VHS MOVIE REVIEW : GODZILLA : KING OF THE MONSTERS
Ah, Godzilla... Few things in life give me greater pleasure than giant monsters, and the pinnacle of the genre is Godzilla. First released in 1954, the original Gojira was a smashing success for Toho Studios, and the launching pad for one of the most glorious movie franchises in history.
Gojira was, of course, a rip off of 1953's The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, retold from a Japanese perspective with Japanese style. It was written as a horror film with a very serious message about the dangers of nuclear war. In that respect, it's a fine movie even without the big lizard. Seen today it's just a cool movie, but to the Japanese in 1954, just nine years since the end of the war, it was a frightening reminder of their past.
This was supposed to be a stand-alone film, Godzilla dies at the end and that is that. Toho was stunned by the financial and critical success of the movie and sequels were quickly on the way. In 1956, the American film company TransWorld edited and dubbed Gojira into English. They released the film under the name Godzilla, King of the Monsters, and that's what I will review here. There are some major differences between the two versions, really making them two separate movies. I'll deal with them as they come.
The film quality, even on my DVD, is relatively weak. It's, of course, in classic black and white and in some places it can get quite dark and muddled. There are scratches and blurs and such throughout, and the lighting seems to vary from frame to frame. But who cares? It's Godzilla!
And now on to our show...
We open with kind of a prologue, setting up a good chunk of the rest of the movie to be a "flashback". We pan across a scene of a demolished urban corridor showing enormous destruction (most probably actual footage of a bombed Japanese city from WWII). A voice-over from Steve Martin, foreign correspondent for the "United World News", tells us that just a few days ago this smoking ruin was Tokyo and teases us that some great, unstoppable force destroyed it.
Steve is played by American actor Raymond Burr. He does a pretty good job in this movie, and it launched his career in many ways.
We cut to the inside of a makeshift field hospital as our hero Steve is being carried in on a stretcher. The dead and dying litter the overcrowded building and moans and crying drown out all other noises. It's a disturbing way to start out a monster movie, but again this is a monster movie with a message. A shot of a small boy setting off a Geiger counter is especially moving. Surrounded by bandaged and irradiated survivors, Steve finds Emiko Yamane, the daughter of Japan's leading paleontologist, who is helping with the rescue effort. They reconnect and share their survival stories in some stilted and forced dialogue. Steve's memory takes us back to just a few days past...
BTW, this entire prologue was added in the American version to introduce us to Raymond Burr's Steve Martin character and to tease the audience with the aftermath of destruction. Perhaps it would have been better to leave the destruction until the end to heighten the audience's sense of dread and anticipation, as it was in the original Japanese version, but I guess the American producers wanted to have a "hook" to keep watchers in their seats waiting for the promised city-stomping. Evidence of the addition of this sequence can be seen when Emiko talks to Steve, at all times keeping her back perfectly to the camera so we can't see even the side of her face. They dressed the actress in the clothes that the Emiko character was wearing and as the same voice dubs her in the whole movie, you can't really tell unless you are looking. They do insert a shot of Emiko's face and dub in dialogue, but the background of that shot in no way matches the field hospital where Steve is.
Anyway, Steve's memory takes us to a civil airliner crossing the Pacific towards Japan--a Pan American Airlines Boeing 377 StratoCruiser. Steve is aboard, smoking a cigarette and relaxing. Smoking on a plane? How 1950s. [Editor Pam: I don't think smoking was completely banned on airplanes until the 1980s. I can remember sitting in the non-smoking section and seeing cigarette smoking drifting over from the person in the smoking section in the row right in front of me.] His voice-over tells us that he's stopping off in Japan for a layover on a flight from Chicago to Cairo. He's happy because he's going to meet up with "old college buddy" Doctor Serizawa, who is a noted "theoretical scientist". The old college buddy line was added in the American version to link Steve with the cast and make him blend into the action better. Their ages are a little off to be college buddies, however, with Steve being ten years older. As well, it will soon be established that Steve speaks virtually no Japanese, so unless Serizawa speaks English, then that must have been a really boring college friendship. Also, at no time during the movie do Steve and Serizawa meet face-to-face and Steve doesn't seem too broken up when he dies at the end.
BTW, knowing how slow these planes were compared to modern jets, a flight from Chicago to Tokyo must have taken forever. Those seats don't look all that comfortable and with guys puffing unfiltered Camels onboard it must have been hell. I sure hope they had in-flight movies. [Editor Pam: I don't think they did, but I'm not sure. I guess it beats sailing around the Horn, anyway.] Also, Steve's voice-over tells us that they are flying at 10,000 feet. The StratoCruiser was designed to fly at around 30,000 feet for a smoother flight, so if they were at 10,000 it must have been a horribly bumpy ride.
At the Tokyo airport Steve, now with a pipe, is questioned by Security Official Tomo Iwanaga, played by a very bad actor. Tomo is also an American-version character and will serve as Steve's shadow for the entirety of the movie. He is here to get Steve into important meetings and to translate the native language for him. Steve is aware that Tomo has questioned other people on his flight (though he sure looks surprised when it's his turn) and wants to know what the deal is. Tomo asks if he saw something strange last night (he didn't) and then commences to tell Steve all about the latest crisis.
A few notes here. Tomo says he does this just because Steve is a reporter, but seriously, is Steve really in a need-to-know position? Aren't there other American reporters who are already in Japan that Tomo would be better to hook up with? Steve just got off a plane and doesn't even work for one of the Japan bureaus. And also, why is Tomo's office in the Tokyo airport? Seems like a strange place for it. Steve is sure standing really close to Tomo when they are talking, he even moved around the desk to stand about one foot from him. Egregious violation of personal space.
Ok, I've jumped here a bit for the sake of clarity, but while Steve was flying to Japan and smoking his Camel, strange things were happening out in the ocean. Tomo will paraphrase the following scenes for Steve to get him up to speed, but I'll recap them here. We first see the deck of a good-sized Japanese commercial freighter on the open sea. The crew is relaxing, playing music and napping. Suddenly, a bright flash of light bathes the ship and it immediately bursts into flame. The radio operator frantically transmits an SOS as water pours into the cabin.
