Friday, June 26, 2015

Horror Express (1972)


June 2015 began with some of the worst possible news for any film fan: Sir Christopher Lee had passed at the age of 93. It seemed impossible that the man should ever actually die. After all, he didn't seem to age at all from about the mid-1990s until his death, and the man played Dracula eight times--surely he was just as hard to kill as the creature he portrayed?

Sadly, despite all the superhuman things Christopher Lee had done in his life--which I won't detail here because there are simply so many--he was just a man. Some day we were going to have to say goodbye to him, and content ourselves with the fact that he left behind 278 acting credits because he had spent a long life doing precisely what he loved.

Even if doing what he loved did occasionally mean that he felt it necessary to do things like introducing himself to Joe Dante by apologizing for having starred in The Howling II: Your Sister Is A Werewolf.

Well, naturally my fellow Celluloid Zeroes and I couldn't let the month pass without paying tribute to Sir Lee. I'd already done a review of Lee's favorite role, and just reviewing one of his random Dracula films didn't feel right. So I thought I would take a look a one of his slightly more obscure roles--and a role as a hero, which is not a part he usually played.

It's also one of my favorite Lee roles, as a heroic Victorian scientist who is still a bit of an arrogant prick just the same.

I don't always start off by adressing a film's credits, but these are especially ill-conceived so I feel I must. While the film's haunting theme music and train sound effects provide the audio part of this sequence, the visual component is a bright light moving randomly through darkness. Having a bright light flickering behind white letters means that several of the credits are utterly illegible.

I choose to believe any obscured credits belong to people who displeased the director.

The film the opens with a view of a frozen mountain that an on-screen title informs us is in the Szechuan Province of China in 1906. Our hero Professor Alexander Saxton (Sir Christopher Lee, of course!), then narrates, "The following report to the Royal Geological Society by the undersigned Alexander Saxton is a true and faithful account of the events that befell the society's expedition in Manchuria. As the leader of the expedition, I must accept the responsibility for its ending in disaster. But I will leave, to the judgement of the honorable members, the decision as to where the blame for the catastrophe lies." So obviously the expedition didn't go so well.

Saxton himself then appears before us in a cave, with Lee rocking a mustache this time around, as he follows a native guide through the cave's twists and turns. Suddenly, a haunting wistling is heard. Saxton shines his light on the guide, but it isn't coming from him. Just as suddenly Saxton sights his prize: a hominid frozen in ice, almost perfectly preserved with its one intact eye staring outward at the world that moved on without it.

"Close the door! You tryin' to refrigerate the whole neighborhood?"
Saxton has the hominid loaded into a crate and wrapped in a tarp and chains for travel before you know it, and next we see the crate it's waiting to be loaded onto the Trans-Siberian Express in Peking (or Beijing, if you want to be all correct about it). To the film's credit, most of the extras do appear to actually be Chinese since even in 1972 I wouldn't put it past a Spanish-British co-production to just use yellowface.

Saxton, meanwhile is having rather a lot of difficulty in the ticket office, as it appears that the reservation aboard the train that he telegrammed for has not been set aside. The ticket officer brushes him off, and then Saxton makes the unpleasant discovery that a professional rival, Dr. Wells (Peter Cushing!), is waiting to board as well. Wells introduces his assistant, Miss Jones (Alice Reinhear), and it must be noted that Saxton is able to shift from barely contained annoyance at Wells to polite pleasantries with Jones without missing a beat.

Meanwhile, a thief who never learned subtlety manages to distract the guard away from Saxton's crate and goes to work at picking the lock. When the guard returns, he finds the crate unlocked and partially pried open--and the thief lying dead nearby, his wide eyes bone white and pupil-less.

Saxton's annoyance grows even more when Wells successfully bribes his way into tickets for himself and Jones. Saxton disapproves of bribery and opts for trying to intimidate the ticket agent by smashing everything off the fellow's desk. And then some British troops arrive, having apparently been sent to assist Saxton. This sells his intimdation routine much better and he gets his ticket.

At Saxton's crate, a Russian monk named Father Pujardov (Alberto de Mendoza), who looks more than a little like another Russian monk, is praying over the thief's course. A Russian policeman, Inspector Mirov (Julio Peña) arrives and scoffs at the idea of redemption for a notorious thief. Pujardov is confused by Mirov's account of the man in life, for the man he is praying over is surely blind. Mirov laughs the monk's observation off--until he sees the body. "I'll be damned," he mutters and Pujardov stiffens and responds in the best possible B-Horror movie way, "The Work of The Devil!"

When Pujardov tries to break open the crate, Saxton intervenes. Unsurprisingly, he is unconcerned about the death of someone trying to steal his precious fossil and rather brusque in giving Mirov the brushoff. Until Pujardov gets everyone's attention by announcing, "Where there is God, there is always room for the cross," before drawing a cross on the floor with chalk. "Where evil is, there is no room for the cross," he intones before trying to draw a cross on the crate...and no mark is left. "A conjurer's trick," Saxton spits disdainfully. But Mirov is not so sure.

Once the crate is loaded onto the train, its occupant makes suspicious groaning noises that Saxton opens it to investigate but then chooses to write off as its gradually melting contents shifting. Wells tries to get Saxton to reveal its contents but Saxton refuses to budge on that score. (There is some delightful Cushing and Lee banter here) So Wells takes the train's porter aside and slips him some money, requesting with typical Cushing charm that the porter break into the crate that night and report to him what's inside.

Meanwhile, Countess Irina Petrovski (Silvia Tortosa) arrives in the baggage area carrying a small dog. She has something valuable for the porter to place in the safe, but naturally her dog begins to get agitated at the presence of the frozen creature. The "here's our love interest" music begins as Irina gets Saxton's attention, asking what is in his crate that could be frightening her dog. Saxton visibly warms up as he assures her that there's nothing in the crate that would interest her dog. The two flirt over a mutual respect for England and Poland, even when she casually mentions her husband. But when she tries to investigate the crate, Saxton deliberately diverts her by offering to escort her back to her carriage.

Along the way to his own carriage, Saxton makes the acquaintance of a peculiar gentleman playing chess by himself. The chess player advises he is an engineer and has confirmed that Pujardov's chalk was genuine. Saxton writes it off as, "Hypnosis. Yoga," and moves on. Meanwhile, a mysterious redheaded woman, a stowaway, has found her way to Wells' compartment and begun pleading with him to help her. It's bad timing, then, the it turns out that Saxton's compartment is the same as Wells'--he's the top bunk. And I have to enjoy a little giggle at the mental image of 6'5" Christopher Lee attempting to fit into the bunk displayed here, since he can barely fit when he sits on the edge of it.

While Saxton ignores Wells' attempts to convince him to find another compartment without an attractive, desperate redhead in it--the porter sets to work undoing a few screws in the crate so he can glance inside. He's whistling that same tune from earlier as he does it, but when he goes to fetch more light--a hairy arm reaches out of the crate and attempts to break the chains. That doesn't work, so the arm grabs a nearby nail and bends it, before picking the lock on the chains--almost as though it had absorbed the knowledge of a thief who had been an expert at doing the same. When the porter comes back and desperately tries to stop the creature breaking free, he makes the mistake of looking into its glowing red eye.

"Yeah, I know, my blinker's been on since the Miocene!"
The porter bleeds profusely from his eyes and nose, and his eyes go pupil-less and white, before he falls dead. The whistling tune begins again as the hairy fiend frees itself from the crate. Meanwhile, Pujardov waits in the cabin of Count Marion Petrovski (George Rigaud). The small dog is frightened again, but neither Petrovski nor Irina are all that concerned, while Pujardobv is torn between being alarmed at the dog's fear and being disgusted by the fact that Petrovski and Irina are discussing which dress she should wear when Saxton inevitably calls on her. I'm pretty sure the Count and Countess have an open relationship, but the movie doesn't come right out and say it. Petrovski teases Pujardov for forgetting his place, enjoying tormenting the mad monk with joking threats of unemployment. When Irina stops playing the piano, a voice whistling the tune she had been playing echoes through the train--amusing her and terrifying Pujardov.

Mirov summons Saxton and Wells to the baggage area. The porter is missing and he thinks they know something about it, especially since the evidence suggests he was interrupted breaking into the crate. Saxton is outraged and when Mirov threatens bodily harm to him if he doesn't hand over the key, Saxton tosses it out the window of the speeding train. So the conductor opens the crate with an axe--and the porter's dead body is inside. Saxton immediately accepts that this must mean that, impossibly, the 2-million-year-old ape man he found must be alive and loose. Wells is incredulous, "You mean to tell me that a 2-million-year-old half-man half-ape, broke out of that crate, killed the baggage man, put him in there, and then locked it all up neat and tidy?" Mirov, however, opts for a middle ground between belief and skepticism--he orders Saxton locked up and sets his men to searching the train for a zombie man-ape, while pledging to keep it quiet to avoid panic.

Well, the zombie ape-man eludes Mirov's men easily enough, creeping through compartments. Eventually it ambushes one of them and kills him with its glowing red eye trick, before giving his partner the impression that it jumped off the train to escape. (We get entirely too good a look at the half-rotted ape suit in this sequence alone. It was definitely not a suit that was built for more than quick, barely-lit glimpses) Wells, meanwhile, is at dinner with the redhead but completely lost in thought. He barely notices when the chess-playing engineer joins them, and recognizes Wells' companion from a party held for the honor of one General Wang. She pulls the classic terrible spy trick of angrily telling him he's mistaken. Wells is momentarily distracted when a fish on a tray rolls by, and he observes its eye is white. "Well, naturally: it's boiled," the engineer helpfully replies.

Mirov then interrupts their dinner to enlist Wells' help with an autopsy of the porter, as well as letting slip about one of his men being dead and the creature having escaped. He does this in full earshot of the engineer and the spy, then tells the engineer to keep his nose out of it. Good job keeping everything hush hush, Inspector. Wells goes to Miss Jones' table and advises that he needs her assistance. "Yes, well at your age I'm not surprised," she replies, glancing at the spy and engineer. Wells' eyes go wide when he catches her meaning and he hisses, "With an autopsy!"

Bet you didn't expect a joke about Peter Cushing group sex in a Hammer knockoff! And oh, I hope I see that combination of search key words bring somebody to this blog, now.

While Wells and Jones set to work cutting open the porter's skull in the baggage car, Irina comes to visit Saxton in the compartment he's being held in. (She chose the blue dress instead of the red, for those who wondered) Saxton was already dining alone, so she keeps him company as he does. She teases him for being in a bad mood because he's lost his "box of bones." Saxton counters that that box of bones could have revolutionized science by providing incontrovertible proof of evolution. "I've heard of this evolution," Irina stammers, "it's--it's immoral!" Saxon responds with one of my favorite of all Lee's lines, "It's a fact. And there's no morality in a fact."

Meanwhile, Wells and Jones discover that the porter's brain is completely smooth. When Mirov asks what that means, Wells explains that as memories are stored in the brain, they leave a mark behind--resulting in a wrinkled surface. The porter's brain has been drained of all knowledge and memories. Naturally, this is total bullshit, but it fits with the Victorian-Era theories of science. The three leave the autopsy to get cleaned up--and as soon as they're gone the door to the baggage car slides open and the ape creature climbs back inside, closing the door behind itself.

After Wells gets cleaned up, he advises the spy in his cabin that the washroom is all hers. Of course, she immediately sneaks into the baggage area. She's after the safe, and after she cracks it she grabs the package that Irina had the porter place in the safe. She doesn't get anywhere, however, because the monster sets upon her and gives her the brain drain. When Wells realizes she's been gone an awful long time, he goes to investigate and finds the washroom empty--and the ape monster grabs him by the wrist when he opens the door to the baggage car. Luckily, Mirov appears and shoots through the door, barely missing Wells. When the door swings open, the wounded creature locks eyes with Mirov. Mirov sways, blood dripping from his nose, but he manages to put a fatal bullet into the monster before he collapses. The monster, dead for real this time, falls beside its last victim.

(And I must note that throughout this sequence we never see a clearly lit shot of the full creature. Why they couldn't keep it in the shadows during its earlier appearance is beyond me)

Mirov comes to, in bed, later. He moves a little oddly as he examines his right hand. When he sees is left hand under the covers he reacts with shock and is sure to keep it hidden from view when Saxton enters. Saxton is rather pleased that he has his fossil back and glad to see that Mirov is doing well. He explains to Mirov that he and Wells examined the murdered spy and confirmed she died the same way as the porter. Their hypothesis is that the creature used its eye to drain knowledge from its victims through their eyes, adding their intelligence to its own with each feeding. Saxton is a little troubled because he doesn't know if a creature capable of doing that could truly die.

When the conductor arrives with the item the spy was trying to steal, which was found in the creature's possession, to Saxton's astonishment--and Mirov grabs it while stating it belongs to Count Petroviski. He claims he knows because he saw Petrovski put it in the safe, but Saxton is quietly suspicious. Mirov and the conductor go to return the item to Petrovski, where Petrovski happily reveals that it's a bar of a new alloy--steel harder than a diamond. Everyone wants the formula, but Petrovski boasts that it's safely kept in his head. (Whoops) Pujardov observes that Mirov keeps his left hand in his pocket the whole time, but when he speaks it is to insist that the creature is not dead.

When Mirov scoffs that he put four bullets into the creature, Pujardov teasingly replies, "Do you think evil can be killed with bullets?" Perhaps exercising some previously unknown telekinesis, Mirov seems to cause a candle to snuff out and a holy image to fall from the wall to screw with Pujardov. Meanwhile, Saxton, Wells, and Jones remove the eye from the dead ape creature and begin poking it with needles to draw out the eye fluid. When viewed under a microscope, the eye fluid reveals something bizarre--an image of Mirov gunning it down. Saxton is pleased to have proved his hypothesis that the creature stored its visual memory not in its brain, but in its eye.

Yes, that absolutely makes no sense, but run with it.

Extracting more of the eye fluid reveals images (clearly drawings) of a Brontosaurus, a Pterodactyl, and finally the Earth seen from space. When Irina comes to visit the trio she finds them in a grand mood because of the find and when Saxton shows her the image of Earth--she calls for Pujardov. He'd been attempting to secrectly follow her, you see, but not very successfully. Seeing the image and being told it came from the eye only convinces Pujardov even more that the creature is Satan. After all, didn't Satan look down upon the Earth from Heaven before he was cast down?

Even Saxton is at a loss for a good counterargument to that. Though you'd think he'd have already realized the visual memories can't all belong to a 2-million-year-old hominid if they contain dinosaurs. Unfortunately, the darkness following a trip through a tunnel allows Pujardov to steal the eye and disappear. The group splits up to find him and Jones heads to the baggage car. Well, that is where Pujardov is hiding. However, before she can find him, Mirov finds her. Mirov asks her why the eye that Pujardov stole is important. She reveals that the eye contains images of ancient Earth and Earth as seen from space. She also happily tells him who else has seen the images, before Mirov reveals that his left hand is now the hairy, clawed paw of the ape monster--and he claps that paw over her mouth before shutting off the only source of light in the car. Now Mirov's eyes glow red (a practical make-up effect, but they really should have sprung for animation) and Jones falls dead, her eyes white.

"Oh, God! The Visine does nothing!"
Pujardov reveals himself to Mirov, offering up the eye, and begs for mercy. Mirov takes the eye, tosses it into a stove and begins to leave. Pujardov asks if Mirov is going to kill him, too, but Mirov scoffs that there's nothing worthwhile in the monk's brain. Before he can exit the baggage car, the door opens and Saxton and Wells arrive. Mirov casually declares that there's been another murder and shows them Jones' corpse.

The passengers raise an uproar later as the news gets around, but Mirov threatens to shoot anyone who tries to leave the train. He also eyes Wells, Saxton, and Irina as Jones' voice naming them as having seen the eye fluid's images echoes in his mind. As Saxton asks Wells who could have killed Miss Jones, Mirov wanders past and asks if Saxton knows. Saxton replies in the negative, but informs Mirov that he's already told the conductor to stop the train at the next stop. So Mirov's first order of business is to go to the conductor's office, dim the lights, and get his eye-glow on.

As Mirov is opening a window to chuck the conductor's body out, Pujardov suddenly appears. He's practically got heart eyes as he begs to know who Mirov is and eagerly offers to serve him. Mirov just tries to shove him away, but still doesn't kill him. Out the window goes the conductor, and Mirov walks off. Pujardov stares after him like an obsessed schoolgirl.

Wells, Saxton, Irina, and Petrovski discuss the deaths and begin to wonder if it's some kind of disease. Saxton ponders what the symptoms would be and Irina brings up the eyes. So they examine every passenger's eyes with a magnifying glass, but the last patient is Mirov and nothing unusual turns up. The engineer suggests maybe they should test for radiation or X-Rays, but Saxton points out they have no way of testing for that. Saxton then suggests that Mirov order all passengers to stay in groups so that no one is ever left alone.

Naturally, Saxton immediately ignores his own edict to search for the conductor, but at least he establishes that the man is missing. Further up the track, a group of Cossack soldiers are waiting for news of the train. Their telegraph operator advises that the train will arrive at their station in fourteen minutes. "Fourteen minutes," says a deep voice from beneath a fur blanket--and then the movie's oddest character emerges from beneath the blanket, Captain Kazan (Telly Savalas!). As he orders his soldiers to be ready outside in full pack, Kazan goes on a bizarre rant to the telegraph operator. Nothing he says seems to follow anything else, culminating in, "Send a telegram: Tell them that Captain Kazan: he knows that a horse has four legs, a murderer has two arms...but still, the Devil, must be afraid of one honest Cossack, hmm?"

If you say so, Kojack.

Back on the train, Mirov goes to visit the engineer. The engineer's companion, an American passenger, has fallen asleep. Mirov asks if the engineer knows how to measure Earth's gravity and more importantly how to escape it. The engineer helpfully replies that it's not possible to do so yet, but he was taught by a man named Tsiolkovsky who did have some theories on how to do so. But, anyway, why is an Inspector so interested in rocket physics and why is he turning off the light with his strangely hairy hand...

Mirov then visits Saxton, who is alone again. Saxton reveals his hypothesis about the creature: millions of years ago, some intelligent life form came to Earth from another planet. In order to adapt to our atmosphere it entered the body of creatures living on Earth. Its latest host was the frozen animal that Saxton found. After its host was killed, it transferred to a new host--someone on the train. Wells arrives with a shotgun before Mirov can decide to make a move on Saxton, and Mirov asks what they intend to do if one of them is the monster. Wells replies in what is easily this film's most famous line, "Monster? We're British, you know!"

Wells, Saxton, and Irina soon find themselves in the dead engineer's compartment. The American woman tells them that the lights were off when she fell asleep and when she woke up again they were off--when she turned them back on, she found the body. Saxton realizes they tested everyone's eyes when the lights were on. Meanwhile, Pujardov leads his new master Mirov to his previous master, Petrovski. Petrovski is fiddling with a revolver when they arrive. Mirov asks what happens to the Count's new steel when it is exposed to high temperatures. Petrovski replies it gets stronger, but that depends on the temperature. Mirov is satisfied and makes his move towards unlocking the metal's formula--when those fourteen minutes finally run out and the train skids to a stop.

Cossacks board the train and round everyone up in the main car before the train starts back up again. Irina angrily shouts that she'll have Captain Kazan sent to Siberia, to which he dazedly replies, "I am in Siberia!" Still, after finding out who they are he has the Count and Countess escorted back to their car while he hollers, "Peasants! Peasants!" at the other passengers like he's in the middle of a Tumblr rant. He hollers that everyone is under arrest, including Mirov. "Who are the killers, who are the troublemakers? Who are the foreign influences, huh?!" he hollers as he accosts various passengers. Combine those lines with Telly Savalas being apparently uninterested in attempting a Russian accent and Kazan begins to sound like a Fox News host.

Saxton and Wells get a bit too uppity for Kazan's taste so they get a taste of some rifle butts. Meanwhile, his manhandling of Mirov while raving about "filth" sets off Pujardov. He threatens the Cossacks with a cross, which one of them declares to be "the evil eye." It doesn't work on Kazan, though. He takes the cross from Pujardov, borrows a cat-o-nine-tails from one of his underlings, and begins to whip the mad monk. Wells insists they stop it, but Saxton holds him back. Kazan asks why Pujardov was protecting Mirov, but Mirov dodges the question until Saxton makes his way back to the light switch...

...Mirov's eyes glow red in the brief darkness and he pulls out his hairy hand in alarm. He slashes one Cossack with his claws, but Kazan puts a dagger in his back and then two bullets to go with it. Mirov staggers out of the car. Kazan moves to follow him but Saxton stops him, warning how deadly those eyes of Mirov's are. Pujardov follows his wounded master, and offers his body as a replacement vessel, begging, "Come into me, Satan!"

"Notice me, Satan-Senpai!"
Well, Satan don't need to be asked twice. While Kazan gives orders to shoot anything that comes out of the doorway the two went through and has his men move the "peasants" out the other door, Mirov turns his glowy eyes to Pujardov and then dies. Pujardov goes all dreamy-eyed, collapses, and then rises with his own glowing eyes. And holy shit, the make-up effect is even worse on him than it was on Mirov.

"Senpai noticed me!"
Pujardov cuts the power to the lights. The Cossacks fire blindly at the door frame as Saxton and Wells herd the passengers back to the baggage car. The Cossacks meanwhile are finding that a dozen Cossacks are no match for one red-eyed monk. The white-eyed bodies pile up in the terrified confusion. As the passengers crowd into the baggage car, Saxton and Wells prep a bright lamp as a defense against the creature. It's too late for the Cossacks, of course. Kazan is the only one left alive at this point. He puts on a brave fight, struggling to stand, but finally he collapses just as dead and pupil-less as his men.

Finding a car full of dead Cossacks, Saxton sends Wells back to take care of the passengers. He takes the shotgun and the powerful light and goes on ahead. See, Petrovski and Irina are still in their car and that's just where Pujardov is appearing now. He swaggers into the car and muses aloud that in spite of everything, his old self liked the Count even as Petrovski humiliated him repeatedly. Pujardov turns out the lights and drains the formula right out of Petrovski's brain. Irina attacks him in anger, but she is no match for the creature he has become. Pujardov implies that his old self lusted after her--just as Saxton arrives with a bright light to stop him from using his brain drain on her.

Saxton traps Pujardov in a corner with the bright light and shotgun trained on him, demanding answers. Pujardov explains he is an energy being from another galaxy, who visited Earth with others of his own kind millions and millions of years ago, but was accidentally left behind. The creature then survived in various forms of life, going all the way up the evolutionary ladder as Earth grew. Pujardov appeals to Saxton as a scientist--surely he couldn't kill such a creature and can see that it should be allowed to go free. But Saxton is unconvinced.

Pujardov tries the "I can teach you how to cure all disease and advance your civilization" approach and nearly gets a face full of buckshot from Saxton, who has heard enough. However, Pujardov does succeed in making Saxton wait just long enough for him to start swaying--which is his way of bringing all his victims back to life as zombies. Zombie Petrovski shoots out the light before Irina can warn Saxton, but Saxton easily shoves off Pujardov as he and Irina flee...

...into a car full of zombie Cossacks. Luckily, these zombies can be out down with the same means as you'd kill a normal human and they're up against Christopher fucking Lee here, The zombies don't stand a chance, Saxton and Irina flee back to the baggage car as Pujardov drives the train, having killed its engineer, Wells and Saxton set about separating the baggage car from the train as whatever zombies Saxton didn't put down slowly advance on them.

Ahead on the tracks, the order has come through from Moscow to use the switching station to stop the train. This translates to diverting the tracks so that they head right off a cliff. I'm not sure why that was ever a contingency plan, but there you go. The telegraph operator assumes that they're being ordered to kill everyone on the train this way because there must be a war. That's a hell of an assumption, but then again it's not like anyone guesses "killer alien entity" on their first try.

Wells and Saxton unhook the baggage car just in time. The speeding train goes off the cliff as Pujardov screams, and the baggage car safely slows to a stop right at the edge as Saxton, Irina, and Wells watch the rest of the train exploding below them. Hopefully those guys at the station don't assume they have to murder the passengers now. But we won't find out, because as the more funkified version of the film's haunting theme kicks in, we pull away from the burning wreckage to view the Earth from space. The End.

"I feel like I should say something smart." "You don't have to say anything."
There are few treats for a genre fan quite like a film where Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing appear together. Beyond being longtime friends off camera, the two always played wonderfully off of each other regardless of whether the movie they were in deserved it.

Horror Express is no exception, and I am willing to go out on a limb and declare that it does deserve the full gravitas of Cushing and Lee.

It might be stretching it a bit to call this film an unsung classic, but it sure is a delightful horror story. I always have a certain fondness for films that try to tell a story well beyond their means. This film definitely falls into that category, but to its credit the cheapness of the film only rarely shows itself. If not for the scene we get of it in bright light, the ape monster would be a truly creepy monster and the miniatures used for the train only become painfully obvious during its destruction. And frankly the film is smart enough to spread its money around--there's never an effect that is so painfully bad that it draws you out of the film because everything else is too good, nor one inexplicably great effect that throws the awfulness of the rest into sharp relief. Everything balances at just the right level of competence.

And that's impressive in and of itself when you consider that this is a film about a missing link coming back to life to go on a brain-draining rampage on a Victorian train, only to turn out to be an ancient evil entity that can hop from body to body because it's an an energy being from another galaxy. If that's not enough, you have a mad Russian monk and zombies. This film crams a lot into its plot, even if that does occasionally mean its plot has a complete dead-end like the Cossacks boarding the train to seemingly do nothing aside from upping the body count.

Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing are both wonderful. Lee sometimes had a tendency to let his contempt for a project show through in his performance, but that doesn't happen here so clearly he felt the project deserved his respect--though it could be that he was playing off of Cushing, who always gave a film his all. Saxton is a thoroughly engaging anti-hero, as a scientist who is more concerned with his great find than the mysterious deaths surrounding it but who still knows that evil must be stopped--and Saxton is made so engaging by Lee's wonderful presence. Cushing meanwhile is clearly having a blast with Wells, who is clearly self-interested and corrupt in many ways but also is just as determined to do the right thing.

The rest of the cast acquit themselves well enough, even though most of them are clearly dubbed. Thankfully, most of the dubbing actors seem to actually bother to act. Nobody really stands out as terrible, as much guff as a give him for not faking an accent even Telly Savalas does well as the inexplicable Captain Kazan,

The film also has a wonderful soundtrack. The haunting whistling that appears over and over stuck with me in full clarity, even though prior to this review it had probably been close to ten years since I'd watched it.

The film isn't perfect, of course. Sometimes its low budget betrays it, its pacing could sometimes be tighter, and there are some truly bizarre editing choices. In particular, most of the monster's attacks are full of subliminal images of the frozen creature, quick cuts of the train, and far too lengthy shots of the victims gradually dying that kind of undercut the actual horror of it. That would be fine if it was just the porter's death that we see rendered that way, but the grand majority are shown to us in far too much detail. Pujardov massacring the Cossacks is easily the best attack in the film because the deaths are forced to quick instead of drawn out.

Still, if you're a fan of Hammer-style horror films Horror Express is an absolute delight. It certainly spent a lot of time in my VCR after I happened across it in a bargain bin in high school. That isn't very surprising, of course. A wonderful monster concept, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing  having a blast, and a mad Russian monk. What's not to love?

All that and furry hats!
The Terrible Claw Reviews and my fellow Celluloid Zeroes have come together to honor the late Sir Christoper Lee with a roundtable in his honor.

Checkpoint Telstar: The Gorgon

Micro-Brewed reviews: The Devil Rides Out

Cinemasochist Apocalypse: Rasputin The Mad Monk

Friday, June 19, 2015

June Bugs 2015: Rebirth of Mothra (1996)



In the impressive pantheon of Godzilla's friends and foes, there is no more controversial a kaiju than Mothra. If there's a holy trinity of Toho kaiju that everyone outside the kaiju fandom knows and even loves, it's Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan. Like Rodan, Mothra made her debut in her own solo film and then crossed over into the Godzilla series. She's also easily the monster that has appeared the most in the series. Not counting stock footage (or related characters like Fairy Mothra), she has appeared in eight of the 30 Godzilla films to date. Compare that to Rodan's five and King Ghidorah's six (some people count Keizer Ghidorah in Godzilla: Final Wars as a seventh appearance, but that's stupid because it's a totally separate character--it's like considering Battra the same thing as Mothra). She's also been announced to feature in the sequel to Godzilla due in 2018, along with those slackers Rodan and King Ghidorah.

Also, unlike Rodan, she was actually deemed popular enough to get another shot at solo films in the 1990s. We'll get to that shortly, of course, but you may notice I said she was the most controversial kaiju. That's because a huge percentage of Godzilla fans hate Mothra.

I do mean hate, too. Many of them positively loathe Mothra. This is despite the fact that Mothra has been a part of many of the best entries in the series, and the original Mothra is also a classic in its own right. So why is Mothra so reviled?

Well, there are two main reasons*, in my opinion--and both are pretty silly in different ways. The biggest reason, and the reason I went from loving Mothra as a kid to hating her from my teen years to my mid-twenties, is because Mothra is the only monster to consistently defeat Godzilla. This is a bit like Batman beating the crap out of Superman, but the point of these confrontations is almost entirely about how Mothra manages to beat incredible odds to defeat Godzilla and save the day.

Because unlike the upcoming legal drama Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, if Mothra is fighting Godzilla it's because Godzilla is the bad guy.

The other reason is a bit more insidious because I'm pretty sure most people who hate Mothra for this reason aren't actually aware that they're doing it--plain and simple sexism. See, Mothra is one of the few explicitly female kaiju in canon. You may think I'm just being a Social Justice Warrior (why thank you), since after all almost nobody hates on Biollante, Megaguirus, Jiger, or Otachi just because they're explicitly female. There's a few key differences, though.

For starters, Mothra is like a Lisa Frank trapper keeper turned into a kaiju. She is the most traditionally "feminine" of kaiju--yes, even more than Biollante who is a giant flower--and she's also easily the most popular kaiju among women. I don't think this means that every Mothra hater is knowingly hostile to the creature because women dare to love her, but it's not like the geek/nerd community is well-known for being welcoming to women.

[* Some would argue it's because the concept of Mothra is "silly." To which I reply that if you can accept "giant electrified gorilla," "three-headed space dragon that spits lightning", and "humanoid robot programmed with punch cards that can teach itself how to increase in size" but draw the line at "giant insect goddess," then I am concerned about your suspension of disbelief]

Now, those reasons for disliking Mothra are silly. However, I have to say if your first exposure to the character was the 1990s Rebirth of Mothra trilogy, which starts off with today's film, then I would understand. See, someone decided that a new Mothra spin-off should be "for kids."

You are absolutely right to cringe.

Now that I'm a father, I'm steeling myself for the karmic retribution I'm about to receive for all those awful kids' movies I convinced my parents to watch with me. And that's just for the movies I thought were good, not the ones that came after I embraced the wonders of terrrible cinema. The simple fact of the matter is that, in virtually every film industry in the world, making a movie "for kids" usually means that nobody cares if it's terrible. It means lazy writing, lazy directing, terrible jokes, and bad acting--especially because it's assumed that kids only want to see other kids, and not every child actor can be Quvenzhané Wallis at six years old.

So, well before I ever saw any of them--and beyond my reticence, there was the fact that it took years for them even to be available in the US--I knew the 1990s Mothra trilogy by reputation. It was not a good reputation. Still, they were kaiju movies and I love kaiju movies, even when they're terrible. What's more, there's one thing that virtually all movies aimed at kids in the last 40 years have in common--and that's the desire to sell kids toys. Toys need inspiration, and in the case of a monster movie that means more and cooler monsters. And whatever else I could say about these films, they had cool monsters--and Mothra even obligingly found multiple forms to transform into in order to provide more.

Yes, okay, I am forever sad that I do not have an "Aqua Mothra" figure on my shelf.
Yeah, a more intelligent person might conclude that I should just stick to the toys. After all, while I've never seen a kaiju film that is as dishonest with its toy as the average Hollywood film--just look at freaking Dragonheart--there's no question that you can appreciate any awesomeness inherent in the monsters in toy form without sitting through the painful film around them. Still, I felt I had to give the films a chance, and even after I'd seen the first two, I bought the recent Blu-ray of the trilogy because I wanted to see them all and fairly evaluate them.

So exactly how masochistic was that decision, you ask? Well...

The film opens with a fully grown Mothra perched in what we can assume is her temple on an island. I'm gonna call it Infant Island, per Mothra tradition, but I don't believe it gets a name in the movie. Mothra begins summoning some glowy particles that converge in front of her and suddenly form--an egg. Yes, apparently Mothra eggs aren't laid, they are called into being. It's a bit ridiculous, but then it's always been a bit hard to believe that Mothra laid the eggs in previous films that were as big as she was--though the Showa films oddly explain this by suggesting that the eggs grew, which is equally ridiculous.

I'm gonna pause for a moment to answer a question thrown around about this trilogy a lot: Are these films following the continuity of Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle For Earth? The answer is pretty clearly, "No," and you'll see why as we go on.

Anyway, I hope you like that Mothra has been established as a thing that exists, because that's the last you'll be seeing of her for about 40 minutes. (Mothra is a cameo in her own movie!) The movie now shifts to introducing its main characters, the Goto family. Mr. Yuichi Goto (Kenjiro Nashimoto) is a foreman for a logging company clearing forest in Hokkaido and is struggling with his bosses breathing down his neck for more production, environmentalists stalling production, and that bane of working parents everywhere--the "you spend too much time working instead of with your children" guilt trip call from his wife, Mrs. Makiko Goto (Hitomi Takahashi).

Yes, that's right. It's one of the most annoying, and classist, of Hollywood tropes--the idea that working hard to make sure your family is take care of makes you a bad parent. It's not any less egregious in Japanese films, and the fact that Mrs. Goto appears to be a stay-at-home mother makes it even worse, somehow.

Anyway, the guilt trip about the fact that he's working instead of spending time with his son, Taiki (Kazuki Futami), and daughter, Wakaba (Maya Fujisawa) is interrupted by a commotion at the dig site. One of the bulldozers has uncovered what looks to be an ancient artifact of some long-lost civilization, like a small platform or stone table. Mr. Goto notices that there's a fancy seal on the object and pries it loose with a screwdriver, intending to take it home as a gift for Wakaba. Like reading the Latin in a creepy notebook, this is a bad idea.

Removing the seal sends out a disturbance in The Force that gets the attention of the Elias sisters: the benevolent Mona (Megumi Kobayashi) and Lora (Sayaka Yamaguchi) are horrified, while the wicked Belvera (Aki Hano) is delighted. And of course we know she's wicked, because she dresses all in black. Of course, Belvera also rides around an adorable little dragon called Garu-Garu (or "Gagaru" in the dub) while her good sisters ride around on Fairy, a tiny version of Mothra.

I dunno about you, but if I'd seen this as a kid I'd be rooting for Belvera. Dragons are awesome.

Yes she wants to doom the world, but dragon!
You may have noticed that Mothra's fairies are way different in this film than in any previous or, for that matter, any to follow. The fact that they're now called the Elias isn't all that weird, but they've never had individual names before. As you might expect, this also means they behave a bit differently. They don't speak their lines at the same time, nor do they seem to think in unison. Hell, they don't even seem to be twins--by which I mean they aren't pretending to be, since after Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster it's been pretty clear that none of the actresses hired were twins.

Anyway, Mr. Goto brings the seal home and puts it on a chain to give to Wakaba, after he and Mrs. Goto have a clearly recurrent argument during which we learn how much Mrs. Goto prizes her display of plates and china. Mona and Lora take Fairy to the site of where the seal used to be. Mona is horrified that the seal has been removed, while Lora suggests with extreme revulsion that it must have been humans that removed it. They're alarmed because Belvera may already be trying to find a way to free the creature locked away by the seal and place it under her control.

She is, and she's way ahead of her sisters because she's already tracked down the seal to Wakaba's bedroom. In a bit that shamelessly rips off Close Encounters of The Third Kind, Belvera flying through wakaba's room brings all her electronic toys to life, glowing and bouncing around before Wakaba wakes up and greets her visitor. We aren't privy to what happens next, but in the morning it turns out that Wakaba has been granted telekinetic powers (!) and uses them to torment her older brother as payback for him being mean to her earlier. And I mean she throws him all around the room, drags him across shelves, and causes all kinds of havoc. Their parents don't notice any of this, somehow.

Mr. Goto, however, does notice the report on the news about how his company has been hiding their discovery of a priceless relic and has plans to to blow it up. Not about to stand for such an...honest portrayal of his company, Mr. Goto rushes off to fly back to Hokkaido, (Do not go to Hokkaido!) Mrs. Goto is too caught up in worrying about that to notice her terrified son rushing out the door for school. Later, when some of his school chums see Taiki cowering and he explains he's waiting for his sister, they laugh at him and call him a sissy.

Of course, Taiki has good reason to be afraid. When he gets home he spies his sister inside their house watching TV and eating loads of sweets--and then Belvera appears behind him, riding on Garu-Garu. She asks him if he hates his sister as much as she hates hers, while gloating about having wakaba under her control. Belvera then tells him to take a look at who's behind him now: a large German Shepherd or similar breed. The dog chases the terrified Taiki up a tree. This scene is oddly played for a certain amount of comedy, when it should be terrifying--though maybe the decision was made to play it as silly because the dog refused to look menacing for a moment. It's all lolling tongue and wagging tail the whole time, despite what the sound effects try to tell you.

Well, inside the house we see that Mrs. Goto has been tied up with power cords and gagged. Belvera attempts to help herself to a can of beer by stading on it and yanking the pull tab, which results in her getting a geyser of foam to the face. (This is a really awkward effect, but I can appreciate what they were trying for) Belvera then notices a report about the artifact in Hokkaido on the TV, which Garu-Garu decides to hover in front of--to Belvera's great annoyance.

Luckily for Taiki, the good Elias sisters show up and drive the dog away. Of course, given he was just almost killed by a tiny woman on a flying steed, Taiki's reaction to being greeted by two tiny women on a flying steed is to tumble out of the tree. The Elias use their telekinesis to save him from a concussion, though. They also agree to help him free his mom and save his sister from Belvera's mind control.

Combat strategy is not Mona and Lora's forte, however. Like me playing a video game, they just fly Fairy Mothra straight through an unopened window and begin wildly firing laser blasts from her antennae at Belvera. Belvera responds by hopping on Garu-Garu and returning fire with laser blasts from his mouth. Taiki dodges stray laser blasts and unties his mother, who is left to scream in horror as her precious...everything is destroyed by a bunch of asshole fairies. Goodbye plates, china, piano, and refrigerator. I think the TV is only spared because they need it for plot purposes.

Belvera turns the tide by snatching the seal away from Wakaba, who is basically catatonic through all this. Turns out the seal does more than keep ancient evil kaiju imprisoned, it also reflects laser blasts while magnifying their intensity. Garu-Garu finally gets a lucky shot in and strikes Fairy, causing the moth to shake Mona and Lora loose before crashing onto the floor. For some reason, Fairy's eyes go dark before she shrivels up like a dollar bill that went through the dryer. This doesn't kill Fairy, but it renders her useless as a steed. Taiki bravely tries to catch Belvera in a butterfly net, but Garu-Garu is a strong little bastard and nearly carries Taiki off, even with Mrs. Goto holding him by the leg.

Taiki loses his grip and Belvera escapes by breaking another window. Regrouping, Mona and Lora see the TV report and realize that Belvera is heading for Hokkaido. She wants to wake up the creature locked away there, the extraterrestrial monster that was locked away 65 million years ago after killing off all the dinosaurs. The fiend known as...

Okay, so normally I go by the official English spellings of Godzilla monsters' names that Toho has standardized since the mid-1990s, even if they don't match how I learned them. I say Anguirus instead of "Angilas", for instance. But I refuse to go by the official name for this creature because it's dumb. When I first heard of this movie, everyone was in love with the awesome villain kaiju known as Death Ghidorah. Why wouldn't you be? Well, because if you listen to the dub or the official spelling, the creature is Desghidorah.

You know what makes that extra dumb? "Des" is what you get when a language that does not have a "th" sound borrows the English word "death." So when you hear "Desghidorah" in Japanese, it's because it's supposed to be "Death Ghidorah." So I am calling it Death Ghidorah.

Well, hearing how awful Death Ghidorah is convinces Mrs. Goto that the family needs to book a flight to go see Mr. Goto at once. Mona and Lora are disguised as dolls for Wakaba on the flight, while the emaciated Fairy is passed off as a plush toy. (The latter is obviously a far more convincing "disguise") Unfortunately, Belvera has beaten our heroes to Hokkaido and wastes no time at all in putting the mind control whammy on Mr. Goto. At her bidding, he drives a bulldozer covered with dynamite up to the spot where the seal was found.

The rest of the Goto family arrives in time to see him fall out of the bulldozer just before it reaches its destination and Belvera blasts the dynamite. A massive explosion follows and the mountain bursts open. From the swirling flames and smoke emerges Death Ghidorah--and he is, indeed, as awesome as that sounds. Basically, if you made King Ghidorah into a quadruped, you'd have Death Ghidorah. And unlike the later Keizer Ghidorah, the effect actually works because it's not two guys doing the "horse" routine in a suit that looks like it was built ten minutes before filming.

Don't worry, we have a giant moth to protect us from this unstoppable avatar of death!
Death Ghidorah's heads spew red lightning bolts, but his center head breathes fire. This is a nice touch since there really hadn't been a kaiju with a flamethrower installed in its suit since Gamera's first (forced) retirement in 1980. And when Gamera came back in 1995, he spat fireballs instead of breathing fire. Speaking of Gamera, the one issue I have with Death Ghidorah is that his roar seems to be derived from the same elephant sound effects that gave Gamera his roar and it doesn't really fit the creature.

Mrs. Goto and the kids get separated as they try to find Mr. Goto. The Elias manage to get the seal back, thanks to Belvera's clumsiness, which they use to revive Fairy. The kids worry that Death Ghidorah will kill them, but the Elias advise it doesn't work that way. Death Ghidorah feeds on life and humans don't live long enough to really satisfy it: it's going to start with the trees around it that live for hundreds of years. I have to say that is a neat idea.

Well, Mona and Lora try to guide the Gotos back towards each other--and in an actually amusing bit, Mr. Goto is completely baffled by his wife casually talking to two tiny women on a moth like they're old friends--but Death Ghidorah's escape has begun to alter the forest around him, including forcing Taiki and Wakaba to flee from lava with zero explanation. While the kids could definitely use some more fairy help, the Elias are busy trying to figure out what the hell to do about the unstoppable ancient evil that is preparing to wipe out all life on Earth.

Amazingly, despite the fact that it was the first thought of everyone watching this, Mona suggests they call Mothra. Lora, meanwhile, is horrified at this suggestion. Mona points out that Death Ghidorah was originally defeated by Mothra, but Lora counters that that was back when there were many Mothras--now there's only one and she is near the end of her life and weakened from laying her egg. (Though one would imagine simply conjuring your offspring into being, rather than having to push them out of your body, would dramatically increase your recovery time)

Mona is adamant that they have no choice, so it's time for the inevitable part of virtually every film featuring Mothra, and the part that every Godzilla fan either loves or dreads--The Mothra Song. I'm very much in the former camp...usually. Unfortunately, the makers of this trilogy decided it was time to fix what wasn't broken. It's not that they rearranged the song and gave it a bizarre Calypso feel, that isn't all that weird. No, it's that when they go to sing the song to summon Mothra, the film throws out a flurry of terrible digital and rear projection effects that look like the Elias wandered into a karaoke bar.
This is not a bizarre production still, it's an actual screenshot.
Well, Mothra oblingingly flies to Hokkaido to take on Death Ghidorah as the creature continues its rampage through the forests.  Oddly, at no point does the JSDF ever get involved in trying to stop the monster, so I guess the filmmakers correctly assumed we would just accept that Mothra is the world's only hope. Belvera is shocked to see Mothra, which doesn't make much sense--did she think Mothra wouldn't show up to protect her planet? Belvera, who seems to think she has control of Death Ghidorah despite that not appearing to be the case at all, yells to the creature that Mothra is old and weak and will be easy to defeat. Of course, even with all the antennae lasers, energy scales, and lightning blasts from her wings, Belvera is correct--Mothra is hopelessly out-classed by her foe.

To Mona and Lora's alarm, the baby Mothra senses her mother's brutal beatdown and hatches early to swim to Hokkaido. To make things a little less confusing, I'm going to call this baby Mothra by her official name (which is not actually used in the films), Mothra Leo. Side note: as someone whose favorite form of Mothra is her larval form, it's extra disappointing that Leo will only spend a portion of this first film in her larval form. Though, at least we actually get to see her larval form in this film for more than five seconds, unlike Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack. (I'll have even more harsh words for that film whenever I evetually decide I want to get a lot of Godzilla fan hate mail)

As they flee from lava, Taiki and Wakaba are menaced by Belvera who tries to grab back the seal from them. Luckily, the fallen Mothra is sitting nearby and she uses energy tentacles to knock the seal from Belvera's grasp. Belvera, not wanting to find out what happens if Mothra decides to do something harsher, flees. Wakaba suggests that Taiki use the seal to give energy to Mothra like the Elias did for Fairy. Surprisingly, it works, and Mothra returns to the air as Leo arrives.

"We have to fight that thing? Is it too late to negotiate a truce, mom?"
Now, the previous incarnation of Mothra's larval form in the Heisei series had corrosive silk--or at least it burned Godzilla slightly before thoroughly pissing him off--but was otherwise still the classic "giant caterpillar." Leo, on the other hand, has silk that glows and flashes like a silly string rave and has a move where she rears up and fires an energy blast from her belly. You'd think the combined attack of Leo and her mother would then turn the tide, but not so much. Especially since Death Ghidorah listens to Belvera's advice and turns his attack toward Leo and pins the poor larva beneath his foot. Then, in a moment that reminds you that the Japanese have some very different ideas about what is acceptable for kids, Death Ghidorah lifts Leo up in two of his mouths as she gushes yellow blood from her wounds.

Luckily, Mothra intervenes before Leo can be torn in two and the worm uses another of her abilities--a cloaking device that turns her into a transparent outline. The film claims it's "camouflage" but we're talking Predator-style, not anything you'd see in nature.Unfortunately, when Death Ghidorah uses his flame breath to set the forest ablaze it renders that disguise useless. Mr. Goto, meanwhile, rescues his children from the ledge they're trapped on even as his feet catch fire.

