Sunday, May 1, 2016

Gamera vs. Viras (1968) [You Know, for The Kids]

I've spoken about this before, but the most curious thing about the Gamera franchise is that very early on it was decided that the franchise was meant for kids. On the surface that isn't odd. I mean, kids love monsters, right? A monster franchise aimed at kids seems like the most normal thing in the world.

No, the odd part is that--in Western society, at least--when we think of kid's entertainment we usually think of something where the blood and violence is in some way toned down or reduced. Where loss of life and limb is either not shown or severely played down. I mean, why else would parents get angry at Watership Down being shown to their children on Easter? It sure wasn't an objection to all the bunnies.

And yet, despite the fact that the original Gamera films are undeniably aimed at children, they feature as much death, destruction, mayhem, and bloodletting as any of the more serious Godzilla films. One would not unreasonably reach the conclusion that a Gamera movie would give a young child nightmares.

[This has not, of course, been a concern of mine thus far. My toddler thinks Darth Vader is the greatest thing in the universe and once laughed uproariously at the (non-gory) segment of a zombie movie I inadvertently allowed him to watch.]

It's tough to say which Gamera movie is most likely to seem most wildly inappropriate for its target audience, but I would argue that even though it's largely innocuous overall, it's today's film that contains the most high-grade nightmare fuel.

We open in space as a strange vessel that looks like a bunch of cartoon bumblebee butts were torn from their bodies and stuck on keyring zooms through the cosmos. Inside the ship amongst panels of blinking lights, a chandelier that looks like a representation of an atom lights up as a booming voice announces to the crew that they have reached the target of their expedition: the planet most similar to theirs in all the universe, which contains all the elements they need to survive.

You guessed it, they've arrived at Earth and their mission is to colonize the planet, by invading and repopulating it with their own species.

Of course, they didn't do their research very well since they are completely caught off guard when a rocket-powered, spinning turtle shell comes barreling at them. The attempts to zap Gamera with their laser cannons are somewhat less than effective and the decision to extinguish his flames--which are unaffected by the vacuum of space but apparently can be snuffed out by a powder spray--just causes him to stick out his arms and head and ram their ship until he smashes his head into what seems to be the control room. He then shoots his flame breath all into the compartment to take care of any crew not killed by decompression.

As an aside, I'm now pondering what Home would have been like if its adorable alien invaders were to run afoul of Gamera.

"Welcome to Earth!"
The aliens jettison that particular bee butt and attempt to flee with the rest of their ship. Gamera does not leave survivors, however. He chases the ship and spews flames at it (that somehow are not extinguished in space) as the ship's commander signals their home planet of Viras* to alert them that they have failed and the second spaceship must be sent immediately because, "There is a deadly creature protecting the Earth. Its name is--" And the "Gamera" part of the title appears out of the exploding spaceship. And no, I'm not sure how they knew Gamera's name. Maybe he was screaming it at them as he tore their ship apart.

[*An odd quirk of the Gamera films is that the alien invaders all tended to have the exact same name as the planet they hail from and even their species is the same. It'd be like encountering Earth, an Earthling from planet Earth]

And here we are introduced to the first instance of the Gamera theme that Mystery Science Theater 3000 got such a kick out of. (Interestingly, the English dub on Shout Factory's DVD completely omits the singing but leaves the music.) It's not exactly an awful song, but it is definitely an ear worm, made worse by having no clue what they're saying so you can't even exorcise it through singing.

And then we come back down to Earth and discover that this film has decided to deliver the maximum possible dosage of young Japanese boys in shorts by starting us off in a boy scout camp near a beach. The Scoutmaster, Mr. Shimida (Kojiro Hongo) has just pulled up to camp in a nice car with an old white dude, Dr. Dobie (Peter Williams), whom he thanks for a generous donation to the camp and then sends word to have a roll call for everyone to meet Dobie.

One of the trio of teenage girls leading the scouts, Mariko Nakaya (Michiko Yaegaki) is concerned because no one has seen her brother nor his usual partner in crime. Sure enough, Masao Nakaya (Toru Takatsuka) and Jim Crane (Carl Craig) have sneaked away to the nearby oceanic institute Dr. Dobie runs. Accompanied by whimsical music, the two discover a mini-sub, which they deem, "A toy for adults!"

