Friday, October 17, 2014

HubrisWeen, Day 12: Legend of Dinosaurs & Monster Birds (1977)

When it comes to Jaws rip-offs, nearly every country with a film industry got their chance to make one. And virtually every country that did made sure to make it as unique as possible instead of just making another killer shark film.

Yet there were surprisingly few who went, "You know what would be a great stand-in for a shark? Dinosaurs."

Well, sort of. Pop culture considers anything scaly and prehistoric a "dinosaur," but there are in fact no dinosaurs in this film. There are no "monster birds" for that matter. The monsters in this film are a plesiosaurus (not a dinosaur, but a reptile) and a Rhamphorynchus (not a bird, but also a reptile). Both of which are, as per movie tradition, way bigger than the actual animals in question were.

Yes, I'm a nerd. I think we've fully established that by now.

This film is also damned weird, and we get a taste of that weirdness immediately. A woman is wandering in the woods at the foot of Mt. Fuji, near Lake Sai. We never will find out why, but she is carrying a gun and seems suitably freaked out. She's even more freaked out when she suddenly falls into a hidden cavern full of ice and several fossil eggs. One of those eggs begins to hatch, and the terrified woman goes to investigate--only to recoil in screaming terror when a slimy eye inside the egg looks back. The woman somehow stumbles out of the hidden cave and runs into a group of construction workers before passing out and being taken to a local hospital.

In an airport lounge, the TV station is tuned to a news report about the various strange things happening in the world in 1977, no doubt as a result of man's misdeeds. After reporting an unseasonable snow storm in Hokkaido, the news reports that a woman reported finding a "stone egg" near Lake Sai before being rushed to a hospital. Apparently a "stone egg" is not a usual occurrence since everyone in the lounge is shocked--and Takashi Ashizawa (Tsunehiko Watase) especially takes note. Takashi, an archaeologist, cancels his flight to Mexico and heads to his office at Universal Stone Co, Ltd. in order to pack for a trip to Lake Sai, His boss barges in, demanding to know why Takashi has abandoned his business trip to Mexico. Takashi explains that his father, a paleontologist, found a "stone egg" (which I guess sounds cooler than "fossil egg") at Lake Sai and died after fruitlessly searching for others.

His boss reminds Takashi that he's a geologist, not a paleontologist, but Takashi just puts his cigarette out on the window pane and tells his boss he's going to Lake Sai even if it costs him his job. And, accompanied by the film's hilariously inappropriate 1970s jazz-disco soundtrack, he does just that.

Once there, he runs into some kooky locals who warn him that there are a lot of "long worms" about lately, by which they mean which they'll actually turn out to mean either caecillians or eels, I can't quite tell for certain. Takashi ignores them and heads out into woods to go searching for the fossil eggs--but a sudden earthquake knocks him out. He comes to underneath a stuffed crocodile, apparently having been brought to his father's old cabin by a family friend Shohei Muku (an actor whom neither Wikipedia nor IMDb want to credit). I like to think Shohei deliberately moved the crocodile above the bed just to fuck with Takashi,

Shohei and Takashi talk about his late father and Shohei brings out the fossil egg. Takashi muses that if you found a bunch of those you'd never have to worry about money for the rest of your life. I--I don't even know what to say to that, but apparently fossil eggs are worth more than diamonds in this universe. Shohei turns up his nose at that, saying he quite fossil hunting because too many people were only in it for the money (!) and he chides Takashi for being one of those. He also tells him not to get obsessed like his father. His father also apparently actually believed that there was a living dinosaur in Lake Sai for...some reason, so I'd say Takashi should listen to Shohei on this one.

Meanwhile, Akiko (Nobiko Sawa) and Junko (Tomoko Kiyoshima) are scuba diving in the lake, while their puppy waits in their raft. After they come ashore, Takashi stops his jeep to say hello to Akiko--the two having had a history. In Akiko's Winnebago, Takashi tries to make up for lost time--only to be interrupted when Akiko sees some of those "long worms" and recoils in horror.

Meanwhile, in a poorly shot sequence typical of this film, a couple out on the lake in a paddle boat is attacked and killed by something. We are shown this via a shot of log-like object floating towards them underwater--I have no idea if this is meant to be the Plesiosaur or not, but it sure looks nothing like it if it's supposed to be--followed by a close-up on a pen and paper on the shore as we hear their screams and splashing. A diver searching for the couple's bodies is later dragged out of the lake, apparently dead and bleeding from both eyes. It's at this point that Takashi begins to suspect his father may have been right.

He gets more confirmation that evening when poor Junko, out riding her bike with the puppy, suddenly loses control when the puppy tries to chase a loose horse that crossed their path into the woods. She follows the puppy and ends up falling in a mud puddle--right next to the headless horse. Takashi finds her and the horse, and reports the incident to the local authorities. However, the horse is gone by the time they get to the scene so they accuse Takashi of making it up to cause trouble right before the big dragon festival tomorrow. Takashi returns to the scene, finds a strange track that is definitely not a tire mark--and then discovers that the authorities missed the horse because it's now stuck in a tree.

