Watching Tarantula‘s opening, with its lonely shots of California’s Lucern Valley (once again standing in for Arizona), you can tell Jack Arnold really wanted to direct a Western. Of the four films he made in 1955, three were set in the Great American West and two were authentic Westerns: the one he made right before Tarantula (The Man from Bitter Ridge) and the one he made right after (Red Sundown). The blasted, lunar landscapes of the Mojave lend an expansive, mythic air to even the silliest drama, or the most serious monster picture.
Better yet, aside from some dated technobable and some really dated sexism, Tarantula isn’t even all that silly. Its got a weird, almost-retro atmosphere to it, thick as Jupiter’s but much more permeable…if you were lucky enough to grow up on Universal monster movies. (And I certainly was…can’t you tell?) All the classic horror tropes we learned to crave are present and accounted for…except for the thunderstorm and the Old, Dark Castle. We’ll excuse the thunderstorm’s absence on account of this taking place in “Arizona”…where, I suppose, a two-story ranch house is as good a castle-analogue as you’re likely to find. The only problem is, the movie forgoes focusing on those tropes in favor of building a mystery. A mystery the movie solves with its title.
I say Arnold “wanted” to make Westerns in the full knowledge that what director’s wanted didn’t really matter much in 1955’s Hollywood. Tarantula‘s no auteur‘s vision; it’s a quickly made, cheap knock-off of a rival studio’s hit from the previous year. There’d be no Tarantula without the surprise success ofThem! and the parallels between the two are on fairly obvious display. Continue reading Tarantula (1955)→
Submarines and sci-fi stories go together like fish and chips, as anyone who’s read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea already knows. And if you thought that book hit it big in the English speaking world (I’m not even going to try and count how many times it’s been adapted to film) you should see the influence it had on Japan. Once Jules Verne hit the home islands his books sparked an SF craze that, in most respects, has never really gone away.
Local rip-offs were inevitable, the most important for us being Shunro Oshikawa’s Kaitei Gunkan (“Undersea Battleship”), published around 1900. The first in a series of what we’d now call “young adult adventure novels,” Undersea Battleship followed the crew of its titular device through a futuristic version of the Ruso-Japanese War that was, in reality, just around the corner. Like a lot of Japanese fiction at the time, it was enthusiastically imperialist, fiercely nationalistic, and (one would think) completely anathema to a post-war movie audience raised under the Constitution of 1945, with its explicit “wars are bad, m’kay” stance.
And yet…the popularity of Oshikawa’s books managed to survive both his death and the death of Japan’s imperial ambitions. Why wouldn’t it? They’re all about manly men doing manly things in service to manly causes. To a movie studio struggling to establish itself internationally as the age of James Bond dawned, that sounded like a recipe for success. And who better to bring all that to the silver screen than the people who brought you Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, VaranandThe Mysterians? That’ll make for a guaranteed-great movie…right? Continue reading Atragon (1963)→
You’ll have to get over a few hurtles to enjoy Son of Godzilla, the first being its title. Japanese audiences knew this as Kaiju-shima no Kessen Gojira no Musuko. Obviously its American distributor changed the title to force a parallel with King Kong’s 1933 shameless cash-in sequel (which I like sooo much I rarely even speak its name). Nowadays, after decades of watching this film on television, there’s no way John Q. Public would ever pick up a copy of Monster Island’s Decisive Battle: Godzilla’s Son. What the fuck is that, when you can just call it “Son of Godzilla?” So Son of Godzilla it will forever be, with all the baggage that implies.
