Thursday, December 17, 2009

Did America start going down hill when ukuleles stopped being cool?

The Giant Gila Monster (1959)
Starring: Don Sullivan, Fred Graham, Lisa Simone, Shug Fisher, Don Flournoy and Bob Thompson
Director: Ray Kellogg
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

A marauding lizard the size of a battleship starts wrecking trains and eating people in a small Texas town. Can the kindhearted but slightly inept sheriff (Graham) and the clean-cut, hardworking leader of the local gang of teenaged hot-rodders (Sullivan) stop the monster before it's too late? (Well, before it's too late for anyone NOT yet eaten by it.)

No one will mistake "The Giant Gila Monster" for even the "The Giant Claw", but as far as low budget 1950s monster flicks go, it's not that bad. In fact, I might even go so far as to say that it's gotten a bad rap to some extent.

The script and the film's pacing is tighter and the characters better developed than what you find in most films like this. The film gets straight to the point, and it moves through the story steadily until the climax, with no filler or pointless side trips. (Well, other than the three songs performed by our singing teenaged hero while strumming his ukulele. Those could have been shortened somewhat and the film would have been stronger for it.)

Actually, it's the more well-rounded characters that truly set this film apart for others similar to it. There's more to the film than a simple monster bash, as we actually have subplots and characters showing thoughts and emotions beyond what is necessary for a perfunctory monster bashing story. We have the obnoxious rich guy's concern for his missing son and the illustration of how he uses his power in a desperate attempt to locate and control him; we have the almost impossibly clean-cut teenaged hero's efforts to support his family and his polio-stricken sister while still maintaining his hot rod and being the cool kid with his friends AND trying to start a career as a singer; and we have the sheriff who struggles to balance law and order with a self-appointed role as shepherd of the small Texas town he serves.

There's also some very well done miniature sets used to create the illusion of a rampaging giant lizard, sets matched carefully to their real-world counterparts and filmed with great skill. The end result is actually better than what you find in many movies from this period and even up until recent years, prior to the advances in digital animation.

All the good parts of the film can't quite make up for its weaknesses, weaknesses born from the low budget and which are painfully obvious.

There is not a single scene where any character in the film is shown in a shot with the giant lizard--such trick photography or the cost of building a giant lizard tail, paw, or head was clearly beyond the means of director Kellog and his crew. And there is a train-wreck scene that begs to show panicked survivors scrambling away from the monster. Similarly, there are repeated references to nearby oil fields, but the monster never goes and trashes them, another sign of budget constraints, I assume. And these same budget problems lead to a very unimpressive demise for the creature, despite the fact it involves a car crash AND a fiery explosion.

All in all, not a terrible movie, but still one that doesn't quite live up to what it could have been.

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