Tag Giant Monsters

Tarantula (1955)

Tarantula (1955)

Even Science was stunned!

A tarantula, which has been injected with experimental growth hormones, escapes the secret laboratory and grows to enormous size, causing havoc across the Arizona desert.

 

Tarantula is one of the 50s giant monster movies more famous entries and is not to be confused with the later 50s film, Earth Vs The Spider, also about a giant spider on the rampage in a desert town. But whereas that was attracted by rock and roll music, the spider in this one is simply hungry. Jack Arnold, fresh off legendary status with Creature from the Black Lagoon, brings his considerable talent to the table but unfortunately ends up with a throwaway science fiction movie which just so happens to have a giant spider running amok in.

Tarantula runs according to the well-embedded 50s atomic monster formula but a formula done reasonably effectively when the film wants to put the effort in. In this case the cause of the problem isn’t atomic radiation but an early form of genetic experimentation. It matters little in the long run though – either way there is a huge hungry spider on the loose. The film runs almost entirely without the spider as the plot regarding the scientists and the experiments takes the majority of the screen time. It’s a race against time for Professor Deemer to find a cure for his acromegaly which killed his partner and is now starting to kill him. It’s nowhere near as exciting as it sounds, if it sounds exciting anyway. At least there is some decent make-up effects on both characters as the slow effects of the syndrome begin to take their toll.

But we didn’t come for guys in make-up, we came for giant spiders. Tarantula is dreadfully dull. It’s almost fifty minutes into the film before you get a look at the giant spider. That said, the first shot of it climbing over the hill in silhouette form is pretty spine-tingling and there is another awesome shot of it slowly creeping up behind a couple of prospectors sitting by a dawn campfire. I may have lambasted special effects in similar 50s giant bug movies but here they look like they’ve had some time and effort devoted to them. The spider even casts a shadow across the background that it’s been superimposed onto. I mean its hardly groundbreaking stuff but the effects at least manage to make the spider look like its real, even if it seems that plenty of the shots are re-used. I just wish they’d have made more use of the spider instead of relegating it to background duty.

The spider doesn’t do an awful lot except toddle around the desert. Many shots of it walking across highways, climbing over rocks or traversing hills are inter-cut with the rest of the film. Nothing flash, just a ten second clip of it walking around to make you remember that it’s still out there. It doesn’t really get well fed (if you don’t take into consideration a herd of horses that it snacks upon) but then it hasn’t really done much to get its appetite worked up. When it does get around to attacking people, it’s the same scenario over and over: close-up of the spider bearing its fangs and going in for the kill and then a zoom-in shot of the unlucky victims(s) covering helplessly on the floor with some super-imposed legs either side of them. Hardly the most exciting attack scenes you’ll see.

On a final note, Clint Eastwood makes an uncredited appearance as one of the pilots who bomb the spider in the finale. Well, even greatness had to start somewhere.

 

Tarantula gets way more acclaim than it deserves but is still a fair way to spend time. There are far superior examples of the 50s monster movies but when this film wants to show off, it does so in style with some excellent special effects.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Beginning of the End (1957)

Beginning of the End (1957)

Filmed in New Horrorscope!

As the remains of a crushed car are found with no sign of the occupants, the police also receive a report that the nearby town of Ludlow has been completely destroyed. Reporter Audrey Ames is driving through that part of the country when she reaches an army road block which prevents her from going to Ludlow, or where she thinks it still is. Sensing a big story, she decides to investigate further and finds out that radioactive material at a nearby government testing station has caused vegetables to grow to enormous proportions – and the local locust population has been feasting upon it, in turn making them grow to gigantic proportions.

 

Bert I. Gordon, famous for some atrocious (some would consider cult) sci-fi films he made in the 50s (The Amazing Colossal Man and its sequel War of the Colossal Beast, Earth Vs The Spider) and then later in the 70s (Empire of the Ants, The Food of the Gods), is the man at the helm of this one, a late and wholly feeble entry into the 50s ‘atomic monster’ movies. They were all the rage back in the decade, as fears of atomic testing and what damage radiation could do to our planet were the talking point on everyone’s lips.

After the success of Them! in 1954 with it’s giant ants, everyone quickly tried to find the next best thing: scorpions (The Black Scorpion), spiders (Tarantula, Earth Vs The Spider), praying mantis (erm, The Preying Mantis), molluscs (The Monster That Challenged the World) and wasps (Monster from Green Hell). Yeah granted molluscs was pushing it a bit, though to be fair the film did a reasonable job of turning them into a threat. Perhaps the least frightening of the lot is the sound of a horde of giant grasshoppers which, let’s face it, sound about as scary as a giant mushroom.

