Saturday, August 23, 2008

Winging It: Mothra(1961)

As a kid I was delighted by the fact my father was also a fan of giant monster movies. Among his favorites were War Of The Gargantuas(1966), Godzilla King Of The Monsters(1956) and Godzilla Vs The Thing(1964). My father actually saw Godzilla Vs The Thing in a NYC movie theater in 1964 while he was on business there. My father's absolute favorite kaiju film of all time was Mothra(1961) , a film he also saw in a theater. It took me, admittedly, some time to "warm up" to this gigantic, lepidopteral monster. Mothra is widely considered the second most popular kaiju, after Godzilla. I'm certain this is a debatable issue. I've seen great debate about who gets second place in popularity after Godzilla at many message boards. What isn't subject to debate is that Mothra has appeared in over a half dozen other kaiju films and has a trilogy of films, released theatrically in the 1990's, that also showcase the winged creature. The first film this monster appeared in is still, IMO, the best, overall.

Mothra was released theatrically in Japan on July 30, 1961. It would reach American theaters later in May, 1962, released by Columbia Pictures, which had bought the North American rights to the Toho film.

The film's story:
A ship called the Daini Genyo Maru runs aground in a typhoon in the waters near Biru Island, located in an area of lingering radioactive fallout from repeated atomic tests conducted by the country of Rolisica. Four survivors from the wrecked ship are found by a search and rescue effort, curiously unaffected by the radiation in the area. To investigate the mystery further, the Rolisican government sponsors a Rolisican-Japanese expedition to study the island. There they find an isolated area of lush green vegetation, natives indigenous to the island, and two six inch tall girls. Deciding to leave the tiny girls and the island alone, the expedition departs Biru Island and returns to Japan. Unfortunately, entrepreneur Clark Nelson, in charge of the expedition, returns to the island and,with the help of his thugs, kidnap the tiny girls, cutting down the natives in a barrage of gunfire. Nelson immediately puts the tiny girls on a vaudevillian-like display as part of his "Secret Fairies" show, much to the disdain of other expedition members Shinichi Chujo, a linguist/anthropologist, Zenichiro Fukuda, a reporter, and Michi Hanamura, Fukuda's photographer and colleague. This trio implore Clark Nelson to relinquish the tiny girls. Nelson refuses. Result: a gigantic egg on Biru Island hatches, loosing an enormous caterpillar called "Mothra", which swims towards Japan, to "rescue" the two girls. The giant caterpillar, surviving an at sea napalm attack, and plowing through an ocean liner that happens to be in its way, reaches the Japanese mainland and begins it's search for the two little girls. (no other spoilers).

This film has a decidedly "fantasy" feel about it, the story driven by the performance of (the late) Jerry Ito, who masterfully portrays vile, ego maniacal and greedy entrepreneur Clark Nelson. His performance makes it easy to despise him and cheer for Mothra to come and rescue the two island "fairies". The score, by Yuki Koseki, is sweeping, majestic and grand. The special effects, courtesy of Eiji Tsuburaya, are outstanding, the miniature effects and wirework effects used to bring Mothra to life a marvel to watch. The rendering of the larval Mothra is done through people inside a prop, Haruo Nakajima manning the "head" portion of the suit. The adult(flying) form is rendered through a large prop which is maneuvered via a system of overhead wires. Mattes are used quite a bit for Mothra's attack on the Rolisican metropolis called "New Kirk City". Other Toho actors in this movie include Hiroshi Koizumi as the linguist Shinichi Chujo, Frankie Sakai as Zenichiro Fukuda(nicknamed "Snapping Turtle" in the original film and "Bulldog" in the English dubbed version). Kyouko Kagawa, who played "Michi Hanamura", was very cute. Kenji Sahara has a small role as a helo pilot, Harold Conway portrays the Rolisican Ambassador, and Robert Dunham a Rolisican police detective.

The film, which did very well at the box office both in Japan and in the United States, was shot in color and 2:35.1 widescreen aspect ratio. It is available on Region 2 DVD and can be purchased via online order at either or CDJapan, though in Japanese language only(no English subtitles). Recently it was announced that Sony will be releasing Mothra to R1 DVD in 2009 as part of a DVD set, which also includes the Toho films Battle In Outer Space(1959) and The H-Man(1958). Truly great news!

The film has appeared a few times on Turner Classic Movies, though not recently, in full frame format and in English dubbed audio.

