Guy Guests, Gabs Gamera


A while back I sat down (virtually, that is) with Zack Clopton of the Bangers n’ Mash podcast to talk about everyone’s second-favorite giant Japanese movie monster and friend to all children, Gamera. That discussion is now posted, so please give it a listen. Zack and I share our opinions and trivia about the twelve entries of the series, from the goofy installments of the 1960s to the very serious trilogy of the 1990s (and beyond). Zack has also edited in some cool audio interstitials from trailers, soundtracks, and Mystery Science Theater 3000 (I swear those weren’t there when we were talking!) Even more amazingly, Zack has made it sound as if I know what I am talking about! (Sort of–even digital wizardry has its limits!) Enjoy!


Monstober 2016

mural at 1st and Hillside in Wichita, artists unknown

Mural at 1st and Hillside in Wichita, artists unknown

Since for the last couple of years I’ve kept track of my October viewing and written about it, I’ve gotten in the habit of setting aside movies to watch during the Halloween season. I don’t set a strict schedule, since the odds are against me being able to keep it anyway, and I like to make choices as my mood strikes me, but I did have a stack of movies I had planned on getting to in October. However, once things came together to make October “kaiju month,” even those loose plans went out the window and I ended up spending the first half of the month watching monster movies, many of which are only nominally horror.

That’s OK: as I’ve said before, I’m not a “Shocktober” purist, and I cast a pretty wide net to include science fiction, fantasy and genre pictures during this month. But it did make my list pretty monster-heavy, and as you’ll see I ended up waiting until later in the month to get a very consistent “Halloween” vibe going. In any case, I got my fill of movies this month: at 37 films, including only three I’d seen before, I exceeded last year’s total of 31 movies. (It didn’t hurt that the movies I watched were shorter on average than in previous years, many under 90 minutes). This included several classics I was watching for the first time, as well as a few new releases.

1. Spirits of the Dead (Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, and Federico Fellini, 1968)
2. All Monsters Attack aka Godzilla’s Revenge (Ishiro Honda, 1969)
3. Son of Godzilla (Jun Fukuda, 1967)
4. The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) *
5. Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Tommy Lee Wallace, 1982) *
6. Rodan (Ishiro Honda, 1956)
7. Destroy All Monsters (Ishiro Honda, 1968)
8. Phantasm (Don Coscarelli, 1979) *, r
9. Godzilla vs. Hedorah (Yoshimitsu Banno, 1971)
10. Godzilla vs. Gigan (Jun Fukuda, 1972)
11. Godzilla vs. Megalon (Jun Fukuda, 1973)
12. Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (Jun Fukuda, 1974)
13. Terror of Mechagodzilla (Ishiro Honda, 1975)
14. Phantasm II (Don Coscarelli, 1988)
15. Phantasm: Ravager (David Hartman, 2016) *
16. Shin Godzilla (Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi, 2016) *
17. It’s Alive! (Larry Cohen, 1974)
18. Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008)
19. The Witch’s Mirror (El espejo de la bruja) (Chano Urueta, 1962)
20. The Curse of the Crying Woman (La Maldicion de la Llorona) (Rafael Baledón, 1963)
21. Ghostbusters (Paul Feig, 2016) *
22. Dragon Wars: D-War (Hyung-rae Shim, 2007)
23. Night of the Lepus (William F. Claxton, 1972)
24. Mystics in Bali (H. Tjut Djalil, 1981)
25. The Giant Claw (Fred F. Sears, 1957) r
26. Daigoro vs. Goliath (Toshihiro Iijima, 1972)
27. Hocus Pocus (Kenny Ortega, 1993)
28. Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (Takao Okawara, 1995)
29. The ‘Burbs (Joe Dante, 1989)
30. Blood Orgy of the She-Devils (Ted V. Mikels, 1973)
31. How to Make a Monster (Herbert L. Strock, 1958)
32. The Baby (Ted Post, 1973)
33. Hotel Transylvania (Genndy Tartakovsky, 2012) *
34. Hotel Transylvania 2 (Genndy Tartakovsky, 2015) *
35. The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1934)
36. Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962) r
37. Night Train to Terror (John Carr, Phillip Marshak, Tom McGowan, Jay Schlossberg-Cohen, and Greg Tallas, 1985)

* theatrical screening
r repeat viewing

(Sorry, no elaborate key to themes and images this year–maybe next time.)


I also watched a few short films that don’t really fit on the list: a pair of shorts on superstitions, Who’s Superstitious? from 1943 and Black Cats and Broomsticks from 1955 (both aired earlier this month on TCM); It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (an annual viewing with the family, of course); Tom Hanks as David S. Pumpkins on Saturday Night Live; and assorted bumpers and trailers, not to mention this creepy Japanese Kleenex commercial.

