I think that one of the most forbidding things about Bollywood cinema for those Westerners who might dare to sample it is its apparent hostility to Western notions of genre. For armchair adventurers through world popular cinema like ourselves, such notions normally provide a reliable safe harbor, even when we’re struggling through the most alien of terrains. While a given country’s cinematic repertoire might present us with some disorienting cultural peculiarities, we generally feel secure in the knowledge that we can find within it such universals as horror movies featuring ghosts and monsters, thrillers pitting detectives against masked killers, and adventure films showcasing the exploits of costumed superheroes — any of which we can use as a familiar jumping off point from which to explore those aspects of the landscape with which we are less acquainted.
Con Licencia Para Matar (aka With License to Kill) is the second of a pair of films featuring Las Tigresas, a trio of catsuit-wearing female secret agents for hire. The first Tigresas film, Munecas Peligrosas (aka Dangerous Dolls) was a barely-there affair, with just enough of a plot on which to hang its numerous instances of padding. Con Licencia Para Matar, by contrast, would seem to be packed with enough plot for the both of them, complete with two competing sets of villains, including a beatnik scientist with a trio of super-powerful, green-faced androids at his command, and a blonde bombshell revolutionary who conceals her true designs under her cover as the owner of a posh go-go club. Despite all of this business, the film still manages to devote plenty of time to what seems to be the Tigresas films’ first order of business, that being the inclusion of lots of random musical numbers and scenes of the Tigresas lounging around their well-appointed bachelorette pad in various stages of undress.
Love and Murder is a rough-edged, fast paced and ever-so-slightly sleazy little Bollywood B thriller that satisfyingly combines noirish stylistic flourishes with elements of the James Bond movies. If you’re going to crib, you might as well do it from the best, and Love and Murder certainly cribs well, also pilfering here and there from the German Krimi thrillers and even Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques. The addition of a classic femme fatale turn by Helen and an appearance by a mysterious killer in a skeleton suit almost compensates for the fact that the print from which the M.H. One VCD was made looks like it spent a good deal of time marinating on the bed of a stagnant lake.
Before we get into this article, let me get something off my chest and, in the process, confess to you all that I am going into this movie with a considerable chip on my shoulder. You see, as can be ascertained from the title, this movie deals with a journey to the planet Uranus, and as anyone can tell you, it is the God-given right of people discussing this planet to make as many “Uranus” jokes as they can (and believe me, I can make a lot of them). Especially when a movie turns out to be as dull and uneventful as this one, we who regularly engage in discussion of such films need those Uranus jokes to make it through to the end credits. Now some movies will try and head you off at the pass, using the alternate “Urine Us” pronunciation, but as you can see, even though it is less versatile, that pronunciation comes with its own cargo of hilarity.
Whenever I’m confronted with a film that lies immeasurably far beyond the boundaries of anything that could be considered competent, coherent, or even sane filmmaking, I find some superficial comfort in attributing said work to the hands and mind of a deranged lunatic possessed of an inner monologue so warped that agreed upon notions of human logic and morality seem to melt entirely away. This is, perhaps, a defense mechanism, as I encounter such films — as you might guess — pretty frequently. I suppose there is some solace in thinking that these films sprung from the fertile yet twisted mind of a madman, that surely there is no way a sane and normal human could have produced such alarmingly, hilariously awful material. To be hyperbolic about it, I suppose it is much the same as when we reflect upon the infamous dictators of our past as monsters rather than men, soothing our horror somewhat by casting them as some otherworldly ghouls rather than what they were and still continue to be: mere men, who remind us that the capacity of man to commit acts of near unimaginable cruelty is vast. They are not monsters. They are us, and but for a chance of fate — being born in another time, another place, or having a minutely different chemical balance in the brain — any of us could have been them.
Slightly less chilling is the similar revelation that a filmmaker like Harinam Singh isn’t some collective of 19th century schizophrenics who somehow started making movies for the Indian horror market, as I hypothesized previously. He is, in fact, just a man, and probably even a fairly ordinary one at that. When I reviewed what has to be his finest film, the mind-bending Shaitani Dracula, I likened it to many things, not the least of which was the product of a lunatic. I also said it had a kindred spirit in the film Manos: The Hands of Fate, and it was right then and there, when I wrote that sentence, that I knew my own hands of fate were guiding me slowly but inevitably toward grappling with a review of Manos.
It’s a fitting name for the movie, because my fate seems intrinsically intertwined with Manos. If any movie was my long lost evil twin brother, it would be Manos. I know that one day, billions of years from now, as the earth boils and dies, Manos and I are fated to stand atop a craggy cliff as a tumultuous sea of lava crashes below us and volcanoes spew fire and dinosaurs into the sky. There we stand, face to face, battered, bloody, aware of the fact that we are both doomed, yet never the less unable to extract ourselves from the eternal combat into which we have been and always shall be locked. I have seen the road lain before me, and I know that it leads to Manos: The Hands of Fate just as surely as its road leads to me. My ties to Manos are sundry, and even I did not realize most of them existed until I started peeling back the layers of the onion, each one confronting me with a revelation more unspeakable than the last, until one day I found myself actually standing on the very grounds that served as the location for the film, at which time I fell to my knees, cried out to the heavens, and went stark raving mad.
Forgive me. Let me begin this tale again, at the beginning. You see, it all started in 1966.
It was in that year that fertilizer salesman Harold P. Warren from El Paso, Texas, entered into conversation with a man by the name of Stirling Silliphant while the two men sat at a coffee shop together. Silliphant was a screenwriter, and he would later go on to pen scripts for movies like Village of the Damned, The New Centurions, The Poseidon Adventure, Shaft in Africa, and The Towering Inferno. He was also the man called in to string together the various stoned ramblings of Steve McQueen, James Coburn, and Bruce Lee into the movie that became Circle of Iron. Even before all that, he was a regular contributor to a variety of television shows, including Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Route 66.
It was, in fact, on the set of Route 66 that Silliphant first met Harold P. “Hal” Warren. Warren, who moonlighted as an actor from time to time in local community theater productions, was appearing in the show as an extra, driving a bus or some such task as payback for doing some location scouting around El Paso. Warren — and this is just my impression of the man, based on conjecture and what other people said about him — seems like he was something of an obnoxious blowhard, the kind of guy who would have loud-mouth local commercials that played all hours of the day and night until everyone in town knew who he was, for better or for worse. You didn’t really hate the guy, because he was basically decent, but you didn’t really want to hang around with him either. So during the course of the conversation that took place at that coffee shop (I only wish I knew which shop it was), Hal boisterously proclaimed that making movies was easy money, that a trained chimp could make a movie, and hell, an untrained chimp could probably get by. He then bet Silliphant that ol’ Hal himself could make a movie, start to finish. And so was it all set in motion. Silliphant went on to win an Oscar for his screenplay for the film In the Heat of the Night, a slick police thriller that explored boiling racial tensions. Hal Warren went on to make Manos: The Hands of Fate.
As the legend has it, Warren not only placed this bet with Silliphant; he even went so far as to complete the script, right then and there, sitting at the table. You know, in the past I’ve joked that several films felt like the entire plot was scrawled on the back of a coffee-stained napkin. Well, in the case of Manos, it’s actually true. Warren outlined the entire plot on a napkin, right before what I assume to be Silliphant’s mystified eyes. What happened after that was a campaign of bullying, hucksterin’, and probably a whole hell of a lot of hornswagglin’, as Warren began his crusade to fund this new endeavor of his. Against all notions of sanity and reason, Warren managed to raise $19,000 for the completion of his film. Looking back from our informed vantage point in the future, the question isn’t so much how Warren was able to swindle people out of so much money — he was, after all, a fertilizer salesman, and presumably adept at the art of the hard sell (or shoveling bullshit). No, the question is, once he had the money, what the hell did he do with it all? Because of all the things that have been written and uttered about Manos since it was made, few people have claimed that it looked like $1,900 — let alone $19,000 — went into it.
In line with the ego others claimed he had, Warren cast himself in the lead, a seemingly decent if somewhat overbearing husband and father who is trying to drive his family to a vacation. The rest of the cast was assembled from friends and acquaintances, members of the local community theater group, and students from a local mannequin modeling agency. None of the performers were paid for their services. In fact, so solid with the spin was Warren that he somehow convinced them all to work for nothing more than a promise of a portion of the profits once the film was released. Say what you will about Warren’s soon-to-be-realized lack of talent as a filmmaker; the man was apparently one of the best salesmen in Texas history.
So with money on the cast thus saved, Warren went on to procure the proper equipment for making a film. This involved him salvaging a spring-loaded 16mm camera. The camera could not shoot sound, and Warren didn’t want to pay for audio recording equipment, so the decision was made that the entire thing would be redubbed in post-production — actually fairly common in low budget films of the time. More impactful than the sound on the limitation of Warren’s armada of one camera was that the spring-activated motor had to be rewound every thirty seconds.
So, free cast: check. Free camera: check. The next step for Wallace was to get some equally cheap location for his film. This came in the form of a ranch owned by a local lawyer named Colbert Coldwell. Coldwell had an office on the same floor as Warren, and I guess the two men knew one another well enough for Warren to know that Coldwell lived on a decent size ranch just outside of town. Coldwell, for his part, was looking at running for elected office, and I suppose he thought that donating a location for an entirely local film product would look good in the campaign. Whatever mesmerizing bullshit Hal Warren was spinning everyone else worked just as well on the ambitious would-be judge, who was lead to believe (by Warren, of course) that Hal Warren was already an experienced hand at making films. I’m sure being able to drop Silliphant’s name and play up the time Warren was a walk-on extra in an episode of Route 66 gave the wily fertilizer salesman more than enough rope with which to snare his prey. Coldwell went on to win his eventual bid for judge; Hal Warren, again, went on to make Manos: The Hands of Fate.
With all the pieces put in place and ready to fall, the time came for shooting on what was then called The Lodge of Sin to begin and for everyone to discover that Warren had no clue what he was doing. On top of that, he was apparently a grade-A jerk while on set, so much so that the small cast and crew did everything in their power to avoid the guy as much as possible. Frequent questions by the cast about what was happening, what was written, and what was being filmed, were met by Hal with the mantra of “We can fix it in the lab.” Hal’s impression that “the lab” was a magical place where horrible work was turned into works of art and all the faucets ran with gumdrops and glitter was fostered primarily by his actor/stuntman/DP, Bernie Rosenblum, who (like most of the cast and crew) recognized what crap Hal was making but, irritated that he wasn’t getting paid, didn’t feel like having to go back and do multiple takes and reshoots. Not that reshoots and retakes were all that realistic an option anyway. As Hal soon discovered, $19,000 sounds like a lot of money until you start paying for film stock and processing.
