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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Creature Double Feature 3: THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD (UA 1957) & THE GIANT CLAW (Columbia 1957)

Welcome to another exciting edition of Creature Double Feature, a fond look back at the type of weird and wonderful monster movies that used to be broadcast Saturday afternoons on Boston’s WLVI-TV 56. Today we’ve got twin terrors from 1957, one beneath the sea, the other above the skies. Let’s dive right in with THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD, a soggy saga starring former cowboy star Tim Holt and a monstrous giant sea slug!

An earthquake has released the beast in California’s Salton Sea, and when a Navy parachutist and a rescue crew goes missing, Commander “Twill” Twillinger (Holt) investigates. A mysterious, sticky white goo is found on board (no “money shot” cracks, please!), and a sample is taken to the lab of Dr. Rogers (Hans Conreid). Rogers analyzes the substance, a “simple marine secretion” (again, no wisecracks!), later discovered to be radioactive.

Rogers’ secretary Gail (Audrey Dalton) and Twill get off on the wrong foot, so you know their destined to fall in love. That’s just the way it goes in these films. Anyway, Twill and the local sheriff (Gordon Jones, THE ABBOTT & COSTELLO SHOW’s Mike the Cop) pay a visit to the coroner, who tells them the bodies have been “drained of blood and water”, then offers them a sandwich from his cold-storage unit (they politely decline!). Meanwhile, the beaches have been temporarily closed, but some foolish young lovers decide to take a swim, and of course become the monster’s next victims.

Twill decides to “investigate the bottom of the sea”, and some fine underwater photography finds the divers discovering some giant six-foot eggs! One large egg is hauled up by net, pissing Mama Monster off, and she goes on the offensive. Dr. Rogers does his analyzation thing, and proclaims the giant slug is a descendant of none other than the legendary Kraken! A local historian named Lewis Clark Dobbs, played by marvelous Milton Parsons , finds a map of underground waterways, and the Navy blows up the nest. But that egg in the lab hatches thanks to Gail’s daughter Sandy, and terrorizes the girls until Twill arrives, brandishing a fire extinguisher and a steam hose to subdue the menacing mollusk long enough for the forces of good to shoot it down in a hail of bullets.

Holt had been off the screen five years before this film, and he’s looking a little paunchy, but still makes a believable hero. The actor was typecast as a ‘B’ cowboy, rarely getting his chance to show his acting chops (except in THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS and TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE). The rest of the cast is fine, and I enjoyed the bit by horror vet Parsons (is his character’s name an homage to TREASURE’S Fred C. Dobbs? Only screenwriter Pat Fielder knows for sure!). The monster itself is more cute and cuddly rather than creepy, but on the whole the movie’s an okay if by-the-book entry in the giant monster sweepstakes. Director Arnold Laven and producers Arthur Gardner and Jules Levy later had greater success as the team behind TV’s THE RIFLEMAN and THE BIG VALLEY.

Now it’s on to THE GIANT CLAW, a much-maligned film from the King of Schlock Sam Katzman ! This one features one of the most laughable-looking monsters in genre history, a puppet resembling a giant prehistoric turkey! Shades of BLOOD FREAK ! The film follows the formula closely, with sci-fi stalwarts Jeff Morrow (THIS ISLAND EARTH, THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US), Mara Corday (TARANTULA, THE BLACK SCORPION), Morris Ankrum (INVADERS FROM MARS, EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS ), and Robert Shayne (THE NEANDERTHAL MAN , TV’s ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN) all on board for a quick, enjoyable romp loaded with unintentional laughs.

Aeronautical engineer Mitch McAfee (Morrow) spots what he thinks is a UFO while flying the wild blue yonder in the Arctic. Mathematician Sally (Corday) scoffs, and the two are quickly at odds. You already know they hook up, right? While on reconnaissance, their plane crash lands, and they’re rescued by an actor with a terrible French-Canadian accent going by the original moniker of Pierre. McAfee and Sally recuperate at the bad-accented guy’s farm, when he hears trouble outside. Pierre is horrified by a sighting of what he thinks is La Carcagne, a mythical beast with “the face of a wolf and the body of a woman… with wings!”.

