IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: GORGO (1961)

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When you think of giant monster movies, you most likely think of Godzilla and King Kong, arguably the two most famous giant movie monsters of all time, and you probably think of Japan’s Toho Studios, who made so many of those Godzilla movies we love, as well as plenty of other giant monster adventures.

But today’s movie, GORGO (1961), hails from the United Kingdom, a country that historically did not churn out a whole bunch of giant monster movies. And while in some ways the plot borrows heavily from the original GODZILLA (1954), except in this case rather than Godzilla emerging from the ocean to destroy Tokyo, we have Gorgo emerging from the ocean to pummel London, GORGO is a good enough giant monster movie to stand on its own.

In fact, the special effects in this one depicting Gorgo’s assault on London are right up there with Godzilla’s more famous attack on Tokyo. Topnotch stuff! So much so, that this sequence which pretty much takes up the entire second half of the movie, ranks as one of the best monster-attacks-city sequences ever put on film! The movie is only 78 minutes long, and so at the end of the day, GORGO is one action-packed giant monster movie!

But it’s also rather odd in that it’s one of the few monster movies— or any movie for that matter— that doesn’t really feature any women! There are no female main characters, and I think there’s only two women in the film who even speak any lines of dialogue!

Then again, giant Gorgo is a female, as she is a mommy monster in search of her baby monster which gets kidnapped and taken to London. Hmm. Maybe Gorgo’s contract stipulated that she would be the only prominent female in the cast?

Anyway, GORGO is the story of Joe Ryan (Bill Travers) and Sam Slade (William Sylvester) who helm a salvage vessel, and when they discover a sea monster off the coast of Ireland, they capture it and decide to bring it back to London in order to make money off it. These guys obviously went to the Carl Denham school of business! Little boy Sean (Vincent Winter), who lives on the island where Gorgo is discovered, tells Joe and Sam that they shouldn’t capture the monster and take him away, but the adults don’t listen to him. So, Sean secretly stows away on the ship, and when Joe and Sam discover him, they decide to take care of him and pretty much adopt him for the rest of the movie. Er, Sean, where the hell are your parents?

They bring Gorgo to London where he is shown off at a circus and much to Joe and Sam’s delight, makes them lots of money. But it turns out, this is only a baby Gorgo, and when mommy Gorgo emerges from the ocean, she’s none too happy about her son being abducted, and so she swims to London and attacks the city in order to get him back.

And there’s your plot!

GORGO was directed by Eugene Lourie, who must have loved giant monster movies, because this was the fourth time he directed a movie about a giant monster! His first, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953), is probably his most famous, as it featured the special effects of Ray Harryhausen and was based on the short story “The Fog Horn,” by Ray Bradbury. Lourie followed this up with THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK (1958), a film about a giant robot, and then he made THE GIANT BEHEMOTH (1959), which featured the special effects of KING KONG creator Willis O’Brien, which told the story of a yet another giant sea monster.

And then he made GORGO. Overall, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS is probably his best movie, mostly because it did feature the effects of Ray Harryhausen, but GORGO is a close second, and the attack on London is far more intense than any of the scenes found in THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS.

Even more interesting, these are the only four movies Eugene Lourie ever directed! He should have directed more, because all four of these movies are very good, and two of them, THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS and GORGO are downright excellent! Lourie passed away in 1991 from heart failure.

Robert L. Richards and Daniel James wrote the screenplay which tells a decent enough giant monster story, with the one glaring oddity being that there are no women in this story whatsoever!

Young Vincent Winter, who played Sean, would become disappointed with acting and turn to working behind the scenes where he would serve as an assistant director for many movies, including the Christopher Reeve SUPERMAN (1978). Winter died in 1998 from a heart attack at the age of 50.

Also in the cast is Martin Benson, who played the circus owner who promotes Gorgo in London. Benson is no stranger to genre films, having played doomed Father Spiletto in THE OMEN (1976), and, in the role I remember him most for, playing the weasel-like Mr. Rash in NIGHT CREATURES (1962), Hammer’s pirate adventure starring Peter Cushing and Oliver Reed. Benson also had a “pressing engagement” in the Sean Connery James Bond classic GOLDFINGER (1964), as his character ends up being crushed in a car by Oddjob.

And speaking of Hammer Films, in the scene where baby Gorgo is paraded around London, you can see Hammer’s THE MUMMY (1959) playing at the theater at Piccadilly Circus.

The impressive special effects were created by Tom Howard, who would later work on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968). Interestingly enough, the same monster suit was used for both mommy Gorgo and baby Gorgo, and the size difference was achieved with different sets and models, as well as different roar sound effects.

When GORGO was released in 1961, there had only been two Godzilla movies released, the original and its sequel GODZILLA RAIDS AGAIN (1955), but the filmmakers must have had Godzilla in mind because they premiered GORGO in Japan rather than in the United Kingdom.

Japan returned the favor by basically remaking GORGO as MONSTER FROM A PREHISTORIC PLANET (1967) (Its original and better title is GAPPA THE TRIPHIBIAN MONSTERS), a tale in which a mommy and a daddy monster attack Tokyo in order to bring back their baby monster which had been taken to Japan.

