Trav S.D.’s Guide to GIANT MONSTERS of the Drive-In Era

Having earlier done a post on classic horror era giant monster films (e.g. King Kong, etc) and also yesterday’s post on man-sized monsters of the drive-in era, this one combines the concepts for the public’s edification.

It’s a much ridiculed genre. I’m sure I was already hip to the fact that people regarded these movies as camp when I first encountered them as a kid on television (with the exception of the Japanese Godzilla movies. We regarded those as nothing less than the height of cool.) Contrary to the common misconception, though, these movies are not all low-budget, or even all “bad”. Some are by major studios, feature stars, have top of the line special effects (for their day), and even “have something to say.” The latter is a bit disingenuous, it’s really all about the spectacle, but the guys who made the movies (especially the screenwriters) had to live with themselves, so there’s a good deal of musing aloud about the the Folly of Man, and How Short Our Time on Earth Is, and How Small We Are in the Scheme of Things. Most of these movies use the premise of atomic radiation as the agent of gargantua-zation. Others played with the concept of alien visitation, or the mysterious, sudden release or resurrection of earthbound species previously unencountered by man, such as dinosaurs. Usually the amplified creatures were of the sort that already give normal humans the icks: reptiles, insects,  crustaceans and other sorts of creepy-crawlers. Later ones played with the concept of common, ordinary, even cuddly animals growing to proportions that theoretically made them monstrous (that was the idea, anyway).

I’m not positive that movies of this type qualify as “horror”. Essentially these pictures are just variations on the “animals gone wild” genre that flourished a bit later in the 1970s. The only thing different is the scale of the destruction.  True horror is on an intimate scale, I think, one on one, an individual up against dark forces. In these films, the hero is a city, a nation or planet earth, thus the films are more like disaster films or war movies.

Which is appropriate, because these films were the product of the first leg of the atomic age. For this reason, it is often assumed that the Japanese gave birth to the genre. They were the only nation to ever experience the unimaginable destruction of a nuclear attack, and the movie Godzilla, clearly inspired by that history, was released early in this cycle. But it happens that there are several American pictures on the theme that pre-date Godzilla. The precipitating cause of these films is clearly the advent of the H-Bomb, which is up to 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The U.S. detonated their first one in 1952; the U.S.S.R. joined the club the following year. This was enough, surely, to justify extensive worldwide freaking out, and it did. These weren’t even subconscious anxieties. They were explicit ones.

NB: I am leaving the Godzilla/ Mothra/ Gammera canon outside the survey below. It’s a job of work all by itself, and I think I will leave it to others. I am more partial to the camp possibilities of the American ones anyway.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953)

The titular beast is a Harryhausen dinosaur, freed from Arctic ice by a nuclear test. Harryhausen was fresh off Mighty Joe Young (1949), the success of which might be another explanation for this cycle of revival of giant-monster-horror. In this film, the dinosaur very conveniently makes a beeline straight for New York City, where it causes all manner of havoc, eventually tearing apart a roller coaster at Coney Island, where it is killed with large radioactive shells. It’s all in movie dream-logic, you just have to go with it.

Monster from the Ocean Floor (1954)

An early Roger Corman-produced AIP effort, with a handful of obscure actors and a single location. The title is clearly intended to remind you of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Some Americans are staying on the Mexican Pacific coast when they hear rumors of local disappearances being caused by a sea monster. They investigate, speculating that atomic testing may be at the root of it, as the monster first appeared in 1946. There is lots of undersea SCUBA footage, which was a novelty at the time. Finally, there is a single, long shot of the monster — a sort of giant squid with one eye.

Them! (1954)

This is, I am certain, the first of these movies I ever saw. When I was a kid, they showed it on Channel 6 out of Providence in the after-school time slot. This is a seminal film of the genre and highly influential. It’s the first one where an entire species mutates, forcing mankind to gear up for something identical to war. In this case, it’s ants that grow the size of elephants and there’s no ambiguity as to the reason — they emerge from the New Mexico desert near an atomic testing site. Then, as in the best of these movies, the climactic battle occurs in a major city, in this case, Los Angeles, where the heroes have to search out the ant-queen in L.A.’s famous spillways. Them! was a big-budget studio production, produced by Warner Brothers. The all-star cast includes James Arness (fresh from his stint as the monster in the not irrelevant The Thing from Another World), James Whitmore, Edmund Gwenn, Richard Deacon, Fess Parker, Dub Taylor, and, in an early walk-on, Leonard Nimoy.

