Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 15

The X from Outer Space (1967)
Uchû daikaijû Girara

In 1967, the Kaiju Boom reached its zenith. The year would see every major studio in Japan release a giant monster movie. Obviously envious of the success Toho and Daiei had with their kaiju flicks, Japan’s other major studios, Shochiku and Nikkatsu, would get into the game, feeding the public’s unending hunger for rubber monsters wrecking cities. A crass genre picture like ‘The X from Outer Space” was uncharacteristic of Shochiku’s output, as the studio was better known for the neo-realist dramas of Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. This might be why “The X from Outer Space,” known in Japan as “Space Monster Guilala,” manages to be kookier then any other movie in a genre noted for its kookiness.

Seemingly set in the near future, “The X from Outer Space” concerns a manned mission to Mars, with a stop-over to a moon base. Before the crew can reach Mars, the ship is menaced by a glowing UFO and bombarded with small asteroids. The hull damaged, the ship returns to Earth, a bizarre fungal spore growing on the outside of the interstellar vehicle. From this spore grows a giant monster called Guilala. Guilala stomps through Japan, seeking power plants to drain their energy, before reaching, naturally, Tokyo. Once again, a brave squad of scientists and soldiers must figure out a way to stop this monster before it’s too late.

“The X from Outer Space” is a science fiction movie so silly, it almost plays like a parody of silly science fiction movies. The space ship and space suits are all straight out of a fifties B-flick. The residents of the moon base wear form-fitting unitard things with giant shoulder pads and multicolored straps going down the chest. The moon base includes giant apples for launch, a wooden Japanese style bath, and shared showers for the women. The water on the moon is actually synthetic water, as one of the astronauts notes, whatever the hell that means. After a relaxing bath, dinner, and dance session, the astronauts go for a walk on the moon, bouncing merrily across the surface. The space travel is patently ridiculous, with character sipping coffee out of plastic cups while in loose, silver suits. One moment that is intentionally humorous, I think, is when an astronaut is sucked out the hole in the hull butt-first. It doesn’t get him down that much.

As silly as much of the sci-fi is, nothing is sillier in this movie then its monster. Guilala is, without question, the goofiest looking daikaiju ever put to film, goofier then even Daigoro. Guilala can best be described as a giant, mutating chicken-fungus from beyond Mars. Its body is seemingly reptilian, with the three-toed feet and dragging tail you’d associate with Godzilla. Despite this, Guilala is outfitted with some very un-reptillian features. Raised, wavy lines grow up and down the creature’s arms and legs. Guilala’s head looks like a stereotypical flying saucer was plopped down on top of your usual giant dinosaur. The beak is like a chicken but the rest of the head is metallic, with wings extending out of the sides. My favorite part are the goofy, bopping antenna extending from the top of his head, along with the bizarre, telephone-shaped horn. Oh yeah, and after consuming enough energy, Guilala can turn into a giant, fiery balloon. It says a lot that the most normal thing about Guilala is that he shoots fireballs out of his mouth. His baffling design has made Guilala the ugly puppy of kaiju fandom, beloved strictly because he’s so damn stupid looking.

Despite the ridiculous central monster, “The X from Outer Space” actually features some entertaining scenes of city destruction. Guilala smashes through buildings, tanks and jets (ineffectively) pelting him with missiles and fire. There’s a great moment when Guilala grabs a jet out of the sky. The movie even justifies the creature’s ability to toss objects hella’ far. Guilala is surrounded by some sort of magnetic field. Go figure. My favorite bits have him tossing a boat out of Tokyo Bay and into some smoke stacks. Later, Guilala throws a telephone pole into a rocket, both exploding spectacularly. The miniature set look awesome and are easily on par with what Toho and Daiei was doing at the same time.

“The X from Outer Space” wraps up on an appropriately unbelievable note. The scientists discover a mineral improbably named Guilanium. After spraying the monster with this, Guilala sprouts a white foam from his body. Covered in the stuff, the monster then shrinks down into a tiny, glowing yellow orb. The heroes then shoot said orb into space, in hopes that Guilala will never return. For a film as strange as “The X from Outer Space” is, the whole thing is topped off with an unbelievable soft jazz score. That’s right, you get to watch monsters wreck cities to hot sax and trippy trumpets.