The R2 DVD for sale at CDJapan:

The Japanese trailer for Mothra(1961):

Friday, August 22, 2008

Monkey Business: King Kong Escapes(1967)

My great fondness for "Godzilla" movies has been long lasting. So, it turns out, is my affinity for King Kong, the giant ape who first appeared in American theaters in 1933 in King Kong. The giant ape would make his first appearance in a Toho film in 1962 when he was scaled to forty five meters in height to take on fifty meter tall Godzilla.
Five years later Kong would appear in another live action film, a collaboration between Rankin-Bass, an American company, and Toho, called King Kong Escapes. This 1967 film, based loosely on an episode of the 1966 Rankin-Bass "King Kong" cartoon series, was released in late 2005 on R1 DVD, paired with King Kong Vs Godzilla(1962), as a DVD two-disc pack, both films in their original aspect ratio of 2:35.1 and in English dubbed language track.

The story line of King Kong Escapes(1967) is fairly straightforward: UN CDR Carl Nelson(played by Rhodes Reason), his executive officer Nomura(played by Akira Takarada), and a nurse(played by Linda Miller), decide to check out nearby Mondo Island while the submarine Nelson commands undergoes repairs from damage incurred by an underwater landslide. The trio make landfall at Mondo Island and quickly learn that the island's indigenous animal life can be dangerous: a dinosaur who looks like Gorosaurus menaces Lt. Watson. Kong comes to the rescue and saves her, defeating his dinosaur adversary in jaw ripping fashion.
In the meantime Dr. Who(played by Eisei Amamoto) endeavors to harvest tons of the mysterious element X for his mysterious female financier(played by Mie Hama) who may, or may not, represent Communist China. To collect the glowing radioactive element X Dr. Who employs his own robot equivalent of King Kong, "MechaniKong", to get the material. The robot fails. Dr. Who then captures (the real) King Kong alive, lures Nelson/Nomura/Lt Watson to his arctic hideout and tries to use Kong, via hypnosis, to dig up the glowing material. Kong also fails and eventually escapes, Dr. Who in pursuit, which ends in Tokyo. The climax of the film features a brief battle on the ground between King Kong and his mechanical doppleganger, then a longer battle between the two high above the streets of Tokyo on the Tokyo Tower.
Observations: I've always liked this movie, despite its many failings.

Thumbs up:

1. Eisei Amamoto, whose portrayal of "Dr. Who" was, I thought, very good. He's easy to despise: hateful, vain, arrogant, ruthless, vampire-like in appearance, his facial features gaunt, his eyebrows pointy. Even more frightening about Amamoto's appearance: the absolute disaster inside his mouth, his set of choppers so bad they would give any self respecting dentist nightmares.

2. the score: I thought it was solid, especially the parts used during the Mechani-Kong sequences

3. the rendering of MechaniKong: the robot appeared to move convincingly robot like without looking like a piece of cardboard.

4. King Kong Vs the dinosaur: a nice battle and much better than Kong vs the serpent

5. the remaining cast overall: I liked the mix of American actors like Rhodes Reason and Japanese actors like Akira Takarada

6. the Tokyo Tower battle between Kong and MechaniKong

Thumbs down:

1. the Kong suit: though better, I thought, than the atrocious KK suit used in 1962's King Kong Vs Godzilla, that still isn't saying much. Many of the shots used also featured what appeared to be an alternate head, with an exaggerated leering look and over-sized lips. The zipper for the main suit can easily be seen along the back.

2. many of the water tank shots looked too much like water tanks, especially some of the background matte paintings

3. Kong vs the serpent: not what I consider a well rendered effects sequence, and lacked, like other scenes, high speed filming

4. wires are clearly visible during the scene where Dr. Who's helicopters swoop in to drop ether bombs around Kong.

Overall: I enjoy watching this movie a couple of times a year. Those wanting to see King Kong Escapes in Japanese language can buy the Region 2 DVD from or from various internet DVD-R vendors who sell the R2 copy with English subtitles.

A promo clip(w/English subtitles) for King Kong Escapes(1967):

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Pit And The Pendulum(1961)

I have been a great fan of Vincent Price for the longest time. This man was, even before entering the horror movie genre, a very good actor. I think everyone would agree Vincent Price found his "niche", so to speak, acting in horror films. I have always liked many of his early horror movies, especially House Of Wax(1953) and The Fly(1958). Vincent Price starred in a handful of films, based on Edgar Allan Poe stories, directed by Roger Corman in the early 1960's as well, a group of movies that have, I believe, stood the test of time quite well. One of these Roger Corman directed films is an absolute personal favorite of mine, and also a favorite vehicle by which to watch Vincent Price, IMO a master of his craft, at work. The movie I'm referring to is Pit And The Pendulum, produced and directed by Roger Corman and released to theaters in 1961 by American International Pictures.

