The Giant Gila Monster (1959)

Our Hero. So perfect you want to slaughter him.Like most movies of its era, The Giant Gila Monster begins with a soliloquy from Our Humble Narrator. While the camera lovingly moves over shots of a desolate desert landscape, Our Humble Narrator informs us that:

“How large the dreaded Gila Monster grows, no man can say.”

Looking for an explanation as to why this Gila Monster is so Giant? Well, there it is.

We cut to a couple parked in the middle of the tangled desert wasteland. (Not the most romantic setting in the world but what do I know? Maybe gnarled old trees are like Spanish Fly to some.) Later on, we’ll learn their names: Pat (Grady Vaughn) and Liz (Yolanda Salas). But for right now, don’t get too attached. Just as they get all close and lovey, an unseen force shoves their car over a cliff. Now, if I were one of those people who’s obsessed with finding subtext in even the most bizarre pieces of crap cinema, I’d be amazed. I’d point out that it showcases just how merciless the morality of 1950s horror pictures really was…even make the observation that, unless Liz is giving her man a nice, off-camera handjob, this couple’s only crime is snuggling. I’d then go on to note that at least 80s Slasher flicks let you have sex before you died. Let no man say our culture hasn’t moved forward.

Cut to the local diner/hang out of the local “no-good kids” as they wonder vaguely where Pat and Liz got off to. Shrugging away their disappearance, the kids depart for the local drive-in. (Remember those?)

The next day, Sheriff Jeff (Fred Graham), the only Law in these parts, visits Mr. Wheeler (Bob Thompson), Pat’s dad, finding Mr. Wheeler none too happy about his son’s disappearance. This scene helps establish two things: (1) Mr. Wheeler is a dick and (2) the ringleader of this town’s chapter of “no-good kids” is a dude named Chase Winstead (Don Sullivan). Chase is older than the other kids (obviously) and keeps them out of any serious trouble because, by golly, they listen to him. He’s also one hell of a guy, working long and hard down at the local mechanic’s shop to support his mother and his crippled little sister, Tiny Ti–er, Missy (Janice Stone).

We find all of this  out thanks to one of the clumsiest exposition-filled speeches I’ve ever heard. Props to Fred Graham for making it sound halfway natural. We spend the rest of the moving finding out Chase is just the kind of stand-up guy everyone thinks he is…which is really disappointing. I waited for Sheriff Jeff to discover a bunch of dead bodies in Chase’s backyard, but that’s the kind of person I am. Instead, we see Chase date French exchange student Lisa (Lisa Simone). We (*yawn*) see Chase work at the mechanic’s shop. We (*yawn*) see Chase…tow…a drunk driver…(*yawn*)…off the side of the….road…(*zzzzzz*)

Our Villain. Literally, a cold-blooded killer.What?! No, Uncle Ed, don’t touch me there! Wha…oh. You guys. Sorry about that. Chase’s All-American wholesomeness put me to sleep there for a second.

Right now you might be asking yourself, Just what the hell does the giant Gila Monster have to do with any of this? The answer: not bloody much. As with other monster movies, Giant Gila Monster treats us to twenty-minute blocks of characters talking (in this case, most of the time is spent talking about cars), interspersed with ten second clips of Our Monster crawling around, doing its own thing. After an hour of this, Chase and Sheriff Jeff (they aren’t exactly Jay and Silent Bob, but they’ll do) discover a string of abandoned cars, all of which appear to be torn open by some powerful force. Then the town drunk witnesses the Gila Monster derail a train and, hey, two and two make four no matter how crazy “four” might seem. Giant frickin’ lizard on the rampage. Guess somebody’s gotta do somethin’.

Not that the news of a giant rampaging lizard stops Chase from enjoying a sock-hop with his tribe of “no-good kids.” He even performs a number for his friends because that’s Chase. He’s such a multi talented little snot its disgusting, the Captain America of daikaiju movie protagonists. Too…um…”bad”…the Gila Monster pokes its head through the wall just as Chase gets to the chorus. Not that we haven’t already sat through this number. He sang it to Tiny Ti–damnit, I mean “Missy”–earlier.

