Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Drunk On Foolish Pleasures: Double Feature!

by JB
Sometimes I think my students do not possess a strong critical faculty because they simply have not seen enough films. How can one tell diamonds from rocks if one sees nothing but rocks? Let’s look at two typical B-movies, one from 1958 and one from 1959, to illustrate this concept.

The Giant Gila Monster was released in 1959 and was a blatant rip-off of the previous year’s The Blob—same basic plot, same basic characters, and even some suspiciously similar dialogue. When I was a kid I used to watch The Giant Gila Monster on television… a lot. WFLD Channel 32 in Chicago used to show it on a monthly basis. I really liked it! I was wrong. I had not yet seen enough movies.

In The Giant Gila Monster, Chase Winstead (Don Sullivan) runs the local garage and tow service. A series of unexplained car crashes leads Chase and the town sheriff to think something is awfully strange. They are understandably shocked to discover that a mischievous giant lizard is the cause of the town’s growing list of missing persons. Will they be able to both stop the lizard… and throw a big dance party in the barn?

Watching it today, I would be hard pressed to name any aspect of this thing that works in any way. The Giant Gila Monster is the definition of tedium. The drama does not work because the screenwriter was simply aping a successful recent film and had no skill with character dynamics or story structure. For example, in The Blob (the film that The Giant Gila Monster desperately wants to be) everyone in town thinks the Steve McQueen character (who is also conveniently named Steve) is a rebel and a menace. The adults, the sheriff, and even his girlfriend are distrustful of Steve. The film then traces Steve’s journey from perceived dangerous rebel to genuine savior of the town. This is called “drama,” and when it is done well, it is very satisfying.
As The Giant Gila Monster begins, everyone in town already admires teenage “rebel” Chase Winstead: his widowed mother and handicapped sister (for whom he is the sole means of support), his winsome French exchange student girlfriend, all of the other teens in town, and especially the town sheriff, who seems at times to be in love with Chase Winstead. This is not drama, it is treacle; I am guessing the screenwriter poured it on so thick in hopes that his teenage audience would eat up such a “cool” character. The screenwriter was wrong. A main character who is perfect and universally beloved might be the basis for a religion, but it is not the stuff of drama. The Giant Gila Monster features a single character unconvinced of Chase’s greatness: an old disgruntled rich guy, this film’s “Mr. Burns.” By stacking the deck in favor of Chase, the filmmakers are not establishing sympathy for the protagonist, they are just making the audience think the old man character is a cranky asshole.  Again, this is not the stuff of great (or even adequate) drama.

The film’s special effects are also problematic as they were done on the cheap. At least in The Blob there are a couple of cool shots of the red goo seemingly moving and changing; in the film’s most famous shot, the goo actually defies gravity to crawl up a stick and onto a poor fellow’s hand. Because The Giant Gila Monster used a real (non-giant) Gila monster filmed against miniature sets, there are no shots of the film’s characters interacting with the lizard in any way. If drama is produced when a protagonist and antagonist meet and interact, one can imagine how the utter lack of any interaction would hamper this film’s dramatic development. Courtesy of associative editing, the lizard does seem to be glaring at things in a manner that only imaginative viewers might construe as menacing; likewise, the film abounds with shots of the teens reacting to disturbing things taking place off camera, giving viewers the feeling that they ALMOST got to see something interesting. It is as if The Giant Gila Monster is trying to pioneer a new genre of film: non-contact horror.

To call the film “slowly paced” is an understatement. The film is so slow, so repetitious, and so tedious (there is one scene where two teenagers take off on foot to scour a ten-mile stretch of washed-out bluff in what feels real time) that even the MST3K gang had a difficult time livening up the proceedings.

TANGENT: The Giant Gila Monster is to The Blob what Great Expectations is to A Tale of Two Cities.  Sure, Great Expectations has its fans, but this is a shame because Great Expectations is a tedious bore. Have you ever read Great Expectations… all the way through? Great Expectations was originally serialized in a magazine and author Charles Dickens was paid by the word. When the serialized novel became a sensation (I have read that American fans used to wait at the docks for boats from England to deliver the next installment), Dickens’s publisher encouraged him to “just keep it going.” What sort of a novel would you write if you were paid by the word and encouraged to never end it? You would write The Giant Gila Monster.

This is not a facetious comparison. The Giant Gila Monster was made with one motivation: to cash in on an existing trend, to be more of the same. There was a time when my senior literature students were scarred from having been forced to read Great Expectations as freshmen. I discovered the antidote, a book that would reinstate Dickens’s reputation in my students’ eyes: A Tale of Two Cities, which is brief, delightful, and to the point. Dickens was not being paid by the word nor was the book serialized in a popular magazine. A Tale of Two Cities is The Blob.

CAVEAT: In the spirit of many fifties drive-in movies, The Giant Gila Monster does contain one memorable element—a song called “My Baby She Rocks.” The song is catchy, insanely so; note that I said “memorable,” not “good.” Here is the MST3K gang riffing on it. WARNING: You won’t be able to get this toxic earworm out of your head—FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY, DO NOT CLICK THE LINK:

Intermission time!  Be sure to visit our concession stand for some hot and tasty popcorn!

Attack of the Puppet People was released in 1958 and was a blatant rip-off of the previous year’s The Incredible Shrinking Man. While I recognize the latter film for being the mini-masterpiece that it is, I also have a warm spot in my black little heart for the former. It speaks to me. I love Attack of the Puppet People. I think its drama works.

Poor Mr. Franz (John Hoyt) is a toymaker pathologically afraid of being alone. He makes dolls to keep himself company, and when that dubious comfort wears off, invents a ray that shrinks people to the size of dolls. In this way, he can possess them, and they can never leave him. Franz gets away with this “kidnapping” for an insanely long time, but you know how resourceful desperate puppet people can be…

Beyond the cheap special effects (which in this film I find charming) there is a subtext to this story that I cannot shake, an emotion that few films explore and that is especially surprising to find in a fifties B-movie intended to fill out the bottom of a drive-in double bill: loneliness. Even when Mr. Franz acts like a controlling, manipulative asshole, he is still pathetic (and sympathetic) because, at his core, he is feeling something everyone feels. Who can fault a guy just for wanting some friends?

Perhaps this is merely the film working for me on an intensely personal level. I collect horror movie memorabilia, and much of that is comprised of statues and action figures. As I sit in my office, I am surrounded. I am never alone. At night, they all come to life. I am teaching a few of them to mix the perfect Margarita.
The one thing that really helps sell Attack of the Puppet People‘s dubious conceit is John Hoyt, a character actor who appeared in hundreds of movies and television shows during a career that spanned forty years (he is Decius in the Marlon Brando Julius Caesar, Caius in Spartacus, Cassius in Cleopatra, and even played Grandpa Stanley on Gimme a Break!) Hoyt is really good here, so mannered and so interesting. He consistently makes choices that turn this rather stock villain part into something so much more engaging and entertaining. It is revelatory to see this perpetual supporting player finally get a part that is equal (and by “equal,” I mean “beneath”) his obvious talents.

The film speaks to us of loneliness in a way few other films attempt. Try this interpretation on for size: Mr. Franz and his dolls are a convenient metaphor for the movie-going experience itself. (Did I just blow your mind?) Poor Mr. Franz decides there are just not enough people in his life, not enough “life” in his life; he needs something to fill those empty hours. He seeks out other people and other scenarios that he can control.  I did mention, didn’t I, that when he lets his puppet people out of their glass prison tubes, he dresses them up and forces them to perform with his marionettes, acting out little dramas for his amusement? Guess Mr. Franz was so busy inventing that goddamned shrink ray that he never got around to subscribing to Netflix.

FASCINATING FACT: Apparently I am not alone in the strange hold this movie has on me: Lookout Alfred Baldwin, on the fateful evening of June 16, 1972, was so preoccupied by a television showing of Attack of the Puppet People, he failed to warn his colleagues (who were then breaking into Democratic National Headquarters) that they were about to be arrested by two plain-clothes detectives, thus setting in motion the “Watergate” era and the downfall of President Nixon.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is drama.

1 comment:

  1. I actually watched The Giant Gila Monster last night for scary movie month! Maybe it is because I love hot rods but I found it strangely compelling, in a crappy B-movie way. I can't say I'll watch it often but I'm glad I saw it. I just finished the movie released with it, The Killer Shrews, where dogs are dressed up a giant, poisonous shrews!! I'm honestly sad that the director has such a limited oeuvre as his works are fun in a "its so bad its good" kind of way.