As one might expect, complications arose at every turn. One of the girls (Joyce Molleur) slated to play a bride of “The Master,” the film’s bizarre Satanic priest-like character who seems to wield no discernible power beyond bullying an acid freak and collecting a harem of women who badger him incessantly, broke her foot and so could not complete her previously assigned tasks. But Hal had her out there, so he was going to make sure she got into the picture. And so was born the “make-out couple,” Joyce and Bernie Rosenblum, who spend the entire film making out in a convertible in a subplot that can’t be called a subplot, because it has nothing to do with the movie itself. It did earn Bernie considerable accolades, since the film’s complete disregard for the flow of time means that he and Joyce were making out in the same spot for over twenty-four hours. While this is indeed impressive, one also has to question the ability of a guy to “close the deal” if, after necking clear through the night, he still hasn’t advanced beyond first base.
When they went to film the big “catfight” scene that takes place between the various wives of The Master, Warren found that his plan to have them all in sexy diaphanous gowns didn’t fly with the school marm-like head of the modeling agency that had lent him the girls. No way were they going to let these future mannequins be seen on a movie screen parading about in a state of tawdry undress. So they all showed up wearing formless see-through gowns on top of what can only be described as “granny panties,” those above-the-navel, below-the-thigh girdles that are usually only worn by the stuffy wife of the stuffy dean in a 1980s teen sex comedy.
When it came time to go into post-production, most of the duties were handled by Warren, who had no experience with such things. He and a couple others (including his wife) dubbed all the voices. With money fast running out, the editing process was slapdash, at best. But by hook and by crook, Hal completed his film. And in a testament to sheer unbridled ego and skill as a swindler, he convinced the people of El Paso that this was a huge event. A premier was booked. A spotlight was rented. Hal even arranged for the cast to arrive at the gala event via limo — one limo, which dropped off a couple performers at a time then drove around the corner and picked up a couple more, so as to create the illusion of lots of limos delivering lots of people.
What happened once the film started to roll was pretty much what you’d expect to happen if you’ve ever seen the movie. By the time the film was over, most of the audience had bailed, and most of the cast had slinked out to the nearest bar to drown the disappointment. But Hal won his bet, even if only technically, and he soon began work on a second film which, sadly, never got made. The rest of the people involved with Manos faded into the background of everyday life. Manos itself vanished into the gauzy folds of memories most people don’t want to remember.
Until January of 1993.
But let us turn back the clock once again, before we learn how it all converged at the same point, to 1984. In that year, I got my first job. It was through my dad, and as he is the owner of a carpet store, it means that any job he could get me would be rather on the undesirable side of things. Said job was working with a landscaping crew, back when landscaping crews were less Mexican and more stoned teenagers. One of my many jobs was hauling around and spreading bags of…wait for it…fertilizer. On the weekends, I worked on my grandpa’s farm, baling hay at some points and, at others, spreading manure on the fields to be used as…yes, fertilizer. Though I didn’t know it yet, my eventual date with Manos was already being seeded in the vast Kentucky fields that needed to be properly coated with the very substance Hal Warren used to build his El Paso empire.
In time, I got other jobs. Some better, some worse, but many of them involving my having to spread fertilizer on some surface or other. In 1993, I got a fairly cushy job at a college bookstore, where I whiled away the hours selling Chemistry texts and bright orange Florida Gator Panama hats of which I did not approve, though they ended up being wildly popular despite my sartorial disdain for them. I thought that my fertilizer-related days were far behind me. But then, someone showed up one night at my apartment with a copy of a movie they swore I absolutely had to see, even though it was the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version. I didn’t know much about MST3K other than it existed. It was on Comedy Central, and Gainesville didn’t get Comedy Central. It wouldn’t have mattered if they did, because I didn’t have cable or even a cable-ready television. I had heard of the show, to be sure. One doesn’t get to be a college nerd in the 1990s without at least having heard of the show and getting kind of irritated at all the people on IRC who would randomly post “Hi-keeba!” and “A forklift!” But that’s about all I knew of the show. Heck, I didn’t even know what the premise was, or that it was people sitting around making fun of bad movies rather than it being bad movies they’d made themselves.
And none of that really mattered. Because as soon as we popped the tape into my 1985 top-loading VCR that was twice the size of my tiny little television and gathered around the diminutive screen while chowing down on items from Taco Bell’s 39-cent Fiesta Menu, I quickly forgot there were any wisecracking robots at all, so mesmerized was I by the film I was watching them watch: Manos: The Hands of Fate.
Watching Manos, like watching Shaitani Dracula, is an experience that can’t be described to anyone who hasn’t done it themselves. And once you have done it, you don’t need to have it explained to you. It is, I assume, not entirely unlike reaching that point in Hinduism or Buddhism where you become enlightened — which is the polite, religious way of saying you start saying and doing things that seem batshit insane to anyone who isn’t enlightened. I am reminded of the koan-like narration that appears at the beginning of Jodorowski’s El Topo, about how a mole spends his entire life trying to dig toward the surface only to discover, when he reaches the surface, he is blinded by the sun. When you dedicate a portion of your life to the pursuit of obscure cinema existing beyond the limits of mainstream film, a movie like Manos is both exactly what you’ve been looking for as well as the ultimate instrument of your destruction. I searched far and wide for a copy of the film in its original form, only to discover that none was to be had at the time. That situation quickly changed, however, as the Manos episode of MST3K proved to be one of their most popular. Before too long, copies of the movie sans the MST3K editing and embellishments began popping up.
Our strange and twisting narrative now takes us into the contents of the movie itself. The action begins with stolid early 60s family man Michael (Hal P. Warren) on a road trip with his wife, Margaret (Diane Mahree) and young daughter, Debbie (Jackey Neyman). This drive is apparently shown in real time, as it seems to go on forever with no real point. It doesn’t even function as filler travelogue footage, as most of what’s shown is the hood of the car, nondescript city outskirts, or southwest Texas scrubland. I’ve spent my fair share of time driving back and forth across Texas — an adventure I shall mention in more detail shortly, as it ties directly in with Manos, as so many things in my life do — and while I’ve had a great deal of fun on these drives, I would not really think of filming the driving parts from beginning to end and releasing it as a movie. In time, we learn that Michael and his clan are heading to…well, we never really have any idea where they are heading, though it seems like their intended destination was the middle of nowhere. By and by, they get lost on the twisting dirt roads of backwoods Texas (or whatever you call the backwoods when there are no woods) and, while driving aimlessly through the desert, stumble across…the hotel.
It’s the kind of structure that, at best, looks like the sort of place an ax-swinging maniac with a burlap sack over his head would come running out of. It also has a goat-legged hillbilly hippie (or, you know, whatever) loitering in the front doorway. Michael decides it’s the perfect place to spend the night, rather than making the drive back out to the main road. Despite this lapse in judgment, the journey to the mysterious motel reminded me of a drive of my own. During one of my excursions through Texas, I was lured by free admission to a place called the Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument outside of Amarillo, where I was eating at and sleeping in the Big Texan Steakhouse, home of the 72-ounce monster steak, as well as a Texas shaped pool and squeaky saloon doors to the bathrooms in every room. You may think, as I did, that squeaky saloon door bathrooms are pretty cool, and they are, at least until the morning, when in the course of two people performing daily hygiene, you walk through them dozens of times…each time with that incessant squeaking…and creaking…and squeaking…
Where was I? Oh yeah, Amarillo. Anyway, we drove out to the Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument even though the name didn’t really strike us with a great degree of interest. But whatever. We had one of those National Parks passes, and we’d been to a lot of out-of-the-way, forgotten parks as a result. Each one had proven to be pretty interesting to a road trippin’ history nerd like myself, so maybe Alibates would surprise us the way Washita and Wilson’s Creek did. So we drove. And we drove. And we drove. Down what seemed like endlessly and randomly winding roads through dusty red-brown Texas hill country, stopping occasionally to snap photos of lizards running across the blistering hot pavement, always following the beckoning finger of road signs that assured us we were going in the right direction. Eventually, however, I started to suspect that the signs had been planted there by desert-dwelling maniacs who liked to lure unsuspecting motorists to their doom by tempting them with the siren song of…well, you know. A flint quarry. In the end, the signs disappeared and the road just sort of petered out, turning from sun-bleached, cracked pavement to dirt, and then dead-ending out in the middle of nowhere. I have no idea if we saw the flint quarry or if we just got lost, but as we traced our route back toward the civilization and steaks of Amarillo, I was keenly aware of just how much our ultimately directionless sojourn resembled the opening of Manos.
Incidentally, we were in Amarillo because we were driving along what remains of Route 66 — the road that birthed the series that brought Hal Warren and Stirling Silliphant together for that fateful meeting which, in turn, resulted in the birth of Manos: The Hands of Fate.
Somehow, on the way back, we got sidetracked and ended up at what looked like an abandoned Air Force base, though signs assured us it was operational, and there were military jets flying overhead if not landing at the base. Still, it looked pretty overgrown and tattered to be in use. Visions of Weird War Tales flashed through my brain. But that, like stumbling across the plains and up to a Texas-sized slaughterhouse, is a horror story for another day.
Speaking of horrors, few experiences in life can prepare you for the tortuous yet impossible-to-turn-away-from sequence with which Manos now challenges the viewers. Convinced that this hellhole with a man-goat out front is the ideal spot for his family to spend the night, Michael starts barking orders to said man-goat, who informs us that his name is Torgo, and he takes care of the place while The Master is away. Torgo also adds that Michael and his family are not welcome, though on this Torgo seems to flip-flop his position like a modern politician. Torgo is played by a young guy named John Reynolds, and the only way to even begin to understand his performance is to realize that Reynolds was, according to everyone else on the set, whacked out on acid the entire time. In the similarly bizarre but more lavishly mounted Ray Dennis Steckler film, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies, I’ve always maintained that despite whatever shortcomings the film may possess, there were some moments of genuine creepiness generated mainly by the grainy, DIY nature of the film and film stock. I feel the same way about Reynolds’ performance as Torgo. It’s so completely bizarre, awkward, and unlike anything that a human would ever think of doing, that it becomes a moment of absolute brilliance.
Coupled with a few other factors — chiefly, the weird dubbing job and the uncomfortable moments of inaction and silence where you can tell everyone was waiting of the camera to start or finish — Torgo becomes an otherworldly, totally successful element of the film. According to Rosenblum, Reynolds built himself a metal contraption that attached to his legs, so as to better mimic the look and movement of someone who has goat legs. This, predicatbly, means that Reynolds staggers and lumbers wildly every time he tries to move (I’m sure the acid didn’t hurt…or help). And so the simple scene of Torgo being bullied into fetching Michael’s luggage out of the car becomes both an ordeal and an odyssey to behold, made all the stranger by the irritatingly haunting “Torgo walks” theme song. Hal Warren elevates his film to near Hitchcockian levels of anticipation by having this luggage scene go on forever, then have Michael and his family change their mind and make Torgo carry everything back to the car, then having Michael change his mind again and having Torgo carry everything back in one more time. It’s excruciating, exquisite pain worthy of Pinhead himself, and like everything in this film, it has to be witnessed to be understood.