It’s really a giant turkey from outer space. The bird that is, not the movie! McAfee discovers the bird is flying in a concentric circular pattern, and Big Army Brass (sorry, wrong movie!) gives the order to shoot it down. But planes can’t stop it, “machine guns, cannons, rockets” don’t faze it. “It’s just a bird!”, screams Gen. Buskirk (Shayne), who keeps repeating “guns, cannons, rockets” like he’s shell-shocked! Scientists determine the bird is from “an anti-matter galaxy billions of light years from Earth. No other explanation is possible” because of course there’s not.

The “feathered nightmare on wings” is spotted around the globe, and Earth is in panic mode. A nest is discovered on Pierre’s farm, and McAfee and Sally shoot the egg, naturally pissing the bird off (just like our previous crustacean creature). Pierre becomes bird food, as do some dumb local teenage joyriders. There’s some scientific double-talk about “masic atoms” leading to the creation of a weapon powerful enough to breach the bird’s anti-matter shield. Meanwhile, our giant turkey monster is wreaking havoc in the Big Apple, attacking the UN building and the Empire State Building. That tremor you just felt was KING KONG rolling over in his grave! McAfee and the team commandeer an Air Force jet equipped with the new weapon, and pierce through the bird’s force field, enabling them to destroy the turkey with conventional rockets. Yay, team!

Ray Harryhausen was originally scheduled to handle the special effects, but when his price was deemed too high, the ever-frugal Katzman contracted the work to a Mexican outfit that created the silly looking bird puppet. Despite the fact that the monster is so ludicrous, I really enjoyed THE GIANT CLAW. It’s fast-moving and fun, with nary a wasted minute thanks to El Cheapo Katzman. The likable cast play their roles earnestly, and a good time is had by all. Except for the bird, of course!

Tune in next time for more madness on CREATURE DOUBLE FEATURE!

And check out previous entries in the series:

  1. THE BLACK SCORPION & THE KILLER SHREWS 
  2. IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA & 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH

 

Creature Double Feature 2: IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA and 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (Columbia, 1955 & 1957)

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Let’s return to those thrilling days of yore before CGI and enter the wonder-filled world of Special Effects legend Ray Harryhausen! I’ve covered some of Harryhausen’s fantastic work before (ONE MILLION YEARS BC EARTH VS THE FLYING SAUCERS THE VALLEY OF GWANGI ), and most of you regular readers know of my affection for his stop-motion wizardry. So without further ado, let’s dive right into IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA.

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An atomic submarine picks up a mysterious large object on its sonar. The sub’s hit hard, and radiation is detected in the surrounding area. The damaged sub is taken to Pearl Harbor for repairs, and a substance found on it is determined to be from a “living creature” by eminent scientist Dr. John Carter (Donald Curtis) and beautiful marine biologist Prof. Leslie Joyce (Faith Domergue ). Sub Commander Pete Matthews (Kenneth Tobey ) and Leslie immediately butt heads, which means they’re going to hook up before it’s all over. But let’s face facts, no one cares about the romantic subplot, we’re here for the monster, determined to be a gigantic octopus!

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Ocky (as I’ve taken to refer to him) has been disturbed by H-Bomb tests in the Pacific, and his radioactivity has caused the fish he usually feeds on to flee, so now Ocky is going after larger prey. He attacks a tramp steamer and eats everyone but a small raft of survivors, who confirm Leslie’s theory. The U.S. Navy goes out in full force hunting for Ocky, who eats a deputy sheriff off the coast of Oregon. The entire Pacific Coast is shut down, as Ocky makes his way to San Francisco, wreaking havoc at the Golden Gate Bridge. The fabled bridge has been wired with electricity to shock the beast, and Pete and Dr. Carter board the sub with a special jet-propelled torpedo to launch into Ocky’s brain. Meanwhile, Ocky’s on the loose in the Market Street area, causing destruction, snatching a helicopter out of the sky, and allowing the filmmakers to add plenty of shots of panicked citizens running down the streets of San Francisco!

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Army flamethrowers drive Ocky back to the sea, and our intrepid heroes launch their super-duper torpedo. But Ocky catches the sub in it’s six-armed grip- that’s right, el cheapo executive producer Sam Katzman held the budget reins so tight, it only allowed Harryhausen to animate six octopus arms! Anyway, Pete scubas out and uses a harpoon gun to shoot plastique explosives at Ocky, but isn’t successful, so Dr. Carter bravely does the deed, hitting Ocky square in his octopus eyeball and blowing his head off, making the Pacific Coast safe for surfers once again!