Best movie: I saw several good films this month, but picking one that stands above the rest is more difficult than in previous years. Two of the films that gave me the most pleasure are rewatches: Phantasm and Carnival of Souls. (As an aside, the similarities between the two films are obvious when watched in close proximity: both obey the non sequitur logic of dreams or nightmares, and both feature protagonists menaced by suit-wearing older men who are apt to pop up at the most frightening moments. Upon seeing Phantasm for the first time last year, I had connected it to the dream-like disconnected narrative of Italian horror, but it seems possible that Carnival of Souls–itself an Americanization of Bergman and other European influences–also informed it. It’s also probably not a coincidence that both films had two of the best scores I heard this month: I’m jamming out to the Phantasm soundtrack right now, in fact.)

I liked most of the Godzilla movies I watched this month, as well, not only the “serious” ones but also the goofier entries with Megalon and the like (heck, I even enjoyed the very silly Daigoro vs. Goliath). I think my favorites were the two Mechagodzilla films, which balanced the campier elements of the Godzilla mythos (robots, space aliens) with the heavier themes of the more serious films: sacrifice, tradition, and kaiju as guardian spirits.


Ultimately, my pick for best first-time viewing is Shin Godzilla. Perhaps I was simply primed by all that Godzilla-watching leading up to it, but the experience of seeing Shin Godzilla in a theater packed with fans (the first Godzilla movie I’d seen in a theater since Godzilla 1985–no, I didn’t even get to see Roland Emmerich’s or Gareth Edwards’ films in theaters) was a high point of the month.

Worst movie: I watched a few clunkers this month, partly as a result of my search for the silliest giant movie monsters, but you also just never really know what will work for you until you pull the trigger. Dragon Wars: D-War, which didn’t make the silly monster list (the movie is ridiculous, but the monsters for the most part aren’t), was a famously terrible flop when it was released, but as janky as it was it also held my attention (its worst sins are convoluted, front-loaded exposition and an over-reliance on CGI, as if the filmmakers had learned the wrong lessons from the Star Wars prequels). Night Train to Terror, an anthology, almost lost me completely in its first segment, but recovered in the second and third parts with some charmingly primitive stop-motion monster effects (this short review of the Blu-ray release goes into more detail and explains why it took five directors to make this mess!).

Of the Godzilla movies I watched in the first part of the month, Son of Godzilla was my least favorite, with its emphasis on the uncomfortably squishy “baby Godzilla,” Minilla (yes, I even enjoyed the oft-maligned Attack All Monsters more than Son of Godzilla; at least Attack All Monsters has a definite point of view and some creative staging).


However, I have to give the edge to Blood Orgy of the She-Devils. It’s a coincidence that I watched my first film from director Ted V. Mikels the same month that he passed away (I had bought the disc last month). As much as I hate to speak ill of the dead, the movie failed to deliver on its awesome title and was not only disappointingly tame, it was, even worse, boring. I’m told that this is typical of Mikels’ work, which is too bad.

Scariest movie: Well, did you see that Japanese Kleenex commercial?


But seriously: I’ve written before about how easily scared I was as a kid, and how that’s left me playing catch-up with a lot of classic horror that I probably should have seen sooner. That’s how I ended up seeing The Exorcist for the first time this year, and you know what? After expecting the “scariest film of all time,” I just didn’t find it that scary. How can any film live up to a reputation like that? It probably didn’t help that The Exorcist has been so frequently referenced and parodied that I felt like I had already seen many of its most famous set pieces. Having said that, it was an excellent film, deserving of its reputation. It’s a great drama about faith and loss, with a lot of spooky atmosphere, but I couldn’t help but feel that it wasn’t really even trying to be the film I had been led to expect. Probably if I had seen it at a younger age it would have had more of an effect on me.


So what did scare me this month? “Toby Dammit,” Federico Fellini’s segment of Spirits of the Dead, had some eerie visual shocks, as did The Curse of the Crying Woman (the title character’s eyeless appearance is pretty creepy) and Phantasm II, but I think the most consistently tense and viscerally scary movie I watched this month is director Matt Reeves’ and writer Drew Goddard’s found-footage monster movie update Cloverfield. The immediacy of the found-footage device (a gimmick I’m not usually fond of) gives the audience the sense of being on the ground during a giant monster attack on New York City, the kind of scene that is usually visualized from afar (the story contrives to get the characters briefly onto a helicopter so we can get the kind of wide shot of the monster we’re used to seeing in films like this, but for the most part the handheld camera footage feels very naturalistic). In addition to the scenes of citywide destruction, there are sequences in subway tunnels underground that are extremely creepy, as the characters are stalked and attacked by the spider-like parasites that have dropped from the main beast. Finally, the circumstances by which the camera is recovered imply a government-conspiracy backstory to the events that is anything but reassuring. In fact, you know what? Maybe this is the best movie I saw this month (non-Godzilla category, anyway).