Gordon does little to convince the audience that these grasshoppers exist in the same universe as everyone else, let alone turn them into some sort of threat. His notoriously appalling special effects are in abundance here (he does them himself) and the sad thing is that over the years with his later films, they never really got better either. The grasshoppers consist of a copious amount of magnified stock footage clips and some lousy low-budget rear projection. This is all fine and good when the stock footage army is trying to destroy them in the middle part of the film (even this gets boring because there’s no interaction between either humans or bugs at any point). But when the grasshoppers finally get stuck into Chicago, the special effects consist of little more than real grasshoppers crawling over photos of the Windy City! You heard that right – photos! The effect is as terrible as it sounds. Gordon couldn’t even be bothered to make a model of anything to allow his grasshoppers to crawl over.

Having said all of this, dialogue is the most devastating weapon that Beginning of the End has in its arsenal. Instead of showing things like the destruction of Ludlow for instance, the film resorts to dialogue and the shocked reactions of the actors to convey what it is happening. At first, you think that the whole film could end up going this direction and not show anything at all but thankfully (or maybe not considering the quality of the special effects) the grasshoppers do eventually show up and at least the pace is picked up after a dreadful opening. Beginning of the End fails to grab hold of your attention at any point, monotonously trotting out the usual array of scientific jargon, forced love interests between hero and heroine and lots of military guys running around telling people what to do.

Peter Graves, who would later go on to find fame in the TV series of Mission: Impossible and even greater fame as Captain Oveur in Airplane!, plays it deadly serious as the scientist. In fact Graves’ stern delivery makes everything else seem all the more silly. He’s not alone in this respect. Try and keep a straight face when regular rent-a-general Morris Ankrum suggests that the only solution to the crisis is to drop an atomic bomb onto Chicago. Talk about over-reacting!

 

I shouldn’t feel aggrieved about watching a film with giant grasshoppers that features special effects as bad as this – some would say I get what I deserve and that is correct. Beginning of the End is a low budget Z-film which clearly and ineptly cashes in on the atomic monster craze of the 50s. Maybe if you have a grasshopper fetish or want to see how not to create special effects, there might be something of interest here otherwise you’re better off sticking with the more famous 50s monster movies.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Godzilla – Mothra – King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001)

Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001)

Who will be the last to survive!?

After his original path of destruction through Tokyo, the Japanese planned and prepared for Godzilla’s inevitable return. However when Godzilla does return, it seems that their efforts to stop him are still as futile. So an ancient religious cult awakens three guardian monsters to fight Godzilla in a battle to the death.

 

Shûsuke Kaneko’s Gamera trilogy in the 1990s literally blew Toho’s Godzilla series out of the water with its amazing special effects and high energy production, becoming the new benchmark for kaiju films and setting the bar high for future giant monster movies. But Shusuke Kaneko always wanted to make a Godzilla film so after the success of his Gamera trilogy, he was given the chance. Godzilla – Mothra – King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (or GMK for short since it is a long title!) thus became one of the most eagerly anticipated Godzilla films of all time.

Alas, he fails to do the same for Godzilla as he had done for the giant turtle with the in-built jetpacks. GMK is incredibly underwhelming. Given his track record and given the monsters on display, there’s no way that this twenty-fifth Godzilla film should be as so ordinary. Kaneko pushes the reset button yet again (a common failing with the Millenium series of films, always pretending that the only other Godzilla film to exist was the first one) to try and breathe some life into the series but what he ends up with is yet another overblown Godzilla film which promises a lot but doesn’t deliver.

GMK does manage to continue Kaneko’s depiction of the damage that such giant monsters would create, showing scenes where fleeing humans are killed by the monsters. Its little interactions like this which make the films a little more personal as rarely in the past have we ever seen anyone get harmed despite the amount of times Tokyo has come under attack. Special effects are top notch once again as each of the monsters is brought to life in spectacular fashion and, during the night time fight sequences, the monsters radiate with beam weapons and energy blasts.

Kaneko had wanted to resurrect Anguirus and Varan for this one but was overruled by the producers and forced to make do with the usual suspects in the shape of Mothra and King Ghidorah (though it is nice to see Baragon back). Whilst they are two of the most popular monsters, I’m sure that everyone was sick of seeing the same monsters fight Godzilla time and time again (Mothra, King Ghidorah and Mechagodzilla being the repeat offenders) and it would have been nice to see other monsters get a reboot.