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Ocky’s stop-motion scenes of destruction are exciting, but there’s only so much you can do with a giant octopus. The monster in our main attraction is another story. 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH begins with a spacecraft crash-landing off the coast of Sicily. Some brave fisherman (with bad Italian acc-a-centas) board and find two humans still alive. They pull them off before the ship sinks, and little, annoying Pepe (played by future VEGA$ co-star Bart Braverman) is sent to get help from a visiting doctor (Frank Puglia ) , but Dr. Leonardo is only a zoologist, so he sends his med student granddaughter Marisa (Joan Taylor) to attend the surviving crewmen. One dies, but Col. Bob Calder (William Hopper, PERRY MASON’s Paul Drake) demands to speak to his superiors, butting heads with Marisa in the process (and you already know what that means!). Meanwhile, enterprising Pepe finds a capsule loaded with a mysterious, jellylike substance, so he sells it to Leonardo for 200 lira (so he can buy a “Texas cowboy hat”!).

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The jelly hatches a tiny, strange-looking creature, so Leonardo and Marisa put it in a cage with plans to take it to the Rome Zoo for study. But next morning the thing has grown larger, and escapes while in transit. Annoying Pepe tells Air Force brass he sold the stuff in the capsule to Leonardo, and they track him down. Seems that spacecraft was a secret expedition to Venus, and the creature in question is a Ymir (though it’s never called that in the film).

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The Ymir wanders the countryside scaring horses and sheep, coming across some sulfur in a barn, which happens to be the Ymir’s favorite food. While snacking, Ymir is attacked by a dog… bye, bye dog! The local farmer stabs it with a pitchfork, and Ymir attacks him! This pisses off the local Commissario, who no longer wishes to cooperate with the Americans and wants Ymir dead. The Italian higher-ups give Calder one last chance to capture Ymir, and they do, using a net and zapping poor Ymir into unconsciousness with high voltage.

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Ymir (who’s now grown to gigantic proportions!) is kept sedated by electricity and studied at the Rome Zoo. The Air Force holds a press conference and allows three reporters to view the beast. When an accident short-circuits the electricity, Ymir breaks free from his bondage, and engages in a titanic battle with a zoo elephant. Ymir goes on a rampage through the streets of Rome wreaking havoc, and you guessed it, we get shots of panicked citizens fleeing for their lives! The armed forces can’t stop Ymir as it heads to the Colosseum, where bazookas finally take it down, as it hangs on for dear life before plunging to its demise.

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The Ymir is Harryhausen’s most iconic (and lifelike) creation. Like Frankenstein’s Monster and King Kong before it, the Ymir is a frightened and misunderstood creature  trapped in a world it never made. The scene where police are tracking down Ymir with dogs is reminiscent of an old Universal horror; all that’s missing are the torches and pitchforks. Ymir definitely gets the viewers to sympathize with its plight, and I felt sorry to see the poor beast persecuted to its inevitable doom.

20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH is my favorite of the two, and I consider it Harryhausen’s masterpiece. IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA is fun, but the story of the Ymir still resonates, and is a certified science-fiction classic. See them both and enjoy the genius of Ray Harryhausen!

Creature Double Feature: THE BLACK SCORPION (1957) and THE KILLER SHREWS (1959)

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Back in the glory days of local television, Boston’s WLVI-TV (Channel 56) ran a Saturday afternoon movie series titled “Creature Double Feature”. It was a huge ratings hit during the 1970’s, introducing young viewers to the BEM (bug-eyed monsters) movies of the past. Let’s return now to those halcyon days of yesterday with a look at two sci-fi flicks from the fabulous 50’s.

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First up is THE BLACK SCORPION, a 1957 giant monster movie from Warner Brothers. This low-budget saga starts off with stock footage of volcanos erupting and earthquakes a-quaking, and a hyperbolic narrator expounding on natural disasters threatening Mexico. Two brawny geologists, Hank and Artur, investigate the devastation. While out scouting they run into beautiful rancher Teresa Alvarez, whose vaqueros have fled the hacienda in fear. After getting them back on the ranch, our scientists attend an autopsy of a dead Mexican cop (the doctor performing the autopsy looks like he should be starring in his own series of Mexican horror flicks!). The result is “organic poisoning”, and a giant footprint has been found at the scene of the crime.

