"The best of this kind are but shadows..." -(Midsummer Night's Dream)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Monster Capsules: GHIDORAH, PHANTASM II, KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS

GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER
1964 - dir. Ishiro Honda
***1/2
I'd 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 imbues the heaviness of the monsters with Falstaffian hep grandeur as they stagger around and down volcanoes and bump into matchstick apartment complexes. Ifukube's cues repeat over and over but that's fine, they hold up. Maybe too its the crazy 17th century 'ruff'-style collars the citizens of the strange 'small' country of Sergina still wear, even the gangster villains out to kill their princess: the more they try to look tough, the more those clown collars make them ridiculous. Only in Japan! Only in Godzilla movies do big budget large cast conglomerates of heavy duty Japanese actors wringing their hands intermix with ridiculous close-ups of puppet heads: Rodan and Godzilla each with fixed eyes and only one moving part on their head, a separate jaw which can move up and down giving them a kind of marionette shop crudity that, taken with all the gravitas in both the acting (Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura even has a bit part as a doctor) and the incredible music, makes for some jovial grins on the part of hip gaijin audiences, as well as squeals of delight for all ages of all nations.

So 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.The dubbing is solid. The framing and colors are comic book perfection. GHIDORAH: Number One!


Anyway, later that bad brainwave night, the princess of Sergina (Akiko Wakabayashi) is abducted mid-flight from her private plane, by a UFO that telekinetacally steers her out the passenger door in mid-flight-- he instant before a terrorist bomb blows the plane 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, dressed in the clothes of an old fisherman and possessed by a Martian (below) for a dockside press conference: "I come from the planet you call Mars! (Ed note: Venus in the Japanese version). The Earth--your planet-- is on the brink of destruction, and you refuse to take it seriously." They laugh. She doesn't. 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 dolphins in your tuna nets is punishable by monster attack! 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!) So stop sending bad vibes!

Of course, the glee with which Japan is wiped out time and again has become dampened by recent cataclysms, but I still got to go with Ghidorah on this one, even if those cute singing Mothra handler sisters are around to sing their little songs to get Godzilla, Rodan and Mothra to unite against him. It takes a lot of singing on their part and cajoling on Mothra's (and she's still just in her larval state), but then that Ifukube drunken bassoon score really stumbles into low, low gear, and the rumble atop the volcanic jungle is on, reminding me that, as a kid watching Speed Racer, I used to root for the bad guys who I thought were super cool, all dressed in black and with dark glasses. Being a tot and inexperienced, I kept thinking "This time... this time they'll finally win." They never won. I eventually got really despondent and I remember my mom finally telling me the facts of life. The bad guys would never win. The race was fixed.

Ghidorah, I want Speed's Mach-5 racer crushed underfoot!

PHANTASM II 
1988 - dir. Don Coscarelli
***
Who knows where we go after we die? Coscarelli knows, or at least he dares to look in the same trans-dimensional direction as fringe theorists like David Icke and Nick Redfern. Like its predecessor, PHANTASM II involves the adventures of an unlucky orphan lad (here James Le Gros) with mental problems and an ice cream vending buddy (Reggie Bannister) pursuing the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) as he loots the graveyards of the western states for his neighboring dimension's slave army. A very bizarre but consistent mythos 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 wandering the mausoleum while the adults console each other, and being freaked out by the glint of the fading afternoon sun on the shiny marble walls. Suddenly a flying metal ball comes whipping around the corner looking for him, to drill out his pineal gland (the home of the soul) for use in bizarre fourth dimensional enslavement rites. The resulting slaves, crushed down to dwarf size (for the high gravity of his home world) dress like jawas. The bad guys bleed yellow embalming fluid. Paula Irvine plays the grown-up love interest (the granddaughter of the weird old psychic lady in the first film) and even Reggie gets a girl in the form of a groovy young hitchhiker they pick up named Alchemy (Samantha Phillips). The scene where the two couple link up while crashing in a boarded-up house in one of the decimated towns stands as one of the creepier and more desolate of the series, laden with termite psychometric details that feel like what life on the road in upstate NY really feels like.


