Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)

*. Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster was released (in Japan) only some eight months after Mothra vs. Godzilla, which tells you something about how smoothly the assembly line was moving at Toho. Say what you will about them, these Godzilla movies (and their kaiju cousins) were still major productions, and they could be turned out now quickly, often being produced all at the same time and using the same cast and crew.
*. In his DVD commentary David Kalat makes a lot out of the comedy here but I find it more whimsical, even lunatic, than humorous. It’s not a funny movie, at least in the way King Kong vs. Godzilla went for laughs. But it is a weird movie. As things get started, Princess Selino Salno of Selgina is possessed by a spirit from the planet Venus (or Mars in the English-language version) and jumps out of a plane to avoid an assassination plot. It turns out she’s being used to warn us about the coming of a powerful monster named Ghidorah that Godzilla will have to team up with Rodan and one of the Mothra slugs to defeat.
*. This is bonkers, and I haven’t even mentioned the fact that The Peanuts are back as the faeries who can magically summon Mothra. As a bonus they can also translate monster language into English (or Japanese). Which leads to even more silliness.
*. Kalat attributes much of the weird spirit of the film to writer Shin’ichi Sekizawa, who also wrote Mothra vs. Godzilla and King Kong vs. Godzilla. It’s a quality that’s hard to describe. For starters, it’s obviously aimed at kids. The adult seriousness of Gojira is long gone and Godzilla and Rodan are now a couple of squabbling adolescents wrestling and throwing things at each other until mom (Mothra) comes along to whip them into line. As a kid I think I could relate.
*. Is it camp? Kalat talks about this quite a bit, mentioning the theory of how “the cancer of camp” gradually took over the franchise until the movies were too ridiculous to survive. But he disagrees with this, arguing instead that the world of genre filmmaking was being co-opted by the big studios, moving such films away from low-budgeted, assembly-line productions (Star Wars would be the spectacular culmination of this trend). Kantor, however, likes the “joyful silliness” of the Godzilla franchise and thinks it’s what makes these movies unique.
*. I see Kalat’s point, and admit that these movies do have a charm that it’s hard not to respond to even as a grown-up. With so many monsters on screen now the proceedings have a carnival-like quality, with lots of spectacle and chaos that you can’t begin to take seriously. Also charming are the old-school effects. Eiji Tsubaraya was unhappy with Ghidorah — played by a man in a suit and several puppeteers moving the heads and tails — but I don’t think he looks too awkward. No more so than Rodan anyway.
*. That said, I also reach a limit with these films. After a while they do all play the same, no matter how ridiculous the human plots. And nothing is really ever at stake, since this is a comic-book world where no one ever dies. Even Ghidorah flies away, to return, we can be sure, to fight another day. Judged against the rest of the franchise I think this is one of the more enjoyable and entertaining outings. The concept was still pretty fresh, and the template just settling into its final form. From here on out it was going to be more of the same. Which is just what people wanted.

Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)

*. The billing for this clash of the titans is surprising. Mothra’s name comes first? Understandable for a movie like King Kong vs. Godzilla, but who is Mothra to be taking top spot from the King of the Monsters?
*. Actually, Mothra was not an unknown quantity. She had already starred in her own feature, the 1961 movie Mothra, and would go on to appear in more than a dozen other films. But I don’t think she was ever as big in America as she was in Japan.
*. Indeed, when American International released the Americanized version of this movie it was titled Godzilla vs. the Thing. Not only has Godzilla regained top billing, but Mothra is left unnamed. This was reportedly done to generate curiosity as to who Godzilla’s foe would be. I think it might have been just as much because AIP realized how stupid a giant moth sounded, and how Mothra likely wouldn’t sell tickets. Mothra was also kept off the movie’s posters, perhaps for the same reason.

*. Even as a child I was never very fond of Mothra. Despite the fact that she’s the good monster in this battle of the beasts, I was always cheering for Godzilla. Especially when he was up against the pair of silk-spewing maggots that hatch from Mothra’s egg. I found their appearance disgusting, and their fighting technique low.
*. I also listened to a lot of heavy metal when I was a kid. On the album Metal on Metal by the band Anvil (1982) there was a song called “Mothra” that I can still sing along to. Anvil’s Mothra, however, is a less benevolent figure. Here’s a taste of the lyrics:

Comin’ to get you! You can’t escape
You’re gonna die, you wonder why?
Mighty wings beat out thunderous gusts of wind
Megatron eyes explode in the skies, it begins!
Talons like razors are shredding your bones to pieces
Is this a dream or is God telling you it’s over?
Mothra, Mothra, Mothra
Buildings are falling, black death is above you
You can’t run there’s nowhere to go
Rubble and stone block your path
You can’t escape from its wrath.

