Friday, June 2, 2023

Notes on Film: In Svengoolie I Trust

by Anthony King
Thanks for the monsters.

Junesploitation is upon us, dear reader. Time to put away your art films, your prestige cinema, your big budget superhero movies. Actually, I don't care what you watch. Ain't life grand! For me, though, Junesploitation is a time for discovery – both self and cinematic. I won't bore you by rehashing my ten favorite things about Junesploitation, but know that when I say this is the most wonderful time of the year, I'm not yanking your chain. While in the coming weeks this column will focus on what I've watched and what I will be watching for Junesploitation, we're only 13 hours in as of this writing so I don't have much relevant viewing under my belt. (I did watch The Goonies with my boys Thursday morning for Teenagers day, though, and I'm happy to report they loved it!) In lieu of my recap/preview format this week, you get a simple list! On this day, the day of Monsters, allow me to extol my love for a few movies I was lucky enough to discover because of our patron saint of horror hosts at FTM, Svengoolie.

20 Million Miles to Earth
Nathan H. Juran | 1957
This is, hands down, my favorite monster movie of all time. And, believe it or not, this was the first Ray Harryhausen flick I'd ever seen. We get some space, we get some footage from Italy, we get some romance, and we get a scrappy little shit who started the whole ordeal. The film opens when the first manned rocket to Venus crash lands in the Mediterranean. Only one man has lived (William Hopper). A couple of fisherman and a little boy rescue the survivor and the boy steals a specimen. After the little alien creature escapes from a local scientist, it grows to unfathomable proportions, destroying everything in its wake, including the Coliseum. Look for the breathtaking work of Harryhausen, including the incredible creature design of our menace-maker (my favorite creature design ever), and the greatest fight between an alien monster and an elephant you will ever witness.

Gappa, the Triphibian Monster
Haruyasu Noguchi | 1967
This is, hands down, my favorite Godzilla ripoff (include this in your Rip-offs! day if you please). Once again we're blessed with another incredible creature design – Godzilla but more bird-like. An expedition to an uncivilized island finds local natives worshiping their god, Gappa. The intruders disrupt the natives' lives and upset mother nature. An earthquake opens up a cave, unleashing a baby Gappa. The explorers take the baby back to Japan, and guess what happens? Nothing! All's well that ends well. I'm kidding, of course. Mom and dad Gappa are pissed and they come for revenge. It's great.

The Son of Kong
Ernest B. Shoedsack | 1933
I'll be up front: I don't love this movie; I find it fascinating. The same year as King Kong, a sequel was immediately thrust through production and hastily thrown upon screens around the country. But here's the kicker: the two things that make the original movie worth watching and memorable are completely absent in its sequel. The titular Kong has become a cultural icon, transgressing space and time to be inserted into human brains upon conception. We're born knowing who and what King Kong is. But our beloved ape is gone. On the same token we have Fay Wray, the blonde bombshell, super screamer, and apple to Kong's eye. She, too, is missing from the second film. What producers then did was upon seeing that their film was a success, cobbled together who and what they could, and made a second film. Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong), our greedy explorer/exploiter returns to Skull Island, this time with another broad is tow (Helen Mack). He wants to apologize to Kong's orphaned kid and make peace. That, in a nutshell, is the movie. Again, the effects are fun, the movie isn't bad, but the most interesting thing about it is that nothing of what made the original so successful is present. Watch it!

The Wasp Woman
Roger Corman | 1959
God love Roger Corman. And god love a movie that looks like it took a long weekend to make. Susan Cabot plays a nebishy cosmetics company executive who becomes obsessed with finding a youth serum. She finds the perfect additive extracted from wasps. But guess what? That wasp goo is turning Lil' Miss Anti-Aging into a bug. Charming is the word you'll be searching for when watching this. Not cheap. Cheap is a bad word. It's the correct word, but charming is nicer. And on the plus side, this movie is an hour long. So if you're watching the Svengoolie episode of The Wasp Woman you get bonus Sven!

Island of Lost Souls
Erle C. Kenton | 1932
Before he went on to direct one of cinema's masterpieces (Night of the Hunter), Charles Laughton portrayed the warden of the House of Pain, Dr. Moreau. While I enjoy Don Taylor's 1977 version, and even John Frankenheimer's 1996 version, Island of Lost Souls seems more disturbing to me. Laughton's version of Dr. Moreau seems more sadistic than Brando's or Lancaster's. He smiles more. He's more apathetic to the whole process. It's almost as if he doesn't fully grasp that what he's doing is totally insane, immoral, and wrong. And the monsters he creates – because of the age of the film, the black and white photography, the shadows at play – are terrifying. It's the classic tale of shipwrecked man befriends crazed scientist and becomes one of his experiments. And in the end we're asking, “Who is the real monster here?”

I'll be diving into Arrow's Enter the Video Store: Empire of Screams box set (review coming later this month) this evening for my monster flick, so here's a look at the week ahead:

Day 2: Monsters! – Cellar Dweller (1988)
Day 3: Poliziotteschi! – The Day of the Owl (1968)
Day 4: Cars! – Motorama (1991)
Day 5: 90s Action! – Mission: Killfast (1991)
Day 6: Free Space! – The Killing Game (1978)
Day 7: Slashers! – Freddy vs. Jason (2003)
Day 8: Cannon! – The Apple (1980)

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