The lesson from both these movies is, if you’re going to put a young giant monster in a show, you’d best ask its parents’ permission first! You might also want to include them in the contract and give them a piece of the proceeds!

GORGO is one of the better giant monster movies of yesteryear. In spite of the dubious decision not to feature any female characters in its story other than the giant monster Gorgo herself, this one features really good special effects and a second-half giant monster assault on London that can’t be beat!

The title, by the way, comes from the Gorgon, as Gorgo is short for Gorgon, and it refers to the Medusa tale of the creature so hideous one look at her would turn people to stone. While Gorgo is not that hideous looking, the creature is indeed monstrous and is impressive to behold.

So, you don’t have to be afraid of Gorgo’s face. It won’t turn you into stone. On the other hand, you probably should be afraid of Gorgo’s feet, which will turn you into some itty-bitty pieces of crushed flesh and bone when they step on you.

—END—

Worst Movies of 2021

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Welcome back! As promised, here is my list of the Top 10 Worst Movies of 2021.

As I did with my Best Movies List, I’m placing an asterisk next to this one, as once again, the pandemic has prevented trips to the movie theaters from being a safe activity, and so with this in mind, I know we haven’t all seen the same movies since we are not all heading out to the movie theaters to see the same national releases. I know there are plenty of movies I missed this year.

Okay, let’s get on with it. Without further hesitation, here is my list of the Top 10 Worst Movies of 2021:

10. CRY MACHO – probably the dullest movie I watched all year. Clint Eastwood directs and stars in this tale of a former rodeo star (Eastwood) who goes to Mexico to bring back his boss’s teenage son to the States, and along the way, the two form a bond in this underwhelming buddy movie. While I am in awe of Clint Eastwood, who at 91 years old, is still making quality movies, the story here in CRY MACHO doesn’t do him any favors. The storytelling is muddled, and Eastwood seems to be playing a character who is much younger than 91, although the script never makes this clear. Not much to like about this one, even for Eastwood fans.

9. FEAR STREET: PART TWO – 1978 – Yeah, I know. For a lot of folks, this second installment in the Netflix FEAR STREET horror movie trilogy was the best of the lot, but for me, it was the worst. Each part served as an homage to a particular horror movie genre, and here in FEAR STREET: PART TWO – 1978 that genre is the FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH movies. I’m going to ruffle more feathers here as well when I say honestly that I’ve never liked the FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH movies and have found them all to be particularly bad. FEAR STREET: PART TWO does a nice job capturing the feel of these movies, but at the end of the day, it’s yet another variation of teenagers at a summer camp being slaughtered in the most unrealistically gruesome of ways. If that’s your cup of tea, you probably love this movie. But it’s not mine. I prefer intelligence in my horror.

8. GODZILLA VS. KONG – Again, this is one that a lot of people really liked, but for me, even as a fan of giant monster movies, especially King Kong movies, and Godzilla movies as well, this one was simply bad. I find it difficult to understand why this movie has so many fans when its script is so weak. The human characters are all forgettable, the situations unrealistic and uninspiring, and the dialogue is pretty poor. So, all you have left are the giant monsters in combat. And even those scenes didn’t do much for me. I know the argument is out there that that’s how the old Toho Godzilla movies all were. That’s a fair argument, up to a point. What always saved the Toho films was that Godzilla and his friends all had personality. The monsters in these modern-day versions do not. Plus, movies like KING KONG (1933) and THEM! (1954) did have superior scripts. These new giant monster movies do not. Instead, the modern-day giant monster movie (mostly Godzilla and Kong these days) has been reduced to special effects only, without any interest in creating any kind of a story worth telling.

7. COMING 2 AMERICA – the original COMING TO AMERICA (1988) starring Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall was very funny. This sequel, in spite of the return of Murphy and Hall, is not. Next movie…

6. TYGER TYGER – this was a movie that I fully expected to like, because it was so different and quirky, with a sense of style that I thought would make it a winner. But this tale of a pair of selfless robbers who kidnap a drug addict before they all find themselves hiding out in a bizarre psychedelic city is probably better enjoyed when you’re high! Seriously! The longer this one went on, the less sense it made, and by the time it was all over, it largely had become a wasted opportunity. No pun intended!

5. THE LITTLE THINGS – in spite of the presence of Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, and Jared Leto this one just doesn’t work. Washington plays a former detective who’s called in to help with a serial killer case, and the character he plays is known for spotting the little things others miss in these cases. Trouble is, the script barely shows him doing this. Malek plays the hotshot detective who calls in Washington for help, but the choices he makes throughout the movie make him seen anything but a hotshot detective. And Leto plays the man they suspect is the serial killer. This one should have been awesome. Instead, it’s a muddled meandering tale that gets worse as it goes along with a particularly weak ending.

4. WITHOUT REMORSE- With a script by one of my favorite screenwriters, Taylor Sheridan, I fully expected to like this adaptation of a Tom Clancy novel, but instead it proved to be Sheridan’s first real misfire. Michael B. Jordan plays an elite Navy Seal who’s gone rogue to solve the murder of his wife, only to find— of course— that it’s all part of a larger conspiracy. What. A. Surprise. Yawn.

