Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 16

Gappa the Triphibian Monster (1967)
Daikyojû Gappa / Monster from a Prehistoric Planet

As 1967 rolled on, like a giant monster lumbering through a city, so did the Kaiju Boom. A month after Shochiku unleashed Guilala on the world, another major Japanese studio tried their hand at this giant monster thing. Nikkatsu Corporation has the distinction of being Japan’s oldest film studio. By 1967, the studio was beginning to fall on hard times and, only a few years later, would specialized in softcore pornography. “Gappa the Triphibian Monster” was not only their somewhat-late-in-the-game attempt to ride the wave of interest in the kaiju genre. It was also an attempt to create an international hit. The company wanted to make a film that would play well overseas and, supposedly, the only Japanese films American distributors were interested in were giant monster flicks. Thus, “Gappa” was hatched.

“Gappa’s” plot is boldly derivative of other giant monster movies, curbing generously from “Gorgo” and “King Kong,” with a pinch of “King Kong vs. Godzilla” thrown in as well. The plot concerns an amusement park, the some-what naively named Playmate Land, sending a team of explorers to an unexplored South Seas island, in hopes of collecting rare animals. What the explorers find there is a fearful native tribe who worship a being called Gappa. Crawling though a cave under a volcano, the scientists discover an egg, out of which hatches a funny creature. The monster is taken back home and studied. Turns out the baby Gappa wasn’t alone. Its kidnapping enrages the monster’s parents, a giant-sized mother and father, who fly to Japan and wreck havoc on the cities of man. Despite scientists’ warnings, the greedy amusement park owner refuses to return the baby, leading to yet more destruction.

“Gappa” is so flagrantly derivative that many sources claim the film is an intentional parody of the genre. However, there’s little evidence in the movie itself to suggest this. The native islanders are so stereotypical that it pushes towards parody. When the Gappa couple first surface in Tokyo, the mother is carrying an octopus in its beak, which is a cute touch. However, the rest of “Gappa” is played totally straight. The characters are a generic lot. The heroes of the film are bland explorer type Hiroshi, even blander scientist Dr. Tonooka, and female journalist Itoko. A completely routine love triangle forms between the three, which is gratuitously inserted into one scene on a beach. Also included is a little kid that bonds with the monster. “Gappa” was released the same year as “Gamera vs. Gyaos,” the first in that series to turn Gamera into a Friend to All Children, so it’s unlikely that was an influence. Instead, the relationship between native kid Saki and the baby Gappa is straight out of “Gorgo.” The monster and the kid even wave to each other, as in that film.

The long scenes set on the boat before everyone arrives on the island drag. The scenes of the explorers interacting with the island natives also drag. Itoko is an especially problematic character. While in the Gappa’s cave, Hiroshi tells her she’s better suited to stay at home and raise babies. By the end of the film, she comes around to agree with him! Family is an awkward theme throughout the entire film. The villain of the film, the greedy Mr. Funazu, has a precocious daughter. Some time ago, her mother passed away and the little girl is eager to find another. In the final scene, watching the parent Gappas being reunited with their baby, moves the father to take his daughter’s hand, symbolizing their bond as a family being renewed. It’s an interesting theme to base a giant monster movie around but handed in a clumsy, and especially un-P.C., manner.

The special effects in “Gappa” are serviceable but not spectacular. The Gappa design is interesting mostly because it’s blatantly avian when most kaijus are reptilian in nature. The bird-like head is cool, especially the crown of horns growing out of the back. However, the bodies are rubbery, the wings are very rubbery, and the monsters move slowly and clumsily. The baby Gappa has forward-facing eyes, presumably to make it more expressive and “cuter,” which honestly makes it creepier. I’ve watched so many Japanese monster movies this season that the scenes of city destruction are starting to blend together. The collateral damage is uninspired. Some tanks get melt, a bridge gets knocked over, and Atami Castle gets crushed once again.