Funniest movie: The original Ghostbusters is one of my all-time favorites, but I was never a fan of its sequel or the spin-off cartoon series. It was pretty much just the first film, a unique blend of irreverent humor and special effects-driven action, and even then it wasn’t scary to me. So I wasn’t offended by the release of the controversial female-led remake this year, but I also didn’t have high hopes that it would recapture what I loved about the original. The new film was, when I finally saw it, quite enjoyable, even if not everything landed. If anything, I found the callbacks and reminders of the first film more annoying than affectionate: the pleasure of seeing the proton packs back in action, wielded by a new generation of characters, should have been enough. However, I won’t deny that it made me laugh; I’m comfortable saying that it is easily my second-favorite Ghostbusters film. (It was also interesting to see the movie, a summer blockbuster like the original, during the fall, and place it in the context of other supernatural “scary” movies: it works decently on that count, especially early on, but like many horror movies it becomes less rather than more frightening as the threat becomes known and it barrels towards the big climax.)


Even funnier, however, was a film that took me by surprise: Hotel Transylvania, an animated film about Adam Sandler as Dracula, faced with the prospect of his daughter growing up and yearning to explore the world of humans, from which Dracula and his monster pals have been hiding for over a century. Nothing about that description, or the ads that were ubiquitous when the movie was released, made me want to see it, but I ended up enjoying it a great deal, laughing at Genndy Tartakovsky’s expressively cartoony animation style and the many sight gags and running jokes, and the story was actually rather touching.

Weirdest movie: As mentioned, Phantasm and Carnival of Souls are “classically” weird, and I would also put Halloween III in that category, combining as it does elements of horror and science fiction in a story that touches on many qualities of both fairy tale and nightmare. But there are movies that have weird stories, and there are movies whose entire existence seems unlikely: the weirdness is in their conception, leading not to questions like “what does this mean?” or “wait, was Ellie a robot the whole time, or what?” but to questions like “how did this get made in the first place?” and “how can I make sure I don’t meet any of these people in real life?”


Such was my response to The Baby, the 1973 cult oddity about a social worker confronting a family whose twenty-something son has remained in an infantile state, pre-verbal, crawling, and wearing a diaper. Is he genuinely developmentally disabled, or is he being kept from growing by his domineering mother and stepsisters? Does the effect he has on women stem from something missing in their own lives, or is he capable of adult urges? Frequently disturbing, the movie subverted my expectations at every turn, right down to an ending that was head-smackingly obvious but which I still didn’t see coming. If I had to explain this movie, I would say “only in the ’70s.”

Goriest movie: Night Train to Terror (another candidate for “weirdest movie”) was by far the most graphic and bloody film I watched this month, and despite its deficiencies in other areas, I can’t deny that it delivers the kind of macabre violence–slashings, beheadings, and dismemberments, along with more exotic causes of death such as electrocution and exploding head (sorry, “catastrophic head injury”)–one associates with Halloween thrills. I don’t have much stomach for gore, but fortunately Night Train is a pretty cheap movie, and so over-the-top that it’s impossible to take seriously.

That’s it for this year: maybe I’ll keep watching horror movies through November and work through the stockpile of movies I didn’t watch this month, or maybe I’ll end up saving some for next year. But now I have some important candy to eat business to attend to. Happy Halloween!


Any questions?

The Ten Silliest Giant Movie Monsters


All this month, I’ve been observing “kaiju month” on the blog, writing about giant monsters in various forms, while at the same time catching up on movies I hadn’t seen yet. The movies show varying degrees of seriousness, ranging from the deadly grimness of the original Godzilla (and the dry wit of this year’s Shin Godzilla) to movies that are all about men in rubber suits waling on each other and stomping model cities to bits, with little regard to characterization or story logic. Whatever your view of the genre or which approach you favor, there’s no question that some of these monsters can be downright goofy. To prove it, here are ten movie monsters that inspire more laughter than awe.

A few ground rules: I’m thinking mainly of movies in which the giant monster is either the main character or central to the plot: that includes most Japanese kaiju eiga and their imitators, as well as many of the American monster movies of the 1950s and later. I’m excluding characters that are deliberately humorous or parodies (sorry, Queen Kong); it’s too easy, and anyway there’s nothing sillier than someone trying too hard to be taken seriously (although I’ve included at least one monster that walks the line between serious and parody–it’s a judgment call). Finally, I’m primarily looking at silly monsters: if the movie around the monster is ridiculous, but there’s nothing particularly funny or silly about the creature itself, that doesn’t fit my requirements for this list. (The reverse is also true: plenty of good movies have laughable creatures at their center, and just because I’ve included a movie here doesn’t mean it’s bad or that I don’t enjoy it. Sometimes the tone is clearly light-hearted, and sometimes the laughs stem from a severe miscalculation or a skimpy budget.)

I’m sure that you’ll think of some that I’ve overlooked, or have a different opinion about something I’ve included; please feel free to add your suggestions or counterpoints in the comments. I haven’t seen every monster movie ever made, and I’d be happy to discover something new to me!