The film's story:
In 16th century Spain, Englishman Francis Barnard has sojourned to the seaside castle of Spaniard Nicholas Medina, to investigate the cause of his sister Elizabeth's untimely death. At the large and foreboding castle Barnard meets Nicholas Medina(played by Vincent Price), a physician, Medina's sister Dania, and Medina's butler. The Englishman demands details of his sister's death but, at least at first, few answers are forthcoming from the troubled Nicholas Medina, who is, we learn, teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Medina has a gruesome and grisly family history, his father Sebastian one of the Spanish Inquisitions' most notorious torturers, as evidenced by the torture chamber located in the bowels of the castle.
In time it becomes apparent that Elizabeth may not really be dead, a fact that pushes Nicholas Medina closer to insanity. (no other spoilers)

This film is, IMO, a great vehicle by which to showcase the acting talents of Vincent Price. Price is able to explore, and manifest, all of Nicholas Medina's psychological instabilities, and to great effect: paranoia, uncertainty, torment, guilt and finally an insanity filled revenge, acted out with ruthless efficiency on several of the other characters in this film. The score, by Les Baxter, is a moody amalgamation of keyboards and strings, and matches the movie's scenes quite well.
The film's sets will not, admittedly, blow one away but there appears to have been some effort to make the clothing worn by the characters commensurate with the setting(by year) and location of the movie. The best prop for Pit And The Pendulum is the castle's interior, replete with creaking doors, cobweb filled corridors, secret passageways, and the torture chamber itself, a somber collection of instruments used to maim and kill during the Spanish Inquisition. The pendulum is the most fearsome of these instruments, a swinging, razor sharp curved blade that swings back and forth above it's prone victim, lowering slightly with each swing...and you can guess what happens next.
The executive producers for this film might sound familiar: Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson, who partnered on many other sci-fi/horror films as producers.

The film also stars John Kerr as "Francis Barnard", Luana Anders as "Dania", Anthony Carbone as "Dr. Leon", and the exquisitely lovely Barbara Steele as "Elizabeth".

The R1 DVD of this film has been released by MGM in their "Midnite Movies" series and can be bought at a very affordable price at

The Midnite Movies DVD includes scene selection and a trailer for the film, which is presented in 2:35.1 widescreen aspect ratio.

The theatrical trailer for Pit And The Pendulum(1961):

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Grin And Bear It: Prophecy(1979)

I remember as a high school junior venturing downtown several times and catching movies on the cheap at the old "Omni" theater, the theater itself part of "The Omni", which was a facility that included an arena where the Atlanta Hawks(NBA) and Atlanta Flames(NHL) played their home games. Movies cost just 99 cents to see on weekends and I sure saw a lot of them. One of my fondest memories of this theater came from watching a film of nature gone berserk and directed by John Frankenheimer: Prophecy(1979). This movie garnered average to poor ratings from film critics and has been generally reviewed as a pedestrian horror movie at best. A TV spot promoting this movie got my attention, as did the theatrical poster. The film was distributed by Paramount Pictures, and stars Robert Foxworth, Talia Shire, Armand Assante and Richard Dysart.

The film's story:
A public health physician named "Rob"(played By R. Foxworth) is asked by a colleague to conduct an environmental investigation into the impact of a local logging company on a large area of Maine woodland upcountry. The logging company's production of wood and paper products clashes with the local Indian community which wants to preserve the land from man made intrusion. Rob and his wife Maggie(Talia Shire) travel to Maine and soon see first hand just how polarized things are between employees of the local paper mill and the Native American Indian community there. Rob and his wife learn that the woods are being slowly contaminated by chemicals loosed into the local river, which has caused fatalities and deformities among both the Indian and local animal populace. Not coincidentally, there is something very large, very menacing, but yet unseen, prowling the woods around our main characters, that has brutally slaughtered a search and rescue party, a family on a camping sojourn, and which is now stalking Rob, his wife, and the pair of Native American Indians who're trying to help them with the investigation. Judging from the sounds of the creature it's safe to assume it damn sure ain't Smokey The Bear. The remainder of the movie focuses on the group which tries to escape the woods before the huge, mysterious monster can get to them. (no other spoilers).

What works in this film for me:

-The score: very bold, with lots of strings and urgent horns. The score adds real urgency, and dread, to many scenes in this film.

-The actors: Robert Foxworth and Talia Shire are solid, as is Armand Assante. Foxworth's "Rob" is the disillusioned doctor looking to make a difference in the world, Assante is the surly yet courageous Indian "John Hawks" who's trying to protect his people. Talia Shire is the demure wife of "Rob" who struggles to communicate with her husband. Richard Dysart's character, "Eisley", who represents the paper mill, is also good as the mill's bureaucratic and self confident representative, who ultimately must face the consequences of his mills' contamination of the local environment.

