Creature Double Feature 4: RODAN (Toho 1957) and MOTHRA (Toho 1961)

Let’s begin “Halloween Havoc!” season a day early by taking a trip to the Land of the Rising Sun for a pair of kaiju eiga films from Japan’s Toho Studios. Both were directed by GODZILLA’s Godfather Ishiro Honda, have special effects from Eiji Tsuurya, and feature the late Haru Nakajima donning the rubber monster suits. But the similarities end there, for while RODAN is a genuinely scary piece of giant monster terror, MOTHRA is a delightfully bizarre change-of-pace fantasy that began Toho’s turn toward more kid-friendly fare.

RODAN was filmed in 1956, and released in America a year later by DCA (the folks who brought you PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE! ) under the aegis of The King Brothers . There’s more A-Bomb testing in the South Pacific, as Americanized stock footage tells us before the movie proper begins. Miners digging deep into the Earth’s crust are trapped by flooding, and a dead man looking like he’s been “slaughtered like an animal”, his face frozen in horror, has been discovered. Officials are baffled until the appearance of… a GIANT PREHISTORIC BUG! The bug is tracked down into the mineshaft, where security finds a whole mess of the nasty creatures. Their bullets can’t stop them (of course not!), when suddenly an earthquake causes a cave-in.

Reports of a UFO spotted around the East puzzle authorities, too, until we learn this earthquake has led to the hatching of Rodan , a giant pterodactyl. Scientists determine Rodan is a 20 million year old flying reptile weighing 100 tons, with a wingspan of 500 feet! Rodan’s great wings cause hurricane-like destruction, toppling buildings and wrecking trains, and panic in the streets. Not only that, turns out there’s two of the massive monsters, and Japan’s military might proves once again ineffective against the fearsome monstrosities. After scenes of the deadly duo’s rampaging carnage, the military comes up with a bold but dangerous plan – bombard the beasts in their volcano hideaway and let nature take its course.

The local citizens are evacuated and the military unleashes its biggest weapons, erupting the volcano and ending in fiery doom for the Rodans. The movie is a blast (pun intended), and Honda keeps things taut and terrifying throughout. Among the dubbed voices you’ll immediately recognize Paul Frees in a couple roles and veteran Keye Luke doing some narration. Allegedly, STAR TREK’s George Takei also did some dubbing. RODAN is one of Toho’s scariest, definitely not for kids. Our next feature is a different story.

MOTHRA (in Toho-Scope!) is pure adventure-fantasy, which seems to have “borrowed” heavily from KING KONG. I watched the original (subtitled) Japanese version, and it was a revelation, a charming take on the genre complete with comedy and musical interludes between the destruction. A typhoon causes a Japanese ship to sink, and some survivors are found on Infant Island, used for atomic testing by the Rolisican government. Don’t worry of you’ve never heard of Rolisica; it’s entirely fictional! Anyway, those survivors show no signs of radiation poisoning, and a joint expedition by Japan and Rolisica is formed, including Rolisican explorer Nelson, Japanese linguist Chinjo, and others… but no reporters allowed! This doesn’t stop intrepid newshawk Zen “Bulldog” Fukuda (played by comedian Frankie Sakai) from stowing away onboard disguised as a cabin boy!

The expedition discovers a lush green jungle valley, and the curious Chinjo stumbles upon a clearing filled with colorful flora straight out of ALICE IN WONDERLAND. He also stumbles upon The Fairies, twin foot-high girls played by Japanese singing sensations The Peanuts (Emi and Yumi Ito). Meanie Nelson tries to snatch them, when the expedition is surrounded by menacing island natives, forcing him to reconsider. But later, when the expedition is finished, Nelson and his thugs return to Infant Island, kill the natives, and kidnap the girls, exploiting them as the main attraction at a Tokyo theater a la KONG’s Carl Denham.

