Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, October 6, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 5

Mothra (1961)

A lot of people believe that Toho started to soften their giant monster movies around the late sixties, when the Godzilla films became very popular among kids. Truthfully, it was more like a slow progression. The original “Godzilla” is a somber allegory for the ravages of nuclear war. “Rodan” and “Varan” were more traditional monster films, the giant reptiles endearing both fear and sympathy. “Mothra,” the third of Toho’s big name kaijus, is even more progressive. Despite the destruction she reaps, Mothra is not the villain of the film. While not quite the benevolent friend to all humanity of later films, Mothra is a decidedly neutral force of nature. The true villain of the film is a cruel human capitalist.

The movie also incorporates elements of fantasy, comedy, political commentary, and religious allegory unseen in previous Toho kaiju films. Despite Infant Island being the sight of nuclear testing, there’s nothing to imply that Mothra is the result of atomic mutation. Instead, the giant moth is rather blatantly a mystical creature. She has a telekinetic link with the fairies and is summoned by both their singing and the native’s prayers. Infant Island has an odd biology all of its own, including glowing pink caves and the strangulating vampire plants. Perversely, Mothra is blatantly a Christ figure. The giant caterpillar seemingly dies only to resurrect as a giant moth, ascending into the sky. Mothra’s symbol is the Christian cross and chiming church bells soothe the beast. When Mothra would cross-over with Godzilla in 1964, it would signal that series moving into a more fantastical direction.

The political commentary was, according to the DVD audio commentary, far more obvious in the earlier story drafts. The fictional nation of Rolisica plays an important role in the story. They are responsible for the bombing of Infant Island. The film’s villain Clark Nelson is a cruel Rolisican businessman. He kidnaps the Shobijins and guns down island natives. Once Mothra gets on her way to wreck Tokyo’s shit, Nelson refuses to take responsibility for his actions. He evades capture, sneaking off to his home country. Rolisica is rather heavy-handedly a stand-in for the U.S., with a little bit of Soviet Russia thrown in for good measure. The anti-capitalism themes of the script were no doubt in reaction to the Westernization Japan faced in the post-war era. The film’s climax shows Mothra rampaging through Rolisica’s capital, New Kirk City. The architecture and name obviously invoke New York. The story’s criticism of the West hardly makes it unique among sixties Japanese cinema. However, Jerry Ito’s turn as the cartoonish villain of the film deflates any mean-spirited intention. Nelson is an exaggerated supervillain. If he had a mustache, he would surely twirl it. Ultimately, Ishiro Honda’s reoccurring themes of world peace and unity prevail, as Mothra becomes a symbol of peaceful coexistence.

The comedy aspects are most obvious in the cast. The film starts Frankie Sakai who was a popular comedic actor in Japan at the time. Sakai cuts a figure like a Japanese Lou Costello. He mugs while wrestling with a mouse or comically fighting off some thugs. It’s a silly performance and right in tone with the rest of the movie. There’s also a little kid in here though, luckily, he doesn’t stick around long enough to annoy. As you’d expect, the monster doesn’t show up until the forty minute mark. Fortunately, the human cast is likable enough to keep the audience invested. Hiroshi Koizumi and Kyoko Kagawa are both naturally charming in their roles as hero and heroine. I especially like Koizumi’s camera shy qualities. Despite the heavy stakes, “Mothra” maintains a light-hearted tone throughout, one of goofy, loose fantasy.

Above all else though, “Mothra” is a special effects film. Toho presented Eiji Tsuburaya with new challenges on each film. “Rodan” was the first flying kaiju. Mothra, meanwhile, is mostly portrayed by elaborate puppets and miniatures. Compared to the stiff Godzilla or Rodan, Mothra moves much more naturally. The massive larva marches through the city, crushing ships, buildings, and pushing tanks out of his way. An early scene has the caterpillar tearing through a dam, one of the movie’s best orchestrated moments. The larva attaching itself to Tokyo Tower is an iconic moment. The massive peanut-shaped cocoon is visually striking, the infant Mothra still visible inside. Once Mothra is reborn as an adult moth, the film really kicks into high gear. The giant insect creates massive winds with her wings, wrecking playful, colorful chaos on the cities. All of Toho’s monsters were fully realized creation but Mothra is, without doubt, one of their most impressive.

The moth is the star of the show but the Shobijin make their own impression. Played by twin sisters Yumi and Emi Ito, otherwise known as pop duo The Peanuts, they sing enchanting songs summoning their patron goddess. While not as captivating as the title moth, the little women are a charming special effect in their own right. The scenes of the tiny fairies performing for audiences cements the movie as an odd fantasy-musical. The score uses Mothra’s song as a reoccurring motif, along with a quivering harp.