And so the nightmare begins. Michael and his family are disturbed by the eerie painting of The Master that adorns the rustic lodge, probably because it looks so much like Frank Zappa crossed with the Frito Bandito. Debbie’s poodle runs outside and gets mauled to death by some unseen desert creature. Michael starts snooping around for no real reason beyond the fact that he had a gun in his glove compartment and felt like prowling around with it. The leaves poor Margaret alone to be peeped on by Torgo, who then approaches her in a scene whose off-kilter (i.e., dreadful) editing makes it even more awkward than the “Torgo gets the luggage” scene. And then The Master (Tom Neyman, the father of the little girl who plays Debbie) awakens and decides that, even though he is surrounded by catty, bickering wives, he wants to claim these two new females as part of his harpy harem. This sets the Satanic dames off to catfighting while The Master half-heartedly attempts to intimidate them by frequently stretching his arms out to yon heavens in order to show off his keen “hands of fate” robe. I don’t know what he’s a master of, but it sure ain’t keeping his broads in line. This just goes to show, as I’ve said elsewhere, that unless you are an all-powerful sultan or god-king, having multiple wives really never amounts to much more than having ten people yell at you for not regrouting the shower when you were supposed to.
Torgo seems to share my sentiments, and after The Master has claimed so many women as his own, just so he can make them lean against pillars, The Master’s goat-legged servant is wondering when the main man in the boss robes and man-sandals is going to throw a little love the way of his loyal assistant. In fact, Torgo seems to think Margaret would make the perfect Mrs. Torgo, a notion he stammers to her while engaging in the aforementioned quivering-hand pawing of her hair, which Margaret reacts to by, well, by not reacting. She just sort of stands there staring blankly at the camera as if the actress isn’t even aware that they’ve started filming.
The Master, despite the fact that he obviously has his fill of sniping women, doesn’t take kindly to this show of independence and lust from Torgo. What’s more, some of The Master’s wives are jealous of his interest in the new woman. Others want to kill the adults but let the child live. And some just want to throw down and have a good ol’ fashioned catfight in their underlovlies. Meanwhile, Michael is — I don’t know. He’s just sort of prowling around with a gun and getting knocked down hills for a while, before he finally recovers and comes walking to he poorly executed attemped rescue of his wife and child. It all culminated in a finale that is as ludicrous and inept as it is disturbing and grim.
Obviously, discussing the technical merits and the acting in this film is a moot point. Like I said, though, I think Jeff Reynolds’ performance is terrifically bizarre and effective. So, too, do I think some of the photography, marred though it may be, is successful at creating a disturbed, eerie atmosphere. Even when it’s just the gaunt, robed Master staring listlessly at the camera, there’s something compelling about it, a sort of Videodrome quality that makes it feel like the guy is staring right at you even though he was probably just waiting for someone to say “The camera has stopped rolling.” Manos is one of those films that fails on every logical level but triumphs when regarded as some sort of “nightmare on film,” relying heavily on strange imagery and a dreamlike structure as would be found in the European horror films of the late 60s and 70s. There’s no reason to apply logic to this film, because it does not operate within the realm of logic. Instead, it inhabits that rarefied air where total incompetence transforms into accidental genius. I’d love to compare it to a similar sounding film, Coffin Joe’s Strange Hostel of Naked Pleasure, but alas, that movie seems to elude me every step of the way. Hal Warren sits at the same table as Harinam Singh, Jean Rollin, Doris Wishman, Coffin Joe, and Jess Franco (who, ironically, would be the most accessible and mainstream of all the assembled artists). Really, isn’t that a table any of us would want to be seated at — especially if it’s a table at one of those groovy, surreal nightclubs that only exist in Jess Franco’s mind and films?
Most of the people involved with the film faded into the background, returning to their day jobs after the humiliating and/or hilarious world premiere. Jeff Reynolds, who was described as a kind and friendly but deeply troubled kid, committed suicide shortly after filming of Manos closed. Hal Warren spent much of his life trying to get money for a second film, but he was only able to snooker people once. Rumor has it that among the pitches he made to potential investors was a sequel to Manos. He passed away in 1985. Bernie Rosenblum stuck around long enough to see Manos going from local embarrassment to cult phenomenon and was interviewed extensively by a couple Canadian filmmakers when they made the short documentary film Hotel Torgo. Manos itself played very briefly in limited engagements at a few Texas drive-ins before vanishing, only to reappear again in 1993. Since then, as befits a film this odd, it has become something larger than itself. If it’s not quite a pop culture touchstone the way, say CHUD is, or Gymkata, where even people outside of cult film fandom can still drop references to it (even if they’ve never seen it), it’s certainly cemented its place in the black, black hearts of cult film fans across…well, probably not the world. But at least around the United States. People cosplay as Torgo and The Master at conventions. I once planned an adults-only remake of the movie (I still have the 75% finished draft of the script). Hell, I remember a while back, someone even made a Torgo screensaver.
This movie…I love this movie. I Shaitani Dracula love this movie. I love everything about it, right through to the startling, bleak, and grim “no one gets out of here alive” ending. Because I am a dark and twisted individual, I love “corruption of the innocent” movies, and I think Manos is a surprisingly effective entry into that category, partly because it feels less like a feature film and more like someone’s fucked up home movies of a boring, terrifying vacation. Michael is just a regular guy, a bit of a dick maybe, but hardly evil. As corny (not to mention taxing) as the opening is, it becomes oddly evocative when placed in the context of what ultimately befalls our seemingly happy family. Mundane driving, the almost ghostly repetition of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” — and then all of a sudden everything begins to unravel in a macabre fashion. No one in the family does anything to deserve the horrible fate that befalls them — there is no generic “dark secret” that somehow justifies the punishment meted out to our hapless protagonists. One can only marvel at what must have been going on inside Hal Warren’s head. Was he just copying dreck he’d seen before, with no thought at all? Or are we watching the machinations of the mind of a seemingly normal man revealed to be somewhat freaky? Is Manos really “don’t give a damn” filmmaking, or is it the product of that sinister side of the brain we all possess but generally elect to repress in deference to the notion of a polite and civil society?
Which, in a way, is just a flowery way of asking Hal Warren, “What the hell were you thinking?” but it goes deeper than that. Whatever conflict may have been raging within Hal between his id and superego manifests itself on-screen, be it consciously or by accident, as we watch Michael and his family struggle then succumb to whatever boring corruptions with which The Master has assaulted them. The movie seizes upon that thinly-veiled thread of perversity that exists within us all and yanks on it until the whole carefully knitted sweater falls apart, dooming Michael, Debbie, and Margaret in the process. I know, I know. Some of you think that’s too much credit for such a bad movie. But I disagree. I think in spite of itself, Manos stumbles into moments where it works well, if you look past the obvious short-comings and agreed-upon popular consensus that this movie is thoroughly wretched.
Having recently exhaustively read and reread every issue of Cult Films and Psychotronic that I own, having read and reread the various books about obscure cult cinema from a round the world that make up my library, I started shopping around for new books to help me pass the time on those late nights when I can’t sleep and have run out of steam for making my zombie apocalypse plans (though such plans are more important than ever, as my current apartment possesses a few notable weak spots that must be properly attended to when the day comes). One of the books I picked up recently is Sleaze Artists, a collection of essays about badfilm, why we love it, and what our love means. I’ve started thinking in a dangerously pseudo-academic fashion about some of the movies I like, or more specifically, about why I like some of the movies that I like. Some are obvious, of course. I mean, when Pam Grier pulls a pistol out of her afro and blows away Shelly Winters, is there really a need to explore the reasons it’s awesome? But other films — films like Manos, films like Shaitani Dracula, films like Jean Rollin’s ponderous and surreal vampire movies — I love these films, despite the fact that by any sane measure, they are so bad so as to hardly even qualify as films. As I was reading through the introduction of Sleaze Artists, though, I came across some references to an older article by Pauline Kael, a critic with whom I have a somewhat contentious relationship (well, on a theoretical level — I’ve never actually met her or engaged in a duel of wits). But in this instance, she managed to perfectly sum up why a film like Manos hold such unholy appeal for me, and in a rare moment of journalistic integrity, I’m even giving her credit for the thought instead of paraphrasing it and pretending like I came up with it all by myself.
We like these films, she states, because we are so educated in the tropes and cliches of “good” filmmaking that such filmmaking has become tedious, predictable, and boring. And this is true. After years of doing this on my own, to say nothing of that film criticism minor I tacked on to my virtually unused journalism degree, I can hardly bear to sit through another by-the-numbers “quality” film. Sit me in front of a quirky indie comedy, and I can describe the whole movie to you before it even happens, right down to the moments of poignant reflection accompanied by ennui-tastic piano music or a crudely played folk-punk tune. The same goes for an indie drama, to say nothing of an Oscar-baiting studio film. Yes, I can see the film is good. Yes, I can see the performances are top notch. And I really do not care. It’s become so rote that it’s near impossible for me to give a damn, even when I think a movie is all right.
But, as Kael puts forth, cult films are the place you can go and be taken by surprise, to see something completely outside of the expected. We watch these films for the thrill of discovery, for the joy of witnessing something that would not be done in any other film, by any more talented and predictable filmmaker. Cult films are the places where true vision and madness find free reign, unfettered by industry and commercial training. In that freedom, yokels like me find great entertainment. Manos appeals to me because it is so wrong, because it is so unlike what any of us expect from a movie. It is the breath of fresh air in a stale environment full of movies in which damaged, quirky people try to reconnect and cold, disillusioned suburbanites struggle for feeling in a sterile environment. In an industry laden with clumsy messages and delusions of importance, the utterly baffling nonsense of Manos has more to say to me than any dreary lesson taught to me by a more competent film. Perhaps I have merely been bewitched, or had my evil side tempted by Hal Warren in much the same way Michael and his family are hopelessly entangled in the laconic and directionless plans of The Master. I mean…what was that guy trying to accomplish, anyway? If you don’t want any visitors, why build your lair in a motel? And if you want to possess people and turn them into your minions, why would you not want visitors? And whata re you up to, anyway? As far as I can tell, The Master harbors no dreams of plunging the world into darkness, or taking over, or summoning Satan or anything. He’s just this pasty dude who uses his black magic powers to arrange poorly executed dances out in the desert. Does he exist purely to corrupt the innocent? Is he trying to establish a less irritating version of Burning Man?
In the hands of someone who knew what the hell they were doing, Manos would never have achieved the air of total strangeness that makes it such an entrancing work of…art? Sure, why not? The out-of-focus camera work, the terrible editing, the silent scenes of people standing around waiting for their queues…these things never would have happened with a real editor on the crew, and Manos would have been worse off because of it. It would have been merely terrible. But Hal Warren, bless him, had no clue what the hell he was doing, and by lucky happenstance, his incompetence elevates Manos to a transcendental plane of existence. It is the sort of out-of-its-mind experience that we jaded filmgoers spend years looking for, and like the mole, when we finally see it, we are blinded by its brilliance.
It was, perhaps, some sort of naive blindness that led me, in the late winter of 2003, to El Paso, Texas.