But the twins have the power of telepathy, and use their singing talents to summon the great god Mothra to rescue them. Mothra hatches from her big blue egg (yes, Mothra’s a she), and the immense caterpillar swims her way to Japan. Nelson refuses to give up his miniature meal tickets, and the relentless Mothra crumbles everything in her path before building a cocoon around the Tokyo Tower. Japan and Rolisica team to blast said cocoon with atomic heat rays, which results in the creeping caterpillar emerging as a full-grown giant (and very colorful!) moth! Mothra makes a beeline (or is it mothline) for Rolisica’s capitol, New Kirk City to free the twins, which in turn leads to a strange and wonderful happy ending for all. Except Nelson, of course.

Honda’s direction here is much lighter in tone, and I enjoyed Sakai’s performance as the reporter Fukuda. The Ito Twins also appear in this film’s sequel, GODZILLA VS. THE THING, in which “The Thing” is none other than mighty Mothra! Their singing is a delight (though I didn’t understand a word of it, not being fluent in Japanese), and the score by composer Yuji Koseki is my all-time Toho favorite. RODAN and MOTHRA would make a perfect ‘Creature Double Feature’ for your upcoming ‘Halloween Havoc!’ party.

Speaking of ‘Halloween Havoc!’, it officially kicks off tomorrow with a titanic trio of classic horror stars sending up Edgar Allan Poe! In the meantime, enjoy these links to other posts in the ‘Creature Double Feature’ series:

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Cracked Rear Viewer’s 3rd Annual “Halloween Havoc!” Begins Sunday!

Get ready for fright nights as once again I do 31 horror films in 31 days! This is the third year I’ve taken on this terrifying task, and the madness starts on Sunday October 1st with old fiends, er friends, Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Roger Corman! But the fearful fun doesn’t stop there! This year’s lineup includes ghouls and ghosts, maniacal murderers and sick psych-biddies, giant bugs and tiny terrors, warlocks and witches, supernatural and spaced-out zombies, and even a terrible tree monster!! There’ll also be some abominable extras every weekend. I hope you’ll join me for this month-long look at all cinematic things that go BOO in the night!

The Main Event: Kirk Douglas in CHAMPION (United Artists 1949)

Kirk Douglas  slugged his way to superstardom in director Mark Robson’s CHAMPION, one of two boxing noirs made in 1949. The other was THE SET-UP , helmed by Robson’s former RKO/Val Lewton stablemate Robert Wise. While that film told of an aging boxer (Robert Ryan) on the way down, CHAMPION is the story of a hungry young fighter who lets nothing stand in his way to the top of the food chain. The movie not only put Douglas on the map, it was a breakthrough for its young independent producer Stanley Kramer .

Douglas is all muscle and sinew as middleweight Midge Kelly, and a thoroughly rotten heel. He’s a magnetic character, a classic narcissist with sociopathic tendencies drawing the people around him into his web with his charm. Midge has no empathy for others, not even his loyal, game-legged brother Connie (Arthur Kennedy in a solid performance), after he gets what he wants. And what he wants is the respect and admiration of the world, his bravado but a mask for his deep-seated insecurities brought on by his childhood poverty and abandonment issues. He treats the women in his life like dirt, seducing pretty waitress Emma ( Ruth Roman ), leering to her at the beach, “Well, shall we get wet?” (and how THAT quote got through the censors is a miracle!). Forced into a shotgun marriage by her father (Harry Shannon), Midge leaves her to hit the road to boxing glory. Later in the film, after Emma asks for a divorce to marry Connie, Midge brutally rapes her, then violently shoves down his own lame brother when confronted. Yes, Midge Kelly is a total shitheel, and Douglas’s acting will keep you riveted to see what new depths he’ll go to next. It’s a no-holds-barred performance that deservedly won Kirk his first Oscar nomination.

Emma and Connie aren’t the only victims in Midge’s merciless rise to the top. Fight manager Tommy Haley ( Paul Stewart ) takes the creep under his wing and trains him in the pugilistic arts, only to be first betrayed when Midge refuses to dive in a Number One Contender’s Match, then unceremoniously dumped for the lure of big money manager Jerry Harris (Luis Van Rooten) and femme fatale Grace Diamond (Marilyn Maxwell). Harris isn’t exempt as Midge seduces his young wife Palmer (Lola Albright), a naïve sculptor unaware she’s being used until Harris teaches her a valuable lesson. Midge even abandons his own mother ( Esther Howard ), arriving too late to visit her before she dies.

