Archive for The Giant Behemoth

Jeremy, The Colossus of New York

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 6, 2009 by dcairns

Part of my quest to “See Reptilicus and Die,” that is, to see every film depicted in Denis Gifford’s ’70s-era study of monster films, A Pictorial History of Horror Movies. AKA The Holy Bible.

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THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK is produced by William “News — on the March!” Alland and directed by Eugene Lourie, a duo with considerable form in the monster/sci-fi/trash field. But Alland was also the voice of the newsreel in CITIZEN KANE and the intrepid, chinless Thompson, newsreel reporter on the trail of Rosebud, “dead or alive,” while Lourie was a successful production designer who worked for Ophuls in Germany and Renoir in America and India. As producer and director, the two men were, shall we say, less distinguished. Lourie kicked off with THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, which is a Ray Harryhausen monster film and therefore we want to love it, but it’s pretty prosaic when placed alongside the beautiful Ray Bradbury story that “inspired” it. I’d like to have seen the filmmakers start the film with an exact rendering of Bradbury’s beautiful (overwritten to hell yes but beautiful) The Fog Horn, before taking off into their own story, the way Siodmak’s THE KILLERS starts off with Hemingway and then goes a-wandering. Lourie also tackled THE GIANT BEHEMOTH, which I reviewed here, and GORGO, a favourite from my childhood but not, I repeat not, in any way, an actual good movie.

Alland’s track record is patchy too: I have some regard for his work with Jack Arnold, like THE SPACE CHILDREN or even CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, but not much can really be said in defense of THE MOLE PEOPLE, except that it made good fodder for Mystery Science Theater 3000.

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Fiend Without a Anything.

But THE COLOSSUS has more to its credit than expected. Delightfully, the opening seems like a nod to CITIZEN KANE, with a film-within-a-film (they should’ve got Alland in to narrate it in stentorian fashion), which is an early clue to traces of wit. The title sequences, with suitably gigantic lettering rising in front of the UN Building, casting reflections in the waters, accompanied by an excellent Van Cleave piano score, also raises expectations. If the solo piano was chosen for economical reasons, as seems likely (a late entry in Alland’s monster cycle, the movie is short on SFX and production values are generally slight), the solution is a brilliant one, the pounding of the keys creating a paradoxically epic effect, evoking silent movies, PEEPING TOM and Rachmaninoff.

What follows is fairly clunking set-up stuff, as we meet brilliant scientist Jeremy Spensser (why the sstrange sspelling?), played by not-brilliant actor Ross Martin, and his jealous non-brilliant brother Henry Spensser (I guess the sspelling is handy to distinguish him from ERASERHEAD’s protagonist), and doting, brilliant scientist dad William Spensser. Also Jeremy’s very 1950s son, who just hadto be called Billy, and his bland spouse, whom Fiona christened Chesty McTitwife after seeing her in her nightgown, jiggling. She is in fact Mala Powers, which is the perfect B-movie name, but in this movie she simply doesn’t get to do the kind of things an actress called Mala Powers should get to do.

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Chesty McTitwife.

(WHAT AN ACTRESS CALLED MALA POWERS SHOULD GET TO DO: black magic; seducing schoolboys; piracy on the high seas; night club chanteusery; mannequin in a classy story; nude modelling for neurasthenic sculptors; stick-ups and heists; gangster’s molling; gangster’s mauling; jungle cult goddess stuff; whip-wielding (assorted); transforming into black panther/snake/killer sloth; alien dominatrix activities; Satan in high heels.)

(Also — a possible relative of Mala’s turns up in the film, named, and I kid you not, MAX POWER.)

Anyhow, Jeremy is such a brilliant scientist he promptly runs in front of a truck, chasing little Billy’s toy aeroplane, and becomes dead. But his grieving dad isn’t ready to let go yet, and believes that the contribution his son can make to humanity is so great, it justifies extreme measures ~

Very ROBOCOP. I love the sound effects, especially the truly fierce electric crackling  – and the inaudible lines. Thelma Schnee’s script is somewhat fatuous when it plays things straight, but becomes evocative and intriguing whenever there’s muddle. For instance, she can’t decide if Jeremy the Colossus is evil, insane, or lacks a soul. The other characters do talk about his soulless nature, recalling the subtitle of Edison’s FRANKENSTEIN (LIFE WITHOUT SOUL), but Jeremy the Colossus seems all too spiritual, suffering from separation from his family, and anxiety and shame over his new appearance. I do think dad and brother could have paid a bit more attention to styling their robot creation. The chunky head, emotionless face and glowing eyes are, perhaps, essential design features but the weird flowing robe is an odd touch. Do robots need clothes? If so, do they have to be special robes. Who is his tailor?