Honda creates some striking images to go along with the music. The first proper look we get at Infant Island solidifies it as an otherworldly place. I rather like the fairies’ song being contrasted with the giant caterpillar bounding through the ocean. “Mothra” successfully captures a fable-like tone. It’s a charming kaiju creature feature and a nice change of pace from the other giant monster flicks of the time. [7/10]

Cronos (1993)

I originally reviewed “Cronos” as part of a Guillermo del Toro Director Report Card during my first year of blogging. I can’t read those early reviews much as they lack the obsessive detail I think characterizes my writing now. Anyway, a while ago I bought the Criterion Blu-Rays of “Cronos” and “The Devil’s Backbone” with the intention of reviewing both for Halloween. Consider this is a miniature del Toro retrospective.

Like all of del Toro’s films, “Cronos” has an incredibly rich screenplay, full of various subtext and themes. The film has a unique take on the vampire mythology. After being stung by a golden scarab device, old man Jesús Gris starts to grows younger and more vitalized. With the unfortunate side affect of a craving for blood and a new, pasty complexion. “Cronos” alternatively presents the vampire under several different interpretations. Jesús is uncontrollably called to use the scarab, injecting the life-giving solution several times a day. The film intentionally recalls the behavior of a junkie, a not uncommon vampire conception. Yet when injecting with the scarab, Jesús’ face is wet with sweat, his face contorting in pleasure and pain, lending an undeniable sexual component to the vampiric habit. Finally, befitting the frequent Catholic imagery in del Toro’s films, the vampire is obviously a Christ figure. He rises from the dead while Archangels watch over the whole film. I mean, the dude’s name is Jesus. del Toro seems to have thrown this in, less as a serious point, and more as a perverse joke.

While clearly a vampire film, “Cronos” is more concerned with the issue of immorality. The film’s villain is a rich industrialist named De la Guardia. He’s been dying of some disease for years, saving his dead organs in jars, while attempting to track down the scarab. De la Guardia’s intense thanatophobia is presented as a problematic behavior. He selfishly clings to life. Yet Jesús has a similar problem. He does live through his own funeral after all. However, Jesús’ character arc is essentially about an old man coming to terms with his morality and accepting the inevitably of death. The villain’s inability to do so paints the two as opposites.

Yet what ultimately drives “Cronos” is the relationship between Jesús and his granddaughter, Aurora. Though the girl has only a single line of dialogue, her affection for her grandfather is obvious. She follows him everywhere. When she discovers he’s a vampire, she isn’t scared. Instead, she hides the scarab, fearing for his life. When Jesus returns from the grave, she doesn’t run in fear. Instead, she tucks him in to an empty toy box upstairs, lending him her teddy bear. After he is injured following the finale, she gives her grandfather the scarab again, eager to bring him back to life. The final image, of the granddaughter gripping to her sick grandfather as he dies in the sunlight, is incredibly touching.

del Toro’s script also takes time to gift each character, no matter how minor, with an interesting personality. Ron Perlman, as De la Guardia’s opportunistic nephew, has this strange obsession with his nose and, throughout the film, is preparing for plastic surgery. Margarita Isabel plays Mercedes, Jesus’ long time wife and Aurora’s grandmother. She clips obituaries from the newspaper as a hobby, which takes on an ironic quality later. The two obviously love each other, even if that isn’t the film’s focus. Aurora frequently reads in her bed at night with the odd, green light of a glow stick. She’s always dressed in a green and blue vinyl raincoat, which looks a lot like a Halloween costume. Even the morgue attendant that prepares Jesus’ body is gifted with a personality, as he takes a lot of pride in his admittedly sloppy work.

Even if it was only his first film, “Cronos” is awash in del Toro’s directorial trademarks. The Cronos Device is a brilliant clockwork machine, full of fascinating, clicking gears. Aurora is the first of many precocious, young children that would appear in del Toro’s work. The film is never ashamed of its Mexican setting, filling the film full of cultural color. Jesús quickly inherits the status of the Monster as Outsider, a favorite theme of the director. Even the color palette, full of warm ambers and glowing, alien greens, would reoccur throughout the filmmaker’s career. “Cronos” is an interesting variation on the vampire mythos with a rich, emotional heart while giving us a clear look at the filmmaker the director would become. [8/10]

Geometria (1987)

Included on the Blu-Ray of “Cronos” is one of del Toro’s early short films, “Geometria.” The story concerns a horror movie obsessed teenager who lives with his obnoxious mother. His mom is constantly badgering him to focus on his upcoming geometry quiz, instead of on monster movies. When he decides to summon an occult demon to solve his problems, things don’t go the way he planned.

“Geometria” is crude. The director himself dubbed over each character in Italian, giving each one a high-pitched, annoying voice. The mother watches a low-budget Exorcist rip-off on TV and the same demon girl – barfing green slime, wearing bunny slippers, but speaking with a deep voice – reappears at the end. An obvious homage to Italian horror, the film takes its cue from Bava and “Suspiria,” filling its cramped frames with light blues, deep reds, and surreal purples. Yet the comic book crudeness appears again, when a flesh ripping zombie makes a sudden appearance. “Geometria” is incredibly goofy and mostly worth while for its hilarious final twist. It’s the work of a young, evolving filmmaker, obsessed with horror movies and eager to recreate his favorites. It’s fun if not particularly disciplined. [7/10] 

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