Thursday, 27 August 2009

The Giant Gila Monster (1959)

For some people the 1950s conjures up images of Doris Day, of Eisenhower in the White House, of Ozzie and Harriet. But for others the real spirit of the 50s is encapsulated by rock’n’roll, hot rods and giant monsters. It is for such people that movies like The Giant Gila Monster exist.

This 1959 movie opens with a courting couple in a car who have an unfortunate encounter with a giant gila monster. They were members of what initially (and promisingly) seemed like a gang of hot-rodding juvenile delinquents. Sadly it turns out that they aren’t really juvenile delinquents, they’re actually nice kids who respect their parents and even the local sheriff thinks they’re swell kids. The leader of the gang, even more disappointingly, turns out to be not just a swell kid but an annoyingly virtuous character who work hard and saves his money to help out his polio-stricken kid sister.

After several other cars are mysteriously forced off the road the sheriff comes to the obvious conclusion that a giant lizard is probably responsible. He consults a zoologist (surprisingly the godforsaken hick town in which these events occur apparently boasts its own zoologist) and is assured that it is quite common for animals to grow to gigantic size because of trouble with their pituitary glands. The giant lizard hypothesis is more or less proven when a railway bridge is demolished and a train wrecked by what witnesses swear is an enormous gila monster. Luckily our intrepid hero (Chase, the leader of the hot-rodding teenage gang) just happens to have a shed full of nitro-glycerine, which always comes in handy in situations like this.

There’s also a sub-plot relating to Chase’s dreams of becoming a teenage singing sensation, dreams which seem likely to become a reality when he helps out a drunken motorist whose car has been forced into a ditch by a giant lizard. The motorist is in fact the famous disc jockey Steamroller Smith. Steamroller Smith turns out to be a really swell guy as well, always eager to help out struggling would-be pop stars especially if they are helping to support polio-stricken kid sisters.

This is in fact the major problem with this movie. Everyone is ingratiatingly nice. The movie drowns in a syrupy sea of niceness. When Chase whips out his ukulele and treats us to not one but two separate renditions of a nauseatingly sentimental little ditty called “Laugh, Children, Laugh” one can only pray for a giant gila monster to arrive and devour him. Alas the monster arrives too late and he is allowed to complete the song.

The special effects are classic 1950s giant monster movie stuff. How do you represent a gila monster the size of a bus? That’s easy. You just film an ordinary gila monster alongside toy cars and everyone will think it’s a giant reptile. The fact that it still just looks like an ordinary lizard climbing over toy cars is all part of the charm of 1950s giant monster movies.

This is very much a movie for fans of 50s giant monster movies. If you don’t fall into that category then don’t even think about seeing this movie. If you do love these movies then its extreme cheesiness will be seen as a definite plus, but whether it’s worth enduring the ordeal of Don Sullivan’s singing is open to debate. His songs provide the only real horror in the movie. Writer-director Ray Kellogg was also responsible for the even cheesier, and far more entertaining, The Killer Shrews.

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