Wednesday, January 07, 2015

[Movies] The Golden Age of Monsters

I was channel surfing briefly on late night and I stumbled across a new (I think it's new) network called El Rey in the 800-level channels. It is apparently a network dedicated to camp, cult, and grindhouse style productions. Sort of a network dedicated to the tastes of Quentin Tarantino. Could be of interest if they find oddball films or do some original programming. Anyway, they were in the middle of a Japanese monster (or more properly daikaiju) festival starting with the original Godzilla (or more correctly Gojira).

Confession: when I was a wee lad I loved watching these monster flicks. There used to be something called The 4:30 Movie, which came on one of the three VHF channels every weekday at, yeah, 4:30pm. They typically ran all sort of low-rent movies, peppered with uncountable commercial breaks. But it was timed perfectly for when I got home from school. Every once in a while they would have monster week and when they ran these films and I never missed them. So forgive my nostalgiac need to write about them.

The story of the original Godzilla is well known. There are two version that are available to English speaking audiences. One is a straight voice over of the original Japanese film called, Gojira. The other is a that same film, chopped up and interspersed with additional scenes that feature Raymond Burr as an American journalist watching and commenting on the monster mayhem, and renamed Godzilla, King of Monsters. Common opinion is that the Raymond Burr version is deeply inferior and undeniably inauthentic. I somewhat agree, but I actively resist the smugly fashionable conceit of authenticity, even when it comes to monster movies. I will say that the original, despite the cheesy genre, has some excellent moments. The shadowy camera work and way tension is built in many early scenes is really striking, even to this day. It's easy to see how, in a darkened theatre, at a time when we weren't completely desensitized to special effects, in Japan, where there was common memory of a massive destructive force emerging from the East, this would be terrifying. Interest pretty much ends, however, when Godzilla appears and it is so obviously a guy in a clownishly amatuer-looking rubber suit, kicking over balsa wood models.

After that there were a handful of sequels introducing other monsters, specifically Rodan (a giant bird/reptile thing) and Mothra (a giant moth who is killed). Then came Ghidorah, the Three Headed Monster, a movie that simply could not have been made without the consumption of untold quantities of LSD.

To wit: An south seas island whose natives worship an enormous and deeply creepy-looking caterpillar. Twin fairies, about a foot tall, who speak in unison, can summon the caterpillar via song, and live in a what appears to be a modified make-up kit. An androgynous woman who is clairvoyant and claims to be from Mars, but may actually be the resurrection of a human princess. (In the original Japanese version she was from Venus. They changed it to Mars for the US release for reasons that I'm sure it made sense when they were tripping.) A group of assassins in black suits from the princess homeland; these men are referred to as "the killers". And lastly Ghidorah itself, a three-headed, two-tailed dragon from outer space that shoots lightning out of its mouths and has no purpose other than wanton destruction.

The events are surreal. At one point the twin fairies appear on a sort of TV talk show and are challenged by some wise-ass kid to sing to the caterpillar. The androgynous woman is heckled by a crowd and told to do a striptease. The caterpillar has to convince Godzilla and Rodan to stop fighting and team up against Ghidorah by imploring them not to be "bullheaded". Pause to consider that one: A giant caterpillar called a giant bird and a giant reptile "bullheaded" as translated by twin telepathic foot-tall fairies speaking in unison. The mind reels.

Then there is the three-headed monster itself. It appears to have no purpose other than malevolence. It doesn't eat, sleep, breed, or do anything but break things kill people. Visually it is actually quite disturbing. It's three heads fly about haphazardly in all directions firing lighting wantonly, without any targeting intent. It emits an earsplitting shrill mechanical sort of shriek without pattern. It's a Lovecraftian vision of unfeeling, meaningless destruction. If I had to fight Cthulhu I would sick Ghidorah on him. It's clear at least one of the special effects team must have gotten a bad tab of acid.

You'd probably have to be pretty bored to actually seek out Ghidorah but if you notice it in your channel guide you may want to DVR it just to get a taste how weird the ‘60s really were and how the weirdness wasn't just confined to the West. Or you may want to check it out just to be in the know, because it appears the sequel to last Hollywood Godzilla, the one with Heisenberg, will mark the return of Ghidorah. I don't have high hopes for it. They don't make hallucinogens like they used to.