Monday 26 March 2012

The Giant Gila Monster (1959)

Monster movies were really big in the 1950s, if you'll pardon the expression.  That was partly a reaction to anxieties caused by the atom bomb, partly due to the excitement generated by the nascent space race and partly because they were lapped up by undemanding teenagers at drive-ins.  So, in some cases you get a monster arrive from outer space (e.g. IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE or THE BLOB); in others you get a dormant creature awakened or released by scientific meddling (e.g. THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS); and sometimes you get a normal-sized creature made ginormous by scientific meddling (e.g. THEM! or TARANTULA).

In THE GIANT GILA MONSTER, which was directed by Ray Kellogg and released by the independent Hollywood Pictures Corporation in June 1959, you get a ginormous - or, rather, giant - Gila monster that achieved its size via its own means, presumably to demonstrate how weird Texas is at the best of times.  For the uninitiated, a Gila monster is a venomous lizard native to the USA.  Normally it grows to about two feet long but for the purposes of drive-in features it can grow to the size of a railway carriage.

The Gila in this flick is terrorizing a small Texan community by smashing cars off the road, derailing trains, flattening people and generally being a nuisance.  The only person who seems to be taking things seriously is local mechanic and budding rock star Chase Winstead (Don Sullivan).  Perhaps not being quite au fait with proper rock star behaviour, Chase is a clean cut lad who helps the police, does good deeds and is a role model  to his crippled sister.  In fact, he's very much a middle-aged man's idea of what a teenager ought to be, which isn't really a surprise considering Ray Kellogg was 54 when he wrote and directed the movie.

Chase Winstead played by Don Sullivan
Nevertheless, this is a teen-oriented horror movie and I suppose in that sense the monster subgenre could be regarded as a forerunner of the that other teen-oriented subgenre, the slasher movie, which dominated the late 1970s and 1980s.  The pre-credits sequence sees a necking couple being nudged over a cliff and then stomped on for good measure.  Then following the credits we meet the town's teenagers all bopping away like mad in the diner.

Things proceed very much as you might expect from this point: the lizard kills an increasing number of people while the sceptical townsfolk fanny about wondering what's going on.  It's not until it knocks down a railway bridge and chows down on the passengers after the train derails that the authorities believe Chase's theory of a mammoth creature that has lived hitherto undetected in a gulley.  Even so, that doesn't deter from the teenyboppers from gathering into a nice target-sized barn for a sock hop featuring superstar DJ Steamroller Smith, whom Chase had earlier saved from a little drink-driving incident.  When the lizard turns up and pokes his head through the side of the barn all hell breaks loose.

At the hop, which looks more like a sermon

The Giant (no, really) Gila monster arrives
It's easy to take the mickey but it's good clean fun and so hopelessly uncool that it's actually rather endearing.  It's pretty shonky on a technical level too: no doubt for budgetary reasons the film-makers couldn't get their hands on a genuine Giant Gila monster so had to make do with a tiny one.  Which wouldn't have been a problem if they'd also had decent scale models to make the damn thing look giant; but sadly that  didn't happen either so, for the most part, the lizard looks utterly harmless.

One or two things struck me while watching the movie.  First is a rather obvious point about how central to American popular culture is the automobile.  Essentially this film wouldn't exist without it: the characters would have no means to get to the locations, the lizard would have nothing to chase, and perhaps more importantly - from a sociological point of view - the kids would have nothing to do.  Like another monster movie I watched recently - Irvin S. Yeaworth's THE BLOB [1958] - the kids are all mad keen hot rodders.

Second, there is an odd thing going on in this movie whereby many of the characters seem unable to talk to each other without raising one leg to lean on a table or bench.  Once I noticed it I saw it everywhere, to the extent that it became unintentionally hilarious, particularly when both actors are doing it.  I suppose it's something to do with the actors being inexperienced and uncomfortable simply standing there.

Finally, and a little ungraciously, I couldn't help noticing that Chase's little sister looked disconcertingly like Brian Molko from Placebo.  Fine, if you're an indie adrogyne; less so if you're looking to break into the cute little sister market.

Hi, I'm Brian from Placebo
Film anorak notes:
Director Ray Kellogg was really a special effects man but got the directing gig for this movie because that was his condition for agreeing doing the effects.  He only made a couple of other features (including the equally ludicrous THE KILLER SHREWS) but in 1968 was inexplicably plucked from obscurity to co-direct the notoriously right wing pro-war THE GREEN BERETS with star John Wayne.

Don Sullivan never made it out of B-movies in a career that lasted little more than five years and, worryingly, of which THE GIANT GILA MONSTER was probably the high water mark.

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