And now, the drum roll please. Here are my Top 3 Worst Movies from 2021:

3. SWEET GIRL -Hands down, the worst action movie of the year. Jason Momoa plays a man who vows revenge against a pharmaceutical company after its “business decision” pulled a drug from the market which could have saved his terminally ill wife. So, hubby goes insane and plots to kill the heads of this company, who, while they are undesirable, probably don’t deserve to be killed. So, there’s that initial problem. But wait, there’s more! There’s a larger conspiracy! Of course, there always is. Plus, Momoa’s character against his better judgement is constantly bringing his teenage daughter with him and training her to protect herself and be an assassin vigilante like him… and then, thanks to a bizarre plot twist, his character disappears from the second half of the movie. So, yes, you have an action film headlined by Jason Momoa, that halfway through ditches its star. Ugh.

2. MADRES – the worst horror movie of the year. This tale of a Mexican American couple who move to a new community in 1970s California that seems to have a weird sinister secret involving pregnant women, doesn’t know how to get out of its own way. The film aims for a ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968) and THE STEPFORD WIVES (1975) vibe but fails on both counts. This one is based on true events, and its reveal at the end is actually very good, but the problem is the film tries so hard to hide this reveal with a supernatural tale that is so lame it makes the movie completely ineffective. Had the filmmakers chosen to focus on what this film is ultimately about, it would have been a far darker, more memorable movie.

And now, drum roll please, the Worst Movie of 2021:

1. THUNDER FORCE – by far, the worst comedy of the year. Melissa McCarthy plays a woman who inherits superpowers thanks to her scientist friend played by Octavia Spencer. They then take on the world’s supervillains. Should have been funny. But it’s not. Jason Bateman fares the best as a supervillain known as The Crab. Written and directed by McCarthy’s husband Ben Falcone.

And there you have it. My picks for the Top 10 Worst Movies of 2021. Now, let’s move on to 2022.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

PICTURE OF THE DAY: KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962)

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With the release of GODZILLA VS. KONG (2021) right around the corner, what better way to celebrate than to feast your eyes on an image from the original Kong vs. Godzilla rumble, KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962).

Any way you slice it, KING KONG VS. GODZILLA— at least the American dubbed version— is one silly movie. Yet, I loved it as a kid, and truth be told, I still love it as an adult! It has lots of comic relief— “my corns!”— , memorable characters— who can forget Tako?— and of course, the biggest title bout of the 1960s that didn’t involve Muhammad Ali!

If you love giant monsters, especially King Kong and Godzilla, you would be hard-pressed not to enjoy KING KONG VS. GODZILLA. Both monsters fare very well in this flick, and since this was still an early Godzilla movie, he hadn’t quite made the change to good guy superhero monster. He’s still the villain here, and the Godzilla scenes, especially early on, are quite good.

Kong doesn’t do as well, at least in the looks department. For my money, Kong in this movie is the worst looking King Kong ever in the movies! He is absolutely ridiculous looking! That being said, he does enjoy some fine scenes.

The best of course, and the best scenes in the movie, are the battles between Kong and Godzilla. And there are two of them. The first is brief, almost a teaser, but the second is well worth the wait. It’s one of the better giant monster skirmishes ever put on film, although it’s not my favorite Godzilla battle. There are some in the series which top this one.

And if you’ve seen the movie, one of the more indelible images is the pagoda, which Godzilla and Kong absolutely pummel towards the end of their bout. While nowhere near as memorable as the image of the Empire State Building in the original KING KONG (1933), it still makes its mark. I can’t think of KING KONG VS. GODZILLA without picturing that scene pictured above.

Another reason KING KONG VS. GODZILLA is a silly movie, which fans have known for years, is that the original Kong stood about 40 feet high, while Godzilla towered at 400 feet high. Kong grew a few inches for this movie. He also developed a re-charging tool courtesy of the Frankenstein Monster. See, in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, Kong gets strength when he’s zapped by lightning! Imagine that! Lightning pretty much kills the rest of us, but for Kong, as they say in the movie, it’s like spinach for Popeye! And Kong needs the extra strength, because as we all know, Godzilla breathes radioactive fire, and so after he zaps Kong with this, nearly killing him, thankfully, mother nature intervenes and strikes Kong with some lightning, and the wrestling bout continues!

I love the power writers wield. Hmm. Kong will never survive Godzilla’s fire…. wait, lightning, that will do it. Lightning will make him stronger. Who knew?

And while I am fairly excited about the new GODZILLA VS. KONG, and I will definitely watch it, I have to admit, I just haven’t enjoyed any of the new Godzilla or Kong movies. They’ve all lacked soul and personality, and they simply haven’t been fun. Worst of all, they’ve all suffered from really bad scripts.

So, I fully expect GODZILLA VS. KONG to be pretty bad, or worse, mediocre. I always go in with an open mind, so I’m hoping I will be pleasantly surprised.

In the meantime, I’m enjoying looking back and thinking fondly on the original battle between these two behemoths, featured in the silly yet satisfying KING KONG VS. GODZILLA.

With that in mind, I eagerly await GODZILLA VS. KONG.

May the best monster win!