Well, it's the right shape, anyway. *ahem*

The two brats climb into the sub and immediately rewire its controls backwards. When Masao's sister calls him on his wrist radio and Scoutmaster Shimida informs the two boys they won't be getting supper, they scramble to get back to camp. First, though, we have to establish that Jim is great with a lasso when Masao's hat inexplicably flies off his head and ends up on a flagpole, and Jim lassos it back down.

Naturally, it turns out that Dr. Dobie has summoned the scouts to his institute to give them the opportunity to ride in the sub that Masao and Jim just sabotaged. First, though, Dobie and Shimida will test it out. And that means that they somehow find themselves in very deep water before discovering that the controls are backwards, as comical jazz music plays. Both men are terrified, incidentally--to the point that Dobie crosses himself at one point. I'm not shocked at their utter terror. They appear to be at least 50 feet under water and in serious mortal danger--isn't that hilarious?

Well, naturally the shaken men return somehow and Masao and Jim enjoy a good chuckle until Dobie declares the scouts can't use the sub because it's not safe. Masao and Jim pipe up that the issue is just that Dobie doesn't know how to drive it, but they do. For some reason, Mariko helps them to convince Dobie and Shimida of this. And then they're off, maintaining radio contact with Mariko as they drive their sabotaged sub along the bottom of the ocean.

"Do you think they'll drown?"
"Nah, you wouldn't get that lucky."
As the boys go along, their radio briefly goes fuzzy and to Jim's alarm and Masao's delight, suddenly Gamera appears alongside them. Gamera races the sub--and I must note that the swimming Gamera prop is a very bizarre thing in that it gets the details of the suit right, but gets the proportions all wrong, like having his tail be too short--before standing still and letting them drive around his legs.

Which is when Spaceship #2 arrives from Viras. As you recall, Gamera intercepted the first one before it was even in orbit, but this one not only enters the atmosphere, but immediately traps Gamera with "the super-catch ray," which translates into hitting him with a beam that then covers him in a translucent dome. Way to fall down on the job while you were busy playing with some kids, Gamera.

"Oh, right, defend the Earth! I knew there was something I forgot to do today!"
Well, the kids are trapped, too, and unlike Gamera they are in danger of running out of air to breathe. Touching the dome zaps Gamera with energy but he his able to lift it up enough to let the sub out before he seemingly loses consciousness.

You might think this is when the movie is about to get exciting or suspenseful, what with Gamera being captured by alien invaders who are now free to conquer the world. Maybe the kids will have to find a way to free Gamera from imprisonment, with the clock ticking.

Nope! It's actually time for the movie to grind to a complete halt. The unseen alien controller announces that the super-catch ray will wear off in 15 minutes, so in the meantime they need to "activate the Videotron" so they can learn all there is to know about their foe--including how he was born, what his powers are, and what his weakness is.

In practice, this means the film burns 10 minutes of screentime by showing us stock footage of Gamera the Giant Monster, Gamera vs. Barugon, and Gamera vs. Gyaos. Though, actually, the Gamera the Giant Monster stock footage here appears to be the slightly tinted footage from the beginning of Gamera vs. Barugon, so it's doubly recycled footage. This also means the film is implying that Gamera was "born" when he climbed out of the Arctic ice, fully grown, in his debut film. We're then shown highlights of his fight with "the quick-freeze monster, Barugon" and Gyaos. At the end of this footage, the aliens deduce that his weakness is his fondness for children.

Oh, don't get too comfortable. The film isn't done with the stock footage parade yet, but we'll get to that.

Naturally, back on dry land, Masao and Jim find their story about racing Gamera and being saved from aliens by him is not believed. Especially since Jim's photographs of Gamera didn't turn out due to insufficient light. I'm not sure how the alien part isn't not believed, however, since it'd be impossible for anyone watching from shore to miss the damn spaceship. At any rate, Gamera surfaces just as the spaceship looms in toward the institute. Shimida tries to herd all the scouts to safety, but Masao and Jim rush off down the beach to yell at Gamera as he flies toward the spaceship.

