Friday, September 21, 2012

"He Saw A Monster, Then He Had Too Much Saki."

Godzilla, King Of The Monsters(1956)
Director: Ishiro Honda
Cast: Raymond Burr, Takashi Shimura, Momoko Kochi

One of childhood's enduring staples are dinosaurs, and chief among them, is Hollywood's most famous mutated thunder lizard, Godzilla. I watched most of these films voraciously as a child, enjoying the sheer level of destruction and mayhem that ensued. The plots were never great and the dubbing and the effects were often comical, but they were entertaining films, nonetheless.
The reputation of the Japanese giant monster movie, and for that matter, most dinosaur and giant monster films, is based around a camp factor, as these are often lumped in with the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crowd and sometimes, for good reason.
Most in this genre could never hope to be as effective as King Kong(1933), but there were a few near-mortals, the original, Godzilla, being one of them.
Where the later Godzilla films were made for children, the original film is a dark, serious and even scary picture that ranks with the best sci-fi/horrors of the 1950s. The original Japanese film, in particular, is something of a minor classic of the horror film, working as an effective allegory against the deathly effects of radiation and nuclear fallout, Godzilla becoming a walking metaphor for the atomic bomb.

The film was originally released in 1954 and was a very dramatic and serious film, even being nominated for a Japanese Oscar(losing to Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai.) When it was released in the United States, it was re-edited and shortened some and lost some of it's impact. American distributors added scenes of Raymond Burr as a reporter and some useful dubbing and this became the version most Americans grew up with. Admittedly, it's a marvel of editing, not quite as powerful as the initial vision, but not the disaster that so many claim it to be, either. If the original worked best as a social message, than the latter, reveals it's power as a horror film, it's images of the great monster set against the burning landscape of a destroyed Tokyo, both haunting and sad, appearing as one of the cinema's most bizarre and potent figures of death.

The film begins with the haunting image of a ruined Tokyo, looking much like it had in 1945 after being firebombed. Few are left alive. One of the lucky is American reporter, Steve Martin(!) played by Raymond Burr, who recounts the events that led to this terrible disaster.
Martin was en route to Cairo, when he took a detour to Tokyo to meet an old friend, Dr. Serizawa(Akihiko Hirata), though they never actually meet each other. Martin arrives right when a strange phenomenon is dominating the local media, that being the destruction of a local ship by unknown means. Soon, other vessels are being mysteriously destroyed and the few survivors claim it to be the work of a monster.
Well, sure enough it is. A local island believes it to be the reappearance of an ancient God, known only as "Godzilla," and one frightful night, during a storm, something huge and scaly disrupts the small island. Dr. Yamane(Takashi Shimura) investigates and finds a heavy dose of radiation in the nearby water, but also prehistoric life, including a trilobite. Unfortunately, they also discover Godzilla, who rears his ugly head(literally) over the hills and roars ferociously at the local inhabitants, before disappearing.
Despite, the many deaths, Yamane wants to study the monster, but the military wants only to destroy it. The military send depth charges and believe they have destroyed the monster, but they would be wrong.
Before long, Godzilla rises from Tokyo harbor and descends on the city, leveling everything in his path. The first night, he stays in the harbor and destroys much of it. The second night is much worse.
The monster braves right through 300,000 volts of electricity and artillery bombardments, stepping on trains(and even chewing on them, amusingly) and showing off his radioactive breath as he burns building after building. Martin narrates the entire onslaught from his news office and it's the most effective use of the actor, as he nervously reports the full scale horror before him. In the end, Tokyo is a wasteland and few are left alive, and nothing has stopped Godzilla.
However, there's still hope. Emiko(Momoko Kochi) reveals that Dr. Serizawa has developed a weapon that obliterates oxygen. She prods him into using it against Godzilla, and he agrees, but destroys the blueprints of his new and terrible weapon. Going below into the water with his device, he encounters the monster and sacrificing his own life, reduces the beast to a mere skeleton and then, nothing. The world has been saved and we have lost a great man in the process. Sadly, the American version chose to eliminate(among many things) the ultimate denouement on nuclear war and the possibilities of other monsters through extended testing.

