10/31/12

The Bigger and Badder Halloween Top 13:#1- Gojira (1954)

Here we are, finally. It’s Halloween night, and after 31 posts in 31 days capped off with The Bigger and Badder Halloween Top 13, we've finally arrived at the end of the month and the countdown. While all the little kiddies are out trick and/or treating and ghouls, ghosts, and goblins come out to play, why not kick back for a while at The LBL with me and let’s get our giant monster obsession rockin’ one last time. Yesterday, I practically fell all over myself giving King Kong accolades for starting the popularity of the giant monster, but while the giant ape made some splash in 1933, it was during its 1952 release that it really caused major waves. One of those waves ended up lapping the shores of Japan, a country still reeling in the post-WWII era as they tried to find closure, purpose, and direction for their country. No other place in the world has known the true horrors and devastation of a directed, intentional nuclear blast save for Japan. So is it any wonder that the same year American filmmakers released their first nuclear powered monster movie with The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, that the Japanese did them one better and created a monster that was a walking nuclear incident with Gojira (and I don't mean Godzilla, King of the Monsters, but more on that later.) It is Halloween, and a discussion of Gojira could get pretty heavy, pretty quick, but I’m going to try to keep it on the lighter side. After all of these films in The B&B H13 about fear, of nature, of man, of nukes and science, Gojira is a film that certainly touches on a number of fears, but it is really a story of hope.


Before I even get into any of the events of the film, let me make one thing perfectly clear, this is no exaltation of the Raymond Burr, over narrated, mashed up, nonsensical mess that was released in the United States as 1956’s Godzilla, King of the Monsters. While I have a certain fondness for that film from my youth, after seeing the Japanese version a few years back I realized what a poor substitute Godzilla was for Gojira. Gone from the American version is any of the family and romantic storylines, any mention of American nuclear testing (or, you know, bomb dropping), and instead of the Japanese people working to fight the monster, you get numerous breaks where Burr asks a translator, “What are they saying?” It’s the worst kind of pastiche. Stripping away the Japanese characters and tone to the film robs it of the intentions of director Ishiro Honda and his co-writer Takeo Murata. There’s also another thing about it. It’s pretty dang awful. Having recently acquired the Criterion Collection edition of Gojira/Godzilla, my original intention, based off fond childhood memories, was to talk about my love for both films. When I re-watched it after viewing the Japanese version again, it just looked pathetic. Gojira is a work of art. Godzilla is little more than pabulum for kid’s matinee screenings.

Now that I’ve sounded as pretentious as possible, let me talk a little about the story of Gojira. I think we can all agree on the basic premise that the monster was released because of a nuclear experiment, and the first scene of the monster’s destructive power at sea is a corollary for an incident that happened during American nuclear tests on the Bikini Atoll. Where the film takes a turn from the version where Raymond Burr trying not to look like he just killed his wife, wait, that was Rear Window, is with the romantic storyline. Emiko is torn between the one eyed scientist Serizawa and Ogata, a captain of a small ship, and she alone knows the secret of Serizawa’s devastating weapon which could mean an end to the giant terror. While there is a good deal of talk about the government trying this and that to deter the creature and debates on the morality of killing it at all, Gojira hinges on a classic love triangle in the midst of a nuclear war with legs. Then, add in the viciousness of the secret weapon, with the power to destroy all oxygen in a living being’s body, and the idea that the only weapon against the ultimate weapon is an even more unreasonably powered weapon is born. Say hello to the military industrial complex, folks. So when Serizawa sacrifices himself in the film's climax (Spoiler Alert on a fifty eight year old film), he does it for love, country, and the world to take his own knowledge to the grave.

Gojira is a story about a monster. In fact, in many ways it is the story of The Giant Monster. Along with Kong, they are the archetypes in which all others have followed. However, what makes Gojira a real classic is that, while it brims with meaning about an arms race and nuclear annihilation, it is a story about people. Some of them are on the wrong side of things, and some of them are chasing noble goals. Some fall in love, and some are changed by the destruction that they witness. The overall feeling though is hope. There is a hope that people will band together, make the right decisions, and move forward their lives and country in a meaningful way. Fear is what Halloween and horror is all about, and while some might consider Gojira more of science fiction film, try getting chased by a fourteen story tall monster and we’ll see how horrified you feel. In future years, Gojira would become a hero to the people and fight any number of other giant beasties, but in the original film, he is not yet the star or the King of the Monsters, as the American retitling purports him to be. He is instead a force to be feared, but ultimately he is the spark for a rallying cry for hope and the indomitable spirit.

