Creature Feature Spotlight: Gojira

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Greetings, readers! I hope you’re enjoying my spotlight on creature features and it’s getting you in the mood for Halloween. This week I’m spotlighting my favorite creature feature: Gojira (Godzilla to American viewers) from 1954. While the franchise would later be known for its campy sequels, the original remains a sobering cautionary tale about the consequences of the using the atomic bomb.

The film’s story starts when ships start mysteriously exploding and then sinking. A monster isn’t originally thought to be the cause. Here’s a brief plot summary:

Japan is thrown into a panic after several ships explode and are sunk. At first, the authorities think it’s either underwater mines or underwater volcanic activity. The authorities soon head to Odo Island, close to where several of the ships were sunk. One night, something comes onshore and destroys several houses and kills several people. A later expedition to the island led by paleontologist Professor Kyôhei Yamane (Takashi Shimura), his daughter Emiko (Momoko Kôchi), and young navy frogman Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada,who also happens to be Emiko’s lover, even though she is betrothed to Dr. Daisuke Serizawa) soon discover something more devastating than imagined in the form of a 164-foot-tall (50-meter-tall) monster whom the natives call Gojira. Now, the monster begins a rampage that threatens to destroy not only Japan but the rest of the world as well. Can the monster be destroyed before it is too late, and what role will the mysterious Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) play in the battle?–IMDB

Why is it that Gojira holds a special place in my heart? It isn’t just the childhood nostalgia, although that’s part of it. I like that it’s not just about the monster and the destruction it causes. It’s a film that openly discusses the consequences of atomic bombs. We discover later in the film that what created the monster was nuclear weapons testing by Americans. Science and its consequences are front and center in this movie. The issue is addressed superficially in Them! and countless other monster films. Gojira has endured as a classic because underneath all the terrific action sequences (especially when Godzilla attacks Tokyo) is a story that has a message without being preachy.

Another reason I like this movie so much is that many of the protagonists are scientists and act as realistically as scientists can in a preposterous movie where a giant lizard attacks Japan. Dr. Serizawa is the most interesting of the bunch. He wrestles with moral questions, and isn’t just there as Emiko’s spurned lover. Should Serizawa use the weapon he has developed to destroy Godzilla but could potentially harm all ocean life? It’s another example of why this isn’t just a movie where you’re watching it for the destruction the monster causes. Gojira doesn’t insult the intelligence of its audience as many of its imitators do.

Incredibly I’ve gotten this far without discussing the monster yet. With due respect to King Kong, Godzilla is the true king of the monsters. The allusions to Godzilla in the beginning with the weird occurrences at sea are very suspenseful and make you appreciate the monster when it does show up. While Godzilla is definitely a man in a rubber suit, he’s very believable. When Godzilla rises out of the sea and enters Tokyo Bay, it’s genuinely terrifying. The destruction of the city feels real.

Gojira‘s sequels did get pretty cheesy. But a few were of pretty high quality, especially Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla. But the original is a classic in my eyes. It’s as much a creature feature as it is a meditation on the atomic age. If you haven’t seen it, you owe it yourself to do so.

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Creature Feature Spotlight: Gremlins

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The month we celebrate Halloween seemed like as good a time as any to highlight creature features. So far I’ve covered a murderous blob, giant ants,and now I bring you gremlins. Yes, it’s time for me to talk about the film that I watch at Halloween and Christmas (along with Time Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas). It’s the 1984 gem: Gremlins.

Here’s a quick plot summary to get you up to speed:

Inventor Rand Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) tries to find a quick gift for his son Billy (Zach Galligan) before returning home from a New York trip. He settles on a unique pet in a Chinatown curio shop–a cute, furry creature known as a Mogwai. Before he leaves, he is warned by the shop’s owner that three rules must be obeyed by a Mogwai owner: 1) Keep it away from bright light, 2) Don’t get any water on it, and 3) Never, never ever feed it after midnight. Rand takes note of these rules and returns home with the Mogwai to his idyllic small-town home of Kingston Falls. Rand’s gift is an instant hit: Billy loves his adorable new pet, naming it Gizmo and taking it everywhere he goes. Unfortunately, he and his friends also begin breaking the rules of Mogwai care. When water is accidentally spilled on Gizmo, it causes him to multiply and produce a number of mischievous little brothers. Among these is the mean-tempered Stripe. Soon enough, the new Mogwai get hold of some food after midnight and this causes them to change from cute fur-balls into nasty, scaly monsters dubbed Gremlins.–IMDB

So Gremlins is in the great tradition of movies where some critter runs amok. What makes the film standout is the screenplay. It was written by Chris Columbus, who went on to direct the first two Harry Potter movies. The film has a lot of fun with monster movie clichés. If you’ve ever seen a creature feature where a beast terrorizes a small American town, you’ll find the film all the more enjoyable. The insanity really starts when the rules for taking care of Gizmo are broken (an inevitable plot development in a film like this). Water gets spilled on Gizmo by one of Pete’s friends, it opens Pandora’s Box. Stripe, Gizmo’s offspring, is nothing like the sweet creature. Eventually through a dive in the pool at the local YMCA and also by tricking Billy into feeding them after midnight, the bad Gremlins start terrorizing Kingston Falls. Another plot development you’ll recognize from films like The Blob is that the police don’t believe the warnings about the murderous creatures. If they did the movie would be a lot shorter. And what fun would that be?