Considering today’s budgets and special effects, you would have expected the monsters to get more screen time but they probably get less screen time here than they do in any of the previous films. It seems that the inclusions of King Ghidorah, Mothra and Baragon were there solely to get their asses kicked time and time again and to make Godzilla look good. Mothra is given the worst treatment, getting little more than a cameo in her larvae stage before getting her ass kicked later on in her full form. Baragon fairs a little better (no doubt because he hasn’t been over-exposed in previous films) and there’s a decent fight between him and Godzilla but the Big G never breaks sweat. King Ghidorah doesn’t really appear until the finale where – you guessed it – his job is to get destroyed by Godzilla.

I was expecting a huge showdown with all four monsters at the end instead of smaller fights scattered through the film where each individual monster is easily taken out. I never felt like Godzilla could lose. The fights are generally entertaining but they are constantly inter-cut with scenes of the human characters doing things that are of little interest.

It’s this problem which eats away at GMK – there isn’t a compelling story to hold everything together. The script plays around with mystical mumbo jumbo but little of it means anything, especially when giant monsters are smashing buildings. There is more of a focus on the human characters this time around as the film tries to re-centre itself as a film about humans having to cope with a giant monster invasion as opposed to giant monsters fighting each other with silly humans meddling around the sides.

 

GMK was a disappointment, although not a total dud. Shusuke Kaneko tries to recapture the Gamera trilogy magic for Godzilla but the story isn’t strong enough to hold it all together and the treatment that some of the individual monsters get is a bit shabby given their popularity. As it stands, his Gamera films still stand up as some of the best this kaiju genre has to offer and unfortunately Godzila has never really reached the same level…yet.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Godzilla Vs Megaguirus (2000)

Godzilla Vs Megaguirus (2000)

The Japanese have developed a huge weapon called the Dimension Tide which creates artificial black holes fired from a satellite in space. They plan to use it against Godzilla the next time he appears. After a test run of the weapon, a small boy finds an unusual egg near the site and takes it with him when he moves to the city. Dumping it in the sewers, the egg eventually grows in size and hatches into a big insect which in turn lays more eggs. Godzilla shows up and just when the Dimension Tide is about to be used against him, the insects swarm the machine and cause it to malfunction. Godzilla survives and the insects begin to multiply on the energy produced. After gathering enough energy, they transform into the monster Megaguirus and target Godzilla as the ultimate source of energy.

 

Well it’s a long, drawn-out sequence of events which finally lead to Godzilla and another giant monster squaring off in the middle of the city in Toho’s twenty-fourth Godzilla film, Godzilla Vs Megaguirus. After the middling reboot that was Godzilla 2000, Toho needed to do something more dramatic with this entry. So they decided to chose an obscure third-rate monster from Rodan and balloon it up to gigantic size – yes, that’s called a weird decision. I’m not sure why Gigan or Megalon couldn’t have been rebooted for the modern era but Megaguirus will have to do.

Godzilla Vs Megaguirus is definitely a step up from it’s predecessor, delivering a tighter-knit and faster-paced story which will blatantly drag whilst the script builds ahead of steam for the final fight but will then deliver in spades. Only now, the studio had the finance and the capability to produce bigger and better effects and we get them in abundance. CGI slowly creeps into the series, with the smaller Meganula being rendered on computers. But the Godzilla suit looks bad ass as always, even if Megaguirus looks like another flying puppet in the same vein as Mothra and Battra, being able to fly without hardly flapping its wings and having tiny little legs which move every now and then. The use of modern day technology along with the tried-and-tested men-in-suits on miniature stages philosophy works reasonably well. Actually it works better than reasonably since the final fight takes place during the day, a rare thing indeed for this series which usually had its monsters battle at night to hide deficiencies in the effects.

In their haste to improve the visuals, the makers of the film seem to have recycled ideas from previous Godzilla films and spruced them up with new effects. An example of this is the fight between Godzilla and the smaller giant bugs, the Meganula, where they try and swarm all over him. It’s highly reminiscent of the scene from Godzilla Vs Destroyer where the monster battles the smaller version of Destroyer on a construction site.

Once again the script takes pseudo-scientific ideas to the extreme, offering up a variety of implausible solutions and impractical resolutions to Godzilla like the creation of a black hole weapon. Obviously we’ve got to stomach the fact that a giant monster, born from atomic radiation, is out to destroy Japan first before we believe anything else. But the incredible weapons that this series keeps coming up with just take the whole thing to new levels of ridiculousness.

