Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, October 3, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 3

Later today, podcast co-host JD and I will be venturing to Monster-Mania in Baltimore, which has become a yearly tradition by this point. I had to squeeze in these two movies and TV episodes in early in the morning since, despite being on the road, I didn't want to let you guys down. The convention is also the reason there will not be a blog post until late tomorrow night or early Sunday morning. In addition to my con report, a podcast will be coming soon afterwards. See you guys on the other side and enjoy some more monster movie reviews.

Gorgo (1961)

Monster fans like me probably like to think that Godzilla was iconic the moment he was conceived, even if the kaiju craze he launched wouldn’t start in earnest until the early sixties. However, the existence of “Gorgo” suggests that Godzilla was a pretty huge international hit. Even though only two Godzilla films had been made by 1961, “Gorgo” is doubtlessly the British reaction to the Japanese King of the Monsters. The giant dinosaur-like monster is brought to life by a man in a rubbery suit on miniature sets. In both films, the military attempts to repel the monster with giant electric lines. Ultimately, even the filmmakers acknowledged the blatant connection when “Gorgo” premiered, not in the U.K. where it was made, but in Japan. (Where, by the way, it was well received and very successful.)

Starting in the Irish isles, the film follows Joe Ryan and Sam Slade, a pair of treasure hunters. While out on the waves, a volcano tosses the two aside. Staying in the village on Irish island Nara, the two hear legends of a sea serpent living in the sea around the island. While diving, the two stumble upon a strange monster which quickly attacks the village. Ryan and Slade capture the creature soon enough. Even though scientists offer to study the animal, the two instead take a deal from a circus owner to display the monster in London. Named Gorgo, the monster attracts a lot of attention. Turns out, Gorgo is a baby and his even bigger mama, Ogra, soon wades out of the ocean to destroy the cities of man, in order to retrieve her off-spring.

Maybe the most interesting thing about “Gorgo” is that the film’s hero is also its villain. Bill Travers plays Joe Ryan as an intensely greedy man. The character is blatantly unsympathetic. He exploits the monster. When the little boy Sean is found stowawaying on the boat, and attempts to free the sleeping Gorgo, Ryan threatens to throw the kid overboard. When scientists warn him that Gorgo’s much larger mother will come for him eventually, Ryan ignores the warning. There’s still a lot of money to be made. Looked at through this lens, “Gorgo” becomes a story of man’s economic exploitation of nature. By explicitly connecting the monsters with ancient mythology, Gorgo’s kidnapping seems even more like an intrinsic violation of the Earth’s rules. Ogra’s destruction of London could have been prevented had either men relented in their greed. As in many kaiju films, the monster also represents nature’s wrath, as massive and unstoppable as a hurricane. Disappointingly, “Gorgo” gives Ryan a change of heart before the end and has him doing blandly heroic things like rescuing the little boy during the monster’s rampage.

“Gorgo” is also notable for treating its monsters in a blatantly sympathetic fashion. Compared to the odious human protagonists, Gorgo and his mum become something like the film’s heroes. Gorgo is drugged and carried through London on the back of a truck in an undignified manner. When the monster attempts to escape captivity, the circus workers spray him with flame throwers. No doubt realizing the popularity of monsters among kids, “Gorgo” also features a little boy who befriends the monster. Sean smiles at Gorgo while it performs at the circus, the monster seemingly waving back. When Ogra is destroying London, Sean looks on in amazement at the creature. Instead of the either monster perishing in the final reel, “Gorgo” ends after Ogra destroys London, rescues her baby, and returns to the sea. The film presents this ending in a positive light. Man’s indiscretion has been corrected and balance has been restored.

According to the documentary included on VCI’s Blu-Ray, the filmmakers behind “Gorgo” were quite dismissive of Toho’s kaiju films, considering their monsters to be inexpressive. That’s not very fair and the suit effects in “Gorgo” fall short of their Japanese counterparts. Gorgo and his mother are, in some ways, uninspired designs. Both aren’t much more than towering dinosaurs with oversized claws, three-toed feet, and vaguely fish-like tails. The mouth on the suits flap open and close mechanically while the elephant-like roar is repeated. What is most memorable about the designs are the odd, webbed ears. The tilting ears, along with the blinking red eyes, allow for the most expression. They’re certainly memorably odd touches and help Gorgo stand-out a bit among his giant monster peers.

Despite the movie more-or-less being on the monsters’ side, the rampages are still viscerally brought to life. Gorgo stomps through the village on Nara Island before being repelled by tossed torches. Before the creature is captured, he grabs the diving bell Ryan is inside, attempting to crush it. The actor’s panicked reaction creates some decent suspense while the shots of the creature standing in the deep are oddly beautiful. Ogra’s rampage through London makes up the solid back-half of the film. Part of the thrill of any kaiju film is watching the giant beasts destroy recognizable landmarks. “Gorgo” has the novelty of London falling to big monster mitts. The miniatures are beautifully realized. Ogra crushes London Bridge, dropping solders into the river below. The monster topples Big Ben, burying innocents in the rubble of the world famous clock tower. Perhaps the most memorable moment comes when the huge beast rampages through Piccadilly Circus. Crushing a sign bearing its own name, the monster is illuminated by the lights and silhouetted against an ominous red sky. Much attention is paid to the frightened crowds fleeing the creature, which help create a decent sense of panic. Even if the monsters remain sympathetic, many lives are still lost during the attack. Despite being mostly a kid’s flick, “Gorgo” does not skimp on the chaos and collateral damage you’d expect from a kaiju film.