—END—

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017)

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I am a huge King Kong fan and have enjoyed pretty much every King Kong movie ever made, with the exception of KING KONG LIVES (1986), which in spite of the presence of Linda Hamilton, was pretty awful.

That being said, I just don’t like KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017).

Now, I know I’m in the minority here, as most folks are really high on this flick, but for me, it just doesn’t work.

The biggest culprit, as is so often the case, is the writing. The screenplay by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly is a snooze. The dialogue is rather bad, and the characterizations pretty much nonexistent.

I saw KONG: SKULL ISLAND when it first came out in theaters. I didn’t like it then, but I thought I’d give it another go for the purposes of this column. I still don’t like it.

For starters, the film takes place in the 1970s for seemingly no other reason than to show off Vietnam era soldiers and choppers on Skull Island. While it may make for some moments of cool cinematography, it adds nothing to the story.

KONG: SKULL ISLAND also wastes the considerable talents of its impressive cast, which includes Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, John C. Reilly, and Shea Whigham.

Bill Randa (John Goodman) sets out to lead an expedition to Skull Island in search of… well, the movie doesn’t really make that clear. Remember the old days when Carl Denham just wanted to make a movie, and then changed his mind when he saw Kong? Why can’t we have clear, concise, and simple plot points like that anymore? Ah, the good old days, when film writing was king! Sorry, Kong. Yes, Kong. I realize in a column about a King Kong movie you’re the only one who should be mentioned as king. Anyway…

Getting back to my point about the writing and character motivations, heck, even Charles Grodin’s Fred Wilson had an agenda in the 1976 remake of KING KONG, as he was looking for oil. Like the rest of the script in KONG: SKULL ISLAND, Randa’s motives remain murky and undefined. He’s looking for a giant monster because…. mumble, mumble, mumble. Yeah, that’s it! That’s the reason! Which is a writer’s code for not really having a good reason in the first place! Grrr!!!

Anyway, Randa assembles his team, which includes a tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and a photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), as well as a military escort led by Prescott Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) who is still bristling over the results in Vietnam. As a result, when Kong quickly makes short work of some of his men, Packard declares war on the giant ape and sets out to kill him.

The bulk of KONG: SKULL ISLAND follows Randa and his merry band of explorers as they deal with various carnivorous creatures as well as Kong himself, which all sounds much better than it really is.

Again, the biggest culprit is the screenplay. We know so little about these characters it’s difficult to care at all about them. Compared to the 1933 KING KONG, where we had Carl Denham trying to make a movie, Ann Darrow abducted by Kong, and Jack Driscoll falling in love for the first time in his life with Ann, the folks in this story have nothing going on that is as interesting. Worse yet, the dialogue is awful.

The direction by Jordan Vogt-Roberts isn’t any better. KONG: SKULL ISLAND plays like KING KONG MEETS TOP GUN, as that’s the kind of depth you have in this flick.

Then there’s Kong himself. Kong has always been larger than life in his movies. Like Godzilla, Kong has a personality and a presence. In short, he’s a major character in his films. And even when he is at his most brutal, he still is sympathetic. The Kong in this movie struggles to have any personality whatsoever. He’s the most uncinematic Kong yet.

The special effects are okay. I’ve seen better, and I’ve seen worse. The creatures on Skull Island, while fairly original, never really wowed me. I think because, like the human characters, they’re stuck in a lifeless soulless movie.

Is KONG: SKULL ISLAND as bad as KING KONG LIVES? No. But that’s not saying very much.

If you want to experience the horrors of Skull Island, you’d best stick to the original KING KONG. That film’s Skull Island’s scenes remain as intense now as they were back in 1933. The events in KONG: SKULL ISLAND pale in comparison.

Some have called KONG: SKULL ISLAND “mindless entertainment.”

I call it just mindless.

—END—

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (1966)

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WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (1966) has always been one of my favorite Toho giant monsters movies.

One reason for this is nostalgia. In addition to its regular play on the popular Saturday afternoon Creature Double Feature back in the day, it also received a much-hyped prime time showing on our local UHF Channel 56 in Boston that had all the neighborhood kids, myself included, chirping about it before, during, and after it was aired.

But the main reason is it’s a darn good movie. Well, at least among films in the Toho canon, and this is no surprise since it was directed by arguably their top director, Ishiro Honda, who also directed the original GODZILLA (1954), THE MYSTERIANS (1957), KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962), and DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (1968) to name just a few.

I was recently able to view the original Japanese version of WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS, which includes the Frankenstein references that were removed from the film when it was released in the U.S. back in 1970.

And there are Frankenstein references because WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS is a sequel to Toho’s Frankenstein flick, FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD (1965). I’m not sure why the Frankenstein connection was initially severed, but it’s too bad it was done, because the film works even better as a Frankenstein movie.

The story of a giant Frankenstein monster and his “brother” is much more intriguing than a story about two random gargantuas. And WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS is a better movie than FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD, which means it’s one of those rare cases where the sequel is an improvement on the original.

In WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS, a mysterious monster is terrorizing the countryside attacking and eating people. It is also avoiding detection, as it always disappears quickly after it attacks, preventing the authorities from being able to stop it. It’s assumed that this is the same creature which escaped from the lab of Dr. Paul Stewart (Russ Tamblyn) and his fellow scientists. Of course, in the original version, this was the Frankenstein monster from FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD. Dr. Stewart doesn’t think it’s the same creature, because the one which escaped from his lab was peaceful and would never harm humans.

It’s later discovered that there are two gargantuas, the original who escaped from Stewart’s lab, and a new more menancing one, who is believed to be a sort of clone from the first. These two behemoths eventually do battle. Hence, the war of the gargantuas.

The best part of WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS is that there are lots of scenes featuring the gargantuas. In lesser Toho movies, you have to sit through long stretches of usually boring dialogue and bland characters while you wait for the monsters to make their appearances. Not so here with WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS. These creatures are in this movie a lot. There is a ton of giant monster action.

And director Ishiro Honda, who also wrote the screenplay,  fills this one with a lot of memorable scenes. The film opens with a frightening sequence where a slimy looking giant octopus attacks a ship, only to be deterred by an even scarier looking gargantua, who makes quick work of the octopus before turning his attention to the crew of the ship which he promptly consumes for a yummy dessert

There are a bunch of rather frightening scenes in this one. In spite of this being a silly giant monster movie, there are some dark moments. The scene where a group of hikers encounter the gargantua waiting for them in a dense fog has always been one that gives me the shivers. Likewise, in another sequence on a boat, the gargangtua is seen staring up at the passengers from under the water. We’re gonna need a bigger boat!

And the battle scenes here are second to none. There’s an excellent sequence where the gargantua comes out of the water to attack an airport, and of course, the climactic battle between the two garagantuas is a keeper.

If you’re a fan of the Toho movies, this is one film you do not want to miss, and if you’ve never seen a Toho film, this is a good one to start with, although I do recommend watching FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD first, since this is a sequel to that movie.

All in all, if you love giant monster movie action and want to see an A-list director at the top of his game, then check out WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS.

It’s a gargantuan good time!

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

UNDERWATER (2020) – First Exceptional Horror Movie of 2020

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UNDERWATER (2020) wastes no time diving into action.

Within minutes of its opening credits, the crisis begins, and this new underwater horror movie starring Kristen Stewart is off and running.

Now, I’m a big fan of Stewart’s, and other than the TWILIGHT movies, every movie she’s in she makes that much better. Things are no different here with UNDERWATER. Stewart is terrific.

Underwater horror movies/thrillers are nothing new. In fact, there was one year, 1989, which featured three of them: DEEPSTAR SIX (1989), LEVIATHAN (1989), and James Cameron’s big budget THE ABYSS (1989). You can go all the way back to Irwin Allen’s VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA (1961) and Disney’s production of Jules Verne’s 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954). There’s a long history here.

Some are calling UNDERWATER, “ALIEN under water.”  This isn’t really an apt comparison. While there are some similarities, UNDERWATER tells its own story, and to be honest, other than the obvious “crew stalked by monstrous threat,” I didn’t think of ALIEN at all while watching UNDERWATER.

So, how does UNDERWATER hold up to the rest of the underwater thriller movies? Surprisingly well.

Within minutes of meeting main character Norah (Kristen Stewart), a mechanical engineer on a futuristic underwater oil drilling station, and it’s futuristic because the story takes place in 2050, an explosion rocks the rig and suddenly Norah and a handful of survivors are fighting for their lives.

The station has been completely compromised, and it’s crumbling from the top down, and so the survivors have to make their way down to the very bottom, the ocean floor, where they will put on underwater diving suits and walk across the ocean bottom to a neighboring facility where they will be able to access escape pods to jettison to the surface to await rescue. Trouble is, as they prepare to make this walk, they discover they are not alone. There are strange creatures lurking beneath the sea. Lots of them. And they’re hungry.

UNDERWATER has a fun premise, and it doesn’t disappoint. Throw a few survivors in harm’s way inside an underwater drilling station that is constantly being rocked by explosions, falling debris, and the deadly water pressure outside, and you have suspense and excitement even before the creatures show up.

And the creatures here only add to the excitement. In fact, they were among my favorite parts of the movie. They look good, they’re scary and intense, and not only are there a lot of them, but there are different ones as well. In fact, by the time this one ends, there’s a really big payoff in terms of monsters. UNDERWATER has a lot to offer for monster movie fans.

As I said, Kristen Stewart is excellent here in the lead role, and she makes for a likable and believable heroine. My favorite thing about Kristen Stewart as an actor is she has a sincere, moody presence, and she plays characters who are flawed yet extremely strong and resilient.

The rest of the cast is okay but pretty much follow Stewart’s lead. T.J. Miller, who is becoming typecast, provides the comic relief. Miller, who played a very similar role as Hud in the classic CLOVERFIELD (2008), and who’s been seen more recently in the DEADPOOL movies as Weasel, gets the best one-liners in the film. Miller is very good at this, and he’s fun to watch here, but it would be even more fun to see him play some other types of roles for a change.

Jessica Henwick is very good as well as the intern in the group. Vincent Cassel plays the Captain, and John Gallagher Jr. , who was memorable in such movies as THE BELKO EXPERIMENT (2016) and 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016) is also one of the crew.

