Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Love & Peace (2015)


As an outsider to a given country's popular culture, it's easy to see some unusual trends when you do dip your toes into said culture. One of the stranger aspects I've encountered in the Japanese movies and television shows that I've actually seen is the story line of someone--usually a child--having a beloved pet turtle that everyone around them conspires to force them to get rid of, particularly parents and authority figures.

The Gamera series sees this happen twice  in the original series alone, in Gamera The Giant Monster and Gamera The Super Monster, and there's the truly inexplicable "Grow Up, Little Turtle!" episode of Ultra Q. Naturally, Sion Sono's Love & Peace is another film that follows this bizarre pattern, though it does so in a way that is far closer to a feature-length Ultra Q episode than a Gamera film.

However, even that doesn't describe this film adequately. This is a rock and roll romantic fairy tale with living toys and a kaiju-sized turtle at its heart.

It's also disturbingly fitting that I saw this film the day that David Bowie passed away.
Ryoichi Suzuki (Hiroki Hasegawa) is a loser. Once upon a time, he was an aspiring musician, but nobody came to his concerts. It's now the summer of 2015 and he has become a clerk at a company that sells parts for musical instruments. (The compnay has the English word "Piece" in its name, which can only be intentional) Everybody laughs at Ryoichi--his coworkers, fellow commuters, and even the talking heads on television take time out from talking about the 2020 Olympics in Japan to point and laugh at him or interview people on the street about how much of a loser he is.

Even automatic doors and elevators think Ryoichi is beneath contempt. The only person or object that doesn't mock him mercilessly is his mousy coworker, Yuko Terajima (Kumiko Aso). One day, when Ryoichi is doubled over from stomach pain, Yuko not only pulls off the "Hazardous Waste" sign a coworker stuck to his back, but offers him a blister pack of pink pills to ease his stomach. Ryoichi doesn't take them, but instead keeps them as a treasure--one of the only forms of affection he has received in ages.

Exchanging Pepto-Bismol is probably how most office romances start, really.
However, that's all going to change in a way that Ryoichi--and everyone around him--could not possibly see coming. One day, while eating lunch alone on a rooftop, Ryoichi sees a strange man selling little turtles out of a dingy little tank and goes to investigate. Upon sighting an adorable, smiley turtle that looks up at him with what seems to be a smile, Ryoichi buys it on the spot.

"And when you grow to 99 centimeters, you'll take me to the dragon's palace, right?"
Taking the turtle home, Ryoichi tries to think of a name for it while playing his guitar for the turtl'es amusment--and then overhears the talking heads on TV going into the street and asking if anyone knows what "pikadon" is any more. Most think it sounds like a kaiju, but after Ryoichi decides that it's a perfect name for his turtle, the hostess explains that it is a reference to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki--"pika" for the brilliant light of the atomic explosion and "don" for the booming sound it created.

Well, it's as good a name as any for a turtle and Pikadon seems to like it. Ryoichi shows Pikadon the pills Yuko gave him, explaining that they're his treasure--and then he gets a strange idea and places the turtle on the board for the game of Life. To his delight, Pikadon takes him to fame and fortune as he follows the game board--only to decide on utter destitution at the last fork in the road. Undeterred, Ryoichi decides to build a miniature city around a progression of goals that leads to the big finale, playing a concert at the new Nippon Stadium. He places Pikadon on the goals, shouting, "Kaiju Pikadon," as the little turtle follows the path all the way to the edge of the stadium. Truly, Ryoichi has found the key to his success in Pikadon.

I have no idea if any of the band posters in his apartment are real, but I kinda want to listen to The Fuck Bombers.

Unfortunately, Ryoichi's happiness and success in life are about to take a dive. After several days of happiness, during which even his neighbor notices that he and the turtle are inseparable, Ryoichi decides to bring his pet to the office in his pocket. All seems to be starting off promisingly enough, since with Pikadon with him even the doors and elevators seem to acknowledge Ryoichi. However, he doesn't hide the turtle well enough and Yuko sees Pikadon.

Now, Yuko thinks nothing of it, of course. She's a good person, it's a cute turtle, and as far as she's concerned it's nice that Ryoichi has a pet. However, Ryoichi's tormentors in the office realize she's noticing something at Ryoichi's desk and they promptly begin taunting him mercilessly, even his boss. In a panic, Ryoichi flees to a public bathroom and tosses Pikadon into a toilet--and flushes him away. He instantly regrets it, and is haunted by that last look on the turtle's face, but it's too late.

Ryoichi wanders the streets in grief. He see the turtle vendor and falls to his knees, screaming for forgiveness when the man innocently asks how his turtle is doing. Worse, Ryoichi sees a long-haired guitarist (Eita Okuno) performing on the street and tearfully accosts the confused man when he sees that the guitar's base depicts three elephants atop a turtle that looks a lot like Pikadon.

And where is Pikadon in all this? Well, I doubt you'd ever guess this, but the little turtle has just washed up into a little sewer alcove that is home to some unique denizens. No, they aren't also turtles. Rather, Pikadon makes the acquaintance of an animate, talking doll named Maria (Shoko Nakigawa), a talking plush cat named Sulkie (Inuko Inuyama), and a talking robot named PC-300 (Gen Hoshino). The three living toys share their lair with an entire menagerie of other animate toys, as well as talking dogs, cats, and other animals. They all eagerly greet their new friend, but realize he can't speak yet. However, Papa (Toshiyuki Nishida) can fix that.

No, he's not this film's version of Fagin, but now I kind of wish he was.
Papa is a mysterious, frequently drunk old man who has the ability to make magical candies that can bestow speech upon animals and life upon inanimate objects. Pikadon wasn't the only new arrival, since there was also another toy robot--the others lament that it was smashed beyond repair, but Papa is determined to fix it. It takes him most of the day, but before he's ready to sleep the toys and animals beg him to give Pikadon the talking candy. Papa finally relents and feeds a glowing orb to Pikadon before heading to bed, since it will take until the morning for it to take effect.

The Spice is life.
Yet, it doesn't take long for a different effect to take hold. While mourning for his lost Pikadon, Ryoichi begins strumming on his guitar--and suddenly, he begins to have the notes to a song in the lost turtle's honor. Pikadon begins to glow strangely, as Ryoichi wanders the streets and begins to see lyrics for the song appear in the signs around him. Soon, he has a full song written--and in the morning, Papa and the others awake to find that Pikadon has grown into a dog-sized turtle that contently "la la la"s the melody of Ryoichi's song.

Pikadon is a rare beast--the intentionally cute kaiju that is actually cute.
Papa is despondent, for he realizes he mixed up and gave Pikadon a "Wish Candy." The others are furious and jealous when they realize that Papa had such a thing and never shared it. But Papa explains to the them the trouble with wishes--if he gave them all wishes, wouldn't they just go right back to the masters who abandoned them? And wouldn't they gladly grant the wishes of said masters, too? It would never end, Papa explains, for none of them understand how greedy humans can be. Look at Pikadon--if he's already grown so big, who knows how big he will become by the time his master's wishes are all granted?

Well, Papa is right, because Pikadon's wish-granting is just beginning. While mourning on the street, Ryoichi gets recognized by the guitarist, who turns out to belong to a band called Revolution Q (Dai Hasegawa as the bass player, Yukimasa Tanimoto as the drummer, and Izumi on keyboards). The band are driving around in their van when the guitarist spots Ryoichi and they effectively kidnap him and take him to a park where they're playing a gig. The guitarist riles the crowd up by telling them how insane Ryoichi goes whenever he sees his guitar, which represents how ancient people viewed the world.

As part of the lark, the guitarist puts the confused and weeping Ryoichi up to the mic and gives him a guitar and tells him to play a song for the audience. Well, Ryoichi goes ahead and plays the song and the crowd eats it up--and among that crowd is a record producer (Miyuki Matsuda), who was scouting Revolution Q, but she's found what she really wants in Ryoichi.

Before Ryoichi knows what hit him, he's being ushered to a recording studio to meet with that producer as well as a manager (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) and being told that he is going to be "Wild Ryo," the front man for Revolution Q. Then the producer says she loves the anti-war, call for peace message of his song--but wouldn't it be better if it was called "Love & Peace" instead of "Pikadon"? Ryo's barely processed that when the manager tells him that not only should he quit his job, but by the end of the year he should announce he's going solo from Revolution Q.

Ryo needs to sleep on it, so the manager happily shows him that they've painstakingly recreated his dingy little apartment as a compartment in the nice waterfront flat he now has, courtesy of the record company. (The reveal is a great exchange, where the manager first says they moved it all and then laughs and admits they actually just paid a lot of money to recreate it from scratch) Well, the next morning Ryo gets a rude call from his boss for being late, sees that he did not dream his sudden success, and decides he will go ahead and be Wild Ryo after all. We don't actually see him quit, but we do see him offering flyers to his incredulous former colleagues--and a stunned Yuko,

"Actually, all my boyfriends have been rockstars. I just seem to be the type they go for."
Well, "Love & Peace" is a hit, all right. It rockets to the top of the charts and even Pikadon and his new friends hear it in their lair, and they even sense that the song is meant for the turtle. But Papa was right about the way wishes pile up--because soon Wild Ryo needs a follow-up hit and Pikadon has to play his muse again. And wouldn't you know it, playing the muse means he gets even bigger...

"Yes, it's adorable, but I still think maybe we should run!"
I had no real idea what to expect of Love & Peace going in, even based on the strange promotional materials for it. I knew it would be odd and I knew it would be silly, but I didn't expect just how odd and silly--and I certainly didn't expect it to be so moving. You might be a bit confused as to what I'm referring to, since I deliberately only touched on it briefly in my synopsis, but I'm referring to the B-Plot about the toys in the sewer.

While the film is having a lot of fun with a magic turtle and luckless nerd suddenly becoming a rock god, it also tells a story about the abandoned and the cast off. It tells this story with toys that were outgrown and pets that stopped being sufficiently cute. On the one side you have gentle, hopeful Maria who believes that surely her owner never meant to misplace her; on  the other side you have the aptly named Sulkie, who is bitter and spiteful of the owner who got tired of playing with him. Yet, for all Sulkie's bitterness, it's he who has the surprising capacity for warmth and compassion, and it is he who becomes closest to the turtle that can't even speak to him.

And the story behind Papa is truly strange and yet perfectly fitting that I would just come right out and spoil it--especially since it's a delightful selling point for the film--except I think it is best experienced firsthand.

Oh, and I did say this was a kaiju movie in there somewhere, too, didn't I? Well, yes it is. And the kaiju set-up pays off delightfully. Not only do you have Toru Tezuka, the mad game developer from Gamera 3 in a cameo as a possibly mad scientist, but the kaiju sequence in this film is one of an unfortunately rare breed: the parody that realizes you don't always have to tear something down in order to mock it.

This is a kaiju rampage that is hilarious, but it's not hilarious because "hur hur, rubber monsters and cardboard buildings and toy tanks are so stupid." No, this is a really well-realized sequence, with really good effects--that is hilarious because it's an adorable giant turtle rampaging through a city. One of the jokes is that there haven't been any casualties because Pikadon is so slow that everyone can easily get out of his way. And it culminates in the glory that is a giant turtle tearing through a skyscraper to the tune of "Ode to Joy."

If that doesn't warm your cold, dead heart, then I pity you.

I must also give serious praise to Hiroki Hasegawa as Ryoichi and Kumiko Aso as Yuko. Aso is thoroughly engaging as the person who saw the potential in a loser before anyone else, and the film never forces her character to have to change to match Ryo--it just accepts that if she wants him, she deserves him exactly as she is, even if he's the biggest pop idol in Japan. And Hasegawa is amazingly charismatic and constantly convincing in his role, which is a hard thing to pull off when your character has to be believable as both a gigantic loser and, well, David Bowie.

I hope Bowie saw this movie and loved it, seriously.
If you get the chance to go see this film, I highly recommend it. It was my first theatrical viewing experience of 2016--even if the Chicago Cinema Society's showing of it was technically more a screening room than a theater--and I could not have picked a better choice.

And let me tell you, it warms my heart that subtitlers no longer feel it is necessary to translate the word "kaiju."

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Haunted Palace (1963) [Hex Appeal, A Vengeful Witch Roundtable]


If there's one thing many of us fear, it's becoming like the generations before us. This takes many forms such as becoming "uncool", losing our ability to understand technology, our politics becoming frighteningly regressive, or maybe finding ourselves in a loveless marriage that will either end in divorce or both partners longing for the release of death.

And who can forget becoming possessed by the vengeful spirit of our warlock great-great-grandfather who used to summon elder gods?

You may be a might bit confused as to how elder gods fit in to a movie ostensibly based on Edgar Allan Poe. That particular trope wasn't really one of Poe's trademarks--but it was a trademark for one H.P. Lovecraft. However, at least in the early 1960s, it seems that H.P. Lovecraft's name just did not have the cachet that Edgar Allan Poe's did. Frankly, I'd argue that's still true today: name me a middle school English class where students have to read "The Call of Cthulhu" or "The Colour Out Of Space" and I'll eat my hat.

Not only that but, in 1963, schlockmeister Roger Corman was enjoying great success with his cycle of films based on Poe's stories. If you're familiar with any of the stories and poems Corman chose to adapt, you're aware that many did not have much of a story to begin with. The Masque of The Red Death is showing stretch marks even with additional Poe stories added into it.

So Corman can definitely be forgiven for deciding to take an appealing title from an Edgar Allan Poe poem, have Vincent Price recite a few lines from it here and there, and then base the bulk of it on H.P. Lovecraft's "The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward."

The film's opening credits play over footage of a spider building its web, before a Monarch butterfly lands in the web and the spider sets upon it. I have to conclude that the scene of ants devouring a Monarch in Crimson Peak was at least partly inspired by this, given the definite attempts to capture the essence of a Corman Poe film.

We open in the port village of Arkham, on a suitably stormy night in the 18th Century. At the local pub, Ezra Weeden (Leo Gordon) is restless, despite Micah Smith's (Elisha Cook, Jr.) assurances that nothing is going to happen on a night like this. Well, Ezra is not convinced and he turns out to be in the right, for he catches sight of Miss Fitch (Darlene Lucht), a young woman from the town, walking through the darkened streets in a fugue state. Ezra gets Micah to accompany him as they follow the girl through a cemetery to the gates of the Curwen palace. Micah, previously skeptical, agrees with Ezra now that the palace is the home of Satan himself and they hurry back to town to form a lynch mob.

If that's what they do when merely seeing a girl walking up to the house, imagine if they'd seen inside. Hester Tillinghast (Cathie Merchant) presents the girl to her master and lover, Joseph Curwen (Vincent Price). The two then lead her down to a dungeon, where she is tied up before a huge grate. Curwen chants a rite in Latin and then lifts the grate to reveal an unseen creature that growls as poor Miss Fitch screams in terror at the sight of it.

"She's fine, I assure you. 'Aaaaaaugh!' is just our safe word."
Yet when the mob arrives, Hester and Curwen happily answer the door and present a seemingly unharmed Miss Fitch. She happily tells the mob that she came to visit Curwen and Hester of her own free will. However, Ezra asks the girl what her name is--and she cannot answer. So that's all the proof the mob needs and Curwen finds himself tied to a tree in his front yard, a pile of dry straw soaked in oil at his feet. Ezra begs Hester be spared because she was bewitched, but since he clearly desires her for himself he might not actually know what he's talking about.

As is typical of this kind of story, the townsfolk allow Curwen a chance to confess his sins and beg for mercy. Curwen uses that opportunity, instead, to curse the town of Arkham so that for generations to come the families of Ezra Weeden, Micah Smith, Benjamin West (John Dierkes), Priam Willet (Frank Maxwell), and Gideon Leach (Guy Wilkerson) will suffer for the insolence of turning against Curwen. Worse, Curwen swears that he shall one day return from the dead. Well, he has to be dead first, so Ezra goes ahead and takes care of that for him by tossing the first torch on the pyre.

"Killing me won't bring back your damned apples!"
One hundred and ten years later, Arkham has indeed languished in the shadow of the Curwen palace. So the townsfolk are not going to be thrilled to discover that Charles Dexter Ward (also Price), the great-grea-grandson of Joseph Curwen has just arrived with his wife Ann Ward (Debra Paget) to claim his inheritance of the Curwen place. The carriage drops them off at the local tavern, The Burning Man. Ann remarks that the name is quaint, but Charles seems oddly discomforted by it. Perhaps he's afraid the patrons will be white people in dreadlocks and feather headdresses.

"All right, dear, but you know how I feel about hipsters."
Well, he needn't have worried on that score. However, he does find that an uncanny resemblance to previous generations is widespread in Arkham as he makes the acquaintance of Peter Smith (Cook, again), Edgar Weeden (Gordon, again), and Mr. Leach (Wilkerson, again), The group are outwardly hostile to Charles, having recognized him on sight, and refuse to tell him the way to the Curwen place. Weeden explains that the palace was brought over stone-by-stone from Europe, and evil was a part of its very fabric. Leach tells them to tear up the deed to the place and never look back. Only Dr. Marinus Willet (Maxwell, again) defies the others on account of his rejection of superstition and directs them on how to find the palace on the cliff overlooking the sea and the town.

Yes, they probably should have been able to figure that out on their own once they knew they were looking for a palace, but just you never mind that. Dr. Willet invites them to visit him some time, but Charles informs him that they won't be staying in Arkahm once they've had a look at the palace--the welcome they received was quite enough for him. Ann is somewhat more willing to stay, but she is happy to go along with Charles if that's his decision.

On their way to the place, the Wards happen upon a woman leading her daughter along--and witness that the young girl has no eyes. Indeed, we shall soon see that deformities, birth defects, and madness afflict many of the people of Arkham. Peter Smith has webbed fingers on one hand, and Edgar Weeden has a bestial son that he keeps locked in an upstairs room--and the boy becomes increasingly riled up after the Wards' arrival.

At the palace, which the Wards have been told was uninhabited, they make a series of bizarre discoveries. First, that the painting of Joseph Curwen looks identical to Charles. Second, that a secretary desk has a harmless snake inside it, which startles Ann so Charles kills it with a handy blunt instrument. (The death blow thankfully happens just out of frame, so I feel certain the snake was actually unharmed) Third, Charles senses that a certain passage in the palace leads to noewhere, despite having no way of knowing that. And finally, the two make the shocking acquaintance of a man named Simon Orne (Lon Chaney, Jr.) in the upstairs bedroom.

"Why yes, you did see me walking with the Queen."
Simon explains that he is the caretaker and was trying to tidy up the place before they arrived. He claims that he received word from their lawyer, but that doesn't explain why he was cleaning up in the dark. Simon shrugs it off as people who live around Arkham just get used to the dark. He also advises that supper will be served at eight, and Ann is surprised that Charles now wants to stay. He assures her it's just for the night, at least.

However, as Charles smokes downstairs by the fireplace that night, something comes over him as he stares at the painting of his great-great-grandfather. As Charles's face turns cruel, Simon watches knowingly from the shadows. The next day, Ann finishes packing--only for Charles to tell her that he has decided that they shall stay, just long enough to fix the place up. He claims that about two to three weeks of work should make it far more attractive to a potential buyer and it will fetch a high price.

Ann senses something about Charles is off, especially when he snaps that she can go home when she casually mentions not being happy about staying. However, it passes and he seems to return to his noraml self. However, as the two attempt to go shopping for supplies in town, they find most of the shops locked--and then they are suddenly surrounded by the town's deformed citizens. Several are missing eyes or ears, and they have distorted faces and limbs. They crowd the Wards in tight--until the bell tolls, and they turn just as suddenly and disperse. From a nearby window, Edgar and Peter have been watching this unfold.

"Give to The Human Fund!"
The Wards have Dr. Willet over for dinner that night, and he helpfully explains a few things. One, the people that accosted them are all the mutants in town, which Willet is sure Edgar gathered together in one place to scare the Wards off. He explains that the townsfolk want the Wards gone because Arkham is haunted by the guilt and terror of a single night. One hundred and fifty years ago, Willet explains, Joseph Curwen moved to Arkham and built the palace. His wife, unfortunately, died in childbirth so he took Hester to be his mistress. Except Hester was engaged to Ezra, which meant that Ezra had it in for Curwen.

So wasn't it convenient then, that strange things had been happening in Arkham ever since Curwen arrived. Horrible noises in the night and young girls disappearing at night, only to return in the morning with no memory of where they'd been, Ezra contrived to place the blame on Curwen's doorstep, convincing the townsfolk that Curwen was a warlock. "One who raises the dead," Willet explains when Ann is ignorant of the term. Actually, that's a necromancer, doc. Willet explains that Curwen was burned alive one night and placed a curse on the village.

Charles scoffs, as surely every witch or warlock killed in America left a curse behind. Why should his ancestor's curse be taken so seriously? Well, not every witch or warlock killed in America was thought to have gotten their hands on the Necronomicon, now were they? Willet explains that the Necronomicon was though to hold the key to absolute power--and a means to summon the Elder Gods. Gods like Cthtulhu and Yog-Sothoth.

And, to my unending amusement, Frank Maxwell pronounces Cthulhu as "Thoo-Loo" instead of the more commonly accepted "Ka-Thoo-Loo."

At any rate, the Arkham townsfolk believed Curwen was conspiring with two other warlocks to open the gates that bar the Elder Gods from this world by mating them with human women. That's their explanation for all the mutants: failed experiments. To the Wards' alarm, Dr. Willet doesn't have an explanation of his own--but he tells them to flee Arkham before the townsfolk decide to destroy him.

They're just jealous of that sweet matte painting.
That night, a thunderstorm rolls in and Charles is awakened by the storm and then, oddly, the sound of voices. He follows the voices out to the front yard, to the tree where Curwen was burned as they scream out, "Kill the warlock!" Simon startles him by appearing to offer him a coat. When Simon tells Charles he didn't hear any voices, he oddly follows that up by telling Charles he ought to ask Mr. Curwen about it. Well, Charles oddly follows this advice--and one look at the painting is enough to put Curwen in the driver's seat.

He asks Simon how long it's been and is told one hundred and ten years. He is delighted to discover the body he's possessing is his great-great-grandson, and further delighted to see his other companion, Jabez Hutchinson (Milton Parsons) has joined them, Yep, Simon and Jabez are the other two warlocks Willet spoke of, who both look amazing for their age. The reunion is brief, though, because Charles is fighting for control. Curwen implores Simon to keep Charles in the palace a little longer so he can take full control. He then asks for the book, and to my delight it turns out that the Necronomicon is an embossed leather-bound tome that is labeled "Necronomicon" on its face.

"You'll never guess what I found at the flea market!"
Curwen orders the others to leave him just in time, as Ann comes down to find her husband. He has no idea why he came downstairs and he responds to her plea that they leave by saying he'd like to, but can't. When she begs him to explain why he can't leave, a flash of lightning is bizarrely followed  by the film cutting to Curwen digging up the grave of Hester. Skipping out on a scene before it's actually done is one way to advance the plot, sure.

At the Burning Man, the descendants of the mob that killed Curwen are arguing about what to do. Willet dismisses them all as superstitious fools. Of course, he's not aware that Curwen is currently bringing Hester's coffin into his palace with the help of Jabez and Simon. Ann catches him alone after the others have gone through the secret passage to the dungeon and she demands to know why he's acting so strange and begs him to leave with her for Boston. He snaps at her, but after she pleads with him to at least go see Dr. Willet, he replies that he will pay the doctor a special visit within the week. After Ann leaves, momentarily satisfied but still obviously hurt, Charles breaks through. Unfortunately, his freedom is short-lived and as the voice of the painting calls to him, Curwen takes control again.

Realizing that Ann was spying on him, Curwen orders her to leave for Boston tomorrow and then chases her off to bed so he can return to his late night sorcery. In the secret dungeon, Curwen helps his companions open the coffin of Hester. Meanwhile, Ann wakes up again and wanders the palace in search of Charles. This means she runs afoul of a few rats and a tarantula--as you would expect in a New England castle--before encountering Simon lurking in the shadows. She faints in his arms and Simon takes her back up to her room and locks her in before returning to the dungeon as Curwen recites the spell to reanimate Hester. Well, it works for a moment, but as Simon advises Curwen, it's just been too long.

"Nonsense, a little rubber cement and she'll be good as new!"

The effort to unsuccessfully revive his lost love has the effect of allowing Charles to regain control, He goes back to his room, confused as to what has been going on. He declares that he and Ann shall leave the following morning. Unfortunately, Simon is crafty and delays Charles from leaving just long enough for him to be forced to look at the painting again. So when Willet pulls up and Ann tells him they were just leaving, she's mistaken. Still, Willet tells her that he had come to warn them that they ought to be leaving--seems someone dug up old Hester's grave and stole the body. And the townsfolk believe Charles is responsible.

"Charles" comes out and claims that it was Weeden and his friends who dug up the grave to try and drive him away. To Ann's horror, he tells Willet that he is not leaving and he can tell the townsfolk that. After Curwen returns to the castle, Ann confides to Willet about what's been happening. He just assumes it to be psychological, but inside Curwen is telling Jabez and Simon that he has control and "Charles Dexter Ward is dead." To their consternation, however, Curwen doesn't want to get started on the work just yet. Simon begs him to forget it, but Curwen refuses to forgive the slight of being burned alive.

Oh, no. Before he starts raising Elder Gods again, Curwen has one hundred and ten years of revenge to catch up on...

"Wait'll they get a load of me!"
I have to say that I have never actually read the short story upon which this film is based. Lovecraft is published in so many different varieties of collections that getting a truly complete collection seemed impossible back when I actually gave a shit about trying to read most of his work. So this was one of the stories I never got around to.

So I came to this film with no expectations of what it would deliver on beyond what I knew to expect of a Vincent Price performance and a Roger Corman film. As such, I find this film delightful.

The atmosphere of the film, for one thing, is marvelous. You'll never for a minute believe it's taking place anywhere but on a set, but that actually adds to its appeal. The cemetery set, for instance, looks like something from a German Expressionist film. Everything outdoors is perpetually smoky to indicate fog. And the matte paintings, while obvious, are exquisitely done.

The only time the film's artificial nature works against it is in the rendering of what's in the pit of Curwen's dungeon. The strength of Lovecraft's Elder Gods and other beasts lies in the inability to describe them. Therefore, a film version of Lovecraft would do well to not show its monsters at all. The Haunted Palace does not learn that lesson, and the way it goes about showing an Elder God is truly, hilariously risible. The creature is blatantly a plastic statue of what appears to be a four-armed goblin with a hasty distortion filter placed over it. If you were to go mad at the sight of this creature, it would be from laughter.

"Grr! Rargh! Stop laughing!"
The monster, however, deserves to be an afterthought. The true monster of the film is Curwen, and holy crap is Vincent Price more than up to the challenge. Not only does Price do a wonderful job of creating the character of Curwen, he does an amazing job creating the character of Charles as well. You can tell immediately when he switches between the two personas. And he makes it effortless, too. It doesn't hurt that he gets some wonderful dialogue in both personalities,

Corman knows what he's doing in the director's chair, too. Apart from a few abrupt transitions, the film builds wonderfully to its climax of a beautiful woman being offered as sacrifice to a monster, as an unruly mob marches on the castle. And it wisely ends on a note that leaves you not quite sure of who actually survived the fire that destroys the castle--though you have a pretty good idea just the same,

The Haunted Palace is not exactly a lost classic. Apart from the silly monster, it also features a score that--while quite good--is incredibly repetitive. Yet, it doesn't have a single performance that doesn't fit the film's aesthetic. Price may be the film's strongest point, but everyone in the cast handles their roles well. And there's no question that it's damn entertaining.

I highly recommend The Haunted Palace. It sometimes gets forgotten amongst the rest of Corman's Poe films, but it is every bit as good as the rest and better than several--which is high praise, indeed.


The Celluloid Zeroes are delighted to present Hex Appeal! We all took a look at a movie about vengeful witches, and several of us completely forgot the witch part! (I chose a vengeful warlock, so I was in the right ballpark)

Check out the other reviews:

Checkpoint Telstar enlists the aid of The Witchfinder General

Cinemasochist Apocalypse dabbles in Black Magic

Las Peliculas de Terror got a bad case of Asmodexia

Micro-Brewed Reviews takes part in some Midnight Offerings

Psychoplasmics reminds you, Don't Torture a Duckling

Web of the Big Damn Spider joins up with Ator, The Fighting Eagle


Thursday, November 19, 2015

Godzilla (1954) / Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956) [Criterion Blogathon 2015]



While HubrisWeen was last month, I think the task before me today requires a substantially larger amount of hubris. For I am about to talk about one of the greatest giant monster films ever made, and easily one of the best films ever made full-stop--and I'm going to try and find something new to say about it.

I don't much care for my chances, which is fitting. Perhaps I am finally in the mindset of one of those hapless bastards who hops inside a tank to fire shells he knows will just bounce off, at a monster he knows will then turn around and wipe him from the face of the earth.

It's a strange thing, honestly, to be an American Godzilla fan born in the 1980s. I was born two years before Godzilla made what would turn out to be his last big screen appearance in the United States for 15 years in Godzilla 1985. By age eight I had heard of Godzilla, but only as a joke fodder and I had no idea what he even looked like until a friend showed me a worn, orange-spined book in the school library:


Reading through Ian Thorne's (actually the pseudonym of author Julian May) marvelous yet often hilariously misinformed book, I fell absolutely in love with the concept of the creature and needed to find a Godzilla movie right away. Luckily, a local video store had several titles for me to choose from. However, I was overwhelmed by my options and the fact that several of the movies I had read about in the book went by names I did not recognize on VHS--and I settled, oddly enough, on Godzilla 1985 to usher me into a world I would never want to leave.

I'm going to skip ahead a bit because I could go on for an entire post just talking about my introduction to Godzilla. The important part of my experience is that Godzilla was still nothing but a joke to the masses in those days. I quickly became a bit too defensive of the indestructible radioactive dinosaur, but it wasn't just the pop culture razzing that was a problem. No, the big issue was that Godzilla was considered nothing but a silly amusement for children alone, and as such warranted no special treatment when his movies were released to video. It was tough to find a lot of the films on anything but the lowest quality tapes--luckily, my son's generation will never know the disappointment of discovering the movie you bought was an EP tape instead of SP.

I spent years of my life being derided by others for liking Godzilla because it was so cheesy. The 1998 film certainly did nothing to dispel this conception, especially given the false sense of superiority the filmmakers evinced when talking about their project.

Yet, somewhere in the early years of the 21st Century, I began to notice a change in how Godzilla was perceived. Art house theaters proudly touted that they would be featuring the original Japanese cut of 1954's Godzilla. Low end distributors like Classic Media and even Echo Bridge began to take Godzilla so seriously that they released the films in their license in the best conditions they could--even including extras!

And then, a moment I thought I would never see: the original Godzilla was given the Criterion treatment. Suddenly, it felt like people were actually taking Godzilla seriously!

Well, people in the West, that is. While even in his native Japan, Godzilla's films were largely recognized as containing effects maybe somewhat less accomplished than Western counterparts--I'll touch more on that later--Godzilla had always been taken pretty damn seriously. It would actually be pretty hard for the Japanese audiences to not take Godzilla seriously. As many, oh-so-serious Godzilla fans love to point out any time anyone tries to enjoy Godzilla for fun, the beast was far more than just another matinee monster: Godzilla was a symbol. A symbol of the devastation Japan had felt as the only country to have a nuclear weapon used on its civilian populace, not once but twice--and possibly even thrice if you consider an incident I'll touch more on shortly, although that was a accident.

Godzilla didn't start that way, of course. Humorously enough, Godzilla started in much the way as his cash-in at a rival studio would a decade later: a big project at Toho studios went bust. In this case, it was a war film called "Behind the Glory" that was to be shot in Indonesia, only for a myriad of political issues to stop production cold. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was left holding the bag, but legend says on a flight back to Japan he was looking out over the ocean from his window when he began to think about what might be lurking beneath the waves. What if it was a prehistoric monster, big enough to destroy a city?

Of course, while that could very well be the true motivation for Tanaka's "eureka!" moment, a more pragmatic person would realize it was more likely that Tanaka knew exactly what the hell he was doing as a producer. Monster movies were clearly big bucks at the time. In 1952, King Kong had been re-released in Japan to tremendous success and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms had also been a huge hit in 1953. The evidence of this is clear enough in the film's original, delightfully ludicrous working title "The Giant Monster from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea"!

To be fair, it's hard to say precisely how much influence they took from the earlier film because the two are, in the final accounting, very different. Hell, special effects maestro Eiji Tsuburaya wanted Godzilla to be a giant octopus, which would have meant beating It Came From Beneath The Sea to the punch. However, the biggest difference is, unquestionably, in the film's tone.

Director Ishiro Honda had toured Hiroshima after the war and he devastation there had haunted him. Eugene Lourie saw nothing wrong with using a nuclear bomb as a mere McGuffin in his movie, but Honda obviously saw something far more horrifying. And then the Lucky Dragon No. 5 incident happened, when a Japanese fishing vessel strayed too close to an American H-Bomb test and was bombarded with fallout. I've mentioned the incident before, because Honda clearly thought it needed to be addressed as much as possible, but Godzilla was the first time he would comment on the tragedy--and how! Ironically, one could argue that the way the incident was exploited was more crass than the way the American Godzilla made 60 years later rendered imagery of Fukushima and the tsunami that caused it. That film was released three years after the tragedy it was evoking, but the Lucky Dragon No. 5 tragedy had happened a mere eight months before this film's release!

There's a few obvious differences, of course. First, the 2014 film was merely using the imagery in an attempt to create horror from familiarity and had no grander message behind it--while Honda's film used it to build on. Second, Honda's film can seen as a catharsis, a country commenting on real horrors it has faced through a fantastic allegory--while the 2014 film was another country using tragedy that someone else had faced. I certainly don't mean to rag on the 2014 film to much, especially since the film also uses obvious 9/11 imagery and that is closer to Honda's intent, but it is an interesting comparison.

Still, imagine how Japanese audiences must have felt in 1954, as they sat in the cinema and watched as this film opened with a ship drifting through the Pacific ocean, its crew strumming guitars and playing games on deck--before a blinding flash of light sends them all to their feet. The ocean before them boils, heated by the same white light from beneath the waves. It is too late for the ship to avoid the deadly water and a white heat washes over the deck, killing all exposed to it. The radio men are barely able to send a distress signal before water pours into the cabin, and then the entire ship explodes into flames and sinks beneath the boiling waves.


It's truly horrifying stuff when you consider that it symbolizes a real event, rendered to the fullest nightmarish extent. Back in the film, the SOS travels fast and Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada), a captain with the South Seas Salvage Company, receives a call at his home office ordering him in to the Coast Guard Office at once. That's terrible luck as he was just getting dressed for a fancy date with Emiko Yamane (Momoko Kōchi). Ogata makes his apologies, but advises Emiko can still make it to the concert on her own.

At the Coast Guard office, it's utter chaos. Family members and other affected parties are crowding the door, demanding an update. As Ogata arrives, a rescue ship is being tracked as it heads for the last known position of the lost freighter. Unfortunately, whatever destroyed the first vessel is waiting for the rescue ship, and it is obliterated in a boiling white sea.

The natives of Odo Island are much closer to the site of these shipwrecks than those on Honshu, which means that one of their fishing boats is in a prime position to intercept a group of three survivors from the rescue ship, who can only tell them that "the sea just exploded" before collapsing. Odo Island's fishing boats aren't immune to the strange catastrophes, however, and word has barely reached the home office before word comes in that the fishing boat has also been sunk. As reporter Hagiwara (Sachio Sakai) relates to his editor over the phone, that makes three vessels sunk in the same location under similar, bizarre circumstances.

While the villagers of Odo watch the ocean that night, apprehensive, young Shinkichi (Toyoaki Suzuki), spies a raft floating in. The raft is actually wreckage from the destroyed fishing vessel and has only one occupant, Shinkichi's older brother Masaji (Ren Yamamoto). Whatever Masaji saw, he's too weak to communicate it beyond a vague reference to "it got us and our boat." However, the next day when the village's nets all come up empty, the village elder (Kokuten Kōdō) says he knows what's responsible for the empty nets and swath of destroyed boats--Godzilla, the legendary sea monster that haunts their waters.

The young women of the village scoff at the old man because Godzilla is just that: a legend. And when a helicopter bearing Hagiwara and a group of investigators chooses to land just then, well, Hagiwara is just as skeptical of Masaji's insistence that some large creature is going crazy down beneath the ocean. However, Hagiwara's skepticism doesn't mean he isn't receptive--and he actually listens to the old man as he sits next to him that night while watching a haunting exorcism ritual designed to drive Godzilla away. The old man explains that once Godzilla has eaten all the fish in the sea, the great monster will rise up and devour people on the land as well. In the old days, they'd send a young girl out on a raft when the fishing was poor in order to appease the beast, but now all that remains in these less barbaric times is the ritual dance.


After the ritual, a typhoon blows in. While Shnikichi, Masaji, and their mother try to sleep in the midst of the storm, they suddenly become aware that the ground--and their house--are shaking. Shinkichi runs outside into the rain to try and find out what is going on, and Masaji follows--only to look out the door and see something that makes him cry out in fright and rush back to his mother's side. It's too late for either of them, and as Shinkichi watches helplessly from a distance their house is crushed by the passing of something that looks like a gigantic, scaly leg. It's not the only house destroyed. The outsiders aren't spared from the wrath of whatever destroyed the house, because their helicopter is left twisted and smashed.

In Tokyo, a disaster petition group meets in the Diet Building to discuss the catastrophic loss of life, property, and livestock the island has suffered. Shinkichi swears that he saw something alive, and Hagiwara backs up the lad's tale by pointing out that the helicopter was crushed from above by some powerful force.

Paleontologist Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura) is asked to address the committee. In a moment that would become famous in Japanese pop culture--and is, indeed, referenced in other Godzilla movies--Yamane begins to speak at the podium, only to notice that his tie is hanging out of his jacket and he sheepishly tucks it back in. Yamane, whom we will later learn is Emiko's father, begins by saying that there are many mysteries in the world in the 20th Century, such as the abominable snowman, and that the ocean contains vast unexplored caverns where anything could be lurking. While he admits he has not yet examined the disaster site, he feels it is very likely that there is a distinct possibility that some unknown creature could have come ashore and he requests a research team be formed at once to go to Odo Island.

Yamane gets his wish, and soon he, Emiko, Ogata, and Hagiwara are departing by boat to Odo Island. Emiko notices the mysterious scarred and eye-patched Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) watching them depart. It will gradually come out that Emiko and Serizawa are engaged to be married, but she has fallen in love with Ogata. As the three are good friends, it has been tough for her to find the courage to tell Serizawa about their love--or her father, for that matter. Though naturally they have bigger concerns at present, since the route they're going has seen three different ships be mysteriously sunk and who knows if they'll fare any better?

Luckily, they will. On the island, strange things are definitely afoot--footprints, that is. One of the researchers discovers a well beside the apparent footprints is contaminated with radiation, but as Ogata points out--wouldn't nuclear fallout have contaminated all the island's wells, not just those on one side of the island? Stranger still is that the footprints themselves are radioactive--and then Yamane discovers a live trilobite in in one of the footprints. He excitedly grabs it without thinking as one of the researchers hisses at him not to handle it with his bare hands. Yamane puts it in a specimen jar, but the significance of his discovery has no time to sink in as a watch tower in the village hammers its alarm bell to advise that Godzilla has appeared on the other side of a tall hill. The villagers rush to glimpse the beast rather than fleeing in terror.

Yamane is the first of the investigators to crest the hill and he gleefully tells his companions that he has just witnessed a creature from the Jurassic period. There's no time for them to be skeptical, because Godzilla helpfully backs up Yamane's claim by rearing up over the hill and roaring at them. And while Ishiro Honda decided he wanted to build up to Godzilla's first appearance with mere implications and teases before this grand reveal (gee, where else have I seen that happen?), it must be said that the reveal is somewhat undercut by the fact that despite his many strengths Eiji Tsuburaya was never a particularly good puppet maker. In close-ups and expression shots, as with this sequence, Godzilla is rendered by a hand puppet--and the hand puppet is many, many times worse than the suit it is meant to look just like. For one thing, apart from moving like a hand puppet, its proportions are all wrong--I'm particularly fascinated by its skeletal, stunted arms. That said, the puppet actually looks good for most of this sequence so the first impression of Godzilla is actually fierce and bestial, almost terrifying--until he suddenly turns into a Muppet.


Luckily for the terrified islanders, Godzilla is content to terrify them with his roar and then return to the sea. Coming back from Odo Island, Yamane adresses the committee with the evidence he has found: the photographs of Godzilla, the trilobite specimen, and the presence of strontium-90 that proves a link between Godzilla and H-Bomb tests.  Yamane theorizes that the 165-foot tall beast was driven from its home in a deep sea trench when repeated H-bomb tests drove it from its habitat.  (Don't show this sequence to any actual paleontologists as Yamane uses time period names and dates interchangeably, as well as suggesting that dinosaurs and trilobites both went extinct only two million years ago)  Yamane's lecture is interrupted then by a political argument over whether the truth of Godzilla's origin should be kept secret or not, a debate that nearly tuns violent!

As film (and Godzilla) historian David Kalat points out in his commentary on the Criterion disc, this is both a reference to the division of public opinion in Japan at the time with regards to how much to blame America for the Lucky Dragon No. 5 incident and something that would have been illegal under Japanese censorship laws just two years prior. Movies were forbidden from depicting scenes where the new, American-esque democratic government was depicted as ineffectual. And, while the violent end of the debate is left in the American cut, its vaguely anti-American motivations are cut out. More on that later.

The truth of Godzilla's existence does at least get out, however, as we see a truly fascinating scene (also cut from the American cut) where commuters on a train gripe about how Godzilla is going to force them to live the way they did during American bombing raids the decade before and one of them groans about having escaped Nagasaki only to face Godzilla, Well, the JSDF wants citizens like her to not have to worry about that, so they send frigates to try and kill Godzilla with depth charges. As Yamane, Emiko, Ogata, and Shinkichi--now adopted by the Yamane family, as many war orphans were a decade prior--watch the footage on TV, Yamane leaves the room in disgust.  He believes that Godzilla should be studied and not destroyed--after all, what could we learn from a creature that survived a nuclear explosion?

Well, Yamane need not have worried. We find our commuters from earlier on a party ship in Tokyo Bay, just in time for Godzilla to surface in the bay and menace the ship. (As an aside, thanks to David Kalat's commentary, I noticed for the first time in my dozens of viewings of this film that Kenji Sahara, one of the most prolific Japanese sci-fi and fantasy actors of all time and the human villain of my favorite Godzilla movie, has a blink-and-you'll-miss-him appearance as a patron with a cigarette) Godzilla doesn't destroy the ship, but he does terrify its passengers before he submerges again,

More committees are formed, desperate to kill Godzilla, but Yamane points out a fallacy in their certainty that they can beat the monster: "Godzilla was baptized in the fire ofthe H-bomb and survived. What could kill it now?" Well, Yamane may not have any ideas--but it turns out Hagiwara may know someone who does. See, his editor has informed him that a German scientist recently let it slip that Dr. Serizawa may be researching the very answer to the Godzilla problem the Japanese are seeking. Emiko is willing to take Hagiwara to see her fiance, but Serizawa vehemently denies knowing any German scientists (no doubt a loaded thing to admit to in 1950s Japan, just on the face of it) and asks Hagiwara to leave.

Emiko stays, intent on telling Serizawa the truth. He stops her, however, because he wants to show her his work, so she'll understand why he couldn't tell the reporter. He shows her to a fish tank in his lab and drops a small object into the tank, before activating a switch. Emiko screams and recoils in horror, but later swears to keep his discovery secret. Honda plays coy at this point, not revealing the truth until later, but Serizawa has accidentally stumbled across a destructive chemical he dubs "The Oxygen Destroyer" which completely dissolves all organic life in any body of water it's dropped into.


Serizawa fears that if this discovery got out, governments the world over would salivate at the prospect of another super weapon. He fears the lengths they'd go to get his invention, so he has determined that its secret will go with him to his grave. Yet how can Emiko possibly keep secret what she knows when Godzilla comes ashore in Tokyo and destroys a crowded train as prelude to his next attack, when he reduces Tokyo to nothing but flames and ruin?


With all the various mutations Godzilla has gone through over the last 61 years, 29 follow-up films, and myriad comic books and cartoon series--it can be easy to forget that this original film is a grim, harrowing horror tale that absolutely earns its somber quality.

When Godzilla's plates glowed with white-hot intensity in 2014, the audience cheered. In 1954, it was the only warning before hell was unleashed on anyone in his path. And Ishiro Honda never lets the audience forget the human cost. We see the aftermath of Godzilla's destruction in a way that King Kong or The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms largely glossed over. Honda makes us dwell on the wounded, the dying, and the grief that the lucky survivors feel. And he even makes us feel the pain of the most unlikely character: Godzilla himself.

Godzilla is the walking avatar of the nuclear bomb. He is death and carnage--and yet Honda never lets us forget that he is as much a victim as the people he kills in his angry rampage. When Godzilla's defeat comes, and it is shockingly final for the first film in a series that is still producing entries, Honda makes the sympathy we feel for Godzilla at the end truly earned. That last haunting howl before he sinks beneath the waves is a marvelous send-off for the beast.


And the film ends with Yamane hinting that Godzilla might not be the last of his kind. In the far remove of 2015, when everything is expected to set up a sequel, this feels like an obvious hook. Yet, it is actually intended as something entirely separate--something greater.

The film is pleading with the world to not continue to create monsters out of nuclear fire, to not wipe whole cities off the map, and to not ruin innocent lives. The film is echoing the words of the real-life radio operator of the Lucky Dragon No. 5 as he succumbed to radiation poisoning, "I pray that I am the last victim of an atomic or hydrogen bomb." Far from teasing a sequel, the film means, "Please, let there be no more Godzillas."

It's a resonant, possibly futile message...that would be lost on Americans, so it's gotta go!


When American distributors got ahold of Godzilla in 1956, they had a strong conviction about a few things: One, that the film had huge potential to turn a hefty profit in the US just as it had in its native Japan. Two, that those profits would be neglible if they released it in subtitled Japanese because the film would never play anything but arthouse cinemas in the American market. Three, American audiences were fucking racists who would never identify with the plight of an entirely Japanese cast.

So the distributors hit upon an idea that was, when you really look at it, kind of a brilliant compromise. They hired director Terry Morse to oversee new scenes where an American reporter named Steve Martin, played by Raymond Burr hot off his notable turn as the villain in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window and a year before he really rose to fame as Perry Mason on television, becomes caught in the middle of the events of the film and relates the story back to his editor in the states while being assisted by Security Officer Tomo (Frank Iwanaga), and released the film as Godzilla, King of The Monsters!


Now, the truly hilarious thing is that it was decided that Steve Martin--I'm still hoping for the next American Godzilla movie to have a cameo of Steve Martin playing a reporter named Raymond Burr--needed to interact with the story proper and, indeed, to be an old friend of Serizawa and Yamane. This means lots of scenes of Burr addressing the back's of people's heads.

Clearly, that is the back of Professor Yamane's head.
Now, there's no question that Godzilla, King of The Monsters! is a very altered film when compared to the original. Godzilla runs 96 minutes and Godzilla, King of The Monsters! runs a comparatively scrawny 80 minutes. Much of the original film has been torn out and replaced with new footage, especially any scenes where the anti-nuclear message becomes too strong. The film has also been rearranged greatly--it opens with Steve Martin coming to in a ruined Tokyo, having barely survived Godzilla's rampage and flashes back to the beginning where it's revealed his flight passed over the area where the first ship was attacked, so Tomo holds him for questioning after he gets off the flight and then ends up inviting him along on the rest of the story so both characters can hover at the periphery. Martin also becomes an omnipresent narrator, occasionally even talking over character scenes that they couldn't squeeze him into, while other such scenes are dubbed almost at random--the decision for which scenes would be narrated and which would be dubbed are rather haphazard, since the needs of the audience to know what the hell is going on were wisely put before diagetic logic. As for Martin's narration he thankfully does not follow the path that subsequent Americanizations would take in that he does not just narrate what's happening on the screen and, in fact, knows when the hell to shut up.

Although he, hilariously, cannot pronounce "helicopter."

The astonishing thing about the edited film, though, is just how faithful it remains to the original version. Unlike other altered versions, director Terry Morse was wise enough to see that Akira Ifukube's amazing score should be left unaltered. The tone of the film was left unaltered as well: while the explicit warnings about how awful nuclear weapons are may have been toned down, the grim tone of the film was not. Indeed, Godzilla's rampage in Tokyo does not appear to suffer a single cut, even if many very moving scenes lose their power by being left untranslated--if the scene of the mother assuring her children that they'll be with their father soon as the flames close in on them doesn't hit you in the gut, then you are made of sterner stuff than I.

I will even go so far as to say that, occasionally, I prefer some of the alterations made by the Americans. While the rampage scenes are largely unaltered, there are two destruction sequences where Terry Morse decided to add the sound effect of Godzilla's victims screams--when he tosses a train car to the ground after picking it up in his jaws and when he obliterates a police car with his atomic breath before the driver can escape. Without the screams those two bits are the only ones that feel less effective in the original film.


In the end, of course I will always say that Ishiro Honda's original film is superior. However, it is a fallacy that even I have been guilty of to say that Godzilla, King of The Monsters! is somehow worthless because it altered a great film. For starters, without Terry Morse's version who knows if Godzilla would have ever been as popular in the West as he eventually became? More intriguingly, it's entirely possible that Godzilla would never have made more than two screen appearances without Morse's version.

Godzilla was, after all, a massive hit in Japan. And just as had happened with King Kong in the 1930s, the decision was made to rush a sequel into theaters a mere six months later! Now, while I think Godzilla Raids Again is far superior to Son of Kong and, frankly, is often unfairly maligned by the fandom--Japanese audiences clearly did not agree with me. While not entirely a flop, there's no question that the film fizzled at the box office. Toho decided that, instead of bringing Godzilla back for a third fim, they would branch off in other directions--such as introdcuing the world to the first flying kaiju in living color with Rodan and charging into luxurious TohoScope (their answer to CinemaScope) with alien invasion epics The Mysterians (which also features a giant robot monster) and Battle in Outer Space (which doesn't).

The success of Godzilla, King of The Monsters! overseas (so successful, in fact, that it was actually given a theatrical release in Japan in 1957 as Monster King Godzilla) convinced Toho that there was an interest in their biggest star overseas. Even if they, oddly, were completely on board with the plan to erase Godzilla's name value from Godzilla Raids Again when it was first intended to have its effects footage reused for the scrapped project "The Volcano Monsters" about a giant Tyrannosaurus (Godzilla) and a giant Ankylosaurus (Anguirus) tangling in San Francisco, and again when it was finally released as Gigantis, The Fire Monster in 1959.

Point is, without Raymond Burr talking to the backs of heads, the world would never have gotten the third appearance by Godzilla in the biggest screen match-up ever: 1962's King Kong vs. Godzilla. And we most certainly would not be getting its rematch, Godzilla vs. Kong in 2020. I think that deserves a lot of respect.

Of course, critics of the the time certainly did not agree.


Just look at the dismissive review from Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, whose very name tells you he's a smug prick, frankly, and having browsed some of his other reviews of genre film I find that the man seems an inveterate killjoy. However, his attitude towards Godzilla, King of The Monsters! is truly insufferable:
To say that this Oriental monster is fantastic is to state but half the case. "Godzilla," produced in a Japanese studio, is an incredibly awful film. It looks as though its Japanese producers, assisted by a stray American—fellow named Terry Morse, who is an alumnus of Hollywood's Poverty Row—made a close study of the old film, "King Kong," then tried to do substantially the same thing with a miniature of a dinosaur made of gum-shoes and about $20 worth of toy buildings and electric trains. 
Their idea is that this monster, which exhales atomic breath, much as the cigarette billboard in Times Square blows out puffs of smoke, takes it upon itself, for no clear reason, to destroy Tokyo. And a good half hour of the picture's eighty minutes is devoted to this pursuit.
Makes me want to go back in time and give the man an atomic wedgie. Especially since, I have become increasingly aware as I grow older that the only difference between "about $20 worth of toy buildings and electric trains" and praise worthy special effects is what country is making the effects.

In his book, A Critical History and Filmography of Toho's Godzilla Series, David Kalat raises a beautiful point--one he also touches on in his Criterion commentary--that the aggravating tendency to dismiss Godzilla movies has a distinct whiff of prejudice about it. Kalat writes:
I do not wish to accuse anyone of racism, certainly not over something as trivial as a monster movie. Nevertheless, I am left speechless by reviewers who spend one page deriding Japanese productions for man-in-a-suit monsters but then on the next page express admiration for Western films using the same techniques. I have read countless apologists for some of the worst science fiction films ever made that just happen to be American productions, while Japanese imports of extremely high quality receive ridicule and contempt.
Indeed, how often are War of the Worlds or When Worlds Collide hailed for their special effects, which use miniatures not exceptionally better than Godzilla. The Creature From the Black Lagoon is a man in a suit, and so is Alien. Yet somehow Godzilla continually gets dismissed for being cheap. Now, Kalat has also pointed out that Japanese audiences don't care as much about whether a film's special effects are "realistic" the way Americans do. While I have no doubt that there is a lot of truth to that, I still feel that the bigger difference in acceptance of the effects that bring Godzilla to life are simply a matter of who is doing them.


In the end, I'm obviously biased. Godzilla has been a part of my life for about 24 years as of this writing. I can find something good to say about his most bizarre, most threadbare, most despised, and most mediocre entries. That said, I think that Godzilla is absolutely essential viewing. Perhaps some modern audiences need to have their special effects cynicism turned off before viewing it, but even if they must snicker at the special effects I can only hope that they at least give the story a chance. They won't regret it.

And naturally, I also have to say that the Criterion edition is the best way to go. It's the best the film has ever looked, has an amazing wealth of extras, and the packaging is beautiful.


This review is my contribution to the Criterion Blogathon! Click the banner below to check out the scores of other amazing entries, including several from the other Celluloid Zeroes!


(And if you don't already have it, pick up the Criterion edition below!)


Monday, November 16, 2015

Announcing: The Criterion Blogathon!

http://criterionblues.com/blogathon/

This week begins The Criterion Blogathon! And on Thursday, yours truly will be taking a look at the original Godzilla (1954)!

Keep your eyes peeled, though, as several other Celluloid Zeroes will be taking part throughout the week! Plus, you know, there's a lot of awesome content from a myriad of bloggers to pore through!

Saturday, October 31, 2015

HubrisWeen 2015, Day 26: Zombeavers (2014)


Sometimes, you hear a movie idea and it is like nails on a chalkboard in your mind. You just know that there is no way that anyone could think of that idea and think it was a good idea. Zombeavers was one such idea for me.

Now, this was not so much because I find the idea of zombie beavers unappealing. Rather, it was the assumption that there was no way a movie based on that concept would be anything but an obnoxious, one-joke concept.

Well, let me just say that I always love being proved wrong.

I have to say the opening is not the most promising start, though. We see a medical and toxic waste transport truck cruising down the road (which sadly is not from a company named "Uneeda") and the two guys inside the cab have a conversation about the driver (Bill Burr) taking his girlfriend to get an abortion and then casually mentions having once dated a guy so that the guy in the passenger seat (John Mayer, yes that John Mayer) can try to basically hint at maybe they should date, then. The driver then begins texting, ignoring the passenger's halfhearted warning about the deer in the road.

While the deer is killed by the impact, the only damage the truck suffers is that a single barrel of chemicals falls off the bed and immediately rolls down into the river. The two morons don't notice, of course. And the film delivers its first pleasant surprise as the credits roll over the footage of the barrels floating in the river, accompanied by a cartoon super-imposed on the live-action footage. It's a neat little detail. Eventually the barrel comes to rest at a beaver dam and, as the puppet beavers look at the curious metal object, it promptly springs a leak and sprays them with a green liquid.

"Welp, that's a new one, eh, Earl?"
"Sure is, Ted."
Meanwhile, at a gas station bathroom, college girl Jenn (Lexi Atkins) is tearfully texting her boyfriend, who has apparently cheated on her. After she exits the bathroom, and has an awkward run-in with a trucker, she rejoins her friend Mary (Rachel Melvin) at their car. They're on their way to a cabin owned by Mary's cousin, along with third friend Zoe (Courtney Palm) and her Jack Russell terrier, Gosling. If looked at in typical slasher terms, Jenn seems like a typical Final Girl, Mary is the nerdy girl, and Zoe is the promiscuous one.

In fact, Zoe is very annoyed that they had to make this trip a girl's weekend after Jenn's boyfriend cheated on her. Zoe had really been looking forward to some fun time with her boyfriend, but while she may tease Jenn about the issue and even complains about the lack of sexual opportunities, she is a good enough friend to still go along with the new plan and the rules of no boys and no phones. We can tell that Zoe is the least used to being in the countryside because she thinks the raft in the lake near the cabin is floating garbage upon first sighting it.

As the three friends drive up to the cabin, we see a teenage boy fishing in the river get taken out by a POV cam as a threat-establishing casualty.

Once at the cabin, the girls get to meet the neighbor, Myrne Gregorson (Phyllis Katz) and her husband Winston (Brent Brisxcoe), who's watching from their porch with the couple's golden retriever. Myrne mentions that she hasn't seen Mary in ages. Zoe's brash tongue makes the conversation a bit awkward but, unsurprisingly, the old lady is just as brash. Once she departs, they all go inside to pick rooms and freshen up. To the horror of Jenn and Zoe, it turns out that the "no phones" rule is going to be very easy to enforce because there is no signal in the area.

