Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Capsules d'Monstre: GHIDORAH, PHANTASM II, MANSTER, THE SMILING GHOST, KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS

GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER
1964 - dir. Ishiro Honda
****
I've seen a lot of Godzilla movies as a kid but I never... until lately. Man, GHIDORAH is the best one! Maybe it's Akira Ifukube's great, blowsy ominous-cool bassoon jazz score, which perfectly captures the drunken heaviness of these here monster giants as they stagger around and down volcanoes and bump into apartment complexes. Ifukube's cues repeat over and over but that's fine.  The dubbing is solid. The framing and colors are comic book perfection. Maybe it's because it ingeniously integrates a lot of fringe science elements. GHIDORAH: Number One!


It seems a bunch of scientists have been having nightly meetings with UFOs, so they invite a lady reporter to come check out how cool they are. When the UFOs don't come the night she's there, they accuse her of sending skeptical brainwaves out into the atmosphere and scaring the aliens off! Skeptical brainwaves! When the reporter dismisses the idea that brainwaves even exist, the scientists smile patronizingly. That's cool despite being sexist because it shows the easy way science can flip-flop on issues, condemning non-believers with an array of defense mechanisms, from witch burning to shows like Fact or Faked and Myth-busters. One day they sneer at the 'nuts' who believe UFOs exist; the next day they sneer at the 'cranks' who believe they don't. Look at the scientist's desk above and you see the way science might have matured had not events like Roswell been so effectively hushed up.


Anyway, later that night some hot princess of the mythical kingdom of Sergina (Akiko Wakabayashi) is abducted from her private plane by a UFO right before a terrorist bomb blows it to bits. The next day, scientists investigate a meteor that crashed in the mountains and left a huge Ghidorah egg. The princess appears at the dock, now possessed by a Martian (below) for a dockside press conference: "I come from the planet you call Mars! The earth--your planet-- is on the brink of destruction, and you refuse to take it seriously." They laugh. And the hatching egg is their reward. Look who's come all the way from space to show you that three heads are better than one, and that killing whales, dolphins, and Nanking is wrong! Ghidorah functions here as a kind of anti-global terrorist bomb, sent to wipe out violent civilizations before they can become a threat to the Galactic Federation (which is a real thing, according to my in-the-know informants!)

 

Of course, the glee with which Japan is wiped out time and again has become dampened by recent cataclysms, but can we doubt this scrappy dolphin-hating nation won't bounce back? So I got to go with Ghidorah on this one, even if those cute Mothra handler sisters are around to sing their little songs to get Godzilla and the latest incarnation of Mothra (still in caterpillar form) to unite against him. Then that Ifukube drunken bassoon score really stumbles into low, low gear, and the rumble atop the volcanic jungle is on.

 It's true, I used to root for the bad guys as a child watching Speed Racer; being a tot and inexperienced, I kept thinking "This time... this time they'll finally win." They never won! Like me, in kickball. Ghidorah, I want that Mach-5 crushed underfoot!

PHANTASM II 
1988 - dir. Don Coscarelli
***
Who knows where we go after we die? The Shadow and Don Coscarelli know, or at least dare to look in the same trans-dimensional direction as fringe theorists like David Icke and Nick Redfern. Like its predecessor, PHANTASM II deconstructs down to reveal what it's like to see the warped mysteries of humanity's archaic funeral rituals through the eyes of a young terrified child and getting lost in the mausoleum while his parents engage in whatever odd formalities parents go through, and being freaked out by the glint of the fading afternoon sun on the shiny marble walls, imagining a flying metal ball coming around looking for you, to drill out your pineal gland (the home of the soul) for use in bizarre fourth dimensional enslavement rites. Also, there's the ingenious STAR WARS-associative use of Jawa fashions for the tall man's undead ghost-dwarf minions.


Considering all the bizarre accoutrements of the funeral trade, you can imagine there being a hidden white room in the mortuary, where corpses are compacted for rebirth in a dimension where the gravity is much stronger, the colors morphed, and the winds relentless. The dimension when finally shown eerily resembles near-death experiences of the unlucky ones who miss the white light. Such people report their astral body/soul floating up to the white light and then being snatched by hands emerging from the dark shadows along the tunnel's sides, yanked into this prison of Hell, where untold despair is instilled and harvested!

Whoa, hey! Too much? Then just enjoy this low key TERMINATOR-meets-EVIL DEAD thrill ride movie, with its periodic in-jokes (the name on one bag of cremation ashes is "Sam Raimi") and pretend you're in a car at a crumbling drive-in in the early 1980s, the world alive with youth, health, and bravado... all of which about to shortly crumble down around you, like the drive-in itself, until all that's left are ashes in an urn and an undead dwarf in a brown robe, texting furiously.