Director William Eubank wastes no time in getting this one jump-started, and the action stays consistent throughout. That being said, the pacing isn’t perfect. There are times when things slow down, and some of the underwater scenes, especially towards the end, are dark and murky and difficult to see.

The dialogue isn’t always sharp either. The screenplay by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad offers mostly panicked conversations and has little else to say, although it is mentioned briefly that the creatures’ presence is nature’s way of striking back since humans have taken their underwater drilling too far, and that humankind doesn’t belong there.

Brian Duffield also wrote the screenplay for the horror movie THE BABYSITTER (2017) which was a much more creative script than the one here for UNDERWATER. Still, he’s now written two very well-made horror movies. Adam Cozad wrote the screenplay for THE LEGEND OF TARZAN (2016) and his work here is a step up from the TARZAN movie. All in all, the screenplay for UNDERWATER is decent enough.

But the best part of UNDERWATER is its monsters. They do not disappoint. They are cool looking and mysterious, deadly and relentless, and oh so hungry!

These creatures combined with Kristen Stewart and a fine supporting cast make UNDERWATER the first exceptional horror movie of 2020.

—END—

 

 

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: ONE MILLION B.C. (1940)

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one million bc battle

After KING KONG (1933), film audiences really had to wait a while before any other giant monsters returned to the big screen. The next major giant monster release really wasn’t until Ray Harryhausen’s special effects driven THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953), based on Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Fog Horn.” Of course, the following year Japan’s Toho Studios released GODZILLA (1954) and after that there was no looking back for giant monster fans.

But in between 1933 and 1953 were lean years, with just a couple of films released featuring oversized creatures. One of these films was ONE MILLION B.C. (1940), an adventure about two different cave tribes who have to overcome their differences in order to survive.

One of the reasons they have to fight to survive is there are some prehistoric beasts on the loose. Yup, this isn’t factually accurate, of course, as some of these creatures would have been extinct long before cave people walked the earth, but who’s complaining?

While ONE MILLION B.C. technically isn’t a horror movie, it does feature enormous ferocious creatures, and it is also of interest for horror fans because it features a pre-Wolf Man Lon Chaney Jr. in the cast.

The plot of ONE MILLION B.C. is pretty much a love story, as Tumak (Victor Mature) and Loana (Carole Landis) who are from opposing tribes meet and fall in love. Loana’s tribe is the more advanced and civilized of the two, and as they welcome Tumak, he learns of their more modern ways and uses this knowledge to help his own people. Meanwhile, life in the stone age is no picnic. There are nasty creatures at every turn, and pretty much all of them want to eat people for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Lon Chaney Jr. plays Tumak’s father Akhoba, who is a bit rough around the edges and sees nothing wrong with eating all the food first and letting his underlings have the scraps, which is unlike Loana’s tribe, who share their food equally.

While Victor Mature, Carole Landis, Lon Chaney Jr. and the rest of the human cast are all fine, since they’re playing cave people, they don’t really have any lines of dialogue, meaning this one can become tedious to watch.

The real stars in this one are the creatures, and the special effects run hot and cold. Mostly cold. There is a T-Rex like dinosaur that is laugh-out-loud awful. It’s obviously a man in a suit, its size changes, and at times it seems to be no taller than a center for the NBA.

The best effects are when the film utilizes real lizards and makes them seem gigantic. Most of the time this type of effect is inferior, but in this film the “giant” lizards look pretty authentic. The film also does a nice job with the “mastodons” which are elephants in disguise. If anything is done well consistently, it’s the sound effects. All the creatures, regardless of how they look, sound terrifying.

The special effects were actually nominated for an Academy Award but lost out to THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1940).

ONE MILLION B.C. was directed by Hal Roach and Hal Roach Jr., and while the monster scenes are all rather exciting, what happens in between them is not. In fact, most of the film is pretty much a bore.

But audiences in 1940 didn’t think so. ONE MILLION B.C. was the box office champion that year.

Mickell Novack, George Baker, and Joseph Frickert wrote the standard no frills screenplay.

Victor Mature would go on to make a lot of movies, including SAMSON AND DELILAH (1949) and THE ROBE (1953), while Carole Landis, who pretty much gives the best performance in the film, sadly struggled to land leading roles in subsequent movies, ultimately leading to her tragic suicide at the age of 29 in 1948.

And Lon Chaney Jr. of course would make THE WOLF MAN the following year, and the rest, as they say, was history.

Over the years, ONE MILLION B.C. has been overshadowed by its Hammer Films remake, ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966), which starred Raquel Welch and featured special effects by Ray Harryhausen. Neither film is among my favorites.

This Thanksgiving, as you prepare to give thanks and dig into that grand turkey dinner, you might want to check out ONE MILLION B.C., a movie that recalls a long ago time when it was humans who were on the holiday menu.

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PICTURE OF THE DAY: GODZILLA (1954)

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godzilla 1954 first appearance

For my money, Godzilla’s first ever appearance on-screen in GODZILLA (1954) as seen in the picture above is hands down one of the scariest moments in the entire Toho Godzilla series.

And that’s because the original 1954 is unlike any of the Godzilla movies to follow it. By far, the deepest, most serious of any Godzilla movie, with Godzilla himself symbolic of the atom bomb which ravaged Japan just nine years earlier, if you have never seen this film, you are missing one of the best giant monster movies ever and one of the few that transcends the genre and works as a tragic drama, a metaphor for the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

For years, I had only seen the American version with the Raymond Burr scenes added, which was called GODZILLA- KING OF THE MONSTERS (1956) but even this version is superior to the films which followed it, although the original Japanese version is preferable to the Raymond Burr one.

Anyway, in this first appearance, Godzilla is terribly frightening. I first saw this film on TV when I was probably about 10 years old, and it gave me nightmares for weeks afterwards. I’d hear his thunderous footsteps, his unique roar, and I’d see that massive shape with the jagged teeth looking down upon me.

Scary!

Although Toho primarily used man-in-suit special effects for their Godzilla movies, in this first appearance that’s a puppet being used, and a mighty frightening puppet at that.

While I certainly enjoy the Godzilla movies which were to follow, the ones that turned Godzilla into a sort of superhero fighting all the “bad” monsters to save the Earth, and in fact I actually prefer some of those films, I can’t deny that the one and only true Godzilla horror movie is the first one. It’s terribly scary.

And Godzilla’s rampage and destruction of Tokyo remains one of the most memorable scenes in any giant monster movie.

The recent GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (2019) while an okay film pales in comparison to this cinematic classic.

Wanna have a nightmare? Watch GODZILLA (1954). Or maybe just stare long and hard at the photo above.

Either way, you might be in for a restless night.

—Michael

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: KING KONG ESCAPES (1967)

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This IN THE SPOOKIGHT column is a reprint from February 2007:

king-kong-escapes-vs-tanks-tokyo-

 

Think of Japan’s Toho productions, and the first name that comes to mind is Godzilla, and rightly so, since Toho produced more than 25 movies starring everyone’s favorite giant mutated dinosaur.

However, Toho also made a couple of King Kong movies in the 1960s.  They made some Frankenstein films as well, but we won’t go there today.  Their second (and last) Kong film was KING KONG ESCAPES (1967), generally considered to be one of the worst Kong movies ever made, right up there  with KING KONG LIVES (1986).

My vote for the worst goes to KING KONG LIVES, and that’s because I have a soft spot in my heart for KING KONG ESCAPES.  Maybe it’s because KING KONG ESCAPES was the first Kong movie I ever saw. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s not that bad after all.

KING KONG ESCAPES borrows heavily from the 1960s James Bond craze.  There’s a supervillain, the evil Dr. Who, beautiful women, and a dashing hero, played by Rhodes Reason doing his best to impersonate Sean Connery.  What passes as a plot has Dr. Who building a robot Kong to dig up the precious “element X” which of course, once he has, he’ll be able to use to rule the world! (cue crazed evil laugh). When the robot Kong fails, Who captures the real Kong to do the work.  Of course, Kong isn’t interested.  He’s too busy falling in love with the young blonde lead in the movie, Susan, played by Linda Miller.

Unlike Fay Wray in the original, there’s no screaming here. Linda Miller’s character hardly seems frightened at all by Kong’s presence, and converses with him as if talking to her pet dog.  Better yet, Kong listens and understands everything she says!  Gone are the days when Kong tossed women who weren’t Fay Wray from New York buildings.  In KING KONG ESCAPES, Kong is clearly a hero and a gentleman— or is it a gentle-ape?

Still, he packs a punch when he needs to.  Japanese monster movies are famous for their giant monster battles, and on that front, KING KONG ESCAPES doesn’t disappoint.  Kong fights a dinosaur, a sea monster, and in a “colossal struggle of monster vs. robot” as the film’s original movie posters boasted, he takes on his duplicate, the giant Robot Kong, in an epic climactic battle, which is actually quite well done.

The special effects really aren’t that bad.  They’re on par with other Japanese monster movies of the decade, maybe even a bit better.  Kong looks silly, but his appearance is several notches above his previous Toho stint, in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1963), where he looked sort of ragged, as if he’d been pummeled a few times by co-star Godzilla before the cameras rolled.   And the Robot Kong is pretty cool looking.

KING KONG ESCAPES was directed by Ishiro Honda, who directed many of Toho’s better films, including the original GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS! in 1954.  The English version screenplay by William J. Keenan is extremely silly, with awful dialogue, but it doesn’t really matter.  What matters is Kong, and he gets plenty of screen time.

KING KONG ESCAPES doesn’t come close to either the original KING KONG (1933), or Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake.  It is not a great movie nor does it pretend to be.  The inept 1976 KING KONG with Jessica Lange, if you remember, compared itself to JAWS.

However, it is fun and entertaining, and in the world of monster movies, that’s often enough.  At the end of the day, Kong is still king, still roaring, still on top, even after KING KONG ESCAPES.

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IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: CLOVERFIELD (2008)

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cloverfield poster

CLOVERFIELD (2008) is the best giant monster movie from the last twenty years.

