Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, October 9, 2014

Halloween 2014: October 9

Dogora (1964)
Uchû daikaijû Dogora / Dagora the Space Monster

Filmed back to back with “Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster” was “Dogora,” another film about a giant monster attacking from the stars. “Ghidorah” combined the usual kaiju movie thrills with more explicit science fiction elements, like possessing alien entities, and an action-centric espionage subplot. “Dogora” is an even odder genre hybrid, as it fuses a diamond-smuggling plot straight out of any crime movie with the story of a giant carbon-eating space-jellyfish attacking the world and Japan’s noble attempt to defeat it.

That diamond smuggling plot occupies a lot of screen time, actually. A gang of diamond thieves are the primary antagonists. They work for a world-wide diamond theft ring, taking orders from some unseen, on-high diamond theft commander. The thieves, including femme fatale Hamako, are increasingly annoyed when Dogora appears and eats their diamonds. Also appearing to muck up their plans is a rival diamond thief, the American Mark Jackson, played by future emperor of Seatopia Robert Dunham. Jackson rips off the diamond theft ring by replacing the real deal with rock candy, causing the gang to come after him. Jackson also may or may not be a double agent, working for an insurance company, and forges an uneasy alliance with Inspector Kommei, the cop on the trail of the thieves.

Kaiju fans tend to complain anytime a lot of human drama interrupts the monster theatrics. However, the diamond theft stuff in “Dogora” is a blast. The idea of all diamond thieves belonging to some international union is delightfully campy. This is best demonstrated in a scene where the boss pulls back his desk, allowing a radio antenna to pop out. That sort of gadgetry reminds me of the Bond series, which other scenes in “Dogora” are reminiscent of. The adventures of American rogue Mark Jackson are obviously inspired by Bond, even if he’s a much more ambiguous figure. He talks Hamako into betraying her team, which seems like something Bond would do. And he doesn’t even notice when the girl is killed later in the movie, which is definitely something Bond would do. Finally, there’s the fantastic scene where Kommei and Jackson are tied up by the crooks, sticks of dynamite tucked in their shirt pockets. The two have to work together, wiggling free of their bondage and tossing the explosives aside. The film wraps up with a shoot-out on a beach, which also features quite a few explosions. It might not be guys in rubber suits wrecking cities, but the action is, nevertheless, highly entertaining.

What is less commendable is the awkward way the film ties its crime elements in with its science fiction plot. Kommei’s love interest is Masayo Kirino, played by Yoko Fujiyama. Masayo is the secretary to Dr. Munakata, a scientist working on creating artificial diamonds. Munakata’s diamonds are stolen by Jackson, pulling the doctor into the smuggling plot. Masayo’s brother is the astrologist, who witnesses Dogora’s first appearance. That’s awfully convenient, as it fuses the plots together even more. Even more contrived is when Kommei’s police chief turns out to be the head of the local military base too. Considering Dogora feeds on diamonds, there were probably other, smoother ways to combine these two story lines.

This poster is slightly misleading.
What ultimately makes “Dogora” one of Toho’s quirkier entries is the nature of its titular monster. Dogora first appears as floating blue clouds that eat through steel surfaces. There are many scenes of coal being swept into the air by Dogora’s force, forming a black cyclone. Occasionally, vehicles or buildings are tossed into the air as well, recalling Tsuburaya’s earlier work on “Battle in Outer Space.” An even odder touch is that sometimes, when people are in the monster’s presence, they float, a plot-point the movie forgets early on. Dogora doesn’t appear on-screen much but the movie makes his appearances count. The creature causes the skies to glow strange colors, odd auroras swirling overhead. The giant version of Dogora on the movie poster and DVD case makes a truly eerie entrance. Strange, enormous tentacles swish out of the sky, lifting and crushing bridges and trains. I have no idea if Tsuburaya was aware of the works of H.P. Lovecraft but this scene certainly brings his classic imagery to mind. Disappointingly, the huge jellyfish version of Dogora disappears not long after this stand-out moment, dividing into clouds of smaller orb-like creatures. However, the movie makes up for this with a truly bizarre finale. The heroes discover that Dogora has a weakness against wasp venom, a development the writers really pulled out of their ass. When exposed to the venom, the Dogoras turn into solid, multicolor boulders that then fall from the sky. While it’s used sparingly, “Dogora” is still packed with out-there, unforgettable imagery.

