Saturday, November 26, 2016

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle: "Tarzan and the Forbidden City" (October 2, 1976)

In “Tarzan and the Forbidden City,” a hunter brings his daughter Kelly into the jungle on a quest to locate Tarzan.  The hunter’s need is desperate. His son Brian has disappeared near the Forbidden City, Ushare, a metropolis built on a volcano called Tuen Baka.

A second group of hunters are also in search of the city.  The denizens there are rumored to possess a gem of rare value, known as “The Father of Diamonds.”

Tarzan undertakes the quest, and helps Brian and the hunters learn that there is nothing more precious “than life.”

The fourth episode of Filmation’s Legend of Tarzan (1976-1980) is a loose adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ twentieth Tarzan novel, written in 1938. Both the episode and the book share a title: Tarzan and the Forbidden City, and a plot line.  

Namely, both involve the search for a missing adventurer, Brian Gregory, and the search for a treasure called the Father of Diamonds.

The two stories differ in a crucial way. In the book, Tarzan and Brian resemble one another, and are mistaken for one another.  That element is not retained in this episode.  However, both the book and this cartoon share a climactic revelation: the “Father of Diamonds” is not a diamond, or rare, at all.  

It’s just a lump of coal.  One day, of course, long in the future, it will be a diamond.

In other words, the search for wealth here is a brand of Fool’s Gold. Men have been imperiled, families separated, in a vain search for something that is not a real treasure.  “Men are strange beasts,” Tarzan notes in the book.  In the TV show, he makes the comment that the real treasure we can all have is life, and Brian notes that “wealth is no longer important” to him.

“Tarzan and the Forbidden City” is an intriguing episode of the series not only because of its considerable fidelity to Burroughs’ original vision, but because of the technology in the City of Ascher. It seems like it would be home in 20,000 Leagues under the Sea too.  

Here, Tarzan fights a giant octopus and encounters city-dwellers who wear undersea suits and have considerable undersea technology.

I realize I am only four episodes in at this point, but this Filmation series seems quite superior to some of the other animated output of the company.  Indeed, it approaches the level of Filmation’s Star Trek (1973), to some degree.  So far the stories are exceptional, the animation is solid (for TV of the time), and the adaptation from the source material is on a high level.

Next week: “Tarzan and the Graveyard of Elephants.

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Shazam: "Debbie" (September 13, 1975)

In “Debbie,” Mentor and Billy are attempting to take a selfie when a message arrives from the Elders.  

They speak to Billy of a “parent’s authority,” and how that authority expresses “love.”  The Elders also warn of a person who “disrespects authority.”

These cryptic musings become more comprehensible after Billy and Mentor encounter Tom (Harry Moses) and Debbie (Cindy Henderson), two young teenagers who are nearly killed on a joy ride.  

Debbie’s mother doesn’t approve of Tom and wants Debbie to stop seeing him. Debbie sneaks out in a car, however to see him.  She defies her mother's wishes.

This time, Tom’s driving nearly gets Debbie killed by a truck…until Captain Marvel (John Davey) intervenes.

John Davey stars as Captain Marvel in this week’s episode of Shazam (1974-1976), taking over for Jackson Bostwick.  

To make things more confusing, Bostwick is back in next week’s episode (“Fool’s Gold,”) and then Davey takes over again, but for the remainder of the series.

It’s a bit of a shock seeing Davey portray Captain Marvel, especially if you are used to Bostwick’s portrayal. Davey is not fat by any means, but he is stockier; heavier built.  It’s a different look all together. Accordingly it’s a little difficult to picture the lithe Billy Batson turning into this guy; who is more like a heavy-weight boxer than a lean superhero. Davey is by no means bad in the role, but seeing him replace Bostwick, at least at first, is a jolt.

The episode Davey is premieres in is also a bit of a disappointment.  Basically, this whole episode is a plea to teenagers to just listen to their parents…because parents are usually right.  Their authority, says the episode, is just a form of love

I don’t know about this, frankly.  I’m a parent, but I still don’t care for the heavy-handedness of this message.  This is supposed to be a show for kids, working their way to adulthood. The insanely pro-parent message smacks a bit of indoctrination if you ask me.  

Shazam should be a series that always stands up for kids, and their right to explore their world.  It doesn’t need to tow any agenda for parents, so kids obey them.  

Here, of course, Debbie’s Mom is right about her boyfriend, Tom, and learns the error of her ways, even apologizing to her Mother. 

This plays more like an adult’s fantasy of parenting than what parenting is actually like.  It's a very one sided story.

The episode’s high point occurs when Captain Marvel gets to pick up a car, and move it out of the way of an oncoming truck on the highway. This seems like a relatively big-budget effect, and perhaps it was included to make Davey’s premiere memorable.