Another annoying trait of Godzilla Vs Megaguirus is, like the other Millenium films, it cherry picks what it wants to reference from previous Godzilla films, pretty much disregarding everything and resetting the timeline back to scratch again. Showing a bit of continuity between films was the way to go forward and it’s no surprise that, in my opinion, the best all-round films of the entire series were the ones from Godzilla Vs King Ghidorah onwards which were all linked by various plot threads and recurring characters. There seemed to be logical progression with an overall story arc and it was nice to see.

One step forwards/backwards (depending on your view point) is that it returns somewhat to the cartoon-violence style escapades of the 70s as Godzilla delivers a body slam to Megaguirus and there are other attempts at monster humour during the battles. It’s groan-worthy but it’s certainly a highlight of their fight as the last couple of giant monsters that Godzilla has faced have all been rather serious affairs. Megaguirus is a decent opponent for Godzilla and the fight between the two monsters during the finale is solid and they get into a lot of close, physical combat. I always preferred to see my giant monsters physically duking it out with each other instead of standing at a distance and firing their beam weapons as was the case during many of these later Godzilla films. But on the flip side, Megaguirus lacks a real physical presence and doesn’t seem to pose any threat to Godzilla – you know the outcome of the fight from the opening minute. Godzilla’s best opponents like King Ghidorah and Destroyer took him to the limit.

 

Toho doesn’t seem to show the same faith or creativity in Godzilla as it once did and Godzilla Vs Megaguirus is proof of this. It’s basically a rehash of ideas from previous films with some better special effects. Decent but hardly the most memorable Godzilla film.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, The (1953)

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

You’ll see it tear a city apart!

A prehistoric monster is thawed out of its frozen state by atomic testing in the Arctic and then proceeds to go on a destructive rampage in New York.

 

The first of the wave of 1950s ‘atomic monster’ movies which featured radiated monsters going on destructive rampages throughout various cities across the world, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is a landmark film in the genre. Marshalling the paranoia about atomic weapons that had festered itself in society since the end of the Second World War, the film goes about setting up a series of tropes which would become the norm by the end of the decade.

Thinking about the rest of this genre, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms would have just been another generic 50s B-movie if it weren’t for the superb stop-motion effects by the maestro of modelling, Ray Harryhausen. The film plods along quite slowly and follows the usual structure to the letter: a few small incidents and reports about a monster; scientists sent in to investigate; monster reveals itself; army is called in to try and stop it; scientists struggle to come up with alternative as monster arrives in populated areas; monster caused chaos; leading to the final confrontation between science and nature.

It seems to take ages to go anywhere but at least the monster is revealed almost straight away so there’s no partial reveal or slow burn. There’s too much padding and character development and the scenes of characters discussing and arguing about the monster are drawn out for way longer than they need be. After all, we’ve come to see the giant monster on the poster, not hear about how Scientist A is falling in love with Scientist B. The whole thing didn’t cost too much money to make and Harryhausen’s techniques were notorious for taking a while to finish (not his fault, just the way stop-motion worked) so the film needs to pad itself out as much as it can without showing anything expensive.

But back to the special effects since they are what this film is more famous for than anything else. This was Harryhausen’s first solo film so he’s a little rusty here but the monster is one of his most memorable (and he would base the dragon from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad upon the model he made here). He conjures up some fantastic images of the monster, particularly a great silhouetted shot of the creature as it destroys a lighthouse. The monster’s rampage through New York in the finale and then the final showdown inside an amusement park are sterling work. Black and white really gives the creature a film noir vibe and use of lighting and shadow inside the park at the end is a real testament to the genius that was Harryhausen. The scene where it attacks the rollercoaster still looks great to this day.

Like the other 50s monster movies, the cast matters little to the eventual outcome as the scientists are old actors, the males are square-jawed heroes, the females are there to fall in love with the hero and give us a tepid romantic sub-plot, and the military guys are there to shoot first and ask questions later. It’s the standard make-up of characters that would become the staple of this genre for years to come. Here, main actor Paul Hubschmid is a Swiss actor speaking English so his delivery is garbled at the best of times. Keep watching out for a young Lee Van Cleef as an army sharpshooter.

Director Eugène Lourié would visit the giant monster movie well a few more times in later years, bringing the world Gorgo and The Giant Behemoth, virtually the same film as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms only set in England. But this is his best work.

 

The special effects are the sole reason why The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms has become such a ground-breaking film. Still, it’ classic monster movie making at its 50s finest and Harryhausen would go on to bigger and better things in the field of special effects.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959)

Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959)

Massive Blood Sucking Monsters!

