Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Giant Gila Monster

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching too many movies, it’s that animals are often giant, and usually want to kill you. It doesn’t matter if it’s a rabbit, a praying mantis, an octopus, a tarantula, or a bird, there’s a good chance it will be large and have a casual disregard for man’s strident desire not to be torn apart by Brobdingnagian fauna. 
And yes, The Giant Gila Monster (1959), is just one such film. Our story begins with a couple of teenagers cuddling in a car to the sound of some pretty swingin’ sax music, when...WHAM! The titular gila hits them like a freight train, sending their puny vehicle careening down a cliff. Not a bad beginning, right? Don’t worry, it’s all downhill from there.

Turns out these two kids are part of a particularly harmless “gang” of youths led by a cat called Chase Winstead, who works at the garage. The gang spends most of their time at local diner in front of the jukebox, doing a dance step I like to call “the awkward white kid shuffle.” They also obsess over their (admittedly bitchin’) hot rods, though they never drive a mile over the speed limit. Chase won’t let them, you see. Despite the fact he’s from the wrong side of town, he has a heart of gold and a moral compass not even the magnetic field of satan himself could fuck theory. But we’ll get to that later.
It doesn’t take too long until everyone in town realizes a couple of kids have gone missing. Understandably, the father of the boy, Mr. Wheeler, is pissed and gets on the dopey sheriff’s ass. Wheeler is the human villain of the film, because he’s rich and cranky and isn’t particularly interested in worshipping the ground Chase walks on.

The sheriff rallies himself to conduct a rather lackadaisical search for the missing couple. In the process, he finds a wrecked car with no one inside. It doesn’t belong to the missing teens, either. The evidence suggests something large and not terribly car-like is to blame. Now, I’ll admit that I’ve never been a small-town sheriff in a black and white B-movie, but it seems to me a circumstance like that deserves some investigation. Nope. The sheriff encourages Chase to take one of the wrecked car’s headlights to repair his own, then tells him to haul it off. So much for clues and all that jazz. (Chase later steals the tires from the same car. The Sheriff’s response is basically “Oh, you little dickens, you!”)

From there, the film progresses much as you’d imagine. The gila monster repeatedly shows up, bumps cars off the road, and meanders off. Really, bumping into things is about all it can do. Sure, it’s giant, but it’s a gila monster; stumpy and low to the ground, it’s not exactly agile. The townspeople scratch their heads and wonder what it all means. The car of the missing teenage couple it discovered by Chase and his gang. He promptly tows it away, destroying any chance of useful evidence. The sheriff continues to be painfully incompetent, and covers up Chase’s mistake in his official police report.

Chase runs across a drunk jerk who has driven into the ditch, and tows him back to the garage. When you think about it, a lot of the action in this film revolves around the main character towing stuff. Riveting. Instead of taking this guy, who is so plastered he can hardly move, to the sheriff, Chase lets him crash at the garage while he fixes the dude’s car. You know, so he can presumably drive off again to run over schoolchildren or whatever. 
But you see, it’s perfectly alright, because the guy turns out to be Chase’s favorite DJ! Not only does he give Chase $40 and agree to appear at the record hop the kids have been planning, but he also offers Chase the chance to record a song. You see, when the DJ awakens from his stupor, he hears Chase singing to himself while purposelessly beating a sheet of metal with a hammer. Now, I’ve blocked out the exact words to his little ditty, but it’s complete steam of consciousness nonsense. Just repetitive stacks of rhyming words. Something to the effect of this: “My baby swings, she sings, she swings whenever she sings, she pings and dings...she bops, and rocks with a wok at the dock in her socks...she swings.” Boy, this DJ knows a real chart-topping talent when he sees one. 
But it’s alright. Destroying crime scenes, dismantling the cars of gila monster victims so he can tune up his hot rod, cheerfully encouraging an impaired driver...none of this matters, because Chase has a sickly little sister who can hardly walk, and he, uh, pays attention to her sometimes. In a tender scene, Chase returns home to his rather uncomfortably touchy-feely mother, to discover that his ever-thoughtful French girlfriend has bought little Missy some leg braces. (Chase claims he was totally just about to do the same thing. Uh huh.)

To cheer the little girl up, Chase whips out what appears to be a really tiny banjo, and sings probably one of the worst songs ever recorded, on this planet at least. Well. Now that the family stuff has been taken care of, it’s off to the hop! But not before Chase is informed by the sheriff that people have in fact seen the giant lizard, and now they know what’s been causing all the chaos and destruction. The boy responds with petulant disbelief. Yeah, sheriff, why you gotta be such a downer right before a party? And here’s what’s interesting: this is a teen monster film where the grown-ups and authorities believe in the creature, and the kids are skeptical!
At the record hop, held in a barn, the kids are really goin’ wild! In other words, still dancing the “shuffle,” but this time at the direction of the DJ, whose nickname is Steamroller. Did I mention that? And his station is KILT. Kilt. I’d come up with some joke about radio friendly Scottish alternative rock, but this film has sapped my energy. Steamroller plays a mystery tune and everyone goes crazy. When it’s revealed that the song was recorded by their very own Chase Winstead, the crowd reacts with derisive disbelief. 
Chase won’t stand for that, and whoosh, out comes the tiny banjo. He serenades the crowd with the same song he subjected his poor little sister to, but to make it even worse, sings only one verse, over and over again. “And the lord said laugh, children laugh, and the lord said laugh, children, laugh, and the lord said laugh, and the lord said laugh.” Into infinity. It’s like Doris Day singing “Que Sera Sera” in The Man Who Knew Too Much, only that ended eventually. Clearly tired of this shit, the gila monster crashes through the wall of the barn, and everybody scatters. 