Next Week: “Fool’s Gold.”

Friday, November 25, 2016

Thanksgiving Blogging: Godzilla vs. Megalon (1976)

Although it was produced in 1973, Godzilla vs. Megalon was not released in the United States until 1976, the very year of King Kong’s return to the silver screen under the auspices of Dino De Laurentiis.

Accordingly, this Japanese monster mash was a huge success in an America primed for a new monster movie. 

Godzilla vs. Megalon’s success may have been due in part to the evocative and colorful poster art of the film which dramatically aped King Kong’s and showed Godzilla and Megalon standing astride the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers.

Needless to say, in the actual film, Godzilla and Megalon never got close to Manhattan, or anywhere in the Western Hemisphere, for that matter.  Still, that poster is gorgeous.

After an incredibly successful run at the American box office, Godzilla vs. Megalon took another victory lap, airing on prime-time NBC in 1977 -- in an hour-long slot -- and it drew impressive ratings. John Belushi hosted the presentation.

In the early 1990s, the Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988 – 1999) gang riffed on Godzilla vs. Megalon to great comedic effect, and for years the series’ opening credits showed a clip of Godzilla’s impressive -- and bizarrely humorous -- jump kick in the movie.

Despite all the pop culture success and sense of nostalgia that surrounds this election year entry of the Godzilla saga, Godzilla vs. Megalon has never struck me as a particularly good movie, or a particularly strong entry in the Godzilla canon.

The reason why is simple: the movie needs more Godzilla and less Jet Jaguar.

The underwater kingdom of Seatopia sends a giant creature called Megalon, to destroy the surface world, which has been conducting dangerous nuclear tests for years, and therefore is threatening all life on the Earth.

Meanwhile, a Japanese scientist, Goro and his young nephew, Rokuro test an amazing new robot called Jet Jaguar that becomes of great importance to the Seatopians and Megalon. 

Realizing that their robot can help save the world, Goro and Rokuro summon Jaguar to call on the help of Godzilla, who is now living on Monster Island.

But the Seatopians also call for reinforcements, and tag the monstrous Gigan to help Megalon destroy Godzilla.

With the survival of Tokyo and the world hanging in the balance, Jet Jaguar grows to enormous size to team up with Godzilla.

With apologies to my seven year old, Joel -- who loves Megalon with a passion -- as well as my Facebook friends who also adore this movie, Godzilla vs. Megalon is not one of my favorite Godzilla movies.

In terms of the James Bond standard I enunciated in my previous review, we do great villain here, I must admit, in the giant, bug-headed, drill-handed menace known as Megalon.  Joel loves Megalon with a passion, and when we play together and wrestle, he is always Megalon, and I’m always Godzilla.

Yet in part, Godzilla vs. Megalon fails because Godzilla does not even appear until late in the action, and seems to be an after-thought in the narrative. Instead, the film functions largely as origin story for the unknown and new hero: Jet Jaguar, a robot with the baffling ability to grow to Godzilla-esque proportions and then shrink back.

How on Earth (or Seatopia for that matter) is his metal so flexible that it can stretch to giant size and then retract to human size?  

Alas, even putting aside such question of logic, Jet Jaguar -- a kind of poor man’s Ultraman -- just can’t carry the story on his silver shoulders, or make-up for Godzilla’s frequent absence.  Imagine a James Bond film in which 007 didn’t appear until sometime late in the second act, and you get the idea.

Godzilla vs. Megalon is not entirely bereft of good ideas, to be certain.  Though barely enunciated, there’s absolutely a critique here about nuclear arms that fits in with the franchise’s noble tradition of questioning atomic power and man’s usage of it. 

Here, the Seatopians send Megalon to the surface because of the nuclear testing performed by the nations of the world. 

The Seatopians’ final solution to a world risking destruction…is to destroy that world.  Thus, they attempt to wring peace out of war, a metaphor very clear to audiences in the Vietnam Era of “You have to destroy the village to save it.” 

Still, this message does not transmit nearly as powerfully as the anti-pollution message of the superior Godzilla vs. Hedorah.

I would be a curmudgeon if I didn’t note that the movie features some really fun battles. 

That aforementioned Godzilla jump kick, for instance, is just so bizarre, gravity-defying and over-the-top.  I don’t know how it could elicit anything but laughs, but it is a clear indicator that the films of this era have moved definitively into fantasy territory. 

I’m okay with that, because I watch these films with my aforementioned seven year old, and he loves them with unbridled passion.  There is something so imaginative and wondrous about these Godzilla films, I see that strict realism isn’t necessary.  I have seen with my own eyes how even a movie that I don’t consider very good, like Godzilla vs. Megalon, ignites Joel’s creative play.  He loves the variety, powers and natures of Godzilla’s adversaries.