I’ve been alive long enough to see the stock of all twenty-nine Godzilla movies rise, fall and rise again…except Son of Godzilla. The fan view of this film remains as firmly divided as the two sides of the Grand Canyon. Half the fanbase loves it and consider it a childhood classic they would gladly pass down to their own children. As I type this, my skin’s aching to peel itself off and crawl away from the computer in terror…but Son of Godzilla really is one of the first “family friendly” monster movies in daikaiju history. There’s some…iffy stuff here, sure…but nothing too hard for the little rugrats (or, more importantly, their skittish parents). No longer an avatar of nuclear horror, Godzilla’s story here is the story of a reluctant foster parent, trying to be the dad he never had. It’s Toho’s Disney movie, and its fans argue that makes perfect mulch for any budding G-fan. They’d recommend it to everyone, kids from one to ninety-two, with no reservation whatsoever.
Why yes, this is my favorite King Kong movie. Is my enthusiasm showing? Well, I’ll do my best to tuck it back as we explore this rarely-mentioned, esoteric bit of late-60s kaiju eiga. It’s about as far from Kong’s first adventure as you can get without being Mighty Joe Young…but that just means this movie’s escaped its prequel’s shadow…right? As far as my inner-twelve-year-old’s concerned, King Kong Escapes kicks ass. The rest of me would still recommend it to you…with the following 3000 words of reservation.
I mentioned how Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster began life as a King Kong movie, similar to how King Kong vs. Godzillabegan life as King Kong vs. Frankenstein (which instead spawned Frankenstein Conquers the World). Behind Sea Monster and tonight’s film you’ll find a 1966 collaboration between Japan’s Toei Animation studio and America’s Rankin/Bass productions, The King Kong Show. As its title and production company credits suggest, the Show was a half-hour animated series reboot of Kong’s origin for an audience of mid-60s kids. So they replaced the ship full of filmmakers with a family of scientific adventures named…Bond…just not that Bond. Continue reading King Kong Escapes (1967)→
Some giant monster movies you watch once and never think about again. Then there are the monster movies you pass down to your children. My parents passed Them! down to me around the time they passed down The Thing from Another World and War of the Worlds, praising it as an original masterpiece of daikaiju movie making…which is funny, since Them! started out as a good way for Warner Brothers to cash in on that other original masterpiece of daikaiju movie making, 1953’sBeast from 20,000 Fathoms. Not a rip-off exactly…more like a thematic reprise, packaging the same complex of societal fears into a new model for a new year. Works for the car companies.
3D was all the rage at the time as theaters continued to hemorrhage audiences to a new and uncomfortably profitable home-entertainment medium. Warners originally concieved Them! as a widescreen 3D monster mash in Sylvia Plath-annoying technicolor, set in the already colorful deserts of California (standing in for the just as colorful deserts of New Mexico). A mechanical failure somewhere inside the 3D camera’s bowels nixed that plan and the movie’s budget with one very fortunate accident. Frankly, I can’t imagine Them! as anything other than a black and white picture with 1.37 : 1 aspect ratio.
The DVD releases has since lovingly restored its original red and blue, drop-shadowed title card. That, and a few shots designed to wag something (like a giant ant’s antenna) in the audience’s face, are the only remaining signs of Them!-That-Might’ve-Been. Read enough reviews of Them!-That-Is and you’ll come across a lot of praise for this film’s “documentary feeling.” I doubt it’d garner such accolades if it were in color…then again, maybe so…it would still hold your hand and lead you in, careful to take itself seriously. This movie is a granite idol, meeting your snickers with a stone face. It’s an almost perfect monster movie.
Twelve years after his debut, Godzilla found himself riding an international wave of giant monster movies, Japanese or otherwise. The previous three films flooded Toho Studios with an admirable amount of cash and an (arguably) even larger amount of prestige. Rival studios began fielding their own monstrous challengers to Godzilla’s crown, but no one really cared about them yet. Why settle for second, third, or even fourth-best when the King of Monsters’ still going strong?
Hoping to cement their market dominance, Toho shook things up behind the scenes, turning director Ishiro Honda’s years of daikaiju movie-making experience towards creating new kaiju with familiar, and thus internationally marketable, names (like “Frankenstein“). Special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya, his work now in high demand, founded the production company that bears his name and set to work creating the next generation of fans through the then-new medium of television…and a little superhero show called Ultraman. You might’ve heard about it.
