Friday, November 11, 2011


1961 ****

This is yet another movie I know about from a single picture in a coffee table book about horror movies that I borrowed from the Barrington Public Library, back when it was in that funky building that is now the town hall. It was the movie/experminent on an episode of MST3K, so I'd always assumed it sucked. It turns out this is one of the best giant monster movies I've ever seen.

(The MST3K episode, by the way, only aired twice in two time slots on the first day it was broadcast. A rights dispute occured and it was pulled forever, which of course means I'm dying to see it.)

Our story opens with Joe Ryan and Sam Slade, two likeable guys who run a salvage boat. They're hunting junk off the coast of Ireland when their ship is damaged by an adorable model volcano. They head to land to seek repairs and spot a number of unusual fish floating dead in the water.

Which could imply other, larger rubber-based organisms.

As movie monster characters go, these guys are perfect. They keep the plot solid but moving, they have slightly different attitudes to play off of each other, and they don't crowd up the movie with a lot of unnecessary yap yap. By unspoken Horrorthon law I must warn you about the scrappy, precocious kid in this movie, but he also says his lines and then gets out of the way. If you get past his "I'm Sean, the plucky little orphan" intro, you've gotten past the worst of it.

"Harbor Orphan" sucks on a resume, but you get that cool sweater.

It's soon discovered that the eruption also freed a 65-foot long swimming lizard, and in a display of brass balls Joe and Sam manage to capture it. Two scientists from Belfast show up to be the sciency guys in the movie -- they too will play their parts without dragging anything down (you hear me, marine biologist Steve Karnes?) They exitedly instruct our boys to ship the critter to Belfast for study, and suggest the monster be hosed down regularly so it doesn't dry out. Joe and Sam say "sure!" and then zip right off to the London circus.

One amazing step this movie takes is to create a full-sized model of the monster. Even though it's strapped down and can barely move, the realism is kicked up a couple of notches.

Okay, I know it's racist, but monsters NEVER USE THEIR FREAKING TURN SIGNALS.

Sean, little jerk that he is, stows away aboard the ship and attempts to free the monster (who is dubbed Gorgo by the circus). This will earn him a ticket to the rest of the movie, dressed in a jacket and tie. It's about here that Joe and Sam's opinions on the situation begins to split. Joe buys a fancy car and enjoys the good life, while Sam's conscience creeps up on him. He moves into a caravan on the circus grounds to keep an eye on things, and also quasi-adopts Sean so he can have the one other person around who agrees with him. What's nice is Joe and Sam can still agree that drinking all the time is the best.

London Bridge is... something something... no, I've got nothing for this

You know it's all going to hell, and it does so in a spectacular fashion. Gorgo's 200-foot-tall mom shows up on the Irish coast and stomps everyone in town. She then follows the scent trail left in Gorgo's wake due to the constant hosedowns (thanks a lot, science). Sam and Joe consult the authorities, Sam suggests freeing Gorgo while Joe rants "What the hell's the matter with you? This is the twentieth century. There must be some way of handling an overgrown animal!" The general in charge then politely dismisses them, saying they have all the misplaced hubris they need.

Which means I get my ultimate alarm clock fantasy

Here's where I reveal an astonishing fact, Gorgo's director, Eugène Lourié, directed two other monster movies in his career. The first was my beloved Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, but just two years before Gorgo he directed the loathsome Giant Behemoth! Having watched those two within a week of each other, I was amazed at the different level of quality, especially when so many of the plot elements are the same.

In The Giant Behemoth, the stock footage of the Authorities rushing around looked just like that: stock footage. The footage of the public in panic is all disconnected. In this, the citywide tension is palpable. The authorities initially tell folks to stay indoors, and then frantically tell them to get the hell out when Gorgo's mom makes landfall. There's a constant stream of army and fire vehicles one way, civilians the other way.

And not all the danger is brought by the monster, either. With Big Mom in the harbor, the army dumps gasoline in the drink and throws in a match. Nearby, some London street toughs lean in to watch.

See how tough? With their leather jackets, crewneck sweaters and ties?

I can't hear them, but I imagine they're all saying "Oh, I say, sir!"

Charmingly, saving Sean's ass falls to cynical Joe, as Gorgo's mom drives people before her and the friends get separated. After destroying a couple of landmarks, she spends some time just wading through streetfulls of connected buildings, dumping rubble on tons of people who never even get a chance to see where the threat is coming from. In another scene people swarm ruthlessly over each other to reach a tube station, and then the station collapses under monster feet, crushing almost everyone. All the different footage unites to show you a situation of absolute, desperate chaos.