"I'm just saying, if we had a talking Great Dane we could be a team of young detectives!"
The three decide to go swimming and, to Jenn and Mary's annoyance, Zoe does so topless. Still, it's going fine until Jenn sees a beaver dam and wants to go investigate. The three swim over to the dam and discover it is covered in a revolting green residue that Zoe assumes to be beaver urine. Lucky for them, they don't actually encounter the beavers as a lurking POV cam watches them from the water--but they do find themselves confronted by a bear.

As the three slowly back away, a shot rings out and the bear runs off. A hunter who introduces himself as "Smyth, with a Y" (Rex Linn) then appears. And the guy is delightfully unnerving as he tells them they weren't in any danger from the bear, says some weird things about beavers, and then tells them they ought to be more covered up--and he doesn't just means the woman with no top on.

The girls take their leave of him as fast as they can. At the cabin that night they eat popcorn and play a truly sick game of "Would you rather?" since apparently nobody packed Cards Against Humanity. Then it shifts to truth or dare and we learn here that the last time they played that Mary and Jenn made out, but Jenn objects that that's no fun without guys around to make jealous. Mary thinsk the lady doth protest too much, but as she jokingly moves in for a kiss there's a loud thump outside.

Zoe goes to check with the flashlight and disappears. Mary and Jenn go out to find her, but the door gets blown shut and they're locked outside. Then a shadowy figure charges up--and farts at them. Their attacker is actually Mary's boyfriend, Tommy (Jake Weary). Mary wants to know how he even got there, and the answer appears in the form of Buck (Peter Gilroy) who is carrying Zoe to the porch. Seems he practically dragged Tommy to the cabin, despite the insistence that Mary had warned him that it was just a girl's weekend. Naturally, Zoe is not entirely blameless in this.

And then, to Jenn's disgust, her duplicitous boyfriend, Sam (Hutch Dano) appears from inside the cabin, carrying a baseball bat. Mary tries to be the good friend and send the guys away, despite Zoe and Buck begging to be allowed to bang. Jenn, however, says it's okay. After all, it'll be good for her to face the problem head-on. Though I'm sure she didn't really intend for her and Sam to have to sit on the couch in the living room and listen to the other couples loudly having sex.

Jenn shows Sam the photographic proof of his philandering--a tagged photo of him from a party the weekend before, kissing a brunette whose face is obscured. Sam either can't or won't tell her who the woman in the photo is. And his attempt to seduce her into forgetting her anger ends with him getting a knee to the groin. To be fair, he did deserve that. Meanwhile, in the afterglow Tommy notices Mary seems distracted, which she shrugs off as concern for Jenn.

Jenn goes to take a shower, but as she's undressing she hears something thumping in the bathtub. She assumes it's Buck--that guy must be a real perv, if that's her default assumption--but it's a beaver. A very vicious beaver with white eyes that tries to attack her. It leaps at her but luckily it's clumsy or it might have been able to take a bite out of her.

"I told you never to flush when I'm in the shower!"
Jenn flees to the living room to get Sam's help. The others arrive to find out what's going on and when she tells them about the rabid beaver they all go to investigate, but now it's nowhere to be seen. Buck begins mocking her--only for the beaver to lunge out of a cupboard and try to attack him. Tommy beats it to a pulp with the baseball bat, but it takes a lot of punishment before it stops moving. Tommy tosses it into a garbage bag and leaves it on the porch. Jenn wants to leave right away, but the others talk her into sleeping on it. She agrees, but demands to sleep with Mary for the night. Unbeknownst to them, the garbage bag on the porch is moving...

The next morning, as they head outside to go swimming, Jenn notices the bloody garbage bag is torn open and there are bloody pawprints leading away from it. Tommy dismisses it as nothing but a scavenger finding the corpse and absconding with it. Jenn is not so sure, and feels weird about going in the water, but the others assure her it's fine. She asks them to quit making the obvious beaver jokes and also stays put on the bank instead of joining them in the water.

On the raft, Sam talks to Mary about the mysterious photo that Jenn showed him. Seems that both of them know exactly who was in the photo. He asks if Mary is going to tell Jenn it was her, since she would believe it if Mary says it was nothing, but Mary would rather her friend not hate her. Sam begins to think maybe they need to talk about it, since it sounds to him like maybe it wasn't nothing,

No time for that, though. As soon as Jenn gives in to peer pressure and wades into the water, something swims past her foot. The others mock her until Buck goes under suddenly--and resurfaces holding his own severed foot. Cue Jaws-style trombone shot on Jenn, Tommy is attacked next but he, Buck, and Zoe manage to make it to the raft just as another beaver leaps out to bite Buck on the shoulder until Tommy tosses it away.

Tommy ties a tourniquet around Buck's leg using Gsoling's life-vest. Then Zoe notices Jenn is gone. Well, she ran back to the cabin to call for help with the landline, but the phone lines have been torn out by the beavers. And now the others are not only surrounded by several beavers in the water, they're trying to break through the raft to get at them.

"Look, just take the wood and let us go!"
Meanwhile, the beaver from the night before scratches Jen on the calf and she finds herself wrestling with it on the kitchen floor. The others, seeing their chances at survival rapidly dwindling, begin to get desperate--so Sam decides to be the asshole who makes the unpopular decision of throwing Golsing into the lake as a diversion. Well, as you might imagine, the dog is not able to outswim the beavers and as they're eating him, the others make a swim fro shore,

Jenn has managed to cut the beaver in half, but even with its hind half dnagling by threads of sinew it still chases her up onto the kitchen island. She finally pins it to the the tabletop with a knife to the skull. She then opens the door to the cabin just as the others rush in, the beavers hot on their heels. So now that night is falling, the group realizes they are trapped in a cabin surrounded by beavers who want flesh and whose very biology means it'll only be a matter of time before they chew through the wooden cabin to get at them, and they have all the evidence they need on the counter top that these beavers are actually zombies.

Though they have no idea what's coming. For we all know that if a zombie bites you, you turn into a zombie--but what do you turn into when a zombie beaver bites you?

Never hire a mad scientist to be your orthodontist.
I'm going to cut this review short here because I genuinely think Zombeavers is best experienced without knowing everything that happens. Now, I don't think this film is nearly as good as Late Phases and it is certainly nowhere near as good as What We Do In The Shadows by any stretch. However, it's still a film that is best experienced only knowing some of the delights it has in store.

For one thing, this film commits to its goofy premise. Sure, the zombie beavers are meant to be funny more than scary, but that doesn't mean they don't carry a surprising amount of menace. The shots of their eyes glowing in the night in a few scenes are genuinely unnerving. Hell, even the zombie were-beavers that eventually show up are as menacing as they are silly--though naturally there's a visual gag involving one were-beaver that made me laugh too hard to spoil here,

I also appreciate that, while obviously lots of CGI is used, the film mainly relies on physical props for the beavers. When you think about it, vaguely jerky puppets are the only way to render zombie beavers, anyway, so I'm glad the filmmakers realized that. It's also just always more entertaining to see actors wrestle with prop rubber beavers than to see them try to do the same with CGI.

Certainly, Zombeavers is not perfect. The majority of the characters, whether intentionally or not, are pretty intolerable and far too many of the jokes are the sort of lazily offensive material you'd expect to see on something that thinks it's "edgy" but really, really isn't. However, the difference between this and something like The Watch--the alien invasion flick where it turns out the aliens can only be killed by being shot in the dick because that's where their brains are--is that it manages to rise above some lazy, unexceptional material in its comedic scenes by really nailing it in the horror-comedy ones.

Obviously, this is not a film for everyone and I kind of feel like it maybe needed a couple more passes over the script in order to become truly great, but I had a lot of fun with it. I highly recommend this to horror movie fans, especially those like me who are sick to undeath of zombies already.


Today's review brought to you by the letter Z! Hit the banner above to see what the other Celluloid Zeroes chose for Z!

And with that, dear readers, another HubrisWeen draws to a close. Wasn't sure I was gonna make it, and I feel like I could sleep for a week after rushing to make my deadlines at the end here, but you better believe I'm too foolhardy to not take another swing at it in 2016.

So you better be on the lookout for HubrisWeen: The Final Chapter next year. But stuck around, because I'm not done with my hubris and in mid-November you'll be seeing me try to find something new about a bonafide classic for a Criterion blogathon event.

Oh yes, this joint is about to get classy.