Now, don’t get me wrong: Gamera is terrific. I have great affection for Gamera. Years before Mystery Science Theater 3000 presented the terrapin terror to a new generation of fans, I was watching his films on Commander USA’s Groovy Movies (probably because they were cheaper to show than Godzilla movies). But there’s no question that a giant fire-breathing turtle who can turn himself into a flying saucer by shooting flames out of the leg-holes in his shell is, well, not exactly serious. In addition, the kid appeal that eventually overtook Toho’s Godzilla series was baked into rival studio Daiei’s Gamera right from the beginning, with Gamera being a “friend to all children” and an emphasis on comic brawling with a series of mostly interchangeable kaiju opponents. Eventually, the Shusuke Kaneko-led Gamera revival from the 1990s would prove that a goofy leading monster could be put into a serious context and yield good, even great results. However, some have argued that Shusuke and company were given free reign in making their trilogy in part because expectations were so low: who thought a serious Gamera movie would actually be good?


Giant Killer Rabbits


Let this stand in for all of the American “giant animals on the loose” movies that invaded screens from the 1950s to the 1970s. 1972’s Night of the Lepus follows the pattern of many other “eco-horror” pictures of the era, as a scientific experiment meant to curb out-of-control rabbit populations in the American West backfires, resulting in a stampede of vicious bunnies the size of trucks. Never mind that the film (and the novel it was based on) was inspired by real-life rabbit plagues, or that rabbits can be mean as hell. The domestic bunnies, filmed bounding across miniature sets, with slow motion and rumbling sound effects to give the impression of massive size, are just too cute to take seriously. If Night of the Lepus ever acknowledged how preposterous it was, it would just be another Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, a spoof about an unlikely part of the environment turning against humanity. But it’s the film’s utter solemnity and desperation to be taken seriously–including an incredible trailer that bends over backwards to avoid revealing what it’s really about–that make it a camp classic.

Gigan and Megalon


Godzilla fans can be a bit like Batman fans: for years, the public perception of both series was dominated by the corniest iterations: the campy 1966 Batman TV show and the wrestling-influenced Godzilla movies from the 1960s and ’70s. This perception can make fans defensive and apt to reject all but the grimmest, most “adult” portrayals of their heroes. Fortunately, that tide has begun to turn, with greater appreciation of both Batman ’66 and the “fun” Godzilla movies in recent years.


The Bebop and Rocksteady of the Godzilla canon, Gigan and Megalon were introduced as opponents of the Big G in a pair of films in 1972 and 1973 (both directed by Jun Fukuda, the man most responsible for the turn away from the darker tone favored by original Godzilla director Ishiro Honda). Gigan, as revealed in Godzilla vs. Gigan, is a cyborg from Nebula M Spacehunter; Megalon, in Godzilla vs. Megalon, is the insectoid protector deity of the Seatopians, a long-lost underground civilization. Gigan has curved hooks for hands and matching horns and mandibles, as well as a punk-looking Cyclops visor, and most bizarrely a deadly rotary sawblade embedded in his chest; it’s the definition of trying too hard to be edgy (no pun intended). Megalon has giant drills for hands and a single horn-like antenna, and moves about by burrowing and leaping through the air (like a cricket, I guess?). As mentioned, the Godzilla series had already been kid-friendly for years by the time Gigan and Megalon came along, and the saurian designs of previous kaiju were easily turned into toys, but Gigan and Megalon feel like they were designed as toys first and characters second. (On that note, check out Gigan in Godzilla: Final Wars, where he’s outfitted with interchangeable chainsaw hands.) While Gigan is presented in his movie as a scary threat, the monster who might finally defeat Godzilla (he doesn’t), in Godzilla vs. Megalon both monsters join together in a sort of tag team, giving Godzilla (and the robotic Jet Jaguar) “the business.” All that’s missing is the ropes around the wrestling ring.


Minilla and Gabara


Speaking of Godzilla, it’s unlikely that any character in the series has been more divisive than Minilla (sometimes rendered as “Minira” or “Minya”–don’t call him “Godzookie” unless you want some serious side-eye from G-fans). Introduced in 1967’s Son of Godzilla, the diminutive kaiju was the embodiment of the series’ turn to juvenilia. In his first film appearance, newly hatched from a giant egg, Minilla is disturbing rather than cute: “more-fetus-than-infant” in the words of G-scholar William Tsutsui, Minilla is the kaiju version of the Eraserhead baby. In later appearances, Minilla is an obvious stand-in for Godzilla’s child audiences, learning to control his powers and stand up for himself under the grudging guidance of his single father (some versions of Godzilla have suggested the creature reproduces asexually; in any case, the whereabouts of any other parent of Minilla are unknown). In 1969’s much-maligned All Monsters Attack, the metaphor is made literal as Godzilla, Minilla, and the other denizens of “Monster Island” are treated as daydreams of a young boy, Ichiro, who learns to stand up to a bully named Gabara, inspired by Minilla’s fight against a kaiju also named Gabara. The “son of Godzilla” was later revived as the more saurian “Godzilla Junior” in the 1990s, but it’s Minilla, smoke-ring breath and all, who is remembered, fondly or otherwise.