Ostensibly, I was in Texas to meet up with some friends from Japan whose band, Petty Booka, was playing at SXSW in Austin. My job was to putter around, do the driving, and eventually get them from Texas to Chicago, and then from Chicago to New York. They were traveling across the southwest by van from California, an I flew in to San Antonio a few days early to hang out with some people I barely knew, before making the short trek up to Austin for the festivities. Well, the San Antonio thing ended up being kind of weird, though I did get to see the Alamo and that lovely canal they have running through downtown, so I decided to rent the car early and meet the gang from Japan in El Paso, where they were scheduled to play a gig. Insane, yes, to drive clear across Texas just so I could drive clear back across Texas a couple days later. But something compelled me. Something which, at the time, I could not fully explain. So I left San Antonio early one afternoon and drove, as fate would have it, south by southwest, through the night, across the great plains of Texas, listening to a Mexican oldies station.
When I arrived in El Paso, deprived of sleep and fueled by middle-of-nowhere diner food consumed at places best left in the mind of David Lynch, I checked in to the Coral Motel on Montana Avenue. Beautiful old-school place. Probably hasn’t been redecorated since the time of Manos. It was two days before anyone else was scheduled to arrive, so I decided to forgo sleep and wander around El Paso, eventually finding myself across the border in Juarez — the Chicago of border towns, to Tijuana’s New York. What happened in Juarez is a tale worth telling, though not right now. At some point I can’t nail down, since the entire time seems like one long, hazy hallucination (and, at times, probably was), I ended up at a diner with a couple people I can only assume I met at some point, since they were with me. I have no idea how the subject of Manos was broached, though I’d put good money on me being the one nerdy enough to do it. As the hands of fate would have it, though, two of the people I was with knew the movie through MST3K and, even better, because they were El Paso based fans, knew where it had been filmed.
So it was that, through cheap beer, long drives, ukulele playing Japanese girls, questionable tequila, dominatrixes, seedy Juarez nightclubs, substances I should not have ingested, and all-night diners, I found myself lying on the very stones that served as The Master’s altar, and standing in what remained of the doorway in which Torgo himself once stood so many years ago when he shakily announced…
“I am Torgo. I take care of the place while The Master is away.”
Release Year: 1966 | Country: United States | Starring: Tom Neyman, John Reynolds, Diane Mahree, Harold P. Warren, Stephanie Nielson, Sherry Proctor, Robin Redd, Jackey Neyman, Bernie Rosenblum, Joyce Molleur, William Bryan Jennings, Jay Hall, Bettie Burns, Lelanie Hansard, Pat Coburn, Pat Sullivan, George Cavender | Writer: Harold P. Warren | Director: Harold P. Warren | Cinematographer: Robert Guidry | Music: Russ Huddleston, Robert Smith | Producer: Harold P. Warren
As of this writing, Godzilla is in hibernation following his last attempt at a cinematic swan song, 2004’s dreadful Final Wars. Come the teens, however, I am pretty confident that Godzilla’s masters at Toho will take him out of mothballs again to reinvent him — as they have done in the two previous decades — for a new era and prevailing sensibility. In the nineties they gave us an appropriately touchy-feely Godzilla series, with Mothra recast as a new-agey Earth Mother and a teary-eyed psychic on hand to clue us in to the monsters’ feelings. The Godzilla of the 00’s was leaner and meaner, aided by the fact that all of those shots of collapsing skyscrapers now had a disquieting edge of verisimilitude. I have no idea what version of Godzilla Toho has in store for us in the future, but I’m fairly certain it won’t be the goofy superhero we saw in his movies from the late sixties and seventies. That incarnation, I’m afraid, is one that’s lost to the ages.
Still, I’m happy to at least see evidence of a more forgiving attitude emerging with regard to movies like Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster and its much maligned director, Jun Fukuda. For years it seemed that the more affable version of Godzilla presented therein and the man most associated with it were held in utter revulsion by those who considered themselves serious fans. As such, they became central to an official narrative of decline – a woeful spiral or ruin traced from the minute Godzilla did that little victory jig in Monster Zero and cemented into inevitability with the replacement of series mentor Ishiro Honda by the upstart Fukuda, leading inexorably to that dark day when Godzilla and Anguilas would speak to each other via cartoon speech balloons in Godzilla vs. Gigan.
Behind all of this ire seemed to be this notion that the “real” Godzilla had been hijacked and replaced by a buffoonish impostor, an idea that seemed to be what fueled the comparatively serious-minded tone of the G films of the nineties and beyond. But what this stance refused to acknowledge is the fact that Godzilla’s rich and varied history gives him all the chameleon-like properties of a true pop icon — that he is a piece of imaginational public property capable of being to each person whoever that person wants him to be, without encroaching in the least on the next person’s conception of him. Those who enjoy Godzilla most as the symbolism-freighted destructive juggernaut seen in his debut film can do so without having that enjoyment dampened in the least by the fact that, later down the road, he would be pitching cartoon boulders at a giant lobster, just as those who enjoy that later version are free to do so untroubled by the fact that, early on, Godzilla was a bit of a dick. Godzilla is a bit like Madonna in that way (while Madonna, as time passes, is increasingly like Godzilla in a number of other ways).
Sadly, the cropping up of misguided and pointlessly self-limiting orthodoxies in the realm of pop culture is exactly the sort of thing you’re going to see if you allow for a backwass notion like “serious fandom”, which, to me, is like the flipside of “casual zealotry”. I mean, I’m both capable of being serious and a fan of many things, but I strongly believe that when the notions of “seriousness” and “fandom” collide, only trouble, heartache and — in the unforgiving lense of hindsight — deep, gnawing shame can result. I feel this especially acutely in this case. because, to my thinking, to be too critical of Godzilla after a certain point becomes dangerously close to taking Godzilla for granted, which is something we should never do. You see, I’ve reached an age where I’ve taken stock of my life and determined which things matter to me the most. And I can tell you in all honesty that Godzilla ranks right up there with fine liquor, warm summer nights and the love of a good woman among those thing that make life most worth living. Sure, I wasn’t crazy about Final Wars, but if you told me that having no Final Wars meant having no Godzilla, I’d have to say, sure, go ahead and give Ryuhei Kitamura the keys to the franchise and let him have at it.
All of this ties in with what I think determines which of Godzilla’s different manifestations will be the one a particular person will hold closest to his or her heart, which can basically be described as a sort of primary attachment theory of Godzilla. In short, it’s all about which Godzilla was your first. In my case, it was Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster. If memory serves — which it may very well not — the encounter took place via a short-lived Saturday night horror movie package called Shock-It-To-Me Theater that aired on one of the Bay Area’s local UHF channels. The host was a goateed guy called Asmodeus, who always wore a smoking jacket and dark glasses — and who actually puffed away on a cigarette as he introduced the movies, which should give you some idea of how long ago this was. Not long after, Asmodeus and Shock-It-To-Me would be driven off the air by the popularity of a competing horror show on another local channel, Creature Features, which was hosted by the recently departed Bob Wilkins, an unassuming guy in an off-the-rack suit and glasses who had a perpetually bemused demeanor and a lacerating, bone-dry wit.
Thinking back, it must have been tough for Asmodeus, who was more what would have been considered a traditional horror movie host at the time — complete with ominously intoned, pre-scripted dialog and a cobwebbed, gothic castle set from which to intone it — to be knocked off the air by a guy like Wilkins. Little did we know at the time that, with Wilkins, we were seeing the first glimmer of an ironic hipster sensibility that, by the time of Mystery Science Theater, would become part and parcel of our attitude toward “B” cinema as a whole. Anyway, it’s just as likely that I first saw Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster on Wilkins’ Creature Features. But, if that’s the case, at least my lapse in memory gave me an opportunity to give Asmodeus a shout-out, because, even though I was among the horde of young viewers who ditched him in favor of Creature Features, he was still a formative influence.
Anyway, what matters the most out of all of this is that my initial viewing of Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, whatever setting on the TV dial it emanated from, had a soul-stirring effect on me. I remember being struck by a sense of wonderment at the fact that adults, who at this point in my life seemed to merely serve as delivery system for everything — vegetables, outdoor activities, Summer swimming lessons — that I wanted to have nothing to do with, had taken the trouble to create something that was so completely awesome — something that, judging by how it conformed so closely to my seven-year-old mind’s conception of what was cool, appeared to have been designed specifically with my pleasure in mind. Here were giant monsters fighting; perilous jungle adventures; an army of exotic, uniformed bad guys lead by a dude with an eyepatch; futuristic looking sci-fi sets; toy boats and planes that acted just like the real thing, and lots of explosions, all set to a driving, sort-of-rock-and-roll-sounding musical score that practically screamed at me that I was watching probably the most exciting thing ever seen.
Some time later I would see — and years later, come to love — the original Godzilla, but at the time it was the one film in the series that struck me as being the departure. My Godzilla was the grumpy but ultimately lovable defender of the Earth that I had seen in Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, or in Monster Zero — or the grumpy but ultimately loving and protective father figure seen in one of my other youthful favorites, Son of Godzilla. And that hasn’t changed much in my adulthood, which should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me, given that the list of things I consider cool has changed very little since I was seven, and has only been amended over the years to commemorate my discoveries of things like girls, punk rock and beer.
Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster began life as Operation Robinson Crusoe: King Kong vs. Ebirah, a rejected script for a proposed co-production between Toho and America’s Rankin/Bass Productions (yes, the Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer guys) that was intended to tie in with the latter’s King Kong Saturday morning cartoon series. That fabulous bit of synergy finally saw fruit with 1967’s wonderful King Kong Escapes, but before that transpired, Godzilla producer Tomoyuki Tanaka determined the need for a new Godzilla film for the upcoming 1966 holiday season, and further decreed that said entry should be oriented toward a teen audience and feature a South Seas theme. In response, the Operation Robinson Crusoe script was hastily retooled — primarily, it seems, by crossing out the name “King Kong” wherever it appeared and penciling in “Godzilla” in its place — and then mashed up with another shelved script, this one for a sequel to director Jun Fukuda’s successful spy spoof 100 Shot/100 Killed, titled 100 Shot/100 Killed: Big Duel in the South Seas. The resulting Frankensteinian creation was a beast bearing the cumbersome title Godzilla-Mothra-Ebirah: Big Duel in the South Seas.
For all the coulda-beens and shoulda-beens of its detractors, Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, viewed today, seems like it was inevitably the Godzilla movie that was going to get made in 1966. This was, after all, the year in which the author of James and the Giant Peach was commissioned to write a James Bond movie in which spaceships eat other spaceships and a villain’s space-age compound is housed within a hollowed-out volcano. The collision between the stodgy, adult-driven popular culture of the early sixties and the encroaching influence of sixties youth culture and it’s defining mistrust for authority had resulted in camp becoming the dominant aesthetic in seemingly every pop culture producing country in the world, and it was no longer safe for any pop icon born of the old order to be presented without a conspicuous display of tongues being placed firmly in cheek. (In this sense, the Batman TV series sort of served as the signal head-on-a-pike to mark our crossing over into this new territory.) Also, recent years had for the first time seen the vast majority of Television shows and movies being produced in color, something that producers were demonstrably eager to exploit via the widespread use of pop art-inspired, comic book-like palettes of bright primary colors, a tendency that is well in evidence in some of Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster‘s sets. Lastly, the influence of the aforementioned Bond films had reached critical mass by 1966, becoming so pervasive that even the Beatles couldn’t resist the urge to spoof them in Help!, which makes it unsurprising that Godzilla’s handlers would draw upon their tropes as well. In short, all of these trends listed above come together in Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, resulting in it being probably the most overtly comical, modish, and giddily irreverent film in the Godzilla series.
Facilitating this new tone was the fact that a number of the key members of the creative team behind Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster were younger than those who had worked on the previous G films. Director Fukuda, here taking the reigns of a Godzilla movie for the first time, was not only thirteen years younger than Ishiro Honda, who had directed all but one of the previous six Godzilla films, but also lacked Honda’s strong attachment to the giant monster genre. Instead, he drew upon his previous experience directing fast-paced action and comedy films for his approach to the material. Composer Masaru Sato — who had previously scored Godzilla Raids Again, the one Godzilla film that you are most likely to have completely forgotten existed — was likewise a decade-plus behind the man he was replacing, Akira Ifukube. In contrast to Ifukube’s ominous, deliciously portentious scores to the preceding Godzilla films, Sato here delivers a soundtrack that is alternately whimsical and full of manic, cartoonish urgency, and also can be credited with being the first to place twangy, surf-music inspired guitars amid Godzilla’s musical backing. Finally, taking the helm as director of special effects for the first time — despite Eiji Tsuburaya’s credit here — was Tsuburaya’s first assistant, Sadamasa Arikawa, a transition due largely to Tsuburaya having his hands full with the production of his television series Ultraman. Though working, thanks to Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster‘s reduced budget, on a smaller scale than what Tsuburaya usually had to deal with, Sadamasa does a fine job, and even puts his own stamp on things with some camera work that departs significantly from his mentor’s typical style.
One member of the team who was not a stranger to Godzilla was screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa, who had in fact had a hand in writing most of the previous entries in the series, as well as such other high profile kaiju films as Mothra and Varan. Despite this, he was able to raise himself — or lower himself, depending on your perspective — to the task of concocting for Godzilla a story that was enough of a briskly paced and carefree piece of froth to make the monster’s previous film forays seem like sober dramas by comparison, incorporating teen-friendly elements from the current beach party, action and spy films as he went along. This emphasis meant that the aspects of the story involving the film’s human characters would be front and center for much of the film, which is actually not that unusual for Godzilla’s movies. All of them depend quite a bit on their human-based storylines to fill out their running time, and to my mind those storylines are precisely what keep the Godzilla movies fresh, because you never remember them from one viewing to the next. With every screening it’s like you’re seeing — and then forgetting — them for the very first time.
In the case of Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, what you are forgetting is about sixty percent of the movie, because Godzilla doesn’t really enter the action until about the fifty minute mark. Until that time we have the story of Ryota (Toru Watanabe), a kid who is determined to go off in search of his fisherman brother, who has been reported lost at sea, but whom Ryota is convinced is still alive. Ryota’s first stop in his quest is a dance marathon in which a sailboat is the first prize, an episode that gives Masaru Sato an opportunity to contribute some swingy go-go music — complete with suspicious echoes of the Batman theme — to the soundtrack. Finding he’s arrived too late to compete, he enlists the aid a couple of goofballs who have already been eliminated in helping him to steal a boat from a nearby pier, a boat that turns out to be the hiding place of fugitive safecracker Yoshimura (played by ubiquitous kaiju eiga star Akira Takarada). For reasons that are not entirely clear, the four men all decide to spend the night on the boat, but awake to find that Ryota has set sail during the night without their knowledge, and that they are now somewhere in the middle of the Pacific, Everyone takes this pretty much in stride, until, after a few days’ journey, their boat is cleaved in two by a gigantic claw that thrusts up from beneath the ocean’s surface.
Ryota, Yoshimura and the other two all wash up on the beach of Devil’s Island, which they soon discover to be the hideout of The Red Bamboo, an army of crisply uniformed terrorists who are building an arsenal of nuclear missiles within their space-age compound there — and who bear no resemblance to the Chinese whatsoever. The island’s coastline is guarded over by the sea monster Ebirah, a giant lobster/shrimp thing that is almost exclusively seen from the waist up, with its lower body hidden beneath the water line, and who, in an especially memorable and rare instance of kaiju movie gruesomeness, spears a pair of escaping fishermen on the end of his claw like shish kebab. In order to keep Ebirah at bay while they ferry supplies back and forth, the Red Bamboo must use a yellow liquid refined from vegetation found on the island that has special, Ebirah-repelling properties, the production of which they delegate to an army of slaves who they have captured from nearby Infant Island. Said slaves, of course, are those peaceful inhabitants of said island who are able to remain peaceful solely by dint of them having the giant moth Mothra on hand to kick ass whenever anyone gives them any trouble. As Ryota and his pals watch the unloading of the latest shipment of slaves, one of the females, Daiyo (also-ubiquitous kaiju eiga star Kumi Mizuno) breaks away from the pack and makes a run for it. The boys come out of hiding to aid in her escape and soon become the object of pursuit for the one-eyed Captain Yamoto (played by designated Godzilla series eyepatch model — see his role as Dr. Serizawa in Gojira — Akihiko Hirata) and his machinegun-wielding troops.
Meanwhile, over on Infant Island, the remaining inhabitants are trying to raise Mothra from her slumber to go and save their enslaved loved ones, aided, as always, by those tiny twin singing fairies of Mothra’s — who, for the first time, are not portrayed by The Peanuts, but instead by another twin singing act called Pair Bambi. This scene provides an opportunity for another one of the high points of Sato’s musical score, a version of the usual ‘hey, Mothra, wake up” ritual song that would fit right in on one of those late nineties lounge-exotica compilations. Mothra proves difficult to rouse, however, a delaying tactic that gives us the nagging feeling we’re going to be seeing some Mothra ex machina action during the final minutes of the picture.
It turns out, however, that Mothra isn’t the only sound sleeper among the monsters in the neighborhood, because, in the course of scrambling frantically around the island in their attempts to evade Capt. Yamoto and his men, Ryota and company stumble upon Godzilla, out like a light at the bottom of a deep subterranean pit in the island’s interior. As momentous a discovery as this is, the boys file it away for future reference, as there is still much more frantic scrambling around to be done, in and out of the Red Bamboo’s compound and the various caves and fissures of the island, all the while being narrowly missed by fusillades of machinegun fire from their pursuers. Finally, in the course of one of these pursuits, Ryota finds himself tangled in the lines of an observation balloon which comes loose from its moorings and sails away from the island. In one of the film’s most willfully preposterous moments — and the final red flag for anyone who’s actually been trying to take any of this seriously — Ryota’s involuntary balloon ride deposits him right at the feet of the Infant Island natives at the very moment that their Mothra waking dance seems to be taking effect. Not only this, but, In response to Ryota’s inquiry, the islanders produce Ryota’s missing brother, who has been among them all along.
Ultimately, the good guys’ escape from the island and the Red Bamboo’s comeuppance cannot be accomplished without Godzilla on hand to deal with the villain’s fearsome guardian lobster, and so a hastily contrived lightning rod and the felicity of frequent tropical downpours are employed to bring him to. A little groggy at first, and obviously not too keen on doing any heavy lifting, Godzilla’s first reaction upon seeing Ebirah is to lazily chuck some boulders at him to see if that will do the trick of driving him off. It doesn’t, and Ebirah just bats the boulders back at Godzilla, who in turn head-butts them like soccer balls back in his direction, making this the most gleefully stupid prelude to a monster battle in the series thus far. Finally, the battle is joined in earnest, and involves a lot of underwater sequences that were reportedly quite perilous for the suit actors, weighed down as they were by hundred-pound-plus monster costumes in addition to being submerged in gallons of water.
One of the common complaints about Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster is that it is cheap. It is indeed true that the financially troubled Toho assigned the film a budget that was meager in comparison to that of its predecessors. Still, this is not a film that overreaches its limits, and, for the most part, its planning and scripting evidences a shrewd allotment of resources, allowing it to be a slick and handsome looking entry despite it being staged on a somewhat smaller scale than earlier Godzilla movies. Though the setting of the action on a remote island cut costs by alleviating the need for Sadamasa Arikawa and his crew to build entire miniature cities for the monsters to trash, what miniatures there are are well up to the standard set by the other films, and the need for fewer indoor sets allowed the producers to invest more in the colorful interiors of the Red Bamboo’s compound.
The only evidence of shoddiness that is too glaring to overlook is that no one seems to have bothered, during the transitioning of the script from one featuring King Kong to one featuring Godzilla, to put much work into differentiating the latter from the former. For the most part that isn’t much of a problem, since both meet the screenplay’s primary requirement of being giant rampaging monsters, but it definitely becomes a bit troubling during the section of the film in which Godzilla seems to be taking an amorous interest in Kumi Mizuno. Admittedly, this episode is a bit of a low point for the Big G, especially since much of it involves him guarding over Daiyo while hunkering down on his haunches and just kind of staring off into the middle distance. It’s not a good look for Godzilla, and I couldn’t help thinking that all he needed was a newspaper to complete the appearance of him sitting on the can. Also a bit puzzling is the fact that the water-bound Ebirah seems like he would be even less of an appropriate opponent for King Kong than he is for Godzilla, making it hard to imagine what exactly Toho might have been thinking there. This is not to say that Ebirah is entirely crappy as kaiju go, but he does prove to be a bit overmatched, and, at the end of the day, it’s pretty obvious why he came to take his place alongside King Seesar and Hedora the Smog Monster in the pantheon of one-shot Godzilla movie monsters.
Despite its obviously misguided intimations of Godzilla’s interspecies horniness, Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster also affords its mon-star his fair share of iconic moments, including an entrance that involves him busting out of the side of a mountain. There is also an instance of classic Godzilla bad-assery in which, after tearing off one of Ebirah’s claws, he clacks the thing together like a giant castanet in order to taunt him. Elsewhere, perhaps less iconic, but still indelible is Godzilla’s battle with the Red Bamboo’s air force, which is set to a musical accompaniment that would be more appropriate for the dancers on Shindig. Still, it isn’t these isolated moments that make the film so enjoyable, but rather the infectious and undeniably good-natured enthusiasm that courses through the whole thing. It just careens along like a hyperactive toddler on a sugar rush until the end credits roll, leaving you with a mild but entirely pleasant sense of exhaustion. Seriously, I don’t expect everyone to hold this movie in as high regard as I do, but it seems to me that to hate it would take quite a lot of concentrated effort.
After Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, Jun Fukuda helmed the similarly silly Son of Godzilla before handing the reigns back to Ishiro Honda for Destroy All Monsters (the first of many “final” Godzilla films) and Godzilla’s Revenge, soon after which he returned to direct some of the most maligned entries in the series, including the almost universally reviled Godzilla vs. Megalon. It is perhaps for this reason that Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster is held by some in a negative light; not so much for what it actually contains, but for the fact that the glimmer of Godzilla vs. Megalon can be seen in its eye. Personally, I like the later Fukuda films — Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla especially — but, more importantly, I love Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, and to an extent that I could never hope to justify with rational explanation. Suffice it to say that I am helpless to its charms, and even today when I watch it I can’t help but bust out into a big goofy smile. Of course, that should be entirely understandable to anyone who loves Godzilla. It was my first, after all.