This brilliant opening sequence is based on a real-life experience. In March of 1954, just before Gojira went into production, the Japanese papers were full of stories about the Dai-go Fukuryu Maru, a Japanese tuna fishing boat that was unexpectedly caught in the fallout from the first American H-Bomb test on Bikini Island. With this natural tie-in to the subject matter, the producers added this scene in as a tribute.
BTW, the two things that are notoriously difficult to do in miniature are flames and water. This shot of the model ship burning (and the ones to follow of other ships) plainly show these problems. The flames look huge in comparison to the size of the model and the water is too rolling and wavy.
Somehow this ship managed to get off lengthy, if cryptic, radio and telegraph messages before she sank, saying that the sea was aflame and such. From what we saw, the ship was fried pretty quickly, bursting into flames almost immediately, and I wonder how they had time for such a long message. Don't wireless units need electrical power?
We now rejoin Steve and Tomo, having moved into the offices of "Nankai Steamship Company", the parent of the missing freighter. The room is bursting with chattering, running men and concerned relatives of the crew are crowding outside the door demanding answers. In all these scenes in the office, Steve looks almost bored, even annoyed, and with everyone else in the room all frantic he seems like he's in a different movie. He's also really tall. I guess that's what you get when you pair an inordinately tall American with an Asian cast. The president of the shipping company comes in, concern and sorrow evident in his face. Tomo translates the conversations for Steve as the president asks what went wrong. While no one knows exactly what happened, a rescue ship is now on it's way to the site of the sinking.
Here I have to mention how great the dubbing is throughout the entire movie. It's not that the English dubbing of Japanese speakers is good, though it is above par, it's what they choose not to dub that makes it so wonderful. For most of the movie Steve is in the background and people are speaking Japanese all around him, but they are not dubbed (except where it is unavoidable). Instead, someone, usually Tomo, translates for him and the audience. This may not seem like a big deal, but it really does add a sense of authenticity to the movie, putting us into the shoes of Steve's character as he tries to figure out what is going on in a foreign land. There are also numerous scenes where not knowing what the cast is saying helps to add to the dramatic tension and the mystery. Most notable is the ending scene, which I'll address at that point, however. Very well done.
Anyway, we cut to a quick shot of the rescue ship sailing along. The sea flashes and foams and the ship bursts into flame. As the ship model sinks, its stern rises to reveal the chain that was pulling it along the water tank, along with the fact that it has no screws or rudders. Very cheesy.
Cut now to our first media circus--an event that will become common in Godzilla movies. It's obviously some time later, as Steve is wiring his editor in Chicago that now eight ships have been sunk and all shipping traffic has been suspended. Steve decides to stay in Japan to see the story out. Why halt all traffic if all the attacks have been contained to one area? Wouldn't this cripple Japan's economy?
Ok, now we cut out to the open sea where three men hanging onto a plank being pulled out of the water by a boat crew. While in the water the men were screaming and waving and jumping up and down with much mad energy, but as soon as they are rescued they almost immediately fall into comas and die (!!!). Steve's ghostly voice-over tells us that these are "some of the few survivors" and they "died of strange burns and shock." Well, they didn't seem very shocked a minute ago, now did they? Remember this scene for later, it will come up again.
A populace paralyzed with fear demands action and the Japanese government assembles a panel of security officers and scientists, though no Americans are present. These experts include famed paleontologist Doctor Yamane (remember, Emiko's father?). Steve and Tomo are here too, hanging out in the press box with the rest of the reporters. BTW, watch the reporter on the far right, he keeps smiling as if he didn't know the camera was rolling yet. Steve tells us that he knows Yamane from Serizawa, thus completing the loop of trying desperately to tie Steve into the film.
Doctor Yamane is played by Takashi Shimura, one of the greatest Japanese film actors of the twentieth century. Shimura has appeared in some 125 films since 1935, including the Japanese classics Red Beard, Yojimbo, High and Low and The Seven Samurai, as well as Godzilla Raids Again and Mothra for Toho Films. He does, however, look like Sagwa the cat's father on the PBS cartoon Sagwa.
At the meeting, Yamane suggests that they question the natives on Oto Island, which lies in close proximity to the attacks, which apparently have all been bunched in an area east of Japan. That last part I just inferred, because we are never told that, but it makes sense when they show maps.
We segue now to Oto Island, followed by Steve's continuous voice-over, which is growing older by the minute. Oto is an isolated island populated by several hundred primitive locals and we now see about fifty of them sitting on the shore, just watching the sea (???). A group shot shows in the background three ladies with bare breasts. This is the "National Geographic Rule of Nudity", which states that, while civilized breasts are a no-no in 1950s movies, breasts of primitive women are ok.
As we watch, a man washes up on shore and the people rush out to pull him in. From the reactions the islanders show, I'm guessing that they know this man, though I don't see how as Steve tells us that he is a survivor of a ship attack. Steve also says that these islanders are "the only ones to see a survivor of the attacks". Uh, what about the three guys on the plank a few scenes ago? I think that something got cut out by the American editors and the original made a lot more sense. BTW, the islanders start shaking the poor man like he's just scored the winning goal against England in the World Cup. Nice first aid technique, guys. This one scene really shows the prevalent 1950's Japanese film style of "horrible over acting", everyone cries and gnashes their teeth like Jewish mothers on the Wailing Wall. As a example, you can contrast this with the extremely muted and calm performances given by the Japanese cast in 1970's Tora! Tora! Tora!.
The next morning, Steve tells us, a helicopter is dispatched to Oto Island from Tokyo to interview the locals, which carries Steve and Tomo as well. Steve pronounces it "hee-lee-o-copter", and that's funny. The helicopter is a Sikorsky H-19 Chickasaw with Japanese markings.