Once the gremlins start wreaking havoc, it has a lot of fun satirizing monster movies as well as Christmas movies. The opening shot of the film looks right out of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. One of my favorite scenes is when the gremlins take over a movie theater and have a whole screening room to themselves. There’s also the great finale that’s a chase through the local Montgomery Ward. If there’s anything that screams Christmas it’s misadventures at a department store.

Let me just note that I don’t want people walking into this thinking it’s all goofy fun. There are some genuinely terrifying scenes involving the evil gremlins, including *spoiler alert!* a gremlin getting killed by being blown up in a microwave. Gremlins has its moments of genuine fright. That being said, Gremlins is a complete delight. Director Joe Dante and writer Chris Columbus manage to deliver a film that perfectly balances holiday cheer and creature feature terror. Not many films could balance those tones so well. Ir’s a triumph on both counts. Credit should not only go to Dante and Columbus, but producer Steven Spielberg. Spielberg has proven to be as great a producer as a director. He knows how to pair directors with projects. Some of his producing credits include: Back to the Future, The Mask of Zorro, and Men In Black. That’s a pretty good track record.

Side note: The wonderful score was done by Jerry Goldsmith. He’s no stranger to scoring horror films, having won an Oscar for The Omen. The Gremlin Rag is one of my favorite soundtrack pieces.

Gremlins is scary, clever, and funny. All of the elements work. Whether you watch it at Halloween or Christmas, you’ll have a good time.

Creature Feature Spotlight: Them!

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This week in honor of Halloween season, I bring you week two of my spotlight on creature feature films. For this week’s spotlight I have chosen Them! from 1954. While the idea of an apocalypse brought about by giant ants seems ridiculous on the surface, the film is surprisingly effective. That’s a credit to the craftsmanship of the filmmakers. While it’s no Casablanca (few films can measure up to that standard), as a creature feature it delivers what you’d expect with production values that you don’t.

The plot in a movie like Them! isn’t really that important. But here’s a summary all the same.

In the New Mexico desert, Police Sgt. Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) and his partner find a child wandering in the desert and sooner they discover that giant ants are attacking the locals. FBI agent Robert Graham (James Arness of Gunsmoke fame) teams up with Ben and with the support of Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn, known to classic film viewers for his portrayal of Santa in Miracle on 34th Street) and his daughter Dr. Patricia ‘Pat’ Medford (Joan Weldon), they destroy the colony of ants in the middle of the desert. Dr. Harold Medford explains that the atomic testing in 1945 developed the dangerous mutant ants. But they also discover that two queen ants have flown away to Los Angeles and they are starting a huge colony in the underground of the city. When a mother reports that her two children are missing, the team and the army have a lead to follow. Will they arrive in time to save the children and destroy the colony?–IMDB

Them! was one of many monster films that came out in the 1950s that dealt with fear of the atomic bomb. Others included Gojira (Godzilla to American audiences), The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, Tarantula, and Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman. These films were cheesy, but they tapped into the real fear of nuclear fallout. All of these films are great time capsules of the paranoia that gripped the world when they were made. That concludes the history lesson. Now let me tell you more about Them!.

I picked this film for several reasons. One of the main ones is that the design of the mutant ants is incredible. Even though this is clearly a far-fetched story, the creatures are absolutely believable. When you finally see the first one a good way into the movie, it’s quite a sight. There’s great buildup before you see the ants too. When the police officers find the little girl wandering in the desert, she’s absolutely ashen and just in shock. What could possibly have had that kind of effect on a person? The girl is too frightened to even speak. Then there’s the persistent chirping sound we hear in the background. We later find out that’s the ants communicating with each other. Here’s an interesting tidbit from Internet Movie Database about how that sound effect was achieved:

The sound that the giant ants make as they approach their prey is a recorded chorus of bird-voiced tree frogs (Hyla avivoca) of the southeastern US. Occasionally a gray tree frog (Hyla chrysoscelis) can be heard on the soundtrack as well, as these species can often be heard together at the same wetland.