"I'm TRYING to leave you here and save myself, Gran, but you've got my hand."

In contrast, The Giant Behemoth has a bunch of people with plenty of room running around, and the occasional "we're getting burned by radiation" dance party, like this one:

My favorite is the long black coat in the middle. "It's not the White Girl Twist, Edna love, you're being horribly blinded."

I suspect the two movies are separated by trifling things like technique, budget, editing and screenplay. All of Lourié's maneuvers that fall flat in one flick are redeemed in the other. Another big difference is the quality of monster. Gorgo and his mom are monster-lovers' monsters, with red eyes, funny bat ears to distinguish them from dinosaurs, and big ominous claws. And the rubber-suit-with-guy-inside method reaches a high mark of effectiveness here.

Nevertheless I must giggingly point out the shadow on the wall (I mean "sky") over to the left.

Like her Japanese kaiju brethren, Gorgo's mom proves too tough for man's weapons, and gets all the way to the circus. (Apparently the guntastic script was demanded by the producers, Lourié arguing that any monster would be hurt by guns (an idea for which I must give 1998's terrible Godzilla movie some credit for following). The director would acquire his own 35 mm print for himself and cut out all the military footage. Yawn.)

This next bit is a spoiler, but seeing as monster movies only ever end one way I think it's allowed. In those other movies, some last-ditch experimental device or crazy plan or both is used to finally take out the monster. In this, Gorgo's mom stomps the circus and she and her kid fuck off back to the ocean. It was at this point I actually noticed that, aside from background extras, Gorgo's mom is the only female character in this movie. I don't know if that was on purpose or not, or what it means.

"Fuck your little boats, fuck your stupid guns, fuck your worthless bridge and your stupid fucking clock! Big lizards -- out!"

Joe and Sam, friends again, pause in the rubble to watch the poignant scene. Sean says something sickly sweet about returning the sea, forgetting how hard that monster tried to step on him.

"Next time, kid. Next time...

The film closes with the same staccato-voiced reporter who's been carrying us through the whole ordeal, voicing profound thoughts about the exhausted city getting a rest and nature and man's role and stuff.

"We just got our asses handed to us."

And I sat amazed at how much awesome fun it all was. Monster movies have formulas that are so, so easy to louse up. Gorgo deploys all the usual clichés but manages to weave them into a whole movie that is city-stompingly good. Don't go on a monster bender without it.


Catfreeek said...

Excellent review Octo, I too have a warm spot in my heart for these giant monster flicks. BTW, you can see the full MST3K Gorgo episode here.

Octopunk said...

Ha! That's awesome. I hadn't even started that search. Thanks Cat!

DCD said...

Awesome review! Your love of these movies is so infectious, it definitely makes me want to watch them.

Going to try to catch up on comments today - things have just been crazy and there are SO many reviews!

AC said...

fun review! thanks for the proviso about the rating.

Johnny Sweatpants said...

Hot damn Octo, that is one fine review! Not only do I feel as though I watched the movie but I feel like I watched it with you! So is this your favorite giant monster movie? I'd love to see a list of your top 10.

JPX said...

I love your passion for these monster movies and I’m so happy that you are thoroughly tackling this genre. I’ve never really watched any of these movies because I’m drawn to other horror fare, but I love the exuberance in your reviews. This one sounds like one of the better ones. I think it’s funny that they always wait until its way too late before deciding to do something about the various monster menaces. If Gorgo walked out of the ocean I’m pretty sure that the military would destroy him within minutes. I also can’t help but think that these monsters must put the cities where they stomp way into the red. How much would it cost to rebuild? I know, I shouldn’t think about that stuff.

I know some of you guys are passionate about MST3K but I feel differently about the popular, long-running show out. I think the few times I checked it out it rubbed me the wrong way because there seemed to be a cruel sarcasm to something that was an easy target to begin with – sort of like making fun of the retarded kid at recess. These films are from a different era and I almost feel protective of them. I watch a ton of film noir, for example, which I really enjoy despite how silly they might appear in 2011. I would rather see something like the Twilight films get this kind of treatment. The few times I watched MST3K I felt like I was in a movie theater where people kept talking when I just wanted to enjoy the film. I know I’m in the minority here.