For the rest of the scenes set on Oto Island this day, Steve looks positively bored and just a bit hung over. I wonder if there were problems on the set in 1956. Tomo spends the rest of the movie in a tight uniform with a hundred buttons and a peaked cap, which when combined with his slight build and goofy speech patterns, makes him a frightening dead-ringer for Officer Barney Fife.
Steve and Tomo mingle with the natives, learning that they believe that an ancient sea monster of their legends named "Godzilla" is to blame for the attacks. That night they go to an interpretive dance ceremony where the natives don phallus-shaped masks and dance to appease the sea monster. We wonder if this is stock footage or did they really get people to dance for the movie? Tomo, in lame tour guide voice, tells Steve that two centuries ago these dance ceremonies included sacrificing virgin girls to Godzilla. Shame this is never expanded on, would have been nice if at some point in the future, as Godzilla is torching Japan, someone would suggest sacrificing a virgin.
We then cut to later that night. Steve and Tomo are bunked in a tent. Neither is sleeping, both are in their underwear and appear to be sweating heavily, and Steve is puffing contently on a cigarette.
A big storm suddenly, and I mean suddenly, blows up, bringing torrential rains, stabs of lightning and gale-force winds. As well, there are dull "booms" as if someone very heavy was walking along (gee, wonder who?). Steve and Tomo take shelter by hugging the trunk of a small tree. Is the base of a skinny tree really the best place to hide from a storm and a potential rampaging giant lizard? Steve and Tomo stay latched onto that tree trunk for the entire sequence, despite being lashed by wind and rain in what must have been a painful moment for the actors.
Though we never see him on camera, we know that Godzilla shows up on the island and creates some damage, knocking over a house. All this is very suspenseful and not actually seeing the monster makes it doubly so.
The ending shot of our stay on Oto shows a model helicopter being knocked around by the wind and the rain. At first viewing I really thought that this was supposed to be some kid's toy copter that the directors, in an artistic mood, decided to film. Then I realized that maybe it was supposed to actually represent the helicopter that Steve flew in on. If that was true, then it was one of the worst models in all of recorded history and I'm ashamed for the entire Japanese nation.
We now cut back to Japan. Some of the natives have been flown in to a press conference in Tokyo the next day to report what they saw for the government. There Steve, sans Tomo, listens in and we see him taking notes as they talk?!? Now he understands Japanese enough to transcribe it?? What? Anyway, each of the natives describe what they saw and their belief that Godzilla is to blame.
Doctor Yamane then gets up to speak. We see that his tie is out of his jacket and in front of the button, very goofy looking. Since this must have been on purpose because it's so obvious, we are forced to ask why? Are they trying to paint Yamane as the typical scientist who only cares about his work and not social conventions like dress and attire? That seems a bit outdated, even for 1954, and Yamane is the hero of the Japanese version, after all. Perhaps, however, it was just a gaff and they just kept the camera rolling without wasting film for a second take. During WWII, Japan saw a critical shortage of film stock and every inch was valuable and not to be wasted. It's well known that even into the 1960s, many Japanese film makers were loath to re-shoot scenes, a holdover from the days of shortages. Who knows, but his tie still looks goofy. [Editor Pam: Possibly an attempt to show lack of concern for Western ways of wearing ties, and/or to show the Japanese as trendsetters? No, probably not. I think you're right, it was an oversight.] Anyway, Yamane expounds that there is something freaky going on and a scientific research party should be formed to go to Oto Island and check it out. That's a good plan.
Not so good a plan is to have the scientific research party travel to Oto Island by boat!!!! Sailing a ship into the very teeth of Godzilla's territory, when a dozen ships before them have been sunk, just seems real stupid, especially for a bunch of supposedly smart scientist-types. The caveat is that Steve voices concern over just this fact. I wonder if the American producers watched this scene and also realized how dumb it was and so added Steve's line to somehow remove the American character from culpability. Steve and Tomo come along. BTW, what exactly is Tomo's job? How is he able to essentially follow Steve around for the entire movie, sleeping in tents one day and attending Parliament meetings the next? [Editor Pam: He's got the standard "B-movie character job." Most B-movie characters have one. They nearly always can pick up and go anyplace at any time the script requires it. They must have very understanding families, too, since they can be gone for long periods of time.]
The meeting with the islanders was in the morning and the expedition left at 2:00 in the afternoon. That seems like a very short time to organize such a thing, especially when we see that it consists of several dozen people and a lot of gear.
Ok, on the voyage to Oto, we meet the rest of our cast. Emiko is Doctor Yamane's daughter (remember her from the prologue?). Emiko is played by Momoko Kochi, who stopped acting between 1958 and her famous return in 1995's Godzilla vs. Destoroyah. She was just 22-years old when she made Godzilla, and it's surprising that she did so little afterwards.
Her beau is Hideto Ogata, a Marine Officer of some sort, I think with the Nankai Steamship Company. Ogata is played by Akira Takarada, a Korean-born actor who went on to appear in four more Godzilla movies as various characters. He was only 20-years old when this movie was filmed, but he did an outstanding job and was recognized for that with a virtual lifetime contract with Toho Studios. The hitch in their budding love is that Emiko is engaged to none other than Doctor Serizawa, Steve's old college buddy. (!!!!) Ah, Seven Degrees of Steve Martin. More on this later, as it becomes the focus of the movie.
Searching the wreckage of the village, the team, led by Dr. Yamane, finds what appear to be huge footprints made by a creature unknown to modern science, and they are radioactive to boot. They then find living Trilobites in the footprints (!!!). What? Are they implying that Godzilla is actually millions of years old? Is he immortal? Was he just in a stasis chamber like Khan? Did the H-Bomb tests also revive the Trilobites? [Editor Pam: The fact that the natives had a dance to appease Godzilla also suggests that he's been around a long time. I'd always assumed he was a mutation of something like a Komodo dragon produced by radiation -- caused by Americans, naturally. If he's really been around for untold numbers of years, I don't see how they can blame us. Of course, it's possible the dance is really only a few years old.]
