Destroy All Monsters (1968)

When I was in middle school, I found a series of six little orange-spined books about monster movies in some library or other, each focusing on a classic: Dracula, Wolf Man, Frankenstein, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, one I don’t remember, and of course Godzilla. I read that in the middle of the original series – the ninth of fifteen films – was one I’d never heard of, but it sure sounded like the reason movies were invented. I’ve no idea why I must have always missed Destroy All Monsters when channel 36 or 46 showed a Godzilla film. Even without the main character’s name in the title, I read the TV listings with a fine-toothed comb looking for anything that sounded promising, and I’m pretty sure that at any time between the ages of eight and twelve, had I seen a movie called Destroy All Monsters in the Sunday TV Week, I would have been shouting about it.

So I got an external Blu-ray drive, which means that I can read the 15,000-plus pages of PDF material on the Doctor Who Blu-rays, and I can get screencaps from Blu-rays like the Criterion Godzilla set. It comes with an unbelievably pretty transfer of the movie and, tragically, the English language dub, which my son asked to watch. Oh, it’s painful. It’s the worst dub on the prettiest visuals. The kid didn’t care. He just wanted mass destruction, which this movie delivers.

In the far-flung future of 1999, the monsters of Earth have been baited and relocated to some islands near Japan called Monsterland. They’re hemmed in by defense screens and have ample food, and since they’re all in one place, it makes it easy for some smug space ladies called the Kilaaks to take over the control center, brainwash the staff with devices that are not hearing aids – that’s Susumu Kurobe, who played Hayata in Ultraman a couple of years previously, in a small role as one of their new agents – and put transmitters all around the planet to drive the monsters to attack Earth’s major cities. If I counted right, nine of the Toho movie monsters get a good bit of screen time. A couple of others, Baragon and Varan, were reduced to cameos, apparently because the costumes were too damaged.

I finally saw this film when I was a little too old to love a Godzilla movie, and it sure wasn’t pretty like this print. (Did you watch Bad American Dubbing like I suggested last month? The hearing aid scene was from the same nth-gen copy that Dave from Let’s Anime landed back then.) But I was old enough to start recognizing actors, like Kurobe, and also Kenji Sahara as the commander of the moonbase. I knew then that he’d been in a couple of previous Godzilla movies, but now I know him better as the star of the tremendously entertaining Ultra Q.

But when you’re nine, the stars of the movie all have big teeth. Destroy All Monsters was made to blow the minds of elementary school-aged kids out their ears, and it succeeds mightily. Our son says this was by far his favorite of the ones we’ve watched, and as soon as it was over, he was waiting for me to get my silly pictures from the disc so he could rewatch Godzilla, Rodan, Manda, and Mothra destroy Tokyo, and the big see-it-to-believe it climax, where eight of the monsters all team up to fight Ghidorah. They were doing these wrestling matches more for laughs than anything else at this point, but they work on two levels. When you’re a kid, just seeing all these titans mobbed up to kick Ghidorah’s space monster ass is something you can only dream about, and when you’re an adult, you marvel at the choreography necessary for any of this to work.

That’s the last of these movies I plan to blog about, but our kid’s enjoying the rest of the movies without me yammering about them. He’s watching Ebirah, Horror of the Deep, which I know better as Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, as I’m typing this, and I’m trying real hard not to be distracted by Kumi Mizuno. And the great big shrimp-crab monster, of course.

Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (1965)

Yeah, yeah, Invasion of Astro-Monster, I know, but screw that, it’s a stupid name.

This is such a strange experience. I had been so looking forward to Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster and it let me down so badly. This one I had no real fondness for at all, but I decided to watch it with our son both out of a sense of obligation for the important ones and also to see the incredibly fun scene where Nick Adams tells his space girlfriend that they’re not robots, and I enjoyed the daylights out of it. It’s really entertaining!

Of course it’s dumb in the way that monster movies are always dumb. My favorite example is one by no means limited to just the Japanese monster movies: it starts by following all the human characters that will ever matter in the movie, and keeps giving them additional reasons to be part of the narrative when it really should have left them behind for new experts. There are a few special effects letdowns this time, too. Wires are visible all through the film, and while Eiji Tsubaraya’s effects team did their usual amazing job with miniatures for the moments that matter, basic establishing shots are obvious giveaways. I chuckled at a convoy of military trucks and jeeps all following along a track with whacking great pins connecting the vehicle to the metal track underneath.