The movie is also gifted with an elegant score. Provided by Angelo Lavagnino, the music can be haunting, eerie, beautiful, and bombastic when needed. The Technicolor photography makes great use of the Emerald Isle’s natural beauty. There’s even some atmospheric English fog as Gorgo is being rolled into town. “Gorgo” might have the spirit of a quick-and-dirty B-movie but the film looks like an A-list production. (Save for some obvious military stock footage which is gratuitously deployed.)

“Gorgo” has had an unusual legacy. The monster frequently crops up on TV and in commercials as a cheaper alternative to Godzilla. Back in the sixties, it spawned a surprisingly long-running comic book, with Steve Ditko doing artwork on many of the issues. The movie also has the distinction of being one of the better films to be mocked on “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Though no masterpiece, “Gorgo” is a good time for monster kids and a nice peak at what a Godzilla film produced by Hammer might have looked like. [7/10]

The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1946)

I devoted all of 2012’s Halloween Horror-Fest Blog-a-Thon and most of 2013’s to reviewing as many of the classic Universal Studios’ monster movies as possible. However, considering the age and rarity of many of these films, there are a few I haven’t seen. One of the films that slipped through the cracks both years was “The Spider Woman Strikes Back,” which I finally tracked down at Monster Bash this past summer. Produced during the mid-forties when Universal was eager to build any of their horror characters into franchises, the film is an in-name-only sequel to the 1944 Sherlock Holmes thriller, “The Spider Woman.” The only connecting fiber between the two movies is that Gale Sondergaard plays a villainous femme fatale with a spider fetish in both.

The film follows Jean Kingsley, a young woman recently relocated from the city to the country. In the town of Dominga, she works as a personal assistant for local eccentric Miss Zenobia Dollard, a blind woman who lives in a spooky mansion with her mute man-servent Mario. Zenobia, however, is not all she appears to be. She’s not blind, firstly. Secondly, she is raising a large flesh-eating plant in her basement. Using the venom from that plant, she is sabotaging the local cattle farms, in a convoluted plot to buy back the land that once belonged to her family. Most pressingly to Jean, Zenobia keeps the plant alive by feeding it blood from young girls, lured to the mansion by the promise of a job. And Jean’s blood is the next thing on the menu.

The plot synopsis for “The Spider Woman Strikes Back” makes it sound far more complicated than it actually is. The conspiracy Zenobia is running only takes up a few minutes of screen-time. There are detectives investigating the strange cattle deaths and milk poisoning, one of which is Jean’s love interest, an old college flame. Zenobia’s motivations are mostly tagged on during a late-film villainous monologue. Most of “The Spider Woman Strikes Back” is focused on the relationship between Zenobia, Jean, and Mario. She is, at first, totally unaware of her hostess’ villainous intentions. However, she catches on in time. Dollard insists Jean drinks milk every night before bed, causing her to have restless sleep. (The movie’s odd obsession with milk and cows eventually becomes hilarious.) After a letter returns unread, Jean begins to suspect that something happened to Zenobia’s previous assistant. Mostly, it’s the creepy behavior of her hosts that tips her off. Jean is probably a bit slow to catch on but, considering the movie is extremely brief at 59 minutes, she doesn’t seem too dense to the viewer.

The film is primarily a shadowy mystery-thriller except for some odd elements that pushes it into the horror genre. The blood-drinking flower in Zenobia’s basement is surely the strangest thing about the film. There’s very little “spider-y” about Gale Sondergaard’s character. She’s mostly focused on that weird plant, which she even gives the baffling nickname Drochenema. However, the movie blatantly inserts some obligatory spider-related moments, such as Gale glaring at some black widows and dropping a spider into the gullet of the flesh-eating plant. Probably, the closest the film comes to suspense is a moment when Jean hides in a closest while Mario looks around her bedroom. Disappointingly, the film doesn’t take advantage of its old mansion setting and it's surprisingly short on black-and-white atmosphere.

The most interesting thing about the movie is its performances. Despite having a fantastic name, Zenobia Dollard is not the most interesting of villains. She is presented strictly as a devious evil-doer, coldly plotting her conspiracy. However, Gale Sondergaard was such a talented actress that even a thin part like this presented some opportunities. She has the most fun playing the contrast between Zenobia’s kind outer appearance and her wicked inner thoughts. Most notable for Universal Monsters fans is Rondo Hatton’s role. Hatton, naturally, plays the mute servant Mario. Mario seems to develop a crush on Jean, a plot element the film doesn’t run with. Hatton, though a fascinating and memorable figure, wasn’t much of an actor. You’d think removing his monotone vocals from a performance would improve it but, nope, Rondo is as flat and inexpressive as ever. Yet his unique presence contributes something to the film anyway. Brenda Joyce is decent if utterly forgettable as Jean, which is more than I can say for the rest of the nondescript cast.