It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955)

This one features a giant Harryhausen animated octopus, supposedly released from a remote part of the Pacific by atomic testing. Kenneth Tobey, who’d been in both The Thing from Another World and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, plays a submarine commander whose tub is attacked by the thing. The climax takes place in San Francisco, where the cephalopod has a go at an electrified Golden Gate Bridge.

Tarantula (1955)

Hero John Agar discovers scientist Leo G. Carroll has been making people and animals grow big with a new atomic nutrient. Unfortunately, the area around the doctor’s lab in the Arizona desert contains the titular tarantula, who manages to consume some of the stuff– and then proceeds to consume much else. This film uses live creatures matted into the shots, rather than stop-motion or large puppets as Them! had used. The result is at once more natural, but also somewhat off.  What gigantism scenarios always ignore is that with size, everything changes: the proportion of the leg to the body (e.g., look at elephants and brontosauruses), the speed at which the creatures move, and how we, as much smaller creatures, perceive that motion relative to surroundings. I don’t think I’m overthinking it. The film-makers themselves would have been the first to tell you they wanted it to look real.

The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956)

The great special effects animator Willis O’Brien of King Kong fame came up with the idea and the screenplay for this rarity: a western/ dinosaur movie mash-up. Guy Madison (The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok) is a rancher who discovers that an allosaurus has been killing his cattle — and also some of his neighbors. Ironically O’Brien did not do the special effects for this movie, a U.S./ Mexican co-production.

20 Million Miles to Earth (1956)

The star of this film is Ray Harryhausen — there is no other. He conceived it himself as a project to animate. It concerns an ever-growing bipedal lizard creature called an Ymir from the Planet Venus, who terrorizes and destroys Rome. The film is set in Italy because Harryhausen wanted to go there on vacation! The scene where the Ymir battles an elephant (and wins) is pure Harryhausen.

The Black Scorpion (1957)

This one reunites effects wizard Willis O’Brien and Carlos Rivas (who had been in The Beast of Hollow Mountain). Mysterious geological activity in rural Mexico results in the formation of a new volcano and the release of giant prehistoric scorpions — which roar for some reason more germane to showmanship than biology. We don’t get to see the scorpions for quite awhile, a typical foible of most of these movies, for obvious reasons. Effects cost dough!

Beginning of the End (1957)

This is generally considered to be the downturn of the genre, a definitive shifting to a declining phase, in a word “the Beginning of the End” of the giant monster genre, at least this phase of it. Bert I. Gordon, its director, became the king of poorly rendered gigantism. Prior to this one he had done 1955’s King Dinosaur (which I have omitted here because it is set on another planet) and 1957’s Dr. Cyclops (see below). In this one, Peter Graves plays an agriculturalist who grows giant vegetables — which are then eaten by locusts, which grow to epic portions themselves and proceed to attack Chicago. Gordon’s legendary special effects innovation: shooting live grasshoppers on still photographs of famous Chicago buildings. We will hear more from Mr. Gordon.

Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957)

Roger Corman produced and directed this for AIP from a script by the great Charles B. Griffith, who also plays a supporting role. And this, students, is Economical Film-making 101. You take a small handful of actors and put them on a “deserted island”, really just a single beach and jungle location, and attack them with very silly looking giant crab puppets, and you’ve got yer picture. The plot? The little group is on a scientific expedition, under vague military supervision, sent to see what happened to the previous expedition. What happened, as they will soon discover, is that they got eaten by giant sentient atomic crab creatures. Yes, sentient, for the crabs absorb the intelligence and memory of whomever they eat, the film’s most original and scary touch (one Griffith and Corman would draw from again in their masterpiece The Little Shop of Horrors). And other reason to watch this film is it is a very rare chance to see a very put-upon, irritated working class character played by Russell Johnson, whom seven years later would be stranded on a very different island — Gilligan’s.

The Deadly Mantis (1957)

One of the distinguishing features of this film (in a field where it was becoming less and less possible to be distinguished) was that it may the only such movie to have worked with a LIFE-SIZED model of its creature — all 200 feet of him. (There were also two smaller models). The giant mantis is freed from underneath the polar ice caps when a volcano erupts in the South Seas causing the whole earth to vibrate. You see how derivative we’re getting? They stole from two other movies right there. The mantis very cinematically makes its way down to the national monuments in Washington D.C., and proceeds to do what we all do when we hit that town — pray.

