Sunday, June 21, 2009

Random Movie Report #66: Gamera vs. Monster X

DVD cover and Amazon link
The Gamera series gets no respect. Sure, he had a great run on MST3K and there’s the trilogy of films he made in the 90s that got a solid US release and a lot of fan acclaim, but for whatever reason, the super turtle’s original adventures remain the stuff of budget DVDs with mediocre full-screen transfers. But even though Gamera was Godzilla’s cheaper competition, his films relegated to TV in the states, he’s had his moments, and GAMERA VS. MONSTER X (which somehow never made it to the Satellite of Love) is one of them. The sixth film in the series, MONSTER X boasts better than usual production values and some interesting and creative wrinkles in the story. It still has all the goofiness of the Gamera series, but it’s the kind of goofy that can grow on you.

The film is centered around the 1970 World Expo, which actually was held in Osaka, Japan, so it’s a sort of plug (a lot of location work was done at the fairgrounds, but the cropping was so bad for the TV print that you’d never notice.) A possibly British, possibly American professor has uncovered a giant stone statue on a Pacific island that he thinks would make a perfect exhibition piece for the fair, despite the local warnings of curses and demon beasts and so on. Gamera himself tries to stop the statue being moved, but it gets lifted off anyway, which unleashes the strange monster Jiger from beneath the Earth. Gamera’s natural inclination is to pound the crap out of the sluggish quadruped, but Jiger has a number of tricks, from the ability to fire spikes into Gamera’s limbs (preventing him from retracting them and flying away) to actually injecting his foe with something particularly nasty via a tail stinger. This later development forces two children to borrow a miniature submarine and actually travel inside the giant turtle’s body, in what I am absolutely sure was in no way inspired by FANTASTIC VOYAGE.

You can’t accuse this one of being slow paced; the series made a point of having Gamera show up early on to make sure the kids kept paying attention during any plot stuff to follow, and there’s not much of a human story getting in the way of the monster action. There’s some brief conflict between the Hiroshi, the main Japanese kid (Tsutomu Takakuwa) and Williams’ two children Tommy and Susan (Kelly Varis and Katherine Murphy, respectively); Hiroshi’s very much a Gamera fan, but the two Anglo children are present when Gamera attacks the dig, so they briefly dislike him, until Jiger appears and all is forgiven. There’s also the question of a mysterious curse on the statue itself, which seems to sicken the people who handle it, and this is part of the overall mystery of how the ancient people of Mu managed to trap Jiger in the first place.

The monsters dominate, and Jiger is an interesting beast. He’s one of the most successful attempts at a four-legged animal I’ve seen in vintage kaiju eiga- obviously the actor has to bend his legs back, but while other such monsters clearly walk on their knees, the Jiger suit makes it seem like he’s using four feet. Both monster suits seem more detailed than usual, and the miniatures work has also improved from past entries. Granted, it’s still fakey, but it looks quite nice. The interlude inside Gamera’s body is particularly surreal; somehow the interior of his lung has soft cave-like floors and man-size corridors, like that one Zelda level. Jiger has a weird grab bag of powers- he’s got the spikes, the stinger, he shoots out a high frequency death ray, he can propel himself through the water like a motorboat, and he can draw objects to his body using suction. He’s far from the only Japanese monster to have rolled his powers on a random table, and in general the Gamera series seems to have been what started the trend. The action is fast and brutal, with a slight apocalyptic tone owing to Jiger’s seemingly demonic nature.

The film is a little slight to start, and falls prey to many of the familiar clichés of the Gamera series; you have children who can muscle their way into high-level government meetings, you have Gamera being incapacitated not once but twice before the final showdown, and you have the young hero’s passionate insistence that Gamera will save everyone no matter how bad things look. As much as credibility is stretched in some points (and for a giant monster movie that’s saying something), the story has a bizarre logic to it, and there’s more atmosphere than usual, especially in the scenes at Jiger’s island home. There are even a couple of solid intentionally funny bits, mostly involving the parents’ reactions to their kids running off inside Gamera’s guts.

Despite maybe a misstep here and there (there’s some gross documentary footage of larvae being surgically removed from an elephant’s trunk, for which the scientist presenting it even apologizes), GAMERA VS. MONSTER X does merit some distinction as probably the last strong entry in the franchise until 25 years later. Bad times would hit Daiei for a while, but at their peak they managed to produce a fun and almost-lavish monster throw down that’s worth a look for fans. There’s nothing too spectacular, but it does its job well.

Written by Nisan Takahashi
Directed by Noriaki Yuasa
Grade: B

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