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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.