Cybersurfing: Global Warming or Godzilla?

In a snarky post titled “Bloggers 1: Science 0,” coeruleus.blogspot takes aim at the conservative blogosphere’s theory du jour to explain away global warming: the rise in arctic temperatures is due to undersea volcanoes. The post offers an even more radical theory for the melting of arctic ice…

Could Godzilla be responsible for the melting of arctic ice?

The only flaw I can find in this theory is that Godzilla, being of Japanese origin, tends to spend more time in the Southern hemisphere, closer to Antarctica.

The One You Might Have Saved

Barbra (Judith O'Dea) in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEADRiffing on an earlier essay at Arbogast on Film, Final Girl offers this opinion on why Barbra in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), is the one horror movie victim she would have saved if she had the chance. Barbra (Judith O’Dea) of course receives undue contempt from contemporary audiences because she is – realistically and quite believably – traumatized by the horrible events around her; instead of morphing into a monster-fighting icon of female empowerment (something that would not really happen until Sigourney Weaver played Ripley in ALIEN eleven years later), Barbra simply sinks into catatonia until she briefly flares up at the end – only to be devoured by her dead brother. Barbra sets the standard as the archetypal character who cannot handle what is happening (she foreshadows Veronica Cartwright in ALIEN and Bill Paxton in ALIENS), and her ultimate fate is less shocking than deeply disturbing – which is to say it packs a deep emotional resonance that provokes viewers to think, “Oh no!” instead of “Ain’t it cool!”
I have never had quite such a memorably profound reaction to the death of an on-screen character as Final Girl records, but many are victims I have seen who did not deserve their fate. Below I offer my list…
A Woman of the Streets in MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932). Arlene Francis (who would later become famous as a panelist on the TV show WHAT’S MY LINE) plays this euphemistically-named character (obviously a prostitute). Practically crucified on a rack, Francis screams – and screams – and SCREAMS while Bela Lugosi’s Dr. Mirakle examines her blood, hoping it will help his experiments. The way she is trussed up vaguely suggests some kind of S&M dungeon device, and this may be the distant grand-daddy of Torture Porn. And as if it were not enough to kill the woman, Mirakle insults her as well, adopting a tone of moral outrage because her blood is “polluted” (presumably symbolic of her state as a fallen woman), which means it is not suitable for his work. What is most amazing, however, is that this quaint relic from an earlier era actually still packs a punch, thanks to Francis’s unnerving vocalizations – which provoke an almost instinctive protective reaction in the listener.
Josef in THE BODY SNATCHERS (1945). Lugosi gets payback for Francis in this film, playing a dim-bulb assistant who makes the mistake of thinking he can blackmail the murderous body snatcher played by Boris Karloff. Josef is not much of a character, but it is sad to see Lugosi, briefly the reigning king of horror thanks to DRACULA, killed off by Karloff, the star who dethroned him by playing the Monster in FRANKENSTEIN.
The Creature from the Black Lagoon in THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US (1956). This is the one where meddling scientists operate on the Creature so that he can no longer breath underwater, forcing him to become a permanent land-walker. Some jerk commits a murder and tries to blame it on the innocent beast, who goes on a rampage, killing the real murderer. The Creature then heads to the ocean, lured by the sound of crashing waves, and the film leaves us in no doubt that he will drown to death attempting to return to the water that used to be his home. The humans in this film have much to answer for, and one wishes the Creature didn’t have to pay the price for their mistakes.
Dandelo in THE FLY (1958). Dandelo the cat becomes the unwitting victim of his master, scientist Andre Delambre (Al Hedison) who puts him in a matter transmitter. Dandelo disappears – but never rematerializes. All that is left is an echoing wale on the soundtrack. Poor Dandelo, I wish I could bring you back to our dimension; I have a little cat bed here, some cat toys, and a little catnip….
Miles in THE INNOCENTS (1961). Exorcising a malicious ghost proves to be a fatal experience for this young boy played by Martin Stephens. The tragedy of the downer ending hits you over the head like a sledgehammer. Did his governess (Deborah Kerr) save him from the evil influence, or did she unwittingly give him a heart attack by forcing him to confront the ghost? I don’t know if I could have handled the situation any better, but I would like to try.
The Monkey in PORTRAIT OF HELL (1969).This Japanese masterpiece tells the story of  Korean painter who can only paint what he sees. When his Japanese lord asks him to paint a divine vista, the artist insists on painting Hell instead. To aid in his endeavor, he asks his lord to stage a scene with a burning chariot; the lord complies – and puts the artist’s daughter in the chariot! As she burns to death, her pet monkey leaps from a nearby tree, joining her in the living funeral pyre. That’s right: in this film, no one comes to a good end – even the monkey dies! It’s such a gratuitous bit – an extra added sucker punch, just to make you feel even worse as you view the tragedy – that you want to point your fire extinguisher at the screen.
The Private Eye in FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (1971).This Dario Argento thriller features a gay private detective in a supporting role. He brags that he has never solved a case but confidently insists that the odds must therefore now be in his favor. He does identify the murderer but only in time to become a victim himself. His demise by poison is poignant – as he realizes, at the moment of his death, that he was, for once, right. You really wish he had lived to enjoy his success instead of expiring ignominiously in a public restroom.
Dr. Martin in ASYLUM (1972). For me, actor Robert Powell will always be JESUS OF NAZARETH – that and the almost mystical father-figure in Ken Russell’s film version of TOMMY. The death of his well-meaning young psychiatrist at the end of this film is too horrible for words. Dr. Martin’s murder, I have to admit, is a pretty effective sick joke (the murderer strangles him with a stethoscope, then uses it to listen for the heartbeat that is no longer there). But the film had set him up as an idealist who objects – quite rightly – to the situation he finds in the asylum. When he dies, it is as if a small piece of hope dies with him.
Edward Lionheart in THEATRE OF BLOOD (1973). Vincent Price plays a hammy Shakespearean actor who kills the critics that trashed his performances. Although inspired by Price’s role in the DR. PHIBES films (in which the mad doctor triumphed), THEATRE reverts to a standard formula at the end, with Lionheart dying in a fire while the final critic walks away to live happily ever after. The injustice is infuriating: Lionheart should have survived and toasted the arrogant twit. (By the way, this is the only suggestion on my list that I mean literally: the film would be better if the script had been rewritten to make Lionheart triumphant.)
Sergeant Howie in THE WICKER MAN (1973). As he investigates the disappearance of a young girl on a Scottish Isle, Howie (Edward Woodward) is set up as a bit of a dullard and an unsympathetic prick to boot. The effect for me is that he comes across as a pathetic patsy – a victim less of the murderous pagans on the island than of the unsympathetic screenwriter (Anthony Shaffer) who created him. Howie, I never really liked you that much, but I can’t stand to see anyone forced to take a fall like that. If there were any C02 left in my fire extinguisher after saving the monkey in PORTRAIT OF HELL, I would use it on the flaming Wicker Man.
Jessica Bradford in BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974). We do not actually see Jessica (Olivia Hussey) die in this film, but the movie ends with her character drugged unconscious while the idiot police department (having fingered the wrong man) leaves her alone in the house with the real killer. Director Bob Clark later said in an interview with Cinefantastique that Hussey’s character had earned the right to live, and I have to agree. I have a hypodermic of adrenalin here that should wake her from her drugged-out torpor, if only I could reach through the screen…
Carrie in CARRIE (1976). I would have saved Sissy Spacek’s psychic girl long before her death at the end of the movie. When the film builds up to the horrible prank at the prom, it is one of the few moments in a horror film when I found myself dreading what was about to happen – even though I knew it had to happen in order for the horror to break out (which was, after all, what I had paid to see). Unlike most films, in which one eagerly anticipates this kind of thing, so that the film will get to the “good stuff,” I did find myself involuntarily reaching out to the screen, wanting to stop Nancy Allen from pulling that rope and dumping pig’s blood all over poor Carrie White.
Officer Jim Kelly in ALLIGATOR (1980). Robert Forster plays Madison, a cop who lost a partner years ago. When he needs someone to help check the sewers where some bodies have been found, most of his chicken-shit colleagues make up lame excuses, but Kelly (Perry Lang) steps forward – even though he knows about Madison’s past. Kelly’s reward for his courage is to be eaten by the titular alligator, while the cowards back at the precinct live to see another day. If Madison couldn’t save Kelly, I don’t know what I could do. Maybe flip the alligator on his back and rub his tummy till he fell asleep? (They say this works, but it never did with my pet alligator – I’d probably just end up joining Kelly’s dismembered body parts in the monster reptile’s gullet.)
Godzilla in GODZILLA VS. DESTROYER (1995). The radioactive reptile has been responsible for more death and destruction than one could possibly tally, but the payback he receives in this one more than settles his karma: a full-blown nuclear meltdown reduces the beast to nothing but a pile of ash blowing in the wind. There is a certain grandeur about this attempt to create a convincingly “final” death for the long-lived monster, but his destruction looks really, really painful. If I could just find a few cadmium rods to slow down the chain reaction before it reached critical levels…
The rat in THE EYE (2002). A distant cousin of the monkey in PORTRAIT OF HELL, this rat serves a similar, though slightly vaguer purpose: it’s not enough for the humans to die, the filmmakers have to hammer home the relentless destruction by offing an innocent animal as well. Whatever the point, the rodent’s desperate but failed attempt to outrun the climactic conflagration by diving down a sewer pipe is a great piece of film-making – a perfect little exclamation point to the human destruction above ground. Poor rat, I wish I could adopt you and create a litte menagerie, including the monkey from PORTRAIT OF HELL and Dandelo the cat from THE FLY (I don’t think my facilities would accommodate Godzilla, however).
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Laserblast: Golden Compass, Godzilla, Dark Shadows & Slashers

