Monday, October 31, 2016

HubrisWeen 2016, Day 26: Zaat (1971)

I don't actually recall my very first introduction to the legendary horror hostess, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark. I can be relatively sure I was at least ten years old at the time, however. And, obviously, like a large majority of people attracted to women on the cusp of adolescence, I was quickly won over by her inherent charms.

I'm not going to make a boob joke here because, let's face it, she's already made any that I could think of twice over.

I think I've already made it clear that I was a deprived child with only four channels of TV to choose from, and therefore would not have had access to any showings of Elvira's actual show on TV. However, Elvira has always been popular enough that it was considered necessary for those outside of her TV market to get to ogle her whilst groaning at her lovably terrible jokes. This continues even now on DVD, but when I was a kid several episodes of Elvira were released on VHS. Despite loving her, and her first feature film when I inevitably saw it, I only recall ever renting one of those VHS tapes.

And that is probably because I got burned bad.

See, despite having been given ample opportunity to learn my lesson with countless films ("Wow, that monster holding that helpless woman in its tentacles on the Octaman VHS cover is awesome! I can't wait to see it in action!") and countless other films, my painfully naive younger self still honestly believed that not all cover art was a filthy, filthy lie. And so, I rented the following VHS because the tentacled, fanged monster menacing a buxom victim surely had to bear some resemblance to the monster in the film!

Elvira wouldn't lie to me, right?
I suppose I have to give Elvira some credit, since her opening host segment quickly revealed what the film's creature actually looks like before the movie even started and the movie itself shows it to us in all its, uh, glory right away, as well. Naturally, it looked nothing at all like that poster. Nothing. At. All.

You've probably already guessed what movie "Attack of the Swamp Creature" actually is by this point. Like many a demon, it goes by many names to sucker in the unwary--but the two it is best known by are The Blood Waters of Dr. Z (which it made its inevitable Mystery Science Theater 3000 appearance as) and Zaat. The latter is its most accurate title, conveniently, since it's damned hard to find a non-zombie movie that starts with Z and I am officially zombied out this year.

Now, Zaat is a very curious film because it's a movie about a mad scientist who turns himself into a gill man and keeps him as a viewpoint character. You'll see what I mean shortly, because as I said this film wastes no time in introducing us to the voiceover of Dr. Kurt Leopold (Marshall Grauer) as he muses over what an inspiration to him "Sargassum" and the "Sargassum fish" have been to him. He's referring, of course, to a fish that lives among seaweed and ambushes prey that comes along. We watch this happen, in fact, and after the Sargassum fish has snagged its unwary prey Leopold says, "I love you. I hope I will be a good imitator."

I can't decide which is funnier: the truly sincere way he tells a fish he loves it, or the way he stresses the syllables of "im-uh-tay-TORE."

He then goes on to say loving things to footage of a shark, though he doesn't love it enough to refer to it by species, and a Scorpion fish. In case you're not clear on the fact you're listening to a mad scientist, he actually laughs and says, "They think I'm insane. They're the ones who are insane!" He then clarifies that today is the day he becomes one of the creatures of the deep, as well, and refers to them as "my family." Cut to Leopold on the beach, staring out at the sea as he finishes his internal mad scientist soliloquoy with, "...and together, we'll conquer the universe!"

Look, doc, if Aquaman can actually talk to all sea creatures and he can't conquer the universe, how is one fish man gonna do it?

The credits roll as Leopold wanders the shore and then makes his way to some sort of abandoned facility, perhaps a water treatment plant of some sort. After wandering around inside, he comes to a lab full of electronic equipment and begins fiddling with tubes and a bottle. His voiceover says this is the formula they all laughed at, "Z-sub-A and A-sub-T. My little gem, Zaat!" So this just makes how to write the title even more confusing because that would technically be "ZaAt" and the damn word looks stupid enough the way I've been writing it.

I'm not entirely sure what Zaat even does but he's pouring it into a spray bottle and promising that everyone will soon be seeing giant, walking fish that crave human flesh. (Let me break your heart right now: he's a fucking liar) Then he goes to fiddle with a tank pool which has what appears to be a metal stretcher hanging next to it. He then goes into another damn room to reach into a tank and tickle an octopus, before reading a series of technobabble instructions from a notebook that clearly refer to a transformation he intends to make. Then he fishes a walking catfish out of its tank and goes on mental a rant about the invasive and aggressive species and lets it wriggle on a table. He then mentions the largest specimen was 18 inches long. "We must do something about your size," his voiceover coos, "you can't fight people being only two feet long!"

Well, yes, that is rather an obstacle, isn't it?

After burning more screentime by checking on the acidity of a ray's tank, he finally walks over to his big "wheel of diabolical plans" calendar and strokes the "self transformation" wedge. I guess that's the capper on the day's agenda, finally turning himself into a gill man after 20 years of planning.

"Hmm. I don't know about this section here; shouldn't I return my overdue library books before I turn into a horror of the deep?"
He goes to yet another room and injects himself with a chemical via a syringe with a ludicrously long needle. He barely even pokes it into his forearm, why did it have a spinal tap needle on it? Finally he goes into the pool room again, turns on all the machines with blinking lights and beeping noises, and lowers himself into the pool that he has filled with Zaat.

The transformation is fairly quick and soon our gill man (Wade Popwell) is swimming to another section of the pond, surfacing, and giving us an immediate good look at the suit as it clumsily climbs out of the pool. Seeing himself in a convenient mirror, Leopold thinks to himself, "Nothing at all like the catfish, but it's beautiful!" He's lying to himself.

"I don't understand why they didn't cast me as Alf! I killed that audition!"
This may be the silliest gill man I have ever seen. Its not just that the suit's texture is lumpy and weird with a hint of pinata to it, that it has random green fur in places, or that the head looks like a seahorse with dollar store vampire fangs in its tiny mouth. No, for me the capper on this whole sorry enterprise is the fur on the suit's chest, collar, and waist that appears to be meant to cover seams in the suit, but makes it look like the gill man is wearing a fur-lined winter coat.

If I wasted 20 years of research to turn into that, I'd take revenge on myself.

Look at it. Look at it!
However, Leopold is satisfied with his transformation and crosses that item off the wheel of revenge. The next item down is "transformation" and then a crude drawing of a penis--oh, sorry, that's Florida. He marks a spot, grabs his spray bottle and says, "And now another big challenge for you," by which he means the suit actor trying to walk down some stairs when he plainly can't see shit. Unfortunately, the filmmakers really liked the location they used for Leopold's lab so now we get to see his fishy self shuffle through the basement and back outside. Admittedly, it's worth it for the take they used where the suit actor trips on something.

After a weird insert of what I'm pretty sure is a copperhead snake swimming somewhere, we see Leopold wandering through woods and spraying his Zaat bottle at...the snake? Then footage of a walking catfish wriggling about. He finally makes it into a body of water, which seems to be a lake--and we see frogs and freshwater fish in the shallows--before he wades in and submerges, whereupon it's apparently the ocean because we see footage of an octopus and mantis shrimp as he sprays his Zaat around. Also, for some reason, whenever the Zaat is being used the soundtrack goes crazy with a Geiger counter sound effect which doesn't make any sense.

 And here we see why the makers of The Monster of Piedras Blancas were much smarter than these filmmakers. They knew their gill man could never be as convincing in the water as the Creature From The Black Lagoon so they didn't even try. However, this movie believed they could do it and they were hilariously mistaken.

As Leopold watches from the water, we are introduced to Sheriff Lou Krantz (Paul Galloway), who appears to literally be chewing on a hayseed, as he watches state-employed marine biologist Rex Baker (Gerald Cruse) net a walking catfish to take for study. The Sheriff called in the report of the catfish, since it's an invasive species, largely to appease the locals since he thinks it's all a big fuss over nothing. Rex doesn't quite agree but either way his job is just to collect the fish. After the two depart, Leopold wades out of the water to his lab. There he crosses off that part of the wheel of revenge, and the next part is the photo of one of those colleagues who laughed at him, Maxson. He hears Maxson dismissing his theory as unrealistic and ordering him to cease all further experiments.

That motivates him to walk back out of the lab again because what we need is more walking in this movie. At a bungalow in the area, Rex has a lab set up and is running tests while Lou sits in the corner and plays with his revolver. Rex would prefer Lou not do that, but the sheriff has no intention of going back to his office if he can help it as he's trying to avoid the complaints about catfish. After an uncomfortable moment where Lou calls Rex "boy" in a tone no black man ever wants to hear a sheriff use, Rex observes that the freshwater body of water (uh, then where did the octopus come from?) they took samples from is showing a high concentration of radioactivity. Okay, so I guess Zaat is radioactive, but I'm confused why Rex framed this revelation as though saltwater being radioactive is more normal.

Sheriff Lou demonstrates firearm safety.
Leopold, meanwhile, is busy swimming somewhere. He spies on an attractive blonde (Nancy Lien) who is painting next to a tent and a VW Bug. Then he swims off to watch Rex take samples. Then he swims past an excessive amount of footage of sea life to find Maxson, his wife, and son fishing in a boat. He swims up under it and dumps them all into the water, before attacking and drwoning Maxson and his son--which is undercut with a baby sea turtle attacking a crab. Maxson's wife escapes and, in a truly hilarious moment, we see Leopold standing and watching her crawl out of the shallows because the editor clearly didn't cut the part before the director yelled action. She collapses on the sand, screaming, and then Leopold...swipes at her chest but obviously does not touch her and she goes limp.

In the coroner's office, Rex and Lou examine Maxson's "dead" body (the actor's breathing is not even a little bit disguised) because his neck has a strange wound on it. Lou thinks it's a fish bite, since he was found dead in the lake (why are we constantly seeing sea life in this fucking lake?!) but Rex disagrees and thinks they're claw marks. Meanwhile, Leopold has declared his next target to be Ewing, whose voice we hear denying him the use of human guinea pigs. Okay, but like, as mad scientists go, Leopold's revenge justification is even more tenuous than most.

Leaving a hospital, Lou finds himself mobbed by reporters...okay, a reporter, because Mrs. Maxson survived the attack and claimed she saw a monster. Lou dismisses it as shock and the wounds Maxson suffered as fish bites, but then the reporter asks about the rash of illnesses in town which Lou angrily declares is probably just a bug going around and he storms off. Meanwhile, Leopold is watching Rex cast a net into the lake. Leopold's voiceover declares that nets will no longer be for fish and tears Rex's net to pieces, but Rex is able to see him so Leopold essentially gave himself away as Rex is able to report it to the head office.

We only hear Rex's side of the conversation, but he's directed to contact something called INPIT, but I can't be arsed to parse out the acronym. Leopold watches the camping blonde wash her clothes in the lake, ignoring her dog barking at Leopold. That evening as Ewing watches TV and plays with a fishing rod with his recliner facing away from his open sliding door, Leopold easily walks up behind him and chokes or claws the life out of him.

"I told you never to leave that door open! I am not paying to air condition the back yard!"
The next day an RV rolls into town. For some reason this is set to sinister, bombastic music as we see the hilariously silly INPIT logo on the side and the RV disgorges a man and woman in orange jumpsuits with the logo on the back. Rex greets them and for some reason a crowd is watching them be led into a building with great interest. Of course, I suppose it's because the building is revealed to be the sheriff's office. Inside there's an angry murmuring crowd of people harassing a deputy at his desk, and one man randomly rants about the sheriff being useless, "and a damn n*****-lover to boot!"

Well. I see Florida hasn't changed a bit since 1971.

Rex makes his way in to see Lou, who is clearly tired of dealing with a panicked public. Rex introduces the jumpsuit Wonder Twins as INPIT Agent Martha Walsh (Sanna Ringhaver) and INPIT Agent Walker Stevens (Dave Dickerson). Rex confirms that the marks on Ewing were the same as on Maxson, but weirdly this time the victim was also burned or stung with some kind of chemical. Walker says it could be a mammal of some sort but the burns suggest "the fish family" (?!) and Lou says he can't accept that they're implying the damn walking catfish are now killing people. Rex demands that Lou listen because Walker has an idea.

Well, we don't hear it now because the camping blonde has stripped to a yellow bikini and gone swimming. At least a full minute after the point when an attractive blonde ceases to be intrinsically interesting to any viewer, Leopold finally grabs her and drags her off underwater. If he intends to drown her, he's off to a great start. We then cut to the girl strapped to that stretcher that Leopold used to make himself into a goofy monster, so clearly he's trying to make a mate.

The film gets really weird here as we watch Rex and Marsha take samples, which is intercut with footage of the walking catfish gathering on land in large numbers. One shot, weirdly, looks like a catsfish wriggling into a miniature fence so I have no idea if we were meant to infer it was gigantic or not! Marsha radios somebody for information but the dialogue doesn't serve any purpose but to make us think the plot is advancing. She goes to tell Walker and Rex some suggested explanations for all the weird fish, none of which make any sense, while Walker and Rex string a net across a narrow section of the lake.

Well, Leopold tries to turn the terrified blonde into a gill woman, but during the process a truly annoying alarm bell goes off and continues going off for way longer than the audience needs to be hearing it. When Leopold lifts her out of the tank, she has a few patches of scaly skin but is also dead. His reaction is to smash all of his equipment and then tear off the nice picture he drew of her on his wheel. Dude, if that's your reaction to every failed experiment it's no wonder they all laughed at you.

Self-tanning hot tubs proved to be a bad idea.
His next step is to dip a live fish headfirst into a vat of acid to, uh, test it, I guess? Seems kind of like an odd thing to do to the troops you're trying to rally, Leopold. He then slips the dead blonde into the acid so she can be dissolved into nothing but bones.

In the RV that night, Rex and Marsha are falling asleep but Walker intends to stay up and listen for signs of their quarry. He doesn't have to wait long before the net sensor goes off. Rex and Walker try to pull the net in. Rex falls into the lake as Leopold struggles in the net but the others help Rex out. However, when the three notice the net seems to no longer have anything in it, Leopold suddenly charges out of the darkness and punches Walker. Walker pulls a knife, though, and stabs Leopold as Marsha takes multiple flash photos of her companion being brutally beaten by a gill man. Finally Leopold has had enough knife wounds for the evening and returns to the water, leaving Walker lying prone on the bank. We never see Marsha move a finger toward checking on Walker before the scene ends.

Lou finds himself addressing an angry mob via loudspeaker, telling them the Red Cross has set up in a gymnasium a town over and everyone who can make it should evacuate to said gymnasium and those who can't should lock their doors and keep their guns handy. Meanwhile, Marsha is actually tending to Walker's claw wounds while Rex happily shows him the clear photos they got of Leopold. "He even photographs ugly," Walker remarks and hilariously we then cut to Leopold listening right outside the window. Walker pretends to make an innuendo to Martha after she gives him a shot, but actually he's leading up to asking her to get him all the info on the government lab out in Cypress Grove. I would swear their knowledge of this lab was never mentioned before but it's possible I just didn't give enough of a shit to catch it.

Speaking of said lab, Leopold staggers back into the lab--whereupon, in many versions, you can see clearly that Leopold is wearing white sneakers because the shot wasn't cropped right. You'd think he'd have wanted to go there first to treat the stab wound he's still suffering from. But even in his lab, his first thought is to remind us via voiceover that his plan is to enable aquatic life to triumph over all others and to have flashbacks to his failed attempt to create a mate, as he thinks to himself about how vital it is to successfully choose a viable specimen to make into his mate. It's apparently vital that he reproduce with said mate to create a new race of gill men, but he also frets that he's running out of time and I don't know if he means his plan has a time limit or if he fears the INPIT agents are on to him.

To give a sense of how weird the pace of this film is, it has two settings: static shots that go on far too long, and rapid cuts in such quick succession that they might trigger seizures. This sequence is first the latter and then the former, as we watch Leopold draw a picture of Martha in what seems like real time before he nails it to the section of his revenge wheel. Side note, the wedge of his grand wheel of revenge devoted to creating a mate is at roughly 3 o'clock if you view it as a clock face, and that seems to be a major step in the plan. Why does he need the entire rest of that damn wheel? In case he needed to plan even more revenge and global domination?

Now that I look at it, it appears to be a calendar, but...that makes even less sense.

Anyway, Lou tells Walker (still in his bed) and Rex about how the lab closed down after the war and at one point an old scientist named Leopold bought it from the government but then disappeared again. Martha comes in to say that during World War II it was used for heavy water experiments. This involved the use of a radioactive chemical that mutated sea life, and three canisters of it were stolen. Rex asks if the monster is a mutated catfish (nothing at all like the catfish, Rex), and Walker suggests it could be but it seems to have human intelligence and two of its victims were supervisors at the lab during the war so it can't be a coincidence. Wait, how did Walker know that when Martha was the one who dug up the information?

I guess he somehow read Martha's report despite never looking at it, because he tells Lou to warn two other former supervisors at the lab for he feels sure they will be next. He may not be wrong, for Leopold walks out of the water (more like stumbles and nearly falls out of the water) dramatically to stroll around town. And I don't know how it's possible, but the gill man suit somehow looks worse in a scene lit only with streetlights than it does in all the other brightly lit scenes we've had with it so far. Luckily for Leopold there's no one on the streets as he staggers about, clutching his stab wound and thinking, "The pain!"

I guess Leopold didn't think he might need medical supplies in his lab after he turned into a gill man determined to end humanity, because he breaks into a drug store. He smashes a lot of bottles, breaks into a cabinet, and then knocks the lock off a fridge before he finally finds what he wants and chugs it. And I gotta say, watching him pretend to drink something is hilarious. Whatever he drank, however, has the side effect of first making him woozy and then inspiring him to smash up the drug store some more.

Have you talked to your walking catfish about prescription drug abuse?
We cut then to the deputy at Lou's office just sitting at his desk. He's doing nothing and obviously bored, which is precisely something you want to show to your audience. Well, Leopold finds his way to the station and the deputy hears him sneaking around outside. Lest you think this is going to turn interesting, the deputy ignores the sound and scribbles on a notepad absent-mindedly before having a radio conversation with Lou that adds nothing except to remind us that the town is being plagued by walking catfish.

Instead of killing the deputy, Leopold goes for the old standby of attacking two necking teens on a porch swing. The male half seals hsi fate by mentioning he doesn't believe in all that monster nonsense, so Leopold immediately walks up and starts punching him in the chest. Somehow this actually supposed to indicate him being clawed at, because the boy's shirt rips open like he's William Shatner and then fake blood gets smeared on him. After the boy collapses on the porch, Leopold bends down and awkwardly rubs his snout on the lad's chest to indicate that he's drinking the poor bastard's blood.

I don't know what happened to the girl. She literally seems to vanish as soon as Leopold makes his move on her paramour, without even a scream. So I guess she either teleported out of there or did a cartoon dash off. However, Lou does hear a woman scream and rushes to the source--only to find a group of hippy types inside the abandoned community hall having some kind of guitar circle. Lou stands and watches the long-haired guitarist play his piece with an odd look of admiration on his face.

Lou then sits down to watch as a flutist joins in. The song is something about following and Jesus, and it's not bad, but I don't understand how into it Lou gets. Hilariously, Leopold appears at the window, staring in at the hippies and then...wanders off. I'd be annoyed that the film deprived us of a prime opportunity for gill man mass carnage, but I'm too amused by the implication that the music disgusted him. The film gets truly weird as we then see the hippies all walking behind Lou, still playing the song, with Lou's car slowly trailing behind them with a couple hippies on its hood. We don't know where they're going at this point, but when the deputy comes outside to investigate the song, we see Lou has led them to the sheriff's office.

He loads them all into the holding cell, tells them they'll be safe in there for the night, and tells the bewildered deputy to take good care of them. Well, that...certainly was a way to burn up five minutes of film instead of, oh, I don't know, moving the fucking plot forward.

We then see Leopold wandering outside of the INPIT RV and then spying on Martha and Walker making out inside the bungalow. The monster suit looks away, attempting to appear as forlorn as an inexpressive mask can, as rapid shots of the two kissing flash on the screen. Walker is clearly feeling a bit better, because after Lou is accosted by a reporter at the scene of Leopold's last victim who wants to hear more about the vampire monster on the loose--which causes Lou to threaten to step on him like a bug--we see him investigating the drug store with Rex. The tracks on the floor and the inhuman fingerprints prove it was their gill man that did it.

Lou joins them shortly. Rex wonders why a monster would need drugs, and Walker replies it's for the same reason he drank the boy's blood--to satisfy some urge or need inside of him. Rex is incredulous, but Walker is sure the creature has human intelligence. Yet he somehow does not make the connection between "I stabbed this intelligent monster repeatedly" and "it smashed a drug store to ingest drugs." At any rate, Walker thinks they can track the creature's tracks and it's daylight when he and Lou set out to do so, with Walker using a Geiger counter to follow the trail.

We see Martha returning to the bungalow with what looks like fishing equipment as Leopold readies a syringe in his lab and setting up his equipment. Martha gets a radio call just as she was starting to strip out of her jumpsuit. The INPIT agent on the other end of the radio gives her the rundown on Leopold's academic history and his focus of study on radiation's effects on marine life, as well as the fact he had discovered new elements "Z-sub-a and A-subt-t." Walker and Lou drive around to the various places they know Leopold has been, trying to find a trail to follow. I have to say I'm not sure how helpful just a Geiger counter is with that, since he doesn't seem to be looking for tracks, too. Wouldn't it just tell you where he'd been, not necessarily which way he went?

Leopold heads into the lake for whatever he's got planned now. Martha is hilariously informed that Leopold was declared to be mentally unstable and paranoid, and was dismissed from his position because he wanted human guinea pigs and had declared he was going to create an underwater race to rule the world. Yeah, usually that's the kind of thing you try to keep off your resume. "Sure, Leopold was always punctual and performed his duties perfectly, but his rants about taking over the world with fish men really made for a hostile work environment."

It gets funnier, because Lou and Rex pull up to where Walker has been dicking around with his Geiger counter and Lou mentions that, well, a human fish sounds like something kooky old Dr. Leopold would have been into. There were rumors that he had approached death row inmates about taking part in an experiment to turn a man into a fish. Walker, understandably, wants to know why Lou is only mentioning this now. Lou sheepishly says he only just remembered it, but that seems like the sort of thing you don't just forget. At any rate, Lou asks how long the gill man they're tracking could be out of water and Walker says the trail indicates it should be headed for water now.

He's wrong because Leopold is creeping around the bungalow. After Martha takes a shower with a translucent curtain to taunt the audience with the barest suggestion of nudity, unaware that Leopold is peeking in the windows, she sits at a typewriter and begins typing up notes. We see Leopold walk past the window behind her, but despite the filmmakers' best hopes, this does not generate suspense. I also begin to question the intelligence of the heroes at this point, even without the information Martha has, Lou, Walker, and Rex already know it was rumored that Leopold wanted to turn people into fish and he owned the old lab Walker was so keen on knowing more about. So why haven't they gone to investigate the lab?!

Do you think her nudity even appeals to Leopold or is he the sort of guy who always wanted to fuck fish? My money's on the latter.
The real answer, of course, is so the film can pad out the running time with Lou, Walker, and Rex trying to follow Leopold's trail. Meanwhile, Leopold just casually walks right into the bungalow and Martha makes a token effort to try not to be captured by him. However, tossing random junk at him doesn't drive the beast off and he picks her up, whereupon she instantly faints so as to be easier to carry. To be fair, there was dialogue earlier suggesting that Leopold has some ability to render his victims unconscious, but it's still pretty ludicrous.

Well, the three doofuses find the trail leads to the bungalow and Leopold has clearly kidnapped Martha. Walker remarks that one of them should have had the sense not to leave her alone. Gee, ya think? Walker says they're no longer planning to take this thing alive--wait, they were ever planning that? News to me. Only now does he send Rex and Lou to investigate the old lab while he continues trying to follow Leopold's trail.

Did I mention he does this in an adorable six-wheeled red buggy that sounds like a ride-on lawn mower? Hilariously, the buggy is apparently amphibious and yet it promptly dies on Walker before he can get very far and he has to abandon it to continue on foot with his rifle. Honestly, he's probably faster on foot. Leopold is also trudging through the swamp, still carrying Martha, as Rex and Lou arrive at the lab and begin poking around outside. Hilariously, Walker manages to get himself bitten by a snake and I instantly recognize the stock library music used to make the scene suspenseful as having come from the American dub of War of The Gargantuas. (The track is by Phillip Green and is called "Terror Hunt" and was composed specifically to be a library track. Thank you Google and kaiju nerds)

After Walker does the old "slice up your leg to make sure your snake bite gets infected and ends up even worse" trick, Lou and Rex make their way into the lab. They find Leopold's wheel of revenge and notice the picture of Martha. Rex tells Lou to go get on the radio to get Walker over to the lab. However, Walker is only about twenty feet behind Leopold and Martha when we cut back to him, but then somehow he manages to lose track of them--apparently due to his snake bite. It doesn't really matter, because as Rex settles in to reading Leopold's notebook, Leopold arrives in time to see Lou heading to his truck. Despite the fact that Leopold has just set Martha on the ground and he could easily be shot without risking her life, Lou opts to try and knife the gill man. I suppose it's possible that he didn't have a side arm, but we saw him with a shotgun earlier and he was close enough to his truck to have gotten in.