“Dogora” shares much of its cast with “Ghidorah” and other Toho creature features. On paper, Yosuke Natsuki’s role as Inspector Kommei seems similar to his role in “Ghidorah” as Detective Shindo. Kommei is much more light-hearted and silly then the generally serious Shindo though. Hiroshi Koizumi’s Kirino is much more similar to the relatively useless Professor Miura he played in “Ghidorah.” It’s great to see Akiko Wakabayashi cut loose as the conniving Hamako, sinking her teeth into the oppretunity to play a classic femme fatale. Robert Dunham really has a ball as the trickster Jackson. His playful back-and-forth with Natsuki’s Kommei is one of the most consistently entertaining parts of the movie.

The film ends with Dr. Munakata headed to the U.N., ready to apply what they’ve learned from the Dogora incident to peaceful endeavors. Ishiro Honda rarely missed an oppretunity to insert his favorite theme of world unity into his movies, no matter how silly they might get. Akira Ifukube’s score blatantly recalls his other work. The military theme here is very similar to the military theme from “The Mysterians.” However, he does introduce a spacy theremin whenever Dogora floats on-screen. “Dogora” is a fun, entertainingly odd kaiju flick, as similar to the studio’s other films as it is distinct. [7/10]

Arachnophobia (1990)

Seems about once a decade, someone tries to resurrect the “killer spider” films that prospered so much in the late forties and early fifties. The seventies had “Kingdom of the Spiders,” the naughties had “Eight-Legged Freaks” (which I watched last year). The nineties, meanwhile, got “Arachnophobia.” It was the feature debut of Frank Marshall, who has produced many of Steven Spielberg’s films. As “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was an extended homage to adventure serials of the thirties and forties, “Arachnophobia” perhaps intended to do the same for spider-panic flicks of years past. The story is also awash in Spielbergian trademarks and owes something of a debt to “Gremlins,” which it slightly resembles.

The film begins in South America, where a rare, extremely venomous, new species of spider is discovered. After biting a photographer to death, the spider is unknowingly shipped to the man’s hometown in the casket. Once in the small country town of Canaima, California, the jungle spider breeds with common house spiders, producing a nest of hyper-venomous and organized, but small and quick, spiders. This is especially of concern to doctor Ross Jennings and his family, who just moved to Canaima. Jennings has intense arachnophobia and, soon enough, has to confront his spider-fear head-on, as the eight-legged beasties take over the town.

“Arachnophobia” takes its damn time getting to the spiders. The first hour-and-change is focused on life in the small town. We spend time with the Jennings family and their neighbors. There’s the local football coach, who is an obnoxious asshole, along with his jock son, clueless teen daughter, and psychotic younger daughter. There’s the town coroner who, along with his obese wife, seems mostly characterized by eating a lot. The established town doctor sees Ross as a rival and constantly snipes at and undermines him. (At least until he’s killed by a spider.) The nice old lady next door is the first victim to fall to the new breed of arachnids. Slowly, the film reveals the spiders, a few stray people falling to the creatures crawling into unexpected places. This is an attempt to build suspense, slowly ramping up the spiders’ ability and threat level before going nuts halfway through. I get what they were going for but the sheer amount of time spent on unimportant side characters is tedious. “Arachnophobia” could have prospered from tighter editing.

“Arachnophobia” does its fair share of decent moments though. An early moment cleverly cuts between husband and wife making love to the two spiders breeding, their limps tangling together in extreme close-ups. The film gets decent mileage out of close-ups of spiders crawling into private, unexpected places. My favorite moment has a spider falling onto a bathing girl in the shower. The film has a solid grasp on what’s creepy about spiders. In general, I have nothing against spiders. However, I don’t appreciate them crawling into places they don’t belong. “Arachnophobia” understands this. In the last act, when the spiders invade the Jennings’ home, the movie actually cause your skin to crawl. Spiders drop down in front of a television, squirm under doors, and flood out of sinks and walls. Even someone without a phobia of spiders is likely to be freaked out by these moments.