Godzilla, King of the Monsters is one of the most influential horror films of the 1950s, even if it's plot bears a striking resemblance to 1953's The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. While, that film contained the more sophisticated work of Ray Harryhausen, Godzilla is more potent in it's terror and apocalyptic imagery, even in this truncated version.
The scenes of Godzilla rising from the black depths of the ocean, roaring that horrifying, iconic roar and rending and tearing Tokyo to pieces, make for some of the great images of the monster movie. Godzilla is no mere dinosaur or dragon, but something more horrifying. He's an abomination, mutated and ridden with blotchy and cancerous flesh, a figure of death with it's twisted head and protruding fangs. In appearance, this demon from below is very much, a king of monsters.
Much of the human element is missing in this American version, at least the most powerful bits, especially those involving the triangle between Kochi, Hirata and Takarada, who portrays a young sailor that vies for Kochi's affections. The Burr footage replaces most of this and can be most awkward and sometimes, hilarious. I especially enjoyed Emiko's visit in the hospital in the beginning, when she yells out, "Steve! Steve Martin!" as if they are old friends, though they never associate with each other in the rest of the film.
Still, there's something haunting about Burr's correspondence, eliciting a different horror for American audiences, and anticipating a new one in the 60s, that of televised horror, as Burr's broadcast eerily reminds me of the sorts of things such straight faced reporters would be reporting on Vietnam and other catastrophes. There's a gritty realism to Godzilla's destruction and while some may knock Burr's simplistic description of the creature, it's understandable when one conceives the horror of what he is facing.
It does not replace the drama of the original film and most of that is missed, especially the characterization of Hirata, who was the standout in the original, as a man torn apart, fated to sacrifice himself for a humanity he feels so dis-attached from. However, the original terror still comes through and it makes for one of the most unforgettable monster movies ever made.

No doubt, this is a classic film. It led to one of the longest running film series in history and has been the cornerstone of many monster fan's obsessions. Godzilla is one of the great movie monsters, the essence of what this blog is really about. It lacks the sophistication of other 50s horror classics, including The Thing(1951) and Them!(1954), but few offer such a glimpse into doomsday or as bone chilling a ride into terror, as this, Ishiro Honda's masterpiece of monster film making, even if it largely exists in edited form. Don't let that dissuade you from viewing one of the genuine essentials of the monster film. There's a certain poignancy when the great beast is ultimately defeated, even though we are glad humanity has been saved. We feel guilty, not only for destroying something that however dangerous, was entirely unique. We, the audience, may also feel a bit of guilt, for Godzilla, like Frankenstein's Monster before him, is a monster of our own designs and we may feel accountable for it's actions. If anything, the picture serves as a collective guilt for mankind having split the atom. It's core question is if we have the responsibility to take account of our actions.

Maybe it's time to read Frankenstein again.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Horrific Nazi Experiments Gone Awry!

She Demons(1958)
Director: Richard E. Cunha
Cast: Irish McCalla, Tod Griffin, Rudolph Anders

Richard Cunha is probably responsible for some of the most ludicrously awful horror films of the 1950s. He never achieved the popularity of Ed Wood, but his films are just as fascinatingly bad, at least for the most part. Of his four cult films, the other three being Giant from the Unknown(1958), Missile To The Moon(1958) and Frankenstein's Daughter(1958), She Demons is probably the worst.
With access to Nazi uniforms and a tropical location, the filmmakers decided to concoct a story about Nazis who had escaped the war and are still operating on an island in hopes of creating the master race. In an effort to more closely resemble an issue of Men's Adventures, they even throw in scantly clad women and some gung-ho heroics, and just a dash of racism. The result is an warped journey into 50s drive-in cinema.

The film begins with a shipwreck, as we see four survivors on shore of a desolate island. They include a spoiled blonde bimbo played by Irish McCalla, before she was known as "Sheena,Queen of the Jungle," and she does a bad job of moping about and saying incredibly bitchy lines, using revolving around her limited wardrobe(though unfortunately, she's pretty clad herself for most of the running time.)
There's also the annoying know-it-all hero played by Tod Griffin, who seems to be an expert in any and everything and not-too likable. "Number-Two Son", Victor Sen Yung does what he can with a hopelessly shoddily written part, steeped in racist stereotypes of(fortunately) the most passive and harmless variety.
One more man is in this party, but he's an older, out of shape lug, and it was inevitable that he would meet his end pretty quickly...and he does, as you can see below.