Either the kids have somehow not noticed the bright yellow spaceship or they've already forgotten how it trapped Gamera, because they run right into the range of its super-catch ray and get trapped in a miniature dome. Somehow, Gamera can understand the aliens when they order him to back off or they'll kill the boys. Shimida and Mariko arrive on the scene in time to witness the boys being caught by the ray and then rush over to them, only for the dome to vanish as the boys are beamed inside the spaceship as hostages.

Look very carefully at this picture and you'll see a spaceship hidden in it.
Inside the ship, Masao and Jim discover that it appears to be crewed by Japanese men dressed like they're about to perform surgeries any minute. They also seem to completely ignore the kids as they move from compartment to compartment by leaping goofily into the air and flying through the connecting tunnels. This trick does not work for Masao and Jim--something Jim attributes to the aliens being adults and not, you know, aliens.

The two also accidentally discover that the ship responds to telepathic commands when they vocalize the wish to have a glass of orange juice and one of the blinky panels disgorges two vases full of a liquid that is definitely not orange, Jim is, understandably, hesitant to try strange liquid offered by aliens but Masao goes right for it and assures him it's delicious.

The two then decide to test their luck by asking for a parachute to escape or a gun to kill their captors. That triggers an alarm and the boys find themselves surrounded by the alien crew, who now reveal that they have glowing eyes in the dark. The aliens tell the boys that they are going to be allowed free reign of the ship (?!) but if they attempt to do anything to harm the ship or escape, the alarm will sound and they will be caught.

Fun fact: it turns out that this frightens my toddler.
The aliens then proceed to go to another compartment, where they use their radio to order Gamera--still circling their ship angrily--to land. They then land nearby and, after aggravating him with their laser beams, fire a brain control device onto his head. Meanwhile, the kids stumble into a room that has a strange squid creature in a cage in its center. Now, this is played like the squid creature is a captive of the humanoid aliens that is relatively friendly to the boys, but given the poster you should already have guessed that this is actually the titular Viras and the leader of the aliens.

I have zero idea why Viras is in a cage instead of a comfy recliner or some kind of a fish tank. Maybe it's a game he likes to play with his crew. Whatever the reason, the boys decide they'll come back to free Viras later and then decide to go after one of the humanoid aliens. They lasso him around the wrist and pull--the alien is just as confused as to what they hope to accomplish with this as the audience is...

...and then his arm tears itself out of its socket and flies across the room to pin them to the wall. This is a kid's movie. The arm pushes them up the wall as the alien laughs maniacally and informs them that they have now lost their privilege of wandering the ship unsupervised. Bars appear out of the wall and pin them in place as the severed arm flies back to its owner and reattaches.

Well, that should give every child in the room nightmares.

Oh, right, the control device on Gamera? Well, that takes effect now so that the film can trot out even more stock footage. First, we see the footage of Gamera attacking the dam from Gamera vs. Barugon. That by itself won't make for a very impressive rampage, so the film next cribs random city-destroying footage from Gamera the Giant Monster.

Now, you may have noticed earlier that I referred to the doubly-recycled footage having been tinted to cover the fact that the original film was black-in-white but its sequel was in color. You may, therefore, be wondering how they're dealing with that mismatch of footage here. The answer is: by just not giving a shit.

Yes, aside from a brief shot on the aliens' "Videotron" that is tinted red, we are simply shown a bunch of black-and-white footage that clearly belongs to another movie. I mean, that would be clear enough since the control device on Gamera's head was huge and as brightly colored as the spaceship it came from, but this is just adding insult to injury.

Look closely and you may see a subtle difference between these shots.
At any rate, the aliens fly over a panicked city with Gamera in tow, announcing to the world that Gamera is in their power and the Earthlings dare not attack them or they will risk killing the two boys on board. And lest you think that the aliens have some weirdly misguided idea of how much value humans place on the lives of two boys, well you're about to see the next scene show you that the aliens are right on the money.

In the makeshift military commander center overseen by an unnamed commander (Koji Fujiyama, last seen in this series trying to murder Kojiro Hongo instead of aiding him), Mariko is able to radio Masao on his wrist radio after Dr. Dobie helps boost the signal. After Shimida reminds the boys of how they were clever enough to sabotage the sub so its controls went in reverse, the boys figure out how to wiggle out of their restraints. When they hear that Gamera has been brought under the aliens' control and the military has refrained from attacking the alien ship for fear of harming them, the two boys tell everyone listening--which includes their parents, now--that they are ready to die for the sake of the Earth. I mean, it's such a no-brainer, even to a couple of punk kids, right?