Alcoholic trapper Lem Sawyer sees a creature in the swamps but no one will believe him. That is until people start disappearing and local game warden Steve Benton gets involved. He searches the swamps and finds it inhabited by giant leeches, mutated by the local radiation at Cape Canaveral, and hungry for the taste of human blood.

 

Limping along in the doldrums of the ‘atomic monster’ movie decade, Attack of the Giant Leeches is a late entry into the field but is rightfully never even mentioned in the same breath as Them!, Tarantula or The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. Even though the title monsters are hardly the size of houses like the aforementioned critters, they’re still a by-product of atomic radiation even if the film borrows more from Creature from the Black Lagoon than anything else. Produced by Roger Corman’s lesser known brother Gene and featuring some of the worst production values I’ve ever seen, Attack of the Giant Leeches sucks in more ways than one.

With horrendous underwater photography – the kind where someone shoots footage from behind a glass panel in swimming pool – and perpetually murky cinematography above ground, one of the first things that will grind on you is just how you’re meant to see anything here. A crackly soundtrack and plenty of scenes where no one actually says anything will have you checking your volume settings to make sure all of your speakers are plugged in. It is almost as if they dunked the microphones underwater with the cameras. I can understand that the production was a ‘lowest price possible’ sort of venture but still, there are certain levels of production that any film should have before they’re even considered for release. When visuals and audio aren’t up to scratch, it doesn’t bode well for anything else.

Maybe it’s best that you don’t see everything as well as you’d have liked. The title monsters look like stuntmen wrapped in bin bags with suckers taped to their faces. I don’t know whether the intention was to make them humanoid in appearance but that’s how they turned out, especially during a hilarious blood sucking scene in their cave domain. Hardly scary back in the 50s I’m sure, they look even more ridiculous in the 21st century. The leeches work slightly better when they’re partially concealed by the water but even this requires a fair dollop of disbelief.

The leeches never venture out of the swamp to attack so you won’t find any city-invasions or even threats to small towns like the rest of this sub-genre. In fact pretty much the entire film is based at the swamp – I counted a sum total of about three different sets used across the film. At a very slender sixty-two minutes, the film is almost over before it has chance to begin which is probably a relief more then anything – the leeches don’t even get called that until about three quarters of the way. The same characters seem to pass through the same bits of the swamp in a never ending circle. Above all the film is just so uninteresting and bland because there’s nothing to keep your attention. The countless scenes without dialogue and loads of characters on-screen who look and sound the same as each other mean you won’t have a clue what is going on for the best part and when you do, you won’t care. This is with the exception of the purposefully-slutty Yvette Vickers, starring in a rather suggestive role for 1959.

 

Attack of the Giant Leeches is wretched. Just plain and simply one of the worst films ever made. Even genre fans who like to punish themselves by subjecting them to the worst material available will be hard-pressed to find anything of enjoyment here.

 

 ☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Rodan (1956)

Rodan (1956)

Most horrifying hell creature that ever menaced all mankind!

A mysterious spate of deaths down in a Japanese mining pit turn out to be the work of large monstrous grubs which are living in a huge underground cave. But what is worse is that the miners also discover a giant egg. With the cave disturbed, the egg hatches and a giant prehistoric monster is released, feeding off the grubs first before breaking free of the cave and heading to Toyko, leaving a trail of devastation in its wake.

 

With the phenomenal success of Godzilla and its sequel, Toho saw a licence to print money in the giant monster market and started designing new monsters to destroy their country with varying levels of success (Varan anyone?). Rodan was the first of these monsters to get its own film and what follows is one of Toho’s best monster films and arguably the second best solo outing for any monster behind Godzilla himself. It was the first kaiju film released without Godzilla and the first one it ever shot in colour.

Stripping away much of the nuclear messages that Godzilla carried, Rodan plays it more like the traditional monster movie. Well at least when you’ve finished watching, it does. You wouldn’t think that you’re watching a film about a giant monster for the first part. The scenes in the mine with the grubs are more akin to the cheesy 50s American atomic monster movies like Beginning of the End and The Giant Mantis. There is a reasonable amount of suspense and dread built up at the start and these scenes are surprisingly scary and effective. The grubs look creepy and a bit similar to the giant molluscs from The Monster That Challenged the World. In fact it’s almost a disappointment when they do discover the giant egg because you know that this portion of the film will be coming to an end. Rodan quickly shifts into kaiju mode and the change is sudden and a little jarring, going from a more horror-orientated outing to an all-out action fest within the space of ten minutes.