As in the first, the creepy Carpenter-esque music and ever-immanent nightfall enhances the sense of suburban ghost town desolation. And then there's the underlying mythos.... considering all the bizarre accoutrements of the funeral trade, you can really imagine there being a hidden white room in each mortuary where corpses are compacted for rebirth in a dimension that eerily resembles near-death experiences of the unlucky ones who miss the white light (as thousands of youtube videos will make clear). 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 as they march along a long trail through a desert-like plain led in front by a flying saucer that seems to be harvesting elements of their souls! Part Moses leading the Israelites through the wasteland for 40 years, part literal hell. Which is which?

Whoa, hey! Too much? Then just enjoy this low key TERMINATOR-meets-EVIL DEAD thrill-chill ride movie which comes with periodic in-jokes (the name on one bag of cremation ashes is "Sam Raimi") and pretend you're in a car at a crumbling, empty drive-in in the early 1990s, remembering when the parking lot around you was alive with youth, health, and bravado... all now dust scattered to the wind at a sterile ceremony attended only by an evil dwarf in a brown robe, texting furiously and all but ignoring the sympathy offered by your grieving friends. A poor thing but thine own. We named that brat Ghidorah!

Tiffany and friend
KINGDOM THE SPIDERS
1977 - dir. John "Bud" Cardos
***

This loose remake of THE BIRDS, this spawn of the post-JAWS hell (replete with that old 'you can't cancel the such-and-such festival --the town needs those tourists!' bit), this environ-amok (DDT's the devil!) whirligig of desert sand and webbing, stars the always underrated William Shatner as a small town Arizona veterinarian, and the awesome Tiffany Bolling as a big town arachnologist sent out to help when the toxicology report on a dead calf reveals an inordinate amount spider venom. A sly feminist update of Melanie Daniels (she even has a convertible and driving gloves), Bolling even has a worthy Annie Hayworth in the form of Marcy Lafferty (Shatner's real-life wife at the time). The Bolling-Shatner meet cute is at a gas station instead of a pet store, and the genders are reversed, but a lot of the other BIRDS boxes are ticked off: there's the holing up at the local bar (this one adjunct to a set of cozy rustic cabins instead of a hotel) to hash out motives and options; an crashed plane takes the place of gas pumps for the fireball (though I guess they ran out of money for that one). The big attack with people running around in panic with little creatures on them is adorable, and the Arizona scenery is beautiful with mesas like the ones in STAGECOACH, or rather the same exact ones... as STAGECOACH.

The first to get it eaten is, wouldn't you know it, a black rancher (Woody Strode) fearful of losing his livestock in a quarantine ("he worked for seven years to get that bull!") He's allowed much dignity and concern, so we're slowly climbing up the stereotypes from Best's cowardice to this over-serious humble sobriety... still a cliche, though, since his wife's so dumb she blows holes in her own floor and shoots her own hand rather than just getting a broom and sweeping the spiders out the door. That's a real self-reliant homesteader you got there, Woody. God knows what she'd do if she so a mouse.

It's also 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, tropes stop with Tiff: when a tarantula--with scary library music cues filling the soundtrack--slowly climbs up onto Bolling's desk and into an open desk drawer while she's in the shower, KINGDOM comes into a greatness all its own, because when she sits down at her desk and sees it she doesn't freak out. She just smiles like she's found a kitten, picks it up, strokes its hair, then releases it gently outside. She's like if Jill Banner in SPIDER BABY survived, nd went on to get a doctorate in arachnology. I love the way she towers over little Bill Shatner in their scenes together, and the way she gently mocks him when he tries to seduce her, while still letting him continue to try. showing his mammalian fumbling the same calm loving detachment she showed the spider. Her reputation amongst the Psychotronic set is well-deserved! I'd never really caught the fever before this, but I instantly ordered BONNIE'S KIDS and rented TRIANGLE (1970) after watching (See my review of both: Bolling Straight).


Bill Shatner earns his cult, too, especially when he does an awesome high-stepping dance while running around the yard, trying to not step on any of the spiders. He sometimes does step on one, of course. Can't be helped. But no hairpieces were harmed during the making of this movie.

3 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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  3. A comedy that can't walk erect. Please, Reitman, evolve already.

    ReplyDelete

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