That is left unexplained as suddenly the natives freak out and run away. Godzilla is coming! Everyone runs up into the hills, and as they approach the crest, Godzilla rises up over it. Gotta say he's pretty ugly at first sight, with a plump, bumpy head and two goofy looking canine teeth. We only get a head-and-shoulders shot here, and the bluescreening is painfully obvious.
Godzilla roars but it's not the "Godzilla roar" that we are all familiar with. Akira Ifukube, considered to be the best Godzilla composer, along with writing the musical score, came up with Godzilla's classic roar. He created it by rubbing a contrabass with a resin-coated leather glove. This trademark roar was heard a few times in the Japanese version but not in the American version for some reason. We Americans would have to wait until the very end of Godzilla Raids Again in 1959 for that roar.
Everyone runs back down the hill. Emiko falls down while running away (!!!). Geez, how 1950s, the female lead falling down fleeing from the monster. Luckily, her stud Ogata saves her (duh). What about all the other women running at the same time? I don't see any of them falling down. Of course, they are all hearty island stock. Not to be undone, Tomo falls down too (!!!). He, however, is saved by Steve, and they stay in each other's arms just a little too long. Hmmm...
I guess Godzilla just wanders back into the sea because he is not seen again while our heroes are on Oto Island. Maybe he was just looking for a TGI Fridays.
Back in Tokyo, the scientists all huddle. Doctor Yamane is giving a lecture for the uninformed (us), complete with a slide show. This entire scene is a wonderful show of how far the science of ancient life has come since 1954. The first slide is a bad drawing of a sauropod dinosaur. Yamane says, "It can be safely assumed that two million years ago (let's try 150 million years ago) this Brontosaurus (actually an Apatosaurus) and other ancient reptiles roamed the earth. It was known as the Jurassic Age." The next slide is another bad drawing of a therapod in a typical landscape of volcanoes and ferns. The therapod is depicted in the old school-style of big and lumbering and standing nearly bolt upright. Yamane continues, "During this period, there was another species which we may call the intermediary animal--a cross between the land-living animals and the sea-living animals (??)." The next slide is a bad painting, errr...photograph of Godzilla peeking over the hill that the survey team took the other day. Yamane names the creature "Godzilla" from the legends of Oto Island. They beat you to that, Doctor, by hundreds of years apparently. He then says, "Judging from this photograph, this creature is over 400-feet tall." (???) How can you tell that? In the Japanese version Godzilla is 50-meters tall (182 feet), so I guess the Americans thought that was too small and bumped it up to 400 feet. When Godzilla is wandering through Tokyo later, you can tell that he's much closer to 182-feet tall than 400. [Editor Pam: Godzilla's always looked like an Allosaurus or Tyrannosaurus to me. Again consulting Wikipedia, neither one of them was much over 40 feet long, at their biggest.]
The slide show over, Yamane then opens discussion about where Godzilla came from and why he's here. He at first advances the idea that by some freak of nature, the breed of animal that is Godzilla has been living since the Jurassic Age and just has not had any reason to come out of hiding until recently. This is hard to believe, but it might explain some of the myths and legends about sea monsters and dragons that're so prevalent in Asia. [Editor Pam: It really is hard to believe, if he's been on an island all that time. How could he hide for any length of time? Would he even be able to find enough to eat? And surely he means generations of Godzillas have been living there since the Jurassic, not this particular Godzilla. Hasn't anybody ever found dead Godzillas, or Godzilla bones? Or Godzilla scat?] He then goes on to say that the radiation in the footprints was Strontium-90, a product of H-Bombs, and that the repeated testing of these weapons has resurrected this animal. This is less believable, but that's our story. [Editor Pam: I agree with you there. I'd say it's more likely he was in hiding until somebody dropped a bomb too close to him and made him mad. The strontium-90 could be radioactive contamination he walked in, but it should have come off long before this if it was going to come off at all, and he should have other fission products on him, not just strontium-90, if radioactive materials from a bomb got on him.] In the end, they decide to let the Navy have a crack at him first.
Now for the love triangle. While the scientific debate rages, Emiko has decided to tell her fiancee Doctor Serizawa the truth about Ogata. Their marriage was arranged when they were just kids and in the ensuing years Emiko has fallen deeply in love with Ogata. She still loves Serizawa, just not "that way" anymore. Who hasn't heard that before, eh, guys? She musters her strength and goes to tell him at his house/laboratory.
Doctor Serizawa is played by Akihiko Hirata, a Korean-born actor who has appeared in five other Godzilla movies. He brings a strength to the character and we watch him battle his internal demons throughout the rest of the movie. Serizawa's main distinguishing feature, other than his scientist-guy lab coat, is a black eye patch. An eye patch? On the surface, they seem to be going for that "Mad Scientist" look so popular in the 1950s, but the run of the film will show Serizawa to be just as noble and conflicted as the rest of the cast. Perhaps it's meant to be a wartime injury and its significance was more prominent in the Japanese version.
The American version cut a good 40 minutes from the Japanese film, replacing it with about 20 minutes of Raymond Burr. Most of the omissions have to do with the relationship between Emiko, Serizawa and Ogata. We suffer for this loss. Emiko tries to tell him, and you can see the genuine pain in her emotions as she struggles. Serizawa, however, has too much on his mind for this sort of thing. He takes Emiko down into his basement lab, filled with bubbling beakers and the like, including a large fish tank filled with ocean fish. He seems to be working alone in his basement, strange for a "noted scientist in his field", but there you go.
Here he shows her his great discovery, a horrible device that destroys all oxygen and surrounding life in water, named the "Oxygen Destroyer". A small ball of this substance dropped in the fish tank quickly strips the flesh off the fish. This display horrifies Emiko and rightly so. Serizawa makes her promise that she won't tell anyone, which makes us wonder why he showed her in the first place.
Later, back at home, Emiko admits to Ogata that she was too conflicted to tell Serizawa the truth, Ogata understands and does not push the matter. This is again a strong character moment for both Emiko and Ogata and they carry themselves in a very adult manner.
The Japanese Navy now goes out to hunt Godzilla using sonar and depth charges. Sonar, eh? Great idea, too bad they forgot about it in later movies where Godzilla manages to wander around the oceans completely undetected. I suspect that the shots of the ships are stock footage from WWII as the film quality is of a much lower resolution than the rest of the film. There also seems to be too many destroyers present for 1954 Japan, wasn't their navy pretty well disarmed still?
Back at the Yamane house, the good doctor is disgusted as he watches the Navy working on TV. He sulks in his study as he says to us, "They are so wrong. Godzilla should not be destroyed, he should be studied." [Editor Pam: Godzilla might have something to say about that. Somehow I don't think he'd like being cooped up in a lab.]
Sure that the Navy has succeeded, Tokyo rejoices. A bad model of a cruise ship plies the waters of Tokyo Bay, filled with carousing and dancing people. Godzilla, far from dead, pops his head out of the water near the ship. We hear the thundering booms! of him walking as the terrified passengers run about and scream. Uh, booms? How could Godzilla walking through the water cause booms? Wouldn't the neck-deep water absorb the sound? [Editor Pam: How does he manage to breathe? Maybe this is why Dr. Yamane threw in that bit about Godzilla being a cross between a land-dwelling animal and a sea-dwelling animal. I don't see any gill slits on Godzilla, though.] Without doing any damage, Godzilla then dives back into the water and disappears.
With Godzilla still alive and now in the bay, Tokyo panics and the citizens flee inland. The next night the Japanese military gathers up to try to protect the city from Godzilla. We see shots of trucks and jeeps racing about (though having watched this film so many times I've noticed that there are only three trucks and one jeep total and they just keep filming them in different locations.) and a scene of tanks crossing a bridge. The tanks are American-built M-24 Chaffees, all that the US Army would give Japan in the post-war years.
Hey! Where is the American military during all this? Christ, in 1954, with the Korean War in full swing, there were more American GIs in Japan than in Germany! I realize this is a Japanese movie, one that is subtly anti-American, but at least a few throw-away lines telling us what the rest of the world is doing about all this monster stuff would be nice. Yokohama, one of the largest American naval bases in the world, is right there in Tokyo Bay! Godzilla essentially just surfaced in a lake filled with the Seventh Fleet!
That night Godzilla initiates his first attack on Tokyo, the first of what will ultimately become dozens of stompings over the next fifty years. Coming ashore in the dock section of the city, he's greeted by fire from two Browning .30 caliber machineguns that shoot at him for all of about five seconds. This is the totality of the Japanese military's response to Godzilla's first attack (!!!). As somber music plays, he crushes a few buildings and then steps in front of a train that hits his foot. Ticked at this, he smashes up the train, even lifting a car in his jaws before tossing it back down. I have a problem with the size of the train car versus the size of the foot, which gives the allusion that Godzilla is ten times bigger than he really is. It's also painfully obvious that the close-ups are really bad puppets. Eek. This train scene begins a long and storied line of Godzilla vs. the railroad, which is seen in virtually every Godzilla sequel.
BTW, in the Japanese version, we join the commuters on the train pondering their luck before just Godzilla smacks it. One woman bemoans that it was a miracle she "survived Nagasaki", but now has to face Godzilla. Other man quips, "Back to the shelters again!". This scene was cut because of the obvious anti-American bent.
Throughout this first attack, I should mention, while Steve is shown watching, we're free of his annoying voice-overs. This is a smart move that unfortunately won't be repeated in Godzilla's next attack.
A thought on Godzilla's physical appearance here. His spiky dorsal spines seem to flop around way too much. If they are indeed like similar dorsal spikes and plates on modern reptiles and fossilized dinosaurs, then they're attached directly to the animal's vertebrae and should not wiggle like they do with Godzilla.
Godzilla then returns to the water, having made his point, I guess. Although his attack was brief, there was much damage. As Godzilla only seems to be attacking at night, during the day the government has plenty of time to consider ways to destroy Godzilla. Tomo tells us that the new plan involves using a line of electrified high tension wires juiced with 300,000 volts to hold him back. The editing is real confusing here. In some ways it seems like the towers and wires were already there and they were just going to bump up the power to them, while in other places it seems like the military is building the whole set-up from scratch. Since they only have like half a day, there is no way on earth that they could build a twenty mile line of 300-foot tall electrical towers. Anyway, just in case the wires fail, the army brings in some towed field artillery (I think they are Type 58s) and more tanks and line the bay with barrels while searchlights ply the dark waters.
That night Godzilla reappears and again wades ashore. He easily breaks through the electrical barrier, apparently with little pain. This, like the train attack, will become standard fare in other Godzilla movies and if we don't see it then we get mad. While he's still amongst the wires, the military opens up a furious barrage. We see machineguns, field pieces and tanks all firing like mad. The artillery pieces are obviously models as there's no recoil when they "fire" and in the flashes of light you can see that the people around them are plastic figures. I counted at least seven solid hits from large caliber guns but they seemingly have no effect on the Big Guy.
Really mad now, and still somewhat entangled in the wires, the Godzilla puppet head sprays aerosol "fire" from it's mouth, which is cool but looks really cheap here. This Atomic Fire Breath melts the towers around him, which bend and drip like the plastic models they are. Preceding the breath, Godzilla's dorsal spines heat up, crackling with white light. It's never established anywhere in the series what the spines have to do with the Fire Breath. Are they gathering and conducting energy from the air to route to Godzilla's mouth? Are they venting excess heat and energy from his body when he prepares to fire his breath? Any ideas?
Throughout this entire second attack, Steve and Tomo are on the upper floor of a building with a ring-side view of the action. In his frequent cut-away close-ups, Steve alternately looks truly bored and on anti-depressants in some shots, and all sweaty and glassy-eyed like he's strung out on crystal in others. Steve whips out this huge tape recorder which is a box the size of a suitcase with a reel-to-reel setup on top and a microphone on a thick cord. Good thing they still have power even though Godzilla is mangling the city, because this thing must need a lot of juice. He begins to talk into it as he watches the carnage outside, stating that he is leaving a recorded account of the coming events for his editor George in Chicago. This cleverly allows him to describe the action to the audience without sounding hokey. BTW, we never know if George got this tape.
