Wednesday 26 May 2010

The Giant Gila Monster (1959)

Director: Ray Kellogg
Stars: Don Sullivan, Fred Graham and Lisa Simone
I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

One of two features produced back to back in 1959 by an independent production company in Texas called Hollywood Pictures Corporation, such a generic name that it was the second such company, this was the half that didn't even get the title right. At least The Killer Shrews starred a bunch of killer shrews, along with James Best from The Dukes of Hazzard, but this one just has a Mexican beaded lizard. Perhaps the filmmakers felt that The Giant Gila Monster made for a better title, even though most of the people watching couldn't pronounce it properly. It has two selling points today, beyond being a bad but fun film. Firstly, the font used on the promotional posters, though not on the title card, is the one memorably borrowed by Glenn Danzig for his bands The Misfits, Samhain and Danzig. Secondly, this is a monster movie with a real monster, because instead of putting a fake monster into real sets they put a real monster into fake sets.

The film starts as it means to go on, setting us up to believe something exotic only to show us the banal reality of it. 'In an enormity of the West,' the narrator tells us, 'there are still vast and virtually unexplored regions, bleak and desolate, where no human ever goes and no life is ever seen.' In other words, Lover's Lane. Yes, what is described here as 'lonely areas of impenetrable forest and dark shadows' is where hep cats go to park their cars and rub cheeks, because they're well behaved hep cats. Nice kids in 1959 were apparently chaste enough not to progress quite so far as kissing. They're so nice that the whole base metaphor hasn't even arisen yet because they haven't even got into the stadium. These two will never get there either because the giant gila monster nudges them off the ridge and they tumble to their doom far below. It's a powerful monster too because it can teleport right down to crush them with its giant gila monster foot.

That's it for suspense too because while the narrator can happily waffle on with lines like, 'How large the dreaded gila monster grows, no man can say,' we've just watched a pretty frickin' huge foot crush a car, in a shot that gets repeated a few times throughout the movie because it may just have eaten up the entire effects budget. Everything else is a real Mexican beaded lizard crawling over miniature cars, sticking its head through miniature barns and causing miniature train crashes. To be honest, it's more effective than some guy in a rubber suit or a bad attempt to cobble something together out of papier-mâché, but it means the immediacy of having the monster on the same screen as the human characters is missing. When the creature that gives its name to the movie obviously can't join the same scene as its projected victims, it would seem to be fair for them to not feel particularly threatened by it.

The human characters are typical American teenagers and they inhabit a typical teenage world, though they're all a little older than teenagers. They're into cars, girls and dancing, though the order of importance varies throughout the film. We first find them in someone's kitchen doing the jive or the jitterbug or some such, waiting for Chase Winstead and his French girlfriend to show up so they can hit the drive in. At least, it looks like a kitchen but it turns out to be a soda fountain where you just know they're going to greet each other with 'Hey gang!' and call the owner 'Old Man'. They call Old Man Harris 'Old Man' too when he drives up in his Model A but he's the stereotypical old codger who is always able to find a drink somewhere, even while driving his classic car. Perhaps this soda fountain is the real explanation behind the giant gila monster because the whole place is magic: everyone arrives out front but walks in the back.

Chase Winstead is a guy, even though the name suggests a lesbian at a posh boarding school, and he's really what this entire movie is about. Sure, there's a giant gila monster in it, although it's a regular size Mexican beaded lizard, but it's really The Chase Winstead Show. Think of him like the Fonz if the Fonz was played by a really tall Wil Wheaton. I'd say David Schwimmer given that he's the right height but at least Wheaton has charisma, although it's hard to imagine either of them as the lead in an action movie. Don Sullivan had a busy 1959, churning out no less than five of his seven movies in that year, but amazingly this might just be the best of them. Starting with Teenage Zombies for Jerry Warren, he worked through The Monster of Piedras Blancas and Curse of the Undead before finding himself here with the opportunity to haul out his ukelele and save the day. In fact he saves everything given that he's the only capable character there is.
Ostensibly, Chase is a mechanic. He's working through a correspondence course in engineering and is entirely incapable of holding a conversation that doesn't involve cars at some point. He can't even look at a car without aching to soup it up or customise it or turn it into a bomb, which apparently meant something rather different in 1959 than today. He even wants Sheriff Jeff to leave his brand new patrol car with him so he can soup that up and 'turn it into a slingshot that'll catch anybody.' The reason this is rather bizarre is that Chase is the leader of the local juvenile delinquents, although they're not particularly juvenile and not particularly delinquent compared to your average high school kid today. Mr Wheeler, who is wealthy enough to be the town prick and not care, knows he's behind everything from the assassination of JFK to the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, so naturally blames him for the disappearance of his son Pat.

