Monday, April 14, 2008

Horror Classic 14 of 50: THE GIANT GILA MONSTER


I'm back! The dreadfulness of
Revolt of the Zombies drove me to take a week off from watching horror classics, but now I'm back in the groove. The Giant Gila Monster is from 1959, and it seems like exactly the type of film that a teenage boy would take his date to, in the hopes that she would scream and grab his arm during the scary parts. It was directed by a guy named Ray Kellogg, but it has nothing to do with Corn Flakes. Most importantly, though: Is it better than Zombies? Let's find out.

Synopsis
A young couple, Pat and Liz, are canoodling in a car when suddenly -- BLAPWOM! They're attacked! By a -- well, presumably it's a GIANT GILA MONSTER, but all we see is a scaly claw, so it could be anything... a giant iguana, a giant tuatara, or a normal-sized spinosaur.

Meanwhile, a bunch of Pat & Liz's friends are waiting for them while boppin' to the rock 'n' roll at a local hangout when Old Man Harris, the town drunk, comes in. And boy, do the kids love their town drunk. Too bad he'll probably be eaten by a Gila monster. This bunch of young folks includes Chase, our boyish, good-hearted hero, who works at the local garage.

The next day, Pat and Liz are still missing, and their parents talk to the sheriff. There's lots and lots of talk about whether they might have eloped, which includes the sheriff asking if they were "in trouble," which must be 1959 code for "Did Liz get knocked up?" That same day, Chase and the sheriff come across an abandoned car (not Pat's) with blood inside. In this scene, the sheriff allows Chase to steal a headlight from the empty car to replace his own burned-out light. You see, Chase's family is struggling and his sister can't afford leg braces so she can walk, and -- oh, come on, man. Where the heck is the GIANT GILA MONSTER?

Oh, there it is! The lizard lumbers across the landscape and deftly devours a hapless hitchhiker by the side of the road, leaving behind the hitchhiker's apparently non-delicious suitcase, which will later be found by the sheriff. This scene contains the exact same shot of the exact same lizard claw that we saw at the beginning of the film.

Some time later, a drunk guy (not Old Man Harris, but a different drunk guy) is happily driving along when the sudden sight of the GIANT GILA MONSTER startles him so much he drives into a ditch. (Which is just as well, considering his drunkenness. That bloodthirsty Gila monster may have saved a life!) Fortunately Chase drives by in the garage's tow truck and gives the gregarious lush a lift to town. Turns out the guy is KILT radio's famous rock 'n' roll DJ Steamroller Smith, which is great news because Chase is hoping to get his rock 'n' roll singing career off the ground. It's lucky for Chase he didn't pick up the DJ from a country station or a sports talk station, or it'd've been close but no cigar.

Next, two sad things happen: Chase's boss Mr. Compton has a head-on collision with the GIANT GILA MONSTER and loses, and the monster causes a train crash right before Old Man Harris's eyes. Then it eats the passengers. I've heard of the dining car, but this is ridiculous, HAW HAW HAW.

Then two happy things happen: Chase's French girlfriend Lisa buys leg braces for Chase's sister Missy so she can walk, and Steamroller Smith comes back to town to host a big, swingin' dance. But in the middle of the dance: GIANT GILA MONSTER attack! Can Chase and the Sheriff stop the Biggie-sized lizard before it wreaks any more havoc? Hint: The answer has something to do with Chase's prized hot rod and many jars of nitro glycerin.

Is It Scary?
It is actually suspenseful at times, but it would have been more effective if we had ever actually seen the dang monster in the same dang shot as one of the dang actors. Cutting between the characters reacting and the monster strolling through a set of miniatures doesn't quite do it. The Gila monster is a pretty good choice of monster, but you know what would've been scarier? The Giant Komodo Dragon! Heck, those things are scary even when they haven't been mutated.

Lessons I Learned

  • According to Missy: "Laughing is important." I can get behind that.
  • According to the sheriff's theory: If salts are washed into the Gila monster's habitat and absorbed by plants, and Gila monsters eat the plants, it can affect their "pituitory gland" and cause them to grow to immense size. Okay. Just as long as it's not another morality tale about the dangers of atomic energy.
  • A GIANT GILA MONSTER is surprisingly hard to track down. Apparently, they don't leave giant droppings.
  • Gila monsters have weird tongues. Actually, according to Wikipedia, the animal seen in the film is not a Gila monster but a beaded lizard... which I first misread as "bearded lizard."
My Favorite Lines

  • Old Man Harris to the teens: "Buyin' a car is just like gettin' married or going to New York City. Everybody ought to do it once, but nobody ought to do it twice!"
  • Old Man Harris to the sheriff, after getting arrested: "I demand a soberty test!"
Body Count
Four that we know of, plus a train full of unfortunate passengers and (spoiler alert!) one GIANT GILA MONSTER.

Comments

>This was actually a pretty good movie, for its genre. I guess that genre is "B-movies about animals that are bigger than they should be." The pacing was good: something was always happening, even if that something had nothing to do with the monster. And there was some actual characterization with Chase.

Also, while I do wish there had been some real Gila-human interaction, the miniatures in the scenes of monster rampage were surprisingly convincing. There was a lot of attention to detail, and the cars looked like cars and the trees looked like trees, which is as much as you can ask for in a movie like this.

So when compared to some of the other movies I've watched, this one looks pretty good: the title is accurate, there are no shrill, jealous female characters, and the whole production is technically competent. Not "good," mind you, but competent.

>So, Lisa spends all her money to buy Chase's sister leg braces so she can walk, and everyone beams and hugs and stuff. What could possibly make the scene sappier? What if Chase pulls out a little ukulele/banjo thing and plays a song about children laughing? Then later in the movie, he sings it again! Actually, the song was pretty catchy... enough that when I made a mess in the kitchen while making dinner right after watching the movie, I ended up singing "There is tamale sauce on my shirt" to the tune of "And the Lord said, Laugh, children, laugh" for about ten minutes.

>It seems like this movie was designed to push actor Don Sullivan's singing career, as we hear Chase sing four different songs. But I've never heard of him... have you? Perhaps acting alongside enormous lizards is not the way to become the next Elvis Presley.

>If I had to sum up The Giant Gila Monster, I would say it's a film about finding abandoned vehicles. There are three different scenes where this happens. Awesome!

Letter grade for The Giant Gila Monster: B- (Perhaps a touch too charitable, but I'm just glad it was better than Revolt of the Zombies.)

Next movie in the 50-DVD set: The Fatal Hour. It's another Boris Karloff movie!

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