Great stuff. I’ve never forgotten the line “You’re still alive but your luck is running out!” Metal never dies.
*. On the commentary track by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski they begin by calling Mothra vs. Godzilla their personal favourite Godzilla film, saying that “there’s no doubt that the original Godzilla might be the best film but in many respects this film represents the high point in technique for many of the key players.” In his book on Godzilla, Japan’s Favorite Mon-star, Ryfle also says it stands “indisputably as the greatest of all the Godzilla sequels.” Which is both good and bad given how early it was and how many more of these movies were to come. Then again, my vote for the best Bond movie would be either From Russia With Love or Goldfinger, and they were the second and third entries in that franchise.

*. Mothra vs. Godzilla doesn’t do a lot that’s different than the earlier Godzilla movies (the tiny people being the main thing that’s new), but it does the same sort of things better. As you would expect given the amount of practice they’d been getting at Toho. There’s a new Godzilla suit for one thing, that made it easier for Haruo Nakajima to move around. The giant Mothra model was also an impressive technical achievement. Godziszewski even says that “perhaps no other Toho monster has been as realistically brought to life,” which is high praise. The miniatures are well done, the process shots mostly effective, and the editing in the action scenes first rate. As a kid I ate it up.
*. This is important because Toho was consciously going after kids now. Infant Island might even be a metaphor for television. Meanwhile, the broad comedy of King Kong vs. Godzilla is toned down quite a bit. There’s some funny stuff here but it isn’t comic in quite the same way. Instead we get the start of a drift into that peculiar loopiness that is so typical of a certain strain of Japanese cinema that was just taking off at the time and which would go on to get far weirder.

*. The clearest example of this comes with the twin faeries or small beauties. They’re played by a pop duo known as The Peanuts and their appearance here really signals the transformation of Godzilla into a franchise with its own unique mythology. In earlier movies the premise at least made a kind of surface sense. Godzilla and his ilk were dinosaurs awakened or released through nuclear testing, or perhaps inhabitants of a remote island. But who are the small beauties? There’s no plausible explanation for their existence, much less their telepathic powers and ability to magically disappear and then reappear in different places.
*. Part of the back story is actually kind of interesting. I like the huckster Kumayama and the corporate heel Torahata. They make a great villainous odd couple and I was hoping something more might have come of them. The amusement park theme was also kind of meta, since Mothra and Godzilla are both carnival attractions themselves. But unfortunately the two stooges are erased well before the end, and we end up with the usual monster mash. The army tries to stop Godzilla but, as always, comes up short. Then the slugs do their thing, which is at least something different if not that satisfying.
*. This is a nutty movie, but it is well done and it’s a lot of fun. It was never my favourite Godzilla movie as a kid, but I appreciate it more today. Alas, if this was the best Godzilla sequel ever that also means it marks a tipping point. And there was still a long way to go.

King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)