It also helps that “Arachnophobia” assembles a decent cast. Jeff Daniels plays up his everyman image nicely as the protagonist, making the most of a good line or two. He can’t make the ridiculous finale work much, which is a death match between a full grown man and a normal sided tarantula. The nail gun bit is especially silly. Julian Sands exits the film too soon, doing well in an indistinct scientist role. John Goodman puts on a bizarre accent and has fun hamming it up as an eccentric exterminator. When he starts swinging poison sprayers like an old school gunslinger, that’s cool. I also like Harley Jane Kozak as the mom, who is almost archetypal as a mom. It seems like he should have been in more stuff.

I’d skip the simpering, stupid, Jimmy Buffet song that plays over the end credits though. “Arachnophobia’s” ambitions exceed its reach. The run time is too long and the characters aren’t developed enough. Yet when the killer spiders are deployed in proper amounts, it becomes quite effective. It needed more eight-legged fiends and less small town shenanigans. [6/10]

Tales from the Crypt: Séance

Is every single season 4 episode of “Tales from the Crypt” going to be about treacherous romantic partners? But, then again, aren’t most episodes of “Tales from the Crypt” about that? In “Séance,” a pair of fraudsters conspire to steal a fortune from an elderly millionaire. Despite claiming to be his cousin, Alison still seduces Mr. Chalmers. However, he soon enough discovers how duplicitous she is. An unfortunate accident involving an abandoned elevator shaft robs the two of their money source, forcing the con artists to fake a séance. This, predictably, goes horribly wrong.

As you probably noticed above, “Séance” is an incredibly routine episode of “Tales.” That includes the revenge from beyond the grave that occurs at the end. What makes the episode fun is its performances. Gravel-voiced beauty Cathy Moriarty is ideally cast as the episodes femme fatale. She slithers through her performance when not biting into some seriously villainous dialogue. My favorite bit involves her tying up and impersonating a gypsy spiritualist. John Vernon is also extremely entertaining as Mr. Chalmers, especially his matter-of-fact reaction to the betrayal. Even the gore in “Séance” is pitched at a humorous level. The elevator-related squishing and climatic heart-ripping include cartoony bright red blood and fake looking entrails. “Séance” is not an episode that is going to stick in my mind but, as far as “Tales” go, I enjoyed it. (I also dig the Crypt Keeper’s Bogart impersonation in the host segments.) [6/10]

So Weird: James Garr

Oh no! “So Weird” did an episode about cryonics! Will it avoid the mistakes made by “Chiller?” While Cary is in the hospital with tonsillitis, Fiona and Jack both encounter two unusual people. Jack befriends an old man dying of cancer, who entertains the boy with his magic tricks and eccentric personality. Fi, meanwhile, discovers James Garr, an unusual man who speaks in a monotone voice and is seemingly soulless. After a little digging, Fi realizes that Garr was cryogenically frozen but, as is typical with this technology, came back wrong.

“James Garr” deals with some pretty heavy topics, primarily mortality and the existence of the soul.  Veteran voice actor Campbell Lane, who just passed away this year, is great as old Mr. DiFranco. He’s immediately charming and Lane does a lot with a little bit of screen time. In a call-back to season one’s “Angel,” Jack and Mr. DiFranco talk about leukemia. Patrick Levis continues to prove his strength as an actor during these scenes. As the title character, Jerry Wasserman is a bit broad. His mechanic speech, and especially his tendency to speak in third person, are certainly overdone. However, he gives Cara DeLizia a decent platform to play off her. Her tear-strewn speechs about souls and the life beyond tugged at my heart a bit. That girl is great at crying. The ending might have sound sappy on paper but the episode earns it. Once again, “So Weird” packs its story full of honest emotion, saving an otherwise cheesy premise. [7/10]

1 comment:

Kernunrex said...

I remember when Arachnophobia came out. It was one of those safe, super-mainstream horror movies that everyone and their grandma would go see. Still, I remember it being really effective at generating tension with those little critters sneaking up on folks.