Unwilling to wait for the Proper Authorities to abdicate responsibility for this mess, Chase loads his car with some conveniently on-hand nitroglycerin and rams the monster head on. That Chase. He’s a pro-active little snot, too. The End.

As if you couldn’t guess, I wrote that long plot synopsis to cover my own lack of insights into this movie. The Giant Gila Monster does not stimulate thought. This movie is semi-famous for its use of the (*cough*) revolutionary special effects technique of filming a regular sized Gila Monster in extreme close-up as it crawls around a miniature set. The problems with this being (A) we never see the Gila Monster interact with the rest of the cast (because that would cost money) and (B) the miniatures are far from convincing (because that would cost money – sensing a pattern). Most of them consist of piles of dirt with twigs stuck in them to represent trees. The train wreak set looks like the most costly effect in the whole movie, retailing at a whopping $29.99.

To make matters worse, the Gila Monster isn’t exactly the most exciting monster antagonist in the history of the genre. It just kinda…slithers. It’s got none of Godzilla’s aggressiveness and none Gamera’s weird-ass aesthetics. Hell, it never even knocks down a building. At least Earth vs. The Spider‘s Spider got to trash a town on screen…more or less.

And speaking of teenagers, the “no-good kids” subplot once again buries the “giant rampaging monster” action as writer Jay Simms tries desperately to keep the two plots intertwined. In the process, he spends a lot of time with Chase and Co., gifting Mr. Winstead with a proto-Kenny level of access to Sheriff Jeff’s investigation. Hell, Sheriff Jeff even lets Chase steal the tires off  wreaked vehicles, which, as Mr. Wheeler points out, is a pretty big legal no-no.

We’re not supposed to care about Chase’s little illegalities. In the universe of all law breaking, stealing the tires of a dead man’s car is about as bad as lying about a blowjobs  under oath. Besides, despite everything he’s got going against him (he’s just so damn clean, its infuriating), I actually liked Chase. Hey, he’s a nice guy. He’s got that Steve McQueen likeability thing going for him. As squeaky clean as a Hardy Boy, he up for it by making the cleanliness seem natural. It’s uncanny, and Don Sullivan deserves some recognition for that…if not for his singing.

So does Fred Graham as the beleaguered lawman who has to deal with all this. Having a giant monster invade your town has to be a pisser and Graham pulls things off well.

How large the dread gila monster grows, no man can say.Too bad the rest of the cast is so one note. At least Mr. Wheeler and Haris the Town Drunk (Shug Fisher) are fun to watch. The “no-good kids” and Chase’s family are just flat cannon fodder, which makes it all the more ironic when none of them ever die. But that might’ve injected some actual drama into the proceedings and Heaven forfend!

Also, be wary. This is a dark movie, save for those annoying times when it switches from day to night in the middle of a scene. We should all thank the cinematographer. I’m sure director Ray Kellogg did. Bad lighting helps hide crappy special effects, don’t ya know. Of course, it also annoys the hell out of your audience when they’re trying to see the monster knock over a car.

As giant monsters go, the Gila Monster is better than Minya. That’s about it. A stop motion giant lizard would’ve improved things, but there we go again, talking about things that need money. If Kellogg’d had that in the first place, he could’ve improved a lot, and The Giant Gila Monster would be something other than sub-sub-average. If you just have to see every giant monster movie every made, go for it. If not, feel free to skip this one. Two likeable characters and a lizard do not a good movie make.

Addendum: Technical Stuff

I found The Giant Gila Monster and The Killer Shrews on the same DVD for a holy-crap-dude price of $5.99. This is one of the luckiest things to happen to me in quite awhile. So it pains me somewhat to report that the disc is a cheap as the movies it contains. The print of Gila Monster shows its age frequently. Snow and stars and cigarette burns snap-crackle-and-popping across the picture every few minutes. The sound is mono, so you better clean your ears. And if you want extras, well…tough rocks, pal.

Still, after watching The Giant Gila Monster, I can say with absolute certainty that the price was right. Hell, I’m starting to feel a little ripped-off.


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