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Archive for February, 2018

Concluding our overview (expanded from comments on the SuperMegaMonkey Godzilla Chronology Project) of Toho’s Showa-era Godzilla films, plus two non-series kaiju eiga.

 

War of the Gargantuas (1970)

The letterboxed print aired on the Starz networks intrigued me. Both that and Monster Zero were shown dubbed rather than subtitled, and I presume the fact that they toplined gaijin Russ Tamblyn and Nick Adams, respectively, had something to do with it. Yet since the original U.S. release expunged the connection to Frankenstein Conquers the World, it couldn’t be that dub, since the F word (no, not that one) was flying thick and fast, and I now believe it to be another of Toho’s alternate “international versions.”

In fact, the bulk of the dialogue seemed to be devoted to the relationship between Frankenstein (sic) and the Gargantuas, although if they ever proferred a definitive explanation of exactly where Sanda actually came from, it eluded me. Aside from matching the actors with unsuitable voices—poor Kumi Mizuno’s is especially grating—the soundtrack is also extremely muffled and hard to understand. Perhaps most distracting, the voice ostensibly emerging from Rusty doesn’t sound remotely like his.

Well, in any language, or with any soundtrack, this is a pretty crappy picture. When I watch Haruo Nakajima or one of his successors play Godzilla, the fairly impressive suits enable me to suspend my disbelief enough that I actually “see” Godzilla. But here, he and his counterpart, Yú Sekita, are so obviously doofuses (doofi?) in crappy make-up that the whole thing just becomes risible. The Wikipedia page for this film features a hilarious still of Tsuburaya standing next to them on the miniature cityscape set, which drives the final nail into the coffin of verisimilitude.

This dub just renders the enervated Tamblyn’s performance even more somnolent, while the quasi-Nehru jacket he wears for mountain climbing—while his companions are all sporting suitable alpine gear—is a head-scratcher, and just what the heck is supposed to be his relationship with Kumi, who only ever addresses him as “Doctor?” Add to that the frequently lousy effects (e.g., when Sanda catches Kumi and places her back on the ledge, or the Mario Bava-style “volcano” that conveniently appears to swallow up the boys) and anticlimactic ending, and you’ve got a real turkey. “Special Guest Star” Kipp Hamilton’s rendition of “The Words Get Stuck in My Throat” (later popularized by Devo), which prompted a most unwelcome standing ovation from Gailah, deserves special mention for endearing this film to Tom Flynn, the once and future Host with the Most.

 

Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (1971, aka Godzilla vs. Hedora[h])

This was not one of the Showa entries included in the recent Starzapalooza, but since we’d bought my daughter—who has fond childhood memories of my introducing her to this loopy film—a nice DVD, she was kind enough to lend it to me when visiting for Christmas. Alas, that apparently uses Toho’s otherwise gorgeous widescreen, subtitled “international version” and, despite offering both English and Japanese audio tracks, inexplicably omits the memorable “Save the Earth” lyrics they’d taken the trouble to translate and record for AIP’s U.S. release. I think I even saw it in the theater back in the day, double-featured with Godzilla vs. the Bionic/Cosmic/Whatever Monster, although that may actually have been after it was broadcast on TV, especially given the three-year gap between the two productions.

In any case, I vividly recall being baffled by the off-kilter storytelling style of what may still be the weirdest Godzilla movie ever, at least among those I’ve seen, and wrongly blaming its incoherence on a botched U.S. edit at the time. It’s not too surprising that director Yoshimitsu Banno reportedly infuriated producer Tomoyuki Tanaka and torpedoed his own career with this one, since however timely the environmental theme may have been (and, sadly, still be), echoing the original’s anti-nuke stance, it’s handled so clumsily as to undercut any possible message, while the Big G takes another giant step downward by emulating Daiei rival Gamera’s power of flight. Yet despite, or perhaps because of, its monumental goofiness, “Smoggy”—as we refer to both Hedora(h) and the film—remains a guilty pleasure of sorts, and in his own gross way is scarier than most G-foes.

 

Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973)

Although letterboxed, the prints of the three 1970s Showa series entries aired on Starz (no Godzilla vs. Hedorah or …Gigan) were all dubbed, an unfortunate example of why kaiju eiga are often dismissed. And while their ’60s counterparts are films I like, merely enhanced by elite presentation, this just makes mostly bad films worse, e.g., the grating voice attributed here to the whiny kid in the inevitable short-shorts. Those are my two favorite cinematic decades, but this is a ’70s movie in the worst possible way with its ugly photography, costumes, and sets; the inventor’s dangling-cube home is the kind of jaw-dropper born only in fever dreams of the most unhinged production designers.