Rodan was the first of Toho’s many famous flying monsters and the monster suit is designed with this in mind. The scenes of the monster flying over and then landing in the middle of Tokyo are rendered with some great special effects. In the air, Rodan is a puppet but when he’s upright on land, he’s the more traditional guy-in-a-suit. I always thought Rodan looked like he needed a good feeding and the skinny and scrawny nature of the puppet in this one makes me smile with relish knowing he’s proven my point. It’s for this reason that Rodan seems to lack the genuine physical presence that Godzilla or his many alien opponents had in future films. Apart from flapping his wings and causing huge gusts of wind, Rodan is pretty useless.

However there is plenty of good old fashioned city-stomping as TWO Rodans attack Tokyo in what may be one of Toho’s best monster attack scenes. For the first time in colour, the extremely detailed miniature sets are brought to life and look surprisingly good, buckling under the gusts of wind from Rodan’s wings. Not only that, but the Japanese army is out in full force too, failing to stop the monsters with their array of tiny toy tanks and stock footage. Some of these scenes were that good that they were re-used time and time again in following Godzilla films – the scene with the soldier being blown in the wind was a common sight in a lot of the series. In comparison to the earlier night time black and white scenes of devastation in Godzilla and Godzilla Raids Again, these scenes look apocalyptic and highly realistic.

To top it off, the ending is one of the most emotional in the entire Toho canon as legendary director Ishirô Honda gets us to empathise with the monsters as they are caught up in a volcanic eruption. One has the chance to flee the scene but decides to stay after the other one is killed. It’s a touching moment and one which is rare to see in a kaiju film, giving the monsters sentience and character like never before.

 

Rodan is one of Toho’s best films, featuring some of the most impressive monster action that they ever filmed and with some great special effects to bring it to vivid life. Dare I say it but at times Rodan is more exciting than Godzilla was! Rodan would prove to be so popular that the monster was brought back for a further three films in the original Godzilla run as well as sporadic appearances in the later years. Not bad for a spin-off.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Them! (1954)

Them! (1954)

FANTASTIC MONSTERS ATTACK EARTH!

Atomic testing in New Mexico causes normal ants to mutate into giant man-eating monsters. Tracking the queens, a team of scientists discover that the ants are nesting in the sewer system of Los Angeles and with the way they are multiplying in number, could threaten the world within weeks.

 

One of the earliest of the 50s ‘atomic monster’ movies, Them! was the first one to feature mutated insects as its main threat which would become the genre norm in the years following (with the world having survived the onslaught of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms in 1953 and Godzilla in 1954).Spiders, a giant mantis, locusts and giant antimatter space buzzards would all start to terrorise the world throughout the rest of the decade but it is with Them! that the roots of the genre are sown. The first one is also the best one by a country mile.

Them! is rightfully heralded as a sci-fi classic and it’s easy to see why. Director Gordon Douglas creates a suspenseful film in which its success is based upon how well you stomach the notion of giant mutated ants running amok in the desert. Thankfully the first-rate script does a fantastic job of building everything up nicely throughout the opening half: the appearance of the traumatised girl, a local store found destroyed, giant footprints in the sand, a state trooper goes missing off-screen. It all gives credible evidence to a serious threat and the ants are nowhere to be seen – but at least heard. The ants are given an effectively eerie high pitch shrieking noise which indicates their presence even if they aren’t sighted. And that they won’t be for a good portion of the film. This can get dialogue-heavy at times but that doesn’t detract from the quality on show.

It is the film’s cast of characters that have to keep driving the film forward and with the strong cast, they do just that. James Whitmore and James Arness make for likeable leads with Edmund Gwenn providing the scientific jargon with his elderly scientist. Gwenn steals the show with some seriously downbeat lines but he’s also there to throw in some minor comic relief from time to time. Watching him boss about the two younger men during action sequences is quite funny with the doddery old Gwenn leaving the physical side of the film to his co-stars. Also of note is Joan Wheldon who plays what would be considered the female love interest although the film is less concerned with providing a soppy romantic sub-plot than it is having Wheldon’s character at least attempt to portray some intelligence and self-control.

Finally when the ants do appear, all of the talk, the jargon and the plot hints have been building up nicely so that their impact is immediate. The ants are brought to life through the use of giant mechanical creations and although they may look a little dated nowadays, they still cause quite a stir whenever they’re on screen because at least there’s a physical presence for the actors to interact with, fending off mandibles and claws in desperation. Even then, Douglas tries to mask the failings of the ants, hiding them in the dark for the finale or battering the camera with sandstorms in a bid to cover everything up.

