Friday 1 July 2011

Village of the Giants (1965)

Director: Bert I Gordon
Stars: Tommy Kirk, Johnny Crawford and Ronny Howard

Bert I Gordon introduced giants to the late fifties monster movies with The Cyclops, then made them a staple with The Amazing Colossal Man and its sequel, War of the Colossal Beast. Every other filmmaker in the country followed suit, or at least it felt like they did, but he took a break for a while, from human giants at least, until 1965's Village of the Giants, a bizarre mashup of genres that mixed monster movies with beach movies, Disney movies and juvenile delinquent movies. It was loosely based on the H G Wells novel Food of the Gods, which Gordon adapted a little more faithfully in 1976. This version is so loose that Wells would probably have turned in his grave. As it turns out, it's a terrible picture, even by Mr BIG's usual standards, but the cast is one to pay attention to. Some are still notably recognisable today but back in 1965 many were household names which was, of course, entirely the point.

The story comes from two directions: the gang of rebellious youths and the child prodigy. The gang arrive by crashing their car into a telephone pole in the rain. So dangerous that they react by climbing out and boogieing on down in the mud while getting drenched, these four girls and four boys end up in one huge mud bath. They're led by Beau Bridges as Freddie, a particularly insipid and pasty white gang leader, certainly no competition for Marlon Brando or James Dean but not really in the same league as Mugs from the East Side Kids either. A downed street sign gives him the idea to go torment folks in Hainesville, only three miles away, a peaceful town in which our leads, Mike and Nancy, smooch away the night on the couch, attempting to ignore the kid cooking up chemistry experiments in his basement lab. He's Little Ronny Howard, back in his days as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show, subtly named Genius and he's the real foil for Freddie.

Names are hardly a strong point for this picture. One explosion later and Genius invents Goo, a bubbly red concoction that the cat laps up and grows to humungous size in no time at all. This is why Tommy Kirk plays Mike, because he'd dealt with eccentric scientific wizards for Disney in The AbsentMinded Professor and its sequel Son of Flubber earlier in the decade, when he was a child actor. He's supposed to be the film's star but he's outshone by a giant cat, a giant dog and especially by a giant pair of ducks that shake their tail feathers at the local hop after he feeds them Goo. He's a poor leading man, reminiscent of Wil Wheaton after he lost his juvenile charm but before he gained his adult character. Thus he proudly announces to the town that they're his ducks and he has a million dollar secret. Yeah, what a great idea that was! At least his integrity is up to shrugging off attempts by one of Freddie's girls to seduce it out of him.

The hop is where everyone first meets, because there's dancing every two pages in this script and Mr BIG hired the Beau Brummels to play live for these kids. They get two songs and continue playing even when the ducks take over the floor. That's how grounded in reality this picture is. No wonder Freddie's hooligans say things like, 'This place is really groovy.' To be fair, they're talking about the local theatre, which is off season and closed, but which conveniently leaves a host of costumes and props around for them to play with. I'm sure you won't be too surprised to find that as the local youth parties on down in the square with Mike's giant ducks skewered and cooked for them, Freddie and his gang break into Genius's basement lab, obtain some Goo and dare each other into growing to giant size and becoming the monsters in this monster movie. Unfortunately they're about as monstrous as they are delinquent, which is to say not very.
Village of the Giants is purest exploitation, as if Genius had thrown everything that kids dug at the time into a couple of test tubes and brewed up a single potion to make them all deliriously happy. Unfortunately it turns out to be an unholy mess of genres, as incoherent and overdone as any three of AIP's beach movies put together, with even more booty shaking and safe for work exposed flesh. Beyond the Beau Brummels, Mike Clifford croons a number and Freddy Cannon gets to perform a song in his cardigan. Something for everyone, remember? The biggest musical name though is Toni Basil, not as a performer but as the film's choreographer and an extra who doesn't say much but may get more screen time than anyone else. She's a dancer at the hop, shimmying at scary speed in a cage and she's a dancing distraction at a key point in the story. She's unimaginatively named Red because she spends most of the film in a bikini and a red wig.

In some ways it outdoes each of the genres it steals from, but not in any satisfying way. On the beach movie front, it has a bevy of girls who are highly pleasing to the eye, though Joy Harmon's extreme coppertone makes her look like she'd eaten something orange at Willy Wonka's. As a monster movie, it has a whole teen gang of giants, but they use their newfound dominance to demand that the sheriff bring them fried chicken and impose a curfew of 9.00pm for adults. As a gang movie it's pathetic, Freddie and his followers settling for being happy that nobody will ask for their IDs or they won't get hit by their fathers any more. They have as much imagination as the folks who named the characters. Only on the Disney movie front does it really satisfy, as it maintains the Disney feel but adds the sort of edge that Disney wouldn't dare to dream of. OK, that just means double entendres, switchblades and giant cleavage, but it's something.

Anyone paying attention can see so many opportunities for that edge to be edgier. For instance, the gang grow to giant size but their clothes don't. This was 1965 so we were hardly going to get slasher style booby shots, but the opportunity to enhance the sexual tension was wasted. Having them fashion clothes out of the theatre curtains makes sense, but a giant Beau Bridges in a red toga with tassels doesn't help us buy into his supposed toughness. The most memorable scene is when giant Merrie picks up normal sized Horsey (yeah, Horsey) and dangles him from her bra. That made some of the posters, but its promise isn't met. Similarly, there's one potentially scary scene, with a giant spider in a basement, but it's the only one and it's drained of menace by bad effects and poor editing. The gang of giants are drained of menace too, not least by having them appear in slow motion in every scene. The townsfolk just look at them for the most part.

The effects could have been much better but they could have been a lot worse too. Mostly they hinder the film because Gordon was obviously aware of the limitations. For instance, the normal size folks take down Freddie at one point with the aid of a collection of hot rods and ropes, but they do so by driving around a couple of motionless poles made up to look like his legs. What this means is that Beau Bridges has to stand there like a moron, flailing around a little in slow motion, while he's taken down because it's the only way the logistics could work. The last fight scene has the same problem, a David vs Goliath battle with sling vs pipe, because the budget didn't allow for effects capable enough for Kirk and Bridges to really go at it. As we notice this though, we also realise that it wouldn't have helped. Having the money to do it right wouldn't have made the slightest difference, because the biggest flaw is the writing and it's a fatal flaw.

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