The recent Godzilla movies, including GODZILLA (2014) and SHIN GODZILLA (2016), the King Kong flicks, both Peter Jackson’s KING KONG (2005) and KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017), and the well-regarded MONSTERS (2010), none of these even come close to matching the thrills and chills found in CLOVERFIELD.

In fact, CLOVERFIELD is so good I’d argue it’s one of the best giant monster movies ever made. Period. It’s in the conversation with such classics as KING KONG (1933), GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS! (1956) and THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953).

I’m still amazed that a film this good hasn’t spawned a direct sequel.  There have been two recent movies that have shared the same Cloverfield “universe” but they haven’t been direct sequels. We’ve had 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016), a decent movie, and THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX (2018), a not-so-decent movie.

I suppose I shouldn’t be upset. I mean, most of the time, sequels don’t improve on the original, but for a movie that’s as good as CLOVERFIELD, it almost seems a shame that it may end up being a standalone one-and-done kinda deal.  Imagine if you will, if Christopher Lee had never played Dracula again? He almost didn’t. It took him eight years before he agreed to do a sequel to HORROR OF DRACULA (1958). It’s been ten years since CLOVERFIELD. Rumor has it that a direct sequel is in the works.  But I’ve heard that rumor before.

I hope it eventually happens, because sometimes you just need more.  On the other hand, just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water—- yeah, we didn’t need JAWS 2,3 and 4.  JAWS (1975) should have been a standalone movie.

Anyway, back to CLOVERFIELD. This movie received so much hype before its initial release because of its incredibly intriguing and cryptic teaser trailer showing the severed head of the Statue of Liberty crashing onto a New York City street.  It also didn’t hurt that J.J. Abrams’ name was attached to the project as its producer. Abrams, at the time, was riding high from the success of TV’s LOST (2004-2010).

CLOVERFIELD tells the story of a giant monster attack on New York City. It’s a “found footage” tale as it uses the gimmick of a videotape found by the government after the attack to tell its story. And the tape is of a farewell party for Rob (Michael Stahl-David) who’s leaving the next day for his new job in Japan. While all his friends are gathered at his apartment to wish him well, the attack happens outside, and suddenly everyone there is caught in the crossfire as the military moves in to contain the situation—or to try to contain the situation, anyway.

At the party, Rob had a fight with his girlfriend Beth (Odette Yustman), and so after the attack, when she calls him and tells him she is trapped in her apartment building, Rob decides to head back into the fray to save her, and his friends decide to go along with him.

The story in CLOVERFIELD is just okay, but it’s everything else that makes it such a superior movie.

First of all, it’s intense and flat-out scary. It’s one of the scariest giant monster movies ever made. It’s also one of the best “shaky cam” movies ever as well.  The credit here goes to director Matt Reeves, who’s one of my favorite horror movie directors working today. Reeves also directed LET ME IN (2010), a film that a lot of folks don’t like, as they prefer LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008) better, but I actually prefer Reeves’ film, as well as DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014) and WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017).

In CLOVERFIELD, Reeves creates some really intense scenes, from the aforementioned Statue of Liberty scene, to the sequence in the darkened subway, to the thrilling rescue of Beth. There are just so many edge-of-your-seat moments, which is not something one usually says about a giant monster movie.

Speaking of giant monsters, the “Cloverfield monster” itself is pretty cool looking.  It’s definitely an original, as it’s unlike most anything else that ever set foot in and trampled a large city. And to keep things consistent, it’s also pretty darn frightening!

CLOVERFIELD also has a phenomenal script by Drew Goddard. The dialogue is first-rate and it does a really good job developing its characters, which isn’t easy to do in a found footage movie.  These characters are so very real. He also gets the humor right, as there are lots of moments of welcomed comic relief. Goddard would go on to work on the scripts for THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (2012), WORLD WAR Z (2013), and THE MARTIAN (2015).

It also has a superb cast.

T.J. Miller steals the show as Hud, the man holding the camera and doing the filming. It’s amazing that he’s as good as he is in this movie, since most of the time he’s holding the camera and so we only hear his voice. He gets some of the best lines in the movie.

Lizzy Caplan is also memorable as Marlena, a friend who barely knows Rob, but who Hud is definitely interested in.  She has some key moments in the film. Likewise, Michael Stahl-David is very good as Rob, and Odette Yustman is equally as good as the frightened Beth.

The film is chock full of memorable lines, like when a military officer responds that they don’t know what’s out there, but that “whatever it is, it’s winning.”

In the same way that Godzilla’s devastating attack on Tokyo in the original GODZILLA hearkened back to the dropping of the atom bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the monster’s pummeling of New York City in CLOVERFIELD hearkens back to the events of 9/11. As such, the chaotic scenes in the city really resonate.

CLOVERFIELD is also a very short movie, clocking in at only 85 minutes.  This short length only adds to the intensity.

There’s also no music score, which adds to the realism. However, there is music during the end credits, by Michael Giacchino, a piece entitled “Roar!” It’s a powerful piece of music and seems to have been inspired by the various Godzilla themes.

CLOVERFIELD is one of the best giant monster movies ever made. It’s also one of my favorite horror movies.

If you haven’t seen it, you definitely want to check it out. And if you have seen it, maybe it’s time for you to check it out again.

You’ll have a monstrously good time.

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