Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving Review: War of the Gargantuas (1966)

It’s no exaggeration to state that The War of the Gargantuas (1966) was a staple of my childhood TV-watching.

The Japanese monster movie -- released in America in 1970 -- aired frequently on our local station WWOR Channel 9 in the 1970s and 1980s; sometimes on The Million Dollar Movie, if memory serves.

Rightly or wrongly, I have come to associate these viewings of The War of the Gargantuas with the Thanksgiving holiday, or more accurately, the Friday after Thanksgiving. 

So today, I decided to take a look back at the film. Until last week, I had not seen The War of the Gargantuas since a holiday in the early 1990s when I introduced the film to my wife, Kathryn. We were at my grandparents’ house in Tom’s River, N.J. for the Thanksgiving weekend, so the film may have been playing on basic cable.

The War of the Gargantuas stars Russ Tamblyn as Dr. Paul Stewart and is a sequel of sorts to Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965). In particular, the film’s Gargantuas -- brown and green -- were created from the cells of the Frankenstein Monster, which were cast into the sea in the previous film.  

And in Japanese, I believe, the creatures are referred to not as Gargantuas but as “Frankensteins.”

Directed by Ishiro Honda, with special effects from Eiji Tsubaraya, The War of the Gargantuas concerns the attempts of several scientists to save the life of the non-violent brown Gargantua, or Sanda, even while the Japanese Army plots the demise of the violent, carnivorous green Gargantua, Gaira. 

In the end, nature does away with the giant monsters instead. But the film serves as a meditation on the nature vs. nurture debate, comparing the wild, untamed Gaira with the kindly Sanda, who knew human companionship. 

Man’s violent nature is discussed as well, since the Japanese Army refuses to acknowledge the (obvious) differences between the gargantuan monsters, and goes forward with its plan to kill them both with napalm.

“Is it possible a gargantuan might exist?”

A ship at sea is attacked by a giant octopus, and later, a giant green monster or Gargantua. 

The only survivor of the incident reports the attack, and the Japanese press runs with the story, asking Professor Paul Stewart (Tamblyn) and his associate Akemi (Kumi Mizuno) if such creatures could be real. The scientists know from experience that it is possible.  Five years earlier, they cared for a gentle brown Gargantua, before it escaped from custody.

The Green Gargantua, Gaira, soon makes landfall at Tokyo Airport and does catastrophic damage there. Later, the same beast attacks the patrons at a roof-top night-club, and is repelled only by bright light.  

The Japanese Army brings in maser tanks to annihilate Gaira, but at the last minute, the injured creature is rescued by Sanda, the brown Gargantua who has been living in peace in the Japanese Alps.

Stwewart surmises that the Gargantuas are offshoots from the same unknown cells, and therefore their cells may be able to generate additional monsters.Alarmed, the Army plans to destroy Gaira and Sanda, over Stewart and Akemi’s objections...

“We were sunk by a hairy green giant.”

The War of the Gargantuas explicitly references, at one point, the Biblical story of Cain and Abel: the story of a man who murders his brother. 

That tale roils underneath The War of the Gargantuas as Sanda and Gaira  first discover one another, and eventually face off. Early in the film, Sanda saves Gaira from the Army and nurses him back to health after maser attack. But soon Sanda -- who was raised by humans -- sees that Gaira has killed and eaten a human boater.  Sanda realizes that he can no longer protect his sibling, and nor should he. They fight it out, even though Sanda is peaceful and docile.

The other set of “brothers” in the film -- mirroring this monster dynamic -- are human scientists and soldiers. The scientists, like Sanda, are peaceful and docile, hoping to investigate the crisis and save the more peaceful of the two Gargantuas.  The soldiers, by contrast (and not entirely unlike Gaira...) are bound and determined to destroy anything they deem a threat, including the innocent Sanda.  

Like the Gargantuas, scientists and soldiers possess “the same blood, the same cell structure,” and yet are incredibly different.The movie points out the hypocrisy of the Army's higher-ups. They are bound and determined to kill both Gargantuas, even without cause, even though they are acting in a murderous fashion, like Gaira. 

But brothers are supposed to be responsible for brothers, right?

In the end, the Gargantuas are put down not by each other, or by the auspices of man, but by an underwater volcanic eruption. Though spurred by a helicopter bombing, this eruption is the “other” key player in the film’s action: Mother Nature, or God, if you will.  

The Gargantuas -- as Frankenstein Monsters and creations of man -- are “unnatural” creations. Therefore, it is only proper that nature remove them. But had monster movie history been a little different, however, Sanda and Gaira would have likely returned in another film, perhaps to battle Godzilla himself.

On my recent screening of the film, I was pleasantly surprised by the effetive and atmospheric opening of the film. Like so many Japanese monster movies, The War of the Gargantuas opens with a ship at sea during a storm, and an attack by a giant monster.  

This time, that monster is a huge, menacing octopus, and the scene is very well-shot. The punctuation of the scene is a surprise too.  Gaira dispatches the octopus so that we think he is a hero, but then Gaira proceeds to attack the ship himself.  Out of the frying pan, into the fire. 