But there’s also a wonderful moment where the movie wrong-foots the audience into thinking they’re seeing an error when they’re not. If you’ve picked up Criterion’s big Godzilla set – and if you haven’t, you should – then skip to chapter 2 and you’ll see a fine little shot of a rocket flying through space. The camera follows it for a second and then cuts to a shot of the stars and the blue-blackness behind them, revealed to be fake by folds in the fabric. But the camera continues panning and the joke is on the skeptics in the audience. The cut took us out from space and to Earth. We’re not looking at a special effect, we’re looking at the starry-night backdrop of a fancy restaurant. I loved that.

In the mid-sixties, Toho decided to try boosting American interest in their monster movies by hiring familiar actors. Russ Tamblyn and Cesar Romero both headlined films for them, but I think Nick Adams was the first. It didn’t work in the short run; this movie sat on the shelf and didn’t get released in the United States until 1970, under the far better name of Godzilla vs. Monster Zero. Adams is terrific fun to watch. He’s an all-fists dese-dem-dose action star, all cigarettes and sixties, capable of whatever odd demands the plot has for him.

When I last saw this film as a teenager, I was too serious to enjoy it. I was unreasonably annoyed that the people of Earth called this new planet on the other side of Jupiter “Planet X,” and then they land on it and strike me pink, that’s what the natives call it as well! But the Planet X people – they’re called Xillians, delightfully – are effortlessly cool in an only-in-the-sixties way, with their grey-and-black leather uniforms and thin sunglasses. I’d watch Nick Adams rally the people of Earth against these dudes even without Godzilla and Rodan beating up Ghidorah in the background, especially if he’s going to overact opposite the beautiful Kumi Mizuno, who was in a lot of these movies back then.

And did the kid like it? He made “Go Godzilla” signs. He got disillusioned when he thought Godzilla was going to rise up from a big lake and it turns out to be a flying saucer instead, lowering his signs with a scowl, but at one point Godzilla does a victory hop and at another point he tells Rodan to wake up by smacking the big bird in the chest with his tail and he was in heaven. A small city gets demolished and the Xillians get crippled by sound waves before they can, err, “escape into the future,” and their UFOs explode. Maybe the hilarious brilliance of Nick Adams is lost on him as yet, but there’s plenty otherwise to enjoy.

Image: Criterion

Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)

It’s the way of things. Sometimes a beloved old movie just doesn’t hold up. Today’s heartbreak: Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, which I may have seen about twenty-five times when I was much younger and have often said is my favorite monster movie. That’s not a claim I’ll make again. I’ve also said that the human stuff is the most interesting material in these movies, and while the material here remains interesting and very watchable, the giant monster stuff is, bluntly, wretched. This is not how I remembered it, but watched just two weeks after Mothra vs. Godzilla, I can see both a far smaller budget for special effects and the intrusion of kid-friendly comedy for the first time. When Mothra shows up to convince Rodan and Godzilla to join forces against a new monster from space, the bigger beasts’ brawl has deteriorated into playing volleyball with boulders.

I still like the human stuff. It revolves around a princess from a south Pacific nation who’s been targeted by killers in a political coup. Someone who looks just like her turns up in Japan, dressed like a bum and drawing crowds with her wild predictions of imminent doom for the planet. She claims she’s from the planet Venus, but the rival faction in the missing princess’s home country wants her dead anyway. I love the leader of the gang. He never once removes his sunglasses in this movie. Instead of the usual battles between Godzilla and the military, this movie goes for a smaller scale, and has a policeman trying to protect the “Venusian” from the four killers in several shootouts. None of these guys could hit the broad side of a barn.

Even though I was underwhelmed by the monster business, our son loved it. The comedy of the squabbling monsters – Rodan in particular enjoys a good laugh – had him charmed and the action had him enthralled. King Ghidorah is, at the end of things, an absolutely amazing design, and the destruction of that city with his lightning-rays remains a pretty impressive bit of miniature effects. It’s a movie that’s pitched straight at eight year-olds, and this one says it’s his favorite of the five that he’s seen so far. We’ll see how he feels when Nick Adams shows up in the next one we watch, in April.