I could do my usual kind of breakdown and talk about the stars, director, and cinematographer and so on, but how many ways can you say great and perfect. In previous years I have included several ‘5’ Bugg movies on my Halloween Top 13’s, but in the giant monster realm, there are only really two great names Godzilla and Kong. Godzilla became the franchise player though, and throughout the years, through cartoons and comic books and a string of sequels, Godzilla has been the main force in keeping giant monster movies alive. While I really like some of the later films, like Destroy All Monsters and Godzilla: Final Wars, there has never been a film which treated the characters of situations with such precision as Gojira. So do yourself a favor, the next time you're having a hankering for giant lizard in your life, first, listen to Dead Milkmen Big Lizard in My Backyard, and then ditch Perry Mason and check out Godzilla in his O.G form, Gojira . Thus bringing us to a just an honorable conclusion to the Bigger and Badder Halloween Top 13 and the month of October in general. I had a great time delving into horror and giant monster mayhem with you folks, and I want to send a special shout out to everyone who contributed lists and Mr. Dylan Santurri from Paracinema for his awesome work on the four banners I used for the event. The Halloween Top 13 will return next October for the 6th year running, and I promise that I’ve already got something great in mind.

Bugg Rating



Now before I sign off completely for the month. I have one more list to share with you folks. It’s from my main man Ken Johnson from We Like Stuff Too. Ken is a fellow that I could stay up all night and talk to. I know because I have. He just got this list in in the wee small hours last night beating the Halloween double deadline, but I have to give it up to him for amazing choices and great work. So as a final Halloween treat, Mr. Ken Johnson’s Giant Monsters!

13. THE GIANT CLAW
I’ve never actually seen the film, but a clip was included in the film IT CAME FROM HOLLYWOOD (1982). That flick which simultaneously made fun of and introduced these films to us burgeoning fans was constantly running on HBO back in those days. Tommy Chong’s comment that the Giant Claw “sure has some loose dentures,” had me laughing so hard, that the film’s permanently cemented in my mind.

12. THE BEGINNING OF THE END
Another flick showcased in IT CAME FROM HOLLYWOOD. The scene with the giant grasshopper peeping in the window at the girl wrapped in a towel is priceless. Lead actor Peter Graves’ earnest delivery and tommy gun usage only adds to the fun. Having the whole thing set in Chicago too, was neat since it wasn’t far from where I lived at the time.

11. THE RELIC
This film doesn’t come up in conversations a lot, but it’s a pretty good one. It’s another film that takes place in Chicago, with action centering mostly around the Natural History Museum. Penelope Ann Miller stars, with Tom Sizemore and Linda Hunt supporting. Always had a crush on Ms. Miller, so that got me in the door, but the monster itself was pretty inventive. A mix of a few different animals, the thing moved with a fluid elegance you don’t often see in giant monster films. Well worth seeking out.

10. THE HOST
This is a pretty popular choice by a lot of giant monster fans and rightly so. The film has a lot to offer with well-rounded characters you can’t help but be drawn to. Throw in the strange, asymmetrical genetic mistake of the title and its gold. This creature has one of the best debut scenes ever to be found in the genre.

09. NIGHT OF THE LEPUS
A ludicrous movie sold by the sincerity of the acting (Rory Calhoun in particular), some tense child endangerment and real (and fairly unnerving) newsreel footage. Again it’s the quickness of the creatures, along with the expanding magnitude of the crisis that makes this a standout.

08. EMPIRE OF THE ANTS
What starts off as a character driven Love Boat-like cruise to explore an island real estate property, expands to a horrifying update to the classic short story example of man versus nature, Leiningen Versus the Ants by Carl Stephenson. What really drew me to this film is the complexity of the roles of each character within the group of survivors/victims, how those roles change and evolve and by just how much story there is crammed into a 90 minute feature. Seriously, this thing could’ve ended three times, but just keeps increasing the danger and expanding the plot, to give you what would surely be a trilogy of films, by today’s standards, in one lump 90 minute sum. Sure the effects are pretty goofy, but don’t ya just want to see Joan Collins’ bitchy real estate agent get her just deserts?

07. WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS
Yeah, the film frankly isn’t great, but the Gargantua Boys are awesome! Two enormous sasquatches out for some fun. It’s so much fun seeing these guys running through sets that Godzilla and the like normally plod through. You just know this duo would give Big G and the rest of his radioactive mafia a run for their money, if given half a chance. If only someone could teach them some wrestling moves! Maybe it’s time for a remake?