They discover that the fourth man was killed by what the hero describes as a "she demon," which they find the corpse of further up the beach. She appears like a normal native girl(at least by Hollywood standards) except that her face looks like a cheap rubber mask with fangs and ping-pong ball eyes. Well, after losing the nameless one and the radio, the intrepid three decide to venture inland and the boys in the audience are treated to a gratuitous dance number involving a bunch of shapely, bikini clad babes who dance around a fire, much to our amusement. Sadly, a couple of Nazis(!) come in and ruin all the fun, as the girls are rounded up and taken back to their cages for experimentation. You see, the Nazis had escaped the wrath of Allied Forces during the War and are still trying to perfect the master race on this island. The outrageous Rudolph Anders portrays the lead Nazi scientist, and he's a real hoot, overacting a storm, complete with wild gesticulations and horrid dialogue that you would not believe. There's an interesting subplot there with his efforts to try and restore the scarred face of his once-a-babe wife, but it's handled with as much sensitivity as a hammer to the cranium.
He's also using the local babes for experimentation by infusing both his wife's disfigured cells and that of animals(!) to turn them into ravenous she demons(which sounds more tempting than it looks), though it's only temporary, you see. And get a load of these she demons! Somehow, despite the terrible complexions and big ol' fangs and claws they receive from the treatment, they still retain those perfect bikini bodies.
Amen to that!

So, the three are captured by the SS and taken into the Nazi compound, which is miraculously powered by the heat from lava, an amazing invention, which would surely make this an incredible scientific achievement, but Nazis care little about such things. The two men are tied up and Rudolph goes to work on the curvaceous Irish, even having her don a tight black dress. Unfortunately, for him his wife overhears his pleas to her to live with him on the island, so the wife aids the girl in escaping, though that doesn't work as planned and Irish is prepared to be used in an experiment. However, the U.S. Air Force has the island marked for bombing and begins an assault and this causes the volcano to erupt(because there's an active volcano under the island) and everything blows up, with the three heroically escaping, even though the innocent native babes perish in the blaze, because this is supposed to be a happy ending and doesn't that just make you feel all warm and fuzzy to imagine those honeys getting roasted alive midst lava and burnt Nazis?
Yeah, it sort of bummed me out, too. Though, we do get to see the same recycled stock footage from One Million B.C.(1940) that cropped up in every other movie in the 50s and the hero even gets off an amazing(okay, unbelievable) shot at a Nazi on a mountain. Somehow, the hero is able to shoot a Nazi in the head with a Walther P-38(a handgun) from over 200 yards at a Stormtrooper armed with a rifle! And to think that's not the most unbelievable thing in this movie!

There are some meager highlights in this deranged oddity from the fabulous 50s. We get a nice shot or Irish McCalla undressing behind a towel, which is one thing. The awesome(and pointless) ritual dance is certainly worth something, as are the butterface demons who run about, but never get involved in the dreamed of Nazi massacre at the end, because the greedy volcano had to ruin all the fun. What the hell was the point of the she demons anyway? They never offer much menace, and besides one corpulent Nazi, they don't even get a chance to shed any blood or(clothing, for you kinky monster fans), and the normal girls don't even survive the conclusion(did the screenwriters just forget about them?) and come to think of it, since the effects of the operation was only temporary, a lot of innocent girls just died. Ugh.
What else is there to "reccommend?" The makeups are pretty horrendous/hilarious and they should amuse, though the final shock cut of the wife's skull-like features, was genuinely impressive and her demise was kind of disturbing, as she retreats into the burning laboratory to die with her husband, who just got consumed by lava moments before. For an escapist picture, this sure was not a pleasant trip.
Little of the atmosphere(or professionalism,however meager) that Cunha displayed in Giant from the Unknown, is on display here. The film is erratically paced, with a far too talky script and not as much action as is required for this type of junk. It's never as much fun as it seems like it wants to be, even if McCalla gets undressed and native girls dance and Yen Sung makes references to Chop Suey, it's just not that enjoyable. Bad movie fans will probably get a slight kick out of it, as I did, for the marginal bits of entertainment and the goofy makeups and plot, plus the incredibly bad(but good) performance of Rudolph Anders, who makes for one of the most over the top mad scientists of all-time. His performance is overripe, and you can see how a clever screenwriter could take this and mould it into a fun, tongue-in-cheek screenplay, but sadly, this film is not so clever and not so fun, and with that, lets' move on to better trash, good or otherwise.

Pictures of Irish McCalla in happier times: