Big Lizards I ~ Installment 8
When I was six years old my father took me to my first monster movie. It was the Ray Harryhausen classic, the 7th Voyage Of Sinbad (1958), the picture that demonstrated how stop motion animation techniques could b successfully applied to a vivid, color format (Dynamation). Of course I knew nothing of this at the time. Nor was I aware thatParent’s Magazine had just given the film an endorsement. This latter detail may have had something to do with Mom and Dad arranging the outing.
So there I was suffering through the mushy part (which they had the good sense to get out of the way in the early portions of the movie), waiting for the excitement to begin. And before I could “Abracadabra”, Kerwin Mathews, as the intrepid Sinbad, was following cloven hoof prints of unusual size to the mouth of a cave forming part of a grimacing stone god’s mouth. A frantic sorcerer was running out of that cave, clutching a magic lamp and creaming for help. A few tense seconds passed…and then I saw what was following him.
As the giant Cyclopes strode out into the daylight, roaring its defiance at the pitifully small humans, its great eye glaring below the horn on his head, and its shaggy, satyr limbs stamping the ground like some sort of piston machine gone berserk, I had may first experience with the Sense of Wonder in the arts. I know this thing up on the screen could not be real, even thought it had human flesh color and a caricature of a human face… and was moving. I’d seen cartoons before. I know it wasn’t that. How were they performing this miracle? Was it a freakish man in a suit? Was it a robot? I had suspended disbelief and was totally absorbed in a vision of something that couldn’t possibly be happening, and yet somehow appeared authentic.
The rest of the movie held the same fascination: the snake-woman, the two headed roc, the dragon and the incredible swordplay with the skeleton! But nothing compared with that impression when I beheld the Cyclops for the first time. (The first one seemed meaner to me than the second one who fought the dragon.)
It is no exaggeration to say that the Cyclops changed my life. The next day had a pad of legal paper in my hand, and was sketching out a comic strip sequel to the movie. I thought they had pretty well exhausted the possibilities of the movie island so I set my sequel on a flying island ( long before I ever heard of Gulliver) that I conveniently placed over the sun! I used a fairytale cosmology of successive suns in the sky—the flying island was obscured from us by our sun, but it had its own sun…and so on to infinity, in prefect alignment. These imaginary lands were overflowing with giant monsters, and little people doing their best to keep from being stepped on.
I was hooked. I had discovered the universe of imaginative fiction where science fiction, fantasy and the macabre hold dominion in books, comics, magazines, movie, TV, radio.... I was a multi-media freak from the start in that I didn’t care what form the fantastic came in, just so that it was fantastic. Nor did I care if the hero used flying carpet or rocket. Transportation was only the means.
In a sense that is when I became a fan. It takes a long time to go from the first stage to the discovery of fandom. Soon I would visit the Mars and Pellucidar of Burroughs and the morbid settings of Poe. Those strange countries would inspire me to travel to other exotic climes by the printed word. But I first started imagining Other Worlds after seeing the 7th Voyage of Sinbad in 1958.
So what does all this have to do with those bad Japanese monster movies from Toho that I promised to talk about this month? Only this: By the time I saw my first rubber suit giant monster movie, I was already a jaded connoisseur of stop-motion animation -- even if I didn’t know what to call it.
The first Toho films I saw were among the studio’s best endeavors in science fiction. Rodan, The Flying Monster (also 1958) was playing the Saturday Matinee circuit when I encountered it. The color was certainly nice enough. Something about the rubber suits didn’t convince me, however. My friend was more impressed than I. It was difficult to explain to him what I thought was missing from those monsters. Perhaps it was the rarity of seeing people in the same frame as the giants. A few establishing shots of the relative size of everyone would be quickly followed by long stretches of man-in-rubber-suit vs. erector set city with nary a human in sight. (In retrospect, this is Toho’s most effective monster film in color.)
TV brought me Godzilla (1956) about a year later. This was the black and white film that started it all for the Niponese Nightmares born of those troublesome atomic blasts. (Godzilla's invasion of our theatres is a belated revenge for Truman’s decision.) American scenes had been added with Raymond Burr as a reporter—the result was surprisingly effective. But it didn’t do that much for me. I had seen King Kong a few months earlier on TV…and Godzilla just wasn’t in the same league. Black and white or color, Toho just wasn’t doing something correctly. When I started reading monster magazines, I learned about the different approaches. “So that’s why Japanese monsters wobble so much!”
Toho’s best fantastic film just might be the colorful invasion-from-space epic, the Mysterians (1957). As luck would have it, I managed to see George Pal’s War Of The Worlds (1953) at a Saturday matinee first. What Harryhausen did for monsters, Pal did for space-ships and aliens. Once again Toho proved to be the inferior model.
Toho films from the early period manage to achieve a tolerable mediocrity. The middle period began in 1963 with King Kong vs. Godzilla, which I saw at the appropriate place: a drive-in. By that time I was conscious of more than the “look” of a film. I also wanted plot. I wanted acting. I wanted a serious attitude in science fiction films. You remember how it is at that age.
Choking on my popcorn, I suffered through that “epic.” The thing was laded with slapstick. They were sending up the genre by playing it for laughs.
By the time of Ghidrah, The Three Headed Monster (1965) the tone was set for the future -- the later period of complete tongue-in-cheek decadence. Someday soon I expect to see Godzilla Goes Hawaiian.
There was a period when if I couldn’t got quality, I would settle for mediocrity that tried... and avoid the trash. That was before I learned the lesson that enables me to write this column today. If you can’t get the best, why settle for the mediocre when you can enjoy the unintentional comedy of mind-boggling failure?
Nowadays I prefer Toho films from the most recent period over the early ones. Because where Toho is concerned, the dumber the better! You’ll see what I mean a month from now when we take a close look at Championship Wrestling from Mount Fuji. It’s got the “Sense of Blunder.”