Takashi is convinced this must mean a Plesiosaur is living in the lake. Shohei disagrees and thinks maybe it's a giant snake because that's...more believable? And at any rate, if a dinosaur were to be found alive that would mean the area would be hit with a category 5 earthquake. Wait...what?! I must have missed the part of science that tells us that the mere presence of a dinosaur causes earthquakes.

The lake's dragon festival begins with a concert where--horror of horrors--a Japanese country band is the main event. Akiko has been learning about the history of the lake, and how this festival is part of an old legend that spoke of a red-eyed dragon that lives in the lake. A dragon that, naturally, parents in the area have long used as a threat to disobedient children. Well, apparently that dragon is no more a fan of country music than I am, for a dark object in the lake suddenly destroys the stage, and in the midst of the panic one oddly giddy onlooker, Jiro, points out to farther into the lake. Following his direction, the panicked onlookers see the fin of a monstrous fish--only for an astute little girl with binoculars to realize that the fin is made of cardboard and is being pushed along by two divers.

Jiro was in on the all-too-familiar prank, naturally. Everybody laughs it off and the concert resumes--NOOOOOOOOO--with only Takashi stopping to ask what destroyed the stage if the pranksters were hundreds of yards away? Well, Takashi's not there when the pranksters find out the answer. When Jiro goes to reunite with his co-conspirators, a windstorm whips up and suddenly a whirlpool forms around their raft and a huge, reptilian tail knocks one of them into the lake where he is pulled under. (The editor helpfully failing to cut before we see the doomed man's legs bend when he lands at the bottom of the pool used for filming) The other man is grabbed by the Plesiosaur and it taunts Jiro with the dead body of his comrade clutched in its jaws.

Which means that the filmmakers clearly walked out of Jaws with the feeling that it was a grave injustice that the two little punks with a cardboard fin didn't get eaten by the real shark and decided to rectify that.

Mmm, ironic death!
The Plesiosaur here, and throughout the film, is rendered via a full-size prop head to interact with actors and a miniature puppet. In some scenes, it might even be a man in a suit but I can't confirm that. Neither the prop head nor the puppet are especially good and we get many close-ups on them to fully determine that. Though, in all fairness, they're about on par with the dinosaurs from Amicus Studios' The Land That Time Forgot, so they're certainly not the worst I've seen. And I do have to give them credit, as the prop head and the puppet actually look pretty close to each other. Though the decision to cover the prop head in sea weed and what looks like lawn clippings was a bizarre one.

Anyways, a family of gaijin tourists happens to see and photograph the Plesiosaur swimming through the lake, so they're there to back up the panicked Jiro when he tries to persuade the local authorities that a dinosaur ate his friends. The gaijin tourist , who will later refer to "Lake Ness", insists that, "Nessie is in Lake Sai! This is big news!" (Quick, somebody call Werner Herzog!)

Well, near Lake Sai anyways. At a summer camp a young woman inside a cabin has just gotten into the shower--providing us with some brief nudity--when the lights go out. The woman goes to investigate, getting dressed as she goes, but not noticing the Plesiosaur peering in at her. This would be a much effective shot if the people responsible for it had any sense of scale. Per the film's trailer, the Plesiosaur is 24 meters long (about 79 feet), which is much bigger than the actual animal anyways--but in the shots through the window the creature must be Godzilla-sized. At any rate, rather than going after any of the campers outside or even smashing through the windows, the Plesiosaur smashes through the ceiling to get at its unsuspecting victim.

Meanwhile, Akiko is diving in the lake while Junko waits in the raft. Junko makes the mistake of dangling her feet in the water and...

Plesiosaurs, not having legs of their own, have always hated those who do.
The Plesiosaur lifts Junko high into the air, dangling her by her leg. The long shots for this are completely out of focus in an unsuccessful attempt to disguise the obvious doll hanging from the puppet's mouth. Eventually it drops her back into the water, but as she tries to swim for safety it suddenly comes beneath her. And then, for several minutes, the Plesiosaur stares at Junko, who stares at it while her blood billows into the water. Apparently Plesiosaurs loved to just watch their prey bleed to death.

So when Akiko comes back up, she is understandably confused as to where Junko has gone. Then she notices Junko's hand grasping the side of the raft, so Akiko laughingly grabs her friend's hand--and pulls her severed torso up into the raft.

It is Junko's death that finally spurs the authorities into action. The lake is thoroughly scoured by all the most advanced sonar equipment, to no avail. Eventually, the authorities give up again--though one crazy local accosts a member of the police with a picture of a Rhamphorynchus, reasoning that, "If there is a dinosaur in the lake, it might make sense that there was a pterodactyl, too!" Right.

