Reviews of movies from my giant DVD tower, and more.
Released on June 25, 1959
Directed by Ray Kellogg
Written by Jay Simms, based on a story by Ray Kellogg
Cast: Don Sullivan, Fred Graham, Lisa Simone, Shug Fisher, Bob Thompson, Janice Stone, Ken Knox, Gay McLendon, Don Flournoy, Cecil Hunt, Stormy Meadows, Jan McLendon, Howard Ware, Desmond Doogh, Ken Curtis (voice)
Once again, I team up with Lindsey over at The Motion Pictures to bring you another of our patented Mini Cheese-athon reviews, this time for the 1959 lizard-on-the-loose horror classic The Giant Gila Monster. Since I’d never seen the film prior to this viewing, and my only exposure to it had come from a few photos I’d found on-line, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew it was low-budget and probably a bit silly, but taking into account the type of film it was, would it be fun to watch, or just plain bad? Or, to use the parlance of cheesy movie blogathons, would it be a slice of Roquefort, or a wedge of Limburger?
As the film opens, a stern narrator warns us that, in the enormity of the West, there are still unexplored regions, bleak and desolate, where no human ever goes, and no life is ever seen. It is in these lonely areas of impenetrable forest and dark shadows that the Gila monster still lives. How large the dreaded Gila monster grows, no man can say. Well, except for maybe that man sitting in a car with his date, parked in that lonely area of impenetrable forest, where apparently the occasional human does go, to snuggle up and listen to some swinging ’50s jazz.
Until moments later, when a creature of undefinable proportions swipes at the car with its claw and sends the vehicle tumbling down a ravine, killing its occupants, who then become—we assume—the creature’s lunch. Soon the couple’s hot-rodding teenage friends realize they’re missing, and it’s not long before the small-town sheriff is on the case, enlisting the help of one of the teens, a clean-cut high schooler named Chase. After more random citizens mysteriously disappear, Chase and the sheriff do some detective work, put two and two together, and discover that there is indeed a mutant reptile on the loose…and a carnivorous one at that.
For as much grief as this film seems to get, I really didn’t think it was all that bad, considering its subject matter, its meager budget, and its ‘let’s get some friends together and make a movie’ mentality. Though most of the actors were obviously non-professional, I thought both Don Sullivan (as Chase, looking at times like a young Clint Eastwood) and Fred Graham (as the sheriff) were quite natural in their roles, and did a fine job overall. I especially enjoyed watching Chase and his interactions with family and friends, and how he handled the many tough situations thrown his way. He definitely earned his status as the movie’s go-to guy, and eventual hero.
In fact, with so many human interest stories going on, there really wasn’t much room for the film’s title character; like Hitchcock’s ‘MacGuffin’, the gila monster was essential to the plot, but not necessarily what the screenplay focused on. I began to lose interest in the mondo-lizard aspect of the story almost immediately, and found myself more involved with the teens: their social lives, their romances, their roadsters and jalopies, and their big dance party inside a barn. And with Chase, I wanted to know more about his job at the auto shop, and his French foreign exchange student girlfriend, and his younger sister Missy, who wore leg braces. Strange as it may seem, I enjoyed the drama—and watching these good kids doing good things—more than I did the sci-fi horror.
But don’t worry; as you would expect from a 1950’s giant gila monster movie, there were plenty of cheesy, low-budget moments to counterbalance my praise. Surprisingly, the lizard was real and not a rubber stand-in, but since it never shared the screen with any of the actors, you never got a sense of scale (well, HO scale maybe, when it attacked a model train) or danger whenever it appeared on-camera. And the continuity errors! Boom mike shadows, crew reflected in windows, freight trains suddenly becoming passenger trains…the usual for such low-value fare, it seems. And though the payoff wasn’t bad—think The Wages of Fear with hot rods—and was actually kind of thrilling, no matter how many times I replayed the scene, I still had to wonder: did they really destroy an actual beaded lizard for the finale?
I’m sure most people will say The Giant Gila Monster is 74 minutes of pure B-movie hokum, but for me it was entertaining hokum, and I appreciated the meaningful side stories that played out alongside the creature-feature silliness. Normally I give these types of films a rating between zero and three, but I’m going to award this one a solid four; I liked the teenagers, I enjoyed the sincere and goofy situations, and I was impressed with what the filmmakers did with what appeared to be a $20 budget. Now, if the film had only concentrated on a teen storyline—a local stock car race perhaps, or a mystery involving that missing couple—and jettisoned the monster angle, we might’ve had something more than just fodder for Joel and the gang at MST3K. (4/10)