So, really, it's kind of Lou's fault when he ends up being fishstrangled. Then we watch the suit actor somehow manage to stumble up the stairs without dropping Martha. Given the guy can barely walk on normal surfaces without also carrying a human around, I'd have opted to infer that bit if I were making the film. Leopold preps Martha for her transformation into a gill woman, while Rex reads aloud from the notes about how the canisters of ZaAt, when mixed properly, "can turn a man into a fish and mutate all sea life." Sure, okay, it totally makes sense that one chemical can do all of that.

Rex hears Martha scream and sensibly grabs a loose bit of metal as a weapon before going to investigate. Hilariously, we see a POV cam walk into the transformation tank room, observe Leopold pouring the ZaAt into the tank, and see Martha's prone body on the stretcher. Then the film confirms that was Rex's POV as we cut to him trying to untie Martha. Somehow Leopold did not spot him until right then, which doesn't say great things about the creature's eyesight. Upon being spotted, Rex makes a successful first strike with the metal bit, but unfortunately he insists on using it as a club instead of trying to use it to impale Leopold and he gets fishslapped on the second try.

However, Leopold doesn't finish the job, but turns to secure Martha and to move the stretcher over the tank. The wounded Rex tries to first mess up the settings on one of the machines, but then opts for beating on it with the metal bit instead. Leopold stalks toward him and, hilariously, Rex delays the creature by tossing a convenient net over him. That's like a vampire keeping a handy silver crucifix with a sharpened point in its lair. Unfortunately, when Rex tries to pull Martha back away from the tank, Leopold gets free and Rex has no room nor enough strength to escape. Leopold finishes the job this time--

No, wait, actually he doesn't. Rather, he decides to just take his two remaining canisters of ZaAt and fucking leave. Rex sure looks dead when we cut to his bloodied body, as the rope holding Martha begins to unwind and slowly lower her toward the transformation tank. However, determined to make the most of being the rare black guy in a horror film to make it to the final reel, Rex summons his last strength to pull Martha to safety, and then he dies.

Man, though, can you imagine what this film's idea of a gill woman would look like? Would it just be the Leopold suit but with long green hair, big bumps on the chest, and green fur that makes it look she's wearing a mink stole?

As Rex is giving his life to save Martha, Walker comes upon Leopold marching toward the ocean with the ZaAt canisters and fires his rifle at the gill man. His first two shots go wide, since he's not in prime fighting condition, but the third connects and Leopold falls to one knee, dropping one of the canisters in the process.

Rex seems to have died in vain, however, because Martha gets off the stretcher and seems to be in a trance. Whatever Leopold injected her with, it causes her to walk toward the ocean like a zombie. "Terror Hunt" kicks in again as Walker weakly drags himself toward the wounded gill man, but even with a bullet in him, Leopold staggers into the waves with his one remaining ZaAt canister and disappears. Walker collapses and then is overjoyed to see Martha as a more appropriate, "haunting" synth theme kicks in. Walker weakly tries to stop Martha, but when he collapses again as she wades into the ocean, it's clear the snake bite has finally done him in. Martha walks straight into the ocean until she disappears under the waves. The End.

"I'm so sick of my roommate eating my Pringles. I'm gonna hide this can in an anemone."
There's a rather decent 70 or 80-minute movie in Zaat, but unfortunately the film runs for 100 minutes and all too often you feel every one of those minutes. This baby is so padded it could play football and never have to worry about getting a concussion. Its bungee cord could break and it would just bounce upon impact without a single bruise. Any time it can drag a sequence out longer than is morally acceptable, it will do so.

This film staggers around much like its central menace, and if it has a plan for what it was trying to achieve it makes even less sense than Leopold's. I mean, aside from padding the running time, what purpose did the hippy musical sequence serve? Why include the walking catfish subplot and mention of ZaAt in the water supply making the townspeople sick, but then completely drop those plots midway through?

I would so much rather have seen an awkwardly staged attack by killer catfish (or several such attacks) than that damn hippy bit or the endless scenes of people wandering about. Cutting away from the menfolk trying to save Martha from Leopold to show a gigantic catfish eating someone or having them be swarmed by smaller catfish could not possibly have killed the suspense any more effectively than the way the sequence is actually constructed.

Plus, the poster promises a woman being devoured by a gigantic catfish, so even if I had seen an accurate VHS cover I'd still have felt ripped off by the actual film.

Speaking of the catfish plot, why does Leopold's gill man look "nothing at all like the catfish" when supposedly he was trying to become one? Did they intend for him to look more like a catfish, only to find out too late that the suit designer didn't have a clue how do that so they just added a line acknowledging that?

Now, despite how hilariously awful its gill man is, I have to give the film credit for really going for it. I'm pretty sure we see that gill man on screen for longer than the Creature From The Black Lagoon ever appeared in his movies, and the fact that we're literally placed in the perspective of the murderous mad scientist gill man by hearing his thoughts for most of the movie is pretty damn unique.

I also rather enjoy its ambiguous 1970s bummer ending. As far as we know when the film closes, everyone including Leopold is dead or will be shortly. That or Leopold has survived and will return to get his second revenge. (Cue someone trying to make a decades too late sequel aaaaand now I want that to happen) I think the only other gill man movie to end on such a down note is probably The Creature Walks Among Us. I mean, Humanoids From The Deep doesn't exactly have a happy ending, either, but at least there's some sense of hope.

Rather like Yongary, Monster From The Deep, there is something oddly charming about Zaat, but unlike that film I am afraid I lack an affection for it that allows me to enjoy it in spite of its awfulness. It's a rather fascinating oddity, but it's just too ponderous to enjoy. With a little judicious editing it could actually be a pretty spiffy flick, but as it stands the film is trying to swim with cement shoes on.

Pity. The world could use more movies about scientists who turn themselves into gill men because they want to use fish to conquer the universe.

And with that, another HubrisWeen draws to a close. I'm sure I'll be back next year, stressing myself out with self-imposed deadlines and having to resort to even more blank Scrabble tile reviews.

Make sure you still click the banner above to take yourself to the HubrisWeen central blog and see what everyone else chose for Z, and we'll probably be back in 2017 for A New Beginning.

Wait, wouldn't that require us to find four other review blogs and make them do HubrisWeen while we sat it out? I'm gonna have to talk this over with the other Celluloid Zeroes...

Sunday, October 30, 2016

HubrisWeen 2016, Day 25: Yongary, Monster From The Deep (1967)

When I was first getting into monster movies as a kid, my mother lamented that it was a shame I hadn't lived during the 1960s because I would have had so many more monster movies to choose from than I did in the 1990s. In a way, she was right.

Sure, monster movies suitable for a kid under the age of 10 were still made from time to time, and the older ones were often available in various video stores. However, there was nothing quite on the level of the strangest monsters getting American theatrical releases or regular television airings, that today would be lucky to appear on streaming or torrent sites outside of their country of origin.

Yongary, Monster of the Deep was naturally one of these strange monster movies. In the US it was released straight to television, but again that was still a significant deal at the time. Even more significantly, as I mentioned in my review of its lamentable remake last year, the English version of this film is the only version that still remains intact.

It's hard to say if anything has really been lost in translation, as the film was brought to TV by AIP and they tended to use dubs that were fairly faithful to the original scripts. Some scenes may have been trimmed for time and I highly suspect one plot element was changed to avoid mentioning North Korea, but the version we're stuck with is probably not that far off from the filmmakers' original intent.

Whether that's a good thing is a matter of taste.

We open with a shot of models of the moon and Earth in space, which might seem like kind of an odd way to start a movie about a giant dinosaur stomping Seoul, but that's because space is going to be surprisingly relevant for a movie that has nothing to do with aliens.

Our actual story begins at the end of a wedding, where Ona (Moon Kang*), the daughter of Korea’s foremost rocket scientist, has just wed Sung (Sun-Jae Lee), Korea’s top space pilot and the son of the prime minister. The parents of both are there and are seeing the newlyweds off in their "Just Married" chauffeured car, along with Ona's sister Suna (Jeong-Im Nam) and her boyfriend, Ilo (Yeong-Il Oh). Ilo is a scientist and inventor, and when he realizes a certain family member is missing from the party, he begins to suspect one of his inventions may be, too.

[* The IMDb is very spotty on this film, so I'm going off of El Santo's much more likely to be correct guesses at the cast's identity rather than attempting my own]

Ilo is right on the money, for he follows the wedding car in his own and is thus on the scene when a strange light causes the bride and groom to almost leap out of the car, scratching furiously at their own skin. Ilo assures them it's nothing to worry about, after initially wondering what the hell they were doing, but reveals he knows that the culprit is hiding in the bushes and calls him out. You may already have guessed the missing family member was the youngest brother of...well, I don't actually know which family, to be honest, but I think he's Ona's sibling and his name is Icho (Kwang Ho Lee). Despite being Korean instead of Japanese, Icho is definitely a Kenny and he is currently bedecked in his formal tiny shorts.