The final climax in the storm sewers of Los Angeles is a barnstorming way to end the film. Using the cramped and dark location to good advantage, the cinematographer creates an ominous setting where it is literally a struggle for survival between the army and the ants. Whilst other films were content to show famous landmarks being destroyed above ground, Them! proves that it could portray such an out-of-sight struggle and still be as effective in delivering an exciting spectacle. This finale in particular seems to be a prototype for any number of modern classics where people go looking for monsters in dark, labyrinthian settings.

 

Them! is classic 50s sci-fi at its most thought-provoking and entertainingly ludicrous. Why settle for second best with The Giant Mantis or Tarantula?  Watch Them!, the pinnacle of 50s atomic monster movies and a real gem of a long-lost genre of cinema. Giant bug flicks should never be as good as this.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★☆ 

 

 

Son of Godzilla (1967)

Son of Godzilla (1967)

Japan’s Greatest Foe Delivers an Heir!

Radiation experiments on an island create giant preying mantis and humongous spiders to come to life. The scientists there also discover a giant egg, which hatches and is revealed to be the son of Godzilla. With lots of nasty monsters lying in wait, it’s up to Godzilla to protect his son.

 

Most critics signal the juvenile low budget antics of Godzilla in the 70s as his lowest ebb. The likes of Godzilla Vs Megalon were cheap, full of stock footage and suffered from an overriding sense of camp and live action cartoonery. But in my opinion, he was never at his more obvious least when he had to play the role of dad in both Son of Godzilla and Godzilla’s Revenge, the two films which are the nadir of the Godzilla series in my eyes.

In an attempt to make the Godzilla series more appealing to younger viewers, Toho introduced the world to Minya (or Minilla depending on which film you see him in), the annoying son of Godzilla. Thus was born one of the worst outings ever for the big monster as instead of destroying Tokyo with anti-atomic sentiments or saving the Earth from alien invaders, Godzilla now had to play the protective parent and keep his son from being harmed by other monsters. This is not a serious entry in the slightest and the camp and jokey nature of the film is actually embraced by everyone in it.

Godzilla is more of a cartoon character in this one instead of the ferocious beast he once was. The fights between Godzilla and Kamakiras (the giant preying mantis) and Kumonga (the giant spider) are comical and it’s like watching the Three Stooges eye-poke and knuckle shove each other in monster suits. Though Kamakiras outnumbers Godzilla three to one, they’re no match for the Big G and he smashes them to pieces before squaring up against Kumonga in the finale. Surprisingly, the introduction of these new monsters means that no stock footage is re-used from earlier films and all of the action (and there is a fair amount, signalling that the budgets were still decent at this time) is newly shot, although the footage of these new monsters would be re-used in following films. This at least gives the film a fresher film even if director Jun Fukuda keeps Son of Godzilla looking a little too much like his earlier Ebirah, Horror of the Deep at times with the jungle and island setting.

Despite the ludicrous sight of Godzilla and his son embracing at the end, it’s still quite an emotional scene and one of the only times in the entire series that I can recall Godzilla showing some true sign of emotion. It does get a little too ‘cute’ and sentimental for its own good, notably in the earlier scene where Godzilla tries to teach his son how to blow the radioactive breath and Minya just blows out smoke rings.

Like the majority of the Godzilla series, it takes some time before the big monster shows up and without any city-stomping antics it means that the human characters and the story have more time to fill up. The plot is simple padding, keeping things ticking over until Godzilla finally turns up and never really threatening to do anything except keep the film going from A to B. Without Godzilla smashing Japan to pieces again or aliens trying to take over the world, the plot is actually one of the more original in the entire series and there is no strict formula for it to follow. The cast is made up of a batch of actors who had appeared in numerous Godzilla films over their career, including Akihiko Hirata, Kenji Sahara and my particular favourite, Akira Kubo. Energetic to the end, though suffering from bad dubbing, the characters are entertaining enough if the plot never threatens to do anything serious with itself.

 

You’ll be hard-pressed to take anything from Son of Godzilla except a strong hatred of the title character. Minya would pop up as a main character again in Godzilla’s worst outing, Godzilla’s Revenge, and then be re-imagined for the later 90s films. His debut here is not the worst of the series though if it hadn’t been for the fact that it doesn’t follow the usual Godzilla formula and structure, it would have been a close run thing.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)

Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)

Earth: Out-numbered, Out-monstered, Out-done.

Earth is a transformed place. Whilst the planet is constantly under threat from giant monsters, some humans are discovered to have mutant abilities and are part of the international ‘M-Group’ task force designated with stopping the monsters. When a UFO arrives and seemingly removes the monsters in the interests of peace, the planet looks to have a bright future. That is until it’s revealed the aliens are simply ‘farming’ the population of Earth for food. They take the monsters under their control and order them to destroy the planet when humans resist. However there is one monster they can’t control. One monster that mankind has tried for decades to kill with no luck. Now Earth’s only hope lies with Godzilla!