Yes, I enjoyed the mix-and-match use of Toho’s, um, Big Three that was sustained over four films beginning with the so-called Godzilla vs. the Thing. But in the “Fukuda Trilogy,” the recurrence of selected kaiju (e.g., Gigan, Angilas), plus their increasing anthropomorphism—unlike, say, Mothra—and tendency to show up in groups of four at the climax, exacerbate the feeling that we’re watching pro wrestling on acid. And yet, unable to confirm without immediate access to them both, I might buck the conventional wisdom calling this Godzilla’s nadir, and say it may be a step up from Haruo Nakajima’s sad swan song, the arguably sillier stock-music-and-footage fest Godzilla vs. Gigan (“Hey, Angilas!” “Whattaya want?”).

So it’s Gigan, for whose return precisely nobody was clamoring, and the equally ill-conceived Megalon in this corner, with Ultraman-wannabe Jet Jaguar—whose growth spurt utterly ignores, for instance, the question of where his additional mass came from—and drive-by (swim-by?) savior Godzilla in the other. To give credit where it’s due, Megalon’s destruction of the dam is actually pretty impressive, despite the highly implausible survival of the cargo container’s occupants, who would presumably have been killed on impact. Unintentional hilarity: the Seatopian leader instructs his minions to contact their agents on Easter Island, and we immediately cut to a shot of the famous statues. “No, not those guys!”

At the risk of contradicting fnord12, I believe it was gaijin distributor Cinema Shares rather than Toho itself that invoked the De Laurentiis Kong when ballyhooing the film so heavily in the U.S. Mark Drummond commented on the accompanying comic-book version, which misidentified Jet Jaguar and Gigan as “Robotman” and “Borodan,” respectively. And the butchered version that, alas, marked the Big G’s first American prime-time network premiere was hosted by John Belushi in a Godzilla suit on NBC; I never saw it, which is probably just as well.

 

Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974, aka Godzilla vs. the Bionic/Cosmic Monster)

Watching this after its direct sequel was a curious experience, emphasizing both similarities and differences. Many have pointed out the consistency in the casting of, and the relationships among, some of the characters (with Akihiko Hirata here mercifully free of fright wig, and actually aging gracefully in real life), although “consistency” is not a word that springs to mind when considering their respective screenplays. Yet while we may not think of kaiju eiga as a particularly director-driven subgenre, the difference between even cut-rate, latter-day Ishiro Honda and the disjointed storytelling of ’70s Jun Fukuda is more dramatic than anything seen in this picture.

Godzilla’s 20th-anniversary outing reportedly made more money than its predecessor, which is as it should be, but less than its far superior successor, a head-scratcher that helped lead to his hiatus of almost a decade. I’d forgotten that although he walks away from his jaw-popping by Mechagodzilla (a move that seems uniformly fatal in King Kong movies), Angilas is hors de combat for the remainder, sparing us the tag-team formulism of Gigan or Megalon. Speaking of whom, I never thought I’d see the day when any kaiju would make those two look good by comparison, yet King Caesar resembles nothing so much as an oversized mogwai with moth-eaten pelts randomly attached to his body.

You’ll also notice that, absent those WWE-style four-way matches, the two Mechagodzilla films reverse their climactic dynamics. Here, it requires two kaiju to square off against him, although Little Caesar brings relatively little to the table, whereas in Terror of Mechagodzilla, the original must hold his own against both his robo-double and Titanosaurus. I always liked Mechani-Kong from King Kong Escapes, so I rank MG pretty high among G-foes, especially amid the mostly lame ’70s competition—and of course we briefly get the spectacle of Godzilla apparently fighting himself!

As a lad, I saw this at the cinema near the Trumbull mall during its kid-oriented U.S. theatrical run, although I can recall neither which entry was the co-feature (I want to say Smog Monster), nor whether it was before or after Universal forced the speedy title change from Godzilla vs. the Bionic… to …Cosmic Monster, due to their Six Million Dollar Man bionic franchise. I do remember that they somehow managed to put one of the reels on backwards, which both exacerbated and epitomized the film’s already considerable WTF factor. Sharp-eared viewers will note that the score, in which Fukuda-fave Masaru Sato—this was the series swan song for them both—makes his bid for Mothra-esque glory with the Caesar-summoning song, also includes a nice cut from Son of Godzilla during one of the battles.