Mothra and Leo are losing badly when they finally lure Death Ghidorah over to a dam. A stray lightning blast from their foe destroys the dam and Mothra carries Leo to safety as the wall of water sends Death Ghidorah tumbling ass over teakettle. Unfortunately, once they're out to sea Mothra rapidly loses altitude until mother and daughter crash into the ocean. Leo tries to lift her floundering mother up, but it's no use. As Leo, the Elias, and the Gotos watch mournfully, Mothra sinks beneath the waves and disappears into the murky depths of the Pacific Ocean.

It's the first time adult Mothra and baby Mothra have ever seen each other face-to-face before the adult dies, and while the sequence doesn't tug at the heart strings as much as it wants to, I will give credit to the scene for trying.

Leo swims away in front of the setting sun, before making landfall on a heavily wooded island. Meanwhile, the Gotos make their way to the nearest hospital. At the hospital they watch a news report. While talking about the effects of Death Ghidorah, the newscasters announce that Leo has been sighted on Yaku Island, which is known for its trees that are thousands of years old. Then we see the obnoxious reporter from earlier is also at the hospital, talking on his clunky 1990s cell phone about how it's become hard to breathe in the area thanks to Death Ghidorah's movements. When a nurse tries to get him off the phone because it's against regulations, it starts a scuffle that ends with a doctor confiscating the phone like the reporter is a naughty student. The reporter then recongnizes Mr. Goto and tries to attack him for letting the monster loose, but Mrs. Goto and another doctor pry him off. Taiki shames the guy into stopping his whining about, "We're all going to die," by telling him Mothra is going to save them.

Another news report then comes on that shows that Japanese newscasters are precogs as they announce that Death Ghidorah has taken to the skies. We then cut to Death Ghidorah sprouting wings via an energy blast (does any creature in this trilogy not require a needless animated effect to do anything?!) before taking flight in the typical Heisei Toho kaiju glide to blast more forests with his lightning bolts.

Leo spins herself a glowy, glittery coccoon around an ancient tree in order to gain energy from it. Her silk crackles with lightning as Mona and Lora sing her a motivating song (that's original  to the film, as I've never heard it before this film) as Fairy and some very confused monkeys look on. The coccoon glows and pulsates creepily, before disgorging millions of glowing moths that coalesce into the adult Leo, which is defintely the fuzziest, cuddliest Mothra ever designed.

The poodle moth looks like the Alien by comparison.
She immediately takes off for Hokkaido, with Fairy in pursuit. Mona and Lora are giddy because Leo is even faster than her mother. When the Gotos see the news report, Mrs. Goto asks the question that most people are probably wondering--sure, it's big, but it's still just a moth, so what can it hope to do against Death Ghidorah? Taiki replies that more people are killed by bee stings each year than by snake bites (and given this is Japan, he might actually mean by hornet sting), so you shouldn't write off an insect. Well, that took a dark turn.

Anyway, Taiki and Wakaba stupidly run off to watch the battle as Leo arrives to confront Death Ghidorah in mid-air. Belvera has only a moment to realize her plans have gone in the crapper before her sisters are chasing around the flying combatants. Leo, improving on her mother's powers, now fires a massive laser beam from three tiny eyes on her "forehead" instead of her antennae. Somehow, one of these blasts hits Garu-Garu and rather than vaporizing the little dragon and its rider as you would expect, it just causes them to crash to the forest below.

And now we discover that Leo has unlocked God Mode. It gets to the point where you begin to feel bad for Death Ghidorah as this final battle consists mainly of him repeatedly exploding as Leo hits him with laser beams, wing lightning, and huge blasts of light that shoot up from the ground. There is never a moment when Leo is not winning, even when they collide in mid-air.

These two collide and it ends badly for the dragon.
Leo also whips out the ability to turn back into a swarm of tiny moths and uses that to make Death Ghidorah explode some more. Meanwile, we see that the downed Garu-Garu is actually a robot, with its mechanical guts hanging out. Belvera doesn't have time to mourn her robotic steed before Mona and Lora swoop in so Fairy can carry her off in her claws ahead of a massive fireball. Meanwile, Leo flies straight up into the air using energy flowing off her abdomen to seal Death Ghidorah away--which really just looks like she is blasting him to smithereens, but the sound effects insist he's still alive.

Mona and Lora call for Taiki to toss the seal to them, so he throws it into the air and some glowly stuff happens before a huge glowing Mothra symbol (the one that looks like a giant cross surrounded by sunlight) appears hovering above Death Ghidorah's tomb. The symbol descends to the ground, and the Elias gleefully tell the kids that Death Ghidorah has been sealed away again. Taiki turns his eyes to Belvera dangling from Fairy's claws and wonders what to do wih her. Belvera solves that dilemma by shaking herself free from Fairy's grip.

Taiki, wakaba, and the Elias give chase as Belvera runs over to a stump. She spits at the Elias that they're stupid to trust humans because humans are destroying the Earth. That might mean more if it wasn't coming from the mouth of the person who deliberately set a planet-destroying monster free. At any rate, she turns and disappears through a knot in the stump. When Taiki goes to grab her, Mona and Lora tell him to stop. They reveal now that Belvera is their older sister and they love her, even if she causes trouble from time to time. Yeah, trying to destroy the world, what a scamp!

Mrs. Goto then appears pushing Mr. Goto in a wheelchair (!) through the ruined forest. When Leo lands nearby, Mona and Lora tell Taiki and Wakaba that they can ride on her. Somehow, Mr. & Mrs. Goto are okay with this and next thing we know the kids are standing on Leo's head as she takes flight. Mr. & Mrs. Goto view the scorched wasteland all around them and talk about how it's going to take years and a lot of hard work to restore the land to its original beauty. They blame humanity for it being destroyed in a matter of minutes, even though humaity is not a three-headed dragon from space. Still, they're hopeful that future generations will learn from their mistakes and treat the environment with respect...

...and then Leo flies around using her glowy powers to restore all the trees and grass to exactly where they were before. Welp, so much for that moral. Somewhere in this film's America (or perhaps, Rolisica), a politician is arguing down climate change with, "Why do we need to worry about global warming? Mothra will just fix it for us!"

Also, man, the ancient Mothras were terrible at their jobs if they weren't able to stop Death Ghidorah from wiping out the dinosaurs and apparently couldn't just restore all plant life, when one Mothra was able to do it.

Leo lands so the Gotos can re-unite on a grassy hillside and then Leo, Fairy, and the Eias fly off into the blue sky as a crayon rainbow (?) is animated across the sky. The End.

"Ruin the planet again, I dare you!"
Once upon a time, in the dark days when the only way to get new Japanese monster movies was to get your hands on bootleg copies, most of the Heisei films were but legends on this new-fangled thing called "internet message boards." At that time, those chosen few who had actually seen the films could argue back and forth while the rest of us could only gather around in wide-eyed wonder. During this time of great hardship, I read an argument about the merits of Shusuke Kaneko's Gamera films.

One person, in flagrant disregard of the opinions of 99% of the kaiju fandom, did not enjoy the films. The reason he gave was that it was like playing toy soldiers with a kid who refuses to lose. You know, "You dropped an H-Bomb on me? Well, my soldiers are wearing nuke-proof armor!" After all, Gamera always pulls the stops out to win impossibly at the last minute, right?

Well, he's not wrong. However, I would counter that Hesiei Gamera has nothing on Heisei Mothra when it comes to winning by pulling the impossible victory of of your ass. In every movie in the trilogy, Mothra gains more and more ridiculous powers to the point that the films no longer provide the suspense of, "How can she win?" Instead, you can only watch the films and ask, "How can she lose?"

This, to me, is the big reason why these movies are just not very good. (With the exception of Rebirth of Mothra II, which is so out-and-out terrible that not even the awesomeness of Aqua Mothra can save it) It's not merely that they're made for kids, that they're unoriginal, or that the human characters are so annoying. That would be bad enough, but the biggest sin of these movies is that they don't get Mothra.

Like many people when they finally saw the Heisei Godzilla films, I loved that when Mothra emerged as an imago in Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle For Earth and confronted Godzilla and Battra in Yokohama, she suddenly has beam weapons. Looking back on it now, it's already kind of ridiculous, but even in that film it isn't overdone. Mothra still needs Battra's help to defeat Godzilla, after all.

Along comes these films, and as I said before Mothra starts off in God Mode and if that ends up not being enough she transforms into whatever is necessary to kill the other monster. Mothra was always technically a Goddess, but now she is an immortal, all-powerful entity that cannot be stopped.

That is not Mothra.

Mothra wins because she keeps fighting, even when she cannot win. She fights against monsters that can breath radioactive fire, spit lightning at her, blast her with laser beams, or slice her up with blades when all she has going for her are the powers of a giant moth. She wins because she never gives up. She wins because she uses strategy. Mothra overcomes utterly impossible odds to win and save the day.

Mothra Leo? She wins because she pounds the other monster with one punishing blow after another. Even Godzilla stumbles in the final fight. Even Godzilla doesn't spend the entire climactic fight winning. Of course we should want Mothra Leo to win. We saw what that three-headed bastard did to her mother. However, it's not very engaging if she spends the entire battle winning, now is it?

If David defeated Goliath by beating him to death with his bare hands, I'm not sure that the story would really have retained its relevance all these years.

All that aside, this film honestly isn't that bad. It's definitely not good, however, and it would be fine fodder for a group of friends to gather together and riff mercilessly. However, it's not quite as bad as its reputation would suggest.

For one thing, while its child actors are not very good they're still far from the obnoxious horrors that plagued the later Showa Gamera films like Gamera vs. Zigra. The Goto family, while mired in cliches that Hollywood loves, are actually fairly engaging. And Mona, Lora, and Belvera are actually a lot of fun: although as someone who used to be a kid who often had kind of a thing for the lady villains, I wish Belvera was given more to do.

The monsters, which are the real reason we're here, are also pretty good. The adult Mothras both look vaguely like parade floats come to life, but the larval Mothra is a step-up from the 1992 version (which is actually one of my favorites) and Death Ghidorah is awesome, even if his roar doesn't fit his character and his wings are a bit underwhelming.

The special effects, directed by the late Koichi Kawakita, are a mixed bag. The miniature sets are really good, even if the only building destroyed in the film is a dam, and there's overall a petty decent mixing of the Elias and Belvera with the regular-sized world--even if it's not as good as earlier films. The various beams and explosions look pretty great as well. However, there are also some truly abysmal green screen shots. Bert I. Gordon-style big, black outlines around the characters might actually look better.

All in all, the film will probably delight its target audience, which is good. Anyone over the age of about ten is probably going to be left somewhat wanting, but I've certainly seen worse. In the end this is just a rather middle of the road film. It's not painfully bad, nor is it exactly good--it straddles the line between the two, occasionally threatening to drift one way or the other but refusing to actually commit.

Like a moth that won't come out of its cocoon.


This is my second contribution to the June Bugs Roundtable. Check out the other entries below!

Checkpoint Telstar:
The Naked Jungle
The Deadly Mantis
Starship Troopers

Cinemasochist Apocalypse:
Skeeter
Caved In: Prehistoric Terror
Millennium Bug

Micro-Brewed Reviews:
Them!
Bug

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

June Bugs 2015: Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000)



If you've ever taken a film class, then you've heard of the auteur theory. If haven't heard of it, auteur theory holds that just like a written work has an "author," so does a film. Now, if you know even the barest amount about movie making, you know that just one film--from the cheapest indie production to a Hollywood mega-blockbuster--is a hugely collaborative effort. Still, auteur theory usually holds that a film has an author and that author is the director.

Now, there are some outliers. Some will argue, as you might expect, that the screenwriter is the auteur, or maybe the executive producer, or the cinematographer--you know, the person who is responsible for how a film looks. And obviously some directors are easier to argue as auteurs than others: John Carpenter is an auteur because he writes, directs, and often composes the music; Stanley Kubrick was an auteur because you know when you're watching a Kubrick film; Joe Dante is an auteur because his works so often touch on the same themes and motifs.

Meanwhile, almost nobody would call Tobe Hooper or Jonathan Frakes an auteur. That's not an insult to Hooper or Frakes, because being an auteur doesn't automatically make you a good director or mean that your movies are always going to be good. It just means that, as a director, you don't have any quality that can make an audience go, "Yes, truly, this is a Jonathan Frakes film!"

So right about now you're wondering, "What the hell does auteur theory have to do with Godzilla, you pompous twit?" Well, first of all, Godzilla movies are still movies. Just because the Academy will never recognize one for an award, because they're too busy heaping praise on white guilt assuagers and the occasional rock-stupid blockbuster that has a "legitimate" director behind it, doesn't mean that Godzilla movies just pop out of the ground fully-formed like potatoes or Uruk-hai. Which means there is actual potential for an auteur to appear in the genre.

Oh, sure, it's still rather a rare event. Ishiro Honda is an obvious auteur. You could always tell when he was directing, even when it was something seemingly outside of his usual wheelhouse like Godzilla's Revenge. Jun Fukuda, on the other hand, is more of a default assumption. "Oh, Honda didn't direct this one? Must have been Fukuda, then." After the series' revival in 1984, forget it. Can you tell the difference between a Takao Okawara film and a Kazuki Omori one? I'm obsessed with Godzilla and I sure as hell can't.

However, there were still some auteurs waiting in the wings. I'm not talking about Shusuke Kaneko or Ryuhei Kitamura: those two were brought on as directors for the series specifically because of the kinds of films they were known for, so I don't need to argue for their status. No, I'm talking about Masaaki Tezuka.

Tezuka came onto the Godzilla series with today's film, and he delivered two more after that. All three films share common themes such as a strong female protagonist, the misuse of technology, the need to prove one's self, and the sins of the past being put right. All three films feature the music of Michiru Oshima--the first woman composer of the series, to my knowledge--and a recurring collaboration with a composer is a common aspect of an auteur.

However, as I said before, just because someone is an auteur does not mean that they automatically make good movies.

As with any Godzilla movie, Godzilla vs. Megaguirus needs to start by making sure we understand what continuity we're following. Well, actually, this film was probably the first one that had to do that. The Showa films all basically followed the same continuity from 1954 until 1975, excluding the bizarre outliers Destroy All Monsters and Godzilla's Revenge. When the series was rebooted in 1984 for the Heisei series, it ignored all but the original 1954 film and then continued on in its new continuity--the only monkey wrench in the works being the fact that a time travel plot in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah made the following films' continuity nigh incomprehensible because not every film remembered that plot line.

However, the third distinct series of Godzilla films, the Millennium series, was kicked off in 1999 by Godzilla 2000 as a desperate bid to erase the first American fiasco from public consciousness. It was supposedly another reboot, but the film's plot in no way required that you read it that way. It could just as easily be a direct sequel to Godzilla vs. Destoroyah. For some reason Toho decided that the film's follow-up should be another reboot. In fact, every film in the Millennium series is a reboot--with one notable exception.

Sadly, Sony didn't copy this model with their second Spider-Man series or we might have been spared The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

Well, naturally, if you're going to go the route of just throwing out continuity whenever you feel like it, you need to establish what continuity you do have. Usually the answer is just, "Well, in 1954 Godzilla destroyed Tokyo and was killed, but now we have another one to deal with." Godzilla vs. Megaguirus proves to be the first to do something slightly different. By which, I mean they recreate some of the footage from the original Godzilla with this movie's suit--which is the same as the Godzilla 2000 suit, although there do seem to be some subtle differences that I can't put my finger on--and use that as a set-up for a big exposition bomb.

"I'm not addicted! I can stop eating these things any time I want!"
This is all delivered, in easily the best part of the film, via mock Newsreel footage. The Newsreel explains that Godzilla came ashore and wrecked Tokyo, before returning to the ocean. There was apparently either no Oxygen Destroyer in this continuity, or Dr. Serizawa actually kept his secret, because Japan decided to just rebuild Tokyo and move the capitol to Osaka--and I mean that literally, as we see the Diet Building is easily visible from Osaka Castle--and leave Godzilla the hell alone.

Apparently this worked, until 1966. Then Japan built their first nuclear plant in Tokai. Godzilla promptly appeared and destroyed the hell out of that. Somehow Japan's government correctly interpreted this to mean that Godzilla was attracted to nuclear power and would destroy any source of it within his chosen territory. Japan then fulfilled every hippy's dream by outlawing nuclear power and switching to wind, water, and solar energy.

Sadly for the hippies, it was not sufficient to meet Japan's increasing demand for energy. So, in 1996 an experimental form of "plasma energy" was set up in Osaka, which we see government official Motohiko Sugiura (Masato Ibu) gleefully announcing. Everybody was very excited about this, since it as a clean energy that could still do the work of nuclear energy. Who could be opposed to that?
Oh. Right.
The film proper opens in Osaka in 1996, as a squadron of troops commanded by Takuji Miyagawa (Toshiyuki Nagashima, who had rather a more significant role as Colonel Watarase in Gamera 2: Advent of Legion) is being deployed to stop Godzilla before he reaches the experimental reactor. So what awesome experimental weapons are this squad carrying that will allow them to take out Godzilla? Bazookas. No, not laser bazookas, not bazookas with drill rockets, or even homemade bazookas that shoot diamonds--these are regular bazookas. Understandably, the squad needs some serious pep talk from Miyagawa, and he especially focuses his pep talk at Kiriko Tsujimori (Misato Tanaka), who actually seems less "terrified out of her wits" and more "lost in thought" when he calls her to attention.

Well, the pep talk somehow holds even when the squad sees the beast they're supposed to be chasing after with the equivalent of pea shooters. Miyagawa advises them to aim for the legs and for a moment you begin to see the potential wisdom in the strategy. I mean, tanks have no hope of dodging Godzilla, but in theory a small group of infantry should escape his notice and have an easier time dodging his wrath.

Theory does not translate to practice. Human legs are not fast enough to get the troops to safety when Godzilla responds to their attacks by knocking buildings over on top of them. (This is where we get a good idea of how inconsistent the film's effects are--much of this sequence is great, but there's a shot of Godzilla's footsteps knocking over two garbage cans that is just sad) Most of the troops are crushed by Godzilla, succeeding only in delaying the great beast by making it stop its advance just long enough to kill them. Tsujimori waits near the building that is housing the plasma reactor. When Godzilla appears she fires a rocket, in a dramatic shot that leads up to--the rocket exploding harmlessly against Godzilla's chest. He sure looks pissed off as his face appears through the resulting smoke, but this suit always looks pissed.

Tsujimori prepares another rocket, just as Miyagawa appears to drag her away from the hopeless task. She insists on one more shot and it is only by directly ordering her that he gets her to abandon her post. It's too late, however. Godzilla smashes into the building they were defending and a chunk of scaffolding plunges towards them. For some reason, Miyagawa decides to shove Tsujimori out of the rubble's path, but then remains standing in place so he can be crushed by himself. (And despite the significant close-up on the plunging scaffolding in the miniature shots, Miyagawa is crushed by chunks of concrete) Tsujimori recovers his dog tags from the rubble and, having activated her vengeance-driven backstory, she goes ahead and takes that last shot at Godzilla as he continues to tear the building to pieces.

I'm sure Godzilla would probably say it tickled slightly.

Flash forward to 2001, this film's present. Tsujimori, now a Major, is leading a group of official-looking folks through a busy mall in Akhihabara. Their destination is a shop run by a long-haired goofball in a backwards baseball cap named Hajime Kudo (Shosuke Tanihara). He is currently dazzling a group of schoolkids with a magic trick, where he puts a bunch of ingredients on a table next to a spoon, covers the ingredients and spoon with with a bowl for five seconds, and then removes the bowl to reveal a spoon full of curry on rice. Tsujimori ruins Kudo's trick by revealing to the kids that the bowl is actually a microwave oven that contains three tiny robots that mix the ingredients while the bowl cooks them.

In a result that I can only attribute to this being set in Japan, the kids immediately lose interest in Kudo's shop after discovering it was robots all along. They probably see five robots before lunch, but magic is hard to come by. Kudo angrily asks who Tsujimori thinks she is, ruining his street cred like that. Tsujimori advises that she's with The G-Graspers, which is officially the dumbest anti-Godzilla group name in the series' history. I mean, they may be silly, but at least "The Anti-Megalosaurus Force" and "Japan Counter-Xenomorph Self Defense Force" actually sound cool. "G-Grasper" implies you're going to, at best, give Godzilla a purple nurple.

At any rate, The G-Titty Twisters need Kudo's miniature robotics skills, so he is whisked away to their headquarters. There we note that Sugiura is hanging around, brooding over a chess set, and Kudo is introduced to a familiar face--his mentor, Professor Yoshino Yoshizawa (Yuriko Hoshi, better known as the photographer Junko in Mothra vs. Godzilla and reporter Naoko in Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster). It's a rather uncomfortable reunion, as Yoshizawa asks Kudo how he feels about joining her team and he makes a joke about not wanting to die young. See, Yoshizawa and her team were inside that building in Osaka that Godzilla was so keen on destroying in 1996, and she's the only one who made it out. Kudo apologizes for being a colossal dick, but Yoshizawa shrugs it off and focuses on her sales pitch.

The G-Gropers have stumbled upon a perfect plan to eradicate Godzilla. Kudo is skeptical. As he sees it, why would they even need to destroy Godzilla? As long as they stop doing shit Godzilla doesn't like, the creature will stay sleeping in some ocean trench indefinitely. Tsujimori and Yoshizawa are both sick of that approach, however. No, they're going to get rid of Godzilla with the greatest secret weapon ever devised, Dimension Tide: an artificial black hole, launched from a satellite-mounted cannon. As Yoshizawa explains, not even light waves can escape a black hole so Godzilla will be unable to avoid being sucked into the singularity and no longer be a problem.

Kudo somehow reacts to this plan--of launching possibly the most destructive force in the universe at planet Earth to kill a creature that can destroy, at most, one city a day--with enthusiastic approval. Yosihizawa explains that they need Kudo because, while they can create the black hole, they have no idea how to make it small enough to be launched from a satellite. Yes, that is clearly the trouble with this strategy.

Honestly, this whole plot line is hilariously indicative of how much pop culture can change over the years. In the original Godzilla, Dr. Serizawa agonizes about the device he is created that could reduce a large body of water to a lifeless void because he fears the destructive power of the thing falling into the hands of governments who would only see its marvelous potential as a weapon of mass destruction. He is reluctant to use it against Godzilla because he fears it is more terrifying than  the beast itself. Obviously, it's as much a nuclear allegory as a plot device--what if we could prevent nuclear weapons, but the weapon that replaced them was even more horrible? Meanwhile, just under 50 years later, this film give us a bunch of doofuses who have created a black hole cannon, which could destroy the entire planet, and nobody ever seems bothered by that in the film. It kind of goes to show how even nuclear weapons, the most destructive force humanity has ever created, have stopped actually scaring anyone--even in the one country that knows their true horror.

Anyway, Kudo joins the project. It's not a moment too soon, as a satellite monitor indicates Godzilla is stirring in the ocean trench he calls home. Sugiura urges Yoshizawa and Tsujimori to get that project ready in a hurry.

They get it ready in a hurry, all right, and set up a test firing outside a small village in the countryside. For some reason, they have decided this test will be top secret. I mean, it's not like Godzilla is going to catch wind of it and the rest of the world will probably be a bit irate that Japan has developed the most destructive weapon ever in total secret. Still, that's the plan and they block off the roads. Unfortunately, they didn't factor in...The Kenny.

Well, in this case his name is Jun (Suzuki Hiroyuki), but he's a Kenny. His mother is busy packing for their upcoming move to Tokyo, but like most kids Jun decides a better use of his time is running off to show a friend his bug collection. A road block doesn't stop him from going through the woods and watching as the G-Graspers point their huge Black Hole Cannon at what appears to be an abandoned school building. (Cue Alice Cooper) As everyone is getting set up, Yoshizawa and Sugiura have a significant exchange about how plasma energy made Dimension Tide possible and after Godzilla is destroyed it is vital that no trace of plasma energy remain. Sugiura gets a bad case of the shifty eyes at this.