Later, in a scene that is a little shocking to behold, we see Gaira pursuing the swimming survivors from the ship.  He plucks them out of the water and eats them. 

The scene I most remembered from the film is set at a night club, where an American singer croons “The Words Get Stuck in My Throat,” unaware that Gaira is creeping up in the background, behind her.  

The movie misses a genuine opportunity, in my opinion, because the singer doesn’t get eaten (or stuck in Gaira’s throat...). That would have been a wicked (and nasty) joke but The War of the Gargantuas is a sincere entertainment and doesn’t tread into camp, at least intentionally. Still, it's hard not to giggle at the sea captain's cry that his vessel was attacked by a hairy green giant.

On this viewing of the film, I also admired how the filmmakers set up and exploited the comparison between Gaira and Sanda.  

Gaira is a vicious, inhuman thing that has never known love or companionship. By nature, he may have the potential to love, but he has never been nurtured.  He sees human beings only as food, biting their heads off first, apparently. This is terrifying to watch, and I remember, as a kid, being scared by Gaira.  

There's a moment in the film when a fisherman looks down into the sea, and there -- below the surface -- is Gaira, just waiting to spring. That moment offers some good old fashioned nightmare fodder, and Gaira represents nature gone wild, untamed and undisciplined. 

Sanda was raised by humans, however, and therefore understands love, companionship, and even brotherhood. That latter quality, brotherhood, is the very thing that Sanda seeks with Gaira, perhaps to alleviate a lonely, or even solitary existence.  

But Gaira simply can’t change his ways at this juncture, and is no doubt confused when his brother turns against him. Sanda, clearly, wishes events had turned out differently.

What I didn’t admire so much about The War of the Gargantuas is the fact that the mid-movie battle between Gaira and the Japanese Army seems to go on forever, and therefore lose some visceral impact.  

I fully realize that many nay-sayers disliked 2014’s Godzilla because there wasn’t a lot of monster-on-monster fighting in the film. The fights were used strategically, and mostly during the climax.

The War of the Gargantuas, however, validates that restrained approach.The battles here go on for so long, without relief, that they eventually become monumentally uninteresting. 

It’s probably sacrilege to say this, but the fights could have been pruned back by a full-third, and the movie would have moved with more grace, purpose and drive. The first thirty minutes or so of The War of the Gargantuas in particular, are terrific, and the special effects (especially during the airport attack) hold up rather well.  

Once the fighting takes center stage, however, The War of the Gargantuas feels like it is stuck in neutral. Long stretches of time go by where we just seem to be watching vehicles getting positioned, and masers firing.

The War of the Gargantuas is generally very well-regarded by fans, and I can detect why. Some feel nostalgia for the film, because they grew up with it. Certainly, I'm in this camp.

Others have keyed in on, quite rightly, the human, affecting nature of these particular monsters. You don’t want the Gargantuas to kill each other or die, and yet, at the same time, that outcome feels inevitable. 

All the best monster movies make audiences care about their creatures, one way or another. You either love them, hate them, or feel sorry for them. 

On that front, The War of the Gargantuas absolutely succeeds, and all those emotions bubble to the surface. Sanda, in particular, is heart-breaking. He attempts to build a bridge to the human world (which includes brotherhood and compassion), and carry Gaira with him -- his own flesh and blood -- across it, but doesn't succeed.  

His failure, one might say, is only human.

Movie Trailer: War of The Gargantuas (1966)

Happy Turkey Day!

Here's hoping your Thanksgiving Day is filled with joy and happiness, family and fun.  

I am thankful for all of you, and your friendship over this year, past years, and hopefully future ones as well.

Make time, today, for a bad movie or too, as well, to fully enjoy the spirit of Turkey Day. (I recommend Joel's favorite bad movie - Wild World of Bat Woman - MST3K version.)

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Support the Blog: Buy John's Books!

I hope as you begin thinking about gifts for the holiday season for that movie, horror, or cult-TV fan, you will consider one or more of my books as an option.

I try not to self-promote egregiously on the blog, but every now and then I bring attention back to my works in print, and ask for your support.  

Book royalties, in part, are the fuel that keeps this blog running, and that money allows me to devote time and energy to the blog.

So please, consider supporting the blog this season by buying a Muir Book! There are 25+ to choose from.

Here are a few recent options that may tickle your fancy.

Featuring a foreword by Chris Carter: The X-Files FAQ (2015)

Also featuring a foreword from Chris Carter: Horror Films FAQ (2013)

Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of the 1970s

Horror Films of the 1980s

Terror Television
If you are interested in shopping the full Muir book catalog, check out my author page at

Have a safe and happy Turkey Day!

Pop Art: Dynomutt (Marvel Edition)

Pop Art: Dynomutt and the Pie in the Sky Caper (Rand McNally Edition)

Board Game of the Week: Dynomutt (Milton Bradley)

Lunch Box of the Week: Dynomutt

Theme Song of the Week: Dynomutt (1976 - 1978)

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Lost in Space 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Dream Monster" (December 21, 1966)

In “The Dream Monster,” an alien scientist called Sesmar (John Abbott) approaches Penny (Angela Cartwright), and marvels at her emotional reaction to a beautiful flower. 

He has constructed a biped android, called Raddion (Dawson Palmer), who is perfect in every way except for one: he cannot experience human emotions.

Sesmar realizes, however, that he can transfer emotions from human beings to Raddion using a strange camera and “transpirator” cards. 

The scientist recruits the cowardly Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) to rob the Robinsons of their emotional states, including John’s leadership, Maureen’s love, Will’s curiosity, and so on. 

Only Major West (Mark Goddard) sees through the plan, but he is not able to prevent the family from losing its humanity.

West and Smith team up to defeat Sesmar, and save the Robinsons from a future without emotions.

“The Dream Monster” is not a terrible episode of Lost in Space (1965-1968), and is actually pretty good in light of some episodes of the second season.  

Although it lacks the frightfulness of “The Wreck of the Robot” and the intrigue of “Prisoners in Space” (both season highlights…) this story nonetheless makes a good point about human emotions.  They may be troublesome, and dangerous at times, but they are worth it. 

They are the things, actually, that drive us to achieve, to be our best.

“The Dream Monster” commences with a heat wave on the planet. The Jupiter 2’s air conditioning system has failed, and everybody is hot…and irritable. West acts, literally, as a “hot-head,” finding fault with John’s (Guy Williams) comments; believing they are directed at him. Maureen, meanwhile, can’t find Penny, and is agitated.

Everyone is short-tempered with one another because they are physically uncomfortable. They let their mood be dictated by their discomfort, and act badly.  

But this kind of short-tempered behavior is the price we all willingly pay for having emotions. For without emotions, John can’t muster the energy (or loyalty…) to be a leader.  Maureen is robbed of the essential quality of love, and as we have seen in the series, it is her love that holds the family together on so many occasions.

And, in the end, West’s emotion of aggression, or bull-headedness combines with Smith’s cunning to save the family. The audience thus understand that even the negative emotions experienced by the Robinsons serve an important purpose.

On those terms, “The Dream Monster” is an intriguing and worthwhile story. I didn't feel debauched watching it.  On the terms that Lost in Space has set for itself in the second story, this particular tale can be described as having some value or virtue.

Other aspects of the narrative don’t seem to work nearly as well as the didactic through-line about emotions.  

There is no valid science behind biophysicist Sesmar’s technology, which robs people of emotions, for example.  

On the other hand, we have all heard those legends of indigenous peoples who didn't want their photographs taken, for fear that the photos would rob them of their souls.  In a very real way, Sesmar's technology -- resembling photography -- does that very thing.  If one accepts that the "science" of Sesmar is beyond the understanding of the Robinsons -- just as the science of photography was beyond those early, indigenous folk -- perhaps the issues of technology aren't so troubling here after all.

I do find it of concern, however, that there isn’t really any motivation for Sesmar to act in the fashion he chooses here.  I would like to know more about him. 

Does he possess emotions?  If he doesn’t, it’s difficult to understand why he would prize them so much for his android.  

And if he does possess them, Sesmar shouldn’t react with such surprise to the presence of emotions in others, right?  

Indeed, his science in the episode automatically and instantly categorizes the emotions of Dr. Smith and the others.  So if his tools so completely understand them, he should do so too.  Yet if that’s the case, why does he react with such surprise and wonder to Penny’s emotions?  

So we are to believe he knows of emotions, doesn't possess them, but prizes them for his android above all other things?   Huh?

The solution at the end of the episode -- destroying the “transpirator” cards holding the Robinsons’ emotions -- doesn’t make a lot of sense, either. If the cards storing the emotions are destroyed, wouldn’t the emotions within them also be destroyed?  Why do these emotions just fly back, as though guided missiles, to those who spawned them?  

The whole point of this technology seems to be to interchangeably move emotional states between people.  So why is there an automatic recall to the source once the emotions are out of the cards?

“The Dream Monster” also feels like a step backwards in the series’ treatment of Dr. Smith.  Here he is right back to the first season’s “Invaders from the Fifth Dimension,” selling the Robinsons down the river to preserve his own skin, and possibly get a ride home to Earth. He is back to his despicable phase here, for sure, and it is a poor creative choice.

But as always, Lost in Space’s merit is not in its deep or consistent science fiction plotting. 

Contrarily, the series' merit rests, in some sense, on its understanding and excavation of the nuclear family and its interrelationships .  We may gripe and bitch with our family members, but we also love them. That's a good lesson to remember as the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, right?

That whole equation of "family" breaks down without emotions underlining it.  If we don't "feel" for those around us, they are mere acquaintances.  If we don't feel empathy for others, why bother to go to another planet in the first place and rescue the human race?

Since this story focuses on a building bock of family -- our emotional lives -- "'The Dream Monster" isn't a bad show, or a bad example of Lost in Space at this particular historical juncture (mid-second season).

Next week: “The Golden Man.”