THE MANSTER
1959 - dir. George P. Breakson
***
Here's something you don't see often: a black and white Japanese horror movie where all the actors speak English (i.e. they are not post-dubbed). Pretty awesome, as is the moody but economical black and white photography and surplus of monsters. The story has the evil Dr. Suzuki (Tetsu Nakamara) and his hot assistant (Terri Zimmern) drugging (with experimental mutant-making serum) a dimwitted American journalist named Larry (Peter Dynely) then having Terri seduce him so that he'll stick around Japan and they can monitor him as he d/evolves. Adrift in the Tokyo bar scene, Larry starts drinking heavily, skulking around at night, killing random people, lusting for Terri, and avoiding his journalistic responsibilities.

Terri Zimmern
Dialogue is awesome in its directness; acting is okay; low-key B-movie expressionism rocks, as in the famous Dali-esque eyeball shoulder scene, and a Val Letwon-RKO kind of midnight ramble through a Zen Buddhist temple. So keenly rendered is the way the serum makes Larry into a hard-drinking, surly mess that I would recommend this movie to rehab centers. There's even some intervention-style drama with a clingy gaijin wife (Jayne Hilton) who wants Larry to come home and live a life of quiet desperation and he can't stand quiet desperation! As we say in AA, I really related.

THE SMILING GHOST
1941 - dir. Lewis Selier
**1/2
This all-nonsense studio B-picture concerns a layabout man-for-hire (Wayne Morris) brought to a mysterious estate to marry an heiress (Alexis Smith) with a rep as 'the black widow' since her last three husbands have died. She wants to find out why, so marries our dimwit handyman hero as bait. Cue sheet metal thunder and secret panels! Meanwhile a spunky female reporter (Brenda Marshall) snoops around in the bushes and an old uncle (Charles Halton) tries to add Willie Best's  slack-jawed noggin to his shrunken head collection. I've seen some horribly racist caricatures of black people in old horror movies, but nothing quite like this. Willie Best even withholds vital information that could save lives because he's too busy overacting, as when he witnesses a secret passage open and shut and--even after armed good guys burst into the room moment later--all he can do is run away gibbering and bug-eyed instead of telling them where the panel is. It's almost enough to make you forget the rest of the movie's pretty good. It's not Best's fault but unlike Mantan Moreland's similar roles, there's no subversive actorly subtext (that I noticed anyway).

Brenda Marshall
Tiffany Bolling and friend
KINGDOM THE SPIDERS
1977 - dir. John "Bud" Cardos
***1/2
A loose remake of THE BIRDS, this spawn of the post-JAWS environ-amok genre stars William Shatner as a small town Arizona veterinarian and Tiffany Bolling as a big town etymologist sent in to help when toxicology on a dead calf reveals spider venom. She's the Melanie Daniels, Marcy Lafferty (Shatner's real-life wife at the time) is the Annie Hayworth. The meet cute is at a gas station instead of a pet store, but there's still the holing up at the hotel bar with the cross section of the populace, and the big attack with people running around in panic with creatures on them.

The Arizona scenery is beautiful with mesas like the ones in STAGECOACH. The worried black rancher (Woody Strode) fearful of losing his livestock in a quarantine-- "he worked for seven years to get that bull!"--is allowed much dignity and concern, so we're slowly climbing up the stereotypes from Best's cowardly manservant to over-serious humble sobriety... it's still a cliche, though, and he and his wife are the first humans to die. It's pretty dumb that the white folks decide to go on a picnic after finding the dead black couple lying in the grass covered with arachnid bites. Dumb, but typical.


But hey, you know this film is awesome when a tarantula--with scary library music cues filling the soundtrack--slowly climbs up onto Bolling's desk and into the open desk drawer while she's in the shower. When she finds it, Bolling doesn't flinch, just smiles like she's found a kitten, cradles it in her hand, then releases it outside. Tiffany Bolling, in other words, kicks ass! I love the way she towers over Shatner, and gently mocks him when he tries to seduce her, while still letting him continue to try. Her reputation amongst the Psychotronic set is well-deserved. I instantly ordered BONNIE'S KIDS after seeing this, and rented TRIANGLE (1970). Bill Shatner earns his cult, too, especially when he does an awesome high-stepping dance to not step on any of the spiders. He sometimes does step on them, but at least no hairpieces were harmed during the making of this movie.

2 comments:

  1. Gihdorah is my favorite Godzilla villain (followed closely by Mechagodzilla) but I've yet to watch this first one...I have it sitting next to me waiting to be watched, I'll be reviewing it soon, but Im sure it will be a blast. Ishiro Honda was the best of Godzilla directors. I just posted a review for Mothra vs. Godzilla if your interested.

    Phantasm II is freaking awesome, and in many ways the best in the series. Mainly because Coscarelli got some money to make it and wasnt working on a shoestring budget. Gotta thank Universal for that. Some of the creepiest moments in the whole series are on this one, and so many different spheres show up. I love this one to death, my favorite in the series.

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  2. They’ve been showing “Kingdom of the Spiders” a lot on… AMC, maybe? My wife is a tarantula nut, so we sat through it.

    Shatner is fantastic, the plot is absurd, and the ending is memorable.

    Guilty, guilty pleasure.

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