Kudo excitedly gives the trigger to Yoshizawa, saying she'll go down in history. And how! Everyone puts on protective glasses--except for Jun, obviously--and the Dimension Tide is fired. Naturally it's all glowy and bright, despite sucking in all light waves. Also, somehow the black hole goes to the exact target, strafing the ground, and after it obliterates the building it vanishes, leaving behind a crater. How they guaranteed the black hole would A) travel, B) stop at its target, and C) cease to exist once it destroyed the target is never addressed. It's probably for the best, since any attempt to apply actual physics to this movie is madness.

Well, the black hole actually leaves something else behind: a shimmering in the air that Yoshizawa identifies as a wormhole, or a rift in time and space. Everyone marvels that such a thing exists, and once it seemingly vanishes they forget all about it. Never mind the terrifying implications of tearing a hole in the fabric of reality! Tsujimori is called away because a guard has found Jun. Her response is to tell Jun to keep this their little secret. Sadly, she sticks to that approach instead of a bullet to the skull even after Jun asks why a woman is fighting Godzilla.

You might think I'm being harsh by suggesting this kid should have been killed. Well, I'm not. See, that night Jun sees a strange shadow pass over is window and goes into the woods to investigate. The shadow belongs to a giant dragonfly, 2 meters long, which Jun watches fly back through that wormhole nobody gave a crap about. Jun discovers that the dragonfly laid a huge egg in a puddle--and takes the egg with him. And by with him, I mean for the move to Tokyo. In his family's new apartment, Jun notices that the egg is getting slimy and decides to...put it out for the garbage. When a neighbor foils that plan by telling him he has to bring garbage down tomorrow, when there's actual collection, the little twerp dumps the egg down a storm drain.

Remember how I said the egg's mother was a dragonfly? Well, where do dragonflies like to lay their eggs? That's right, in water. And it turns out that the egg is actually an egg case, and smaller eggs bud off after it sinks to the bottom of the sewer...

Kudo, meanwhile, is bothering Tsujimori when she's trying to work out by hitting on her. He also offers her a special round that he claims is a standard ammo round, but with a satellite tracker in it. In an emergency, she can just shoot it at something and the cavalry will come running. However, Kudo notices Miyagawa's dog tags and that kills any attempt at conversation. One of the grunts in the gym explains to Kudo that he was part of the doomed bazooka troop at the beginning, and that Tsujimori has sworn vengeance on Godzilla. Tsujimori then tests the tracking bullet by loading it into what appears to be a Very pistol (so much for being a standard round) and shooting it at a free weight.

Meanwhile, a strange flooding has started in Tokyo. Jun notices it in a back alley during the day and seemingly begins to realize he may have doomed the world. That night, a pair of bumbling Abbott & Costello-esque public works guys are investigating a similar sot where the payment is cracked and water is bubbling up. As they argue about overtime and the need for an excavator, they fail to notice a gigantic bug about 2 meters long, which we will later come to know as a Meganulon, watching them hungrily from its perch on the wall of a nearby building. Unfortunately, the bug decides it doesn't want to eat them and retreats.

Unfortunately for a young couple happily walking down the street, they appear more appetizing. The young woman goes to buy them a beer and the man waits for her in an alley listening to his headphones--and the Meganulon strikes. It's a rather shockingly brutal attack, too, presented in quick cuts. The Meganulon spits some kind of green liquid at the guy, which makes the sequence seem rather bloody when in fact the gore is actually all implied. When the woman returns, she finds his slimy headphones before the Meganulon spits in her face and drags her behind a fence to discretely kill her offscreen.

"I'm your boyfriend now!"
We next see ther Meganuon as it climbs up a building and sheds its skin like a cicada, to become the kind of giant dragonfly we saw earlier--which we'll soon learn is a Meganula. More on that in a minute, first I need to address the Meganulon.

Now, if the name "Meganulon" means anything to you, then you're exactly the same kind of nerd as I am. If it doesn't, well, allow me to explain: the Meganulon was introduced in Rodan, the 1956 film that also introduced the giant pterosaur we all know and love. There, they attack a town of coal miners before a pair of Rodans hatch and devour the killer insects that they tower over. The Meganulons never made another appearance, but they were very memorable and thus remained very popular in the Godzilla fandom. The original creatures looked something like a caterpillar and a scorpion got involved in a teleportation accident.

Meganulon, original recipe.
Well, when Godzilla vs. Megaguirus was announced, a lot of the early press was about how Godzilla's foe would be derived from the Meganulons. It would be an exaggeration to say it was a major selling point, but it was definitely a selling point. So you'd think this new, improved Meganulon would get a fair amount of screentime.

Meganulon, extra crispy.
However, I've just described to you the extent of the Meganulon's appearance in the film. You can barely see it--in order to make its attack on the couple more horrifying--and it's little more than a cameo. Like I said, though, we're talking about a creature that was little more than a way to get the plot in motion in its original film, so it's not like this alone would be enough to ruin the film. It's just a very bizarre way of going about things.

At any rate, the Meganula that hatched buzzes Jun's new apartment and the little twerp finally realizes that maybe he should call Tsujimori. Tsujimori takes the path of assuring Jun that it's not his fault that he brought an egg he new belonged to a giant monster to a crowded city and dumped it into a sewer so it could hatch and kill people. Jun shows her a book he has about prehistoric animals and explains the creature is a giant prehistoric dragonfly called Meganula. (I will note here that Meganuon and Meganula are derived from the name of an actual creature, Meganeura, that was a giant dragonfly--though obviously nowhere near as large) Tsujimori thanks Jun for letting her know about the Meganula...

...and then does nothing about it until a satellite photo shows an annoyed Godzilla firing his flame breath at a giant dragonfly. Tsujimori and her G-Grasper crew take the Griffon, a super-advanced fighter plane, out to where the confrontation took place. Godzilla apparently went right back under the ocean after killing the Meganula, so Tsujimori and another crew member head down in a raft to take samples from the dead dragonfly.

And then Godzilla rises back to the surface, directly beneath them. Tsujimori stays with the raft after sending her underling back up. Godzilla surfacing knocks Tsujimori into the water and, in one of the film's coolest sequences, she swims over to Godzilla as the creature cruises through the waves like an enormous crocodile. I can't adequately express how ecstatically happy it always makes me to see Godzilla swimming this way.

"Target Locked. Fire missiles to commit suicide."
Now, you may ask why the hell Tsujimori has decided to become the first person to ever climb on Godzilla's back. (In the actual films, at least) After all, even her Radiation "Alart" [sic] badge is loudly beeping at her to say how bad an idea this is. Well, it turns out she has decided to shoot Godzilla with Kudo's tracking bullet.

That's right, she risked radiation poisoning to tag Godzilla. Godzilla. The 55-meter tall radioactive dinosaur that they can clearly follow by satellite already. Boy, that sure was a good reason to risk your life, Major.

In fact, a SGS ("Search Godzilla System"--yes, really) device is dropped by the Griffon to follow Godzilla under water after Tsujimori is knocked off his back and it seems to have no trouble following him with or without the tracking bullet. Well, her decision sure looked cool, at least. Back at G-Grasper HQ, a Scientist explains that the creature Godzilla killed was definitely a Meganula. This Scientist has clearly stepped out of a Showa film--though more likely Showa Gamera than Showa Godzilla--as he looks vaguely like Colonel Sanders and makes pronouncements about prehistoric animals he has no way of knowing. Like that Meganula lived in huge swarms (a reasonable assertion) and was extremely aggressive (which he could not know based on fossil evidence alone).

Despite his impressive knowledge, even he's a bit shocked when someone rushes into the room, pulling a "Quick, Turn On The News" and they discover that the Shibuya district of Tokyo has flooded. And I mean flooded up to a god five stories. Somehow, the Meganula are responsible for this. Kudo confirms this when he provides a mini-SGS device to the military and its camera sends back footage of huge batches of eggs under all the water.

Meanwhile, Dimension Tide has been launched into space and Tsujimori and Sugiura have made a presentation to the top brass assuring them that they are ready to lure Godzilla to an uninhabited island (because they are uncertain if a black hole will work through water, for some reason) and kill him with the weapon. This is news to Kudo and Yoshizawa, who confront Tsujimori and Sugiura when they return to HQ. DT hasn't been fully calibrated, they argue, but their objections are overruled and the plan goes ahead.

Griffon and several ordinary fighter planes--F-22s, I think--antagonize Godzilla with torpedoes until the creature pursues them. Honestly, I think Griffon should have done the job alone, since it's so much more manueverable than the other fighters that it ends up dodging the inevitable return fire--and thus gets most of the other planes destroyed and their pilots killed when they can't dodge it. Ignoring the death of their comrades, Griffon successfully lures Godzilla to the island with blasts from their photon gun.

Well, there's about to a be a major fly in the ointment--a dragonfly to be precise. Back in Shibuya, a boat full of soldiers carrying dynamite in order to blow up those eggs has discovered that their quarry has already hatched and entire buildings are covered with Meganulons that are busy hatching into Meganula. I'm not sure if the film wants you to remember the fact that one Meganulon earlier had to eat two people before it could moult into an adult, but if so that means that Jun is now responsible for the deaths of thousands of people even before you factor in anybody who was surely killed by the rapid flooding. Good job, Kenny!

While some of the Meganulons and Megaula are killed by the soldiers' gunfire, the vast majority successfuly moult and take flight. However, it seems that unlike their nymph stage they have no interest in human flesh as they don't attack the soldiers, although the force of their wings knocks some of the soldiers out of the boat, but instead the Meganula just fly out to sea. You can guess where they're going. Sure enough, they're going after Godzilla.

In fact, the swarm arrives just as Godzilla is getting into the perfect position for Dimension Tide to lock on to him. Somehow the dragonflies make establishing a target lock impossible, despite the fact it's a visual lock and Godzilla is still clearly visible through the swarm. Well, after Godzilla decides to blast several of the Meganula out the sky, the swarm descends on him.

"OH GOD, GET THEM OFF ME! GET THEM OFFFFF!"
This sequence is not exactly original. In Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, several small Destoroyahs swarm over Godzilla--but the sequence here is much closer to Gamera 2: Advent of Legion where Gamera is swarmed by the insectoid Legion soldiers and gets the bejesus stung out of him. Godzilla fares somewhat better here. The Meganula sting him all over, yes, but they are doing so in order to drain energy from him and they don't thoroughly cover him like the Legion did to Gamera. As such, Godzilla has an easier time squashing them with claws, feet, tail, and jaws--and then the radiation from his glowing dorsal plates fries several of them before his flame breath kills hundreds more.

I'm going to warn you now, this is the best fight in the film.

Godzilla doesn't get to gloat too long over his victory as he has cleared enough of his foes for a target lock to be effective. DT is fired and Godzilla gets one hell of a surprise when a Black Hole strikes the island. After the singularity vanishes--no doubt having this time unleashed a school of voracious giant sea scorpions unto the world--Griffon crusises over the crater and hordes of dead or stunned Meganula to confirm the kill. Unfortunately, it turns out that even the most destructive force in the universe is worthless if you miss the target. That's right, a very angry and bewildered Godzilla bursts out of a pile of fall rocks. DT takes an hour to cool down, so there's no chance of firing again. After a significant glance back over his shoulder at Griffon, Godzilla follows the swarm of Meganula as they fly back to Tokyo.

Tsujimori blames Kudo for the foul-up, he blames her for not listening to them when they told her they weren't ready. He'd have a much stronger case if he didn't follow this up by trying to put a hand on her, which triggers her self-defense training to shut him down. Luckily, Yoshizawa breaks it up or Kudo would be missing an arm. Yoshizawa advises that next time it will work.