Release Year: 1966 | Country: Japan | Starring: Akira Takarada, Kumi Mizuno, Chotaro Togin, Hideo Sunazuka, Toru Watanabe, Toru Ibuki, Akihiko Hirata, Jun Tazaki, Ikio Sawamura, Pair Bambi, Haruo Nakajima | Director: Jun Fukuda | Writer: Shinichi Sekizawa | Music: Masaru Sato
The imperative to put butts into theater seats is apparently one that has been shared by film industries throughout the world, regardless of what political system they operated under. And whether those butts were capitalist or communist seems to have made little difference. Thus it was, in 1966, that East Germany’s state run DEFA studio decided to try their hand at what had been widely considered an exclusively American genre, the Western, in an attempt to entice those audiences who had been staying away from their usual, more dryly ideological fare in droves with more thrilling, action-oriented entertainments.
Of course, DEFA had no intention of aping Hollywood’s approach to that genre, and would ultimately put their own, distinctive spin on it. Going a long way toward achieving that was their decision to tell their film’s story from the point of view of its Native American characters, with whites settlers serving as the villains, a conceit that would also provide a convenient platform for critiques of American imperialism and greed. But lest you think that choice was just a cynical appropriation of a suffering people’s history for crass political ends, let me point out that there was an abiding German fascination with Native Americans and their culture that had existed since long before the communist divide, the responsibility for which can pretty much be placed at the doorstep of one man.
It’s difficult to touch upon a figure like Karl May in passing, because the temptation is so great to simply reel off the strange and colorful details of his life at the expense of the subject at hand. But for the sake of brevity, let’s just say that, prior to becoming one of Germany’s most popular authors ever, Karl May had seen his share of hard times, and was no stranger to the inside of a prison cell. His tendency to be light-fingered had scuttled his teaching career early on, leaving him to fall back upon a well established habit of thievery and fraud that some today believe was the byproduct of a clinical personality disorder.
The years 1869 through 1870 saw May embark on a particularly impressive crime spree, during which he repeatedly employed a ruse in which he posed as a police lieutenant to confiscate “counterfeit” deutschmarks from various shopkeepers. After a run from the law that involved the employment of disguises and a number of narrow escapes, May was finally captured and sentenced to four years in the Waldheim penitentiary. It was during this stay that May, inspired by the works of James Fenimore Cooper and travel accounts of the American West, discovered and refined his gift as a teller of adventure stories. Soon after he was released, he began writing the first of a phenomenally popular series of novels, the most enduring of which would featuring a noble Apache chief named Winnetou and his white, German-born blood brother Old Shatterhand.
Of course, given that May had never once set foot on American soil at the time of writing them, the Winnetou stories were far from documentary in terms of their representations of frontier life, and of the lives of indigenous Americans in particular. They were in fact tainted by sentimentality and rife with “noble savage” clichés, to the point that he even had Winnetou renounce his Indian spirituality and convert to Christianity at one point. Still, they were unusual in their time for their sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans and their acknowledgement of the depredations perpetrated upon them by the white man. They were also imaginative enough in their telling to inspire many of the Germans who read them to take an interest in Native American culture beyond what was described in their pages. Some of those readers even went on to form “Indianerclubs” — a number of which still exist today — whose mostly white members would not only immerse themselves in that culture but also dedicate their holidays to trying to emulate it as best they could.
It was inevitable that the characters from May’s Western adventures would eventually make their way to the big screen, and, in 1962, West Germany’s Rialto Film Preben-Philipsen made it so, initiating a series of films that were to become wildly popular throughout Europe. The majority of these starred French actor Pierre Brice in the role of Winnetou and American actor — and former Tarzan — Lex Barker as Old Shatterhand, and used locations in Yugoslavia to sub for the American West. Eventually coming to comprise eleven entries in all, they came to be known as the Winnetou Films, and are generally considered to be the seed from which the Italian Spaghetti Western sprang, a connection driven home by the presence within them of such genre stalwarts as Klaus Kinski and Terence Hill.
DEFA saw their own first venture into the Western genre — or Indianerfilm — as a response to, rather than an emulation of, the Winnetou films, and were determined to outshine their West German counterparts in terms of the historical accuracy and authenticity of their product. To this end, they chose as their source material The Sons of Great Bear, a young person’s novel written by East German author and historian Liselotte Welskopf Henrich that was at the time considered to be scrupulous in its depiction of Native American life and customs. Veteran Czech director Josef Mach was invited to take the reins of the picture and, to star as its hero, the fearless and incorruptible Sioux warrior Tokei-Ihto, a chance was taken on an unknown young Yugoslavian actor named Gojko Mitic.
Yugoslavia was a popular — i.e. cheap and accessible — shooting location for foreign producers at the time, and when representatives of the British production Lancelot and Guinevere came to the Belgrade sports academy where he was training, looking for a stunt double for star Cornel Wilde, Mijic, an accomplished student athlete with the necessary riding skills, suddenly found himself in the film business. From there he went on to do stunt work and bit roles in a variety of films, including a number of Italian Peplums, before making his way into the Winnetou films. Mitic started out in small, uncredited parts in the Karl May Westerns, but worked his way up to the point where he had a substantial supporting role in 1964’s Frontier Hellcats (aka Unter Geiern), which is presumably where the producers of The Sons of Great Bear first caught sight of him.
The Sons of Great Bear‘s action takes place against the backdrop of the U.S. government’s forced relocation of the Dakota Sioux in the aftermath of the discovery of gold in the Black Hills. a territory that was considered hallowed ground by the Sioux, and which had formerly been protected by a treaty entered into in the days before it was thought to have any value by white settlers. Tokei-Ihto’s Bear Band is one of a number of groups of Sioux who are determined to resist the relocation by any means necessary, and as a result they become a target of, not only the U.S. Military, but also the scruffy and shifty-eyed bunch of frontiersmen charged with doing their dirty work. The most scruffy and shifty eyed of all of these is Clarke, aka The Red Fox, a rogue who seeks to weaken the tribe by tempting its members into alcoholism and vice, and who, in the film’s prologue, is shown to have murdered Tokei-Ihto’s father. Clarke is played by Czech actor Jiri Vrstala with a level of menace convincing enough that I was given considerable pause to learn that he had for years played a popular children’s character called Clown Ferdinand both on East German TV and in the movies. Based on his performance here, it’s easy to imagine that being made to watch Clown Ferdinand was, for East German children, just a more modern equivalent of being taken behind the woodshed.
After Tokei-Ihto leads a successful raid against a scouting party lead by the scheming Lieutenant Roach (Gerhard Rachold), he is betrayed by the Bear Band’s elders and delivered to Roach and his men under the pretext of negotiating a treaty. Roach has him imprisoned, then has his people driven by force from their land and moved to the barren, rock-strewn reservation that the government has assigned to them. Tokei-Ihto is eventually freed, thanks in part to the sympathetic efforts of conscientious frontiersman Adams (Horst Jonischkan), and becomes determined to lead his band across the Missouri River to make a better home. Such exodus, of course, does not conform to the plans of the white authorities, and so Clarke and his men set out to thwart it, leading to a final, violent confrontation between Tokei-Ihto and his father’s killer.
For a fledgling genre attempt by a company accustomed to producing output of a very different kind, The Sons of Great Bear is remarkably sure-footed, the only evidence of its status as a novice effort being a narrative rhythm that is at times a bit odd and halting. I think that’s in part a result of the filmmakers trying to deliver the required amount of kinetic thrills while at the same time providing the necessary historical background. It must be said, though, that there appears to have been an assumption on their part that the film’s audience would come to it with at least some knowledge of that background, because what information there is, is far from spoon-fed to us. The movie jumps right into its action without preface, and what historical context there is has to be gleaned from odd exchanges of dialogue that pop up between those scenes that move the story along. Of course, this does not prevent the producers from earning their government paychecks via some heavy handed political messages — including a couple of lines that could easily be interpreted as making analogies to Vietnam. But it’s fairly clear that those producers were at the same time fully cognizant of the fact that they would lose their audience if those messages were delivered at the expense of the expected amount of gun fights, Indian raids, and fancy riding by the movie’s athletic star.
While it may be that the creative team behind the film didn’t quite have a grasp on the classic Western’s vigorous pacing, it is clear that they had an understanding of it’s grandiose scale and mythic dimensions. Cinematographer Juroslav Tuzar’s lyrical widescreen compositions take the film’s Montenegro locations and imbue them with a sense of limitless expanse appropriate to the metaphorical American landscape they stand in for. The images are at times so captivating that the filmmakers themselves seem to have become entranced, resulting in a number of overly lingering shots that further contribute to the film’s odd ebb and flow. Soundtrack composer Wilhelm Neef matches this effort with a score that shows he can step up to the plate when majestic sweep is required, though he also manages to serves up some of the type of rinky-tink cheese that we’ve come to expect from the Germans during this era, including a weird little, ska-tinged tune that accompanies Tokei-Ihto’s raid on Lieutenant Roach’s scouting party.
But, handsome trappings aside, it is the performance of star Gojko Mitic upon which The Sons of Great Bear stands or falls. And Mitic, somewhat miraculously, comes through. Saddled with the burden of portraying a character who is more monument than man — essentially the spirit personified of his noble and long suffering people — Mitic shoulders an onus that would have toppled many more experienced actors and perseveres. Given that the stoic Tokei-Ihto is a classic man of few words, this involves on Mitic’s part the projection of an unnervingly steadfast soulful intensity — or, if you’re feeling less charitable, the employment of a fixed, blank stare that is given intensity by weight of Mitic’s undeniable natural charisma.
In any case, less of Tokei-Ihto’s communication is done through looks than action, and the latter proves to be a language to which Mitic is ideally suited. Despite being required to do what had to be a truly grueling amount of stunt work, Mitic accomplishes a dizzying assortment of perilous moves with all the grace and agility suited to the fearless, nearly superhuman warrior he’s charged with portraying, whether he be leaping down upon his prey from a perch high in the trees, or jumping from the saddle of one charging horse to another. It also doesn’t hurt that Mitic, sculpted from head to toe and half naked for much of the film, is an exquisite physical specimen, an ocular treat for anyone with an appreciation for the male form regardless of their gender or preference. Red blooded guys who fear that a film like this might leave them tainted by exposure to socialist propaganda can rest assured; Watching The Sons of Great Bear won’t make you a commie. However, it just might turn you gay.
While it’s true that Tokei-Ihto is more of an idealized archetype than a flawed human being, and his primary nemesis, Clarke, is a purely evil, melodramatic villain of the highest order, it cannot be said that, beyond that, The Sons of Great Bear presents its conflict in strictly black and white — or white and red — terms. Aside from sympathetic white characters like the aforementioned Adams and the American major’s daughter Cate Smith, both of whom give aid to Tokei-Ihto at various points, we are also shown traitorous Indians who work alongside the whites, as well as dissension and infighting within the tribe, such as that which leads to the elders betraying Tokei-Ihto. Neither can it be said that the conflict between the whites and the Indians is framed as simply one between the powerful and the weak, as the lot of Clarke and his fellow frontiersmen, facing encroaching irrelevance in the form of the coming railroad and the establishment of European-style “civilization”, is shown to be in some ways more miserable than that of the persecuted Indians, who at least have their rich culture and deep bonds of community to fall back upon. Of course, one doesn’t need to dig too far beneath this to find the underlying message that capital and its brute machinations are the real villains, but the filmmakers should be given credit for not sacrificing complexity in favor of creating characters that simply stand in for ideological talking points.