The human characters are totally tedious. The only copy I could get a hold of in time was the dub and, as you probably guessed, the dubbing is pretty terrible. “The X from Outer Space” is totally ridiculous which might not make it good but it certainly doesn’t make it forgettable either. A Martian fungus-space-chicken wrecking Tokyo to soft jazz isn’t something you’re likely to forget, that’s for sure. [6/10]

Troll (1986)

After the reasonable success of “Ghoulies,” Charles Band and Empire Pictures decided to make another movie about little monsters making mayhem. That film’s creature designer and puppet master, John Carl Buechler, would make his directorial debut with “Troll.” It’s crazy to think that, two years after “Gremlins,” indie studios were still making low-budget rip-offs of it. I guess the public really wanted that “Gremlins 2” Joe Dante wouldn’t make for a few more years. Though referring to “Troll” as a “Gremlins” rip-off is slightly disingenuous. Aside from a horde of little monsters, the two films don’t have a terrible lot in common. “Troll” is actually a weirder fusion of a family flick and a fantasy movie. 

The Potter family moves into a new apartment on the West coast. While father Harry and mother Anne move into their new home, daughter Wendy plays in the complex’s basement. There, she is abducted by a troll from another dimension. The troll assumes Anne’s identity and begins to wreck havoc in the apartment. Slowly, using his magical ring, the evil troll transforms many of the residents into monsters and their room into fantastical realms. Only the young son, Harry Potter Jr., notices that his sister is acting oddly. He befriends an old woman who lives up stairs, who turns out to be an ancient witch with a rivalry with the old troll. After she falls to the troll’s powers, it’s up to Harry to save the world.

“Troll” is many things: A kid-friendly horror flick, an eighties monster movie, a bizarre family comedy. Primarily though, it’s a weird fantasy flick. These days, it’s not too uncommon for fiction to explore fairies, elves, and other whimsical fantasy creatures as the mean-spirited, amoral bastards they were in original mythology. Back in 1986, though, the typical conception of fairies was as day-glo cartoon characters. So it’s cool that “Troll” acknowledges the fae as nasty critters that do not have nice things in plan for humanity. In this mode, “Troll” is sporadically effective. The images of the troll turning his victims into giant pea pods are effectively gooey. One image the film returns to repeatedly is apartments turning into swamp-like, overgrown bogs, full of chattering, slimy creatures. The best moment in “Troll” occurs early on when a character reads “The Fairie Queene,” causing the plethora of monsters in another room to sing an otherworldly chant. I also like how casually the witch up-stairs reveals her identity. She has a mushroom familiar that lives in a pot and reads arcane text. The last act of “Troll” features evil vines and moss crawling out from under doors. A giant plant monsters seems to emerge from the top of the apartment, an underutilized effect. The film doesn’t have much opportunity to explore it but “Troll” does build up a decent mythology.

However, “Troll” is mostly a cheesy eighties flick. This is most evident in the bizarre collection of characters living in the apartment. Sonny Bono, of all people, plays a swinger that lives up-door. Bono being anybody’s idea of a cool dude, especially in 1986, is baffling. His reaction to the little girl turning into a troll is surprisingly nonplussed. That rampaging little girl, who bites people, screams about “rat burgers,” and tosses her toys into the air, is singularly bizarre too. One of the apartment residents is a former military officer and would-be survivalist who gets a close-up encounter with the troll, the movie’s most horrific sequence. Julia Louis-Dreyfus has her film debut here as a struggling actresses. The troll turns her into a partially nude nymph, who teleports through a magical forest, definitely the weirdest scene in the movie.

Like “Ghoulies,” “Troll” also has a seriously unfocused screenplay. In the second half, the movie quickly devolves into the troll systematically abducting the different tenants. Characters that seem important early on are dropped without further notice, never to appear again. The witch character changes into a young woman near the end, grabbing up a magical spear. This is after she bluntly explains the conflict humans have with the troll and fairy race. Her attempts to stop the troll are cut short, turning the character into a talking tree stump. This leaves Harry Potter to be the hero, running off to the fairy dimension to rescue his little sister. The final conflict is highly anticlimactic. Harry tumbles around from a winged goblin while his little sister sits next to a tree and cries. When the goblin attacks the girl, the troll grabs up the spear and tosses it at the monster. This allows the boy and his sister to escape. Um, okay? Doesn’t really resolve a lot, does it?