By the way, here’s Gabara, the “kaiju bully” from All Monsters Attack. For the one-off character, special effects wizard Eiji Tsuburaya and his crew came up with a suitably misfit creature, with a reptilian body, feline facial features, and a shock of red hair. No wonder he had such a bad disposition.


The Yeti


Specifically, the one in Yeti: Giant of the 20th Century, a 1977 Italian knock-off of King Kong. Frozen in a glacier for thousands of years until his body is discovered and thawed out in the northern tundra of Canada, this Yeti is a hominid covered with brown hair, made gigantic through very primitive special effects. Once thawed, the Yeti follows Kong’s trajectory en manqué, falling for the granddaughter of the tycoon financing the expedition and running amok in Toronto. What makes the Yeti, played by Mimmo Crao, so amusing is the emphasis on his romantic nature: even in scenes that don’t seem to call for it, the camera lingers on the Yeti’s bedroom eyes, luxurious, flowing mane, and erect nipples (yes, really), and the film spends almost as much time on the relationship between beast and beauty as Peter Jackson’s 2003 King Kong, in a much shorter running time.


Back when Johnny Weissmuller was playing Tarzan, MGM claimed that Tarzan’s iconic call was produced by combining the recorded calls of lions, apes, and elephants. It was pure hooey, of course, but the Italian Yeti appears to have actually done just that, as the Yeti’s sound effects are a mix of animal growls and roars spliced together. Combined with Sante Maria Romitelli’s stately, even majestic score, it makes for an atmospheric soundtrack appropriate for the film’s purely cinematic montages (the sequence of the Yeti carrying Antonella Interlenghi around Toronto, marveling at the skyscrapers, so foreign to his experience, is a favorite). I’m reminded of my friend Craig Stephen Tower’s observation that even the trashiest Italian film is a little bit arty, and even the artiest a little bit trashy. As shameless as this movie is (and it is shameless, hitting the trifecta of putting a woman, a child, and a dog in peril), there’s a lot to like about it, particularly its winning sincerity.

Antimatter Space Buzzard

“It doesn’t make sense. It’s just a bird, a big bird! Guns, cannons, rockets, it’s just a bird!”

“Sure, just a bird. Ten million dollars’ worth of radar can’t track it. Enough fire power to wipe out a regiment can’t even slow it down. Sure . . . just a bird.”


When I was a kid, The Giant Claw was on TV all the time. I guess the TV station had their own print or something, but along with Them! and The Blob, The Giant Claw was the old monster movie I saw more times than any other during childhood. I didn’t give it a lot of thought until recent years, when I noticed this once-forgotten B movie from 1957 gaining a new cult following. It’s a typical monster mystery film, beginning with sightings of a UFO and the unexplained disappearance of planes in the far North. (The combination of Arctic setting, military-civilian conflict, and aggressively hard-boiled dialogue give the impression of a low-budget reworking of Howard Hawks’ classic The Thing From Another World.) Once revealed, the threat is a giant (possibly extraterrestrial) bird with a long neck and googly eyes, “as big as a battleship” and protected by an “antimatter screen.”

Upon rewatching The Giant Claw, I was surprised to see several names from the serials I’ve watched in my Fates Worse Than Death series, including producer Sam Katzman and musical director Mischa Bakaleinikoff. It’s not hard to imagine this story padded out into serial length with the addition of a spy ring or a mine cave-in. By 1957 the serials were dead, replaced by television, but quickly-made thrillers like The Giant Claw took their place in theaters and drive-ins, providing excitement and spectacle without the entanglements of serialization. (The space buzzard still looks ridiculous, though.)



In 1972’s Daigoro vs. Goliath, Daigoro combines the childlike qualities of Minilla with the friendliness of Gamera. Resembling a bidepal hippopotamus with feline whiskers, Daigoro is the orphaned child of a Godzilla-like marauder (seen in flashback), raised on an island (complete with a giant outhouse) by a zookeeper and his staff. As the film begins, the Japanese government struggles to find room in its budget to keep feeding the beloved creature, and hoards of schoolchildren attempt to make up the difference by soliciting donations. An attempt is made to slow Daigoro’s growth with “Anti-Grow,” but when the “Great Stellar Monster” Goliath arrives via meteorite and begins a destructive rampage, Daigoro is called upon to defend his adopted home. The scenes of Daigoro’s training, including learning to roar and breathe fire, will look familiar to anyone who’s seen Son of Godzilla or All Monsters Attack (apparently this film began as a Godzilla concept, so perhaps this similarity isn’t so surprising). Daigoro skews toward a younger audience than even Godzilla vs. Megalon: it reminded me most of the live-action Disney films of the 1960s, and anticipates Miyazaki’s films (particularly My Neighbor Totoro) with its environmental message and big, cuddly monster hero. The tone is relentlessly wacky, with broad slapstick comedy leavening the cloying sentimentality (but so help me, I laughed).