Image: Criterion

Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)

When Criterion announced their Blu-ray collection of the original fifteen Godzilla movies, my inner twelve year-old smiled, but the more practical middle-aged part of me said no, because I’d honestly rate only five of them as being worth a darn, and that’s a big price to pay for five movies. Then Criterion had a flash 50% off sale and I was told I’d have a bonus coming at work and I’ve got an eight year-old kid who absolutely loved the original, which we saw at the Silver Scream Spook Show in 2018. A boy should have Godzilla movies. I figured we’d watch and blog about the other four that I enjoy over the course of the next few months, and he could enjoy the other ten at his own pace.

He surprised me yesterday by asking to watch the worst of the ten first, so we put on the infamous All Monsters Attack, aka Godzilla’s Revenge, which is a 70 minute cheapie that reuses half of its monster footage from two other movies and tells a kiddie tale about a bullied latchkey eight year-old foiling some bank robbers. He certainly liked it, but this morning, we put on something more impressive.

Mothra vs. Godzilla is the fourth to feature Godzilla, and the last where he’s unequivocally a threat and a menace. It’s a story of newshounds and scientists pitted against two greedy businessmen, and shows that things were just as crappy in the world fifty-six years ago. Newspapers have a critical need to provide information, corporations are unethical and run by monsters, nuclear radiation kills the fields of verdant islands, all that. These movies are only ever as good as the human stuff, and the human stuff in this one is great to watch. I especially like the fellow they cast as the prefecture’s alderman, who looks precisely like he stepped out of an editorial cartoon. His heart may be big, but his civic pride is wrapped in Coke-bottle glasses, buck teeth, and a stringy mustache.

But the wow factor comes with the enormous soundstages and incredible miniature work, and the bizarre spectacle of using a moth prop about the size of a Cadillac and dropping it repeatedly on the head of that poor fellow in the Godzilla suit and never once seeing a line or a wire holding the huge thing up. There are a couple of unfortunate seconds of sped-up film, and that’s the only quibble I’d make with Ishiro Honda and Eiji Tsubaraya’s amazing direction and special effects decisions. And even that makes sense because this movie depicts Godzilla as slow, tired, and clumsy as he stumbles around before the first fight. Mothra’s only advantage is speed. Overall, the special effects are completely astonishing. Sure, we’re at an age where we understand how every shot was done; it’s not a case of wondering how they did it, it’s marveling at knowing how much resources and work were required to make it all happen.

The kid agreed. He thought All Monsters Attack was great fun, but he liked this morning’s film better. “There was more Godzilla getting totally really mad and wanting to destroy stuff. Basically there was more destroying stuff.” He is at the age where the monsters are the prime attraction and the people get in the way, of course. That’s fine. More cities will be knocked over for him soon enough.

Image: Criterion

Ultra Q 1.1 – Defeat Gomess!

While this won’t be joining our regular review rotation, I wanted to note that something I wouldn’t have predicted a year ago has happened, and you can get all 28 episodes of Ultra Q on Blu-ray and they look amazing. Even wilder, you can get them from Mill Creek, which has a quite deserved reputation of not minding the quality and feeling the width, if you take my meaning, but they are doing this project right. They have released the first five in an ongoing series of Ultraman reissues, along with seven of the more recent movies and shows, cleaned up and presented in gorgeous packaging. (Well, the packaging of the classic shows is gorgeous; the modern ones look cluttered and awful.) The restoration is extremely good, and the picture quality is jawdropping; home releases of 54 year-old black and white TV shows don’t often look as good as this.

When we watched and reviewed Ultraman (the second of the fortysomething series in the franchise) three years ago, I noted that the climactic wrestling match was invariably the least interesting part of the program to me. Ultra Q was made before they figured out they could wrestle. The stars are three humans, a news reporter and two pilots, who get in the thick of each new monster attack. In the first episode, they get caught between the latest resurrection in a centuries-long cycle between two thirty-foot beasts: an acid-spitting bird called Litra and a redressed Godzilla costume called Gomess.

Also new since we watched Ultraman: our son’s willing to read subtitles. That opens up all kinds of possibilities. My only complaint about this presentation, and it’s a stubborn and personal one, is that I wish they had gone with yellow text rather than white. Otherwise I am very, very happy with this purchase and look forward to enjoying the rest of the show over the next year or so.