Now into the suburbs, Godzilla starts fire-breathing buildings at random, including some oil storage tanks which explode quite nicely. Now this hurts. We get a scene of two crashing fire trucks, accomplished by showing us shots of real trucks starting to go into a skid, then cut to a stop-motion shot of a horribly bad model of a truck flipping and then back to the real truck burning. Words cannot describe how bad this was, it was the worst FX in the history of the world. Cavemen could have done a better job.
A few things about the city of Tokyo as it gets munched. The power stays on throughout the attack, despite the damage and the whole downing of the power lines from before. Many buildings even show lighted windows as Godzilla is crunching them up. They also obviously have no interior structures as they collapse like hollow models.
Steve tells us that, "They're moving an entire Tank Corps to point-blank firing range!". Now a Tank Corps has a lot of tanks but we only get to see a total of two plastic models of M-24 Chaffees clanking up to fire at Godzilla. I counted nine good hits with their 75mm guns before the "Tank Corps" realizes they are wasting ammo and attempts to pull back. Godzilla nukes our two tanks with his Atomic Fire Breath for good measure.
Godzilla now continues his rampage deeper into the city, blasting entire blocks and even individual police cars with his Atomic Fire Breath and kicking and wailing his tail around. In one neat shot, we get a street-level view of Godzilla leaning over an apartment block, in the windows we can see frantic people running. This is a great composite shot, maybe the best in the whole movie.
To the Japanese audience in 1954, the sight of Tokyo burning must have been amazingly powerful. Keep in mind that just nine years before, Tokyo was nearly burned to the bedrock by American bombers and certainly millions were killed. A good percentage of the audience must have personally lived through the fire bombings and this must have made them weep. In one particularly moving scene, a mother huddles with her two young children in the shadow of Godzilla. Just before being incinerated, she tells them, "We're going to join daddy in a moment." The American version left this scene in but did not translate her last words, what a travesty. He then knocks over a clock tower (telling us it's now 11:00pm) and munches a radio tower filled with reporters who keep flashing him with their cameras. Stupid reporters. When he bites the radio tower it's never more obvious that this terrible monster is just a rubber suit. As he bites, the sides of his rubber mouth bow out and the teeth visibly bend. Cheap fun.
Finally having enough of Steve's annoying voice-over, Godzilla moves for his building. Crushing it in, Tomo is killed and Steve is blessedly knocked out. Now, for some reason Godzilla heads back towards the bay because in the next scene he's knee-deep in the water again. Kicking over a few bridges he continues to wreck havoc.
And now, finally, the Japanese Air Force shows up. Where were you before????? Our attack consists of at least six jets, each armed with unguided rockets, which zoom in to shoot-up our monster. On DVD, you can actually see the wires that they used to simulate the rockets shooting out from the toy planes. Really cheap fun. The jet fight in the American version lasted a little longer than the attack in the Japanese version for some reason. This is obvious as several shots are reused in the space of two minutes.
The attacking jets are a mix of American-built F-86F Sabres and F-86D Dog Sabres with Japanese markings. This is a little odd because Japan did not receive its first F-86s for the JSDAF until December of 1955, well after this movie was filmed. Either the filmmakers guessed that Japan would get Sabres one day or they just saw a lot of them being flown around by Americans and they were easy to make models of.
The JSDAF actually manages to drive off Godzilla (!!!), marking a rare victory for the military in a Godzilla movie. However, it should be noted that none of the rockets seemed to actually hit Godzilla, so maybe he was just ready to go anyway. The Japanese pilots must suck, because while we see rockets whizzing by and hear lots of bangs and whooshes on the sound track, there are no visible splashes of water or signs of hits around Godzilla in the several shots of him reentering from the water while under fire. Could they just not afford underwater squibs in their diorama set?
The next day we are at the hospital where the prologue began. The rest of the movie from here on is not a flashback but set in real-time. Emiko tells Steve and Ogata (who has joined them) about Doctor Serizawa's Oxygen Destroyer. They all agree that this weapon is Japan's only hope to stop Godzilla.
Emiko and Ogata now visit Serizawa and ask him for his help. There is brief but wonderful scene here where Emiko and Ogata wait in Serizawa's study for him. There is a small fish tank on a table, and the scene opens with Emiko running her fingers across the tank. As Serizawa comes into the room, he sees Emiko first and his face visibly brightens. He quickly sees Ogata, however, and while his face falls, he retains his composure and asks them to sit down. Once seated, Ogata tells him that he knows of the Oxygen Destroyer. Serizawa, shaken, denies its existence but the genuinely injured glance he casts at Emiko says otherwise. Emiko, ashamed at her betrayal, lowers her head. This is an extremely well done piece of acting on all their parts and is indicative of some of the great writing that this film gives us.
Let me again offer a quick explanation of the Oxygen Destroyer. It seems that while experimenting with oxygen, Serizawa came across a "terrible chemical discovery, a way to destroy all oxygen in water, thereby disintegrating all living matter in water." And furthermore "an amount no larger than a baseball could turn Tokyo Bay into a graveyard." The science of the Oxygen Destroyer is dubious at best, but it is no more outlandish than similar "doomsday" weapons invented by the mad scientists of other 1950s movies, so I will let it slide.