"Well, there's no risk of cancer from this device, but you might grow a third testicle."
Icho had swiped an experimental itching ray from Ilo's lab (what purpose does that invention even serve?!) because he thought it would be funny to use it on the couple. Ilo chastises Icho because the ray could have caused them to scratch themselves to death, but he also enables the little monster by admitting it was kind of funny.

Unfortunately for the young couple, that's the only itch they're going to get to scratch. Because just when they've gotten settled into their hotel room and have taken off their clothes of their own accord, a call comes in for Sung. It seems the Korean space program has been tasked with monitoring  a nuclear test in the Middle East and Sung is the only man for the job, despite the fact he's on his damn honeymoon and he'll be in space for a few days.

As a side note, I sort of suspect that "the Middle East" may actually have been North Korea (or maybe China) in the original version. However, the dub seems to imply that Korea is a unified nation and the model rockets are labeled "ROK" as in "Republic of Korea", so it's possible the film always implied Korea was just one nation. However, I have no idea if this is meant to be taking place in a future where unification has happened or not. According to the commentary track on the film's Blu-ray from Kino Lorber, though, the whole plot point of Korea having a space agency was to make South Korea seem more advanced and to instill a certain national pride in Korean viewers.

At any rate, Sung is shot up into space and he observes the nuclear test detonation. This is actually shown to us via a pretty neat miniature effect to create a mushroom cloud, but it is somewhat undercut by the reflection of the cloud on the glass that's used to force the smoke into a mushroom shape. I don't know what the purpose of sending Sung up in the capsule to observe that was, however, or why it had to be the Korean space agency that did it. The important thing, though, is that the Korean government notes with some alarm that the detonation has triggered an earthquake with a moving epicenter that's headed for Korea.

After some attempts at suspense by implying Sung's rocket may have trouble, the young man successfully returns to Earth, landing his capsule in a field. And that's basically the end of his contributions to the plot for the time being. The Korean government is understandably alarmed by the moving earthquake, and the prime minister muses that it reminds him of an old legend about a monster called "Yonggary." (Yes, the English title of this film has only one G, but like how King Ghidorah was introduced to Western audiences as "Ghidrah", this title predates the correct Romanization that has two)

Well, he's not far off, naturally, and he'll soon find that out when a platoon of soldiers and a photographer find themselves in the path of the earthquake and it opens a large crack in the ground. The photographer observes a large, scaly back with either a single row of plates or a sail fin running down its back moving in the crevice. He snaps several photos before hopping into a fleeing jeep, but unfortunately the jeep rounds a corner too fast and goes over a cliff. This manages to be hilarious for two reasons: one, the jeep explodes into flames at the top of the cliff and two, this is all rendered via the saddest miniatures you are likely to see outside of an intentionally bad sequence.

However, the photographer somehow survived that explosion--or, at least, long enough for soldiers to help him into the war room to deliver his camera to the bigwigs before collapsing. Once developed, his photos reveal clear images of what is definitely a living, reptilian creature. So, Yonggary it is.

Kaiju hate paparazzi.
The government orders the evacuation of Seoul ahead of the monster's advance and the military mobilizes a tank platoon to meet Yonggary. Most citizens obey the edict to evacuate, but I'm sort of on the side of the drunk businessmen who refuse to abandon their Korean barbecue because of a giant lizard.

Well, Yonggary bursts out of the side of a mountain and confronts the tank squadron. And, well, let's talk about Yonggary. If I'm being charitable, I will say the general design is clearly inspired by a Ceratosaurus, but with prominent tusks, small Stegosaur-like plates down its back, and a thagomizer on its tail. If I'm being uncharitable, I will say it is inspired by sticking Gamera's head on Godzilla's body and giving it a nose horn. It's not a horribly original design, but it appeals to me.

What does not appeal to me is Yonggary's roar. It sounds weirdly like a donkey braying, except for when it sometimes uses Barugon's roar.

As a suit, well, Yonggary is a mixed back. The scales and detailing on the suit are excellent, but the suit follows the same pattern of the original Gamera suits by having the whites of the eyes be lit internally, despite no animal ever working that way. As usual this means his eyes scream their artificiality from the hilltops. The other defect of the suit won't appear until later, but Yonggary is a fire breather and this is realized--like the original Gamera--via putting a flame thrower in the suit. However, the nozzle in the mouth is gigantic and obvious.

"Boy I just love Seoul food! Thank you, I'll be here all week!"
At any rate, tanks rounds are exactly as useless as you'd expect. Yonggary stomps on several tanks before demonstrating his flame breath on them and then waltzing into the city. The remaining populace flees in terror at Yonggary's approach, with the exception of Ilo, Suna, and Icho. Ilo decides he wants to get a closer look at the beast, Suna follows because she doesn't want her boyfriend to get himself trampled, and then her poor distraught mother is unable to stop Icho from running after them.

Well, they get a good look at Yonggary, all right, and Ilo manages to get himself injured by some rubble when the kaiju smashes a nearby building. Icho then runs off on his own and, for some reason, decides to travel via the sewers to get right up close to Yonggary--and nearly gets his head squashed when he peeks out of a manhole right before Yonggary stomps on it.

After a military helicopter annoys Yonggary by buzzing around his head, they barely avoid his annoyed flame breath that he unleashes to vice his displeasure. Amazingly, they do not then manage to find a way to fly into his range of fire, so they get to survive the film.

"What nozzle? I have perfectly round, metal throat, okay?!"
Icho follows Yonggary as the creature wanders out of the city to the surrounding hills where the creature finds several huge oil tanks. To Icho's bewilderment, the creature dunks its head into one and begins drinking the oil. Icho somehow turns off the flow to the oil tank or something and Yonggary responds by throwing the empty container down the hill, which causes other tanks to explode into flames--which Yonggary then "eats" via the old Gamera method of reversing the footage of his flame breath.

"Just like mama used to make!"
Ilo and Suna try to get to the refinery where they believe Icho has gone, but are stopped by a soldier. In one of the strangest dubbing flubs I've ever seen, the soldier tells them they can't go to the refinery because the military will be attacking Yonggary with guided missiles. There is a pause and then the dub actor repeats the exact same line or else his line was looped over footage of whatever the actual actor said next.

Well, the military is actually not using their guided missiles just yet, because Yonggary is still too close to the city. So Icho is able to observe the monster smashing into a container and reacting with obvious irritation when the chemical inside touches his skin. When Icho brings this information back to Ilo and says Yonggary was irritated by something that smells bad, the young scientist realizes it must have been a precipitate of ammonia and goes to work trying to figure out what the right recipe for Kaiju-B-Gone is.

Icho's intelligence is also brought to the military, so they are aware the creature eats oil and flame. So they set fire to an oil tank in a wide open area and when Yonggary takes the bait, then they hit him with the guided missiles. After that proves woefully ineffective, Ilo also has an ammonia compound loaded into a helicopter and flies over Yonggary to dowse the creature in it. Well, it must not have been strong enough because all it does for the time being is put Yonggary into a state of hibernation.

While Ilo tries to work out a more effective formula, the protagonists forget they have a Kenny in their midst and Icho sneaks off with the itching ray to see Yonggary up close. Turning the ray on Yonggary makes his horn glow and then causes the creature to wake up and...well...

I am a seasoned kaiju fan, so I have seen every Godzilla and Gamera movie made prior to this year multiple times. I have seen Godzilla fly, I have watched Gappa, I have pondered The X From Outer Space, and what follows Icho's prank still boggles my mind every time. For Yonggary begins scratching at himself in what approximates a dance, and Icho gleefully decides the creature is dancing--and suddenly surf rock music pops up so that Yonggary does appear to be dancing.

Soldiers come up and take Icho into custody for his own safety which brings the madness to a close. However, now Yonggary returns to Seoul to rampage through it and reveals he now has a laser beam that fires from his horn and slices through vehicles like Gyaos's sonic beam. He demonstrates this on a military jeep, somehow without killing the soldiers riding in it. Said horn laser, naturally, has a much longer range than his flame breath could ever dream of. So not only did Icho revive the deadly monster to let it kill more people, but he somehow upgraded its weapon capabilities.

Thanks a lot, Kenny.

A squadron of fighter planes attacks Yonggary when the creature's rampage takes it to the side of river and a bridge. Yonggary smashes the bridge and then uses his nose horn to slice apart the planes. Meanwhile, Ilo finally hits on the proper ammonia mixture and the entire family--including Icho--climbs into a helicopter to go kill the monster.