In the final analysis, however, this film looks like a TV pilot for a Jet Jaguar series, with Godzilla coming in for a cameo tag team, and that fact doesn’t do the big green dragon any favors. 

People go to see Godzilla movies for Godzilla, and in some critical sense, Godzilla vs. Megalon breaks (or at least severely stretches…) that contract with the audience with its bait-and-switch strategy.

Thanksgiving Blogging: The War of the Gargantuas (1966)

It’s no exaggeration to state that The War of the Gargantuas (1966) was a staple of my childhood TV-watching.

The Japanese monster movie -- released in America in 1970 -- aired frequently on our local station WWOR Channel 9 in the 1970s and 1980s; sometimes on The Million Dollar Movie, if memory serves.

Rightly or wrongly, I have come to associate these viewings of The War of the Gargantuas with the Thanksgiving holiday, or more accurately, the Friday after Thanksgiving. 

So today, I decided to take a look back at the film. Until last week, I had not seen The War of the Gargantuas since a holiday in the early 1990s when I introduced the film to my wife, Kathryn. We were at my grandparents’ house in Tom’s River, N.J. for the Thanksgiving weekend, so the film may have been playing on basic cable.

The War of the Gargantuas stars Russ Tamblyn as Dr. Paul Stewart and is a sequel of sorts to Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965). In particular, the film’s Gargantuas -- brown and green -- were created from the cells of the Frankenstein Monster, which were cast into the sea in the previous film.  

And in Japanese, I believe, the creatures are referred to not as Gargantuas but as “Frankensteins.”

Directed by Ishiro Honda, with special effects from Eiji Tsubaraya, The War of the Gargantuas concerns the attempts of several scientists to save the life of the non-violent brown Gargantua, or Sanda, even while the Japanese Army plots the demise of the violent, carnivorous green Gargantua, Gaira. 

In the end, nature does away with the giant monsters instead. But the film serves as a meditation on the nature vs. nurture debate, comparing the wild, untamed Gaira with the kindly Sanda, who knew human companionship. 

Man’s violent nature is discussed as well, since the Japanese Army refuses to acknowledge the (obvious) differences between the gargantuan monsters, and goes forward with its plan to kill them both with napalm.

“Is it possible a gargantuan might exist?”

A ship at sea is attacked by a giant octopus, and later, a giant green monster or Gargantua. 

The only survivor of the incident reports the attack, and the Japanese press runs with the story, asking Professor Paul Stewart (Tamblyn) and his associate Akemi (Kumi Mizuno) if such creatures could be real. The scientists know from experience that it is possible.  Five years earlier, they cared for a gentle brown Gargantua, before it escaped from custody.

The Green Gargantua, Gaira, soon makes landfall at Tokyo Airport and does catastrophic damage there. Later, the same beast attacks the patrons at a roof-top night-club, and is repelled only by bright light.  

The Japanese Army brings in maser tanks to annihilate Gaira, but at the last minute, the injured creature is rescued by Sanda, the brown Gargantua who has been living in peace in the Japanese Alps.

Stwewart surmises that the Gargantuas are offshoots from the same unknown cells, and therefore their cells may be able to generate additional monsters.Alarmed, the Army plans to destroy Gaira and Sanda, over Stewart and Akemi’s objections...

“We were sunk by a hairy green giant.”

The War of the Gargantuas explicitly references, at one point, the Biblical story of Cain and Abel: the story of a man who murders his brother. 

That tale roils underneath The War of the Gargantuas as Sanda and Gaira  first discover one another, and eventually face off. Early in the film, Sanda saves Gaira from the Army and nurses him back to health after maser attack. But soon Sanda -- who was raised by humans -- sees that Gaira has killed and eaten a human boater.  Sanda realizes that he can no longer protect his sibling, and nor should he. They fight it out, even though Sanda is peaceful and docile.

The other set of “brothers” in the film -- mirroring this monster dynamic -- are human scientists and soldiers. The scientists, like Sanda, are peaceful and docile, hoping to investigate the crisis and save the more peaceful of the two Gargantuas.  The soldiers, by contrast (and not entirely unlike Gaira...) are bound and determined to destroy anything they deem a threat, including the innocent Sanda.  

Like the Gargantuas, scientists and soldiers possess “the same blood, the same cell structure,” and yet are incredibly different.The movie points out the hypocrisy of the Army's higher-ups. They are bound and determined to kill both Gargantuas, even without cause, even though they are acting in a murderous fashion, like Gaira. 

But brothers are supposed to be responsible for brothers, right?

In the end, the Gargantuas are put down not by each other, or by the auspices of man, but by an underwater volcanic eruption. Though spurred by a helicopter bombing, this eruption is the “other” key player in the film’s action: Mother Nature, or God, if you will.  