Now, despite the fact that it would seem safe to assume that Godzilla is following his foes back to their lair to retaliate, Tsujimori suspects that he's heading to Tokyo for another reason. Like maybe somebody's been working on plasma energy in secret. Yoshizawa looks to Sugiura, who gets a bad case of "WE'RE NOT HIDING ANYTHING" and excuses himself. Sugiura makes a phone call to some anonymous shady government official, saing he thought that the plant had been shut down and assuring the person on the other end that it won't come back on them. He then hangs up and agrily knocks all the pieces off his chess set--which appears to be the exact reason he keeps it around.

I should do that. It must be very cathartic until you have to pick up the pieces.

In Shibuya, the Meganula dive under he water and swim down to what appears to be an enormous Meganulon, 50 meters long. This Meganulon is pretty much immobile, and the Meganula sting it in order to feed the energy they harvested from Godzilla. Once the energy is all transferred, the Meganula float to the surface, dead. The huge Meganulon then begins to moult...

That night, Kudo is at the camp for a bunch of soldiers just outside the flood zone. The mini-SGS devices that he gave them are all malfunctioning, and Kudo can't figure out why. It suddenly occurs to him that maybe it's something magnetic under the water: just as the surface of the water begins to churn. As Kudo and the soldiers watch, the water explodes--and a giant dragonfly appears, hovering above the water. The emphasis here is far more on dragon than fly.

"Sir Small can't save you now!"
We'll shortly learn this is Megaguirus. It takes no time at all, though, to learn that Megaguirus is not a very good monster. She's basically an enhanced version of Battra, which is is cool on the surface--except she is supposed to be an enormous dragonfly, but she flaps her wings leisurely like Mothra. She's also an incredibly stiff puppet and even when the wires holding her up are actually obscured, she still wobbles awkwardly on them.

Worst of all is that, occasionally, she flaps her wings rapidly. This causes some kind of sonic attack (?!), but the effects are terrible. Somehow the rapid flapping effect for the Meganula was just fine but the effects artists just could not make it work for Megaguirus. Well, she uses her sonic attack to bring half of Shibuya down on the soldiers and Kudo...

...but Kudo wakes up in the G-Grasper's hospital wing with only a fractured arm in a cast and some miscellaneous bandages. The all-knowing scientist decides only now to explain that the Meganula species has a queen called Megaguirus. Thanks a lot, jerk. However, the G-Graspers aren't really all that concerned about the species of rapidly reproducing, man-eating giant insects that can now destroy cities. This is mainly because Godzilla is now in Tokyo Bay.

Tokyo is evacuated, Griffon is scrambled to intercept--in a really cool bit where Godzilla's surfacing is counted down by the amount of meters to the surface and his rising from the ocean is accompanied by Akira Ifukube's classic Godzilla theme--and DT is geared up for another shot. Yes, they're going to fire a black hole on Tokyo. Well, at least that's the plan before Megaguirus reappears from wherever she buggered off to earlier, dramatically flying over Griffon. Megaguirus starts off her fight with Godzilla by attacking with her sound wave attack. This somehow forces Griffon out of the air, overloads the power at the G-Grasper HQ, and wreaks havoc with the DT satellite. Yes, the satellite that's in space. No, I don't get it, either.

It also somehow crashes the DT computer system and wipes out all of the backups. Did Megaguirus give their system a virus?! And then the DT satellite just starts to drop out of orbit. By which I mean straight down. That's...that's not how orbit works. That's not how any of this works!

Luckily, Kudo comes to rescue even in his injured state. He plugs in his laptop and sets to work with his self-made anti-virus program, which for some reason involves a chibi sexy nurse animated graphic. Now that repairing system paths is required, the nurse turns into--a sexy chibi animated graphic of Tsujimori with a jet pack and a laser blaster. Yes, he based his program on a woman he works with and has a crush on. No, that's not creepy at all.

"You brute, you brute, you brute!"
Meanwhile--oh, God. *sigh* Meanwhile, easily the candidate for worst kaiju battle ever is taking place. Where to even begin? Most of the fight is a badly animated Megaguirus using her buzzing wings to dart in and out of frame, occasionally smacking Godzilla before dodging his flame breath. Eventually, she stings him in what appears to be the crotch (ouch!) and begins draining energy from him, which prevents him from using his flame breath on her. She then throws him into a building and then--her lipless mouth curling into a smile via bad digital manipulation--knocks the rest of the building onto his head. This causes him to stand up and shake his head to clear it, like Ash shaking off his cartoonishly stretched face in Army of Darkness after picking the wrong book.

Godzilla turns the tide by cutting off one of her claws with his plates, before planting her tail into the ground and...*sigh*...leaping a mile into the air and body slamming her. Did I wander into "Godzilla vs. Charles Barkley" by mistake?

It's less hard to believe Godzilla actually flying.
Megaguirus retaliates by channeling the energy from her opponent into a fireball and launching it at him. Godzilla does a double take at this, then falls over after it hits him. However, when Megaguirus tries to sting Godzilla one last time, he catches her stinger in his teeth and dramatically bites it off. It takes just two blasts of flame breath before Megaguirus goes up in flames and then blows up spectacularly.

Well, at least that's over.

Big Bug-Da-Boom!
Godzilla is on a mission, however. He continues on through Tokyo, including a shot that "comically" implies that Godzilla just casually walked across a now-crumbling suspension bridge. Oof.

Eventually, Godzilla finds his way to one specific building and begins smashing it. Tsujimori and Yoshizawa confront Sugiura on a rooftop overlooking the carnage. Yep, Sugiura knew that plasma energy research was still going on in secret. Tsujimori slugs him for his duplicity, but then Kudo reaches her via radio and lets er know that DT is back up and running. They have just enough time for one shot before it burns up in re-entry. Unfortunately, they can't lock onto Godzilla. Tsujimori takes the controls of Griffon and tells Kudo to lock onto Griffon's signal after she flies high above the city.

Once the target is locked, she sends Griffon into a dive bomb and orders Kudo to fire just as she ejects. Poor Godzilla gets hit with an exploding super-plane and set on fire. (And I do mean on fire: there's behind the scenes footage out there of suit actor Tsutomu Kitagawa immediately falling to the ground as technicians hurriedly rush over to extinguish the flames before they urn through the suit) DT fires and the satellite is blown to pieces. Godzilla sees the black hole coming and tries to use his flame breath on it--but this time, it hits him directly.

The smoke clears, Tsujimori lands safely, and everyone rejoices: Godzilla is gone. ...Or is he? The film ends with Tsujimori visiting Kudo at his old shop because mysterious seismic activity has been reported that could suggest Godzilla somehow broke out of the Black Hole. Well, that or they missed again. It could also be that they released Cthulhu. At any rate, we get the comedy freeze-frame ending after Tsujmori bumps Kudo's broken arm...

...and then at the end of the credits, we see Jun at school. Apparently, there is some justice in the world because this credit cookie implies that Jun witnesses Godzilla breaking free of the ground. I say justice because we freeze on Jun's face as Godzilla's roar echoes and I choose to believe Godzilla then squashes the little turd.

"Hadouken!"
There's a rather old saying, "Sex is like pizza: even when it's bad it's still pretty good." If you have ever had bad sex or bad pizza, you know that saying is full of shit. However, I bring it up simply to say that even when a Godzilla movie is bad, it's still pretty good.

See, every Godzilla movie--with one notable exception--has a notable advantage over any other movie in that it contains Godzilla. That automatically elevates even the worst Godzilla movie over dreck like Transformers: The Dark of the Moon. So, while Godzilla vs. Megaguirus is very bad indeed, I have still seen the damn thing numerous times and would happily see it yet again if someone asked me immediately after I finished this review.

It has Godzilla in it.

Truth be told, Godzilla vs. Megaguirus gets a lot right before it suddenly begins to get everything wrong. Sure, the Dimension Tide is fucking ridiculous, but if the rest of the film was as enjoyable as about the first half, I could roll with it. I mean, the first half has the recreation of Godzilla's 1954 attack, some neat world-building, and a good set-up for its characters and their mission. Hell, as awful as the trope of "the kid who dooms the world by playing around with monster eggs" is, even the way the Meganulons/Meganula are introduced is pretty great.

But then Megaguirus shows up and everything takes a nose dive. Not only is Megaguirus not horribly convincing as a puppet, but the flying effects for her during the fight look like something out of a Terry Gilliam cartoon with photo cut-outs banging into each other, Also, it's after her introduction that the film suddenly switches from a serious film with a serious Showa influence to...to...

I'm actually not sure what to call it. A parody of the silliest Showa films, like Godzilla vs. Megalon? A slapstick comedy with giant monsters? We're talking a film that features a young couple brutally devoured by a giant nightmare water bug, but then suddenly has Godzilla doing a Three Stooges routine. Given that the rest of the film seems to actually be serious, I'm left to wonder if the final fight's bizarre tone is a result of the filmmakers realizing that the effects for the sequence were subpar and deciding to play it for laughs.

Though really the incongruity of the tone for the final fight is indicative of Megaguirus herself. There's a concept called "The Sexy Lamp" that tests how disposable a film considers its female characters by asking if anything would change if the female character was replaced by a sexy lamp. Well, given that she's an enormous insect, Megaguirus isn't exactly what the concept has in mind, but honestly replacing her with a sexy lamp would improve the film.

Consider for a moment exactly what Megaguirus contributes to the film. Try to think how the film would be affected if she weren't in it at all, if this was just the story of the JSDF trying to use a Black Hole Gun to rid the world of Godzilla and there was no other monster. Oh, there'd have to be an explanation for why Dimension Tide wasn't working after Godzilla arrived in Tokyo, but that's about the only thing Megaguirus truly brings to the film. There's never even a moment where the G-Graspers have to consider that Megaguirus is a bigger threat than Godzilla or see her as an unlikely ally. She's just a thing that shows up, messes with their equipment, and then gets killed by Godzilla. Again, the most rewarding battle in the film is Godzilla versus a swarm of bugs, while the fight between Godzilla and their queen is absolutely terrible.

Well, terrible to my tastes. My one-year-old son seemed bizarrely delighted by that final fight. However, he also tries to eat napkins so his taste is questionable.

So the main villain monster is an utter disappointment, how do the rest fare? Well, the practical effects for the Meganulons and Meganula are pretty good, even if the miniature ones are very obviously miniature. The CGI versions are hit or miss. It's more miss than hit, but they still look better than the digital effects for Megaguirus. Godzilla looks great, however. Sure, it's just the Godzilla 2000 suit being reused, but that was a great suit. The CGI Godzilla that shows up in some of the ocean scenes is way better than the one in Godzilla 2000, however.

The human characters are adequate at best, really. With the exception of Jun, who is well-acted but a horrible character, none of them make much of an impression whether good or bad. Misato Tanaka does a fine job as Tsujimori, but while she brings a lot of charm to the role the character is ultimately just too flat. The rest of the central characters are even blander, and bordering on creepy in Kudo's case. However, they do fulfill their job as filler between monster scenes.

The score by Michiru Oshima is wonderful, which is a major point in its favor.And Masaaki Tezuka would get two more tries at helming a Godzilla movie after this. Luckily, he showed that he can do much, much better than this. But that's a tale for another time.

I certainly can't recommend Godzilla vs. Megaguirus to a non-fan, but I'm honestly a bit hesitant to recommend it to anyone. As Godzilla films go, I might not put it at the very bottom of the barrel but it is damned close. However, despite its myriad flaws it still has the most important thing going for it:

It has Godzilla in it.


This is my first entry in the June Bugs roundtable. The other entries are below.

Checkpoint Telstar:
The Naked Jungle
The Deadly Mantis

Cinemasochist Apocalypse:
Skeeter
Caved In: Prehistoric Terror

Micro-Brewed Reviews:
Them!