This week’s home video offerings include a a big-budget disappointment, the further adventures of Japan’s most famous mon-star, the early adventures of a long-running soap opera, and the bloody adventures of a couple of psycho killers. The high-profile release is THE GOLDEN COMPASS, New Line’s failed attempt to create another blockbuster fantasy franchise in the mode of THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Defenders tried to blame the underwhelming box office performance on religious controversy, but the film, while not too bad, has more enough flaws to make any other explanation unnecessary: it is a bit bland in its efforts to avoid offending anyone (shying away from the controversy surrounding the books), and screenplay crams in way too many plot elements that do not pay off but simply set up sequels (which now Continue reading “Laserblast: Golden Compass, Godzilla, Dark Shadows & Slashers”

Sons of Moby Dick: Melville's White Whale has spawned a school of sea monsters

Moby Dick may seem an odd choice for inclusion in Cinefantastique. After all, if one were to categorize the novel, the obvious label would be Adventure – specifically, a high-seas adventure about whale hunting. However,  Herman Melville’s tale is awash with allegory and symbolism, much of it relevant to the horror genre. The book is too vast in its implications to be fully analyzed here; for our purposes it is enough to point out that its chief mystery is whether the White Whale is simply a dumb beast acting from instinct or, as Captain Ahab believes, an intelligent being acting from malevolence. In effect, Ahab’s quest for vengeance is propelled by the conviction that he is pursuing an evil monster, and one question raised by the book is: does evil actually exist, or do human beings mistakenly perceive evil when random events bring about misfortune? This question underlies many horror films, most notably THE EXORCIST. In that case, the debate is weighted in favor of the existence of evil because the phenomenon is preternatural; Moby-Dick, on the other hand, can be seen as the prototype for countless films wherein natural phenomena appear to act with deliberate malice (witness THE BIRDS or the opening of TWISTER, in which a tornado seems almost like an angry god plucking away a family’s helpless father for no good reason). More specifically, the White Whale has spawned a school of sea monsters that have bedeviled ocean-going humans almost since the beginning of cinema.
Unfortunately, most of these descendants occupy a low rung on the pop-culture ladder, borrowing little of Melville’s metaphysics and reducing what is borrowed to the level of a simple plot device. To wit: no matter how fearsome and threatening a large animal may be to a lone victim, an organized group with the right weapons would have no problem exterminating the beast, unless it were somehow capable of avoiding their modern firepower; therefore, tales of monstrous sharks, orcas, and even snakes almost inevitably imbue the animals with at least a rudimentary intelligence that enables them to outwit their human opponents. The philosophical implications of this are seldom explored; it is enough that intelligence makes the beasts more threatening and therefore more in need of being destroyed.


The first two on-screen descendants of Moby-Dick were loose adaptations starring John Barrymore: both THE SEA BEAST (1926) and its sound remake MOBY DICK (1930) abandoned much of the novel in favor of adding a love story. Over two decades later, John Huston directed a more faithful, though still condensed, version. His MOBY DICK (1956) is notable for trying to use the visual medium, especially color, to convey the essence of Melville; but Gregory Pecks performance as Ahab has come under fire, even from the actor, who considered himself miscast (he thought Huston should have cast him as Starbuck and played Ahab himself).
Meanwhile, the science-fiction genre was getting into the act in the early ‘50s. Prior to Huston’s adaptation, two Ray Harryhausen films featured sea monsters dredged up from the depths by atomic bomb testing. In both THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) and IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1954), complex considerations of the problem of evil are abandoned in favor of a simple metaphor: the monsters are living embodiments of the dangers of nuclear power. Still, BEAST gave credit for its inspiration to Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Fog Horn,” and something about the prehistoric reptile rising from the depths was evocative enough for John Huston to have Bradbury collaborate with him on the script for MOBY DICK.
One possible (albeit a simple) interpretation of Melville’s novel is that Moby Dick is not a monster at all but simply an innocent animal relentlessly pursued by a madman projecting his own mania onto a living tabula rasa. In fact, before the Pequod encounters the White Whale, previous accounts of Moby Dick have him swimming with others of his kind, implying that his previous “attacks” on whaling vessels may have actually been attempts to defend his species against human aggressors. This sympathetic interpretation of nature, versus the wickedness of humanity, is not pushed very far in the Harryhausen films: whatever set them off in the first place, the rhedosaur and the octopus are lone beasts that inspire little or no sympathy. That changed with GORGO (1960).

The materanl sea beast rises from the waves to seek her off-spring.

In this film, the sea beast comes to represent an archetypal force guaranteed to evoke human sympathy: mother love. The point is emphasized by the fact that there are no important female characters in the story (outside of the mammoth maternal monster that destroys half of London to save her offspring). The humans, like the crew of the Pequod, are men apparently cut off from the society of women. Interestingly, the lead character (played by Bill Travers) unofficially adopts an orphaned boy, much as Ahab took Pip under his wing. Assuming this feminine role of surrogate mother ultimately redeems the character when he abandons his greedy, masculine hopes of exploiting the beast for profit and instead risks his life to rescue the boy. (The maternal instinct of prehistoric monsters was later exploited by Steven Spielberg in THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK, but the effect was considerably diminished.)
The theme of the giant sea beast that represents nature’s revenge was developed further in the Godzilla films. The series started off fairly closely modeled after BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, before mutating into juvenile camp. However, when the franchise re-booted in 1985, the sequels re-imagined the conception, changing Godzilla from a malevolent monster (as in his 1954 debut) to something resembling an implacable natural disaster. There was a twist, however, because Godzilla, unlike Moby Dick, is not a force of nature per se; rather, he once was a natural animal, but now he has been mutated by human science. Therefore,  it makes little sense to adopt an Ahab-like vendetta against the creature, who is, ultimately, a living embodiment of man-made catastrophe, like the Exxon Valdez or Chernobyl.
Beginning with GODZILLA 1985, several films delt with this theme, featuring revenge-crazed characters seeking retribution against the radioactive reptile in response to the death of a friend or a comrade in arms: GODZILLA VS. SPACE GODZILLA (1994), GODZILLA VS. MEGAGUIRAS (2001), and GODZILLA VS. MECHAGODZILLA (2002). Like Ahab, the humans tended to fail in their attempts to destroy the beast, but they sometimes learned the error of their ways, realizing that personal vengeance was pointless when mankind was ultimately to blame for Godzilla. As interesting as the concept is, it was seldom if ever developed to its full potential. Godzilla is certain awesome and mysterious enough to fill in for Moby Dick, but none of the human characters attained anything close to the stature of a Captain Ahab.
Sticking a little closer to Melville, Peter Benchley launched a whole subgenre with the publication of Jaws, which led to the blockbuster film and countless rip-offs (TENTACLES, CLAWS, GREAT WHITE, etc). Steven Spielberg’s JAWS (1975) is clearly intended as a pop riff on Moby Dick (with a little of An Enemy of the People thrown in). The Melville connection is even clearer in the book, wherein shark hunter Quint is dragged to his death, like Ahab, by a harpoon line attached to the swimming menace, but in both book and film the shark’s predations defy the instinctive behavior expected from the species, leaving one to wonder if something more than an unconscious killing machine is at work.

The White Shark rises from the depths.

This idea is taken a step further (to amusing but ridiculous extremes) in JAWS IV: THE REVENGE (1987), in which a new Great White seems to be taking personal revenge against the family of the man who killed the sharks in the first two films. The revenge theme was also present in ORCA (1977), although here the implication is that the Richard Harris character may deserve to be persecuted by the mate of a killer whale he harpooned. It is interesting to note that both JAWS IV and ORCA reverse the MOBY DICK formula, casting the sea creature as the instrument of vengeance.