The Gargantuas -- as Frankenstein Monsters and creations of man -- are “unnatural” creations. Therefore, it is only proper that nature remove them. But had monster movie history been a little different, however, Sanda and Gaira would have likely returned in another film, perhaps to battle Godzilla himself.

On my recent screening of the film, I was pleasantly surprised by the effetive and atmospheric opening of the film. Like so many Japanese monster movies, The War of the Gargantuas opens with a ship at sea during a storm, and an attack by a giant monster.  

This time, that monster is a huge, menacing octopus, and the scene is very well-shot. The punctuation of the scene is a surprise too.  Gaira dispatches the octopus so that we think he is a hero, but then Gaira proceeds to attack the ship himself.  Out of the frying pan, into the fire. 

Later, in a scene that is a little shocking to behold, we see Gaira pursuing the swimming survivors from the ship.  He plucks them out of the water and eats them. 

The scene I most remembered from the film is set at a night club, where an American singer croons “The Words Get Stuck in My Throat,” unaware that Gaira is creeping up in the background, behind her.  

The movie misses a genuine opportunity, in my opinion, because the singer doesn’t get eaten (or stuck in Gaira’s throat...). That would have been a wicked (and nasty) joke but The War of the Gargantuas is a sincere entertainment and doesn’t tread into camp, at least intentionally. Still, it's hard not to giggle at the sea captain's cry that his vessel was attacked by a hairy green giant.

On this viewing of the film, I also admired how the filmmakers set up and exploited the comparison between Gaira and Sanda.  

Gaira is a vicious, inhuman thing that has never known love or companionship. By nature, he may have the potential to love, but he has never been nurtured.  He sees human beings only as food, biting their heads off first, apparently. This is terrifying to watch, and I remember, as a kid, being scared by Gaira.  

There's a moment in the film when a fisherman looks down into the sea, and there -- below the surface -- is Gaira, just waiting to spring. That moment offers some good old fashioned nightmare fodder, and Gaira represents nature gone wild, untamed and undisciplined. 

Sanda was raised by humans, however, and therefore understands love, companionship, and even brotherhood. That latter quality, brotherhood, is the very thing that Sanda seeks with Gaira, perhaps to alleviate a lonely, or even solitary existence.  

But Gaira simply can’t change his ways at this juncture, and is no doubt confused when his brother turns against him. Sanda, clearly, wishes events had turned out differently.

What I didn’t admire so much about The War of the Gargantuas is the fact that the mid-movie battle between Gaira and the Japanese Army seems to go on forever, and therefore lose some visceral impact.  

I fully realize that many nay-sayers disliked 2014’s Godzilla because there wasn’t a lot of monster-on-monster fighting in the film. The fights were used strategically, and mostly during the climax.

The War of the Gargantuas, however, validates that restrained approach.The battles here go on for so long, without relief, that they eventually become monumentally uninteresting. 

It’s probably sacrilege to say this, but the fights could have been pruned back by a full-third, and the movie would have moved with more grace, purpose and drive. The first thirty minutes or so of The War of the Gargantuas in particular, are terrific, and the special effects (especially during the airport attack) hold up rather well.  

Once the fighting takes center stage, however, The War of the Gargantuas feels like it is stuck in neutral. Long stretches of time go by where we just seem to be watching vehicles getting positioned, and masers firing.

The War of the Gargantuas is generally very well-regarded by fans, and I can detect why. Some feel nostalgia for the film, because they grew up with it. Certainly, I'm in this camp.

Others have keyed in on, quite rightly, the human, affecting nature of these particular monsters. You don’t want the Gargantuas to kill each other or die, and yet, at the same time, that outcome feels inevitable. 

All the best monster movies make audiences care about their creatures, one way or another. You either love them, hate them, or feel sorry for them. 

On that front, The War of the Gargantuas absolutely succeeds, and all those emotions bubble to the surface. Sanda, in particular, is heart-breaking. He attempts to build a bridge to the human world (which includes brotherhood and compassion), and carry Gaira with him -- his own flesh and blood -- across it, but doesn't succeed.  

His failure, one might say, is only human.

Thanksgiving Blogging: Godzilla vs. The Bionic Monster (1974)

Released briefly in the United States as Godzilla vs. The Bionic Monster before changing its title to Godzilla vs. The Cosmic Monster after the rights-holders of the Six Million Dollar Man/Bionic Woman franchise complained, this film is more widely known by the title Godzilla vs. Mecha-Godzilla.

Here, there’s a significant air of mystery as the kaiju action commences. Godzilla begins acting in uncharacteristically destructive, violent and evil fashion, even attacking a friend from Monster Island, the spiky Anguirus.