And then the film proceeds to break the viewer's mind for a second time, because Yonggary goes out in the most inexplicably brutal way imaginable. For the result of being hit with the ammonia is that he thrashes around in agony on the river bank, smashes another bridge, and finally falls, twitching, with his feet and tail in the river and...

There's no other way to describe this: Yonggary dies from a severe rectal hemorrhage. (Well, okay, since he's a dinosaur it's more of a cloacal hemorrhage) You read that right, Yonggary dies by bleeding out of his ass.

Normally I don't post animated gifs as screenshots because I feel static screenshots are less obtrusive and I'm also not keen on setting off any seizure disorders with my silly reviews. However, you really need to see this in motion to truly appreciate how wrong it is.

Fun for the whole family!
I honestly don't know what the filmmakers were going for, but there is no question that the only place that blood in the water could be coming from is where the sun don't shine. Icho is momentarily sad that Yonggary has to die and tries to stop his family from pouring more ammonia on the dying beast, but they quickly assure him it is necessary that the poor monster die a bloody death for the good of humanity. Icho happily accepts that truth. The End.

In Memoriam
Hoo boy. Yongary, Monster From The Deep is the sort of movie I feel like every member of any genre fandom eventually encounters: the movie you hear awful, awful things about but you know some day you are going to watch it.

Or, in my case, watch it again. Then buy it on DVD and watch it again. Then sell the DVD and buy it on Blu-ray and watch it again, and again, and...

Make no mistake, based on my synopsis, you should already be aware that I do not think this film is good. It is terrible. Have I seen worse kaiju films? Absolutely. For instance, the remake of this film. However, this is a gloriously terrible film.

The monster suit and miniature effects are actually pretty solid, if clearly inferior to anything in contemporary Godzilla films. Apparently that's because at least some of the effects were done by the effects crew who worked on the Gamera series. However, the miniatures also have some hilarious failures, like the rolling oil tanks that are accompanied by sound effects that make them seem even more like just hollow metal cans. And the attempts to dump fake rubble on the actors is just adorable.

The optical effects work is even worse, from making super-imposed fleeing civillians appear to be two stories tall, to a shot of a jeep swerving around Yonggary's legs that not only makes Yonggary less than half his supposed size, but renders his body neon green.

The film's story is a mess, too, of course. Yonggary seems to be meant as a dangerous, even scary monster like Godzilla in his villainous roles, though not without some sympathy. However, midway through the film suddenly switches gears to stealing the tone of the Gamera films by showing a child becoming attached to the monster and even sympathizing with it--only for his heroic family to brutally kill it.

Now, it's true that unlike Gamera, this film never hints at the idea that Yonggary returns any form of affection that Icho has for him. So it's not like Yonggary is the friend to all children but then the government kills him anyway. But that just makes Icho look like a little asshole who is responsible for helping the monster to kill even more people.

I admit, I get a perverse enjoyment from Yongary, Monster From The Deep that I think even most lovers of crap cinema do not. For one thing, I just plain like Yonggary, aside from his roar. His design is completely unexceptional, to the point that if you're making a "generic" kaiju for something so Toho won't sue you, it's generally gonna look like Yonggary. Just ask Marvel Comics--when they wanted to use Godzilla after their license expired they mutated him to look a lot like Yonggary:

However, sometimes the familiar is welcome and that is definitely true when it comes to kaiju. I have  a weak spot for the "big dinosaur that breathes fire" archetype, and because of that I still wring a lot of joy out of Yonggary. He also looks kind of like a Ceratosaurus, and that's one of my top five favorite dinosaurs. So I'm biased in that regard.

I can't recommend the film at all, though, unless you're in a mood to mercilessly riff a bad movie. Sure, I find it inexplicably pleasing, but the average viewer--even a kaiju fan--may find it intolerable or even dull.

Well, for most of the movie anyway. Nobody can be bored by the twin horrors of inexplicable dancing kaiju and death by kaiju anal fissure.

Click the banner above to take yourself to the HubrisWeen central blog and see what everyone else chose for Y!

Saturday, October 29, 2016

HubrisWeen 2016, Day 24: 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

[Before we get started, you may ask why I'm reviewing this movie for my X film. Well, if you've ever played Scrabble, you're familiar with the concept of the "blank tile." Seeing as how some letters are always going to be difficult to find a suitable film for that review, the Celluloid Zeroes instituted a blank tile option for HubrisWeen and this is mine. Also, the Roman numeral for 10 is "X" and I think I'm clever for making that connection]

I gotta say, J.J. Abrams has done quite a lot since 2015 to make me almost want to forgive him for Star Trek Into Darkness. For starters, he finally left Trek alone to go play in the sci-fi franchise he clearly wanted from the beginning and did an infinitely better job there. Secondly, he caught everyone totally off guard by dropping a trailer for what appeared to be a sequel to Cloverfield roughly two months before it was to hit theaters.

Now, while my opinion of the original film has obviously soured in the years since its initial release, I was instantly intrigued. The fact it was clearly not a found footage film helped, even though Abrams and the film's director made it clear that this was more of a spiritual sequel than an actual follow-up. Still, I didn't get to catch it in theaters because it came out at a busy time for me and my curiosity level wasn't quite high enough.

These days a film's entire plot can be spoiled for you, and with animated gifs, before it's been in theaters for a week. So by the time I saw it, I already knew the big reveal. In some ways I think that actually helped me enjoy the film more, because I'm going to come right out and say this before I talk about the film's plot:

The first approximately three-fourths of this film are a really great thriller about three people trapped in a claustrophobic setting, not knowing if they can trust each other. The last section of the film, however, is a disappointment by comparison. It's silly, abrupt, and oddly anti-climactic for all the action it throws our way.

In fact, it's so silly that while I am not going to give the whole film away, I am going to spoil the reveal near the end of this review. Don't worry, you'll have plenty of time to avert your eyes.

We open with a woman we'll later learn is named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) in an awful hurry to gather her things and depart from her apartment. Based on the calls she dodges and messages from a male voice depaerate to apoogize for some wrongdoing, it's safe to assume she is fleeing from her romantic partner. By night she is driving through rural Louisiana and still clearly worked up.

The radio speaks of reports of blackouts across the country as she switches stations. Unfortunately, she looks up from the radio just too late to avoid the truck coming straight at her...

"Oh no, not a Febreeze commercial!"
When Michelle comes to, she is in a concrete room, lying on a mattress, with a crude cast on her right leg, and an IV in her arm. She is also dressed only in her underwear and a tank top, the rest of her clothes in a pile a few feet away. She's been left her cell phone, at least. but she can't get a signal on it so it's less than helpful.

Understandably, she is freaked out when Howard Stambler (John Goodman) walks into the room to deliver food to her. Thinking she's about to be sexually assaulted or made to participate in some kind of Saw set-up, she cowers against the wall and begs to be let go. Howard tells her she can't leave because he brought her here to save her life.

Michelle doesn't buy that for a second and she attempts escape by setting a fire in the vent. However, when she attacks Howard and tries to escape, he injects her with a sedative. This time she comes to and is handcuffed to the wall. Howard comes back in and chides for her escape attempt before explaining there's nowhere for her to go because he has brought her to his underground bunker, which he had prepared for exactly the sort of event that has just occurred outside. Some kind of chemical or biological attack has taken place, and while he doesn't know if it was man-made or something extraterrestrial, he knows there's no going outside for quite some time.

In all likelihood, in fact, everyone she cares about is already dead.

Once she begins to at least play along with his story, Howard allows her to leave her room and see the rest of the surprsingly cozy bunker. He also introduces her to their fellow bunkermate, Emmett DeWitt (John Gallagher, Jr.). Emmett is a local who used to work for Howard, and so he knew about this bunker for years. When Michelle notices his arm is in a sling, she asks if he hurt in trying to escape, but Emmett explains that he hurt his arm trying to get in. Something strange happened on the surface, an event Emmett could only interpret as an oncoming apocalypse, and he made for the first safe place he could think of.

That's the trouble with modern life: nobody treats family dinner with the proper amount of terror.
However, Michelle is still skeptical. So at dinner she seizes an opportunity to steal Howard's keys and then attacks him with the cane he provided her in order to make a break for the exit door. She has locked the inner airlock door behind her as Howard yells at her not to go outside, when suddenly a terrified woman appears at the porthole window on the outside door.

The woman is bloodied and has lesions on her skin, and babbles about how she didn't let "it" touch her. Michelle is frozen, unsure of how to react, when the woman suddenly bashes her own skull against the window repeatedly and dies. Howard's story seems a lot more credible now.