Guilala aka Monster X


Guilala, star of the 1967 film The X From Outer Space, is perhaps the silliest monster at least ostensibly meant to be taken seriously. The film is a brisk mix of space-age bachelor pad sci-fi and traditional kaiju action, with the title “X” inadvertently brought back to earth as a spore on the tailfins of a rocket expedition. Once on earth, the mysterious substance quickly grows into a living beast, the giant monster named Guilala (or Girara), which goes on the rampage as it draws energy from power lines and reactors. Guilala’s design is a mixture of a reptilian body, a flat, beak-like head, and “deely-bopper” antennae; it’s been described as a “giant space chicken.” Even if the creature itself were more sober, the film that surrounds it is delightfully lightweight. The X From Outer Space was the Japanese studio Shochiku’s only venture into the kaiju genre, but Guilala made a comeback in 2008 as the star of Minoru Kawasaki’s spoof, Monster X Strikes Back: Attack the G8 Summit. In the film, a sort of Japanese version of Team America, Guilala’s return (including quite a bit of reused footage from the original X) is the subject of endless debate at a G8 summit, with satirical versions of each country’s leaders taking turns trying to stop the monster. Ultimately, Guilala faces off against a local protective deity, brought to life by the collective prayers of the people.


So, what have I missed? Let me know in the comments and I’ll check it out!



Review: Shin Godzilla


By now it is commonplace to observe that apocalypse figures so largely in Japanese science fiction because Japan is literally a post-apocalyptic society: the many scenes of civilians evacuating their homes or running from disasters in Japanese cinema are drawn from cultural memory, and frequently add pathos and potency to premises that might seem silly if the focus wasn’t kept so clearly on the people they affect. Shin Godzilla (aka Godzilla Resurgence), the first of a new series starring the venerable monster, keeps the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki front and center, along with echoes of 9/11 and the Fukushima meltdown. Written and directed by Hideaki Anno, it’s not quite as somber as Gareth Edwards’ American Godzilla of 2014, but it’s a serious film: there is none of the kid-friendly pro-wrestling action of the Showa series or the overstuffed craziness of the last Japanese Godzilla, 2004’s Final Wars. The only friendly-yet-sinister aliens in Shin Godzilla are the Americans who promise military aid when Godzilla lays waste to Tokyo, but with strings attached; and will their proposed solution be worse than Godzilla himself?

Shin Godzilla‘s tone is dry, sometimes documentary-like, complete with captions identifying speaking characters (almost entirely professionals: politicians, scientists, military, and first responders) and found footage. The approach is fitting for the story, which centers on an aspiring pol named Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) who fights against both the sclerotic bureaucracy of Japanese government (so concerned with adhering to protocol and passing the buck that little gets done, especially early on) and the machinations of the American and other international forces (whose interest in Godzilla includes the scientific knowledge to be discovered in his unique biology, as well as the economic and military leverage they can exert over Japan).

Yaguchi, young and headstrong, assembles a team of “lone wolves” from all disciplines to stop Godzilla, and their work as a team of equals is an obvious contrast to the hidebound cabinet surrounding the Prime Minister (Ren Ohsugi). Numerous montages of Yaguchi’s team in action borrow the language of low-angle shots, quick cuts, and wicked guitar riffs seen in commercials for businesses that sell “solutions.” The film is thus essentially a procedural, following a combination of political, military, and scientific campaigns, part The War Room and part Apollo 13. The older generation of politicians is represented as well-meaning but too set in their ways to effect much change, and change is what is needed: to stop Godzilla, and to solve the larger problem of Japan’s cultural and economic stagnation. The Americans (including a Japanese-American aide played by Satomi Ishihara) are not portrayed as harshly as, say, the Americans in Joon Ho Bong’s brilliant Korean monster movie The Host, but the Japanese view of America as perpetually occupying or dominating Japan is made quite clear (“The post-war goes on forever,” Yaguchi observes at one point).

Even the naming rights to the monster take on international dimensions: one of the few moments of comic relief involves the difference between the Japanese name “Gojira” and the Americanized “Godzilla,” a sometimes-contentious subject among fans. And speaking of unintentional comedy, Shin Godzilla‘s occasional forays into English dialogue are . . . idiosyncratic, to say the least (one American scientist casually drops “Our nuclear wisdom will be mankind’s savior” into a conversation, which got a few chuckles, from me at least).

That dry tone makes the scenes of destruction all the more shocking when they do occur. Godzilla’s arrival begins with a mysterious eruption in Tokyo Bay that closes down an underwater tunnel and sends geysers of steam skyward. After a series of inconclusive committee meetings, a huge (and supremely weird) amphibious animal appears and waddles on to land, plowing through a river full of boats and streets full of cars, pushing them out of the way as if they were toys. The reassuring evaluation by scientific consultants (as well as the extended treatment of Godzilla’s radioactive metabolism) show the influence of Darren Naish and other “speculative biologists,” if only to tweak their assumptions: the amphibious creature could never support its weight on land . . . until it does. A creature of its size would be unable to metabolize enough oxygen to live . . . unless it were a living nuclear reactor! It’s not even clear at first that the creature is Godzilla: this version of the famous kaiju takes on multiple forms, “evolving” like a Pokémon as it gathers energy.