*. Expectations must have been high for this one. At least among kaiju fans. It was released to coincide with Toho’s 30th anniversary, and featured Hollywood’s most famous giant ape facing off against Japan’s most famous monster lizard. Both legends appearing for the first time in widescreen and colour.
*. Alas, while not the worst film in either franchise I think it may be the most disappointing. Not in terms of box office (it was the biggest hit in the series for Toho) but creatively.
*. I’m not talking about the turn toward humour, but that’s a point worth addressing. In the early Americanizations of the first two Godzilla movies (Godzilla, King of the Monsters and Gigantis the Fire Monster) one could feel a pull toward comedy not present in the Japanese originals. This was inadvertent, the result of having to crudely splice in stock footage or the effect of poor dubbing and translation. In King Kong vs. Godzilla, however, the brakes are off and even the Japanese version is going for laughs all the way. The studio had decided that children were the target audience so they wanted to lighten things up. The result was “a salaryman’s comedy with giant monsters,” in the words of Stuart Galbraith IV.
*. I don’t have a big problem with this. Let’s face it, the human storylines in these movies are usually a waste of time anyway, so if they wanted to go for laughs and play a lot of broad comedy in the background I say Why not? And the idea of targeting tabloid television news was, in 1962, pretty fresh (with a lot more of this appearing in the Japanese version than in the American cut).
*. No, where this movie falls down is precisely in the stuff that should be its bread and butter: giant monsters flattening buildings and going toe-to-toe.
*. The models, especially of trains and excavating equipment, look even more toy-like than usual. Kong’s costume is terrible, like someone wrapped in a mangy hide rug. And the fights are a joke. All the wrestling, chest-thumping and hand clapping are fine. Again, that was stuff they were throwing in for the kids and it works on that level. But there’s little interesting going on, mostly just Godzilla smashing Kong with his tail and Kong throwing boulders at Godzilla (though I did like Kong’s judo flip, and shoving a tree in Godzilla’s mouth). Furthermore, the monsters’ special powers don’t make much sense. Godzilla’s fiery breath works, until it doesn’t. Kong apparently develops a quick immunity. Then we’re told that Kong is made stronger by electricity. Why? I have no idea. But he chews on power lines and when struck by lightning he not only revives from the dead but gains a special shock-touch power.
*. The only good fight actually occurs in the early going, when Kong takes on a giant octopus. It’s all downhill from there.
*. Other parts of the movie are just laughable, but not in a good way. Kong being tranquilized and then transported by helium balloons to Mount Fuji, for example, and all the cutaways (in the U.S. version) to Japanese and American news desks, where we get play-by-play from anchors and scientists.
*. Even the ending is left a bit vague and anti-climactic. We’re told Kong is the victor, but it seems unlikely Godzilla has drowned. He’s an aquatic lizard, known for swimming long distances in the ocean, so we can be confident he’ll be back, and in a better movie (Mothra vs. Godzilla).
*. In a lot of ways this film marked a real change in direction for the franchise, and it is a kind of kitsch landmark, but it’s nowhere as much fun as you’d have a right to expect.

Gorgo (1961)

*. The posters blared: “Like Nothing You’ve Ever Seen Before!” I’m not sure this was the right approach. Gorgo is a film that very much wanted to be seen as something like you’d seen before. Specifically, it was meant to be an homage to the nascent Godzilla franchise (by 1960 Toho had still only made two Godzilla movies: Gojira and Godzilla Raids Again).
*. The debt to Toho was so great that Gorgo was initially planned as a Japanese co-production, and was to be set in Japan. As it is, I think they did a nice job moving the action to an Irish fishing village and then London, with the explicit likening of Gorgo’s rampage to the Blitz being the proper Second World War analog to memories of the atom bomb in Gojira. It’s even worth noting that the world premiere for Gorgo was in Tokyo, six months before it opened elsewhere.
*. Another connecting link is director Eugène Lourié, who had done The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which was the inspiration for Gojira. Things really had come full circle.
*. So . . . yeah. This is your basic Godzilla clone. Or maybe not “basic,” since its production values are actually pretty good. There’s no comparing it to a piece of junk like Reptilicus (which came out the same year). But the story is identical. A giant prehistoric monster is awakened and rises out of the sea, only to be captured and turned into a circus attraction à la King Kong. This leads to one nice meta-monster mash bit where Gorgo smashes its own marquee.
*. Unfortunately for our entrepreneurial monster-catchers they have only bagged Minilla, and before long Mama Gorgo comes looking for her baby, leading to a finale that has her tearing apart London landmarks (Tower Bridge, Big Ben, Piccadilly Circus). The military are called and go through their predictably useless drill of firing cannons and rockets at the beast. Crowds run through the streets. A radio reporter provides play-by-play. There’s a cute kid looking on.
*. I’ll add here that it is the baby lizard that is called Gorgo in the movie. So the big monster isn’t really Gorgo but Gorgo’s Mother. I don’t know if that makes a difference, but I think it may be confusing.
*. In short, it’s quite a bit like everything you’ve seen before in this genre, but it’s not Godzilla. Gorgo doesn’t have the same personality as the Toho monster, which may be down to his inexpressive red eyes. (Guilala in Shochiku’s The X from Outer Space would suffer from the same disability. Eyes are supposed to have pupils. Didn’t the producers read comic books?). I also found his twitchy ears to be a bit distracting. And the model buildings aren’t as convincing as the Toho miniatures, looking like cardboard and coming apart like cardboard too. Finally, the stock footage of the navy is clumsily intercut. Lourié hated this stuff so much he apparently cut his own version of the film where he took it all out.
*. But for a non-Toho kaiju this is as good as it was going to get. You can see that as being the result of Westerners not putting a lot of effort into what was seen as a trash genre, or as credit to Toho for the quality of their work. Probably some of both. But in any event this was the last we were going to see of Gorgo (unless you followed his comic book, which ran for a few years in the early ’60s).
*. How can I not give the last words to the radio reporter, which even manage to outdo those of Raymond Burr in Godzilla, King of the Monsters!. Truly this was the golden age of broadcasting rhetoric: “We prayed for a miracle. Maybe our prayers have been answered. A great city, overwhelmed, exhausted, lies helpless under the immeasurable power and ferocity of this towering apparition from before the dawn of history. Yet, as disdaining the pygmies under her feet, she turns back! Turns with her young, leaving the prostrate city, leaving the haunts of man, and leaving man himself to ponder the proud boast that he alone is lord of all creation.”

