Category Archives: 1960s

Witchfinder General (1968)

*. I don’t remember when I first saw Witchfinder General but I do remember being underwhelmed. I’d heard and read a lot about it and so my expectations were perhaps too high to be met.
*. Having lived with it for a while now I find it growing on me with every re-watch. Keeping in mind what it came out of helps. A low-budget American-British co-production from Tigon British Film Productions (a discount Hammer) and American International (who were just looking for a tax write-off), it’s remarkable that it was noteworthy at all. Add the fact that it wasn’t the movie Michael Reeves had planned on making and it’s even more impressive.
*. The main changes in the original plan came about because (1) Reeves had wanted Donald Pleasence to play Matthew Hopkins and when Vincent Price came on board (at AIP’s insistence) the part had to be re-imagined and re-written, and (2) the violence had to be toned down quite a bit to get approval from the censors.
*. The fighting between Reeves and Price has become legendary. Price, however, was a professional and turned in one of his finest performances. One of their confrontations resulted in the following exchange: Price: “I’ve made 87 films. What have you done?” Reeves: “I’ve made three good ones.”
*. As delicious as this bitchiness is, it’s wrong on two counts. Price had only (!) made 75 films at the time, while Reeves had directed two, neither of which can really be counted as “good.” I mean, She Beast and The Sorcerers are both interesting and well worth checking out, but they didn’t give him any bragging rights.
*. It’s hard to know what to make of Reeves. There’s just not enough evidence to draw on. He’s become a kind of cult figure, largely because of this movie, which he made when he was only 24. The next year he would die of a barbiturate overdose. That kind of thing has a way of stamping your ticket to the pantheon. Would he have gone on to greater things? All we can see is that the potential was there.

*. What strikes me most deeply about Witchfinder General is the pervasive moral bleakness. This is a horror movie, but despite its subject matter it doesn’t have a hint of the supernatural about it. There are no witches to be found, and the monsters are all human.
*. The juxtaposition of cruelty with the beauty of the English countryside only further underlines the association of human nature with violence. In a way the villains here aren’t monsters; they’re the normal ones. Hopkins is just the pious hypocrite who is really a lech while Stearne is the bully who is a coward. There’s nothing remarkable about such types. What’s surprising is that they’ve risen to the top.
*. This is also brought home by the cutaways to the faces in the crowd. This is a kind of community horror, as we saw in Two Thousand Maniacs! and would see again in The Wicker Man (on the DVD commentary track Steve Haberman likens them to the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Reeves being a big Don Siegel fan).
*. The world has turned upside-down. It seems like Cromwell’s soldiers should represent the ultimate authority in the land, but it’s Matthew Hopkins who has the law on his side and he is totally for hire. This is one of the most politically nihilistic movies I’ve seen, and indeed such a judgment might (and has) been extended even further. Kim Newman: “Reeves’ masterpiece is one of the most downbeat movies ever made, a ninety-minute negation of every moral precept horror films have stood for.” Danny Peary: “It is safe to say that no director in cinema history exhibited such a consistently depressing and angry view of the world and humanity as Reeves.” I think that last maybe goes too far, based on the slim evidence we have, but I can see where Peary’s coming from.

*. Reeves had originally wanted to film the Battle of Naseby but I don’t see where that would have added anything. I do think it’s too bad we don’t get to see a countryside littered with corpses, as he also had apparently planned. I imagine this looking something like Goya’s Disasters of War and it would have fit right in with the tone of the piece.
*. Another level of the moral bleakness can be seen in how quickly Sara falls in line with what Hopkins wants. Which is to say, she’s immediately on to him and makes the bargain on the spot. It’s only when she’s raped by Stearne that she breaks down.
*. I don’t usually like to go too far in symbolic readings of movies, but sticking with the pervasiveness of the evil I’ve mentioned here’s another observation from Peary: “The evil is all-encompassing, as is evident when Hopkins kills suspected heretics by/in fire, by/in water (drowning), and in the air (hanging); and is himself brutally killed deep within the earth.” I hadn’t thought of that, but I guess it works.
*. Was I just being thick in not seeing much in it the first time I saw it? Well, few people did when it came out. It was mostly ignored, or written off as just another Vincent Price AIP-Poe entry. Even more recently Alex Cox called it a “fairly routine Price horror movie with none of the excessive genius of the Roger Corman/Edgar Allan Poe films.” What most critics responded to at the time was its sadism and violence, and in this department it has, of course, been left far behind.
*. So I could imagine a lot of people coming to this movie for the first time and not being that affected. But it’s a movie that puts its hooks in you and keeps pulling.