“That’s a powerful pipe” perhaps deserves special mention.

 

Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975)

A viewing order determined at least partly by Starz has produced some interesting juxtapositions, e.g., plunging from the pinnacle of Godzilla vs. the Thing into the depths of War of the Gargantuas. In this case I moved in the opposite direction, soaring from Godzilla vs. Megalon to the letterboxed Honda/Ifukube/Hirata reunion that ended the Showa era on a high note, even slipping Kenji Sahara in as a general. Per Shakespeare’s Gay Boys in Bondage (via Monty Python), “And what a difference!,” plus I’m obliged to admit that even the dubbing’s not too bad.

Ironically, the satisfaction of this throwback to the 1960s Golden Age of kaiju eiga derives in part from a plot mechanism decades older, since Hirata’s disgruntled scientist could well have come from a ’30s or ’40s genre film: “I’ll teach those humans [And you are…?] for failing to recognize me. They mocked me—well, now they’re going to eat their words!” The tragedy of the Mafunes is strangely compelling, with the doctor’s allegiance to the aliens motivated as much by gratitude for their “saving” his daughter Katsura as by a desire for vengeance on his race, and Katsura herself torn between her innate goodness and her alien programming. Strange to see boobies in a kaiju eiga when she’s under the knife, but since I doubt Tomoko Ai had machinery in her belly in real life, they are evidently fake boobies, which may not count.

His oeuvre having been pillaged for stock cues in Gigan, Maestro Akira Ifukube makes a triumphal return with an impressive score that lends the proceedings the proper gravitas, especially in our first look at the reassembled Mechagodzilla, suitably emblazoned “MG2.” For the most part, Teruyoshi Nakano’s effects rise to the occasion, although for some reason I always find those extreme up-angle shots of Titanosaurus in bright sunlight jarring, and the laws of physics certainly take a beating when he picks Godzilla up by his snout. As is typical for these films, Godzilla is trounced with equal ferocity, even suffering a premature burial, when double-teamed by Mechagodzilla and Titanosaurus—no fair!—but easily triumphs one on one.

Toho-footnote Titanosaurus will never win any Kaiju of the Year awards, but at least has the virtue of being organic in multiple senses, i.e., both “natural” (he’s a dinosaur) and “of a piece” (not a hodgepodge thrown together out of disparate parts, like Gigan or Megalon). Starz was Showa-ing—er, showing—the original Japanese version, minus the sloppy edits that caused some confusion about various plot points, e.g., the last-minute redemption whereby a wounded Katsura kills herself to destroy the control device. This also lacks the stock-footage prologue added by Henry G. Saperstein to pad out the film when, after its sketchy U.S. theatrical release as Terror of Godzilla, most of us gaijin first encountered it on TV in 1978…which is not to be confused with the indigenous stock footage in that weird split-screen “Disaster Monsters” interlude.

 

Final reminder: Godzilla expert Steve Ryfle will discuss and autograph his new book Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, from Godzilla to Kurosawa at New York’s Japan Society at 6:30 P.M. on Wednesday, February 21. The event is moderated by Bruce Goldstein, Director of Repertory Programming at the incomparable Film Forum, and the reception to follow will feature a display of rare Godzillabilia.

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Hi-Yo, SILVER!

What I’ve Been Watching: The Atomic Submarine (1959).

Who’s Responsible:  Spencer G[ordon] Bennet (director); Orville H. Hampton (screenwriter); Arthur Franz, Dick Foran, Brett Halsey (stars).

Why I Watched It:  See below.

Seen It Before?  Long ago.

Likelihood of Seeing It Again (1-10):  8.

Likelihood the Guys Will Rib Me for Watching It (1-10):  2.

Totally Subjective BOF Rating (1-10):  5.

And?  This is part of my Self-Imposed Laserdisc-Viewing/Exercise Regimen (hereinafter SILVER), whereby I am working my way systematically through my LDs while riding my stationary bike.  In some cases, that will mean forcing myself to watch stuff I’ve been putting off for years, but in others, it’s a welcome opportunity to revisit films I remember fondly, albeit hazily here.  In particular, I’m hoping to confirm this definitively—as we did with the obscure Euro-horror entry The Murder Clinic (1966)—as the source of an image that has been locked in my friend Gilbert’s memory since childhood, in this case an “eyeball monster” that I think may well be the inhabitant of this film’s flying saucer.