Godzilla Raids Again (1955)

*. I posted separate notes for Gojira and the American version, Godzilla, King of the Monsters! Godzilla Raids Again had an Americanized version as well, Gigantis the Fire Monster, but I’ll talk about both movies together here because there’s not as much to say.
*. It was a very quick turnaround for Toho to get this movie out, I think taking only six months from greenlighting it to having it in the can. As you might expect from that kind of schedule, they pretty much replayed Gojira (without, as Steve Ryfle points out, the same political or moral depth). The repetition even extends to a curious echo effect with the climax. What I mean is how, in both Gojira and Godzilla Raids Again, the action actually hits a peak midway through the film, which is when Godzilla destroys Tokyo in Gojira and Osaka here (an echo that may have been meant to recall Hiroshima and Nagasaki). The big confrontation at the end then plays out as a letdown. Burying Godzilla under an avalanche of ice is a little more impressive than having him disintegrated by the Oxygen Destroyer, but it isn’t nearly as fun as his wrestling match with Anguirus the ankylosaur.
*. On the commentary track Ed Godziszewski says that this is the only time in the franchise that Godzilla is actually beaten by humans without the use of any special technology. An observation which just underlines how useless the usual attempts by the army to take him out are. We’d see tanks rolling in and rocket launchers firing at Godzilla throughout many other films in the franchise, but the generals never appear to realize how pointless such efforts are. I guess if you’re a hammer then everything looks like a nail, and perhaps there’s a message about wasteful military spending being made too, but it does get silly after a while.
*. The back story isn’t very interesting, and even in the original Japanese (reading subtitles and not being confused by the awful dubbing) I found it hard to follow exactly what was going on. With the trio of escaped convicts stumbling around like the Three Stooges we can see the beginning of a comic turn that would become a lot more developed in the next film in the series, King Kong vs. Godzilla.
*. This is a movie that still wants to engage our feelings a bit, what with Kobayashi’s death accidentally (?) showing the way to defeat the monster. But this is another diminished echo from the first film with the death of Serizawa, and it doesn’t play nearly as strong.
*. Not a giant leap forward then, but a small step in the direction the franchise was going to take. In the monster brawl between Godzilla and Anguirus you get a foreshadowing of everything essential to the series that was to come. They just needed to add colour and some eccentric secondary players and they’d be set.

Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956)

*. Outside of Japan this was the first Godzilla movie, though it came out after both Gojira and its Japanese sequel Godzilla Raids Again. So it might be the third Godzilla movie if you see it as a separate entry in the franchise.
*. I think we do have to look at it as a different movie and not just an English-language version of Gojira. In fact, in creating something sui generis they retained less than an hour of footage from Gojira and added a lot of extra footage that didn’t change the story at all but helped the movie find an American audience. What this mainly meant was having Raymond Burr as reporter Steve Martin duly observe the events of Gojira while much of the political message was cut.
*. Yes, Steve Martin. Which is a generic enough American name, but in such a movie as this it couldn’t help but make me think of Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. The way Burr is introduced into Gojira here, with lots of edits and actors dressed like the original cast but only seen from behind addressing Burr (while not always looking directly at him), is similar to the role played by the other Steve Martin in the later movie.
*. There is a point to this comparison. In both movies I think the introduction of a new character into an old movie is done pretty well. I was even slightly impressed at how well it’s handled here. It’s certainly a much better Americanization than what they did to the sequel, Godzilla Raids Again. But it still seems ludicrous. And it’s even sillier here because Burr has no role whatsoever to serve in the plot. He is strictly an observer, smoking a pipe, or stroking his chin, or just sweating — a lot — while Gojira (the movie) plays out in front of him.
*. It must have been a difficult job playing against nothing — perhaps analogous to today’s stars acting against a green screen — but even so Burr underwhelms. Danny Peary: “His emoting is so nonexistent that at times it’s hard to believe he knows he’s making a horror film.” I think Burr claimed he only worked on the movie for a day but apparently it was three or four. However, while he leant the project some credibility I think all the cutaways, with Burr showing the same lack of expression and solemn delivery in every situation, are ridiculous. In Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid Steve Martin really acted a part, and the silliness was part of the joke.
*. J. Hoberman: “Burr is an insert — but then so is the monster. Sharing space with Godzilla is inconceivable — as opposed to King Kong, who was made to interact with humans and even fall in love.” I don’t think this is quite right. The monster isn’t an insert but the movie’s star and whole reason for being. But Burr does fit in, as the role of people in a Godzilla movie is primarily to provide reaction shots to what’s going on. They are effectively a surrogate audience. That’s even more the case here, as Burr, a reporter who is “a little rusty” in his Japanese, has to have all the important information translated and explained to him.
*. The new English dialogue is very bad, with the ironic feel of being a translation. Beginning with the opening voiceover: ” I was headed for an assignment in Cairo, when I stopped off in Tokyo for a social call, but it turned out to be a visit to the living hell of another world.”
*. The other point worth mentioning here is that the nuclear theme — the Monster as the Bomb — is mostly trimmed. Some have seen this as a way of playing to the American audience by not forcing them to consider the destruction of Hiroshima of Nagasaki. I think the cuts most definitely were a way of catering the American market, but not because of the politics. The simple fact was that Americans weren’t much interested in such matters. As distributor Richard Kay put it, “We weren’t interested in politics, believe me. We only wanted to make a movie we could sell.” And politics doesn’t sell, then or now. What sells are even bigger monsters, which may in turn help to explain the dramatic inflation of Godzilla’s reported size.
*. Gojira director Ishiro Honda found the question of its Americanization amusing, since his movie had been made in imitation of American monster movies like King Kong and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. In a way Godzilla was going home, just as Kurosawa’s Westerns would be remade by Leone.
*. In their DVD commentary Godzilla authorities Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski conclude by giving Godzilla, King of the Monsters! credit for bringing the monster to an American audience and thus putting Godzilla on the map, ensuring Toho would continue with the franchise. It seems likely however that Toho was going to keep making these movies regardless, since box office was good and there had already been one sequel. Still, despite its obvious inferiority to Gojira and overall silliness this is the movie that introduced Godzilla into the North American consciousness, and it’s a remarkable job of adaptation in its own right.

Gojira (1954)

*. Gojira is a movie with such a huge legacy, or long tail, that it’s hard to view today with innocent eyes. In 2015 Guinness World Records recognized Godzilla (to give the monster his American name) as the longest-running film franchise in history, and that only went up to the 2014 Gareth Edwards picture. Since then there have actually been six or seven more entries. I think the total runs to around 35 movies now, most of them produced by Japan’s Toho. More recently, however, the monster has also been picked up by Legendary Pictures for its MonsterVerse series.
*. But I want to go back to those innocent eyes I mentioned. I’ll admit I don’t have them anymore. I grew up watching these movies on television as a kid, where they were broadcast as weekend afternoon “creature features.” Today I can say I’ve seen the more recent Hollywood versions, and also read a fair bit about the films, though only a small percentage of the enormous amount that’s out there. So re-watching Gojira I have to carry all this baggage with me.
*. To put the question directly: Is Gojira, which is by any estimation a classic and among the most influential movies of its time, actually any good? Putting aside sixty-five years of Godzilla, is this a well-made movie?
*. When it was re-released in the U.S. in 2004 Roger Ebert put it this way: “Is there a reason to see the original Godzilla?” He thought there was, “not because of its artistic stature, but perhaps because of the feeling we can sense in its parable about the monstrous threats unleashed by the atomic age.” In conclusion: “This is a bad movie, but it has earned its place in history, and the enduring popularity of Godzilla and other monsters shows that it struck a chord.”
*. The idea of a giant monster being a product of the atomic age was not in itself something new. Gojira was directly inspired by The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which had just come out the year before. Indeed, the initial outline of the script for Gojira had the working title The Big Monster from 20,000 Miles Beneath the Sea (or something like that; I’ve heard different versions). The two main differences here were (1) the anti-war, anti-nuke message, very much informed both by Japan’s experience in the Second World War and ongoing nuclear testing in the region, and (2) the way the giant monster took the form of a man in a rubber suit stomping around model sets, a kind of practical special effects associated with the label Tokusatsu.
*. Of these two new developments the first, sadly, has less resonance today. The monster as metaphor for atomic bombs seems an artefact of the ’50s more than of our own time. While it’s heartfelt, it’s overplayed and doesn’t have the same sense of urgency as it did in the Cold War. I’m not saying that’s how it should play, but I think it’s how it does.

*. The “suitmation” stuff should have dated even more, and it has in one sense. Such effects struck many people as ridiculous even at the time, and in the age of CGI they seem even more so. The stop-motion of King Kong and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms plays better. (Stop-motion would have been prohibitively expensive for a production like Gojira.) That said, there’s also something timeless about these effects. I think this is because they tap into childhood play so much, and the destruction of model tanks and warplanes, toy cars, sand castles, and towns made out of Lego. While Gojira isn’t really a movie for kids, that was the direction the franchise would find itself taking, and I think it was inevitable.
*. Godzilla is, of course, the star. Does the rest of the movie hold our attention? I think slightly more than the filler we find in the average giant-monster movie. Things get started on a high note with two aural cues provided by Akira Ifukube: the martial march that would be later identified as Godzilla’s main theme and the peculiar industrial sound of his roar, like metal straining (but which was, in fact, instrumental).
*. As an aside, Ifukube apparently wrote the main theme in a week without having seen any part of the movie. I think it was probably something he’d had in his head for a while and been waiting to use.
*. From there things move along at a snappy pace, with director Ishiro Honda whipping the story forward at newsreel speed, complete with lots of quick wipes. I also like the way Godzilla is introduced gradually, from his earthquake footsteps and toxic roar, to the discovery of his giant footprints, his head (a puppet) appearing over the skyline, and finally his climactic assault on Tokyo.
*. Unfortunately, the movie stalls badly after this point. The three leads and their love triangle aren’t very interesting. The political message becomes heavy-handed. The dialogue, at least if the subtitles are at all accurate, is laughably hammy. The final underwater showdown between Serizawa, armed with his Oxygen Destroyer, and Godzilla is a big letdown after the destruction of Tokyo. It is also downbeat in a way that goes beyond being merely anti-Hollywood. It’s a solemn ending, what with Serizawa’s death and the warning about how nuclear testing will only beget more monsters. Were they thinking of all the sequels? I don’t think that was the point.
*. Still, I don’t think there’s any way to judge Gojira outside of its genre, or apart from its legacy. And even at the time it came out reviews were mixed. I think it is a great monster movie, and one I’ve gone back and watched several times over the years. It has some exceptional qualities, as well as lots of primitive charm. And while it’s a movie grounded in its time and place, it’s certainly more than just a historical or cultural curiosity.

Color Me Blood Red (1965)

*. It’s possible — just possible — that in 1965 you might have had your hopes up for this one. After “inventing” gore with Blood Feast Herschell Gordon Lewis had followed up with Two Thousand Maniacs!, which marked a huge advance. So might Lewis’s next film show a further progression?
*. Wishful thinking. Color Me Blood Red marks a reversion to the mean of Lewis’s career, which is very low indeed. It cost less than Blood Feast to make, being mainly shot in a house they’d rented. The gore isn’t as imaginative or as well represented. The sound, which they had difficulty with because of the location, is muddy. The music is canned and overbearing. The picture often goes out of focus. The story isn’t original (Lewis admits to having been inspired by Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood, but the crazed artist turning bodies into art goes back to Mystery of the Wax Museum and its ilk).
*. In sum, there’s nothing scary, or shocking, or creepy, or even campy about the goings-on. It’s just dull. Of the three films that now make up the Blood Trilogy (so-called only later when a different distributor packaged them together) it strikes me as by far the weakest. Blood Feast had at least a spirit of amateur fun about it. Here there’s nothing.
*. To be honest, I didn’t want to bother with a re-watch of this one. Even the commentary track with Lewis and producer David Friedman (this would be their last film together) isn’t as bright and lively as for the previous two films. One gets the sense that they weren’t having as much fun this time out and much of the conversation turns to other topics. About the lead Gordon Oas-Heim, who plays the artist Adam Sorg, Lewis has this to say: “an exceptionally good actor but not really a team player.” They didn’t get along, though by the standards set by the other films it’s a decent performance.
*. Not a good movie. The only interesting way I can think of reading it is as a kind of allegory for Lewis’s own career. A low-rent, exploitation director, with his “invention” of gore Lewis enjoyed a burst of commercial success not unlike that experienced by Adam Sorg. The crucial difference between the two isn’t that Lewis painted with fake blood but that Sorg actually is a tortured artist, putting his soul into his work. He doesn’t even want to make money off his paintings, refusing to sell them at auction. Lewis, in contrast, could only laugh when people called him an artist, but he did make a living for a while as a director and enjoyed more than fifteen minutes of fame.
*. Since I did enjoy the DVD commentaries, I’ll give the last word to the two men responsible. Lewis, to any future critics: “Try to do better, for the same amount of money.” Friedman: “We made pictures basically to entertain, have a little fun, and walk home with a small profit. And if you’ve enjoyed it, fine. But if you’ve even looked at it, that’s good too.”

Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964)

*. Director Herschell Gordon Lewis deserves some credit, and I think for the most part he got it. The self-styled Godfather of Gore (to take the title of a 2010 documentary about him) had a bright-red run as an exploitation filmmaker in the ’60s, turning out a number of flicks that went on to attract a cult following. Almost none of these, beginning with the worthless Blood Feast, were any good at all, but they made money and gave Lewis a certain notoriety.
*. Two Thousand Maniacs! is widely heralded as Lewis’s best film, and it’s the one he considered to be his favourite. I think it’s a surprisingly effective shocker and the only good movie he made. At least it’s the only one I can return to and see anything in.
*. After the huge success of Blood Feast Lewis and his partner David Friedman wanted to up their game with better production values and better acting. I guess there’s some tick upward in both regards here, but not as much as you’d expect, especially given the low baseline they had set. At least some of the cast look their parts, if nothing else. The direction is also just barely competent. That the movie works as well as it does is all down to the fascination of the story and its structure.
*. To just stick for a moment with putting the film in the context of Lewis’s career, I found an inevitable comparison with Gerard Damiano. Damiano had a similar huge success with Deep Throat, another movie that basically created its own niche. Of course there’d been porn before, Lewis himself had done “nudie cuties,” but Deep Throat marked a watershed. Deep Throat was then followed up by Devil in Miss Jones, a far more ambitious and much better movie that, naturally, didn’t enjoy the same immediate success. It’s not that either Lewis or Damiano were going art house, but they did try, I think successfully, to transcend the genres they did so much to launch.
*. So back to why I think this is a good movie. I mentioned the story, which I think is great on two levels. In the first place it’s an archetypal ghost story, inspired (really!) by Brigadoon. Except the ghost town here is full of the vengeful victims of a Civil War massacre.
*. A few other staple horror archetypes grow out of this. In the first place this is one of the first “wrong turn” horror movies, where the heroes by accident or contrivance find themselves in an isolated backwoods or rural enclave, which is a very dangerous place to be for modern, urban types. This was “hicksploitation” before The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Even before Deliverance. True enough, the Bates Motel in Psycho is a place bypassed by the main highway but Norman isn’t a redneck. Lewis was on to something new here.
*. Another related subgenre that we see getting going is the spinning of the town-with-a-guilty-secret idea into darker territory. Before The Wicker Man and such recent spin-offs as Midsommar the basic idea is already here, with outsiders arriving in a community that seems friendly but whose carnival is actually a stage for ritual sacrifice.
*. Finally, a third horror subgenre that may have its start in Two Thousand Maniacs! is that of the murder catalogue. What I mean are movies that don’t really have any point except to show people being killed in highly theatrical and violent ways. In the twenty-first century the Saw and Final Destination franchises have taken this about as far as it can go, presenting their elaborate murders as a series of over-the-top “gags.” As far as I know, however, this is the first such movie. The Abominable Dr. Phibes, to give another early example of this same kind of thing, came out in 1971.
*. Now I didn’t want to give Blood Feast too much credit for “inventing” gore, but it seems to me that in the ways I’ve just talked about Two Thousand Maniacs! really was ahead of its time, or at least responsible for a lot of later developments that would go on to loom large in the horror genre.