A rather silly but well-photographed TV movie emerged in 1978, THE BERMUDA DEPTHS. The telefilm bares a passing resemblance to Moby Dick, in its tale of a humongous sea turtle responsible for the mysterious shipwrecks in the so-called “Bermuda Triangle.” The whole thing is boring as hell, but the Gamera-wannabe is a hoot, and Carl Weathers winds up dragged to his death, tangled in a harpoon line, just like Ahab and Quint before him. (This seems to be the only film to use the death described by Melville: Quint is swallowed by the shark in the JAWS film; and both Huston’s adaptation and the recent USA Cable mini-series of MOBY DICK have Ahab meeting his demise while lashed to the side of the whale.)
From turtles to snakes: SPASMS (1983) and ANACONDA (1997) may not seem related to Moby Dick, but there is a connection. Both feature serpents that are big, but neither one is so unnaturally large as to be a “monster.” So the question is: why cannot the characters just capture the damned thing and put it in a zoo? This is where the Moby-Dick syndrome comes in: to make them more threatening, the snakes are portrayed as if capable of strategizing, and there is a lot of supernatural hooey about their serpent gods. In the end both are dispatched by conventional means such as guns and explosives (although that was not enough to prevent a sequel title ANACONDAS, which seemed to overlook that the first film had already contained more than one anaconda).
Benchley returned to sea monsters with Beast and White Shark, which were adapted into mini-series entitled THE BEAST (1996) and CREATURE (1998). Interestingly, these works refute the apparent evil of the shark in JAWS, which is dismissed as an inaccurate piece of Hollywood nonsense. In THE BEAST, Will Dalton (William Petersen) argues that people have no right to hunt the giant squid, because it is the fishing industry’s depopulation of the seas that has driven the Beast from its usual hunting grounds and into contact with humans. White Shark, meanwhile, contains a Great White that is presented as a dangerous but endangered species that out to be preserved, not hunted to extinction.
This sub-genre came full circle with the 1998 TV version of MOBY DICK. What perhaps is most interesting about this mini-series is how easy it is to view the White Whale sympathetically today. Metaphysical implications take a backseat to the very real slaughter perpetrated against these animals; in this context, Moby Dick is less a symbol of a random universe that may only appear malevolent, than of poetic (perhaps even divine) vengeance against heartless harpooners pursuing a magnificent species nearly to extinction – an interpretation emphasized by Patrick Stewart’s public service announcements, at the end of each episode, on behalf of saving the whale. It’s less deeply disturbing than the ideas conjured up by the novel, but it does follow the course swum by many of Moby Dick’s descendants.
RELATED ARTICLES: Science-Fiction Author Ray Bradbury on Adapting “Moby Dick.”

Horror Filmmakers & Authors Pick Their Favorite Horror Movies

Last month, we ran a list of the American Film Institute’s nominees for the best Fantasy and Science-Fiction Films of all time. Many readers were angry over the exclusion of horror from the genres under consideration; some were unhappy about certain titles that made or did not make it onto the A.F.I.’s lists; a few were offended by our caustic comments about the more dubious inclusions.  Well, we all have our favorites. Neither the A.F.I. nor Cinefantastique Online is the sole arbiter of what constitutes the best of the best in movie magic. Therefore, we thought it would be a good idea to present a gallery of expert opinions from people working behind the scenes. What films rank as favorites among industry insiders who made your favorite films? What films frightened or amazed the directors, writers, actors, and authors who make a living in the genres of science-fiction, fantasy, and horror? What films stirred their sense of wonder or made them want to make movies? You’ll find a sample of their answers below
WILLIAM FRIEDKIN (Director of THE EXORCIST)
The horror films that I admire are ROSEMARY’S BABY, ALIEN, DIABOLIQUE, PSYCHO – that’s about it. I would say those are horror films, but they totally transcend the genre. They’re every bit as good as stories as horror films: the stories are believable; the characters are believable; the situations they’re put in, the style of performance, is believable. There’s also a Japanese film that I love called Onibaba, another wonderful film of fantasy and imagination, worked very carefully into a fairly realistic story. Whereas in something like Nightmare on Elm Street or Jason, it isn’t believable. There’s an automatic distance there—between what’s on the screen and the audience’s perception of real people in real situations.
I like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. I applaud its ingenuity. It was something different, and it was pure to what it was—it did not break the focus. It was a documentary. When people set the camera down, all it showed you was shoes or sometimes nothing. I have to tell you, I sat there with my then fourteen-year-old son, and it scared the hell out of us. That picture scared me. I thought it was really good, because I love documentaries. I love that somebody took the horror genre, and did almost a pure documentary with it. I think Blair Witch is a helluva a film, a good film.
RIDLEY SCOTT (Director of ALIEN)
Creature from the Black LagoonThe thing I always worried about doing a monster movie—I was frightened that the monster wouldn’t be good, because they very rarely are. Probably the last great monster before that was the little girl in the bed in The Exorcist. But all you had to put on her was the voice—of Mercedes McCambridge—and that one trick was chilling. I decided to see THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, THEM and IT [THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE]—which actually were good fun at the time, used to scare the living daylights out of me as a kid, and now are kind of collector’s items. Funnily enough, as a child, I was always brought up not to see horror movies, because my parents classified them along with sex movies, so I wasn’t allowed to see them. I saw this poster in Piccadilly of this guy standing there with the face-mask on and the buzz saw, and I just decided not to see the film—that [The Texas Chainsaw Massacre ] was pretty tough stuff.
DIRECTOR GEORGE A ROMERO (Director of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and MARTIN)
Martin is my all-time favorite. When you make films, it’s hard to decide which among them is your favorite. When and if you make a choice, there are many factors that go into it—the experience, memories of the people working with you. On that film I had my first chance to work with Tom Savini, John Amplas. The crew numbered fifteen, including the cast. We had no money. A handful of people made it possible for me to make the movie. We made it on spit and a prayer. I think it’s my most successful effort, in that it comes closer than anything I’ve done to what I intended when I wrote the script. It turned out almost exactly the way I originally envisioned it.
I read my share of Poe. I collected EC Comics, and I’m old enough to have seen FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA on the big screen—when they were re-released. I’m not that old! I saw THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD in its first run, also on the big screen The movie that made me want to make movies is—you’ll probably be surprised by this—is The Tales of Hoffman, an adaptation of Orfenbach’s opera. It’s sung in English, but the words don’t matter much; it’s the imagery that grabs you, and it never lets go. I was one of the few who saw this particular film when it played in a theatre on a big screen and in color. The film has action and adventure, and it was way serious to an eleven year old. It was released in the same year as The Thing from Another World—big competition—but this film made more of an impression than James Arness ever could. I love some of Dario Argento’s early ones, Deep Red and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. Those were probably my favorites, and Suspiria—it’s operatic and beautiful—like The Tales of Hoffman. Repulsion is the most frightening film that I’ve ever seen. Lapsed Catholics—not practicing Catholics, but those who have strayed—like me—stained our jockeys when we first saw The Exorcist. As far as I’m concerned, that is the only film that dealt with Pure Evil and managed to pull it off.
GUILLERMO DEL TORO (Director of PAN’S LABYRINTH)
My favorites of my own films are PAN’S LABYRINTH, THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE, and HELLBOY.
I started watching horror films without caring much about their origin. We got some Mario Bava films. Of course, we have the Mexican wrestler/masked avengers type of horror film. Then every Sunday there was a local channel that showed all the Universal monster movies: everything from the classics Frankenstein to Bride of Frankenstein and so forth. Then at the matinee, my mother took me to see the Hammer films: DRACULA, HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN, all of them. So I really got every single thing on the spectrum fed into my brain at this very tender age.
TAKASHI SHIMIZU (Director of THE GRUDGE)
I am influenced by lots of filmmakers and movies, so it’s hard to name everything. I like art films like Decalogue and big-budget Hollywood movies like SPIDER-MAN 2, but I fell asleep in SPIDER-MAN. Sorry, Sam! (referring to SPIDER-MAN director Sam Raimi, who produced THE GRUDGE)
SCOTT DERRICKSON (Director of THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE)
In cinema, you have to be crazy [to make an exorcism film] after THE EXORCIST. It’s my favorite horror film; I think it’s the best horror film ever made. You’re not going to make a better movie than that. People who tried to imitate that movie have pretty notoriously failed. It’s daunting.
ADAM GREEN (Writer-director of HATCHET, whose festival tag-line was: “It’s not a remake; it’s not a sequel; and it’s not based on a Japanese one.’)
In fact I like Japanese horror films, and some of my favorite films are remakes. John Carpenter’s THE THING is my Top Five of all time, and I love THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE [remake] –  as much as a lot of people would want to kill me for saying that. I wanted to hate that when I saw it, and I really liked it. Even the second time – because I thought, ‘Maybe it’s just Jessica Biel’s boobs,’ but it wasn’t; it was really that good.
HALLOWEEN to me is still [great] – nothing will ever touch that one. [Slasher films] created villains with great mythologies behind them that were very simple stories that you could easily explain to your friend while you’re lying on the floor in sleeping bags at night, having a sleepover. That was the real joy of these films for me. The villains were these anti-superheroes; they were just these total bad-asses. As much as you were afraid of them, you were kind of rooting for them because they were so cool.
WILLIAM MALONE (Director of THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL)
The confrontation between Belau Lugosi (left) and Boris Karloff (right) is interrupted by the shadow of the titular BLACK CATOf recent ilk, one of my favorites was ALIEN, which is just a brilliant movie. I still love CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON: there’s something evocative about it that really works. I love things like THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI and FRANKENSTEIN, which is a wonderful picture; the original still really holds up. MAD LOVE is a really cool movie, with Peter Lorre. And some other stuff has been overlooked like PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES, the Mario Bava picture, which I think is a wonderful film. I was heavily influenced by THE BLACK CAT [1934], which is one of my favorite films. I love that movie. When I first met Geoffrey [Rush, whom Malone directed in House], he’d just gone to see THE BLACK CAT, and he talked about how much he loved it. It’s got this perversity, this weird, dark undertone. What’s great about it is that you can’t put your finger on it, except if you actually look at the plot of that movie, you could never do that today. It’s too twisted: the fact that Karloff kills Lugosi’s wife and then keeps her body preserved in the basement, and then marries her daughter! I’m a big fan of [director Edgar G.] Ulmer’s work.
JEAN-PIERRE JEUNET (Director of ALIEN: RESURRECTION and AMALIE)
I love American Beauty, Memento, Happiness. I have two films in my life: A CLOCKWORK ORANGE from Stanley Kubrick and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. I saw it when I was a teen, and I couldn’t eat or sleep for three days. My parents were, “What? What? Are you sick?” “No no, you can’t understand!”
MAZAAKI TEZUKA (Director of GODZILLA: TOKYO S.O.S.)
The first GODZILLA (1954) … [is] a masterpiece, but KING KONG VS. GODZILLA is my favorite.
ROLFE KANEFSKY (Writer-director of NIGHTMARE MAN)
I saw Frankenstein and all the monster movies when I was four years old, but I became a huge horror fan when I was fourteen, when I really started watching horror films and seeing all the conventions and the clichés. All the really good horror films were – except when the studios decided to stay out of it, like THE EXORCSIT – they were not studio films. They were independent films: HALLOWEEN, FRIDAY THE 13TH, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET.
LEONARD WOLF (Author of Dracula: A Connoisseurs Guide)
I am very drawn, curiously enough, to the silent film, NOSFERATU (1922). When Count Orlock comes to—her name is either Nina or Ellen, depending on the subtitles—they exchange looks across the areaway. It is so charged with complex implications. Clearly, he is now going to be in the role of the demon lover, making love to a woman who sends her husband away—it’s got elements of French comedy in it. At the same time it’s a ghoulish moment, when this guy who’s not really living shows up in her bedroom and crouches at the side of her bed. You never know what they’re doing, but whatever they’re doing is so silent and so horrible and so Christian and so appalling—I’ve said somewhere in my book that the silence is intensified. We know we’re in a silent film, but somehow that scene takes on a terror because it’s so utterly still.
SUZY MCKEE CHARNAS (Author of The Vampire Tapestry)
I think that one thing that happens when you are raised as a reader rather than a visual consumer is that when you do go to films, they’re really pretty overwhelming. I remember being really impressed by silly things like ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. It is wonderful, but it shouldn’t send you screaming! It did influence me, to put it mildly. For a very long time, the whole vampire thing was very tightly attached to the Hungarian actor whose name we all know. I still kind of balk when people get too far away from a basic sort of dignity. I don’t really go for BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER-type of vampires, and the punk rocker ones really turn me off.
BARBARA STEEL (Star of BLACK SUNDAY, a.k.a. Mask of the Demon)
Barbara Steele as the revived witch in BLACK SUNDAYBlack Sunday is the best of the genre films I made—the final result was most perfected in terms of the whole film, but I don’t feel it was best for me as an actress. I never saw a completed script for BLACK SUNDAY. We were given the pages day to day. We had hardly any idea of what was ever going down on that film. We had no idea of the end or the beginning, either. I’m sure he [director Mario Bava] had, or maybe he hadn’t. He really geared it to play out all his cinematographic-visual fantasies, and I think that one of the strongest points of the movie is the look of it. It’s just fortuitous for an actress to find herself in something that well structured.
CHRISTINA RICCI (star of SLEEPY HOLLOW)
I’ve always loved [Tim Burton’s] movies. EDWARD SCISSORHANDS is one of my favorite movies of all time. His movies are so different. His movies are so beautiful and really elegant. They’re also told with such an innocence and a goodness. People say his movies are dark, but they’re really about Good and Evil, and the Good is always so good and so strong—they’re actually really sweet stories.