06. KING KONG (2005)
I’ve always been a fan of the big lug. The first film I remember begging my folks to see at a theater was the De Laurentiis version from 1976 and re-reading the Mad Magazine parody over and over again until the cover came off. Anyway, I’m a fan. That said, I had no idea the plethora of giant creatures and straight up pulpy action in store for me upon plunking down my cash for a ticket to Peter Jackson’s reimagining. This film is teaming with life, and death. Despair, humor and hope. Jackson’s inclusion of a Lovecraftian, Cthulhuesque origin story was just icing on the cake.

05. THEM!
No list of giant monster movies would be complete without this one, and rightly so. There’s not really much I need to add here, other than that I really appreciate the scope of this picture, going from a couple desert attacks (a location where many a giant monster film would be ok staying for their entire running time) to the underground invasion of Los Angeles. For my money, James Whitmore’s character, Police Sgt. Ben Peterson is greatest action hero the genre has ever spawned.

04. GHOST AND THE DARKNESS
This might seem an unusual choice, but if you’ve seen the film, you’ll know just how giant and terrifying the beasts depicted here truly are. Based loosely on the real life story and subsequent book, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo by Lt. Colonel John Henry Patterson, this story of the hunters becoming the hunted gave me more than my fair share of goosebumps. Just the intelligence these creatures displayed, along with their wanton destruction of humanity, then finding out they were real !?! Damn! One of these days I’ll make it to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago and see these creatures’ bones for myself.

03. CURSE OF THE DEMON
An all-time favorite horror film, known more for its supernatural angle than for actually being a giant monster picture, this film does feature a giant demon to great effectiveness for the scant few minutes it appears on screen. The climax to this film is particularly unsettling, and something you’ll find imprinted in your mind for some time. The film’s most famous line “It’s in the trees. It’s coming!” was used to open singer/songwriter Kate Bush’s hit song Hounds of Love (1985) and gave me an extra thrill of recognition upon seeing the film for the first time earlier last decade after spending years with Bush’s tune.


02. MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949)
What, two gorilla movies in the same list!?! Well, yeah! This guy will always have a special place in my heart. I saw this flick when I was just becoming a teenager. A big, socially awkward kid who was into things (monster movies, comic books, etc.) the “norms” didn’t get. Seeing this film by chance on a random Sunday afternoon on a remote UHF channel where I had to finagle the dial like a safe cracker to get the signal to come in and discovering a kindred spirit in the giant, misunderstood Joe was an eye-opening and moving experience, that’s mesmerized me far longer than its 94 minute running time. Sure I never smashed a nightclub to the ground or terrorized thousands, but I could somehow identify with Joe’s wide, window-like eyes, giant smile and loving soul, doomed to live life in a world that didn’t understand him. I’d like to think that writer/producer Merian Cooper and pioneering effects genius, Ray Harryhausen had gone through similar adjustment troubles in their lives at a similar age and had helped develop the story of Joe to give us like-minded souls something to hold onto.

01. THE CRAWLING EYE aka THE TROLLENBERG TERROR
This B-picture, poked fun at in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, might seem an odd choice to be number one, but for my money, it’s possibly the earliest example of a film based in the subgenre of Lovecraftian horror (a genre of film based around the writings of author H.P. Lovecraft that would eventually spawn such adaptations as RE-ANIMATOR, FROM BEYOND and DAGON). The plot, centering on a group of mountain climbers and scientists trapped in a mountain observatory is one of isolation, fear and hopelessness in the wake of an unrelenting alien horror (a common theme in Lovecraft’s writings). At times, this film works as an eerie precursor to more well-known films like ALIEN and John Carpenter’s THE THING with their similar Lovecraftian themes of isolation and despair. It is, however, a creature of its time, full of common B-movie trappings that lead people to dismiss this as a lesser work. Written by future Hammer films wordsmith, Jimmy Sangster, with American actor Forrest Tucker in the lead, this film will wrap its tentacles around you and lay waste to your innermost thoughts, if you let it. Just as action packed as THEM! Just as unrelenting and just as rewarding, if you’re willing to make the climb.


2 comments:

  1. Fantastic job this month, LB! I really enjoyed all the guest lists as well. Have a great Halloween, sir.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks so much Aaron. Looking forward to talking some Cornered with you and the DRMC peoples this Friday.

    ReplyDelete

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