*. The other thing about the story I mentioned liking was its structure. If the centennial celebration is a carnival then the various ways invented for killing off the damn Yankees are the different rings in the circus. And because the victims are all separated first each of them gets to experience that moment of dawning awareness that things are not quite right. In fact they’re horribly wrong.
*. The most effective of these, and a scene that is truly shocking, comes when the hulking Harper cuts the thumb off the first victim. She’s not going to be raped or killed right away but instead tortured like one of the town cats that the kids are keen on chasing around. It’s a sequence that lets you know that things are going to just keep getting worse for these people.
*. Wes Craven: “The first monster that an audience has to be scared of is the filmmaker. They have to feel in the presence of someone not confined by the normal rules of propriety and decency.” The thumb-cutting scene is an example of the sort of move that I think Stephen King referred to as “training the audience.” You suddenly feel the ground disappear from under your feet.
*. Fun fact: both Lewis and Craven taught English at university before getting into movies. I can’t say what that might mean, but they do seem to have both had an understanding of archetypal narratives.
*. Perhaps the most unnerving thing about Two Thousand Maniacs! though is the presence of the townspeople. These extras were actual residents of the town Lewis was shooting in (St. Cloud, Florida) and they lend an innocence and authenticity to the gruesome proceedings. I’m not even sure to what extent they knew what was going on, which allows them to project what Lewis on the commentary track calls the difficult “combination of sweetness and evil.”
*. What they also represent is the complicity of the crowd. They don’t really do much in the way of killing the Yankees, but they go along with things. At times they may even show some signs of doubt. I love their silence after the one victim is pulled apart by the horses. Is this not quite what they expected? Or wanted? But then strike up the band and play “Dixie” and they’re back in a good mood again.
*. Two connections come to mind. First is Chesterton’s remark about how the fact that man can enjoy skinning a cat is evidence of original sin. Or hanging a cat, we might say, with the fact that this is what we hear the kids are doing further proof of that human stain. Yes these are Confederate ghosts out for revenge but presumably those aren’t Yankee cats. And I don’t think the point is that these are just evil ghosts. I think the point is that the crowd is inherently evil.
*. Second, and this may be connected in some way to the previous point, there’s the scene where the cars first roll into town and are surrounded by townsfolk waving their Confederate flags and children waving nooses. By some process of association that I don’t think is too far-fetched (though we’re going from low to high) this made me think of the kid seen from the boxcars taking Jews to Auschwitz in Schindler’s List who is making the sign of cutting his throat. It’s another sign not only of the complicity of the crowd but the cruelty of human nature.
*. This is a cheap exploitation flick, but it’s to its credit that it’s not only functional as a horror movie (by the end Lewis even achieves a modicum of suspense as we really want to see our heroes get the hell out of that town), and also raises these larger points, even if inadvertently. I don’t know if Lewis ever had much to say about the movie having such messages, but like the best of junk (or, more charitably, folk) culture I think it carries a lot of deeper meanings.

Blood Feast (1963)

*. I did something a little different on my most recent rewatch of Blood Feast. I knew the movie was garbage, but that the director Herschell Gordon Lewis had done a fun commentary I’d enjoyed a few years earlier. So in preparing these notes I just played the movie with the commentary (which Lewis shares with producer David Friedman). I doubt I’ll ever watch Blood Feast (with or without the commentary) again.
*. Lewis was quite a character and his play-by-play is full of interesting tidbits about the production as well as other humorous asides. I got a real laugh out of his description of the fake blood they used. “The blood was so realistic, if you had a transfusion you would probably die but you wouldn’t know why you had died.” Tell me that isn’t a better line than anything in the movie.
*. In the commentary Lewis also stakes Blood Feast‘s sole claim to fame. This is that it marked a watershed in the presentation of cinematic gore. All of the slasher films of the ’80s are, in Lewis’s reckoning, the children of Blood Feast. “I’ve often referred to Blood Feast as a Walt Whitman poem. It’s no good, but it was the first of its type.” (Which, I think, is an odd thing to say about Whitman, in that he did write some good poetry and wasn’t the first of any subsequent school.)
*. Does Lewis have a fair claim to being such a pioneer? Yes and no. He did push the envelope on gore, but I don’t think Blood Feast, despite being highly profitable, was that influential. For one thing, how many people actually saw it? John Waters and who else? I think the slasher films derived more directly from the giallo genre.
*. Still, as the original, or at least the oldest, of the U.K.’s “video nasties” I guess Blood Feast does deserve some credit, if only as a footnote in the history of horror. Lewis was never under any illusions that he was doing anything more than trying to make a buck out of a new exploitation niche (he’d been doing “nudie cuties” before this). Nor was he under any illusions that he was actually making anything good. Shot in about a week (4, or maybe 9, days) for a budget of $25,000, with few actors and a crew that mainly consisted of Lewis holding the camera and Friedman doing the sound, you’d be insane to expect competence much less quality.
*. I found it a bit odd that Lewis defends the film on the commentary from criticism by saying it’s only a “fantasy.” Did people really complain about it not being realistic? Or by fantasy does he just mean that it was meant as a joke?
*. All this said, I do find Lewis’s output a cut above the usual exploitation fare. I’d rather watch one of his movies than the work of William Grefe, his fellow Floridian bargain-basement horror maestro. And next up for Lewis was going to be Two Thousand Maniacs!, a movie I rate very highly. He was not without ability. It’s just that it’s hard to make a good movie without even trying.