 

Godzilla: Final Wars was the fiftieth anniversary production for Godzilla and was heralded as the last Godzilla film to be made for a long while – the big monster was going to go into semi-retirement in order to give the series a much-needed break (though they have retired Godzilla twice before so I take this with a pinch of salt). In an attempt to give the fans what they’ve been dying for and send Godzilla off on a high, Toho decided to rehash one of the most popular of the Godzilla films – Destroy All Monsters – for the modern era. A classic monster mash-up from the 60s, it was famous for featuring pretty much all of Toho’s iconic screen monsters in one go.

Bringing in director Ryuhei Kitamura (of Versus fame, one of the craziest Japanese films I’ve seen for a long time) was a sign that fresh blood was being pumped in to the franchise in order to give the old ideas some new bite. The return of the ‘aliens taking over the world’ plot was a great throwback to the films of old as this was the staple diet of all the late 60s and 70s Godzilla films. So with a talented director at the helm, a serious old school vibe and with modern advances in technology and special effects to bring the monsters, cities and destruction to life like never before, this surely has to be a winner, right? Well yes and no.

For a start, Toho finally heeded someone’s advice and decided to resurrect not just one or two of the same old monsters they always bring back (Mothra and Mechagodzilla have been in more Godzilla films than any other monsters), but they decided to bring back pretty much their entire back catalogue. Yes Mothra is back again but that is forgiven as Anguirus, Rodan, Manda, Kumonga, Kamacuras, Hedorah, Ebirah, King Caesar and Gigan are all brought to life once again. I’m especially glad to see Gigan back as I always loved him in the old films and he was one of Godzilla’s nastier opponents. There are also a couple of surprise monsters in the film, namely the return of Godzilla’s most famous nemesis (I won’t spoil it but fans know who I mean) and the inclusion of none other than the American version of Godzilla, from the dreadful 1998 film. Yes the ridiculous salmon-eating critter from Roland Emmerich’s stinker is here as ‘Zilla’ and needless to say, he gets what’s coming to him in a big way.

Visually, the film blows the socks out of nine out of ten Hollywood summer blockbusters. The monsters are all superbly realised, with their city-stomping antics being brought to vivid life like never before. Most of the new suits look great especially Gigan’s kick-ass new makeover. But here is the first major issue I have. You see so little of some of the monsters that it’s pretty pointless them being included in the film. Ebirah isn’t in for long, Hedorah makes a cameo (I heard the scene with him was cut) and some of the others don’t fair much better when it comes to screen time. Godzilla is pretty much unstoppable here and he finishes off most of the monsters in record time. He’s no match for them at all. Just a quick blast of his radioactive breath or a quick whip of his tail and the other monsters are finished. We know that Godzilla is ‘King of the Monsters’ but does he really have to destroy everyone else so easily as it lessens the reputations of the likes of Rodan and Anguirus to see them treat so shabbily.

Godzilla: Final Wars also relies too much on in-jokes and referencing previous kaiju films, with things like the look of the aliens being modelled on those from Invasion of the Astro-Monsters. Not content with simply rehashing old kaiju plots and scenes, Kitamura also blatantly borrows scenes and ideas from The Matrix, Independence Day and X-Men to name a few. When the monsters aren’t fighting (which is for a good portion of the film it has to be said), the film relies on old plots with new twists to keep the story moving. I’m not overly hot on the story here as it’s just an excuse for plenty of Matrix-esque action set pieces with aliens wearing shades and leather jackets like Neo clones and an over-reliance on fancy, pointless special effects. However, the actions of the human and alien characters have a massive bearing on the monsters’ actions so you can’t just write this off. As we all know, having a couple of actors standing talking meaningless jargon to pad a few minutes is a lot more cost-effective than having two guys in expensive rubber suits trashing miniatures that have taken ages to build!

 

I have to say I was slightly disappointed because I was expecting a hell of a lot more monster mayhem akin to Destroy All Monsters. Those in it purely for the fighting will have to endure lengthy periods of unhealthy Hollywood plagiarism with the human sub-plots. Godzilla: Final Wars is still arguably the best Godzilla flick since Godzilla Vs Destroyer in 1995 and even the appearance of Minilla, Godzilla’s son, does little to detract from the kick ass approach to the film. It is style over substance all of the way but when a kaiju film has as much style as this, who cares?

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

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