The Sorcerers (1967)

*. A real curiosity. On the one hand it’s a fascinating premise: an elderly, down-at-the-heels couple taking over the mind of a young man in ’60s swinging London and taking a walk on the wild side, vicariously.
*. On the other hand it’s an incredibly stupid premise: apparently Professor Marcus Monserrat (Boris Karloff) is a hypnotist but what he’s invented is a laughable contraption that will, indeed, allow him and his wife to control the young man’s mind through psychic projection.
*. Put another way, it’s a fascinating premise from a thematic point of view, but stupid in so far as you can’t credit it for a second. What’s going on seems to be some weird amalgam of science and spiritualism, symbolized in the jarring disjunction between the glaring white lab and the cozy yet shabby parlour the Monserrats commune in. Then Marcus and Estelle (Catherine Lacey) have a falling out, involving them in a kind of psychomachia for the control of young Mike’s soul. It’s just plain weird.
*. I say it’s interesting thematically because of the way it inverts expectations. This is swinging London, but Mike (Ian Ogilvy) is the burned-out, jaded one, while it’s the old couple who are the thrill-seekers. Monserrat seduces Mike by offering “dazzling, indescribable experiences, complete abandonment with no thought of remorse.” But Mike won’t be feeling any of this. Instead, the thrills will all be enjoyed by the Monserrats. The old people are the hedonists and law-breakers. Or really, inverting things even more, it’s the old lady who wants to go crazy. Marcus ends up being a bit of a stick in the mud. Her will is stronger than his.
*. Of course you could also read it more traditionally, as Kim Newman does, as “informed by the 1960s impatience with the deadening influence of age over youth.” But that doesn’t quite work for me. The Monserrats aren’t well off, and indeed Mike seems to be of a better sort altogether (he’s a clerk in an antique shop). In class terms, it’s the older generation that is rebelling.
*. Michael Reeves’ second movie (or second-and-a-half, if you want to use a Felliniesque accounting). I don’t see much of a through line, however, between She Beast, this film, and Witchfinder General. I guess the general air of moral collapse and social breakdown is one constant. Stephen Jones calls this “one of the most downbeat horror movies of the 1960s,” which, if true, would be quite an achievement. It certainly has an angry edge, and one that doesn’t spare anyone.
*. As with a lot of movies from this period, parts of it have dated in funny ways. The mind-wiping sequence, with splashes of psychedelic slides being projected onto Mike’s face, is worth a chuckle. My favourite moment, though, comes when the ancient Monserrat picks the cute-as-a-button Mike up in a late-night diner. “You’re looking very bored, young man,” he begins. “I’ve been watching you this evening. I wonder if I might join you. Perhaps I can offer you some coffee.” Then, when Mike asks him what he wants: “I can offer you an unusual evening. Some extraordinary experiences.”
*. Mike is suspicious! What does this old guy really want? Is he selling “blue movies”? Cheap hash? No, not at all. But being bored he doesn’t hesitate in going home with him and letting Marcus hook him up to the machine. I mean, why not?
*. This ridiculous scene is yet another example of the kind of inversion I’ve mentioned: with age (the sweet old couple in their dingy apartment) corrupting innocent youth (the flashy young man who’s into club-hopping with various model girlfriends).
*. Leaving all of this sort of analysis aside, is The Sorcerers any good? It was the first production by Tony Tenser’s Tigon company. Tenser was known as “the Godfather of British Exploitation.” As with America’s Herschell Gordon Lewis, the Godfather of Gore, Tenser started his exploitation career off with nudies and found the turn to horror an obvious, even natural path to take from a commercial point of view: “like sex, everyone understands and wants to see a horror film.”
*. That’s probably true, at least to some extent. And I think that seen as just a low-budget thriller The Sorcerers is a lot better than most. There isn’t much here in the way of a story though, beyond what could have been effectively handled in a half-hour television episode, and I don’t think the scares are very well handled. Apparently Reeves wasn’t particularly interested in horror movies and only did them to show that he could make movies that made money (as The Sorcerers did). Tenser appreciated this spirit of professionalism if not craft and signed him to a multi-film deal, fated not to be fulfilled.

She Beast (1966)

*. After stepping in to complete Castle of the Living Dead, director Michael Reeves (or Mike Reeves, as he’s styled here on the title card) makes his debut. Which, as I think most people would agree, is She Beast‘s sole claim to fame. On the DVD commentary star Ian Ogilvy states matter-of-factly that Reeves is “the only reason this movie is of interest to people these days,” to which producer Paul Maslansky immediately concurs: “No question about it.”
*. Ogilvy also offers up the opinion that dying young was what made Reeves into a legend. Would anything about She Beast have made you think Reeves was destined for greater things? He wrote the script (under a pseudonym) but seems to have thought the material a joke. Did he take much pride in his work? “If we’re going to make crap,” he said to Ogilvy, “let’s make the best crap anybody’s ever seen.” You can interpret that in different ways.
*. He actually wasn’t a fan of the horror genre, again according to Ogilvy, but wanted to get a reputation as a commercial director and thought a horror picture would make money. Ogilvy: “he was quite an opportunist.” On the other hand, he did have a bleak moral vision that was a good fit with where horror was going.
*. We can see he also had a sense of style, especially when shooting outdoors. A lot of shots here are nicely composed. There’s some good camera movement. But there were obvious limitations, shooting in 21 days for only £17 000.
*. Of those 21 days they only had Barbara Steele for one. Apparently she had to work for 18 hours (she claims 22). I can believe it. It’s remarkable to me how they managed to get all her scenes done in a day. I don’t see how that would have been possible. It takes time to set things up, and she’s in a lot of scenes at the start of the movie, in many different sets and locations. How could they have done all that in a day?

*. Just to stick with the question of faulty memories and the vagaries of film history for a minute, the commentary track (with Ogilvy, Maslansky, and Steele) is quite entertaining and throws up a number of interesting points. Steele says she hardly remembers making the movie at all, which is understandable given the pace she was setting working on such stuff. But when the subject turns to dubbing (like all these productions the sound was done in post) she says she’s certain that her lines were recorded by somebody else. Ogilvy and Maslansky both say they’re sure it’s her voice. Then she says she’s not sure and they say they’re not sure. The upshot of which is that only 40 years later (the commentary was recorded in 2007) this is a point that is now lost to film history.
*. I wonder how sympathetic we’re supposed to be to the witch Vardella. That is, if she is a witch (alternative titles had her as a Blood Beast and Sister of Satan). Maybe she just suffers from some unfortunate skin condition and the villagers are the usual bunch of narrow-minded sadists (we’d see a lot more of them in Witchfinder General). Also, as played by a large man (Steele: “like Anthony Quinn times two!”) she comes across a bit like one of the Monty Python gang in drag. She’s kind of hard to take seriously.
*. Was that part of the joke? Ogilvy thought the movie couldn’t make up its mind whether it wanted to be horror or horror-comedy or comedy. I share his uncertainty. There are a lot of jokes about life in a communist dictatorship, John Karlsen plays Count Von Helsing mainly for laughs, and things are capped off with a ridiculous Keystone Cops chase. Apparently Reeves didn’t film this part, and didn’t care for it, but had to leave it in because the movie was already running short.
*. Maslansky, by the way, would go on to produce the Police Academy movies. So maybe he was subconsciously pushing things in that direction. The character he plays, for example, has his fly undone at the end in a very noticeable way.
*. The script doesn’t add up. What does Barbara Steele’s character Veronica have to do with anything? She isn’t really possessed, she just disappears for a while and the witch Vardella does her thing. When Philip asks Von Helsing for clarity on this, and tries to find out where Veronica is, he is quickly brushed off. This may seem like a little thing but it’s really not. I don’t see how even a very young man like Reeves was could write a script with such an essential plot element completely disregarded. The story simply doesn’t have a core explanation of what is happening. Shouldn’t Vardella come back as Veronica? Though I guess then they would have had to hire Steele for another couple of days.
*. I’ve seen She Beast several times now, and I’m not sure why. It’s really not very good. To answer the question I began with as to whether you’d be justified in seeing any promise in it I think the honest answer is no. I don’t think it’s a mark above the usual AIP fare. Stephen Jones refers to it as being basically a kind of home movie. But it’s odd and has a sense of fun about it. Given how young Reeves was and what he had to work with he did well. And better was to come.

Kill, Baby . . . Kill! (1966)

*. Great title. The Italian, Operazione Paura (Operation Fear), doesn’t have the same pizzazz (and was apparently only used to cash in on Erika Blanc having starred in a spy film with a similar title). Plus it has an exclamation mark. An exclamation mark isn’t a sure-fire sign of sleaze or exploitation (think of Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! or the musicals Oliver!, Hello, Dolly!, Moulin Rouge!, and Mama Mia!), but I think most of the time it gives a pretty good indication of what you’re in for. As in movies like Them!, Two Thousand Maniacs!, Die, Monster, Die!, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Stop Me Before I Kill!, and Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!
*. If the exclamation mark helps to temper expectations I think that’s a good thing. Kill, Baby . . . Kill! had a low budget even by Mario Bava’s usual standards and the production still ran out of money part-way through filming. The screenplay wasn’t even finished when they started shooting and some of it had to be improvised. The score was just taken from a library.
*. If any director was capable of making something out of such straitened circumstances, however, it was Mario Bava. From such inauspicious beginnings Kill, Baby . . . Kill! has gone on to gain quite a reputation as one of Bava’s best films, and one that has had a wide influence. In particular, the ghost of Melissa Graps with her ball has become a horror icon. That ball would continue to bounce its way through many a movie in the years to come.
*. I can only get on board for part of this. I wouldn’t rate this among my favourite Bava horror films, putting Blood and Black Lace, A Bay of Blood, and even the obscure and somewhat dotty Five Dolls for an August Moon ahead of it. At least I enjoy those movies a lot more. What I will say for Kill, Baby . . . Kill! is that it may be Bava’s scariest movie. It does have a suspenseful creepiness and nightmare quality to it that really works. Some of the jumpy zooms, and the slow pans around from frightened faces, are very effective. And Melissa does have a pale dangerousness that black-gloved slashers don’t.
*. That said, I also find this to be one of Bava’s dullest outings. He tries, but the story just isn’t that compelling. The weird gives way to the perfunctory. The hero Dr. Eswai (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) is a pin-up, often shot from below, which makes his rugged face topped by remarkable coiffure have even more the effect of a monument. Not only is the gore dialed way back (we only see victims after they’re dead), but the way Melissa wreaks her vengeance, by getting her victims to kill themselves, is disappointing.
*. Exteriors were shot in Calcata, the disputed home of the Holy Prepuce (really, people) and a place that seems to have always been close to falling apart. The studio interiors don’t always make for smooth transitions. But even filming outside Bava manages to conjure up his usual weird lighting, with stenciled blobs of green or red being cast on ruined walls.
*. As I’ve said, no matter what the conditions of filming or material, Bava could almost always make something interesting. That’s the case again here. There are a number of great moments, like Dr. Eswai chasing after himself running in and out of the same room in a loop, or any of Melissa’s spooky appearances (I especially like the way she grabs Monica’s hand). But in this film the parts don’t add up to a satisfying whole, with the ending in particular feeling like something they just came up with on the last day of shooting, and not quite deserving of an exclamation mark.

The Exterminating Angel (1962)

*. The Spanish version of The Exterminating Angel begins with a warning: “The best explanation of this film is that, from the standpoint of pure reason, there is no explanation.” This has to be carefully parsed. It does not say that the film has no explanation, just that “no explanation” is the best explanation “from the standpoint of reason.” And reason may not be the best entry point anyway.
*. I like to read the statement in these qualified terms because otherwise I think it can only be viewed as highly disingenuous. The Exterminating Angel is a fable — a group of upper-class operagoers find they can’t leave a dinner party — and a fable’s literal meaning is usually about as banal as it gets. The story isn’t real by any canon of realism, so what then does it mean?

*. The usual line as to the film’s meaning is that it depicts a “reversion to savagery”: the “thin veneer” of civilization giving way to our base animal nature. What better representation of this than a dinner party? Everyone is so polite and refined and on their best behaviour, but it is all an act. Barbarism lies just below the surface. This was, to take a more recent example, the point of Herman Koch’s The Dinner (which was filmed three times, in 2013, 2014, and 2017). How beastly is the haute bourgeoisie, especially at feeding time.
*. I’m sure that is a fundamental point Luis Buñuel is making in The Exterminating Angel. It’s just that it’s not a very interesting one and I don’t think it’s all that’s going on.
*. In itself it’s a common theme. I already mentioned The Dinner, but we might also think of High-Rise. The dinner guests roasting sheep over the campfire at the end here reminded me of Laing roasting a dog on a spit at the end of that movie. But here’s the thing: given the circumstances the guests find themselves in, should we be judging them so harshly? Unlike the dining parties in The Dinner they aren’t being hypocrites. They genuinely believe in good manners and keeping up appearances. It’s just that after a few days (or months) cooped up in the same room together they start to get on each other’s nerves, their clothes get ragged, and they smell bad. Can you blame them for any of this? Strip basic amenities away from any of us and of course we’re going to “revert” to a more primitive, barbaric state. Does that expose us as being bad people?
*. So we come back to the question of interpretation (which I’ll use in preference to explanation). What is going on here? In trying to answer that question I’ll look at two of the issues that usually get the most attention in this regard, the question of why the dinner guests can’t leave and the use of repetition.

*. Why can’t the guests leave? It’s hard not to think they’ve been selected for their class. The servants, equally inexplicably, all want to get out of the house as soon as possible. But once the invisible force field has gone up it’s clear that there’s no physical reason any of the guests can’t just leave. This isn’t Escape Room. They seem more stuck by the force of their own inertia. They don’t want to leave, at least in the early going. They find excuses and rationalizations for staying, and even at the end many of them play along with Leticia’s idea for breaking the spell as though they’re just going through the motions. Which is exactly what they are doing.
*. Is there some significance to the fact that Leticia (Silvia Pinal) is a foreigner? That somehow she doesn’t belong in the trap with the others? For Roger Ebert “the dinner guests represent the ruling class in Franco’s Spain. Having set a banquet table for themselves by defeating the workers in the Spanish Civil War, they sit down for a feast, only to find it never ends. They’re trapped in their own bourgeois cul-de-sac.”
*. I think this is a possibility. My sense though is that the explanation is more general. I think what keeps them stuck is that force of inertia I mentioned. In Dante’s Hell the sinners don’t want to escape from their punishments because it’s part of their sin that they just want to keep on doing what they’re doing. The upper class of any society prefers some discomfort, up to and including their own destruction, to anarchy and the loss of their position of privilege. Hence, as bad as their situation gets here it’s still preferable to the alternatives. So they don’t want to leave.

*. This is also the reason repetition is used throughout. The guests might even be aware that they’re saying and doing the same things over and over. But that’s the way they like it. I think it’s wonderful how they “escape” only by repeating their own actions as literally as possible, which in turn is no escape at all since it just means they’re going to find themselves back in the same situation.
*. The guests begin praying to God, but then move on to mysticism and black magic. But I think Buñuel’s point here is that this doesn’t constitute any real moving on. They’re just different, though equally meaningless, belief systems that, in turn, reflect a lack of imagination and moral laziness. The guests don’t actually want to believe in a higher power or make any changes in their life.
*. I want to go back to something I said earlier about not judging the guests too harshly since they’re in a situation where you’d expect everyone to behave badly. I don’t think I’d be any worse than most of them. But the other point to raise in their defence is that people from all walks of life outside the church are similarly afflicted. No class is an island, and while they may suffer different fates and be impelled by different motives, what happens to the upper class affects (or trickles down to) the rest of society as well. Inertia is a social disease.
*. That is, I think the final point being made. The ruling class want to divorce themselves from the rest of society. It’s like today’s rich wanting to live in gated communities or private islands, with the workers kept out of sight (or perhaps replaced by robots or some other form of cheap labour. What they complain about the most is all the people they’re stuck with. The torment of not being able to be someplace alone. Hell is other people. But there’s no escape from this part of the human condition. The guests — being social animals by nature, like all human beings — are just another flock of sheep herding together and sticking to traditions that are only fossilized instincts. So I don’t judge them harshly, while at the same time having no sympathy for them at all.

Bambi Meets Godzilla (1969)

*. The title is so well known that I think everyone has heard of this film even if they haven’t taken the two minutes to watch it. David Mamet even wrote a book called Bambi vs. Godzilla in 2007, wherein he made use of the title as a metaphor for the conflict between creatives and business people in Hollywood. From the brief account he gives of the movie, however, it’s clear he hadn’t actually seen it.
*. Indeed, Mamet even gets the title wrong. The title here is actually part of the joke, since Bambi isn’t “vs.” Godzilla (or “x” Godzilla, as was the stylization used in the Shinsei series of Godzilla flicks), but rather he “meets” the monster in a manner that suggests Godzilla is not even aware of the encounter.
*. I might go further and say the title isn’t so much part of the joke as it is the joke. Bambi. Godzilla. An odd couple. An incongruous conjunction. Add to this the credits, which are also part of the joke since this was a one-man show. So Marv Newland’s name appears over and over, including taking credit for Bambi’s wardrobe. Then at the end the city of Tokyo is thanked for making Godzilla available.
*. It was a student film, apparently done in a rush when another project fell through. But it’s gone on to have an incredible afterlife. You could think of it as a meme avant la lettre, piggybacking on the way Godzilla’s name, or at least the suffix -zilla had become part of the language. So it’s a short film that is itself a kind of shorthand, which is much as Mamet used it: the little guy crushed by the soulless corporation, or innocence flattened by the exercise of brute force. A simple point, a simple joke, a simple movie. But it worked then and still works today.

All Monsters Attack (1969)

*. All Monsters Attack (American title: Godzilla’s Revenge, which makes even less sense) is usually considered to be one of the worst films in the deep-bottomed Godzilla franchise. Richard Pusateri begins his DVD commentary by saying the only debate among fans is whether it’s the worst or only the second-worst.
*. That said, Pusateri does enter the important caveat that the people who come up with such rankings weren’t (and aren’t) the target audience. The hero Ichiro (Tomonori Yazaki), the first child actor to star in the franchise, better represents this demographic. This is an after-school movie with a message about standing up to bullies, aimed, in Pusateri’s estimation, at fourth-graders. So who am I to judge it?
*. Aside from being juvenile instead of just campy or weird, the other big knock against All Monsters Attack is its heavy usage of what is often referred to as stock footage but which is really monster material recycled from several previous Godzilla movies (which is not the same thing as stock footage). This even leads to Godzilla himself changing appearance because there were different suits used in the different movies being sampled.
*. I didn’t find this to be a big problem though. To be honest, I didn’t even notice the different Godzilla suits. What’s more, the premise of the film has it that Ichiro is only imagining the monsters anyway, so any lapses in continuity can be waved away as the operation of dream logic.
*. What didn’t I like about All Monsters Attack?
*. (1) Minilla, or the Son of Godzilla. This was his third appearance and he looks just as disgustingly cute as ever and has even learned to speak English (or Japanese). Technically he may not even be Godzilla’s son, as he was only sort of adopted in the first place and I’m not even that sure of his gender either. In the dubbed English version he has a dopey male voice, but in the Japanese he sounds female. I guess he must be male though as he’s clearly the Monster Island surrogate for Ichiro, learning the same lesson about standing up for himself that Ichiro has to learn in the real world.
*. (This may be a good place to add a quick aside on Godzilla’s gender as well, which is never directly specified in the series. Even in the 1998 Roland Emmerich film Godzilla laying eggs is said to be the result of asexual reproduction. In my notes on all these movies I’ve adopted the usual shorthand of referring to Godzilla as male.)

*. (2) Gabara. This is the new monster introduced, and a one-off for the franchise. Heaven knows what he’s supposed to be. Apparently the producers thought of him as a mutated toad, but I don’t know how that explains the punk hair or electrical discharge. I think he looks terrible, but he sounds even worse. Pusateri describes the noise he makes as being “like a small car that can’t start,” which is close but doesn’t quite do justice to how annoying it is. When he’s fighting Minilla, who sounds like an asthmatic squeaky toy or clown horn, the resulting cacophony is excruciating.
*. Speaking of the battle between Minilla and Gabara, isn’t this making Baby Godzilla fight a little outside his weight class? I mean, Godzilla himself has a tough time squaring off against Gabara, so how the hell is Minilla supposed to go toe-to-toe against him? Ichiro’s Gabara isn’t as high a mountain to climb.
*. (3) If you have the DVD with both the English and Japanese versions you have to listen to the “Monster March” song that plays over the opening credits. What better way to kick things off than to have someone screaming crazy shit? Here are the lyrics as rendered by the English subtitles: “Marching Mr. Monsters with the style, Destroy everything, Ghooo! Ghooo! Godzilla fires radioactivity, Mi Mi Minilla, Poo Poo Poo, Bang Crash, Bang Crash, They destroy everything, Sorry, sorry, but living is hard for us also.”
*. (4) The lesson about standing up to bullies ends on an odd note, with Ichiro attacking the innocent sign painter. Pusateri has a lot of fun with this, as he describes an Ichiro imbued with newfound power who “inexplicably begins a sociopathic crime wave.” But he does raise an important point, as Ichiro does seem to have become the new Gabara, looking “for a new nerdy kid to pick on.” It seems a troubling message, especially in a Japanese film where I thought there was more respect for authority figures and adults, at least at the time. Or perhaps this was Ishiro Honda’s message about what latchkey kids were turning into.
*. Pusateri concludes by considering All Monsters Attack as a tipping point in the franchise, toward films with “tired plots, lesser known actors, skimpier budgets, and increasing use of footage from earlier movies,” as the box office continued its decline from the peak of King Kong vs. Godzilla.
*. Seen that way, it’s easy to see it as one of the worst films in the franchise. My own take is that it’s not really a Godzilla movie at all, or if it is than it’s meta-Godzilla. The monsters are wholly imaginary, the product of Ichiro’s fandom. He has a toy Godzilla in his room, and one assumes he’s watching those older Godzilla movies and reading Godzilla comic books in his spare time.
*. As a children’s movie I think it’s pretty good. The different plots weave together well. The cast all work well. The bumbling gangsters add a Home Alone feel. I like the industrial setting of Kawasaki. It really is the monster stuff that drags it down. So, yes, a terrible Godzilla movie. But not bad otherwise.

The X from Outer Space (1967)

*. The X from Outer Space didn’t have a theatrical release in North America, going straight to TV. The first time I saw it was as part of Criterion’s Eclipse collection When Horror Came to Shochiku, where it’s packaged together with three other fantasy films: Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell, The Living Skeleton, and Genocide (the last of these being the only other directing credit for Kazui Nihonmatsu).
*. I mention this because I quite like the Shochiku collection. Three of the movies are well worth checking out. Alas, the one that I don’t think worth bothering with is The X from Outer Space.
*. If you’re just looking for kooky ’60s kaiju fun then it may satisfy. Of course there’s a giant monster played by a guy in a rubber suit. Its name is Guilala, and he (it?) can only be destroyed by a substance known as guilalanium. There are lots of cute little rocket ships, and even an alien flying omelet the role of which is never explained. There’s a lady astronaut (her spacesuit has red trim around the belt, setting it apart from the men’s), and when hearing a complaint about the food on the ship she gets to say “I’m a scientist, not a cook!”
*. And there’s more. There’s some business about the alien burning a hole through the floor that may have been an inspiration behind the acid-blood trail left by the xenomorph in Alien. There’s a wall-size map at mission control that they use to track Guilala’s movement by repositioning a big red cut-out of the monster. And there’s a bouncily incongruous score that plays along through the whole picture, no matter what’s happening on screen.
*. So sure, it’s fun. But I think even kids at the time must have realized that what they were getting was second-rate kaiju. The effects are sub-Toho, and the monster design isn’t very impressive. Guilala doesn’t have any of Godzilla’s personality, I think largely because he only has glowing red eyes with no pupils. And the rest of him just looks ridiculous, a bunch of parts that have been thrown together without any coherence.
*. What The X from Outer Space represents, at least for me, is a textbook case of how cynicism fails in the arts. This is the worst of the Shochiko horror films because the others are idiosyncratic, creative, inspired, bizarre, and original bordering on unique. Meanwhile, The X from Outer Space was always meant to be a rip off of Toho’s Godzilla and that’s just how it plays. As such it rates maybe a bit higher than some of the lesser known kaiju of the same period but is still scarcely worth watching even once.

Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965)

*. Invasion of Astro-Monster is usually classified as the sixth film in the Godzilla canon, and we shouldn’t be too surprised that Godzilla’s name isn’t in the title, or the Japanese title The Giant Monster War (though it was shown on TV in the U.S. as Godzilla vs. Monster Zero). After all, Godzilla’s name hadn’t appeared in the previous film either (Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster). But what we may be surprised by is how secondary a role Godzilla, Rodan, and Ghidorah, have to play this time out.
*. Normally this would be the kiss of death for a Godzilla movie, since he is the star. I didn’t mind his absence from most of this film though, or even the fact that he doesn’t show up until we’re more than a half-hour in, when he’s turned into a bit of space luggage along with Rodan (appearing a bit like the Star Child in his embryonic bubble, three years before 2001).
*. I think there were two reasons this relegation of the big boys to the sidelines didn’t end up sinking the movie. First, by this point in the series I was getting a little tired of seeing monsters stomping on buildings and fighting among themselves. Some of the monster mash footage here was even recycled from earlier flicks.
*. Second, the human story this time is, for my money, the best of the series yet.

*. When I say the “best” I certainly don’t mean the most credible. The plot here is absolutely ridiculous. As Stuart Galbraith IV puts it, with some understatement, in his DVD commentary: “as enjoyable as the film is, it’s not exactly logical or dramatically sound.” If the Xiliens can already control Ghidorah (whom they call Monster Zero), and already have a team of agents established on Earth, why do they need to kidnap Godzilla and Rodan, and then bring them back to Earth? I mean, nothing else in the film makes sense either, but this is basically the whole movie we’re talking about here. And it doesn’t make a lick of sense.
*. But I prefer cheesy ’60s science-fiction to cheesy fantasy any day. Give me Planet X, wherever and whatever the hell it is (a satellite of Jupiter? part of the “Scorpion galaxy”?), over that magical island where Mothra and the faerie twins hail from.

*. How can you resist the Xiliens? They look like an ’80s New Wave band with their narrow sunglasses, shiny and far too-tight silver pants, pointy, curly-toed boots, and antennae sticking out of their heads. Not to mention the way they go crazy when they hear a particular sound, clutching their heads like the Knights of Ni hearing the word “it.” These may be my favourite spacemen ever.
*. So this is the first Godzilla movie where I actually found the human story more interesting than anything to do with the monsters. For their part, the guys in rubber suits do their thing. The one highlight, or lowlight if you’re a purist, is the victory jig Godzilla does after scaring off Ghidorah on Planet X. Apparently this was taken from a manga character who was popular at the time. I just thought it was natural exuberance.
*. Other than that, I was really feeling a bit sorry for Godzilla and Rodan getting swept up in this business. Dragged off to Planet X, abandoned, and then returned to Earth, all for no clear reason. It’s like they’ve been relegated to sideshow players now, which would be likely to make any star angry I think. When the Xilien radio signal is jammed I wondered why they didn’t keep going on their rampage. Clearly Godzilla was the hero now, but after this movie I think he was ripe for a heel turn.

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.