Serizawa kept the secret of his Oxygen Destroyer because of the destruction it could bring as a weapon, deciding instead to continue working on it in secret to find some counteracting good it could be used for. In the Japanese version, Serizawa fears that the Oxygen Destroyer might be used by the "military" to fuel a new arms race. In the American version, however, his fear is that it will fall into the "wrong hands". This is a subtle but important difference, and reflects the mood in America in 1956 towards the Russians. Echoes of Serizawa's doubts and guilt were seen in Albert Einstein's and Robert Oppenheimer's public statements that they wished to hell they hadn't created the H-bomb after realizing how much misery and destruction it would cause the world. The makers of this movie very neatly wove that sentiment into Serizawa's dialogue. This paints Serizawa in a very noble light, but also proves to be a conflict that is consuming him emotionally. Serizawa refuses to give up the weapon and he and Ogata actually tussle over a box containing the formulas. Tastefully, the fight between the two men is heard, not seen, a fish tank blocking the scene until it is over. This is so completely opposite of any American film that would show them swinging at each other in glorious slow-mo. In the end, Serizawa, visibly embarrassed that they were fighting, helps Ogata to his feet and apologizes.
Serizawa still can't bring himself to use the Oxygen Destroyer. Ogata counters his worry of it being used for evil by telling him that he has to choose between that fear that might become reality and reality itself, which is Godzilla. At that moment a television broadcast of the destruction Godzilla brought comes on and Serizawa stares at it in silence. The broadcast scenes are horrific, with mangled bodies and smoking rubble mixing with school children praying for deliverance from Godzilla's evil. This pushes Serizawa into action and he agrees to use the Oxygen Destroyer on Godzilla as long as it is only used just this once. To assure this, he begins to burn the formulae in the stove, destroying any evidence of its manufacture.
The next day, a Navy patrol boat carrying the cast hunts Godzilla with a Geiger counter, eventually finding him in the relatively shallow waters of Tokyo Bay. Is Godzilla sleeping down there? Does he sleep during the day and only become active at night? This would explain a lot, but earlier we saw him on Oto Island during the day.
The Oxygen Destroyer must be placed by hand, so Ogata and Serizawa don diving suits and enter the water. Take a look at the bandanna worn by Doctor Serizawa under his diving helmet. It's a kamikaze blossom, and its symbolism cannot be overlooked. On the fantail, Emiko watches with trepidation as the two men she loves disappear beneath the water.
Beneath the waves, they find Godzilla and Serizawa activates the Oxygen Destroyer. Ogata begins his assent, but then realizes that Serizawa is not with him. Having already cut his weights, he cannot slow his assent. He frantically screams Serizawa's name into the radio over and over, begging him to come up, a gut-wrenching thing to watch and hear.
As soon as Ogata pops to the surface alone, the look on Emiko's face tells us that she instantly knows what Serizawa is doing. Knowing that, with his papers destroyed, the only record of the Oxygen Destroyer is in his head, Doctor Serizawa has decided to sacrifice himself so that its secret will never threaten the world.
While Serizawa pulls out a knife and cuts his air hose, the Oxygen Destroyer works to perfection and Godzilla is reduced to a skeleton. Words cannot describe how exceptionally good this final set piece is. From the time the two men go down into the water to the ending credits, it is a powerful and moving show of personal sacrifice and sorrow, mingled with the joy of having killed off the monster. The music is incredibly well-matched to the drama on the screen, true masterwork by composer Akira Ifukube. The general lack of dubbing here gives it even more punch--we don't need to have Ogata's pleading to Serizawa translated, that sort of pain and helplessness is universal. Kudos, as well, to the American editors for not ruining it with too many needless shots of Steve.
Godzilla has rightfully earned its place in film history. The image of a giant lizard knocking over buildings and breathing fire has incorporated itself into the pop culture of our modern world. Do yourself a favor and watch this movie, you will be duly impressed.
VHS MOVIE REVIEW : FEAR NO EVIL
FEAR NO EVIL is another first-time, independent horror film by a very young filmmaker, in this case, 20-something producer/director/writer Frank LaLoggia who went on to make the highly revered LADY IN WHITE nearly a decade later. Shot in 1979 and released in 1981 by the now-defunct AVCO Embassy, the film's Antichrist content owes much to THE OMEN (1976) and even CARRIE (1976), but its advertising (complete with high school yearbook poster ads) tried to cash in on the rampant teen horror craze of the period. Though hailed by some critics at the time of its release, FEAR NO EVIL remains a jumbled, dated mess, but an unusual one at that.
The pre-credit sequence has an old priest (Jack Holland) hunting down and destroying Lucifer who allows himself to perish as a mortal. The priest is later charged with murder and dies in an asylum. Jump ahead to 1963, and a baby is born, showing off some splatter-hemorrhaging antics at his church baptism. We then see him grown up as Andrew Williams (Stefan Arngrim, a former child actor from the 60's "Land of the Giants" series), a weird, effeminate teen with an A+ school average who also happens to be an Antichrist with telepathic and other unworldly powers. On his 18th birthday, Andrew causes an accident that leaves his mother paralyzed in a wheelchair and dad a depressed drunk.
In the meantime, an older Archangel on earth (Elizabeth Hoffman) teams up with a teenage girl (Kathleen Rowe McAllen) who also becomes holy after her boyfriend is killed as a result of Andrew's evil. After drinking the blood of a sacrificed dog, Andrew (now looking like an extra from a Billy Idol music video) goes to a nearby castle on an island to perform a demonic ceremony and causes bloody chaos at a community play about Jesus' death. People start bleeding from the head, an army of the dead rise from ground, and Andrew mutes into an ugly demon while our two lady angels conflict him in a "good vs. evil" show-off climax.
Definitely ambitious and intentionally stylish for a first-timer with very little money, FEAR NO EVIL boasts some clever scenes (Andrew's descending shadow, death by a propelled volley ball, a male teen suddenly develops female breasts, etc.) and most of the camera work and lighting is well-handled. However, bad local theater group type acting (over and under) prevails, the "Thriller" video type make-up and horror value are not bad but not very scary either, there's too many silly optical effects, and the whole show suffers from having an 80s TV movie look, much like the ones Wes Craven did at the time. The soundtrack music (recently issued on CD) by David Spear is not menacing enough, and songs by punk and new wave acts like The Ramones, The Boomtown Rats, The Sex Pistols and others add some flavor but are unfortunately bunched together in snippets during an earlier part of the film and not spread out throughout.