Of course, the major stumbling block to appreciating The Sons of Great Bear‘s many positives is the fact that all of its Native Americans are so obviously pasty white Europeans in redface and black wigs. But anyone who has been able to overlook that type of minstrelsy in American Westerns — which was usually in the service of a far less sensitive portrayal — shouldn’t have too much of a problem with it, even though I admit that it was hard getting used to hearing guttural German phonemes issuing from these Indians’ mouths. Aside from this probably unavoidable casting quirk, though, the film does a fairly good job of avoiding becoming little more than a camp artifact. True, a couple of Wilhelm Neef’s musical cues, as already mentioned, are a bit on the cheesy side, and there is a regrettable man-in-a-suit bear mauling scene, but overall the movie comes across as a well made and exciting adventure, with an interesting perspective, that has much more to offer than simple kitsch value.
By the time filming on The Sons of Great Bear was nearing its end, Gojko Mitic, who considered the film a one-off effort on his part, had had it. The actor would later admit to some churlish onset behavior brought on by homesickness and impatience. Given that, it was probably a “good news/bad news” situation for him when the film went on to meet with a success that was far beyond the expectations of anyone involved in it. Overnight, Mitic had become the most popular film star in East Germany, and the East German Indianerfilm DEFA’s most in-demand genre. Eleven more such films would follow, all starring Mitic in roles very similar to the one he portrayed in Great Bear, ending with 1983’s Der Scout. Despite the fact that he would eventually front a wide variety of films for DEFA — including Gottfried Kolditz‘s science fiction epic Signals: A Space Adventure — he would come to be commonly referred to as “The most famous Native American in Eastern Europe”, and would appear on German television as recently as 2006 in the role of Karl May’s Winnetou. Because of this, Mitic can count as part of his legacy the fact that, for a certain generation of Germans, he changed the rules of playing “Cowboys and Indians” forever.
Release Year: 1966 | Country: East Germany | Starring: Gojko Mitic, Jiri Vrstala, Rolf Romer, Hans Hardt-Hardtloff, Gerhard Rachold, Horst Jonischkan, Josef Majercik, Josef Adamovic, Milan Jablonsky, Hannjo Hasse, Helmut Schreiber, Jozo Lepetic, Rolf Ripperger, Brigitte Krause, Karin Beewen | Writer: Liselotte Welskopf-Henrich | Director: Josef Mach | Cinematographer: Jaroslav Tuzar | Music: Wilhelm Neef
I’d like to start off by telling you that what you’re reading is in every way identical to a normal movie review… except for one thing. It’s bullet-proof. It also contains a tiny transmitter by which we here at Teleport City can track all of your movements. So that would be two things, then. Oh, and it can also act as shark repellent. Of course, if you were to find yourself in the kind of circumstances in which you could put all of those hidden functions to the test, I’d be very impressed. Unfortunately, you’d also be dead. The fact is that I’ve just always wanted to give one of those “except for one thing” spiels like you hear in 1960s spy movies. Exactly, in fact, like the one that the masked hero Superargo receives toward the beginning of Superargo vs. Diabolicus, during which he is presented with all kinds of items — from a dhingy to a cocktail olive — that are in every way identical to what they appear to be on the surface, except for one thing. That doesn’t really apply to the cocktail olive, though, because it is actually a Geiger counter and, as such, completely inedible. So it’s really completely un-identical to a cocktail olive except for one thing — i.e., looking like a cocktail olive.
In 1960, AIP’s go-to director for cheap, quickly produced science fiction and horror double bills convinced the powers that be to gamble on letting him make a stand-alone film, in color, with double the production time and more money. Granted that, compared to other studios, this still meant an incredibly lean budget and an incredibly short production schedule. The result was Roger Corman’s Fall of the House of Usher, a landmark film in the history of American horror and one of the best Gothic horror films from any country. Although more sedate and slower paced, finally the United States had an answer to the wild, Technicolor horror films from England’s Hammer Studio.
The wonderful thing about Battle Beneath the Earth is that it allows even an underachiever like myself with no college edukation to feel that he has a breadth of scientific knowledge superior to that of its makers. On more than one occasion while watching it I was able to point at the screen and exclaim, “Der, that can’t not happen! Har!” For instance, I don’t know anything about geology, but I know that molten lava is hot, and that you can’t just daintily step over a stream of it as if it were a crack in the sidewalk. Also, if digging a tunnel between China and the U.S. were as easy as this film makes it out to be, China’s biggest problem would be the steady influx of six-to-eight year-old American boys constantly emerging from holes hither and yon to excitedly wave their shovels at people.
Battle Beneath the Earth strikes me as being what a movie conceived by one of those six-to-eight year-old boy might be like. It’s a film that is clearly targeted directly at the kiddie matinee market, and, as such, seems to bypass all adult sensibilities and mainline directly into the brain patterns of a prepubescent Sixties-era male jacked up on war comics, high sugar cereals and violent Saturday morning cartoons. I mean, listen to this premise: The Red Chinese dig a subterranean tunnel from China to the U.S. with the intent of detonating nuclear bombs under our major cities, only to be engaged by the U.S. armed forces–ideally portrayed by a bunch of green plastic army men–in all-out warfare… beneath the surface of the Earth! Seriously, fellows, if that doesn’t stir the kid inside, I don’t know what would.
Unfortunately, in execution, Battle Beneath the Earth confronts a discrepancy between ambition and means similar to what an eight year-old likely would. As a result, it ends up being a classic example of the type of movie that marries a grandiose concept to modest intentions. “The Chinese” end up being more like some Chinese (and not even real ones, in many cases) and the “battle” ends up being more like a skirmish. Still, the movie has to be given some points at the get-go for its dopey concept and total disregard for maintaining credulity among anyone whose age breaks the double digits. Then again, given that this is a British production pretending to be an American one, it could just be an instance of some smarty-pants English people making fun of us yanks by dumbing themselves down in imitation. (Executive #1: “So how do we make it seem authentically American?” Executive #2: “Well, first of all, we should make it really stupid.”)
In line with its moderate level of spectacle, Battle Beneath the Earth is the work of a group of professionals who shared a more or less equally moderate level of accomplishment. Before helming the picture, director Montgomery Tully churned out–seemingly at monthly intervals–a large number of competent but unremarkable B crime thrillers, and also worked in British television. Similarly, writer Charles F. Vetter (here credited as L.Z. Hargreaves) was responsible for writing enjoyable genre entries like First Man Into Space and Devil Doll that, while certainly not without their well-deserved fans, are far from considered classics. Star Kerwin Matthews, for his part, was known primarily for playing support to stop-motion monsters in films like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The 3 Worlds of Gulliver and Jack the Giant Killer–though it was possibly his work in eurospy films like the OSS 117 series that put him in mind for his role here–and leading lady Vivienne Ventura had a healthy resume of TV work. All in all, a perfectly respectable line-up of talent, but nowhere near a guaranty that what you’re going to be seeing will rise above mediocrity.
Our action begins on a British soundstage dressed up to resemble–at least to a grade schooler’s exacting standards of verisimilitude–a street in downtown Las Vegas. As a crowd of British extras doing their best to exude American-ness looks on, obviously over-stressed scientist Arnold Kramer (Peter Arne) kneels with his ear to the sidewalk, exclaiming excitedly about some kind of suspicious goings on “down there”. Of course, since the movie is called Battle Beneath the Earth, we know that Kramer is on to something, but the Las Vegas authorities, not being afforded such insight, just think he’s a nutter and cart him off to the bin. Kramer, of course, protests to the contrary and insures them that the threat he perceives is real. However, like most supposedly sane people in movies who are assumed to be crazy by everyone else, he steadfastly refuses to state his case in clear, simple terms, and instead resorts to vague, metaphorical language that is as close to incoherent raving as possible.
Enter Naval Commander John Shore, played by Kerwin Matthews. Since an undersea lab project he helmed ended in disaster thanks to a mysterious underwater earthquake, Shore has been relegated to a test lab where he spends his days hitting brightly colored pipes with a rubber mallet. Fortunately, one of his assistants happens to be over-stressed scientist Arnold Kramer’s sister, and she asks Shore, an old family friend, to visit her brother in the brain hospital. Kramer is not much more transparent in his statements to Shore, but does show him a “seismographic drawing”–made as a byproduct of some earthquake prediction research he was conducting–that, according to him, shows man-made tunnels under the U.S.that he believes are entering the country somewhere along the Oregon coast. Later, when news breaks of an unexplained mine collapse in an Oregon coastal town, Shore decides that Kramer’s claims merit further looking into.
Part of that further looking into involves Shore visiting his buddy Lieutenant Commander Vance Cassidy at the very clearly labeled “Los Alamos (Underground) Atomic Detection Center”. Despite the name, the center appears to be some kind of global listening post. They’ve got “the entire world bugged”, Cassidy tells Shore, and if “a champagne cork pops in the Kremlin”, they hear it. That this arrangement is unironically presented as being merely sort of neat is in keeping with Battle Beyond the Earth’s kid-like perspective, exemplified in this case by a purely “gee-whiz” conception of both the benevolence of military authority and the sleek efficiency of American bureaucracy. This is, after all, a movie where the sight of a uniformed official puffing out his chest and barking gravely into a bright red phone while standing in front of a wall-sized map is treated as being on an equal level of spectacle to any of the action set pieces, and in which, during the cast listing at the end, each of the characters are listed by full name and military ranking, even though some of them weren’t even referred to by name in the film… and none of them are real people (seriously, you feel like you’re supposed to stand up as they roll by).
The barking of terse commands into red phones is not just noteworthy in itself, of course, but also because it results in important things getting done, and often in remarkable time. At one point, when silence is required in order for the Navy’s detecting equipment to identify the locations of the Chinese underground tunnels, Admiral Felix Hillebrand (Robert Ayres) simply picks up the phone and makes a couple of calls, resulting, within just a few hours, in the entire United States going completely silent. All transportation has been shut down, traffic stopped, broadcast signals ceased and all heavy machinery of every kind brought to a halt in every single region of every state in the union. One by one, each of the states checks in with the central command center, letting the brass know that “condition silent” is in effect in their slice of the country–at which point, of course, that state lights up on a giant wall map. These few uniformed men in this room are not just important, Battle Beneath the Earth is saying, but super duper important–so much so that they can toggle the entire country on and off like a light switch.