"On second thought, outside is a silly place."
As Michelle processes everything that happens, she suddenly remembers that Howard told her he found her car run off the road and saved her. However, she distinctly remembers a truck deliberately crashing into her and running her off the road. Before she can decide whether to confront her host about this, he confesses to her that he ran her off the road by accident in his hurry to get to the bunker. Knowing it was his fault she was hurt, he couldn't leave her to die and so he rescued her.

Michelle accepts his version of the incident and life begins to fall into a normal routine in the bunker. Howard really opens up to Michelle, advising she kind of reminds him of his daughter, Megan. He doesn't reveal much about Megan, beyond a picture of her, but it's clear that either she died or he is assuming she was killed in whatever catastrophe befell the outside world.

One day, the sound of helicopters or some other aircraft overhead gets their attention, but Howard points out it could be an invading force looking to wipe out survivors and so they make no move toward revealing their existence.

And then the ventilator fails and only Michelle, even still healing from her hurt leg, is small enough to climb into the shaft and get it started again. Once she gets up to the machinery and restarts it with Emmett and Howard guiding her over radio, she notices the nearby hatch secured with a padlock. On the inside of the porthole window, she notices someone has scratched "HELP."

Beginning to think her initial suspicions about Howard, she confides in Emmett and the two compare notes of Howard's strange behavior. When Michelle shows him the picture of Megan, Emmett advises that he knew Howard's daughter, and that is not her in the picture. In fact, he recognizes her as a girl who went missing two years earlier. It's clear that whatever happened outside, they need to figure out how to get out there because this bunker is not safe after all...

"Here, help me move this barrel of Trioxin before the zombie inside wakes up."
I'm both going to not spoil the rest of the film, because I think it deserves to be seen and appreciated, and I'm going to spoil the ending. That's because the ending is dumb and knowing that going in actually helped me to enjoy the film more.

Okay, the ending is not dumb on its face, but it's absolutely wrong for this movie. It rather reminds of The Last Exorcism, in that I almost have to pretend the ending is a totally separate movie. As with that film, when viewed as distinct entities the film and its ending are both pretty good; but together they're like a tuna salad and marmalade sandwich.

We'll get to that shortly, however, because I want to address everything that leads up to that ending without spoiling that part. First of all, this film does a great job of making the most of its bottle plot and the actors at the core of its story are wonderful. Naturally, John Goodman is a standout--largely because even having seen some movies where he played a darker character like The Big Lebowski, I still tend to think of Goodman as a reassuring, almost cuddly man. Here, however, Goodman is terrifying.

At times it's because he is forceful or physically and verbally aggressive. However, his quiet moments are just as unnerving because you can sense the instability at work inside of him.

John Gallagher, Jr. is really good as Emmett, too, bringing a natural easygoing charm to the role when the character could easily have been largely unmemorable. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is always great, but she really brings a lot to her character and her performance and the direction put us in her headspace before we even know anything about her.

Shame, then, that we know eventually we're going to have to get outside of the bunker and find out what happened and the film's answer is, well:

It's not that aliens is a bad answer, mind you. However, these aliens are.

For one thing, it feels incredibly rushed and yet somehow dragged out at the same time. Honestly, if the film ended with the first sighting of the alien scout ship zooming in from the horizon it would be an effective ending. However, instead it goes through a cat and mouse sequence where an alien stalks its human prey on foot, and then to a full-on action sequence that includes the revelation that you can kill an alien spaceship by tossing a Molotov cocktail into its mouth.

Yes, the spaceship has a mouth. Don't...don't worry about it.

"Oh God, I really hope that's the alien's face."
The original ending of the film as scripted apparently kept the human villain relevant far longer and ended ambiguously with the reveal of a ruined city skyline (Chicago in the script), with no explanation for what happened. That would have been a much better idea, frankly, because Howard is far scarier and more interesting than the painfully unmemorable aliens at the end of the actual film.

Well, okay, the alien itself is kind of memorable with its weird head that slides out of a tougher shell (a spacesuit, maybe?) like a cross between the sandworm in Beetlejuice and some kind of slug. However, it's still a lot less intimidating than John Goodman. It's a decent if kind of predictable sequence, but it doesn't compare favorably to the rest of the film and the fact it doesn't seem to fit with the story we've seen up to that point makes it feels like the film got the Godfrey Ho treatment and just stapled on another film's ending.

Honestly, it would have been less jarring for the film to have ended with the Cloverfield kaiju being shown to be responsible for the apocalypse. It also would have made the "spiritual sequel" angle feel less like an "in name only" sequel. I mean, if the film absolutely had to end with monsters that was the way to go. Hell, they should have filmed the scripted ending and just added a monster destroying the city.

So that's why I spoiled the film's big reveal, because if you go in knowing how much it peters out once it leaves the bunker then it's easier to accept that such a great film suddenly blows it in the last 10 minutes or so. I highly recommend watching the film, but honestly you could easily turn it off before the spaceship shows up and feel much happier.

Click the banner above to take yourself to the HubrisWeen central blog and see what everyone else chose for X!

Friday, October 28, 2016

HubrisWeen 2016, Day 23: War of The Gargantuas (1966)

It's pretty amazing how many sequels could be described as a straight-up remake of the first movie, but you don't realize it until you watch them multiple times. Usually it's pretty obvious when a sequel takes such an obvious route, but sometimes the change are subtle or drastic enough that you don't really catch it.

For instance, James Cameron effectively did this twice: Aliens and Terminator II: Judgment Day take the basic plot of the first film and dial the elements up to more extreme levels. You probably think I sound like one of those annoying fan theory articles or something from CinemaSins, but really consider it for a moment and you'll see that I'm right.

That is not a knock on either film, however. Sometimes more of the same actually works out beautifully, which brings us to today's film. Based on the English title you wouldn't know it and the plot doesn't actually make it all that clear, either, but this is a sequel to Frankenstein Conquers The World.

Confused? Well, you'll probably still be when I describe the film to you, but maybe slightly less so.

Despite not using it in the Japanese ending of the film, either Ishiro Honda or Eiji Tsuburaya must have been very attached to the giant octopus prop that was supposed to drag Frankenstein to his doom. I say that because this film opens with the poor creature being given a second chance at stardom. A fishing boat is caught in a storm off the coast of Japan, and as the lone crewman (Ren Yamamoto) manning the helm tries to find a way through the storm the door behind him opens and an octopus tentacle reaches through it. When the crewman sees the tentacle he grabs the nearest axe and chops it up before throwing his weight against the door. This means he doesn't see the rest of the octopus rising up out of the water and reaching into the wheelhouse windows to grab him.

If only he'd listened to the Ominous Harpsichord!
As the sailor tries not to be dragged out the window by the octopus, he screams out for his fellow crew to help him. However, suddenly the octopus loosens its grip and drops the sailor. When he peers out of the window to see why, he is greeted by a shocking sight: the octopus is engsged in combat with a hairy green giant. In the Japanese film, this creature is named Gaira and in the English version he'll be called Green Gargantua, so I'm going to call him Gaira.

Gaira eventually tosses the octopus aside and it flees. Except, well, Gaira isn't there to save the ship. He just fought off the octopus because he wanted the boat and its crew to himself, so he immediately grabs it and deliberately sinks it.

Luckily for the sailor, he survives the sinking. Unluckily, well, the police kind of think he's making up his story to hide what really happened--especially since they believe he was part of a crew of smugglers. It's understandable that they're skeptical. After all, in the English version he's claiming his boat was sunk by a Gargantua and in the Japanese version, he claims it was Frankenstein.

Yes, that is the connection to Frankenstein Conquers The World in this film and it's immediately easy to see why the English version ignored the fact it was a sequel at all, because there's not really any clear connection to the earlier film beyond the Gargantuas having the same regenerative powers as Frankenstein. Hell, based on what we'll see later I'm not even 100% sure this wasn't intended as more of a remake than a sequel.

At any rate, when the press gets wind of a boat being sunk by a Gargantua, well, they obviously call up Dr. Paul Stewart (Russ Tamblyn) and his assistant, Akemi Togawa (Kumi Mizuno!), since they famously had a young Gargantua in captivity five years earlier. Stewart is dismissive of the claim of a Gargantua attack at first, for several good reasons, but the Japanese version delightfully renders his response to the press as:

[Subtitle: "Frankenstein cannot be found in the ocean. Goodbye."]
The best part is he's not correct.

Well, Stewart goes to visit the sailor in the hospital anyway and hears his incredible story, which we see in flashback. He and the rest of his crew swam desperately for shore after the sinking, but Gaira saw them and swam after them. Naturally, the huge beast quickly overtook them and grabbed up all the sailors except the lone survivor--and devoured them. The sailor points out a very profound truth: if he were lying, wouldn't he make up a more believable story? Well, he must feel pretty vindicated when police divers shortly recover clothes that belonged to the boat's crew scattered between the wreck and the shore, and all of them sure look like they've been chewed up and spit out.