However, the JSDF commander is reluctant and then an order comes in from the United Nations saying that they will surrender to the aliens's demands rather than risk killing two kids. Right, that seems likely. Never fear, however, because the kids run into the control room where the aliena are gathered and tell them that "the creature" has escaped. Oddly, the aliens all fall for this, and in fact, are confused when they enter that room and find Viras still sitting in his cage since they have no idea why they boys would lie, Worst alien invaders ever,

The boys quickly figure out a way to rewire the alien controls backwards, since they have the amazing ability to do that and only that with any form of machinery, apparently, and they activate the super-catch ray to escape the ship. When the aliens see the kids fleeing down the beach, they order Gamera to kill them--and so Gamera attacks the ship instead.

In desperation, the aliens all flee to the compartment Viras is in, begging their leader for help. His cage immediately flips up and disappears into the ceiling because he could have just left at any time and they all knew this. The aliens hand him a little stained glass sculpture that is apparently a communication device. Viras now speaks and radios the home planet to say that their second invasion attempt has been thwarted and they must flee.

"We have just learned what calamari is made of, and we are fleeing this planet and never coming back."
Well, they try to escape by separating their compartment from the rest of the ship, so Gamera just throws another section of the ship at the fleeing bee butt. This causes them to crash and the control device on Gamera's head to blow up. Which, again, posits that a traditional military attack would have ended their invasion toot sweet had the UN not been oddly unwilling to make an easy call for the greater good.

Seeing the crashed pod has landed nearby, Masao and Jim peek inside to see Viras speaking to the other aliens. He informs them that he can kill Gamera, "but first I will need all of your lives." The other aliens beg him not to, but with one swipe of his tentacle he decapitates all of them! Yes, this leads to the immediate reveal that they were actually more squid beings wearing human disguises--but I don't think that makes the nightmare fuel less potent!

"Man, that flesh suit was Gucci!"
One by one the other aliens fuse with Viras so that he grows to be even bigger than Gamera and bursts out of the pod. Viras is also revealed to use the angry Tribble sound effect from the original Star Trek as his roar, which suggests Gamera is a Klingon. Gamera and Viras fight, which involves a lot of Gamera being tossed around by Viras's tentacles and the reveal that Viras' head is both made of shorter tentacles and can function as a spear. This becomes especially noteworthy near the end of their battle.

After much back and forth, Gamera manages to throw a rock at Viras in such a way that it becomes stuck on his spear-like head. Viras flees into the ocean and Gamera pursues, but Viras quickly breaaks the rock off of his head and turns back for shore, dragging Gamera behind him like a water skier. For some reason this is treated as if it is a triumph for Gamera, complete with his cheerful theme playing...until Viras hits the beach and Gamera is sent flying to land on his back so that Viras can then leap up into the air and impale Gamera through the belly.

Despite the fact that Viras pulls back and impales Gamera again, and then rams Gamera into a rock to drive his head even further in, this is not apparently a fatal blow. Apparently because Gamera has no internal organs suddenly.

Don't worry kids, turtles are immune to impalement!
Somehow, the vocal encouragement of Jim and Masao allows Gamera to withstand his entrails being turned into porridge, though. Gamera flies up into the atmosphere, taking Viras along for the ride. And here, perversely, the film decides to acknowledge actual physics as the higher they go, the more Viras becomes covered in ice. (What icing problem?) Finally, Gamera turns over and spins really fast, dislodging his frozen opponent so that Viras plummets thousands of feet into the ocean and is apparently killed on impact.

Everyone celebrates, Gamera flies off to presumably succumb to his wounds--The End!

"The Dream of The Fisherman's Pet Turtle" was not nearly as well received as the original woodcarving.
Rights issues have been a thorn in the side of film lovers for ages and that goes double for foreign films released in America, but the ones for the Gamera films are exceptionally bizarre. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, AIP picked up the Gamera films for television distribution--with the exception of the first film, which, like Godzilla before it, was re-edited to insert white guys into it before being theatrically distributed as Gammera The Invincible (and no, I did not misspell that). They retitled them things like War of the Monsters and, in this case of this film, Destroy All Planets, thus removing any reference to Gamera in their titles and also any hint that they belonged to a series if you weren't aware of it already. Naturally, these films were usually edited down to what AIP assumed was "appropriate" for American children in the 1960s. AIP-TV also skipped out on Gamera vs. Zigra, but I can't say if that was because they recognized how dire it was or because they were done with Gamera by 1971.