But it is soon revealed that evil aliens who appear human but are really simian in nature (think Planet of the Apes…) are behind the attack, using an impostor Godzilla -- the robotic Mecha-Godzilla -- and hoping to conquer the Earth. 

In this case, Godzilla requires the assistance of King Caesar -- a kind of glowing dog/bat kaiju who has slumbered for generations inside a mountain cave on Okinawa -- to defeat the aliens’ “ultimate weapon!”

Okinawan prophecy, re-counted by the descendants of the royal family of Azumi Castle, foretells of a day when a black mountain will appear, the sun shall rise in the west, and two monsters will rise to defeat a grave threat to humanity. 

The symbols of this prophecy begin to come true in the late 20th century when aliens “from the third planet of the black hole, outer space” land on Earth, and launch their cyborg, Mecha-Godzilla from their underground base. 

Godzilla rises from the sea to stop his merciless and malevolent duplicate, but fails on the first attempt. 

Now, Princess Nami (Lin) must sing a song from ancient Azumi history to wake the great King Caesar from his longer slumber, to join forces with Godzilla and save the world.

Although King Caesar looks a bit like a Muppet gone mad, Godzilla vs. The Bionic Monster introduces one of the great villains of the Godzilla canon: the giant robot, Mecha-Godzilla.  This silver titan can shoot missiles from its finger tips, and fire beams of energy that ravage Godzilla.

Given the robot’s impressive arsenal, perhaps it is not surprising that this is an especially gory installment of the long-lived saga. 

For example, in one scene red blood veritably fountains out of Godzilla’s neck as Mecha-Godzilla attacks. 

In another scene, two aliens take bullets to the head, and greed fluid bursts out of their wounds.  In keeping with this more savage tone, the evil alien leader is absolutely merciless in nature, ordering his giant cyborg, at one point, to “beat Godzilla to death!” rather than merely destroy him. 

So the stakes are pretty high in the film, and again, one feels while watching it that -- again, it’s almost like a 1970s James Bond film. It comes replete with an evil-talking villain who loquaciously shares his plans, and reveals his secret subterranean headquarters.  There are also the requisite action sequences. In this case, Godzilla somehow transforms himself into a “magnetic pole” during battle, and attracts Mecha-Godzilla to his scales.  That’s a new one. 

Similarly, there’s an “imposter” Godzilla in the film’s opening, a reflection of certain Bond tropes seen in series entries such as From Russia with Love (1963) and The Man with The Golden Gun (1974).

Although this film is not as strong as Godzilla vs. Hedorah since it lacks the social context of that film and the 1954 original, it certainly features a great villain and a unique guest-star in King Caesar. It’s always nice to see Anguirus, as well.

One logical question does arise, however: how did the Azumi family know this threat from space would come?   What forces gave rise to the ancient prophecy? Just think of the “second sight” necessary, in ancient days, to imagine aliens from space, Godzilla, Anguirus, Mecha-Godzilla and aliens from space. 

Otherwise, Godzilla vs. The Bionic Monster is good fun, if occasionally absurd.  The moment when the alien leader spits out his home address (“the third planet of the black hole, outer space,”) is one example of the latter.  And you just have to love the fact that the villain is such a trash-talker, always boasting about his robot and seeking to diminish Godzilla’s chances.

Finally, it is also never explained why the same supreme leader is always smoking a cigar and drinking liquor. 

Aren’t smoking and drinking human vices? 

And simple human vices don’t seem likely from an outer-space ape man who cackles his way through lines of dialogue like “Goodbye, Stupid Earthlings...

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thanksgiving Blogging: Godzilla vs. Hedorah

One way to comprehend and appreciate the Godzilla movies is to parse them as, essentially, the Japanese monster equivalent of James Bond-styled movie adventures. 

Thus, every Godzilla outing features a different and dynamic antagonist and the same, dependable hero, Godzilla, who faces this new threat or challenge. But in different eras, Godzilla is interpreted differently, not unlike the varying interpretations of 007 by actors Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton, Brosnan and Craig.  Sometimes Godzilla is friendlier, sometimes less so.  Sometimes he is silly, and sometimes he is deadly serious.

The monster movies of the 1970s Showa period are a great deal more fanciful in presentation than some. 

They are more aptly fantasy entries than outright horror shows, like the original Gojira.  On a personal note, I admire and love the Godzilla films of the 1970s Showa Era, and their interpretation of Godzilla as a reluctant warrior for mankind, not to mention hero of children everywhere.

One of the very best Godzilla films ever made – of any era -- is Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1972), or Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster as it was known in the United States upon release.  The film works as both a compelling Godzilla entry, and also as a science fiction film featuring a meaningful statement about the environment.

Remember, the great kaiju movies, in my opinion, are the ones that create monsters that are avatars for some pressing issue in the human world, often atomic testing, and the notion of Mother Nature’s revolt against that poor behavior. 

Godzilla vs. Hedorah creates a great monster, Hedorah, out of the issue of pollution, which was a major component of the 1970s science fiction film.  Efforts from around the world, including No Blade of Grass (1970), and Z.P.G. (1972) imagined worlds in which our soiling of the planet led to catastrophic and apocalyptic futures.

Hedorah possesses a unique and fascinating life-cycle, which means that the monster adopts multiple forms in the sea, on land and in the air, throughout the film, and that fact livens up the battles with Godzilla quite a bit. 

Godzilla vs. Hedorah also features at least one major sequence set during blackest night, and so there is a dark aspect to this film that makes it memorable in the canon.  The film also tailors its message of “saving the Earth” so as to be appealing to children, who will recognize that Godzilla -- for all the damage he causes -- is on the side of the planet, and Mother Nature herself.

A beast called Hedorah that arises from “a sticky, dark planet far away” is nurtured in the pollution, sewage, and detritus of Earth’s 20th century civilizations. 

The grotesque, blob-like entity with red eyes develops and grows through three distinct stages -- in the ocean, on the surface, and in the skies -- and soon proves a grave menace to human life, especially in Japan.

When Hedorah flies above that nation’s cities and factories, he excretes deadly sulfuric acid that burns away skin and reduces human bodies to skeletal corpses.

Meanwhile, one boy, Kenny, dreams of his hero, Godzilla, and believes that only the giant atomic lizard can save the world from this terrible new threat.

Fortunately, the giant green dinosaur soon shows up, and engages in a battle to the death with the smog monster.

Going back for a minute to the useful 007 Bond comparison, Godzilla vs. Hedorah opens with a catchy pop tune, a lava-lamp-like introductory montage, and a musical performance by an attractive female singer. 

Similarly, the film also features the obligatory almost stand-alone action set-pieces here…the ones in which the protagonist first confronts the antagonist, and is defeated, and then the climactic encounter, wherein good finally prevails.

Continuing down this road of comparison further, the best way to judge or critique a Bond film, largely, is to categorize the elements in terms of their antecedents and determine whether the ingredients in the current entry stack-up to moments from franchise history.  

Is the new movie as powerfully vetted as past entries? Does it toss in some surprises to go along with the elements that a devoted audience expects to see?

In terms of Godzilla vs. Hedorah, the answers to such questions are universally affirmative.

Hedorah makes for a dangerous, original, and grotesque villain, not merely in terms of his ever-changing appearance, but also in terms of his abilities and proclivities.  When the airborne Hedorah strafes his human prey and sprays a toxic chemical, humans below are dissolved to bone instantly, and it’s a frightening, grotesque effect.  Another image of Hedorah that remains unforgettable sees the beast perching atop a factory smoke-stack, imbibing pollution directly from the pipe, as it were.

It seems to me that both Bond and Godzilla films rise and fall on the basis of the villain’s nature and plans, and Hedorah’s constantly shifting nature, nasty composition, gruesome power, and odd appetite make him an unforgettable antagonist.

Godzilla vs. Hedorah finds some new subtext and social critique material for the long-standing franchise.  Historically, Godzilla has been parsed as an avatar for atomic power. He owes his very existence in the 20th century to human nuclear testing, and so forth.  In Godzilla vs. Hedorah, however, the series gives him a villain who also symbolizes an important element of the disco decade zeitgeist: pollution

As seen in films such as Frogs (1972) and Doomwatch (1976) environmental pollution proved the great bugaboo of the age, and here, the alien seed that is Hedorah sprouts from sewage and garbage strewn into the ocean.  The opening scenes in the film depict smoke stacks, factories, and filthy brown ocean water.  We see, without fakery, examples of how man has destroyed that which Nature has provided.  These moments are powerful because they are real. Man’s technology and industry -- coupled with his propensity to destroy that which he touches – are turning a paradise into a nightmare.

From this hot-house of detritus emerges something unspeakably awful: the crimson-eyed menace from another world.  And when Hedorah sucks smoke out of a factory stack like it’s a giant bong, the film’s powerful point is nailed visually: we’re actually feeding the vehicle of our own destruction when we pollute the Earth.

Commendably, the Godzilla series has adjusted with the times to remain relevant and interesting.  The nature of “the monster” has changed (from nuclear power to rampant pollution and environmental damage), but the overall premise hasn’t been altered at all.  The fact is, state these Japanese films, mankind’s behavior and irresponsibility are jeopardizing everyone on the planet.

What makes Godzilla vs. Hedorah such a charming and worthwhile film, however, is not necessarily the polemical aspects of the drama. Contrarily, the film often adopts the viewpoint of a child, who sees the pollution and wishes for some miracle to stop it. 

That miracle is named Godzilla. 