Pat Wheeler was the cheek rubbing first victim of the giant gila monster, a fate that to be fair isn't too high up the list of possible reasons why your son doesn't come home one night. The sheriff asks him if he believes his son had eloped with Liz Humphries, given that they've been going steady for a year but Mr Wheeler doesn't see that as any more believable, even though the static electricity generated by a year's worth of cheek rubbing is surely enough sexual energy to power the town. 'If you ask me, it's that Chase Winstead,' he says, out of the blue. 'He's older than the others, sets them all wrong. Why, he's got more influence on Pat than I have.' The real reason that he's mentioned here is that every scene is an establishing scene for Chase, who can do no wrong. In fact you could apply any Chuck Norris joke you like to Chase Winstead, because the way he's painted in this fim suggests that they may be true.

Here Sheriff Jeff hauls out the sympathy card, pointing out that Chase has taken care of his mother and sister ever since his father died on one of Wheeler's drill rigs, and while we don't know it yet his sister is crippled too. He keeps all the kids in line. He knows better than his boss how to handle nitroglycerin. He can leap tall buildings in a single bound. He's Chase! Chase Winstead! Oh and the nitro is really in the story, as Mr Compton brings it back to the garage for Chase to get safely into the shed. Let's take a wild stab in the dark as to what's going to take out the monster at the end of the picture. You can have three guesses and the last two don't count. Chase even has the phone wired so he can hear the police and ambulance calls, because he runs the local tow truck and if he knows that there's a Pontiac run off the road twelve miles out of town at the same time as the law, he can beat them there. He's an enterprising soul for sure.

All these talking scenes are capable, both in writing and delivery, but there's no soul to anything. These aren't name actors, the delightfully named Shug Fisher being the best known of the bunch as Old Man Harris. He teamed up with Roy Rogers and sang with the western group Sons of the Pioneers before finding a regular slot on The Beverly Hillbillies and in this cast that makes him a celebrity. This is the sort of film down home enough to have a cast member by the name of Stormy Meadows and have her not turn out to be a porn star. There is one other name that at least some would recognise: Ken Knox who plays a disc jockey called Horatio Alger 'Steamroller' Smith. This can't have been much of a stretch for him, given that he was really a DJ rather than an actor, one who worked on Texan radio stations owned by Gordon McLendon, the uncredited executive producer of the film who managed to get various family members into the picture too.

Somehow I don't imagine Knox got to use lines on the air like, 'There was this big pink and black thing drove right in front of me. It had stripes this wide!' Here though he's not just a DJ, he's also a drunk driver in a tux who drives into the ditch after speeding past Chase's tow truck. Perhaps Chase is a jinx of all trades, given that everything that happens seems to involve him some way or another. I was waiting for him to be the link between the victims, given that the sheriff gives him parts off all the cars that begin to turn up mysteriously sheared off the road at right angles. First it's headlights, later it's tyres, none of which are needed for evidence, even when the cars are stolen. Chase discovers the suitcase left behind by the last hitchhiker to get crushed and I'm surprised the sheriff doesn't let him have that too. It all feels like hero worship as if Sheriff Jeff knows that Chase is going to turn into Superman but doesn't have the heart to tell him yet.
We can believe it, given that every scene seems to add another talent to this man's repertoire. Is there nothing he can't do? He's a singer as we discover along with Smith when he wakes up in the morning. Chase has hooked him up onto the back of the tow truck and taken him home, letting him sleep it off on a cot in the shop, or at least as much as he can with Chase singing up a storm while he hammers dents out of the bodywork in the next room. He's modest, charging this captive audience two bucks for the tow and upping it to three under pressure. Smith leaves him two twenties. After Wheeler persuades Sheriff Jeff to do a careful search of the vast desolate wilderness that comprises his jurisdiction, these lowlife delinquents chip in to help and you'll be stunned to find that it's Chase who finds the empty car, down by the reservoir by Williams Wash.