Of course, he actually is right. Which Shohei discovers when he is hired as a guide by someone--maybe Mister Pterodactyl, I honestly couldn't tell you--and they discover the ice cave and the fossil eggs. Suddenly, a huge talon bursts out of one egg to grab Shohei's tourist and then the Rhamphorynchus sticks its beak out of another egg to grab Shohei.

No, I don't know how that works, either.

Takashi lets the air out of Akiko's air tanks to try and stop her from risking her life while he risks his, he slaps her around a bit, confesses he just wants to see the Plesiosaur once, and then we cut away from their uncomfortable love scene. Akiko waits on the shore while Takashi goes diving, which means she hears the warning that the government is about to drop depth charges into the lake but Takashi doesn't. So he gets stunned by the force of the blasts and Akiko has to rescue his dumb ass. The two swim up into an underwater cave, swimming past severed heads that float back and forth like jellyfish. Once in the cave they find the stone eggs that Takashi had earlier been so lusting after--and the severed limbs of Shohei and his hire.

Meanwhile, the mayor and the town's police are gathered and watching the lake to see if a dead Plesiosaur will float to the surface. But then they see the countryside is glowing, which somebody yells out means there's going to be an earthquake (!) just before someone else points out that the Rhamphorynchus is flying towards them. And thus the "monster bird" makes its move on the villagers set to music that is wildly inappropriate, even for this film.

Cue "Yakkity Sax."
Set to a funkadelic track that sounds like the opening theme of a swinging cop show, the Rhmaphorynchus carries one guy off and drops him to his death. The police hand out rifles and begin firing wildly at the creature, but somebody gave the village idiot a rifle and he manages to shoot the huge bundle of depth charges and kill everyone in the resulting explosion. So the Rhamphorynchus can't even take credit for that.

It goes without saying that the Rhamphorynchus--my favorite pterosaur--is ludicrously outsized here. Per the trailer it is 13 meters (about 43 feet) long, whereas the largest specimen ever found was no more than 5 feet in length. That makes it even more ridiculously outsized than the Plesiosaur! The effects for the Rhamphorynchus are largely just a puppet (with hilariously undersized wings), but they did make a full-scale talon as well. Again the puppet is about on par with the goofy output of Amicus, but I have to say the movie wins out over At The Earth's Core in that, like the Mahars in that film, this creature is supposed to be a giant Rhamphorynchus--but this creature actually looks like one.

Takashi and Akiko find their way out of the cave and promptly find the Plesioaur tooling around on dry land. It moves rather like a seal--and the way its flippers move makes me wonder if some shots were a man in a suit--and none too quickly. Yet it still quickly gains on the pair because Takashi insists on gawping at it until it's almost on top of them. It traps them in another cave when the Rhamphorynchus arrives and now it's time for the giant monster battle royale portion of the film.

"Hey, no fair! You don't taste like chicken at all!"
And here's where I have to take any compliments on the creature effects I made earlier away. Because hoo boy, this is one of the sorriest monster battles ever put to film. Imagine if you will, an excited 5-year-old bashing two plastic dinosaurs together whilst going, "Rar! Grr! Rawk!" You have now imagined a decent approximation of this film's fight. The two creatures literally just bump into each other over and over, not actually biting or scratching at all.

Eventually the Rhamphorynchus does succeed in pecking the Plesiosaur's eye out. However, apparently deciding that this nonsense has gone on long enough, Mt. Fuji erupts. The ground cracks open in multiple places and Akiko ends up danging from a tree over a pit of lava while Takashi tries to reach for her. The Rhamphorynchus is killed by a rain of fireballs and the Plesiosaur plummets into a crevasse. Takashi finally grabs Akiko's hand and-- The End.

No, we don't even find out if our "heroes" made it. Did they escape the lava or fall into it? Who cares? Certainly not the film.

Even reading my description, you probably are failing to understand just how damn weird this movie is. People's reactions and behaviors make no sense, there are non sequiturs aplenty, and the soundtrack is the most ludicrous thing you could think of. Most of the time it sounds like it was stolen from a porn flick. It is rarely, if ever, actually appropriate to what's happening on screen. If I didn't know better I'd think the film was some kind of parody of 70s films, or deliberately strange like House, which came out the same year.

No, I think this film was an earnest effort. Which is why it's so much fun, of course. Now, the film does have its share of dull moments, but when it is moving it is something else all together. If you love killer prehistoric reptiles, Jaws rip-offs, 1970s Japanese cinema, B-movies, or all of the above then you owe it to yourself to see this film.

If nothing else, the sequence of the Rhamphorynchus attacking people set to music that sounds like it could have come from The Visitor never gets old.

That concludes day 12. Go see what everyone else chose for L by clicking the banner above.

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