(I'm not sure who later distributed 1980's last gasp, Gamera the Super Monster in the US, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't AIP.)

When the 1980s rolled around, a distributor named Sandy Frank released the films to VHS, but for some reason he opted for securing the films directly from whomever owned their Japanese rights at that time (I'm not sure if Daiei  had recovered enough from bankruptcy at that point for them to be the rights holders or not) and redubbing them with infamously awful dubs. Yes, the ones you saw on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Most folks tend to assume that the reason he did this was that whomever owned the AIP versions at the time asked too much for the rights, and certainly a certain amount of penny-pinching would explain why Frank only chose to import five of the total eight Gamera films in existence at the time.

Yet, ironically, when DVD came around the only versions of the classic Gamera films you tended to find were the AIP versions, as they had fallen in to public domain. I was always a bit reluctant to spend good money on DVDs that contain picture quality no better than a VHS, so I held off on bothering to watch any of those Gamera releases until Shout Factory put out their discs of the series in 2011.

This is a very long-winded way of explaining that unlike many of the other original Gamera films, by the time I saw Gamera vs. Viras for the first time, I was around two decades out of its target audience's age range. That by itself isn't an issue, of course, since even an adult can enjoy a kid's movie--and especially one that contains giant monsters. However, it does mean that by that point I was much less inclined to cut the film the sort of slack I might have as a kid. And hoo boy, does this film need a lot of slack.

For one thing, annoying kids become a lot more annoying when you're no longer a kid. Now, Jim and Masao are not remotely as annoying as, say, the kids in Gamera vs. Zigra--now that's damning with the faintest of praise--but they aren't exactly likable, either. If a character's actions nearly cause innocent people to die for the sake of a prank, they better be incredibly charismatic to get an audience to overlook that. Jim and Masao are merely tolerable.

The other hurdle is definitely the film's over-reliance on stock footage. Now, to be fair, stock footage would be a mainstay of the rival Godzilla series only a few years after this film as budgets dwindled, and even three years earlier Monster Zero (aka Invasion of Astro-Monster) had shamelessly borrowed key destruction shots from Rodan despite still commanding a prestige budget. However, this is only the fourth film in the franchise and it makes its audience sit through a solid ten minutes of movies they'd already seen in order to pad the running time, and then it trots out even more stock footage for the sake of destruction sequences that are, frankly, unnecessary.

Not to mention, those destruction sequences show the alien-controlled Gamera causing the deaths of hundred, at least, which makes it even harder to later believe the UN thought two lives were too valuable to be sacrificed to stop further destruction. So it makes the film look sloppy and cheap, and it sabotages the narrative. It's a mistake on so many levels.

That said, if you look beyond the film's flaws it's...ultimately pretty mediocre. It is neither as good as Gamera vs. Barugon or Gamera vs. Gyaos, nor as brain-numbingly horrid as Gamera vs. Zigra, and it certainly never achieves the sublime heights of awfulness as Gamera vs. Guiron or Gamera the Super Monster. I really had not missed much by having never seen it until 2011 and frankly the film is almost entirely forgettable...

...except for the utterly unexpected moments of sheer terror that the disguised alien squid monsters provide and the shocking sight of Gamera being gored by his opponent on such a brutal level. Take those moments out--as, presumably, Destroy All Planets did--and there's nothing to recommend this movie. With those moments it becomes just whackadoo enough to say, "Hey, Frank, you gotta see this shit!"

And sometimes that's enough. Especially if you feel like terrifying your children.

This has been my extremely late addition to the "You Know, For The Kids" roundtable by The Celluloid Zeroes. The more punctual members of the group turned in the following assignments:

Checkpoint Telstar probably got his in before me by aiding and abetting Time Bandits.

Micro-Brewed Reviews took a ride on The Magic Serpent.

Psychoplasmics probably shouldn't have opened up The Gate.

Seeker of Schlock crawled up the wall after watching Spider-Man.

Web of the Big Damn Spider got tickled by The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.