In his final form, Godzilla has the familiar thick-legged outline (but with tiny, tyrannosaur-like arms and a long tail), but his hide is creased with red lines where he glows from within, giving him a demonic, flayed appearance. Finish the design off with beady, inexpressive eyes (“like a doll’s eyes”) and you have a terrifying (and fantastically huge) take on the character, a perfect update of the original Godzilla‘s vision of the monster as enigmatic, unknowable being and force of nature. Extrapolating on the creature’s radioactive origin and fiery breath, Anno comes up with some truly devastating applications, including focused beams (from Godzilla’s mouth and dorsal spines) that are more like lasers than flame-throwers. The result of Godzilla unleashing this force in the middle of Tokyo at night makes for a tense and unnervingly one-sided battle against military helicopters. The resulting irradiation of parts of the city, and the serious issues of when and how to evacuate civilians, raise echoes of the long displacement that followed the tidal wave and meltdown in Fukushima (like the scenes of evacuating crowds, clips of civilians in long-term shelters strike a deeper chord than they might if they only sprang from the screenwriter’s imagination).

As far as the production goes, Shin Godzilla has the most seamless mixture of CGI and practical effects I have yet seen, comparable only to Edwards’ film (and for the record, Anno isn’t nearly as stingy with footage of the monster as Edwards was); the sound design puts viewers right in the middle of the action (particularly in the theater), and it’s gratifying to hear passages from Akira Ifukube’s original Godzilla music on the soundtrack. Shin Godzilla is a worthy successor to the legacy of the King of the Monsters, balancing its weighty political themes with incredible spectacle and an exciting scientific race against time.


Stop! In the Name of Motion

Speaking of stop motion animation, my son, who is three and a half years old, has recently discovered the stop motion masterpieces of the late Ray Harryhausen: Jason and the Argonauts, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Clash of the Titans. I had purchased a tribute issue of Famous Monsters with some of Harryhausen’s iconic creations on the cover, and my son started asking about them.  I explained the technique of stop motion animation—taking hundreds, sometimes thousands of successive pictures of slightly adjusted models, creating the illusion of motion when projected in sequence—always being clear that they were models, like toys, not real.  As fascinated as he is by monsters—he’s a boy, after all, and before Harryhausen he was curious about the Godzilla movies I had lying around, and of course we have lots of discussions about dinosaurs—I wanted to make sure he could draw a distinction between creatures of fantasy like the Kraken and real but extinct animals like Tyrannosaurus rex.  Overprotective?  Perhaps, but I remember being kept awake at night by fears of the giant ants from Them!, and at an older age than my son is now.  If I give him nightmares, I’ll hear about it from his mother.

Famous Monsters cover by Terry Wolfinger

Famous Monsters cover by Terry Wolfinger

From my explanation it was a short leap to hunting for clips on YouTube and the excellent documentary Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan on Netflix, which explained Harryhausen’s methods better than I could and held my son’s attention for a good twenty to thirty minutes at a stretch (the documentary is feature-length: we watched it in installments).  For a few weeks after, my son would ask about the “model movies” and we would watch a scene or two from Clash of the Titans, the only Harryhausen movie I have on disc.

Harryhausen is nostalgic to me for a few reasons.  I remember seeing Clash of the Titans when it was new in 1981, at the downtown movie palace that would close a few years later, replaced by the four-screen “multiplex” at the mall.  The mythological references went over my head, but I’ll never forget the terrifying and fascinating Medusa and its gruesome death scene. Even more than that memory, I associate Harryhausen with holidays: most of his movies I saw on television during Thanksgiving or Christmas breaks, probably counterprogrammed against football games in those days when cable TV meant having a few dozen channels instead of hundreds.


I’ve previously indicated my obsession with animation and effects as a kid.  Any time there was a behind-the-scenes show about movie special effects, I was there.  The best parts of these shows were often clips of other projects the filmmakers had a hand in, the kind of thing that was unlikely to show up on TV by itself.  For example, I knew who Phil Tippett was because of his involvement with Star Wars and the big special effects movies that followed in the 1980s, but I was never able to get more than a glimpse of personal projects like Prehistoric Beast, from 1984. Unless they were part of a film festival showing or I was lucky enough to catch them on Night Flight or MTV, there wasn’t much I could do to track them down in those days.