Godzilla would get really angry if he saw this. He’d do something,” the child, Kenny, declares upon musing over pollution.

In this case, the child seeks an answer to a problem, and hopes for a person (or creature) brave enough and bold enough to take action.  The film actually forges a meaningful link between this boy and Godzilla, suggesting that Godzilla can hear his hopes and thoughts, and thus comes to the rescue of humanity.

Kenny hopes that Godzilla will fix by might that which man chooses not to address. 

Furthering the idea of the film as originating from a child’s viewpoint, Godzilla vs. Hedorah often cuts to a cartoon representation of the sludge monster, perhaps in an attempt to maintain the whimsical aspects of the tale, especially in counter-balance to some of the unexpectedly gruesome special effects. 

Finally, the film even features a great (if idealistic) answer to the problem of pollution: “if everyone pulls together, we can defeat it.

If we can just do that one thing, Godzilla will not gaze down upon us with such disapproval in his eyes, as he does in the coda of this particular outing.

Another real treat here is the fact that Godzilla vs. Hedorah is beautifully-shot.  The compositions make full use of film’s rectangular frame, and some vistas -- even those featuring an obviously mini-metropolis and dueling men-in-suits -- remain visually impressive.  There's a downright lyrical moment near the end of the film when Godzilla stands before a sunset, and the implication seems to be that it is mankind's reign itself that is setting, unless we change our ways.

 Perhaps some of the ideas here -- like a peace march to stop pollution -- seem dated in the cold light of the cynical 21st century, but Godzilla vs. Hedorah, with its child-like innocence and focus on a real 1970s “monster”  --pollution -- works just about as poetically and effectively as any Godzilla movie ever made in my opinion.

Thanksgiving Blogging: Ghidrah: The Three-Headed Monster

Godzilla makes the dramatic shift from being a villain and enemy of the human world to a dedicated (if reluctant…) Earth defender in the rip-roaring Toho effort, Ghidrah: The Three Headed Monster (1965).  

This film also introduces the world to Godzilla’s key nemesis: the three-headed flying alien dragon known as King Ghidorah.

Ghidorah would return to battle Godzilla in many other films, including the brilliant adventure Monster Zero (1970), Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991), and Godzilla: Final Wars (2004), to name just a few titles.

The enduring charm of Ghidrah: The Three Headed Monster, in large part, rests on its fanciful depiction of the monster world and, importantly, the monster viewpoint about that world. 

Specifically, in the film’s delightful and unexpected final act, humanity asks for assistance battling the berserker Ghidrah, and Godzilla and Rodan must consider their priorities. 

Are they man’s enemies, or do these beasts have a basis for cooperation with the human race?

Fortunately for mankind, Mothra is present to talk some sense into the recalcitrant Godzilla…

“These monsters are as stupid as human beings!”
A foreign princess, Selina (Akiko Wakabayashi) is presumed dead after her plane is destroyed  by assassins en route to Japan.

However, Selina soon re-appears in perfect health...but claiming to be a Martian princess. 

In this new identity, Selina warns the people of Earth of an impending crisis, a repeat of the very one that destroyed her advanced home world.

While assassins from her home-land continue to seek to assassinate Selina, the alien princess’s warnings come to pass.  As she forecasts, the fearsome pterodactyl Rodan awakens at Mount Aso, and Godzilla ascends from the sea.

Selina’s protector, Detective Shindo (Yosuke Natsuki) and psychiatrist Dr. Tsukamoto (Takashi Shimura) become convinced that Selina is acyually possessed by the spirit of an alien, and she makes a final, dire prediction.  The monster that destroyed her home planet, Mars, in a matter of months, is now on Earth.

This too comes to pass, as King Ghidrah, or Ghidorah -- a three-headed goliath -- emerges from a meteor and lays waste to Japan.

Desperate, authorities make an effort to solicit Mothra’s help on Infant Island, and the giant insect acquiesces. 

However, Mothra alone cannot defeat Ghidorah. So Mothra attempts to convince the quarrelsome Godzilla and Rodan to join forces and vanquish their common enemy, but it is not an easy sell.

When Mothra decides to go it alone, and is savagely attacked -- and ridiculed -- by malevolent Ghidorah, however, Godzilla comes to the rescue, followed by Rodan…

“Godzilla, what terrible language!”

The theme of cooperation, already given voice in Godzilla vs. The Thing (1964) is front and center in Ghidrah: The Three Headed Monster. Here, Godzilla and Rodan must stop their bickering -- with the help of a third monster, Mothra -- and defend the Earth from a threat of monumental proportions.