Soon it all escalates so fast that we find we can't really keep up. Chase's crippled little sister gets her leg braces and he whips out his ukelele to wax calypso for her. This guy is awesome. He runs a gang like Marlon Brando. He can fix anything just like The A-Team. He looks after his family like he's one of the Waltons. He can handle explosives like he's one of The Dirty Dozen. He has international mystique, landing a French girlfriend in a town that probably doesn't know there's anything east of the Mississippi. The sheriff thinks the sun shines out of his back end and there's a lot of sun in Texas. Now he can play calypso like Harry Belafonte too. You tell me that the Fonz wasn't based on Chase Winstead, such a virtuoso of cool that half the town is content to bask in his very shadow and the other half got fed up of being one upped at everything that they left for Vegas to try better odds at success at the tables.

In case you'd forgotten, this isn't supposed to be The Chase Winstead Show, it's supposed to be a monster movie about a giant gila monster and that creature does keep popping back up every once in a while to wander aimlessly about and eventually it takes out a model bridge right in front of a model train. Fortunately for the plot there's a witness this time. Unfortunately it's Old Man Harris, who has been out drinking, driving and singing, though I'm not sure what order he'd rank that trio of activities. He turns tail to go tell the sheriff, who runs a really quiet office given that the screams we hear from the model passengers suggest a disaster on a scale this town can't comprehend. Nah, that's not his territory so the troopers will take care of it. Sheriff Jeff doesn't seem to have a deputy; he doesn't get worked up about anything, let alone the mystery of these empty cars and strange tracks; but he rings up the library for a book on reptiles anyway.

Well, not quite. You know who he rings? That's right, he rings up Chase Winstead, who wanders over to hear his ideas about pituitary glands and babies in the Ukraine and giant gila monsters and spark memories about pink and black stripes. Suddenly everything makes sense and maybe it could be worth talking to DJ Steamroller Smith again. If only the next scene was going to be at a sock hop that Steamroller is hosting and Chase is singing at. Oh, it is! How fortunate! Well, let's not bother. Let's ignore the terror and unholy death being rained down on the town for a while and stick to becoming the next big calypso star instead. After all the last couple of days have been so quiet and uneventful that Chase has found the time to cut a record for Steamroller to premiere in front of his friends and so spark his future as a big name recording artist. He even gets to sing at the sock hop too, but we start wondering about things that aren't there.

The song he sings has precisely one annoyingly catchy line that is repeated ad infinitum: 'The Lord said, 'Laugh, children, laugh'. The Lord said, 'Laugh, children, laugh'. The Lord said...' You get the picture. I initially wondered if he should really have sung, 'The Lord said, 'Holy crap, it's a giant gila monster',' because after utterly dismissing the possibility that it might crash the sock hop, it promptly crashes the sock hop, but then I changed my mind. Perhaps Chase knew, given that he has books on reptiles and stuff, that everyone's a critic and gila monsters really hate ukelele music. Maybe that's why he keeps repeating one line over and over again as a sort of mantra to charm the lizard into turning up and sticking his head through the side of the barn so everyone can panic in a rather restrained manner and Chase can go get his nitro. Somehow this film is so engagingly bad that I can't help trying to rationalise it, even though I fail utterly.

Perhaps he really does know that he's going to grow up to become Superman, thus explaining how sure he can be that he simply can't lose. He's Chase Frickin' Winstead, the man of this hour and every other. He's so confident that he heads back to the shop to pick up the nitro and, after failing to discourage Lisa about how dangerous it is and how there's enough of it to blow up half the town, promptly deposits it between her legs so he can drive like a maniac over a ploughed field and scare the living hell out of her. He's simply too cool to fail. That's a great message for a monster movie. To win out over overwhelming odds, just stay cool. The sheer power of Chase's awesomeness is enough to save the day. 'Only Hell could breed such an enormous beast,' runs the tagline for the movie. 'Only God could destroy it!' If so, then I guess that makes Chase God. Maybe this is a religious movie after all and the giant gila monster is Old Nick himself. The Giant Gila Monster as pathway to salvation. I like it.

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