Incidentally, the crew of that boat had fantastically awful luck, as we're told the ship sank only a few hundred meters from shore--and somehow they drew the wrath of a giant octopus and a Frankenstein monster.

At a press conference, Stewart, Akemi, and their associate Dr. Yuzo Majida (Kenji Sahara!) relate their experiences with the young Gargantua, which we see in flashback. You might think maybe this is going to be Frankenstein from the previous film and the hand somehow became Gaira, but you'd be mistaken. No, they really had a small furry humanoid that liked to play with Akemi's purse and enjoy what I think are milk bottles. Akemi asserts the young creature was gentle and could never have been responsible for such a horrific attack, even after he escaped into the mountains. Stewart agrees, but swears to keep investigating--especially since footprints were recently found in the Japanese Alps and surely the Gargantua could not be in two places at once.

Did anyone really want a Teen Wolf prequel?
However, a fishing boat snags something in their line and when the old fisherman looks into the water, he sees Gaira reaching up for him--and then both he and the other fisherman fall in. On shore, dozens of villagers try to pull their nets in but something in the water is so strong it begins to pull them in--and then suddenly Gaira rises from the water, bellowing at them. They waste no time in fleeing, even though the beast does not come ashore.

Akemi still refuses to believe the story, but Majida goes to investigate and finds something stuck to the hull of the fishing boat attacked by Gaira--a chunk of tissue. Under analysis, it's determined that it definitely belongs to a sea creature, but that doesn't rule out the possibility of some kind of mutation. Meanwhile, Akemi and Stewart find that the prints in the mountains are unmistakably those of a gigantic humanoid.

However, any question about Gaira being real is rendered moot when the beast comes ashore at an airport. The creature is about 75 feet tall and proceeds to cause a massive panic, before walking up to one of the airport buildings, seeing a woman who didn't get away from the windows in time, and smashing his way in to grab her. Unfortunately for her, this is not a King Kong situation and Gaira immediately shoves her into his mouth, then spits her chewed up dress out onto the ground.

"I should really quit eating these, but once you pop you can't stop."
Well, just too late to help her, the sun comes out from behind the heavy cloud cover. Gaira reacts to the sunlight like a hungover college kid and bolts for the ocean at a dead run. Majida arrives at the airport in time to watch Gaira leap into the ocean through binoculars.

The press gives Stewart, Akemi, and Majida a not entirely unjustified tongue lashing for this since maybe if they hadn't insisted that Gaira was not a threat the attack could have been avoided. Stewart advises that they accept the truth and the important thing is to formulate ideas about how to stop Gaira. He recommends that the creature's aversion to sunlight is helpful because they can use bright lights in populated areas to keep him from attacking.

Well, a party boat in Tokyo harbor apparently ignored get the memo because as a lounge singer (Kipp Hamilton) warbles the unforgettable tune "The Words Get Stuck In My Throat"--no really, good luck forgetting it--they dim the lights. As she takes her bows at the end of the song, Gaira promptly advances on the boat, presumably because the song harmed his ears as much as ours, and scoops the singer up. However, he does not get the chance to get her stuck in his throat because the boat lights are turned up to full and he drops her. We never do find out if she survived the fall back onto the deck.

Gaira then comes ashore, but with all the lights in Tokyo at full brightness he is driven into the countryside. The JSDF use bonfires and bright lights to try and herd Gaira away from villages and farms, but their tanks and other artillery just piss him off. One such offensive just results in Gaira picking up tanks and flinging them into houses. However, the JSDF then debuts the fan favorite Maser tanks to use against Gaira.

Look, if the Pentagon were developing Maser tanks I might not mind our bloated defense budget.
They use helicopters to lure him to a river, where the Maser cannons can shoot him. And this proves to be the one and only time the Masers were ever effective against a kaiju as they hurt Gaira a lot. After chasing him through the woods with strafing beams, he is driven to what he thinks is the safety of a river.

Surprise, motherfucker, the river has been electrified! Additionally, smaller laser projectors have been placed at shin height and they hurt him even worse. Between the electricity, the Masers, and the lasers, Gaira is quickly dying. It looks like the JSDF has finally managed to take out a kaiju with their hardware directly...

...until a roar echoes out of the mountains and the Brown Gargantua, or Sanda, charges to Gaira's rescue. Sanda is taller than his "brother" at 90 feet, and he quickly knocks out the electrodes feeding into the river. He helps Gaira up, roars at the military and waves them off, before helping Gaira into the woods and they both disappear.

"Only I get to beat up on my little brother!"
Well, Stewart and Akemi are sure that Sanda must be their little Gargantua all grown up and Stewart hypothesizes that Sanda must have somehow injured himself in a way that caused a chunk of his tissue to wash out to sea and grow into Gaira, adapting to the aquatic environment as he matured. Of course, this means the military plan to bomb the Gargantuas to smithereens as soon as they're relocated is the worst possible idea because the pieces could regenerate into thousands of Gargantuas--and they may take more after Gaira than Sanda.

Stewart and Akemi think they know where the creatures are hiding, at a nearby lake, and they prove to be right when they almost walk right into Gaira during a heavy fog. As they flee, Akemi falls off a cliff and hangs for her life from a tree branch--and before Stewart can get to her, Sanda appears and despite taking a boulder to the leg, he saves Akemi's life. This proves that Sanda is still a gentle creature and must be helping his malevolent sibling because he doesn't know the truth.

However, when Sanda finds Gaira napping off the couple he just plucked out of their romantic rowboat and devoured, next to their chewed clothes, he realizes what Gaira has done. And plucking a tree from the ground, he strikes Gaira with it in a fury. Gaira fights back but it's a brief scuffle before he decides to retreat to the ocean again, running right through the middle of multiple towns.

Unfortunately, Gaira soon comes ashore in Tokyo and Stewart realizes that the beast now associates light with easy food. Luckily for humanity, Sanda isn't done with Gaira and the two confront each other in Tokyo, and after Gaira almost eats Akemi before Sanda comes to her rescue, well, that's the last straw. Nobody hurts Sanda's mother figure and gets away with it...

Don't get me wrong, I love Frankenstein Conquers The World, but I have to say that War of the Gargantuas takes the same basic story and makes some drastic improvements on it--which is why I earlier stated that a sequel that is essentially the same movie as the first is not always a negative.

By virtue of this film's structure, we get a lot more time with the actual villainous kaiju whose predations the good kaiju is being blamed for, and Gaira is also a much better villain than Baragon because he is not cute. He's a horrible green troll with crooked teeth and canines that just out like tusks. There is zero risk of mistaking him for a puppy. Even his roar is kind of terrifying, though ti does oddly sound like he's shouting, "Shit!" at times, which can be inadvertently hilarious.

Additionally, Sanda is somehow a much more engaging character than Frankenstein was. The fact that he has a much better roar may have something to do with it, and his design is much more compelling. Both of the Gargantuas are great designs--I love how they seem to just be hairy humanoids at first glance, but they also have the suggestion of scales under their fur which just adds another layer of mystery to them.

Then there's the climactic showdown where the two monsters battle each other in Tokyo. It's an amazing monster fight with some top-notch miniature work. We see them smashing throuigh buildings until finally they plunge into Tokyo Bay and continue fighting in the water. The film even kind of improves in the inexplicable geological events department, as rather than declare a clear victor, the film decides to have them both perish when a combination of their fighting and the bombs dropped on them from the JSDF causes an undersea volcano to rise out of Tokyo Bay, ala the opening of Gorgo, and consume them both. It still makes no sense, but it's a hell of a lot more acceptable than the ground just giving up and collapsing under Frankenstein.

Where the film does not improve, unfortunately, is in its token gaijin. I'm not actually sure why the film cast Russ Tamblyn in the lead instead of Nick Adams, since this was before Adams's tragic death, but it's possible he was busy or they intended to switch things up. Unfortunately, while Russ Tamblyn is not a bad replacement, he lacks the easy rapport Adams had with his costars. Adams made you believe he understood them and was playing off their lines, while Tamblyn feels like he's just waiting for his costars to finish their lines so he can say his.

However, the rest of the cast--particularly Kumi Mizuno and Kenji Sahara--ably help to carry the picture. And of course Haruo Nakajima as Gaira and Yu Sekida as Sanda deserve a lot of credit for bringing great life to the Gargantuas.

I'm far from the first to sing this film's praises, but if you're a kaiju fan and you haven't seen it, you simply must rectify that at once.

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