The Giant Claw (1957)

If most of these films possess any virtue at all it’s that their titles inform you just what you’re in for. By that measure, this film probably has the worst title of the bunch. The monster in the film is a very silly looking flying prehistoric reptile beast, supposedly from some faraway “antimatter galaxy”. Initially reported as a UFO by several witnesses, the beast is eventually shot down over a conveniently photogenic New York City.

The Spider, a.k.a. Earth vs. the Spider (1958)

Another Bert I. Gordon special, this one for A.I.P. This one is so derivative that it reuses the giant creature at its center (a tarantula). There is no explanation for why one has suddenly emerged from the desert to suck the fluids out of the people of a small town — he just does, and must be defeated! In the most hilarious scene, the spider, supposed to be dead, is awakened and annoyed by some darn kids playing rock and roll music! Earth vs. the Spider was the film’s original title. It was shortened to The Spider to encourage a mental association with The Fly, a major hit that year.

The Blob (1958)

I figure this classic just barely squeaks into this category. It is a creature of some sort, and it does grow to gigantic size. There is something really magical about this movie, I think. I wasn’t a teenager in the ’50s, but this film sure seems to capture what it was like to be one. Young Steve McQueen, in one of his first screen roles (and already ten years older than the character he plays) is necking in the woods with his date when he sees a meteor land. The blob emerges from the smoking outer space rock and starts eatin’ folks. The most clever — much imitated — scene in the movie is set in a cinema, which is of course showing a horror movie! The film (and its Hal David-Burt Bacharach theme song) were big hits that year. Originally a B movie, it was flipped to be the main feature in short order.

The Giant Gila Monster (1959)

This one was produced at the same time as The Killer Shrews (below) and backed by the same guy, Dallas drive-in owner Gordon McLendon. This one is so much about hot rod culture, it seems more like a hot rod movie than a horror flick. In fact the 70 foot long lizard who has inexplicably appeared out of the desert is dispatched in the end by means of a hot rod. The lizard in the film is a live one, placed on models.

The Killer Shrews (1959)

You have to go way down the list of scary creatures ’til ya get to shrews! Conceptually, the film has a very tense, fraught situation, one that could easily be remade into a (more) terrifying movie. Some visitors are trapped on an island due to an impending hurricane. Only, there’s a situation. A scientist has been experimenting with shrinking the size of humans in order to reduce world hunger. Unfortunately the experiments have resulted in an unfortunate side effect: a giant mutant killer shrew population that has run amok. Worse, they have consumed all the other animals on the island, except the handful of people now barricaded inside a compound. For some reason, I find this scarier than Night of the Living Dead, which is almost the same situation. Maybe I find it scarier because it’s more plausible? Granted, giant shrews, not so plausible. But alien species over-running an ecosystem, ruining entire islands or ponds? Happens with increasing frequency. I’d sure hate to to be trapped on some damn island with, say, thousands of water rats, who have no other food but me. There’s a “but”, though. The laughable special effects pretty much spoil the picture (half accomplished by puppets with goofy teeth, and half by dogs in costumes). I don’t often do this, but if I’d been in a theatre in 1959 and was given dogs in costumes masquerading as “giant shrews”, I might have asked for my money back.

Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959)

Set in a Southern swampland. This one at times seems almost as though Tennessee Williams wrote it. Small town crackers, general store, a couple fooling around behind the back of the woman’s overweight husband….meanwhile, giant leeches are catching people in the swamp and putting them in their cave, where they occasionally go to suck blood out of them. A local game warden, the town doctor and his daughter get to the bottom of things. An AIP picture. Biggest implausibility: a scene in which a character light s dynamite fuse and explodes it UNDER WATER. Pin-up Yvette Vickers is in it! She ‘s also in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (below).