In terms of metaphor, it is not difficult to gaze at the film as a post-Cuban Missile Crisis, Cold War Era plea for sanity and cooperation among the argumentative powers of the world.  If we follow it through symbolically, Godzilla may here represent the U.S. (as he is the avatar of American nuclear tests), Rodan the Soviet Union, and Mothra...level-headed, practical Japan.  Only by all three “monsters” (or nations…) working together will the “alien” Ghidorah be defeated.

This theme finds voice in the brilliant finale, as Mothra, Godzilla, and Rodan share a meeting of the minds, or international monster summit of sorts.  Mothra attempts to sway them with reason and logic, but Godzilla and Rodan are too busy kicking rocks into each other’s faces, at least at first, to listen.  Eventually Mothra gets their attention, and then Godzilla and Rodan must consider their options.  

They both hate mankind, and remember, importantly, that mankind hates them.  Why should they help?

Well, as Mothra points out, we all share this Earth together, and so Godzilla and Rodan must put their hatred for man aside and do what is right for the planet.

I absolutely love the imagination and audacity of this film's climactic sequence. Mothra’s tiny princesses translate for the human audience while three monsters gurgle, growl and squeal at one another in serious conversation, determining the fate of the planet in the process.  

This sequence conveys some important information, too. The first thing is that man, in his arrogance, presumes that he controls the planet and its future. Ghidrah: The Three Headed Monster reveals him “humbled” before the monsters.  If man is to survive, and not suffer the same fate as the Martians, he will have to put his trust into beings -- monsters -- he considers enemies.

Secondly, the monsters dislike man as much as man dislikes them, apparently. More is made of this notion throughout the Godzilla franchise, actually.  In Godzilla: Final Wars, for instance, we learn that Godzilla hates man -- and can’t forgive him -- because of his misuse of the planet, and because of all the “fires” (wars?) man has started.

Third, and finally, Godzilla, we learn here, seems to possess both a grumpy attitude (and the vocabulary of a sailor…) but also a strong moral barometer.  He cusses and uses bad language when talking to Mothra, and that’s a funny moment.  But more importantly, Godzilla refuses to fight until he sees what a total bastard Ghidrah really is.  Ghidrah mocks and plays with poor Mothra and that action offends Godzilla’s sense of honor, even though Mothra has, in the past, defeated him.

Mothra is quite the smart creature too. No doubt, Mothra goes it alone intentionally, hoping that Godzilla will detect the level of the danger, and be drawn into the battle to save the planet. That seems to be precisely what happens.

Indeed, what seems to separate good monsters from bad monsters in this thoroughly enjoyable film is a sense of justice or honor. 

Mothra, Godzilla and Rodan all demonstrate the capacity not merely for growth, but for cooperation. They are able to rally to a cause greater than themselves, in other words.  

By contrast, King Ghidorah is really a berserker with no value system beyond destruction.

I suppose that the question that must be reckoned with involving Ghidrah: The Three Headed Monster involves changed premises or changed assumptions in the Godzilla franchise.  Are audiences willing to embrace Godzilla the hero, over Godzilla the avatar of nuclear destruction? 

And if so, is it a corruption of the franchise’s original idea?

Although on an artistic front, I do prefer the purity of the nuclear metaphor in Godzilla (1954), I must confess that on an emotional level, I love the idea of Godzilla as Earth’s (grumpy) defender.  I love the big green monster as a hero, and as a friend to the human race.  It may be a corruption of the original premise, but I do find Godzilla in these Showa "versus" films to be an appealing combination of innocent, tragic, and lovable.

One further quality of Ghidrah: The Three Headed Monster that may keep it from being a corruption of the original franchise intent and rather an evolution of key concepts is the example of Mars.  The alien princess reports: “Centuries ago, the monster appeared in the skies of Mars. Within a month, the culture of Mars had been wiped out completely. The civilization on my planet had reached a stage of development which you people will not achieve for a long time…Today, because of the space monster, it is a dead world…dead and unpopulated.

Encoded there is a direct corollary to the warning in Godzilla (1954).  

Man has and will continue to achieve advances in terms of his technology, and his capacity for war. But if he brutalizes nature in that evolution, nature will have its revenge, and man will, in that conflict, lose. 

Ghidorah, in essence, here takes on the role of Godzilla from the first film.  He is Out-of-Whack Nature Personified: a threat that can’t be reckoned with in terms of technology or conventional war.

Ghidrah: The Three Headed Monster is such an imaginative and entertaining film not only because it features lovable and idiosyncratic monsters, but because it endows its monsters with a point of view that is not human-centric, and allows them -- in their  own destructive way -- to settles matters based on those points of view.  

To some, this approach of giving the monsters human personalities may seem silly or childish, but in a way, this creative choice perfectly expresses the childish nature of the Cold War conflict.

Are we really going to destroy the world because we can’t get along with each other? Can we stop kicking sand in each other's faces long enough to see that the planet needs our help?