-The film's pace: the movie moves along very well. The tension and dread that builds in Prophecy is constant.

-The cinematography: director John Frankenheimer captures the rugged isolation and raw beauty of Maine's woodland up country very well. The woods take on, in a way, a life of their own once the characters are stranded on foot, and with the hulking, menacing mutated beast seemingly always lurking not too far away, concealed in the shadows and thickets of the trees.

-The small mutated creatures: sufficiently grotesque and possessing blood curdling cries. Not for the squeamish.

What doesn't work in this film for me:

-The large mutated creature: part bear(clearly evident from its appearance) and parts of other things altogether, this monster, while not what I would rate as terrible, still leaves a lot to be desired. Imagine a grizzly bear with severe psoriasis and a serious drooling problem. The growl, roar and heavy, ragged breathing of the giant, disfigured and rabid monster was, IMO, very good, but at times the creature's movements appeared sloppy and "loose". In other scenes the monster's movements were slower and more deliberate, what you would expect from something standing fifteen feet high(or more) and weighing well over half a ton.

Overall: Prophecy remains a personal favorite of mine. I watch it about twice a year. The movie has been released onto R1 DVD by Paramount. The disc includes an audio set up and scene selections. The film's aspect ratio is 2:35.1 widescreen.

Here's a TV promo clip, from 1979, of Prophecy:

Another intense scene where one of the campers is killed by the monster:

Here's the film for sale on DVD at

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Frankly Speaking: Frankenstein Meets The Space Monster(1965)

When the average person, horror movie fan or not, hears the word "Frankenstein", I would presume they would envision a mad doctor, or perhaps the monster created by the infamous mad doctor himself. Universal Studios and Hammer Studios have produced some truly marvelous Frankenstein films, and while all obviously varied in some way or another they all, still, featured a mad scientist named Frankenstein, a well stocked laboratory, and of course the often truly horrendous looking monster, which was made of sewn together body parts and re-animated through electricity.
One film went "off the beaten path" regarding the concept of the Frankenstein monster, and did so in what is widely considered bizarre fashion: Frankenstein Meets The Space Monster, a 79 minute, black and white sci-fi movie released in American theaters in September, 1965 by Allied Artists Pictures. The film had only a two week run in theaters, arguably the most memorable thing about this low budget shlocker, among those individuals, like myself, who are quite enamored with these kinds of films.

The film's story:
American rockets are being mysteriously blasted to bits after exiting Earth's atmosphere and entering the planet's orbit. In response, a pair of scientists, with the blessing of the military and NASA, put their latest creation, an android named Frank Saunders(played by Robert Reilly), into another rocket, which is sent into space to investigate the lost rockets. Unbeknownst to NASA an alien ship, from Mars, and orbiting the Earth, has been destroying the NASA manned rockets, and they do the same to Saunder's rocket, which is obliterated. The android manages to bail out and survive, the aliens landing nearby. A pair of the aliens attack Saunders with their weapons and the resulting blast grotesquely scorches off half of the android's face, also damaging Saunder's brain. The android immediately begins a wandering, almost drunkardly walkabout, killing numerous locals, who are understandably terrified at his disfigured appearance. Meanwhile, the aliens, led by a female, Princess Marcuzan(Marilyn Hanold), and a bald, pointy-eared accomplice (appropriately) named Doctor Nadir(Lou Cutell), order their crew to begin collecting human females for breeding purposes, as an atomic war has killed all the females on the red planet. In the last half-hour of this low-budget affair we are treated to an all out military assault on the alien's spaceship and a brief but intense battle between the disfigured android Frank Saunders and the alien's pet, a hulking monster called Mull.

This film has achieved turkey status in the 2007 and 2008 DVD And Video Guides, understandable as it is a typical low-budget affair, with a storyline that is shaky at best, laughably poor special effects and acting that is, for the most part, absolutely atrocious. Still, IMO some turkeys can be enjoyed, even when it's not Thanksgiving. There are some interesting scenes in this movie, to be sure, the damaged android looks fairly grisly, and the battle between the android, Frank Saunders, and the space monster inside the alien ship at the climax is not altogether bad. This film is now officially available on DVD at The DVD presents this film in it's original aspect ratio of 1:85.1 and mono audio, and includes scene selection and a trailer. The Dark Sky Films DVD looks better than several DVD-Rs I've bought of this wonky old feature, hands down.

The film has also appeared on the market under titles like Mars Invades Puerto Rico, Mars Attacks Puerto Rico, and Operation San Juan.

The Dark Sky Films DVD of this movie:

The official trailer for the film: