gaira leaping through the air, thrashing about in the water, and tossing tanks. Gaira is an especially memorable monster villain. He literally eats people, grabbing a woman out of a building, swallowing her whole, and spitting out the clothes. There’s something haunting about a shot where he’s seen under the waves, ghoulishly smiling, awaiting his prey. By making the monster explicitly cannibalistic, it makes Gaira a far more frightening threat. He also wreaks plenty of collateral damage, decimating a whole army of tanks, missile launchers, and helicopters. Sanda, meanwhile, more closely resembles the Frankenstein Monster seen last time. He’s gentle, observational, and shares a bound with a human female, rescuing her from falling to her death.

The relationship between the gargantua brothers provides the backbone for the movie. Despite Gaira being a vicious killer, Sanda still comes to his rescue when the military has the monster pinned down. He actually nurses the other monster back to health. Seeing the green gargantua relaxing against a rock would almost be comical if the movie wasn’t so earnest. Weirdly, it’s never explained why Sanda turns on his brother, battering him with a tree. Apparently, somehow, the good gargantua became aware of his brother’s homicidal tendency. The battle between the two in Tokyo is easily the high-light of the movie. The giants stumble into buildings and push each other around. The final duel, on the docks of Tokyo, has the two monsters performing high-flying battle slams and flips on another. As the battle wades into the sea, the gargantuas continue to thrash at each other. A volcano suddenly explodes out of the sea, claiming them both. As in “Frankenstein Conquers the World,” the Earth itself reclaims the monsters.

Gaira is partially nocturnal so most of his attack scenes take place in the dark, leading to some moody direction. The monsters contrast nicely against the purple skies. The last fight in Tokyo is filmed by huge spot-lights, adding to the spooky tone. Akira Ifukube’s music is effective and the composer would reuse some of its melodies for his later “Destroy All Monsters” score. The acting is not as captivating as that in “Frankenstein vs. Baragon.” Russ Tamblyn doesn’t have the rock star charisma of Nick Adams. Where Adams was slick and cool, Tamblyn is more detached and scientific. He doesn’t have anywhere the same chemistry with Mizuno, who doesn't have much chance to bring her vast skill to a less well defined part.

“War of the Gargantuas” has got some of the coolest monster fights in the Toho library and creatures with a really interesting dynamic. I don’t consider it a favorite and actually prefer “Frankenstein Conquers the World.” But there’s no denying that the movie is a fun one and a blast to watch. [7/10]

Ghoulies II (1988)

“Ghoulies” was a big video hit for Empire Pictures, mostly thanks to the advertising centered around a ghoulie peeking its head out of a toilet and the pithy tagline “They’ll get you in the end!” Despite that poster selling a lot of tapes, that scene is only briefly seen in the movie. The Ghoulies were just one of a number of monstrous things in the first film and hardly the focus. Never let it be said that Charles Band doesn’t know what his people want. “Ghoulies II” would be all about the little monsters, this time wrecking havoc in an old carnival. This, not coincidentally, made the series resemble “Gremlins” even more then it previously did.

The film dismisses the Satanic cult business of the first movie in its opening minutes. A priest, carrying a squirming brown bag, flees from a group of hooded cultists. The demonic creatures quickly disposed of the priest, with the help of a barrel of toxic waste. Fate has it that a truck, hulling the fun house for a traveling carnival, just happened to stop by the same location. Attracted to the monstrous faces painted on the side of the trailer, the ghoulies hitch a ride. Once at the carnival, they begin to cause trouble, make mischief, and take lives.

Since the Ghoulies are the stars this time around, a lot more attention is paid to them. The green, cat, and rat ghoulies all return, gaining more advanced designs, while the briefly glimpsed flying ghoulie graduates to featured player. A squat, pudgy lizard ghoulie joins the pack. The puppets are less slimy and more stream-lined, leading to better looking monsters. A few times, they’re even brought to life through stop-motion animation. They have a lot more personality, giggling, chattering, and sticking their heads in unexpected places. The monsters get in a lot more trouble. They gnaw on people, spray a kissing couple with green slime, slice a girl with a straight razor, and wrap a fellow up like a mummy. Fulfilling the promise of the original poster, this movie actually features a ghoulie biting someone’s ass as they sit down on the toilet. “Ghoulies II” is such a straight-up monster movies that it even ends with the heroes (accidentally) summoning a man-sized ghoulie that then eats all of the smaller ones.

The movie also makes good use of its carnival setting. The ghoulies remain in the fun house for most of the film. This leads to some entertaining moments, like innocent by-passers getting strapped into the fun house’s deadly devices. In the last act, the monster are let loose on a busy fairgrounds. They mess with the target game, fool around with the boxing glove game, run someone over with a bumper car, eat a clown dunked in a tank, and, my favorite, take apart a Ferris wheel just as it spins around, tossing the passengers to their death. The carnival setting, with its lovely dancing girls and decked-out freak show, adds a lot of color and fun to “Ghoulies II.”

If there’s any area where the sequel doesn’t live up to the original, it’s in the characters. The bafflingly weird characters of part one are traded out for much more normal horror heroes. Larry and his old, drunk Uncle Ned are trying to save the carnival from the mean businessman who seeks to buy it and fire everyone. Larry’s love interest, Nicole, gets a tedious, standard story arc of being afraid of heights which she, naturally, conquers before the end credits roll. The teenage victims are utterly generic, save for the one guy weirdly obsessed with his boom box. About the only character I like at all is Nigel, a classically trained actor who works in the silly carnival fun house to make end’s meet. Short actor Phil Fondacaro is given some stiff dialogue but he’s a likable presence and makes the character memorable.

Though it lacks the raw weirdness of the original, “Ghoulies II” is a far more focused and satisfying film. It delivers on the monster action the first only promised and gives the demonic beasties plenty of fun stuff to do. It’s fairly forgettable but, for non-discriminating horror nerds, is a good way to kill 89-minutes. [6/10]

Tales from the Crypt: The New Arrival

In “The New Arrival,” Dr. Goetz, a talk-radio child psychologist is faced with cancellations after his ratings start to sag. Enraged that he might loose his time slot to an obnoxious shock jock, he cooks up a scheme in hopes of gaining attention to the show. Along with his producer and the station manager, he visits the home of a regular caller with an abnormally difficult child. Arriving at the spooky mansion, the doctor begins to wonder if the mother is as deranged as the kid.

I’ve never much cared for “The New Arrival” and was surprised to see that it’s well regarded. It has two primary problems, in my eyes. The main character is an insufferable prick and I mean more-so then usual. We may watch “Tales” to see bad people get their comeuppance but usually there’s something sympathetic about them or, at the very least, they’re entertaining to watch. Dr. Goetz is smug, confrontational, short-tempered, and belittles everyone around him. His entire work philosophy is based around ignoring a child’s needs and being a selfish asshole. The plot also doesn’t make a lot of sense. Most of the episode points towards Felicity, the problem child at the plot’s center, being an imaginary creation of the demented old woman. Turns out, Felicity is actually an undead ghoul. How this happened isn’t expounded on and it makes for an especially nonsensical twist ending. Maybe people like “The New Arrival” for its cast. The episode is front-loaded with cult icons like David Warner, Zelda Rubinstein, Twiggy, and Robert Patrick. Or maybe it’s Peter Medak’s atmospheric direction. The mansion is certainly a spooky location and Medak shoots in it in an off-putting way. This is fitting since “The New Arrival” is one of the more off-putting tales. [5/10]

So Weird: Roswell

That “So Weird” would do an episode about the flying saucer that supposedly crashed in Roswell, New Mexico is not surprising. That it would come at the topic from an angle different then the usual conspiracy route, however, is quite refreshing. While riding through New Mexico, the Philips bus picks up what appears to be a mentally disabled adult man named Andrew. Andrew talks about hearing voices and carries a strange piece of metal around with him everywhere. After taking the man back to his sister, Fiona figures out that Andrew is the son of one of the military officers who handled the wreckage found in Roswell fifty years before.

“Roswell” just avoids being overly sappy. Too often, the media portrays people with mental disabilities as magical imps, attuned to a more honest world-view. Andrew is almost literally magical, as he has a connection to extraterrestrials. However, he is still portrayed as someone whose life is more complicated then charmed by his condition. The moment where he recalls what happened with the wreckage when he was a boy is the emotional climax of the episode and quite effective. These moments are shown in moody black-and-white. “So Weird” also takes the reports of the Roswell Incident at first value, which I guess shouldn’t surprise me. Even Molly is a believer. I wish the episode had made a little more time for Jack’s skepticism. The ending suggests that all this business with the aliens is building towards something, one of the many developing arcs destined to be cut short by season three. I like that “Roswell” goes to a more emotional place with its premise and, like “So Weird” usually does, pulls it off in an earnest, heart-felt fashion. [7/10]


whitsbrain said...

I wrote these notes down about three years ago, which was the first time I saw this. Again, it's interesting that I had many of the same observations. The parts you mention in your review must have been the high points of the movie.

This is a very odd giant monster movie about a hairy, ugly, ape-like beast that escapes from a research lab. Somehow, the beast has an evil twin. One of the monsters is green, the other one brown. One evil, one good. And we are reminded of that endlessly throughout the movie.

These two gargantua are the equivalent of brothers that are always beating each other up. I thought the monster fights were interesting in that they occurred with greater speed than the typical, lumbering giant monster approach in every other film of the time. The Gargantuas suits were very flexible, almost form-fitting compared to the usual. It gave the stuntmen the opportunity to accomplish some pretty impressive wrestling moves and to run at a decent clip. The miniature effects were also very impressive.

There are a couple of memorable moments including a neat shot of a gargantua underwater, glaring up at its future victim. There is also one of the worst songs and accompanying performances I have ever seen in a movie. Kipp Hamilton sings a pop song on the deck of a ship. The song is called "The Words Get Stuck in My Throat" or something crazy like that. And if that isn't bad enough, Hamilton's voice is absolutely awful.

whitsbrain said...

Oh yeah...5/10