‘The Giant Gila Monster: Special Edition’
$29.95 (Blu-ray), $19.95 (DVD)
74 minutes plus bonus film and special features
By Mark Voger, author
‘Britmania: The British Invasion of the Sixties in Pop Culture’
Few people — nobody I can think of, anyway — call “The Giant Gila Monster” or “The Killer Shrews” their favorite monster movie.
But these made-in-Texas “sister” films — both produced by the same team in 1959, and marketed as a double feature — have much to recommend them. “Gila” does the ’50s teeny bopper thing, with the hot rods and the makeout sessions and the rock ‘n’ roll. “Shrews” qualifies as a horror noir. Together, they represent the last gasp of the once prevailing “giant monster” genre of the nifty ’50s.
The films are due out Sept. 26 (pre-order now) on Blu-ray and DVD from Film Masters, paired again as a double feature 64 years after they first flickered across drive-in screens. The two-disc set is titled “The Giant Gila Monster: Special Edition,” and includes a bonus HD print of “The Killer Shrews.” It’s doubtful that the films — presented in restored 4K scans from 35mm — looked this good in 1959.
Both were directed by Ray Kellogg, a resourceful filmmaker with ties to John Ford and John Wayne, and bankrolled by Gordon McLendon, a colorful radio mogul who once ran for senator. In the following, I’m focusing on “Gila”; please read my review of “Shrews” HERE.
Plot: In a remote Western region where kids dance at sock hops and drunk driving is overlooked as a fact of life, there’s a sudden epidemic of unexplained road fatalities. The weathered sheriff (Fred Graham) is mystified. He trades sparse information with Chase (Don Sullivan), a straight-arrow young mechanic who reliably arrives with a tow truck to remove the mangled cars. There are no signs of the victims, but tire tracks indicate that the drivers swerved to avoid something unexpected and large. Hmmm …
Chase’s girlfriend Lisa (Lisa Simone, Miss France 1957) is foreign-exchange student who works for nasty Mr. Wheeler (Bob Thompson), the town’s demanding oil baron whose AWOL son is one of the victims. Chase has a darling little sister, Missy (Janice Stone) who walks precariously with the aid of newly purchased leg braces.
Chase is also a wanna-be singer, though his brand of rock ‘n’ roll hardly makes him the next Elvis. Chase sings one song, accompanying himself on ukulele, that I’m guessing is titled “The Lord Said Laugh, Children, Laugh.” (That refrain is heard over and over.) He sings it on bended knee to Missy, and again to local teens during a crowded sock hop. For some reason, the mob doesn’t eject him from the premises.
Top-notch comedy relief is supplied by town drunk Old Man Harris, played by the always entertaining Shug Fisher (one of the Sons of the Pioneers in a mess of Roy Rogers movies, and later known as Shorty in 17 episodes of “The Beverly Hillbillies”). Harris wears fishing lures on his hat and drives a 1932 Model T that the hot-rodders all beg to buy from him. But Old Man Harris won’t budge. His philosophy: “Buying a car, son, is just like getting’ married or goin’ to New York City. Everybody ought to do it once, but nobody ought to do it twice.”
In ’50s monster movies, there’s always a pseudo-scientific explanation for how the monster came into existence. I must say, “Gila” has one of the lamest. The sheriff tells Chase that he was talking to a “zoologist” who said a lizard’s size is determined by its pituitary gland, and that a “change in diet” involving “certain salts” may have throw everything “out of whack.” Wha?
The monster was not designed and built by modelers, nor brought to life by animators. It is, simply, a real-life gila monster lumbering around miniature sets. Various pundits and horror movie hosts have had much fun with this inconvenient truth, but to be fair, you can’t dismiss the monster out of hand.
Shots of the monster are lovingly composed with moody lighting (especially in this restoration), and are doled out judiciously before the film ramps up to the big finish. As the monster advances through the parking lot where the climactic sock hop in held, the scene is novel if not exactly convincing. The monster’s earworm theme music — eerie theremin composed by Jack Marshall (“The Munsters”) — could pass muster in any big-studio monster flick.
But one thing concerned me. As the film ends, I worried that Chase would whip out his ukulele for a third rendition of “The Lord Said Laugh, Children, Laugh.”
Extra features include a 24-page booklet; audio commentary; trailers; an audio interview with Sullivan; radio commercials; and Ballyhoo Motion Pictures’ doc “Ray Kellogg: An Unsung Master.” (In it, we learn that Kellogg was introduced to film after serving under Ford as a photographer in the Navy’s OSS Special Photography Unit, and that he later co-directed “The Green Berets” with Wayne.)
The movies are presented in two formats: TV (for nostalgic people who wish to experience the films as they probably first did) and theatrical.
Speaking of which, I first saw “The Giant Gila Monster” on Channel 17 in Philadelphia in 1972, when I was in the 8th grade. It was shown on a chillyl Sunday evening (paired with “The Screaming Skull”) by good old Dr. Shock, a horror host played by Manayunk magician Joe Zawislak. I’ve never forgotten the scene in which the sheriff and Chase puzzle over a teenaged couple that has disappeared. The sheriff wonders aloud if the couple eloped, and asks Chase a direct question.
Sheriff: “Were they in any kind of trouble?”
Chase: “What do you mean?”
Sheriff: “You know.”
That blew my mind! I was just old enough to “get” what they were talking about. I was like: Such serious adult stuff in a monster movie? One that was already 13 years old back then? What in the world!