I’ve seen Them! almost a dozen times, and that sound still gives me goosebumps. Once we get through the buildup and our protagonists are hunting down the ants, there are some really incredible shots. One of my favorites is a shot of one of the ants holding a human rib cage in its mouth. It remains one of the most striking moments in creature feature history. Towards the end of the movie, there’s a chase through the sewer tunnels under the city. The police go down there to try to rescue some kids. The cinematography by Sid Hickox is superb. There’s great use of shadows and lighting through that whole sequence. This makes me glad the film wasn’t shot in color, as originally planned. Apparently the studio got nervous at the last-minute and cut the budget. The one color sequence that remained was the title font. Them! was also originally supposed to be in 3-D. Some of those sequences were left in and are easy to spot, such as the flame throwers coming right at the camera.

But the creatures aren’t the only reason to see this movie. The actors all give solid performances, especially Edmund Gwenn. James Whitmore is very believable as the police officer. And while Joan Weldon is somewhat of a token female character, she gives it her all.

Them! had real money put into it by the studio and you can see that on the screen. Yes, it’s a campy monster movie. But everyone involved made the best of what they had. So many creature movies today are bloated CGI messes (like that 1998 version of Godzilla that I pretend doesn’t exist). But Them! is a film that is great to look at and human characters you can really root for. It’s a little dated with the atomic age message, but it’s still a fun film to watch 62 years later.

Creature Feature Spotlight: The Blob

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There are few months I look forward to on the calendar more than October. The leaves change color, the weather is crisp, and it brings my favorite holiday: Halloween. When you’re a horror film addict, Halloween is basically paradise. Monsters, haunted houses, psychological thrillers, ghost stores, zombies…bring it on! In the spirit of Halloween, my October spotlight will be on creature features. My first choice is one of the greatest cult classics ever made: The Blob.

Released in 1958, The Blob features a very early film performance by Steve McQueen. Yes, you read that correctly. Steve McQueen starred in a low-budget horror film early in his career. In fact, it led to him being cast in a western series called Wanted: Dead or Alive. But I digress.Back to the movie. It’s a pretty simple plot. Teenagers go to investigate a meteor crash and find a creature. Sadly, no one believes their monster story.

After teenagers Steve Andrews (Steve McQueen) and his girlfriend Jane Martin (Aneta Corsaut) see a meteorite crash nearby, they set off to investigate. They come across an old man who seems to have some type of gelatinous matters stuck to his hand. They take him to Dr. Hallen (Stephen Chase)  who isn’t sure what the substance is but Steve becomes convinced it’s a monster of some sort after both the old man and the doctor vanish. As the creature consumes more and more people, it grows larger and larger. Steve’s biggest problem is that he can’t get anyone to believe him and continually faces skeptical policeman and angry parents. The creature finally reaches a size that it cannot be missed and everyone wonders how they will possibly stop it.–IMDB

The story isn’t really the point here. It rarely is in a creature feature. The reason I love The Blob isn’t because it’s a deep meditation on the human condition or that it has a complex story line. I like this movie because it’s ridiculous, knows it’s ridiculous, and just goes with it. The Blob doesn’t aspire to greatness and that’s okay. It’s entertaining watching the absurdity of the whole situation escalate as the movie goes on. Teenagers finding a meteor isn’t all that far-fetched. Finding a creature in the meteor? Now we’re pushing the believability curve.

The Blob also features one of my favorite horror films tropes: no one believes the existence of the monster until they get attacked/killed by it. Sure there’s all this evidence, but it has to be a joke, right? Especially if the people warning everyone about the monsters are kids. Adults always know better. Yeah, not in The Blob, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and a billion other horror movies. It’s satisfying when the skeptics get their just desserts by the last reel of film.

I just want to mention a few other takeaways from The Blob. First, Steve McQueen, one of my favorite actors, delivers a solid performance. In spite of the campy material, he makes it work. If you look at the careers of many great actors (including Jack Nicholson), you’ll find a large number of them started their careers in low-budget horror films. It’s a genre that often forces the talents involved to make something out of nothing. Second, let me just mention my favorite scene. That would be the scene where the blob attacks an audience at a movie theater. The image of a giant gelatinous mass oozing through a movie theater as people flee in terror is just priceless. It’s one of the great panicking mob scenes in horror movies. Finally, I have to mention that I have a soft spot in my part for the campy song that plays over the film’s opening credits. Written Co-written by Burt Bacharach Mack David, it’s catchy, fun, and sets the whole cheesy tone of the movie. Once you hear it you’ll never forget the lyrics. Listening to it brings a goofy grin to my face.

While I love darker creature features, the occasional campy one is fun too, as long as it’s done right. That is the case with The Blob. It’s a great popcorn flick to enjoy on a creepy night in October, or any month for that matter. And it’s a joy to see Steve McQueen trying to make lemonade out of the lemon of a screenplay he was given. The Blob is a goofy, fun romp. I never get tired of watching it.