PATRICK MACNEE (Star of THE HOWLING)
You just can’t get a more stunning film. My darling wife and my friends sat there watching it like that [grips the armrest of his chair and forms his mouth into a silent scream to demonstrate]. It’s a wonderful, wonderful film. Now all my other films— THE CREATURE WASN’T NICE, LOBSTER MAN FROM MARS —I have been in more movies of that type. I’m not saying we weren’t good in them, but they were movies you never see again, hopefully. When Dennis Bartok [of American Cinematheque] said, ‘We’re going to do a retrospective of your movies,’ I said, ‘Which one? There’s only one worth seeing, and this is it!’
JOE DANTE (Director of THE HOWLING)
There are too many monster movies for me to pick. I spent a misspent youth watching monster movies, and then I spent a misspent adulthood making them. So I would refer you to any list of decent monster movies, and I’m sure my favorites will be on there.

Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters – Book Review

Eiji Tsuburaya, the special effects director responsible for the classic Toho monster movies, is a figure of major importance in the history of Japanese fantasy films. Inspired by the stop-motion special effects of Willis O’Brien (e.g. 1933’s KING KONG), Tsuburaya yearned to create his own movie monster, and he finally got his chance when producer Tomoyuki Tanaka asked him to handle the special effects for GOJIRA (1954, released in the U.S. as GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTER). The success of that film led to a literal tidle wave of sci-fi extravaganzas: RODAN, THE MYSTERIANS, MOTHRA, MATANGO. Although Tsuburaya’s work was in some ways less technically sophisticated than his idol O’Brien’s (working on smaller budgets, Tsuburaya had to utilize men in suits rather than animated puppets), the Japanese effects director nevertheless made his mark, establishing a recognizable style that was always entertaining if not completely convincing. In particular, the suit-mation approach allowed for the creation of larger miniatures, which could be spectacularly destroyed in slow-motion, yielding a level of on-screen mayhem impossible to achieve with the more expensive – and much slower – stop-motion process.
Tsuburaya’s life and career are the subject of Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters, which carries the lengthy subtitle Defending the Earth with Ultraman, Godzilla and Friends in the Golden Age of Japanese Science Fiction Film. This is an impressively extensive coffee table book, loaded with countless colorful photographs of monster mayhem and behind-the-scenes wizardry. Fans will find it a delight just to leaf through it, and even hardcore collectors are likely to find more on view here than ever met they eye before.
Author August Ragone does fine job of capturing the Tsuburaya story, from his early life and start in the film industry, through his work providing miniatures for Japanese battle movies during World War II, into the movie monsters that made him famous, and through the television productions (e.g., ULTRA-Q, ULTRA-7) that took once-frightening sci-fi monstrosities and turned them into kiddie fodder. The main narrative is occasionally interrupted by sidebar articles (some written by other experts in the field, such as Norman Englund and Ed Godziszewski), which provide different perspectives on Tsuburaya and his work.
Ragone delivers the information with all the enthusiasm of a devoted fan – an enthusiasm that (far from being annoying) sweeps the reader along like a boat in the rapids. Unfortunately, the book is thinly sourced and short on first-hand interviews; it frequently reads as if Ragone had simply read all the existing material on the subject, collated it, and summarized it. Consequently, you will not find the “you are there” perspective of, for example, Stuart Galbraith IV’s Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo.
Also, you will not learn much that is new about Tsuburaya’s movie magic. Ragone tends to wax understandably enthusiastic about “beautiful matte paintings” and “exquisitely detailed miniatures,” but there is little specific detail about how the special effects were achieved. When he does get descriptive, his prose can be confusing, as when he writes that the destruction of a bridge in RODAN “could only be shot once because of the precise timing required.” This seems to state the matter backwards: precise timing was required because the complicated action, filmed from multiple angles, needed to be captured in a single take.


Ragone never comes to grips with the gradual decline of Tsuburaya’s work; in fact, he barely even acknowledges it. As feature film budgets shrank, fewer miniatures were built and destroyed, and fewer composite shots were used to combine miniatures, monsters, and live-action. On top of this, Tsuburaya began to anthropomorphize his monsters, turning them into comical clowns instead of fearsome behemoths. (Think of the three-way monster conversation in GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER or Godzilla’s victory dance in MONSTER ZERO.) This kind of hijinx remains popular with fans, but it lowers the films down to a level of colorful camp that is notably inferior to the early black-and-white nightmare of GOJIRA.
What we are left with feels a bit like an authorized biography, with all the warts carefully air-brushed out. Nevertheless, the book remains enjoyably readable from start to finish. Fans of Japanese giant monsters will undoubtedly want to purchase it. The illustrations alone are worth the price, but once readers start to peruse the text, they will find themselves serenaded by a kindred spirit who captures the wild-eyed childish devotion born of many hours in front of the television set, watching wonderfully weird movies and television shows that ignorant unbelievers thoughtlessly dismiss. In adulthood, it is easy to forget that enthusiastic joy, but Ragone brings it back to life, like a bolt of lightening reviving a long-dormant Godzilla.