      Chase, realizing he’s the star of the picture, decides everything is up to him. So, he races back to the garage, and rounds up the nitroglycerine. Wait, what? Yes, earlier in the film, his boss had for some reason purchased nitroglycerine. Now, I will admit to being perfectly ignorant of the ways of auto mechanics...but is it normal for them to keep around large quantities of dangerous explosives?

In a thrilling act of heroism, Chase loads his car with the nitroglycerine, and sends it smashing into the bloated reptile, which does everyone a favor by promptly exploding and heralding the end of the film. The sheriff and Mr. Wheeler congratulate him for his bravery. Does he humbly say “Aw shucks, it was nothing,” or rhapsodize over the fact that his fine girlfriend and charming sis and all the people in the town are safe? No. He whines about the fact he no longer has a car. Ladies and gentlemen, Chase Winstead!

Monday, December 5, 2011

Teenagers from Outer Space

It’s a special kind of movie that has the word “teenager” in the title. Not only does it inform you of the intended audience, but it also practically guarantees that all the on-screen youths will look at least 42. Teenagers from Outer Space (1959), certainly doesn’t deviate from this formula. 
Formula is probably the right word to use, because we’re firmly entrenched in 50s B-movie Sci-Fi territory here. As often happens, a spaceship lands in the the desert, carrying a cargo of alien lifeforms. Conveniently enough, all these aliens are distinctly humanoid. As it turns out, the only way to tell an earth teen and an alien teen apart is the latter’s stupid jumpsuit. Oh, and the bright white shoes that give off an unsettling Pee-Wee Herman vibe.

The aliens have landed in search of a planet where they may raise herds of Gargon, their primary food source. It’s worth noting here that Gargons are lobsters. Not similar to lobsters; exactly lobsters. And really, isn’t that a little decadent, choosing lobster as your staple foodstuff? I suppose after they finish with earth the moon will be utilized for foie gras production.
But these are some feisty space crustaceans; apparently the atmosphere will cause them to grow to enormous size and wipe out all life on Earth! All the aliens except young Derek (oh, really far out name for an alien there), think this is just peachy. Derek’s main facial expression is suggestive of constipation, and he has the biggest ears you’re likely to ever see on a leading man. Derek objects to this global genocide, and deserts. Thor, a trigger-happy space-cadet with a pretty sweet disintegration ray is sent to bring him into custody. The rest of the aliens depart, but not before leaving a gargon behind in a cave, just, you know, because.

And this is where it really begins to get good. Derek finds himself renting a room altogether by accident. The house in question belongs to a relentlessly jovial old man, and his granddaughter Betty. Betty is an interesting character. She has the pensive eyes of Clara Bow, and the voice of Minnie Mouse. The fact that all her lines are of the “Gee, whatever will we do now?” caliber doesn’t really help her on that front. But gramps is my favorite, he’s really the tops. Oblivious, rotund, wears his pants practically around his nipples...the man doesn’t have a suspicious bone in his body. 

I mean, look at it this way. If some dumbo-eared dope in an unfamiliar jumpsuit who speaks in halting, mumbled phrases and seems to have no grasp on simple, everyday culture arrived on your doorstep, would you immediately suggest he move in and encourage him to spend a lot of alone time with your (supposedly) young granddaughter? Oh yeah, and he has no money. Well, gramps is convinced! Derek’s practically part of the family now. 
Oh damn. Gramps can’t be my favorite character, because that leaves out Alice. Alice is Betty’s best friend. She lives in what appears to be a replica of the White House and spends all her time onscreen in a swimming pool. Betty and Derek go over to take a swim with her, and I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that every word she says to the pair comes off like she’s suggesting a threesome. My kinda gal. We never see her out of that kicky black swim suit, because as soon as the interstellar jughead and his new girlfriend leave, Alice is skeletonized right in the water by grumpy old Thor.

Betcha forgot about him, huh? While I was obsessing over the best characters in the film, Thor has been zapping people all over town. While it would undoubtedly be going overboard to call Teenagers a “good” movie, I will say that it doesn’t have the same pacing problems endemic among it’s ilk. This flick is almost disturbingly watchable. 

Whether it’s a shootout between Thor and the police, aliens who seem entirely incapable of using contractions (“Let us do this. I will go there. I do not like that!”), gramps managing to stay perky throughout a hostage situation, Betty letting Derek drive everywhere, even though he just learned that morning, a giant lobster rampaging towards town, or Derek’s first fumbling attempts at romance (“You make me angry...but I like you.”), Teenagers From Outer Space delivers. Sure, you may want to throw in an intoxicant of your choice to enhance the experience, but I can honestly say that this film ain’t bad. Aw, what the hell. Let’s give it two Gargon claws up!