The story is set in a then-near future when sub-Arctic civilian and military shipping has become commonplace, yet is now threatened by a series of unexplained disasters. Cmdr. Dan Wendover (Foran) is sent to investigate, his titular Tiger Shark packed with special weapons, gear (e.g., an experimental mini-sub), and personnel, including two underwater-demolition frogmen and noted egghead Sir Ian Hunt (Tom Conway).  Not all the baggage they carry is literal, because Dan’s exec, Lt. Cmdr. Richard “Reef” Holloway (Franz), has an iceberg-sized chip on his shoulder about the alleged pacifism of Dr. Carl Neilson, Jr. (Halsey), who created the Lungfish with his revered father and is its only qualified pilot.

Things get weird around the 40-minute mark as the Shark spots, and fires two torpedoes at, the undersea UFO—whose design prompts the nickname Cyclops—only to have one inexplicably miss and the other stop dead in a mass of apparent gel surrounding it; oddly, no mention is made of these two live nuclear weapons thereafter.  Dan, favoring a direct approach, rams Cyclops, which everyone naively assumes has “killed” it, but the prow of the sub has lodged within it, so the Lungfish is dispatched to try to cut them loose.  In the event, “killed” is more accurate than they realize, because Cyclops is not only inhabited by our tentacled eyeball but also alive and, more important, capable of regenerating itself.

This minor SF feature is a footnote to Bennet’s reign as the “King of Serial Directors” on Superman (1948), Batman and Robin (1949), et al., but the cast is headed by a quartet of the usual suspects.  Screenwriter Hampton ground out The Alligator People and The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake that same year, and has genre credits dating back to additional dialogue for Rocketship X-M (1950), which teamed FX mainstays Irving Block and Jack Rabin.  That prolific pair designed and created this film’s effects with frequent partner Louis DeWitt, penned the uncredited story (per the IMDb), and worked on countless ’50s efforts such as Flight to Mars (1951) and Kronos (1957), plus the series Men into Space.

The male lead in the Rabin/Block Invaders from Mars (1953) and Jack Arnold’s Monster on the Campus (1958), Franz was cast by Edward Dmytryk in The Caine Mutiny (1954) and others, while Foran took a break from the saddle as Steve Banning in The Mummy’s Hand (1940) and …Tomb (1942).  Although he ironically worked with Mario Bava only on the spaghetti Western Roy Colt and Winchester Jack (1970) and the sex comedy Four Times That Night (1971), Halsey did star in Return of the Fly (1959).  Conway was, of course, a veteran of Val Lewton’s Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie and The Seventh Victim (both 1943), and succeeded his brother, George Sanders, as the Falcon.

The supporting cast could have wandered in from one of the many war/sub movies this recalls in its early reels; naturally, I know sagebrush star Bob Steele, playing CPO “Grif” Griffin, best as Canino in The Big Sleep (1946).  An early fixture at AIP, producing such Roger Corman efforts as Day the World Ended (1955) before going independent, Alex (brother of Richard) Gordon also wrote Jail Bait (1954) and Bride of the Monster (1955) with Ed Wood.  But it is the Rabin/Block team—whose last feature this was—that makes it memorable, the micro-budget’s struggle to live up to their ideas giving it a ramshackle weirdness that I find of greater interest than a more conventional, empirically better film.

Carl’s passengers enter Cyclops through an iris (get it?) hatch and find…nothing, a plain black set with lighted ramps anticipating the Outer Limits episode “Nightmare.”  The rest are either fried by unspecified means or crushed in the iris, but after the alien hand puppet (voiced by John Hilliard) tells Reef they like Earth best of all the planets considered for colonization, and by the way would love some human specimens, he fires a Very pistol into its eye.  The Shark is extricated while it regenerates—via reverse footage—and when Cyclops flies off, a hastily rejiggered ICBM soon sets things right, leaving Reef and Carl to mend fences, hoping that their victory will forestall further visits from the evil aliens.

The laserdisc co-feature, Richard Gordon’s First Man into Space (1959), just…isn’t…very…interesting.

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