The Giant Behemoth (1959)

Isn’t that title a tad redundant? Anyway I found this movie rather interesting. The plot is almost identical to The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms or Godzilla (atomic experiments resurrect a dormant dinosaur, AND give it lethal radioactive powers). Interesting, eh? The genre seems to come full circle, ending where it began. This picture is set in England, although there are several Americans in the script. Somehow the science in this movie seems better. It’s still implausible but there seems like more of an effort to justify the events using real science. More location shooting makes it seem more realistic although the beast still looks fake as can be. Oddly divergent tones. A strong anti-nuclear message, stronger than you would find in a major American movie of the time. But there is simultaneously an exaggeration (and fetishization) of British Naval power. The story in brief: The fish (and a couple of fisherman) die in a Cornwall fishing village. A scientist comes to investigate. They speculate about what did it. Eventually they sight the thing and hypothesize that it will head toward London (just as in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, they predict it will return to the freshwater riverbed where it was spawned. How do they know anything of the sort?) This one doesn’t do much damage to buildings, but kills a lot of people with its radiation. The authorities kill it back with a radiation-bearing torpedo. And then they hear the same thing is happening in the U.S…..

*******

And now a little addendum, a sort of subgenre within a genre if you will. Giant HUMANS!

The Cyclops (1957)

A Bert I. Gordon special (wrote, produced, directed). Gloria Talbott plays a young lady who travels to Mexico and hires a crew of men (James Craig, Tom Craig, and Lon Chaney Jr) to help her locate her boyfriend, a pilot who disappeared in the nearby jungle. They fly a small plane to an uncharted region, where they encounter lots of giant snakes, insects, lizards etc, and finally the missing pilot, who is now 50 feet tall and deformed, with one eye now covered by some of tumor, giving the film its title. The gigantism is caused by nearby radium deposits which of course the greedy Chaney wants to get his hands on, complicating their mission. The film has similarities to the 1939 film Five Came Back, which doesn’t have giant creatures but does have a small group of people trapped in a hostile jungle. This movie is undoubtedly bad on several fronts, but on some level, I also find it effective.  The fake parts look fake of course, but the low-budget location shooting also means that the real parts look real. It conveys a feeling of dangerous isolation, which no doubt the actors were actually experiencing.

The Amazing Colossal Man (1957)

Gordon again: he’s clearly obsessed with this theme. In addition to those we mention here, his Attack of the Puppet People (1958) features the reverse situation, miniaturized people forced to deal with a normal size villain, whom to them is gigantic. I had the ecstatic pleasure of initially encountering The Amazing Colossal Man screened in a movie theatre, and nothing can be more delightful than seeing a movie like this with an audience. This one concerns an army officer who is exposed to rays during an atomic bomb test, and grows to a height of 60 feet. The effect is achieved with double exposures — and we can often see THROUGH the giant. The fact that Gordon’s giants are all bald like Mr. Clean has an iconic power to it, seeming to evoke genies and giants from fairy tales. It’s simultaneously dumb and uncanny. The sight of the slow, lumbering, see-through, bald, and eerily MOS giant sticks with you somehow, at once comical and dream-like.

War of the Colossal Beast (1958)

The sequel to The Amazing Colossal Man. Now the giant man (played by Duncan Parkin, the same guy who played The Cyclops, in essentially the same make-up) has survived his fall off the dam that ended the previous picture, but is now maimed and brain damaged, a giant brute monster. Because his sister is involved in trying to “reach” him, the movie gets silly. They don’t try to kill him after he wreaks his damage, destroying an airport etc, but just keeping trying to talk with him and reason with him. Finally she manages to jog his memory and he commits suicide by grabbing power lines and electrocuting himself.

Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958)

Astoundingly this one was NOT made by Bert I. Gordon! The film is a riff on the previous’s year’s equally preposterous The Amazing Colossal Man, with the savvy addition of sex appeal. At its center is a love triangle with the luckiest schmuck in the world (William Hudson) at its center. His wealthy wife is played by beauty queen Allison Hayes (Miss Washington D.C. 1949.) Drunk, pill-popping and neurotic, she drives him into the arms of town floozy Honey Parker (Yvette VickersPlayboy’s Playmate of the Month, July 1959) and both scheme over hamburgers and drinks at a local roadhouse to steal the wife’s fortune by sticking her in a sanitarium.