It’s kind of hard to believe that those behind Battle Beneath the Earth meant for any of this to be taken seriously, even by the attention-deficient rugrats at the core of their target audience. This was 1967, after all, and characters such as these were already commonly being presented as either villains or figures of ridicule throughout mainstream entertainment. Most of the military men on display here, with their implied mania for control and obsession with commies, are, in fact, just a few tweaks away from becoming Dr. Strangelove‘s General Jack D. Ripper. Still, if fun is being made, Battle Beneath the Earth is doing a superhuman job of feigning stone-faced earnestness throughout, never once tipping its hat or giving the audience the slightest glimmer of a wink.
Lieutenant Commander Vance Cassidy, by the way, is portrayed by Ed Bishop, who, of all the actors in Battle Beneath the Earth, probably makes the largest blip on the radar screens of Teleport City’s readers. Though he was born in Brooklyn, there was something about Bishop–perhaps his weathered farmboy good looks or unaccented TV announcer’s voice–that seems to have struck British casting agents as being quintessentially middle-American, because his early career consisted largely of bit parts as token American astronauts, low level military functionaries and mission control operators in a number of British productions. Around the time of making Battle Beneath the Earth, he was providing the voice of Captain Blue in Gerry Anderson’s puppet series Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. That would lead, a couple of years later, to him donning a platinum wig and taking the lead role of Commander Ed Straker in Anderson’s first live action series, UFO — if not the best, than certainly one of the most stylish science fiction programs of the Sixties.
Anyway, Shore’s initial visit to the (Underground) Atomic Detection Center proves unfruitful, as Cassidy’s equipment is more attuned to picking up Champaign corks popping in the Kremlin than it is hundreds of Chinese burrowing away right beneath our feet. Undaunted, Shore heads to the collapsed mine in Oregon where, while exploring a disused section, he stumbles upon a freshly made tunnel whose walls have apparently been hewn via the application of extraordinary heat. He also finds a medallion that someone has left behind that has a Chinese dragon on it. This discovery leads to Shore being authorized to return to the mine with a small group of combat soldiers. This second time around, Shore and the soldiers happen upon a big yellow tank thing bearing the same dragon insignia as the medallion, which is in the process of carving a tunnel through the rock using high intensity lasers. (These lasers are portrayed by a couple of extra-bright headlamps–but have no fear; the use of drawn-on cartoon laser beams will be used at later points as dramatic effect requires.) They follow the laser tank to an underground chamber in which a number of Asians in lab coats, as well as a few soldiers, are tending to some large, black, lozenge-shaped things which also bear the same dragon insignia. “Chinese!”, exclaims one of the soldiers. “With atom bombs!”, exclaims Kerwin Matthew in reply.
At this, Shore and company leap from hiding and waste the whole group in a hail of machinegun fire. This tactic, while effective in a very limited sense, leaves quite a few questions with little hope of being answered, such as just who all of these freshly dead Chinese people are working for. As we will soon learn, the answer to that is General Chan Lu, a rogue Chinese officer who has seized his country’s plutonium stores and held his government hostage while pursuing his own personal plan to nuke the U.S. to rubble using a system of world-spanning tunnels dug by his private troops over the course of three years. Serving loyally at his side are the evil scientific genius Dr. Kengh Lee and his key military aid Major Chai, both of whom have to compete for attention with his ever-present pet falcon.
Now, as far as I could tell, all of those Chinese military personnel gunned down by Shore and his men, like most of the non-speaking Asian roles in Battle Beneath the Earth, were played by actual Asians, but the door slams pretty hard on race-appropriate casting once we get to the speaking roles. Chan Lu and Kengh Lee, for instance, are played by veteran character actors and British TV stalwarts Martin Benson and Peter Elliott, and they do so in a dispiriting display of the most egregious putty-eyed Orientalism you could imagine. In all seriousness, if there was just one of them it might be easier to get around, but between the two of them they’re like a tag team of Fu Manchus trying to out “ah so” one another in a taxing display of excruciating inscrutability. Major Chai, also, is played by a British actor, David Spenser, though in a comparably lower key. It is only Paula Li Shiu, out of all the Asian actors on screen, who gets a speaking role, playing Dr. Arnn, a functionary of Chan Lu’s who shows up in one scene to hypnotize a captive Peter Arne using a handheld electric fan.
By the way, out of all the actors in Battle Beneath the Earth, Peter Arne is definitely the one most worth watching. For one thing, he’s perfect for a comic book movie like this, because he looks like he was drawn by Steve Ditko; his face a collection of anxious lines that looks like just one more stressor could cause it to collapse in upon itself. Furthermore, in a field of stubbornly one-layered characters, his is the one that strives the most toward three dimensionality. Kramer is conflicted, resentful of his earlier treatment by the military establishment, but driven by a sense of duty once he is called upon to rejoin the cause, and Arne brings a twitchy irascibility to his portrayal that makes him the focus of every scene he’s in. Arne was yet another fixture of 1960s British TV (I swear, I don’t think there’s a single member of the cast of Battle Beneath the Earth who didn’t make a guest appearance on Danger Man) and I was sad to learn that he left this world under violent circumstances, the victim of murder in 1983. I wish I could pay him better tribute than simply saying that he was the best actor in Battle Beneath the Earth, but there you go. At least I mean it sincerely.
Now I have to mention here that I will be describing things in Battle Beneath the Earth that will sound much more exciting or colorful than they actually appear on screen. To counter this, I suggest that you apply to every mental image conjured by these descriptions a sort of down-sizing formula, reducing the scale of what you see in your mind by a factor of about, oh, eighty percent or so. For instance, when I describe a clash between Chinese and American soldiers, you might think of it as involving actual armies, when in reality there will be no more than a dozen people on either side. This was done, I imagine, not only to save on the cost of employing extras, but also because that is about as many people as the small sets could accommodate. To give some idea, also, of the level of art direction and set design on display, I should call your attention to the command headquarters of General Chan Lu. It appears to have been staged on a single cave set that was redressed and used for the majority of the film’s subterranean locations, and is pretty lazily decorated with whatever could be purchased cheaply and easily from a Chinatown gift shop. There are a couple of Oriental rugs slung on the wall, one of those folding screens, some Chinese lanterns and a couple of dragon statues, etc. Pretty shoddy, really, and fully in keeping with the laziness of the stereotypes portrayed by Benson and Elliott (which is the true source of their offensiveness, really: that they’re less the result of racism than they are of the filmmakers just not giving a shit).
Similarly, the high tech headquarters of the Los Alamos (Underground) Atomic Detection Center is comprised of a surprising amount of exposed aluminum sheeting and, if not for all of those colorful wall maps with all their flashing lights to distract us, might look more like the kitchen in a run-down elementary school cafeteria. Finally, on the prop front, the Chinese laser tank is appealing in a life-sized toy kind of way, but looks like it was probably made out of wood, and when the U.S. makes their own version of the tank, it appears to be just the same prop painted blue. (See, theirs is yellow and ours is blue. Blue vs. yellow. Get it?)
So, with all that in mind, let’s return to the business of plot synopsis. After successfully defusing all of those atomic bombs (Matthews’ Shore is one of those old fashioned omni-abled sci-fi movie heroes that we here love so much: not just good with the science, but also with using his fists and, if the plot requires, dismantling nuclear weapons), Shore and his small team of soldiers are sent back for another foray into the tunnel. This time Chan Lu’s men lead them into a trap which is comprised of a bucket of steam-emitting nuclear waste that one of the Chinese soldiers appears to detonate using a Roadrunner-style plunger. What follows is just one of the movie’s instances of people running away from a nuclear blast–though, in this case, with only varied success, as many of Shore’s men end up getting killed. This is cold realism in action, of course, because everyone knows that you need at least ten minutes to make egress on foot from the effects of an Atomic explosion, which is the reason why Shore and his crew are later able to jog to safety after detonating several full-sized nukes. You can’t overemphasize the importance of lead time.
After this failure, team USA gets the jump on Chan Lu thanks to that aforementioned “condition silent” business, and are able to create a brightly-lit wall map showing the locations of his tunnels. Admiral Hillebrand determines that the General’s main supply tunnel under the Pacific can be accessed by way of an inactive Hawaiian volcano, and assigns Shore and his men the task of destroying it, while at the same time bringing Kramer back onto the team to create the blue version of the laser tank. It is at this point that we see the eleventh hour introduction of a sexy lady scientist (hey, who let that thirteen year old into the writing session?), Tila Yung, portrayed by Vivienne Ventura. Ventura ends up being a fairly innocuous presence, and provides someone for Shore to mack on during his downtime from saving the world, but she is disconcertingly orange in color, and has a strange vocal inflection that sounds like it’s half accent and half speech impediment which I found a little distracting at times.
Anyway, it is in the bowels of the Earth below that Hawaiian volcano that Battle Beneath the Earth‘s final battle beneath the Earth finally takes place. Of course, the way things work out, it ends up being just Shore, Tila Yung and Sergeant Mulberry (played by Al Mulock, who is sadly probably most famous for committing suicide while in costume during location shooting for Once Upon a Time in the West) holding up our end of the battle. Numbers aren’t important, however. What is important is that this battle affords the opportunity for Martin Benson to strut around and make pronouncements like “Our enemies stands naked before us!” and “Logic is the American’s god!”, and for Shore, Yung and Mulberry to steal some of Chang Lu’s soldiers’ uniforms and try to imitate Chinese people by speaking English in robot voices, and, finally, for the three of them to stand on a cliff, confusingly looking straight ahead at what is revealed to be an aerial view of a nuclear explosion.
For all its failings, Battle Beneath the Earth is a difficult movie to hate. In my case, this is partly due to it having the disarming quality of seeming like it was the result of someone watching me play army men on my bedroom floor when I was six and then making a movie out of it (though, of course, with much lower production values). In fact, it’s difficult to even call it a bad movie. What it is, in reality, is a solidly mediocre movie, though one whose mere adequacy is rendered bad when viewed in comparison to its over-reaching concept. Star Kerwin Matthews, director Tully and scenarist Vetter all contribute valiantly to maintaining that level of mediocrity, insuring that our hero will never diverge from a stubborn, slate-like blandness, that no camera composition will be inventive enough to call attention to itself, and that no situation will be novel enough to deliver any kind of actual surprise. Against that backdrop, the pulse-raising moral offense incited by the minstrelsy of Martin Benson and Peter Elliott actually comes as some kind of gift, as does the genuine quirkiness of Peter Arne’s performance.
The way it cagily intertwines itself with childhood nostalgia also makes Battle Beneath the Earth one of those infuriating films that always seems better in recollection than when actually viewed. There’s no harm in that, of course, other than that it encourages repeat viewings, which, believe me, the actual film really doesn’t hold up to. It’s a pleasant enough diversion on the first pass, but once it’s done, it’s time to close the toy box and move on.
Release Year: 1967 | Country: England, United States | Starring: Kerwin Matthews, Vivienne Ventura, Ed Bishop, Peter Arne, Martin Benson, Peter Elliott, Robert Ayres, Al Mulock, Earl Cameron, John Brandon, Bill Nagy, Paula Li Shiu | Writer: Charles F. Vetter (as L.Z. Hargreaves) | Director: Montgomery Tully | Cinematographer: Kenneth Talbot | Music: Ken Jones