There are a few striking moments in “Gappa the Triphiban Monster.” The only energetic monster mayhem is when the two Gappas battle a fleet of jets, exploding the planes with their blue breath weapons. That scene is shot at askew angles. Rare moments stand out, like the Gappas flying in front of Mt. Fuji, emerging from a mountain, or teaching their child to fly at the airport. The Gappa family reunion is set to a sappy love song which winds up being weirdly affecting.

Like many of the Gamera films at the time, “Gappa” was released in America direct-to-television by AIP. It was originally aired under the inaccurate title of “Monster from a Prehistoric Planet.” This cut, like many of AIP’s dubs, has lapsed into the public domain. So the film is frequently found on cheap public domain sets. The DVD I have is from Tokyo Shock, a legit distributor of Japanese films. The DVD does include both the dub and the sub, and some rudimentary linear notes, but otherwise is not an impressive set. The picture quality has a fine film of greasy, waxiness to it, making some scenes dark and hard to follow. Oh well. It’s unlikely a good release of “Gappa” is ever forthcoming. And I’m not sure the film deserves it, as it’s about as generic as a kaiju flick can get. [5/10]

Troll 2 (1990)

For years, I was aware of the fact that a movie called “Troll 2” existed. Nearly every video store I frequented as a kid had a copy. I never gave it much thought. I wasn’t aware of the movie’s legendary status as a well spring of unintentional hilariousness. Even the review isn’t that passionate. I think the first time I heard it referenced as one of the worst ever was the notorious Something Awful review. Maybe that’s how it was with other people too. Some time after that was when people first started talking about “Troll 2.” Normally, when I watched a movie with a reputation like this one, I try and find something to defend about it. There’s no need to do that with “Troll 2.” It truly is as bizarre and hilarious as you’ve heard.

The focus is on the Waits family, especially youngest son Joshua, who is still visiting his Grandpa. Grandpa has been dead for six months. Joshua receives a stern warning from his Grandpa about goblins, evil creatures that turn people into vegetables and then eat them. The next day, the family heads to the small town of Nilbog, where they trade places with a rural family there. Immediately, Joshua realizes something is amiss in Nilbog, that the town is completely inhabited by goblins. It takes a while for his family to catch on but, soon, all of them are on the run from the nasty creatures.

I’m not going to regurgitate the often-mentioned fact about how “Troll 2” doesn’t feature any trolls. Or how Nilbog is, obviously, “goblin” spelled backwards. “Troll 2” is another entry in the long, Italian tradition of unofficial knock-off sequels. I’m not going to question that. What, I think, makes the film so notorious is its inexplicable acting and unbelievable dialogue. Every performance in the film is stilted, off-note, and deeply miscalculated. Michael Stephenson huffs and puffs every line, his face red and sweaty. George Hardy tries to disguise an odd accent while stumbling over the terrible lines he’s been given. Margo Perry is somnambulist as the mom. Connie Young is simultaneously wooden and thin, coughing her way through her dialogue. Yet Deborah Reed, as the film’s incredibly named villain Creedence Leonore Gielgud, gives a performance so broad, exaggerated, and cartoonish that it overshadows every off-beat note of terrible acting in the film. Even the bit players, like the town sheriff or the owner of the local shop, are acting on an entirely different level, somewhere far away from what could be called aesthetically “good.” How can you blame them, when the dialogue is unlike anything any person who has ever lived in the entire universe has spoken? There’s no point in quoting it because you’ve already heard it and also the written word can’t do it justice.

The most strikingly weird thing about this incredibly weird movie is its anti-vegetarian bias. I’ve known a few vegetarians in my life time and all are non-intrusive, normal people. Meanwhile, in “Troll 2,” vegetarians are portrayed as the most vile, despicable creatures to ever live. They literally force their dietary philosophy down others’ throat. There is no meat or animal-derived products anywhere in Nilbog. Instead, they apparently subsist solely on a weird, green slime, spread on everything. Hilariously, the film completely misunderstands what vegetarianism is. The goblins kill people, transforming humans into green, vegetable slurry and devouring it. Did the makers of the film understand that most vegetarians don’t eat meat because they don’t want to kill something? Improbable.