If only Pop Spensser had bought his colossal robot son a selection of casual daywear, a lot of people might not have been death-rayed.

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“Are you a real giant?”

The script can’t quite decide what to do with its Colossus, now that he’s assembled. Jeremy (the Colossus) discovers he has second sight, but this doesn’t lead anywhere. He finds an interest in eugenics, declaring that useless people should be destroyed, but then he forgets about this and starts playing with his son, in scenes reminiscent of FRANKENSTEIN (deliberately so, I think). This seems ironic, since little Billy is about as useless as can be.

Jeremy’s dithering is what gives the film its feeling of being packed with ideas, when it’s perhaps more accurate to say it’s packed with loose ends. It does seem more than usually suitable for remaking, though — but ROBOCOP did kind of go there already with its reanimation scene (featuring POV shots interrupted by static) and the pounding footsteps of Officer Murphy are very much like those of Jeremy (well, one pounding footstep is perhaps much like another). A weird effect that accompanies those footsteps: sometimes Jeremy appears to by slightly speeded-up. This gives his walk a jerky, mechanical quality that’s eerily effective, while at the same time, a bit crap. Hey, I think I just wrote the tagline for this movie.

Finally, the Colossal Jeremy, having killed his traitorous sleaze of a brother, heads off to the city that doesn’t sleep and starts randomly zapping people in the UN. Why did they equip him with a death ray anyway? That’s asking for trouble. Hilariously, and somehow frighteningly, his first victim can be seen lying dead BEFORE he zaps her. Cut to Jeremy, death rays beaming from his eyes, cut back to the frightened onlookers, and suddenly the victim is standing up, only to get hit by the death ray and fall down into the same position she was last seen lying in.

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Dead Again.

THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK was edited by Floyd Knudtson. I suggest you write to him to point out his blunder. Maybe it’s not too late.

Floyd Knudtson, c/o The Edward Deezen Home for Idiots, Schenectady, New York.

Puny Humans

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 4, 2008 by dcairns

Danger Island

It’s a real problem, the human characters in giant monster movies. They’re nearly always boring. KING KONG is the exception, as with so many things — in all three versions of KK, the humans are a bit more interesting than they absolutely need to be. The less-is-more economy and pace of the first film make it the winner, of course. Quasi-sequel MIGHTY JOE YOUNG also does OK — Robert Armstrong is even more ebullient and explosive than he is in KK. A shame he never played anything Shakespearian on screen. What do you think: Lear? Macbeth?

The ’70s KONG has Jeff Bridges as a sort of more passionate and committed version of the Dude from THE BIG LEBOWSKI, and Jessica Lange playing the character who’s most like herself (slightly dippy blonde actress). The Jackson version has lots of “characterisation”, but doesn’t really understand the basic principle of characterisation through action, which is a bit of a shame since it’s an action film. For example, Adrien Brody is a writer. Yet, once the drama starts (an hour in) he acts exactly like Indiana Jones. I accept that we might need him to be slightly more physical than, say, Truman Capote, but what’s the point of all that set-up if you’re just going to forget it once the running and jumping starts?

Similarly, Jamie Bell is established as a kid who’s never fired a gun in his life, yet soon he’s shooting insects off Adrien Brody’s privates with the skill of a veritable Lee Harvey Oswald (ah, if only L.H.O. had confined his marksmanship to shooting insects off Adrien Brody’s privates, how different the political scene might be today).

(I remember seeing the DJ-musician Moby introduce a GODZILLA movie on TV, with the words, “As kids, we were very keen on monster movies, because the alternative seemed to be movies without monsters, and who would want that?”)