A number of speakers in the Special Effects Titan documentary comment on stop motion’s “dreamlike” quality.  That’s a polite way of saying it doesn’t look real, but realism wasn’t exactly the point.  To my knowledge, Harryhausen never proposed replacing human actors with stop motion likenesses in the same way computer graphics have been put forward as a “fix” for aging actors or a replacement for the long-dead.  There is something mysterious about the sometimes-jerky movements of stop motion; even when done by a master like Harryhausen, it has a certain distinctive “look.” Along with other film tricks like rear projection and altered film speed, the ratcheted movements of stop motion are burned into my mind as a filmic style that isn’t “real” but is aesthetically gripping.  As a less obvious example, Dragonslayer’s composite landscapes, with their fast-rushing clouds, heightened lighting, and blend of full-size and miniature models, are just as artificial as the computer-assembled Middle Earth of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptations, but I still cherish them.  Perhaps it’s simply the density of elements that are brought together that grabs me.

I don’t hold that traditional stop motion is superior to computer graphic animation because of its difficult and time-consuming nature: that line of thinking is to my mind a moral rather than an aesthetic argument.  The goal of either technique should be involvement in the story rather than calling attention to itself.   If we accept the premise that film—all film, from The Great Train Robbery forward—contains shifts of viewpoint that were once associated with either dreams or godlike omniscience—the ability to jump from one point in space to another, to cut between views—then CG’s ability to create images purely from light and numbers represents the culmination of cinema’s potential: it is of a piece with all effects work that has come before.  If cinema would continue to be vital, why cut off any avenue of development?

Of course CG is understandably used to save time and money, and sometimes by filmmakers who have more of both than they have imagination.  If anything it’s the low barrier to entry that has given CG such a bad rap; nevertheless, a bad film is a bad film.  I will say I prefer practical effects for their sense of heft and reality in space, and I appreciate the level of craftsmanship and dedication that handmade filmmaking shows off, but I wouldn’t deny that those can be qualities of CG. Perhaps the joy of practical effects work is in the ingenuity with which filmmakers solved problems; it could be the “personal touch,” sensing the involvement of an animator handling a model (like the marks left in King Kong’s fur by Willis O’Brien) or dragging a brush across a cel.

Ultimately the effectiveness of special effects lies not only in their execution but in how they are used—how effects shots are framed, how they are built up to and cut away from through editing, and their function within the story.  Jurassic Park, still a landmark of CG effects after more than twenty years, looks better than many CG films made last year simply because of the care with which Steven Spielberg and his crew combined CG with models and other practical effects, edited seamlessly together to create an illusion of reality.  Conversely, a carelessly executed effect will look crummy and take the viewer out of the film whether it’s CG or practical.

One reason traditional stop motion looks eerie compare to actual moving objects on film is the uncanny clarity of each frame: when live motion is filmed, there’s a slight blur as the actor or object is caught in motion while the shutter is open.  Animators have ways of getting around that (even in hand-drawn animation), introducing more naturalistic blur after the effect (or even in-camera, through a process dubbed “go motion”).  Nowadays, CG can be used to smooth out the inconsistencies and simulate the blur of motion even when models are still animated by hand (such films as Coraline and Paranorman are examples of this hybrid style).

As it happens, The Lego Movie, which I wrote about enthusiastically last time, is animated almost completely in CG rather than stop motion, but the constraints of animating a world made (almost) completely out of Lego bricks lead to some interesting results.  In an interview with fxguide, CG Supervisor Aidan Sarsfield of Animal Logic (the studio that animated The Lego Movie) spoke of the filmmakers’ desire to “stay true to the medium” of Lego, treating it very much as if it were a stop motion film on a real Lego set (albeit one of huge scale and complexity).  The CG bricks were treated as rigid: there was no stretching or distortion, and the only movement was at points of articulation.  Even effects that are generally ephemeral or subject to fading (such as flames, laser beams, smoke, explosions, and moving water) were virtually “built” out of bricks or other Lego pieces, which were “binary”—either there or not there.  Sarsfield describes the process by which colors or brick sizes could be cycled through to give the impression of fading clouds of smoke or moving waves; the effect is unlike anything I’ve seen, and more to the point most of it could by recreated in actual bricks and animated by hand (even though it would probably take forever).

Sarsfield also noted that very little motion blur was used, giving most of the action a staccato feel similar to old-school animation. For extreme fast motion, however, the animators devised a technique for what they called “brick blur:”

Brick blur was created by a little strip of bricks. The colors of the character matched the string of bricks but the silhouette was defined as if someone has structured the motion blur with bricks.

I previously mentioned how much I enjoy the abstraction of animation, especially stop motion.  In this case, the squared-off forms of Lego bricks and minifigures are matched perfectly by the jumpy, ratcheted motion of the animation style. (It’s worth noting that the Lego characters’ faces are smoothly animated—there are limits to abstraction, after all.) Subtleties like “brick blur” and the audacity of (for example) an entire surging sea made of constantly shifting Lego bricks are great examples of filmmakers exploiting the unique aspects of their medium to create something truly novel; and the end result shows how computers can be used without losing the handmade qualities that made the project appealing in the first place.  Aidan Sarsfield mentions that the animators knew they had been successful when the first trailers appeared and audiences couldn’t tell whether stop motion or CG had been used; I wouldn’t be surprised if The Lego Movie inspires another generation of animators and model makers.