The film is filled with other bizarre eccentricities. Despite being a ghost, Grandpa Seth interacts quite freely with the other characters in the film. He chops a goblin’s hand off with an axe and sets another person on fire by calling down lightening from the heavens. When the goblins are defeated, by the family pressing their powers of goodness into the stone where they draw their power, they vomit green slime. There’s the bizarre subplot about the daughter’s boyfriend, who has a borderline homoerotic relationship with his best friends. Weirdly, he has to choose between his girl and his boys. Whether her family accepts him is depended solely upon him abandoning his buddies. For all the weird shit happening on-screen, the popcorn seduction scene tops it all. Creedence Leonore Gielgud sports an unflattering old librarian get-up throughout most of the film. Until she drops it, remaking herself as a scantily-clad sex symbol. She then seduces one of the male friends with a corn cob, the corn exploding into popcorn from their shared cobbing. Utterly unfathomable.

There are other ways in which this production is deficient. All the goblins are played by short actors, and sometimes normal-sized actors, in burlap sacks with the same three or four cheap Halloween masks on. The script is loosely constructed, to say the least, with a collection of characters wandering around, encountering the monsters. I actually sort of like the main synth theme, which is quite energetic. The film does repeat it several times though. The editing is usually sudden and jarring. Aside from the baffling acting and writing, the film is at least competently directed. You can always see and understand what’s going on, no matter how strange it is.

If “Troll 2” truly was the worst movie ever made, nobody would want to watch it. “Manos: Hands of Fate” has a similar reputation and that thing is impossible to sit through. “Troll 2,” meanwhile, it’s fairly easy to watch, endlessly quotable, and fascinating in its curiousness. The cult of “Troll 2” proves that incompetently made is not synonymous with a lack of entertainment value. Quality-wise, the movie is probably around a [4/10.] Entertainment-wise, the movie is probably around a [7/10.]

Best Worst Movie (2009)

Anyone who watches “Troll 2” will be repeatedly asking themselves, “How the hell did this get made?” What thought process went into putting these images on-screen? Writing that dialogue and having people say it in front of cameras? Was the movie even meant to be a horror film? All these questions demand answers. So a documentary about the making of “Troll 2” is a worthy proposition. “Best Worst Movie,” that movie, was directed by Michael Stephenson, the star of “Troll 2,” someone who obviously experienced these decisions up-front.

“Best Worst Movie” picks up twenty years after “Troll 2” was unleashed on the world, coming during the peak of the film’s cult fascination. It primarily focuses on George Hardy, who played the dad in the movie and now has a successful career as a dentist in his home town in Alabama. Most of the time, he lives a normal life, spending time with his daughter or doing things for the community. Sometimes, though, he’s invented to revival screenings of “Troll 2,” where he’s overwhelmed by the love people have for the one movie he ever starred in. “Best Worst Movie” tracks down most everyone else who was involved in “Troll 2,” seeing what they’ve been up to and how the movie’s reputation has affected their lives.

At least, that’s what “Best Worst Movie” is about some of the time. A large portion of the film, and most of the early scenes, focus on the cult following of “Troll 2.” It talks to people assembling parties based around the film, where folks watch it and yell their favorite lines. It travels to revival screenings, where the lines stretch around the block. It talks to the mega-fans that assemble those screenings and their love for the movie. It even tracks down people who create home-made “Troll 2” masks or make “Troll 2”-themed YouTube video. It’s not impossible to make a good documentary about fandom. However, having endless scenes of people talk about how much they like a movie can be tiring. By the time “Best Worst Movie” gets to the biggest “Troll 2” fan in Austria, you really have to wonder why you’re watching this.