Then someone got a hot idea: resurrect King Kong and team him up with Mothra for a rollicking kaiju adventure on a (budget-conscious) South Sea island. Then something happened. I’ve heard too many stories to tell you the truth. A dispute erupted over the rights to Kong’s name. Or the rights were all secure and the major sticking point became a cost-effective foreign distribution strategy. Or maybe someone, somewhere, mentioned the idea the became King Kong Escapes. Continue reading Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster (1966)→
There is no human achievement more complex, daunting or inspirational than the “conquest” of outer space. I put “conquest” in sarcastic quotes because we really haven’t conquered jack shit. We’ve played golf on our nearest satellite and left a plaque for the cockroaches to find. By the standards of SF in the mid-60s, we’re way behind schedule.
We should’ve discovered our tenth planet by now. Instead we’re down one and the space shuttle’s been mothballed. Robots do all our exploring for us because it’s cheaper and “safer.” As if anyone said space would be “safe.” We’ve known there were monsters out there since before we knew how out there could really be. Martians invaded in 1898, 1938 and1953. Earth itself faced off against (not just any ol flying saucers but) theFlying Saucers in ’56. The Mysterians came for our women in ’57, Krankor came for our rocket fuel in ’59, and in ’61 the Neptune Men came for…umm…yeah…something…I forget because that movie was so boring. King Ghidorah’s arrival in 64 was only the icing on the cake. And in 196X, we discovered Planet X. Continue reading Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (1965)→
How about I take cheap shots at a film I love for a change? I seem to be running on a solid three-to-one ratio. And Japan was still synonymous with “cheap” back when this film came out, despite it being the most lavish Godzilla movie ever made…a title it would hold for a full year.
As I’ve said, with Mothra vs. Godzilla the Ishiro Honda repertory company came into the full force of its power. Its international success, combined with that of its prequel, King Kong vs. Godzilla, ensured everyone, from series producer Tomoyuki Tanaka on down, access to more cash. This allowed the Godzilla series, for a few brief, shinning years, to top itself with each subsequent entry by doing something anathema to modern Hollywood. I think they used to call it “innovating.” Continue reading Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)→
The international success of King Kong vs. Godzilla ensured it would be a major moment in the careers of its two top-billed stars and the director behind both of them, Ishirô Honda. Prior to directing the original Gojira ten years earlier, Honda specialized in slice-of-life dramas with the occasional break into that new, Hot Genre of the 1950s: the Workplace Comedy. No matter the story, these films were usually quiet pieces set on a slow boil, focused (like his much more famous monster movies) on small groups of ordinary people overcoming something or other through their unwavering hope for a better tomorrow.
These films were a refuge for Honda: small-scale, relatively everyday productions he could always escape to in between monster movies. Then he made the mistake of directing a workplace comedy/daikaiju eiga hybrid. After that, his professional goose was cooked. And thank God. Because, after three mediocre-to-shit sequels, Honda and the metric tons of talent he brought with him finally gave us a Godzilla film I can unconditionally rave about.
In case you haven’t noticed, I’m a fan of giant monster movies. If I were Emperor, I’d ram a law through the Imperial Senate making it a felony office to call yourself “a giant monster movie fan” without having seen this movie. You don’t have to like it, certainly, since it’s not very good. But the one thing it is beyond all else is influential. Without this film, there would be no Godzilla, no daikaiju genre as a whole. Beast from 20,000 Fathoms did for radioactive dinosaurs what Dracula did for vampires and King Kong did for giant apes. For that, I salute this film, and so should you.
If you want to understand why monster movies are what they are to day, seeing Beast is unavoidable. It’s an indispensable resource, a key to all the genre’s modern conventions. It brought the monster-on-the-loose movie forward, into a post-War age. And it did it all without even trying to do anything more than cash in on a the previous year’s re-release of King Kong. Continue reading The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)→
Reviews with swear words and sociopolitical analysis from David DeMoss