Category Archives: 1960s

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.

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.”

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.