Anchor Bay has done a fine job releasing this cult oddity on DVD, giving it a new transfer and loading it with extras. Letterboxed in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio with Anamorphic enhancement, the transfer is taken from a pristine source and looks as good as possible for a low budget film of this type. Grain and picture softness are evident occasionally, but on a whole, colors are nicely saturated and show off the various lighting set-ups to good effect. Solid audio tracks are available in either Dolby Surround 5.1 or Dolby Surround 2.0, giving the film a real boost when played loud.
An audio commentary is included with LaLoggia and director of photography Frederic Goodich. Their memories of making a low budget horror film in Upstate New York in the late 70s are enjoyable to listen to. LaLoggia comes off as a really nice guy who had his heart in this project, and he explains how outside demands forced him to make changes he was against. He relays several times how he wanted the film to have a look of the Hammer films which he admired so much. Goodich is obviously very serious about his craft, and the way he explains some of the camera and lighting set-ups in the film, shows that he greatly cared about what he was doing as well.
Also included is 20 minutes of video footage, shot on the set while the film was being made. The footage gives us a great behind-the-scenes glimpse at FEAR NO EVIL, and documents several sequences that were omitted from the final cut. A still gallery, theatrical trailer, eight(!) different TV spots, and a DVD-ROM version of the script are included as well. Liner notes by Jay Marks are in a booklet enclosed inside the disc's packaging. (George R. Reis)
VHS MOVIE REVIEW : NIGHTTRAIN MURDERS
Aldo Lado is one of the most interesting, yet least known of the many Italian directors who were churning out genre films in the early 70’s. His debut film was the marvellous SHORT NIGHT OF THE GLASS DOLLS (1971), and he followed this with WHO SAW HER DIE? (1972), one of the best examples of the giallo movie. NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS followed in 1975, but unfortunately his career more or less stalled after this, although he did direct the terrible THE HUMANOID in 1979, but the less said about that the better...
NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS opens with two young guys, Blackie (Flavio Bucci) and Curly (Gianfranco de Grassi), mugging an alcoholic Santa Claus in Germany. Meanwhile, Margaret (a very young looking Irene Miracle) and Lisa (Laura D’Angelo), two young girls, are preparing to travel to Italy to visit Lisa’s family for Christmas. They get on a train, but so do the two thugs from earlier. The girls eventually end up meeting the guys, and help them avoid the ticket collector. Meanwhile, an upper-class woman (Macha Méril) catches the eye of Blackie, and he follows her to the (very spacious!) toilet cubicle, where they indulge themselves. After this, the two guys get into a fight with a conductor and the girls take the chance to take their leave. The train is stopped at the next stop due to a bomb hoax, and the girls change train, the new train being almost empty, which at first seems a relief after the packed one they were on originally. Relief soon turns to terror however, when the two guys and the mysterious woman turn up at their carriage and start making themselves comfortable. Things get more and more out of hand as the thugs are encouraged by the older woman, ending with the two girls both leaving the moving train by the windows, rather than the more conventional exit. When the train eventually arrives at its destination, Lisa’s parents (Enrico Maria Salerno and Marina Berti) are waiting for them. Of course, they don’t turn up but the evil trio manage to hitch a lift back to their house. Anyone who’s ever seen LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972) can work out what comes next, I’m sure...
I had only ever seen NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS once before, many years ago, and the version I had watched was an extremely dark and ropey bootleg. Still, it made an impression on me and I remembered it quite well, and was interested to see how it held up now that a lovely spick-and-span transfer of the film is available on DVD. The film is essentially a rip-off of Wes Craven’s infamous aforementioned LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, with the twist of the train setting. Of course, further Italian LAST HOUSE-influenced films were to follow, the most notable being Campanile’s HITCH-HIKE (1977) and Deodato’s HOUSE BY THE EDGE OF THE PARK (1980), both of which benefitted immensely from the presence of LAST HOUSE’s David Hess as the psycho. NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS substitutes the Hess character for Macha Méril’s plain evil "respectable lady" character, and it’s a trick that really works well, giving the nasty goings on an extra kick as it’s pretty unusual to see a female ringleader in this type of film.
In all honesty, the film isn’t completely successful, taking too long to get going initially and then rushing the climax, but there are many good things about it: as already mentioned, Méril is excellent in her role as the sadistic older lady, there’s a fairly effective scene involving a voyeur (played by Franco Fabrizi), the claustrophobic setting of the train carriage works well, and there’s a fascinating cast for admirers of Dario Argento’s work. Macha Méril played Helga the psychic in PROFONDO ROSSO the same year, Irene Miracle went on to play Rose Elliot in INFERNO (1980), Enrico Maria Salerno played Inspector Morosini in THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970), Flavio Bucci played Daniel, the blind pianist, in SUSPIRIA (1977) and Gianfranco de Grassi had a small role in Soavi’s THE CHURCH (1989).
Let’s see – what else deserves a mention? Ennio Morricone provides yet another good score, even if it’s not one of his best, and that hallmark of Morricone’s work, the harmonica playing character, makes another appearance. There’s a terrible opening and closing ballad sung by Demis Roussos entitled ‘A Flower’s All You Need’ (“it seemed like a good idea at the time,” Lado comments in the accompanying featurette!), an homage to Leone’s FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE (1971) in the form of the scenes showing the various characters on the train, characters discussing the role of violence in society and a failed rapist commenting that a girl’s vagina was "as tight as a frightened arsehole," before sticking a knife up it in a scene reprised more graphically but less effectively in Fulci’s NEW YORK RIPPER (1982) and Mario Landi’s GIALLO A VENEZIA (1979). Surprisingly, there’s not that much blood or nudity on show, but Lado manages to convey a sense of depravity and crazed violence by clever use of lighting, and by cutting to the other characters’ faces during such scenes. I don’t think that the film has aged as well as perhaps HITCH-HIKE or HOUSE BY THE EDGE OF THE PARK, and may seem somewhat tame and restrained by today’s standards. Still, there are plenty of reasons to see it, and it’s great that such a rare film is now available on DVD for all to see.