Hold on to your butts, people. This is a weird one, with an even weirder history than your average cult classic. Produced in association with Henry G. Saperstein’s United Pictures, War of the Gargantuas took four years to get to the American drive-in circuit, where it premiered on a double bill with Godzilla vs. Monster Zero. Like that film, Gargantuas features a Token American in the lead (Russ Tamblyn), supported by two instantly recognizable (to me at least) Honda Repertoire Company vets (Kenji Sahara and Kumi Mizuno). But unlike Monster Zero, Gargantuas is a much more grounded, much more traditional kaiju flick – arguably more so than its almost-prequel, Frankenstein Conquers the World.
That film (for anyone who doesn’t know/remember) concerned a team of scientists who happened upon a street urchin who once devoured the immortal heart of Frankenstein’s monster, irradiated by a nuclear blast after Nazi scientists shipped it to a Hiroshima during the last days of World War II. Said devouring ballooned the street urchin – which everyone pretty much just started calling “Frankenstein” – up to Ultraman-ish proportions, bringing him into inevitable conflict with the Japan’s military Self Defense Forces and roving, wild dinosaur population. Continue reading War of the Gargantuas (1966)→
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)→
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.
Given King Kong‘s one of the most successful and popular monster movies of all time, it’s enjoyed numerous revivals over the years. Including one in the early 1950s that directly inspired the American atomic monster craze and the daikaiju eiga of Japan. Kong‘s direct sequel, Son of Kong, and its kissing cousin, Mighty Joe Young were…less than successful.
But that didn’t stop special effects wizard Wells O’Brien from conceiving yet another sequel. Something that would retain all the grandiose power of the original but do away with that slapdash, chash-in feel that made Son of Kong suck. It would be a conscious throwback to that Golden Age of Monster Movies: the 1930s, the age of O’Brien’s primes. And it would climax in a gigantic fight scene in the streets of San Francisco, with Kong squaring off against a gigantic Frankenstein monster composed of animal parts and, presumably, a constantly-beating heart, irradiated by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
By 1960, O’Brien had a treatment all worked up, but the projected cost of the stop motion animation necessary to pull all this off made Hollywood skittish. The producer O’Brien hired, John Beck, began to shop the movie around overseas. He eventually wound up at Toho, who liked the idea of a giant Frankenstein so much they sat on it for three more years…after they made this. Continue reading King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)→
This is a return to glory for everyone involved after the gigantic backward step that was Varan. Even uncut versions of that are painfully rehashes of previous Honda monster movies, symptomatic of those Ancient Enemies of all good film: lack of time and a low, low budget.
Mothra is a full-180 turn, the first daikaiju masterpiece of the 1960s. Like Rodan, it follows a small cast of actually-interesting characters. But unlike Godzillaand Rodan, Mothra is more of an urban fantasy than a depressing polemic against the horrors of nuclear weapons and the ethically-challenged March of Progress that overlay this entire age of world history. After all, it’s 1961: JFK, MLK, and Malcolm X are still alive! The Space Race is in full swing! The Rodans are dead and Godzilla was last seen at the bottom of an icy rock slide. All is right with the world! What could possibly go wrong? Continue reading Mothra (1961)→
Alien invasions are as old as literature. I’ve read versions of the Biblical flood myth that sound more like the plot of tonight’s film than any other part of the Old or New Testaments. Yet ever since the success of George Pal and Byron Haskin’s War of the Worlds (released four years prior to our subject), vicious extraterrestrials have tried to conquer Earth at least once a year, despite repeated, and often embarrassing, setbacks.
Case in point: The Mysterians, first of the many, many, many alien races who threatened Toho Co.’s Japan (and, by extension, The World) with enslavement and annihilation throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s. And while superhero and space opera films on all sides of the Pacific had long ago burned over this particular district of science fiction, The Mysterians marks the first successful fusion of the alien invasion motif with Ishiro Honda’s daikaiju formula. The result is, to say the least, mixed. But it’s still head and shoulders over what would come after Continue reading The Mysterians (1957)→
If you’re at all like me, you probably received Rodan for Christmas at some point in the early 1990s. You dutifully spent the rest of the day ignoring your family in favor of traveling back to the middle 1950s, when giant monsters roamed the Earth and Scientists were heroes. You may not remember a damn thing about this film, but I’ll bet you remember that Video Treasure’s box art. Even the back of the box reads like a memorable relic from another time, letting us know in no uncertain terms that,
“This is the original thriller that delighted monster fans for years, starring the legendary RODAN, disturbed from his prehistoric slumber to wreck havoc on civilization.”
If you’re like me, reading this is the equivalent of ringing your personal dinner bell. If you’re not like me…well, I’ve just given you a taste of how it was for me. Now let’s see how it is. Continue reading Rodan (1956)→
Lest you think quickie, cash-in sequels are something new, I have three words for you: Son of Kong. But if that only draws a blank look I can always hit you upside the head with this: the quickie, cash-in sequel producer Tomoyuki Tanaka churned out in the wake of Godzilla‘s 1954 box office success…without the original Godzilla‘s director or (with two notable exceptions) its cast.
Can you see the problem with that already? Ishiro Honda just had to go off and make Half Human. Half Human, for those unfamiliar, is a Yeti movie…’nough said. Whatever drove that monumentally bad decision on Honda’s part allowed director Motoyoshi Oda to win the big chair back in Godzilla land. Five months later he turned in a finished film…that almost sunk the franchise in its infancy. Why? Because – in spite of inspiring the “Godzilla vs.” formula that would go on to power the series for the next fifty-odd years – it’s just not very good. It came out wrong. Continue reading Godzilla Raids Again (1955)→
Reviews with swear words and sociopolitical analysis from David DeMoss