“The Spider Woman Strikes Back” is about as middling as a forties studio programmer can get. The film’s conclusion is muddled and confused. Throughout the rest of the film, Zenobia is highly protective of Drochenema. In the final minutes, she attempts to set the rare plant on fire. Rondo is more successful at setting the basement ablaze, bringing both villains lives to an end. The event that causes this sudden act of arson? Two dudes wander to the mansion and threaten to reveal Dollard’s crime. Lame. As mediocre as the film is, I can’t help but enjoy it. I have such fondness for the style and pacing of the thirties and forties Universal horror flicks that even a weaker entry like this fills me with a comfy feeling. It wouldn’t be Halloween without one of them. [6/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Yellow

“Yellow” is a star-studded episode of ‘Tales from the Crypt.” In front of the camera, you have Kirk Douglas, Dan Aykroyd, Lance Henriksen, and, uh, Eric Douglas. Behind the camera, Robert Zemeckis directed. Set on the European battlefield of World War I, the episode follows a young lieutenant, son of a high-ranking general. A pacifist who’s afraid of death, the lieutenant backs away from the bloody war. An attempt to prove his courage goes horribly wrong, leaving his entire squad dead. The boy is charged with treason, facing execution, causing the conflict between father and son to come to a head.

“Tales from the Crypt” cheats us a little bit with “Yellow.” The episode is actually a recycled segment from the pilot film “Two-Fisted Tales,” an attempt by the same team as “Tales” to build a series from EC’s war and western comics. The pilot didn’t lead to a series so the three chapters that made up the movie were reused as episodes of “Tales.” This is why “Yellow” is several minutes longer then the usual tale and doesn’t feature any true horror elements. (Unless you count the horrors of war) This doesn’t reflect negatively on the quality of “Yellow,” which is another strong entry from season three. Despite the pulpiness of the material, Kirk Douglas treats the character with utmost seriousness. This is further funny, since Douglas’ casting was assuredly a reference to “Paths of Glory,” were Douglas played a solider questioning his superior’s actions. Eric Douglas is good in his part as well. Considering the second Douglas son’s numerous run-ins with the law and his eventual death from a drug overdose, you can’t help but wonder if there’s an autobiographical element to the speeches with his father here. Lance Henriksen is at his most horse here and has fun growling his dialogue. The episode builds decently to a suitably ironic conclusion. Despite the bleak ending, the episode is clearly still anti-war, since the gung-ho general is obviously the villain of the story. It’s obvious that anyone who isn’t afraid of death in war is a nut. “Yellow” might disappoint, since it lacks any ghouls or ghosts or unfaithful spouses, but I still liked this one. Honestly, something a little different was a good note to end season three on. [7/10]

So Weird: Fall

Picking up where “Strange Geometry” left off, when “Fall” begins Fiona is still angry with her mother, over keeping secrets about her father’s death. The episode actually focuses on the Philips band roadie Ned, who is reconnecting with an old friend, Sam. Sam recently survived a fall from a two story building. This, eerily, recalls an event from Sam and Ned’s childhood, where a mutual friend fell to his death over the local river. Sam is literally being haunted by memories of that day. Urged on by a sleazy reporter investigating the story, Fiona looks into the past events herself.

“Fall” ties it’s A and B stories together nicely. While Ned and Sam explore traumatic events in their past they’d rather forget about, Fiona has to forgive her mother for not telling her mentioning her dad’s interest in the paranormal, and how it possibly killed him. Once again, “Fall” shows what an attribute the series had in Dave Ward. Ward has great chemistry with guest star Fred Keating as Sam. A monologue where Ned recalls what happened on the awful day is affecting and shows how talented Ward could be. Keating also gives a very good performance. His panicked cries at the episode’s end, when he relives what happened, seem heartbreakingly honest. The apparition of the boy pushes the episode into horror, as the ghostly encounters are genuinely spooky. The conclusion, which ties the sleazy reporter in with Sam seeing ghosts, is a bit cheesy and overly on-the-nose. Otherwise, “Fall” is another strong episode of “So Weird” that successfully roots its supernatural plot in with all too human emotion. [8/10]

1 comment:

whitsbrain said...

It's great to have this old movie on Blu-Ray. I've never owned it on any other video format but I was glad that I got to revisit it. The movie is about the standard giant monster that tramples everything in sight because it's either pissed off or it's looking for something. But it is effective in what it sets out to do and has some pretty good special effects for it's time. There's a nice twist in the story, too. I remember being amazed by it as a boy and I have to say it holds up pretty well.

The big surprise is the amount of extras that come packed in this Blu-Ray. A lot of people contributed to the extras and you can tell they really cared about this movie. I enjoy Blu-Ray releases that contain extras that teach you something about the history or function as a time capsule and you'll find plenty of them on this disc. Most impressive are the comic book and toy "slideshows". The collections displayed within them are extensive, even exhaustive. I wish every Blu-Ray package were this loaded. (7/10)