Laserblast: Classic Media Godzilla Collection

There is little new and exciting on home video shelves this week. Except for THE SANTA CLAUSE 3: THE ESCAPE CLAUSE (which arrives on DVD and Blu-ray disc, just in time for Christmas) sci-fi, fantasy, and horror fans will have to content themselves with oldies and re-issues. These include an “Ultimate Two-Disc Edition” of NOSFERATU; an HD DVD/Standard DVD combo of the Complete First Season of STAR TREK, the original series; an HD DVD release of TREMORS; and a DVD release of THE KILLING KIND, an interesting example of the “Horror of Personality” films that proliferated in the ’60s and early ’70s, in the wak of PSYCHO (directed by Curtis Harrington, this one stars John Savage and Cindy Williams, years before they starred in THE DEER HUNTER and LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY, respectively). Perhaps the most exciting release (at least for hardcore Godzilla geeks) is The Godzilla Collection from Classic Media. This box set gathers together Classic Media’s previously reviewed DVD releases of  Godzilla Raids Again,  Mothra Vs. GodzillaGhidrah, The Three-Headed Monster, Monster Zero, and adds their new TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA DVD, which has yet to be released individually. All of the Classic Media DVDs include the original Japanese versions of the movies, along with the recut and dubbed American versions, plus audio commentaries and other bonus features. If you have not already purchased these excellent discs individually, this is your chance to see what you have been missing. Check out this week’s list of home video releases below the fold.
Continue reading “Laserblast: Classic Media Godzilla Collection”

Gojira (1954)/Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956) – Film & DVD Review

To the average American audience, the original Godzilla is a cheesy man-in-a-suit monster smashing cardboard buildings and stomping matchbox-size cars – something so bad that atrocious computer-generated lizard in 1998’s American-made GODZILLA is actually perceived as an improvement. Science fiction fans may be a bit kinder in their assessment, acknowledging that Godzilla’s debut film is much better than the sequels that followed, but even they tend to rank the Japanese giant well below his American counterparts. In Japan, however, the original 1954 GODZILLA is considered to be a classic on par with KING KONG (1933).
Unfortunately, for decades, GODZILLA (known as GOJIRA in its native land, a combination of the English word “gorilla” and the Japanese word for whale, “kurji”) was seen stateside only in a heavily Americanized version, released in 1956 under the title GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS. Since Rialto Pictures released the Japanese version in select U.S. theatres in 2004, in time for its 50th anniversary, American audiences have finally been able to appreciate the uncut, undubbed original. Those expecting a campy kiddie film were surprised to see a slow and somber mini-masterpiece, a black-and-white nightmare about the threat of nuclear annihilation – in short, a classic example of popular entertainment working as a serious metaphor.

A fishing boat incinerated by nuclear radiation
A fishing boat incinerated by nuclear radiation

GODZILLA* dramatizes nuclear horror unlike any other film of its period, because the fantasy element is clearly standing in for a reality too horrible to contemplate directly. In a cinematic world filled with denial regarding the lethal use of nuclear weapons, Godzilla stands as reminder not only of Hiroshima and Nagasaki but also of the unfortunate fishing boat, The Lucky Dragon, which was irradiated by nuclear fallout from the U.S. test of an H-Bomb in 1954. This incident, which resulted in the subsequent death of a crew member from Leukemia, was as much an inspiration for the making of GODZILLA as were the obvious American antecedents, KING KONG and THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953).
Like many classic monster movies, GODZILLA gradually builds to the revelation of its title character, then keeps it mostly off-screen. Instead, the focus is on the human characters, who wrestle with the impact that Godzilla’s destruction has on their lives (something to which the film’s post-war Japanese audience could easily relate). The story even presents a genuine moral dilemma: should Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Harrata) use his Oxygen Destroyer to defeat Godzilla and, in the process, possibly reveal to the world a weapon even more devastating than the thing it’s meant to defeat? Or should he keep his weapon a secret? The question (at least in the original Japanese version) isn’t really whether the device will fall into the wrong hands; Serizawa has learned the painful lesson of Robert Oppenheimer: once the device is in any hands, its creator can no longer control it, and its use is almost inevitable.
New footage, with Frank Inagawa (center) and Raymond Burr (right) was added for the American release.
New footage, with Frank Inagawa (center) and Raymond Burr (right) was added for the American release.

The subtitled prints distributed by Rialto Pictures present the 1954 GODZILLA as it was released in Japan by Toho Studios. There are substantial differences between this and the dubbed American version, GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS. The subtitle “KING OF THE MONSTERS” was not the only addition; there were also new scenes with Raymond Burr playing American reporter Steve Martin (yes, his use of the name predates the famous comedian by decades).
This footage provided an audience identification figure who could narrate events, bridge continuity gaps caused by the re-editing, and explain what was going on (despite the dubbing of the lead characters, much of the supporting cast’s Japanese dialogue remained intact, while Burr’s footage was filmed and intercut to look as if his character were standing on the sidelines, having the conversations translated to him). To be fair, the American version was not a complete bastardization but a reasonable attempt to present a new and unfamiliar piece of filmmaking to an audience that needed some kind of bridge to cross the cultural gap. In at least one small way, the U.S. version improves on the multi-character scenario of the original: by using Burr’s reporter as a central viewpoint, the plot threads are tied up and presented much more clearly to the audience.
The aftermath of Godzilla rampage deliberately evokes Hiroshima and Nagasaki
The aftermath of Godzilla rampage deliberately evokes Hiroshima and Nagasaki

In every other way, however, the Japanese version is superior. With an opening scene that consciously recalls the fate of the unfortunate Lucky Dragon (a fishing boat is incinerated by a blinding nuclear flash from beneath the sea), the film intends to convey a shocking sense of the consequences of atomic weapons. Unlike the reassuring tone of American films of the period, which suggested that any nuclear aberrations could be dispatched by the same science that created them, GOJIRA offers no such consolation.
Director and co-writer Ishiro Honda (himself a war veteran) tried to capture a realistic sense of war-like devastation, a warning of what was bound to happen since the nuclear genie had been unleashed from the bottle. Aided by Eija Tsuburaya’s special effects and Akira Ifukube’s dramatic music, Honda went a long way toward achieving his goal, but much of the impact was mitigated in the American release, which not only added Burr’s scenes but also deleted several sequences (U.S. prints ran less than 80 minutes, approximately twenty minutes short of the original).


The restored footage helps fill out the characterization and ground the story in a convincing sense of reality. Several previously unseen moments stand out: the clarification that the film’s morally conflicted Dr. Serizawa lost his eye in WWII, meaning he’s a war hero; Serizawa’s overheated insistence that he “has no German friends” (he doth protest too much, making one wonder whether in fact he is not in touch with ex-Nazi scientists he might have met during the war); the insistence by paleontologist Dr. Yamane’s (SEVEN SAMURAI’s Takashi Shimura) that Godzilla is worth studying because he is capable of surviving an H-bomb (something that should be of interest to the only country ever to suffer a nuclear attack).
Of the restored scenes, most memorable is a brief dialogue aboard a train: when a male passenger jokes that his girlfriend will be the first victim should Godzilla appear in Tokyo, she responds, “Not me. Not after I survived the bomb at Nagasaki.” One shouldn’t overemphasize the impact of this scene (as filmed, it’s almost a throwaway) but the fact that it was deleted from American prints for decades lends its reappearance here the uncomfortable cutting edge, reminding viewers that Godzilla exists because of America’s nuclear attacks on civilian populations.
In other cases, subtitles enhance scenes that were visible but not translated in the U.S. version. In one scene, a mother hopelessly huddles with her two children on the sidewalk; with nowhere left to run from Godzilla’s rampage, the only comfort she can offer to her offspring is, “We’ll be with your father soon. We’ll see him in heaven.” In the second, as a crowd of evacuees stands near the shore, one orphaned character repeats, “Damn it!” while helplessly watching Godzilla overturn a bridge on its way back to the ocean. Unlike later Godzilla sequels, which filmed endless monster battles as if they were a wrestling matches staged atop a toy train set, moments like these keep the camera at eye level with the human characters, so that the special effects never become mere fun-filled spectacle. This is a film that makes you want to cringe at the destruction on screen, not applaud the ingenuity of the technicians.

Low-key lighting obscures flaws in the suit-mation effects.
Low-key lighting obscures flaws in the suit-mation effects.