Carl Foreman structured his screenplay in circular fashion, with an extended flashback relating the bulk of the story. Foreman, who got his start working on Bowery Boys programmers,  and producer Kramer teamed for some great films: HOME OF THE BRAVE, THE MEN (Marlon Brando’s film debut), CYRANO DE BERGERAC, and the classic Western HIGH NOON, but the writer’s former Communist affiliations got him blacklisted by HUAC. Foreman won the Oscar for 1957’s superb war drama BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, though the statue was given to credited author Pierre Boulle (this was corrected 27 years later, the year Foreman died).

CHAMPION was nominated for six Oscars, including Douglas, Kennedy, Foreman’s screenplay, Dmitri Tiompkin’s  score, and Franz Planer’s cinematography, winning for Harry Gerstad’s stellar editing job. The ultra-realistic boxing scenes were staged by former Light Welterweight champ Mushy Callahan, who trained Douglas for the film. Midge Kelly is a repellant character, but Kirk Douglas makes him fascinating to watch, and as in all good noirs, he receives his just desserts in the end, a victim himself of his own lustful machinations. It’s a knockout of a film that pummels the viewer with a barrage of body blows before delivering its fatal punch, and is highly recommended.

Turning Back the Cuckoo Clock with Wheeler & Woosley in THE CUCKOOS (RKO 1930)

We last left the wacky world of Wheeler & Woolsey with a look at the looney HOLD ‘EM JAIL . Today we delve deeper into comedy’s film vault with their 1930 effort THE CUCKOOS, based on the hit Broadway musical by Guy Bolton, Bert Kalmar, and Harry Ruby. The play featured the team of Clark & McCullough, who are even more obscure than W&W to most film fans (they appeared in a series of shorts from 1928-35), but RKO (after the success of 1929’s RIO RITA) put W&W into the film version, hoping the team’s antics would click with Depression Era audiences.

And click they did, leading to an RKO contract and nineteen more features! THE CUCKOOS’ plot concerns romantic entaglements at a plush hotel, with  heiress Ruth (June Clyde) in love with pilot Billy (Hugh Trevor), but pushed toward the oily Baron de Camp (Ivan Lebedeff ) by her rich Aunt Fannie (Jobyna Howland). The boys get in the thick of things as a couple of fraudulent “American fortune tellers”, with Sparrow (Bert) in love with gypsy Anita (W&W’s frequent costar Dorothy Lee). The gypsies, led by burly Julius (Mitchell Lewis), scheme with the Baron to kidnap Ruth, while out to get Sparrow and his pal Professor Cunningham (Bob) because Julius wants the lovely Anita for himself.

The plot takes a backseat to Wheeler & Woolsey’s silly shenanigans, and they dominate the picture with their buffoonery and double entendre laced puns (it is the Pre-Code era, after all!). Some highlights include the nonsense song “Oh, How We Love Our Alma Mater” (complete with silly dance), Woolsey putting Wheeler in a trance (he gets on all fours and barks like a dog), the boys asked to keep their eyes on a forbidden keg of beer at the border (Prohibition, doncha know?) with hilarious results (and the punchline later lifted in a Three Stooges short), being constantly interrupted in their hotel room by a succession of crazies (reminiscent of the old burlesque skit ‘Crazy House’), and Bert in drag enticing the gypsies to his boudoir, only to receive a conk on the noggin from a hidden Bob!

Woolsey gets off some funny one-liners with Jobyna Howland, the team’s version of Margaret Dumont (she appeared in two other W&W films), like this one: Fannie: “Do you think you’ll love me until I die?” Professor: “Well, that depends  on how long you live”. She’s big and bawdy, and makes a perfect match for sarcastic Bob.  Miss Lee, just 19 at the time, was cast a Bert’s love interest in a dozen of their films. She’s cute as a button but no great thespian, though she brings a Ruby Keeler-ish enthusiasm to her roles (personally, I think she’s much prettier than Ruby!). Dorothy and Bert have a charming duet together, “I Love You So Much”, which is reprised by the cast at film’s finale.

THE CUCKOOS is far less static than The Marx Brothers’ early effort THE COCONUTS, although it can be stagey in spots. One thing different from that film is the abrupt switch to two-strip Technicolor for some of the musical numbers, which took me by surprise! W&W’s song “Goodbye” is in this early color process, as is “Dance the Devil Away”, a bizarre little segment with Dorothy and a bevy of beauties gyrating with wild abandon on a Hades-inspired set! The finale gets the Technicolor treatment, as well. Wheeler & Woolsey were on the right track here, and continued to make kooky comedies until Robert Woolsey’s untimely death in 1938. If you haven’t rediscovered them yet, you’re as crazy as they are!

Cleaning Out the DVR #14: SEX & VIOLENCE, 70’S STYLE!

Groundbreaking 60’s films like BONNIE & CLYDE, THE GRADUATE, THE WILD BUNCH, and MIDNIGHT COWBOY led to the complete obliteration of the Production Code, and by the sizzling 70’s it was anything goes! Low budget exploitation filmmakers benefitted most by this loosening of standards as the following quintet of movies illustrates, filled with bouncing boobs, bloody action, pot smoking, beer drinking, and hell raising:

THE MUTHERS (Dimension 1976; D; Cirio H. Santiago) – A Filipino-made “Women in Prison” Blaxploitation actioner? Yes, please! Former Playboy Playmates Jeanne Bell and Rosanne Katon, future NFL TODAY commentator Jayne Kennedy, and ex-Bond girl Trina Parks are all trapped on a coffee plantation run by the sadistic Monteiro with no chance of escape… until there is! Loaded with gore, torture, kung-fu fighting, bare breasts, a funky score, pirates (that’s right, pirates!), and a slam-bang run through the jungle – what more could you ask for? Forget about some of the gaps in logic, just sit back and enjoy the ride. Fun Fact: The prolific Santiago produced and/or directed such Grindhouse classics as WOMEN IN CAGES, THE BIG BIRD CAGE, TNT JACKSON, EBONY IVORY & JADE, and VAMPIRE HOOKERS, among many others.

THE POM POM GIRLS (Crown International 1976; D: Joseph Ruben)- One of the better Crown International “teensploitation” flicks is a practically plotless but immensely fun outing dealing with the high school shenanigans of football players’n’cheerleaders, featuring a pre-REVENGE OF THE NERDS Robert Carradine as the school’s “class stud” and the ever-delightful Rainbeaux Smith as (what else?) a swingin’ cheerleader. Writer/director Ruben throws in every teen flick trope in the book: food fights, dirt bikes, a groovy “love van”, a football brawl, and a “suicide chicken” race straight outta REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE! There’s plenty of gratuitous nudity and hormones running wild on display, so if drive-in movies are your thing, you can’t do much better than this one. Fun Fact: Ruben went on to helm the mainstream films SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY and MONEY TRAIN.

VIGILANTE FORCE (United Artists 1976; D: George Armitage) – Crack open a frosty PBR and enjoy this slice of 70’s exploitation insanity. The small California town of Elk Hills is being torn up by rowdy oil field workers, so Jan-Michael Vincent recruits his Vietnam vet brother Kris Kristofferson and his crew to clean things up. But Kris has other ideas, and soon he and his boys take over the town, beginning a reign of terror that leads to a violent, explosive climax with Kris’s vigilantes pitted against Jan-Michael’s Green Mountain Boys. Kris is one crazy, mean sumbitch in this wild actioner! Bernadette Peters shines as his sexy off-key saloon singer girl, and Victoria Principal plays Jan-Michael’s more sedate sweetie (who takes a bullet in the back courtesy of Kris… I told you he was mean!). The better-than-average supporting cast is filled with Familiar Faces: Loni Anderson (as ‘Peaches’!), Antony Carbone, Peter Coe , Brad Dexter , David Doyle (Bosley on CHARLIE’S ANGELS), Paul Gleason, James Lydon, Shelley Novack, Andrew Stevens, and a cameo by the one-and-only Dick Miller ! Hang on to your hardhats and get ready for non-stop action. Fun Fact: The producer is exploitation king Roger Corman’s brother Gene, which explains Miller’s cameo and the casting of Carbone (THE LAST WOMAN ON EARTH, CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA).

THE VAN (Crown International 1977; D: Sam Grossman) – Recent high school grad Bobby (Stuart Getz) buys the “love van” of his dreams in order to score with chicks in this quintessential 70’s teen sex comedy. Hollywood car customizer George Barris created Bobby’s dream machine, complete with 70’s staples like a waterbed, 8-track player, shag carpeting, and mag wheels. It’s a genuinely funny lowbrow drive-in flick featuring a pre-TAXI Danny DeVito as Bobby’s boss at the car wash, who doubles as a bookie. And remember: “Nobody calls Doogie a turd! Nobody!”. Fun Fact: The soundtrack by Sammy Johns includes his big hit “Chevy Van” as the movie’s theme song – even though Bobby’s van is actually a Dodge!

CORVETTE SUMMER (MGM 1978; D: Matthew Robbins) – High school student Mark Hamill restores a ’73 Corvette Stingray to it’s former glory only to have it stolen, so he hitches a ride to Las Vegas with wanna-be hooker Annie Potts to retrieve his baby in this uneven but harmless ‘B’ comedy. The film shifts into high action towards the end, and the finale doesn’t really satisfy, but Potts (in her film debut) delivers a wonderfully deft comic performance as the ditzy chick in yet another 70’s-style “love van” (they were everywhere!!). The supporting cast includes Danny Bonaduce, Philip Bruns, Eugene Roche, Kim Milford, and the ubiquitous Dick Miller! The glittery lights of late 70’s Vegas (set to a glittery disco soundtrack) make it almost worth your time. Fun Fact: This was Hamill’s follow-up to 1977’s STAR WARS , attempting to break free of his Luke Skywalker image. It didn’t work.

More “Cleaning Out the DVR”:

 

Prophet Without Honor: Timothy Carey’s THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER (Timothy Carey 1962)

Timothy Agoglia Carey (1929-1994) was an eccentric, oddball actor who played in everything from early Stanley Kubrick films (THE KILLING, PATHS OF GLORY) to AIP Beach Party romps (BIKINI BEACH, BEACH BLANKET BINGO ). He had the look of an overfed vampire, and was noted for his off-the-wall characterizations. Carey didn’t play the Hollywood game, considering himself an artist, and you’ve got to admire that. In 1962, he made a film called THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER, which he produced, directed, wrote, starred in, and released himself. Top THAT, Orson Welles!.

This ultra-low-budget film is totally bizarre right off the rip. Insurance man Clarence Hilliard (Carey) gets himself fired from his job after telling people they don’t need insurance. He wants more out of life, believing man is a superbeing, and begins to set himself up as a God. After watching a rock’n’roll teen idol, Clarence becomes a charismatic, guitar-toting, fiery evangelist, renaming himself ‘God’ Hilliard. Gaining a following, he makes a deal with The Devil and joins the political fray, campaigning for president!

‘God’ Hilliard mesmerizes the masses with his rhetoric, delivering a populist message “for the people” to become Gods themselves, blasting the crooked two-party system, and deriding the news media as “printing lies” (sound familiar?). ‘God’ Hilliard rails against everything, including The Almighty, questioning the existence of God. His final desecration of the Holy Eucharist (which will definitely offend some) gives way to a rather shocking finale.

THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER is shot in a cinema verite stylemuch like the later films of Carey’s good friend John Cassavetes. But Carey adds his own unique vision, “borrowing” from the foreign films of the day. It’s not a great movie, or a particularly good one far as film aesthetics go, but it held my interest straight through til the end. I can’t say that about some of the so-called “classics” I’ve seen (or even clunkers). Carey gave his all for his art here, and created an interesting, thought-provoking film with limited resources, the mark of a true artist.

Portrait of 2 Artists: Frank Zappa (l) and Timothy Carey

There’s some interesting bits of trivia, as well. The score is by Frank Zappa , five years before making the scene with The Mothers of Invention’s seminal psychedelic album FREAK-OUT. Zappa’s distinct musical touch was unmistakable, even back then. The narrator is Paul Frees , well-known voiceover artist who I’ve discussed before. And the cinematographer is credited to one Raymond Steckler, better known as Ray Dennis Steckler (or Cash Flagg, or Wolfgang Schmidt or Cindy Lou Sutters!), who went on to develop his own “artistic vision” with the cult classics THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES WHO STOPPED LIVING AND BECAME CRAZY MIXED-UP ZOMBIES and THE THRILL SEEKERS.

THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER will not be for everyone’s tastes. It’s below low-budget, sleazy, blasphemous, and like it’s creator completely off-center. Those of you who crave something bold and different will be as mesmerized by Carey’s ‘God’ Hilliard as I was. The oddball auteur later made another solo effort, 1970’s TWEET’S LADIES OF PASADENA. If it’s anywhere near THE WORLD’S GREATEST SINNER, it will be worth watching!

Stone Cold: Charles Bronson in THE MECHANIC (United Artists 1972)

Stone-faced Charles Bronson is perfect as an ice-cold, classical music loving hit man who mentors young Jan-Michael Vincent in 1972’s THE MECHANIC. I’d say this is one of Charlie’s best 70’s actioners, but let’s be serious – they’re ALL damn entertaining!

Arthur Bishop (Bronson) takes his work seriously, meticulously planning every assignment he receives from his Mafia boss (Frank De Kova ). Given a job to kill family friend Big Harry McKenna (Keenan Wynn), Bishop does the deed with chilling precision. McKenna’s son Steve (Vincent) is a stone-cold sociopath himself, and soon worms his way into becoming Bishop’s apprentice. Their first caper together goes sour, bringing Bishop’s boss much displeasure. Bishop’s next hit takes the two overseas to Naples, where they’re set up to be killed themselves, resulting in a violent conclusion and a deliciously deadly twist ending.

Bronson, after over twenty years and 50 plus movie roles, became an overnight success with the same year’s THE VALACHI PAPERS. He’s his usual stoic self as Bishop, but the character has a bit more depth. Bishop is prone to anxiety attacks, and trouble forming a meaningful relationship, causing him to visit a call girl (wife Jill Ireland in a cameo), paying her to read him love letters before sex. Bishop’s bonding with young McKenna was originally homosexual in nature as envisioned  by screenwriter Lewis John Carlino (THE SAILOR WHO FELL FROM GRACE WITH THE SEA, THE GREAT SANTINI), but producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler (the ROCKY films) nixed the idea. Still, the relationship between Bishop and McKenna comes off almost as intended, as Bishop doesn’t seem to respond to anyone else, including the hooker.

Jan-Michael Vincent is good as the antisocial McKenna, and makes me wish he and Bronson had done more films together. Vincent is well known to fans of 70’s flicks for his roles in the TV Movie TRIBES, the Disney comedy THE WORLD’S GREATEST ATHELETE, and a slew of drive-in fare: WHITE LINE FEVER, BABY BLUE MARINE, VIGILANTE FORCE, DAMNATION ALLEY, and DEFIANCE. He played Robert Mitchum’s son in the miniseries THE WINDS OF WAR, then headlined his own action series AIRWOLF from 1984-87. Vincent’s problems with alcohol and domestic violence have been well documented, and the actor, who lost a leg in a car crash, is now for the most part retired and living in Mississippi.

THE MECHANIC is the second of six films Bronson made with director Michael Winner, the last three being the first entries in the DEATH WISH series. Winner delivers (sorry, I can’t resist!) a winner here, keeping the suspense taut and the action exciting, including a cool dirt bike chase and the later scene with Bronson and Vincent chased by mobsters through a winding Italian mountain road. The film was remade in 2011 with Jason Statham in the Bishop role (and a sequel in 2016), which paled in comparison to this drive-in classic. Bronson and Winner’s DEATH WISH has been remade and is set for release this November, with Eli Roth directing and Bruce Willis in Bronson’s role. The trailer looks good, but like THE MECHANIC, it’ll be hard to top the original. We shall see…