The secret weapon in “Troll’s” oddball arsenal is its surprisingly excellent cast of character actors. Michael Moriarty doesn’t get a chance to stretch his eccentricities as an actor much, save for one bizarre scene where he dances around to a hard rock cover of “Summer Time Blues.” June Lockhart, otherwise known as the mom from “Lost in Space”and “Lassie,” plays the witch and has a good time biting her way through hammy dialogue. The best performance in the movie belongs to Phil Fondacaro, making his second appearance this Halloween. As the dwarf, and English teacher, that lives in the apartment, he befriends the little girl. While having dinner at their home, he’s the one who reads “The Fairie Queene,” doing so quite well. Later on, when the troll comes for him, he first delivers a surprisingly morose monologue about suffering from illness and coming to terms with his dwarfism as a young boy. He talks about how he'd rather be a fantasy creature then an overly short human. Somewhat bitter-sweetly, the troll then turns him into an actual fantasy creature. It’s a sad and melancholic moment in an otherwise silly movie. Disappointingly, Phil is one of the film’s numerous subplots left unresolved.

“Troll” isn’t a classic, suffering quite obviously from an underdeveloped script and a general low-budget atmosphere. However, it’s better then any of the “Ghoulies” movies and has some interesting ideas and moments. The overqualified cast helps too. John Carl Buechler has been talking about wanting to make a remake for a while now. However, this desire steams less from wanting to explore the ideas of “Troll” more fully and more out of wanting to exploit the movie’s unintentional connection to that other Harry Potter. [6/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Maniac at Large

“Maniac at Large” benefits from a strong central performance and a great setting. Taking place in some alternate reality where library are considered important social centers, the episode follows a young librarian named Margaret. The town is currently gripped by reports of a serial killer which is making Margaret very, very nervous. Seemingly everyone around her is contributing to that nervousness. Her boss is a mean-spirited harpy. The security guard at the library is hard drinker that keeps a secret booze stash in the basement. Most prominently, a library patron that refuses to leave is very interested in talking to Margaret about the serial killer’s methods. By the time she’s left in the library by herself, to close up for the night, Margaret is ready to shake apart. And the killer is closer then she realizes.

I can’t think of many horror movies off the top of my head with sequences inside libraries. That should change because, as “Maniac at Large” proves, there a good setting for thrillers. The dusty books, the huge shelves that project eerie shadows, the large clear doors, all add up nicely. John Frankenheimer, who directed some great movies and some not-so-great ones too, contributes some very solid, atmospheric direction. Shadows are used very well. Bill Conti’s music is simple but effective. Blythe Danner’s lead performance is fantastic and she’s great at appearing terrified. Adam Ant, unexpectedly, gives a good performance too, as the creepiest guy in the episode. The twist end is projected a few scenes in advance but proves very satisfying. The final minutes of the episode are actually fairly creepy, wrapping up the plot without putting too fine a point upon it. “Maniac at Large” is a solid mid-tier “Crypt” episode. [7/10]

So Weird: Encore

In an unexpected move, “So Weird” devoted more-or-less an entire episode to a Mackenzie Philips’ concert. The plot is threadbare, mostly focusing on Molly performing on-stage. The drama of the episode comes from Fiona’s insistence that she’s close to uncovering the mystery of her father’s death. Knowing that a similar interest in the paranormal is what led to her husband’s death, Molly is concerned. Concerned enough to end the tour with this very performance, briefly throwing the back-stage into chaos. Otherwise, “Encore” is devoted to giving “So Weird” fans a chance to hear many of the show’s songs in their entirety. There’s the emotional “More Like a River,” a soft ballad obviously about Molly’s grief over loosing her husband. The show’s theme song, “In the Darkness,” is finally played all the way through. We’ve heard “She Sells” so many times over the season while “Another World” might as well be the personal theme for Fiona’s relationship with her father.

Whether or not you enjoy “Encore” will probably depend on how much you enjoy Mackenzie Philips’ singing. Even if some of the lyrics are a bit rough and too on the nose, I’ll admit “So Weird” has won me over in that regard. A lesser show would have made “Encore” essentially a clip show. And there are elements of that here, as flashbacks are shown throughout Molly’s song. However, the episode still builds up an emotional center. Fiona’s nerves are starting to fray because she knows she’s on the edge of something big. Molly, meanwhile, fears for the life of her child, knowing what happened to her husband. Jack, meanwhile, remains skeptical and slightly ignored by her sister’s intense interest. Instead of just being a filler episode, “Encore” becomes a pretty important part of the characters’ emotional development. It’s short on supernatural elements though, save a possibly imaginary appearance from Fi’s dad. [7/10]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

There are some shoddy effects but also very interesting POV and energy in the Guilala attack sequences. Guilala totally thrashes the city with great enthusiasm. The editing was a real mess and the characters seemed a carbon copy of the casts of many other '50s Sci-Fi B-movies. The rubber monster suit is so totally ridiculous it's endearing.

This is another laughable giant monster movie, but once Guilala makes its appearance, it's fun to watch. (5/10)