Already afflicted with too many women, he is soon afflicted with TOO MUCH WOMAN, when his jealous wife gets zapped with radiation from a nearby flying saucer and grows as large as a house. Shouting the priceless refrain “Har-ree!”, which echoes and resounds throughout the desert canyons, the giant battle-axe stomps over hill and dale to re-claim her man. (It’s a pity her rolling pin and frying pan didn’t grow with her). The movie was shot for only $89,000 — nothing like the scene depicted in that poster above ever transpires. Mostly what we get is a giant rubbery hand coming in through the window guided by wires. And the mansion the couple is supposed to live in looks modest indeed. But there is something about wonderfully, suggestively Freudian about the giant mama/wife terrorizing the suddenly diminished and guilty-as-fuck boy-man. College papers could be written, and undoubtedly have.

People love this movie. Christopher Guest remade it comically in 1993 with Daryl Hannah as the titular character, and there have been further riffs on it such as Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfold (1995) and Attack of the 50 Foot Cheerleader (2011).

Village of the Giants (1965)

Bert I. Gordon returns to the scene of his crimes in this hilarious and commercially savvy genre mash-up mixing elements of beach party and drag race movies with his patented giganticism obsession. Here a bunch of teenagers (including Tommy Kirk, Beau Bridges, and others) grow as big as houses when one of their kid brothers (Ron Howard!) accidentally invents a substance called “Goo”. Full of great slangy dialogue and awesome music by the likes of the Beau Brummels and Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon. A highly pleasurable cinematic experience!

*******************

And now one MORE addendum! For the genre was briefly reborn in the 1970s with an environmentalism message replacing the nuclear terror of the earlier cycle. “Animals Gone Wild” were big in the 70s. During the same period, we have Frogs (1972), Jaws (1975), Grizzly (1976), Tentacles (1977), Day of the Animals (1977), The Pack (1977), etc. But add toxic chemicals, and voila! GIANT Animals Gone Wild!

Night of the Lepus (1972)

It’s hard to believe this movie exists, for it outshines even Killer Shrews in absurdity. Rancher Rory Calhoun wants to end the epidemic of rabbits that have been invading his property so he enlists the help of scientists Stuart Whitman and Janet Leigh, who inject rabbits with hormones they believe will inhibit their breeding cycle. Instead, it makes the bunnies giant. The absurdities are manifold, of course. Is there a more benign and pacific (and vegetarian) creature than a rabbit? I don’t care HOW big it gets. if it grows to be the size of the MOON, I’m not certain I would feel scared, precisely. Real rabbits are employed in the picture and matted in or used with miniature sets. Then they are depicted in slow motion, which somehow serves to make them even less threatening. They just seem sort of lazy and overfed, less threatening than cows. Beyond this — wouldn’t it be jackrabbits that would be torturing a rancher? These are like PET RABBITS! I’m waiting for a giant ten year old girl to come pet them and call them “Mopsy” and “Flopsy” and “Cottontail”! P.S. An added bonus — DeForest Kelley is in it, in one of his few post-Star Trek, non-“Bones” roles.

The Food of the Gods (1976)

Bert I. Gordon returns to the genre that is his first and only love! Here he wed an H.G. Wells story to the ecological themes that were then trending. I first encountered this movie in its paperback novelization form when I was a kid.  On an island off British Columbia, a farm couple (John McLiam and Ida Lupino) find a mysterious chemical and feed it to their chickens, making them grow eight or ten feet tall. Unfortunately, it also gets consumed by rats and wasps, and so people begin to die on the island. Among the cast are Marjoe Gortner as a retired football player, and Ralph Meeker as the owner of a dog food company, who wants to get the secret formula for himself so he can make a fortune. In a word, The Food of the Gods is delicious.

Empire of the Ants (1977)

This one is even more explicit in its message, and also very loosely inspired by a Wells story. Barrels of toxic chemicals wash up on an island and make the local ants gigantic. Unfortunately, unprincipled real estate developer Joan Collins has brought a group of prospective buyers there to show them some beachfront property. People do get gobbled, and in the case of Collins, it’s a very pretty sight. This was Gordon’s last giganticism picture, although he continued to make other sorts of movies — one as recently as 2014!

************

I don’t guess I have to tell you that the giant monster genre is not dead. Along with just about every genre, it began to make a comeback around 1990 and has been in constant circulation thereafter. I am a huge fan of such movies as Tremors (1990), Lake Placid (1999), Cloverfield (2008), and ALL of the Syfy movies. But as a classicist, I like closed systems, so we end this post with the end of the original cycle. And remember: If You’re Gonna Go, GO BIG.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.