“Best Worst Movie” is much more interesting when it focuses on George Hardy. Hardy has a lot of folksy charisma. It’s not surprising that the guy appears so beloved in his home town. He clearly loves interacting with people. The film’s best moments come from tracking the ups and downs of Hardy’s relationship with his sole, notorious role. At many of the revival screenings, George is happy to perform his most famous line and enthusiastically interacts with fans. He happily goes with Stephenson as they track down the other cast members. However, where fandom and reality intervene produces the most joyously awkward moments. When his small town is having a screening of “Troll 2,” George seemingly spends a whole day talking everyone around him into seeing it. The townsfolks’ reactions vary from bemusement to barely-veiled intolerance. After being treated like a rock star at revival screenings, George and Michael head to a memorabilia convention in the U.K. There, nobody has heard of “Troll 2.” They stand at their booth all day, alone, unsuccessfully trying to catch the attention of passer-bys. A Q&A panel attracts four or five uninterested patrons. The “Troll 2” guys also attend a hardcore horror convention. Watching George’s patience for the horror fandom slowly eroded over the course of a day is amusing, especially to someone like me who has been to a few. By the end of the day, he’s disgusted. (Naturally, the film only focuses on the people in elaborate cosplays or those with crazy punk-rock hairdos, not the fans in jeans and t-shirts.) By the end of the film, George returns to his normal life, working with patients or making protein drinks in the morning. He admits to being burned out on “Troll 2” but also admits he’d return for a sequel. Clearly, he’s come to terms with his alter-ego as the dad who yells about pissing on hospitality.

The film also tracks down other people who survived “Troll 2.” This produces some of the most interesting results. A visit to the home of Margo Prey, who played the mom, stretches on forever, much to the anger of her extremely frail mother. The film’s director, Claudio Fragasso, is extremely entertaining. He doesn’t agree with the general consensus that he made a bad movie. He stands by “Troll 2” to this day and doesn’t have time for anyone who would disparage it. At a Q&A with the actors from the film, he yells at them from the audience, telling them they remembered things wrong. He gives the impression of someone who is extremely difficult to work with but committed fully to his art, no matter how ill conceived it might be. Claudio’s attitude is he’s made over twenty movies and as recently as 2012. He’s living the dream and no one gets to tell him otherwise. That’s hard to argue with. By interviewing the bit-players and major stars of “Troll 2,” we get a good impression of what an odd production it must have been. Actors talk about being unable to change dialogue, about working with an Italian-speaking crew that didn’t speak any English, or the thrown-together costumes and production design. I honestly wish more of the movie was like that.

So “Best Worst Movie” is a movie torn in two. When focusing on the bizarre characters that made this bizarre movie, it’s fascinating. When providing brief behind-the-scenes nuggets, it’s even more-so. When attention turns to the super-fans and conventions, it seriously drags. Perhaps the story behind “Troll 2” would have better told as an hour-long DVD special feature, instead of a feature length doc. Either way, I wish Michael Stephenson luck in his career as a director. I really want to see “Destroy,” a movie he’s been trying to make for a while about a serial killer who thinks he’s a vampire slayer. That sounds cool. [6/10]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

I happen to own one of those public domain copies of this movie and it is in fact called "Monster From a Prehistoric Planet". I tried watching it a few months ago and the picture quality looked so awful that I turned it off after 10 minutes.

Still curious, I streamed the movie from somewhere (maybe YouTube) and promptly forgot nearly everything about it, except seeing Gappa with the octopus in its mouth.

In true geeky completist fashion, I usually jot down what I thought of each movie I watch. I usually do this for my own benefit so I can remember what I thought of a particular film. That way, I'm not pissing away money again on something that I hated or I can look forward to seeing something I liked once upon a time. However, I have absolutely zero evidence of ever watching this.

For some reason though, I remember something appealing about it which means I'll have to watch it again or I'll be haunted forever by what enjoyment I may have gleaned from it.