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While scientist Hank and Teresa get cozy, scientist Artur has found a fossil with a live scorpion embedded inside (this particular scorpion squeaks like a mouse for no apparent reason). Teresa gets a call from the telephone lineman repairing the lines, and at this point they’re coincidentally attacked by a giant black scorpion! The scorpion attacks the village, causing the villagers to flee in panic (one of them exclaims “It’s a giant scorpion!”, just to make things clear). Experts led by Dr. Velasco believe the Giant Scorp was released by the recent upheavals (again, in case you weren’t sure). Hank and Artur , the Mexican Army (well, one truckload), and the vaqueros seek the Giant Scorps’ lair, and the two geologists are lowered by crane into a crevice, only to discover a whole host of Giant Scorps! A Giant Scorp grabs their cage, and they have to escape by being pulled up on the cable (including little Juanito, who stowed away with the scientists… and the less said about this obnoxious little brat the better!).

Explosives are used to seal off the Giant Scorps, and the threat to humanity is over. Not quite- it seems another Giant Scorp found a way out, and is threatening Mexico City! This is the point where I lost interest in THE BLACK SCORPION, and will spare you the details. There’s far too much talking and standing around, and it’s 88 minute running time seems to go on forever.  Despite having sci-fi stalwarts Richard Denning (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) and Mara Corday (TARANTULA) as stars, and fine special effects from Willis O’Brien (except when the filmmakers choose to use the Bert I. Gordon superimposition method in some scenes), the movie drags on and on, and is one of the lesser giant monster movies of the 50’s. One viewing of this turkey was more than enough for me, with only O’Brien’s special effects of interest.

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Next is THE KILLER SHREWS, and despite having an even lower budget, this film is far more enjoyable. Captain Thorne Sherman (James Best of THE DUKES OF HAZZARD) and his first mate Rook arrive at an island to drop off supplies. They’re greeted by Dr. Cragis (Baruch Lumet, father of director Sidney), his daughter Ann (Miss Sweden 1956 Ingrid Goude), assistant Dr. Baines (pirate radio king Gordon McLendon), Ann’s ex-fiancé Jerry (Ken Curtis, GUNSMOKE’s Festus), and servant Mario. A hurricane is brewing and Thorne and Rook are planning on spending the night, despite protests from the Cragis bunch. It seems they’ve been monkeying around with some sort of formula on shrews, little rat-like creatures who are basically eating machines. The experiments were designed to study the effects of overpopulation, or so they say. Drunken, irresponsible Jerry did something stupid, and now the island is overrun with vicious, insatiable Killer Shrews the size of dogs. And not those ratty little teacup pooches either, but dogs the size of German Shepherds!

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The Killer Shrews are actually dogs made up to look like monstrous shrews, with matted fur and long, sharp teeth! They’re pretty laughable, especially in close-up, when puppet headed Killer Shrews stand in for the dogs. The dark lighting and nighttime exterior shots almost but not quite help suspend belief, but the dog/shrews are just too ludicrous. Anyway, Rook gets attacked and killed, then Thorne and the gang are trapped in the house while 200-300 Killer Shrews try to dig their way inside. At least theoretically; there’s really only about six dogs/shrews made up for the movie, but 200-300 sounds far more ominous.  Oh, and the Killer Shrews are rabid, to boot- one bite from their venomous fangs and its adios amigo!

Yes it sounds incredibly cheezy, and it is, but THE KILLER SHREWS has a certain lunatic energy to it that makes it exciting to watch, unlike the dull BLACK SCORPION. Actors Curtis and McLendon produced this made-in-Dallas film simultaneously with another giant monster flick, THE GIANT GILA MONSTER. Both films were directed by Ray Kellogg, former special effects wizard at 20th Century-Fox. Kellogg also worked as second-unit director on many films, and co-directed the 1968 war drama THE GREEN BERETS with its star John Wayne.

Let’s end this look back at sci-fi of yesteryear with the credits for Channel 56’s late, lamented “Creature Double Feature”, with music by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. (and if you’d like to see more of these sci-fi double-feature posts, let me know in the comments section!):