This approach helps overcome the flaws in the special effects. The film’s “suit-mation” technology has always been derided by American purists, who preferred the stop-motion techniques used by Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen (in which puppets with metal armatures are filmed one frame at a time). But the use of a man-in-a-suit, stomping around a detailed miniature cityscape, allowed for scenes of destruction that would have been impossible to achieve with the painstakingly slow stop-motion process. Filmed with low-key lighting to suggest the nighttime attacks, Gojira’s raids on Tokyo achieve a wonderfully moody atmosphere that does not quite blind the eye to the occasionally visible wires, but does incline one to forgive the mistakes in favor of appreciating the overall tone.
That’s because these sequences have a cumulative effect that is more impressive than anything scene in the 1998 American blockbuster. Edited together with shots that are always dramatic (even when not convincing), the imperfections fly by almost too fast to register. Thanks to fast-paced editing and stark photography, Godzilla’s rampage conveys a sense of approaching, inevitable doom as no other special effects sequence ever has. With numerous composite shots to put Godzilla in the frame with his human victims, the sense of danger is conveyed unlike anything in any subsequent sequels. The achievement is best illustrated, perhaps, by the brief moment when television cameras atop a tower broadcast long shots of the Tokyo skyline engulfed in a sea of flames. The reporter on the scene insists to his viewers (and by extension to the film’s actual audience) that this “is not a play or a motion picture!” Of course, we know it really is a movie, but we get the message: the film is telling us to take what we’re seeing seriously, and for perhaps for the one and only time in a Godzilla film, we do.

 DVD DETAILS

click to purchase
click to purchase

Classic Media’s two-disc DVD contains both versions of the film, plus some nice bonus features. The DVDs are packaged in a lovely box that, intentionally or not, suggest the look of import DVDs of the film that you used to find in specialty stores like Anime Jungle in the Little Tokyo district of Los Angeles. Inside the box there is a glossy sixteen-page booklet, featuring a few publicity photographs from the film, along with an excellent essay on the film’s history by Steve Ryfle (author of Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star: The Unauthorized Biography of the “Big G).
Disc One contains GOJIRA(divided into 24 chapter stops), plus a handful of extras: an audio commentary, two featurettes, and a Japanese trailer.
Both featurettes consist of voice-over narration illustrated by publicity stills and/or storyboard artwork. The first documents the development of the story (along with the many changes that occurred betwixt conception and final execution). The second performs a similar service regarding the design and construction of the Godzilla suit. Both are so informative that even well-read fans may find much they do not already know, and the absence of on-screen interviews is hardly felt, thanks to the effective use of still images to illustrate the spoken text.
The audio commentary by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski fares slightly less well. If you have read books are articles by either of these two experts, you are likely to hear much that is familiar, especially during the early portions of the film, when the discussion examines the general background of the film, rather than scene-specific details. Fortunately, as the two authors delve deeper into the subject, they mine details and offer opinions that should entertain and enlighten the faithful. In one case, they even point out a special effect that I had never noticed, despite watching the film numerous times: when the villagers on Odo Island respond to the alarm bell by running up hill, you can see Godzilla’s footprints in the hillside.
Ryfle and Godziszewski make a solid argument for considering the film as a classic, and they do a good job of underlining the film’s themes, particularly as they are expressed in the conflicted character of Dr. Serizawa, a scientist whose invention can destroy Godzilla – but only at the potential cost of releasing an even more dangerous superweapon upon the world. They also acknowledge the film’s flaws (e.g., the miniature missiles bouncing off the painted sky in the background) without undermining their central thesis, that the film is a somber work worthy of serious consideration.
Disc Two contains GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS (divided into a meager 9 chapter stops), a U.S. trailer, and another audio commentary by Ryfle and Godziszewski.
Unlike the Japanese trailer, which emphasizes the somber tone of the film, the American trailer is awash in enthusiastic hyberbole that is not only rather infectious but also gives a good idea of the diverging approach the American produces took when preparing the film for U.S. audiences, tightening the pace and emphasizing the action, so that the result emerged looking rather like a typical American sci-fi film from the period.
The audio commentary on this re-tooled version of the film is perhaps more interesting, because there is so much ground to cover in terms of pointing out the changes made and discussing the details of transplanting Gojira/Godzilla from Japan to America. Ryfle and Godziszewski are joined at different points by Ted Newsom and Terry Morse, Jr (son of the man who directed the new American footage), and Ryfle also plays audio excerts from interviews he conducted with some of the people involved in purchasing the rights to distribute the film in the U.S.
Ogata (Akira Takarada, center) and Emiko (Momoko Kochi, right) convince Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata, lest) to use his Oxygen Destroyer against Godzilla.
Ogata amd Emiko (Akira Takarada and Momoko Kochi, center) convince Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata, left) to use his Oxygen Destroyer against Godzilla.

Although Ryfle and Godziszewski obviously prefer the original GOJIRA, they treat the Americanized version with respect, even pointing out a few instances when it improves upon the original, such as Ogata’s line to convince Serizawa to use the Oxygen Destroyer against the monster: “You have your fear, which may become reality. And you have Godzilla, which is reality.”
Perhaps the most salient point that the duo make is that, although GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS may seem like a bastardization of the original, it nonetheless deserves its place in film history because its success helped launch the Japanes giant monster craze that followed. GOJIRA may be the superior version, but it never would have played in local theatres across America. By adding Raymond Burr as a reporter-narrator, director Morse and company gave the film a much needed Occidental point-of-view that allowed audiences a way of seeing into the Japanese world of the film.
Unfortunately, as essential as this DVD set is, it is not quite perfect. GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS lacks subtitles of any kind, making it difficult to follow the story while listening to the audio commentary (something I prefer to do). The subtitles on GOJIRA are of a slightly dull color, making them sometimes hard to read depending on the background image. Both prints are in good shape, having been struck relatively recently, but the sad fact is that that film may never be seen in pristine form again, thanks to wear and tear on the negative that especially rears its ugly head during the special effects scenes.
Ryfle and Godziszewski make a gaffe or two. In the GOJIRA commentary, Godziszewski refers to a shot (of a mother huddling with her children during Gojira’s night-time raid on Tokyo) as missing from the American version, which is incorrect. Fortunately, in the GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS commentary, Ryfle rightly points out that the shot is there; it is simply not subtitled, so you miss its significance. (The young mother hopelessly tells her children they will be joining their father soon in heaven – which evokes thoughts of the Japanese soldiers who died in World War II.)
Perhaps most disappointing, the GOJIRA audio commentary mentions a reference to the atomic bombing of Nagasaki that does not actually occur in the film, at least in the print on this DVD. In the scene (which was deleted from the American version), a woman commuter laments the appearance of Gojira and – in the subtitles for some prints – adds, “I hope I didn’t survive Nagasaki for nothing.” Although both Ryfle and Godziszewski mention the reference (Ryfle even quotes it later, in the GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS commentary), it is not seen in the subtitles here. And truth be told, listening to the Japanese dialogue, I’m not sure I can hear the woman say Nagasaki, leaving me to wonder if the subtitles on earlier prints were a mistake. In any case, it is a glaring anamoly to hear the two experts discussing something is not actually visible to the viewer, and only someone who had seen older import tapes of the movie would know what they are talking about.
Despite these minor flaws, the new GOJIRA DVD is a genuin gem. Thanks to later sequels, which rapidly descended into juvenile, anthropomorphized antics, with Godzilla acting as the proctor of Earth against other monsters and/or alien invasions, Godzilla is not something we take seriously as film art. Yet the monster’s very first film appearance ranks as one of the classic sci-fi-fantasy-horror films, worthy of standing beside the original KING KONG in all his majesty. Hopefully, this DVD will help secure GOJIRA’s rightful place in the pantheon of movie monsters.

An elaborate miniature setting for Godzilla's raid on Tokyo

GODZILLA (Gojira, Toho Studios, 1954; a.k.a. GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS,1956). Directed by Ishiro Honda. Written by Ishiro Honda and Takeo Murata, from a story by Shigeru Kayama. Starring: Akira Takarada, Momoko Kochi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura.
FOOTNOTE:

  • Alone among Godzilla films, the 1954 original was known for many decades – even in English-speaking circles – only by its Japanese title, GOJIRA. This usage made sense when the film had not been released under the title GODZILLA; it helped distinguish the uncut Japanese version from its Americanized off-shoot, GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS. However, since Rialto’s 2004 release used the English title GODZILLA, that is the usage adopted in this review. As a side note, no one seems to know precisely why or how Toho Studios decided to rename their most famous monster for export to the rest of the world.

[serialposts]

Godzilla Raids Again (1955) – Film & DVD Review

GODZILLA RAIDS AGAINReleased just six months after the first GODZILLA film (a.k.a. GOJIRA, 1954), this 1955 effort is a weakly plotted sequel that nonetheless retains much of the mood of the original. The basic problem is that the filmmakers seem to have had little idea what to do with the film except rehash what had come before, minus the melodrama and ethical dilemma that made the original so memorable – even when the monster was not on screen. Nevertheless, thanks to impressive special effects and a serious tone, GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN (a.k.a. GODZILLA’S COUNTERATTACK and GIGANTIS THE FIRE MONSTER) is much better than the colorful but silly sequels churned out in the 1970s.
What passes for a story focuses on some characters working for a fishing company, who spot Godzilla and a new monster, Anguiras, fighting on an island where they make an emergency landing. The clashing titans head toward the coast of Japan where their battle destroys much of Osaka – including the fishing business – before Godzilla kills his opponent. The fishing company boss relocates his business headquarters to the Hokkaido branch in the north, but Godzilla heads in that direction, ultimately wandering onto a glacial island, where jet planes unleash their bombs, burying the beast under an avalanche of ice.
One might call this the “Life Goes On” Godzilla sequel: the lead characters’ connection with Godzilla is mostly a matter of circumstance, and the script has to struggle to keep them involved with the hunt for the beast. Most of the story is nearly plotless, wasting time on the personal lives of the protagonists, whose main concerns are finding a girlfriend, getting married, and keeping the fishing business afloat (so to speak). The result is some dull passages that make the audience grateful for the intrusion of Godzilla.


Neither director Oda nor composer Masaru Sato can equal the work of their counterparts, Ishiro Honda and Akira Ifukube, on the previous film. Fortunately, they do show some flashes of talent here and there, and GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN is punctuated by brief scenes and images that make it seem momentarily better than it is overall. For instance, after the defeat of Godzilla, there is a wonderful final shot of the hero shedding a tear for a fallen friend who died in the effort – a surprisingly moving moment that contains more emotion than the entirety of the 1998 TriStar GODZILLA. There are also several scenes that deliberately evoke memories of World War II, grounding the fantastic tale in a believable sense of reality that makes it monster action feel genuinely disturbing.
The highlight of the film is the special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya. The battle between Godzilla and Anguiras avoids the anthropomorphic action that marred later efforts, emphasizing animal-like violence. But the real standout is the conclusion among the icy mountains of the isolated island where Godzilla meets his fate. The stark black-and-white imagery has an almost expressionistic look the recalls classic Universal horror films from the 1930s, and the effects works for the fighter planes is quite improved from similar footage in GODZILLA, creating a visually stunning demise for the King of the Monsters that ranks among the most impressive scenes of this kind ever captured on celluloid.
In the end, GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN is a fairly typical sequel: not as good as the original, it reprises some familiar motifs and occasionally rises to a level that makes it stand on its own, if only for moments at a time. It is not a masterpiece that will win over skeptical non-fans, but enthusiasts for giant monster movies should find it appealing.


A leaner, meaner Godzilla clashes with Anguiras.
AMERICAN VERSIONIt took four years for GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN to reach U.S. audiences. The American distributor originally wanted to scrap the Japanese live-action footage and use the special effects as stock footage for an otherwise all-new American film. A script was even written, entitled THE VOLCANO MONSTERS. Financial problems prevented this movie from being made. Instead, the U.S. producer, apparently thinking that a new monster would sell more tickets, renamed Godzilla “Gigantis” and retiled the film GIGANTIS, THE FIRE MONSTER.Unlike GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS (1956), which deleted much footage from the 1954 GODZILLA for American release, GIGANTIS, THE FIRE MONSTER retains most of the footage from GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN. Instead, the Americanized version is padded out with stock footage. In some cases (the opening montage of rocket launches), the added footage is simply incongruous; in others (the badly done prehistoric footage), it is of a lamentably cheesy, almost Gumby-esque quality.As bad as the new footage is, even worse is the dubbing. Although the voice actors (which includes the KUNG FU’s Keye Luke and STAR TREK’s George Takei) are not bad, the script’s attempt to match the lip movement results in some ridiculous dialogue like “Banana Oil!” (a flapper era expression for “nonsense” that sounded dated even when the film was released). And for some reason, the lead character is given a non-stop voice over narration that runs virtually throughout the film, often telling audiences what they can see for themselves on the screen.Also, much of the original score is replaced with nearly wall-to-wall stock music cues, often mismatched. The final insult is that the sound effects for the roar of the two monsters are used interchangeably.Under the circumstances, it is understandable that GIGANTIS, THE FIRE MONSTER has earned a reputation as a cheesy monster movie. Viewers who have only seen the American version should take the opportunity to watch the Japanese original: it may not be a great movie, but it is clearly superior to the bastardized version released in the U.S.

TRIVIA

This is the only film in which Godzilla’s dorsal fins are not shown glowing when he shoots his radioactive breath.The Godzilla suit in GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN is somewhat thinner than in the 1954 GODZILLA, with more pronounced shoulders and a head that looks too wide when seen straight on. There is also a hand-puppet for close-ups of the head, which has a noticeably bucktooth look.This is the first film in which Godzilla squares off against another monster for a duel to the death, establishing a tradition that the series would continue for decades later.The spectacle of the two monsters charging and clawing at each other is occasionally enhanced by an accident of filming: one of the special effects cameras was set at slow speed; consequently, the footage looks fast when played back at normal speed. (This is the exact opposite of the usual process, which used slow-motion to give the rubber-suited actors a better sense of the inertia that comes with enormous size.) Although the fast-motion effect is not really convincing, it does make the huge monsters seem more aggressive and angry in their battle.


This posed publicity shot features the Godzilla suit from the previous
film and the bizarre sight of Anguiras with a flapping shell.

DVD DETAILSThe Toho Master Collection DVD (ASIN: B000MV8AJU), released in the U.S. by Classic Media, comes in a snazzy, silvery slipcase that somewhat resembles a small book, with poster art on the front, a few small photos on the back, and a nice shot of Anguiras roaring on the inside. The disc includes both the original Japanese version and the American version of the film, along with a handful of interesting bonus features: audio commentary, a featurette on suit acting, and a gallery of posters.
Both versions are presented in Dolby Digital with full screen picture, divided into twelve chapters, accessed from identical looking menus, made up of poster images from the film. The prints are in reasonably good shape, with clear picture that does justice to the atmospheric black-and-white photography; however, the American version bears some telltale signs of wear and tear: occasional scratches and speckling. The Japanese print is overall superior – although the contrast is greater, creating darker areas of the screen that sometimes obscure the action. For example, the memorable close-up of Godzilla’s eyes flicking back and forth – as he hears the soldiers trying to set a flaming blockade to trap him – is too dark to register clearly, whereas it is perfectly visible in the American print. The American version has a video-generated main title that restores “Godzilla Raids Again” in place of “Gigantis, the Fire Monster” – which makes little sense, since the dubbing still calls the monster “Gigantis.”
The poster slide show consists of seven images accompanied by the film’s main title music.
The “Art of Suit Acting” featurette consists of informative narration, provided by kaiju expert Ed Godziszewski, illustrated by numerous rare still photographs from various Japanese giant monster movies.
This short mini-documentary is filled with interesting tidbits, but it is mostly of interest to hard-core fans; more general viewers will find themselves loosing track of the various names of the numerous actors who donned rubber suits to appear as Godzilla and his many opponents.
The highlight of the bonus features is the audio commentary, which is available with the American version of the film. The majority is provided by Steve Ryfle, author of JAPAN’S FAVORITE MON-STAR. Even if you think you know everything about these films, you might find yourself learning a little. Ryfle gives the run-down on the changes made when bringing GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN to the U.S. He also drags in other friends and experts with interesting stories to tell. Stuart Galbraith IV offers some recollections of composer Sato. Bob Burns relates the time he was working at an American special effects house and accidentally stumbled upon the Godzilla and Anguiras suits, which had been shipped to the U.S. for additional shooting on the aborted VOLCANO MONSTERS project. Ryfle is completely aware of GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN’s shortcomings as a sequel (one can easily relate to his irritation when the film stops the action to dwell on some irrelevant “character development” scenes that add little to the main story), but he also deftly notes the many evocative moments that punctuate the film, raising it a level above what it could have been and making it impossible to dismiss as a mere rehash.
For decades, GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN was officially available in the U.S. only in its altered form, which fell far short of doing justice to the original and fans to seek out bootleg VHS tapes. Thanks to this new DVD, at last GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN is easily available in its original form. Despite the film’s imperfections, this DVD is a must-have for any self-respecting Japanese giant monster movie fan.
GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN (a.k.a. “Gojira no gyakushu” [“Godzilla’s Counter Attack”], Toho, 1955; originally released in the U.S. as GIGANTIS THE FIRE MONSTER, 1959). Directed by Motoyoshi Oda. Written by Shigeaki Hidaka, Takeo Murata, story by Shigeru Kayama. Cast: Hiroshi Koizumi, Setsuko Wakayama, Minor Chiaki, Takashi Shimura, Masao Shimizu, Seijiro Onda, Sonasuke Sawamura, Yoshi Tsuchiya, Mayuri Mokusho.
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Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster – Film & DVD Review

Click to purchase GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTERThis fifth film in the Godzilla series (following MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA) is highly regarded among fans who first saw it on television as children, but anyone looking for an awesome monster movie had best look elsewhere. By this time, the franchise had given up all pretense of serious science-fiction, opting for comic antics: this is the film in which Godzilla abandons his role as a walking metaphor for nuclear destruction and morphs from villain to hero, teaming up with fellow Earth monsters Rodan and Mothra to defeat King Ghidorah, an extra-terrestrial menace that previously eradicated all life on Venus. 
The convoluted plot has a Japanese policeman protecting the visiting Princess Salno (Wakabayashi), who is under threat of assassination. After her plane explodes over the ocean, the Princess somehow shows up alive, now believing herself to be a prophet from Venus; she warns of the advent of King Ghidorah, a space monster that destroyed her world millennia ago.

Coincidentally, Godzilla and Rodan reappear, and the twin fairies from Mothra’s Infant Island summon their god (now in caterpillar form, since the conclusion of MOTHRA VS. GODZILLA) to convince the two rampaging reptiles to fight the three-headed dragon. (This film includes the infamous scene of Mothra, Rodan, and Godzilla literally conversing in monster language.) Meanwhile, assassins attempt to kill the Princess, who neglects to take precautionary measures because she does not remember being the Princess. Fortunately, the monsters interrupt the assassination attempts (e.g., knocking down power lines when she is about to be electrocuted), and Princess Salno regains her memory just as the final assassin is killed in a landslide caused by the monster battle, which ends with Ghidorah flying away in defeat.

Even by the waning standards of Toho monster movies, GHIDORAH is weak. Its message about cooperation in the face of a common enemy is delivered on the level of a kiddie flick. The pacing is slow, padded out with repetetive and/or unnecessary scenes. Just when the action does seem to be building to a climax, the movie inserts frustrating fade-outs reminiscent of a made-for-television film (you expect a commercial break to cover up the fact that we’re transitioning away from action we want to see).

The idea seems to have been to cross-polinate two genres: science-fiction and international intrigue. The two mix about as well as oil and water, and the screenplay’s trick of having the monster action conveniently assist the humans wears thin pretty quickly.  Part of the problem is the jarring tonal shifts between the live action and the special effects. Director Ishiro Honda shows a few touches of wit early on (especially when poking fun at the amateur astronomers awaiting the arrival of a UFO – which never shows up), but he mostly plays the human action straight. Special effects director Eija Tsuburaya, on the other hand, handles the monsters like comical Muppets, with antics barely one step removed from the Three Stooges.

To be fair, if one embraces the silliness, some of it is amusing. Rodan’s shift from laughter – when Godzilla is being doused by Mothra’s silk-spinning – to consternation – when the thread is turned on him – is a juvenile laugh riot. At times, GHIDORAH does work on its own terms, as when the titular menace blasts the relatively puny Mothra caterpillar and the humans cry out in alarm; for a brief moment, the action has actual impact, above and beyond a cheap laugh.

Even taking this into consideration, the special effects have noticably degraded in this film. There are fewer process shots to combine live-action with special effects, making the monster footage seem like puppet theatre cut into the movie. Citywide destruction is kept to a minimum, in favor of staging most of the battle in rural areas. Also, this is the first Godzilla film in which there is no military effort to defeat the monsters; the humans simply stand around and watch while the monsters battle it out.

The cast of human characters is pretty colorless. The only sparks fly at the very end when Princess Salno bids farewell to her policeman-protector: their eyes express the emotions they are not allowed to voice. Other than that, GHIDORAH is a tepid affair, okay for fanatics but requiring too huge a suspension of disbelief to be regarded as much more than a campy trifle.

If GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER deserves to be remembered, it is for introducing the magnificent monster that would go on to be Godzilla’s most popular foe, appearing in no less than six subsequent G-films. (Besides Godzilla, Mothra is the only Toho monster with more on-screen appearances.) Ghidorah is presented here as a scourge of the Solar System, an uncontrollable force of destruction capable of reducing entire worlds to burnt-out desolation. Unfortunately, this concept would be abandoned in most of the monster’s subsequent appearances, in which the three-headed dragon was reduced to the status of a super weapon, controlled by advanced civilizations seeking to overpower Earth. In this, his first on-screen appearance, Ghidorah makes an indelible impression as the interplanetary destroyer of worlds; too bad the film itself fails to live up to the concept.

Ghidroah, the Three-Headed Monster (1965)

DVD DETAILS

The Toho Masters Collection DVD (ASIN: B000OCY7IU) features both the original Japanese cut of the movie, with optional subtitles, and the re-edited American version. The transfer and framing of both versions is satisfactory (unlike the same company’s MOTHRA VS GODZILLA DVD, in which the American version was badly cropped, cutting off the edges of the wide-screen photography). The color is good (better than the faded prints available for theatrical retrospective screenings), but it is not as clear and sharp as DVD releases of other Toho films from the same period.
Also on the disc are an original Japanese trailer, galleries of posters and photographs, a biography of Eiji Tsuburaya, and audio commentary by David Kalat (author of A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Films).
The trailer is of mild interest because it includes a few unfinished effects scenes, such as Godzilla reacting to the lightening blasts from King Ghidorah, which have not been added to the shot yet. There are also a couple of cuts clearly showing a hand-puppet version of Godzilla that does not match the full-size suite worn by the actor.
The galleries include only a handful of posters and photographs, but unlike most DVD galleries, these contain elaborate captions that identify the images and explain their significance.
The video biography of special effects supervisor Eiji Tsuburaya is, in essence, a slide-show: comprised of still photos and narration, it does a good job of hitting the high points in Tsuburaya’s life and career; even hardcore fans, already familiar with the details, will find it interesting.
The Japanese cut of the film is approximately ten minutes longer than the American version, but in this case (unlike most of Toho’s efforts) it is not clear that the original version is superior. The longer cut moves at a slower pace, and much of the footage missing from the American version adds little to the story. In the most egregious example, the twin fairies sing not once but twice to Mothra; the second scene is virtually identical, cut for cut, to the first. The American re-edit wisely deleted the unnecessary reprise.
The American version moves along more quickly, but the re-editing introduces problems of its own. The arrival of the meteor that brings Ghidorah to Earth is moved up to the opening sequence, and the monster emerges from the meteor (in a spectacular display of pyrotechnics) much earlier. This creates an absurd situation in which Princess Salno is prophesying the arrival of a creature that has already arrived, and yet it seems to be news to the people listening to her.
Another silly bit of rejiggering leaves what looks like a gaping hole in the effects: Godzilla wades ashore, hears the sounds of Rodan flying overhead, and looks up; unfortunately, the POV shot of the clouds overhead shows no sign of the giant pteranodon – just empty sky. The glaring absence  suggests that the effects team forgot to add Rodan into the shot. This turns out not to be true: in the original Japanese continuity, Rodan is first heard, then seen emerging from the clouds; after being briefly visible, he disappears back into the clouds. In the American version, the shots of Rodan have been moved up to an earlier scene of Godzilla in the ocean, implying that the sea-going dinosaur notices the flying monster and follows him to land. Reshuffling the footage creates the odd continuity gap, leaving no visible reason for Rodan’s mysterious disappearance.
The re-dubbing has its good and bad points.  For some reason, Princess Salno’s Venusian prophetess becomes a Martian in the English-language version. On the negative side,  giving regional accents to characters in a rural area creates Japanese characters who sound as if they wandered in from the set of FARGO. On the positive side, sound effects from the monsters were added in the background of the final gun battle between the policeman and the assassin, creating a stronger connection with the climactic monster battle taking place just over the hill.
The audio commentary by David Kalat, which plays over the American version, is a bit disappointing. Although Kalat obviously knows his stuff, he seems too eager to retract statements he made in his book (about the preferability of subtitling to dubbing) while mounting a case for the superiority of the American re-edit, and he is equally eager to downplay the flaws in GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER, both in the original version and in the English-dubbing.   
Fortunately, Kalat’s formidable analytical skills have not completely abandoned him, and when he gets off his pro-dubbing soap box he does have interesting observations to make. Most notably, GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER represents a considerable advance for female characters in the series, who take a more active role in solving the problem, instead of waiting around for the men to rescue them. Kalat also points out that Princess Salno is at her most assertive when she has abandoned her royal garb in favor of a male fisherman’s hat and coat. When her rescuers put her back into female clothing, her assertiveness begins to recede, until by the end of the film she is back in her former role.
The Toho Masters DVD of GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER does a good job of presenting this historically important (if over-rated) entry in the Godzilla series. For many American viewers, this is the first opportunity to see the original Japanese version of the film, which in and of itself makes the disc worth a rental. It is also nice to have the American dub preserved for comparison purposes. But neither the quality of the film, nor of the DVD bonus features, is enough to make this an essential part of a sci-fi fan’s collection. Owning this one is strictly for hardcore fanatics and completists.

TRIVIA

When first released in the United States, the title of the film was spelled GHIDRAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER, making the monster’s name only two syllables instead of three. As David Kalat points out in his DVD audio commentary, the Japanese language is spelled in such a way that two consonant sounds cannot be contiguous; a correct rendering of the original Japanese spelling produces the revised title GHIDORAH. (Although the spelling and pronunciation may have varied slightly over the years, Ghidorah’s subsequent film appearances utilized a three-syllable version of the name.)

Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra defeat King Ghidorah.


 GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER (a.k.a. San Daikaiju: Chikyu Saidai No Kessen [“Three Giant Monsters: Earth’s Greatest Battle”], 1964). Directed by Ishiro Honda. Written by Shinichi Sekizawa. Cast: Yosuke Natsuki, Huniko Hoshi, Hiroshi Koizumi, Akiko Wakabayashi, Emi Ito, Yumi Ito, Takashi Shimura, Akihiko Hirata, Hisaya Ito, Minoru Takada, Sensho Matsumoto.