I love Ray Harryhausen’s work (he’s coming to the Edinburgh Film Festival — we’ve bought our tickets), but few of his films manage to create endearing human characters to compare to the little rubber guys. The great Lionel Jeffries in THE FIRST MEN IN THE MOON is one (and that film is probably the best film qua filmof Harryhausen’s oevre) and Raquel Welch certainly makes her presence felt in ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. but I’m not sure that’s anything to do with characterisation. I think she’s there to make the dinosaurs look more life-like by comparison. JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS is jam-packed with fascinating thesps, from Nigel Green to Niall McGinnis, and they’re always welcome, but they don’t make much impact as human beings, since their dialogue is a bit stiff and their scenes feel like between-monster padding. Harryhausen’s last opus, CLASH OF THE TITANS, populates Olympus with an improbable throng of thesps (Olivier & Andress! Maggie Smith and Pat Roach!) but they have little of the snazziness James Woods brings to the role of Hades in the Disney HERCULES — the high-water mark of Greek god impersonation in Hollywood cinema.

In a lot of monster attack films, like WAR OF THE WORLDS, the heroes, being unable to do meaningful battle with an enemy so much bigger than themselves, are reduced to running around helplessly and speculating about what might be going on. Spielberg’s version actually gets around this for most of its running time by putting the protagonist and his family in a lot of very dangerous situations, but he comes a cropper on the ending, in which the Earth is saved no thanks to Tom Cruise.

Actually, if we accept JAWS as a monster movie, which I suggest we have to, Spielberg and his writers deserve a bit of credit for serving up engaging, if 2D, characters who actually occupy far more screen time than the sea beast. Of course, his three leading men are very watchable anyway.

I’m going to throw in a mention of TREMORS as well, since that has enjoyable, affable lead characters also. Why is this so hard as soon as a monster rears its head? I suppose these films typically didn’t attract the best actors, as much of the budget went on special effects. And the directors were usually ex-designers, photographers and special effects men themselves, rather than “actors’ directors”. And the writers? Science fiction is full of authors whose ability to deal with wild ideas outstrips their ability to deal with human conversation, so that could be part of it. KRONOS has some decent ideas, but flat characterisation. Imagine a giant monster movie written by Harold Pinter. That would be GREAT. Giant lizard feet could trample Buckingham Palace during the pauses.

THE GIANT BEHEMOTH, A.K.A. BEHEMOTH, A.K.A. BEHEMOTH THE SEA MONSTER, which we watched recently, suffers the same problems of boring scientists and passive protagonists. The film is the work of art director Eugene Lourie, who turned director and gave the world this thing and also GORGO, a man-in-a-suit monster movie much loved for its plot twist of the even larger mummy monster coming to rescue the baby. It’s the DUMBO of kaiju films. Oh, and he did Harryhausen’s THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS, “suggested by” Ray Bradbury’s great pulp-poetry story The Fog Horn, which my mum told me about when I was little, sparking my imagination wonderfully (thanks mum!) and THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK, which to my regret I haven’t seen.

The monster in BEHEMOTH is another of those radioactive dinosaurs, whose sinister emanations have the effect of turning bystanders into drawings of skeletons. Nasty stuff, that radiation.

The only human element in the film is Jack MacGowran, an actor incapable of being uninteresting for a second or of underplaying for a frame. Here he’s on good form, having not yet succumbed to the bottle altogether. By the time of Peter Brook’s glum and fusty KING LEAR, MacGowran, though still somehow able to remember his lines, was quite unable to remember what they meant. Some how he still compels attention in that film and in THE EXORCIST (that “cursed movie” which supposedly claimed his life), but he’s much better when he actually knows what he’s doing. It’s such a relief when he ambles into BEHEMOTH halfway through – an eccentric showstopper, a smirking onrush of tics and mannerisms — and such a shame when he and his helicopter are subsumed by a hungry saurian just minutes later. It’s arguable that MacGowran’s thespian rampage is far more damaging to the film than the monster is to London — he makes everything seem so dull by comparison.

The behemoth is played by a glove puppet for most of the film, turning into an animated Willis H. O’Brien creation in the last ten minutes. Too little too late, though all the rampaging provides the usual fun (only kids and monsters actually rampage. Native people go on the rampage, which seems to be subtly different). And we do get a few underwater shots, which for some reason is rare in these movies.

But apart from MacGowran and the above examples, human characters in monster films still seem like an endangered species.

I guess there’s always the Peanut Sisters from GODZILLA VERSUS MOTHRA. Their characterisation consisted of (a) the fact that they were very small, and (b) the fact that they were called the Peanut Sisters. Oh, and I think they sang a song.

That’s more than can be said for Tom Cruise.

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