Our kid wasn’t quite as taken as I was, but he’s looking at things from a very different perspective. Basically, my interest in the Ultraman franchise diminishes rapidly with each installment, and is gone completely by the disco era. It’s not about the hero or the powers for me, it’s the design and the place, the look at Japan in the sixties and early seventies, and the practical effects. The seventh series, Ultraman Leo, from 1974-75, is the last of the programs that I have even a sliver of interest in seeing, and of course the giant superhero himself is the least appealing aspect of the show.

But on a whim, I had my son look at a four minute clip that Mill Creek released from series five, Ultraman Ace, the other day. It’s the four minutes with the wrestling, it turns out, and while I was looking at it with a combination of boredom and bemusement, he was riveted. I also checked and the 2019 Ultraman cartoon is available on Netflix. He said “Ooooooo.” So to him, an Ultra-show without a giant silver guy doing flying kicks is like a book without pages. He thought “Defeat Gomess!” was an interesting distraction, but he really just wanted to indulge his old man’s nostalgia. There’s a cartoon that he could be watching and I believe that he intends to spend as much of Sunday as he can doing that.

Image credit: The Hannibal 8

Godzilla (1954) at the Silver Scream Spook Show

Listen. If you’ve got any boils and ghouls in your house under the age of ten, or if you were ever under the age of ten yourself, and you live within a hundred miles of Atlanta, I know exactly what you need to do. Continue reading “Godzilla (1954) at the Silver Scream Spook Show”

Fugitive Alien (1978 / 1986)

In the 1970s, Tsubaraya Productions made several sci-fi television shows apart from their most popular franchise, Ultraman. I don’t think that any of these really need trouble your attention much. There was Mighty Jack, of course, and Jumborg Ace, and Time of / Army of the Apes, and the see-it-to-believe it Dinosaur War Aizenborg, in which cartoon characters save the world from live-action actors in dinosaur costumes. That would have been a silly series in the first place, but then somebody decided that these needed to be talking dinosaurs.

Recognizing that I’m not the best candidate to debate the issue, Star Wolf was probably the best of this unfortunate bunch of lousy teevee shows. The premise comes from a trio of novels by Edmond Hamilton. Centuries in the future – well, possibly, the English-language script is very, very questionable – some aliens led by Lord Halkon attack the Earth. One of their “Star Wolf” raiders, Ken, gets into a fight with his colleague about whether to murder civilians, goes rogue and joins Captain Joe and his crew to save the galaxy from his former allies.

Star Wolf ran for 24 half-hour episodes in the spring and summer of 1978. Regardless of the story’s origins in Hamilton’s novels from the late sixties, the show’s design was all Star Wars. There’s a Vader Villain, ships that look like X-Wings, other ships with the Millennium Falcon’s cockpit windows, laser guns, even a light saber in one tiny bit. It’s a derivative and silly kids’ show, but for all I know, the original series might not have been too bad. Some of the miniature work is really pretty good.

But we may never know whether the original program was worth a darn, because this wasn’t released in English by a company that knew to hire Peter Fernandez and Corrine Orr to do the voices and edit out as little as possible. No, the English language rights to most of the seventies Tsubaraya shows were purchased by Sandy Frank, the source of all our pain, and if there was anything worth watching in Star Wolf, it’s not evident in what came next.

Fugitive Alien is a 100-minute compilation of the first several episodes of Star Wolf, and it is a breathtaking mess. The film was packaged and offered to UHF stations in 1986, and it is so incompetent that Mystery Science Theater 3000 did it twice, and watching it without Joel and the Bots is like a day without sunshine. The voice actors are probably Sandy Frank’s neighbors gathered around a condenser mic, the script uses “country,” “nation,” “planet,” and “constellation” interchangeably, people describe characters as not wearing space suits when they plainly are, that sort of thing.

Our son tolerated it. My wife went to the grocery store. He was attentive in the beginning, when Lord Halkon has ordered his forces to destroy all life on Earth – his forces just rob a jewelry store and steal some gold bars, so that command might have been a quirk of the Sandy Frank script – and paid attention again when Ken gets arrested on the Planet That’s the Middle East, but the forty-some minutes between them are ponderous talking scenes in office buildings. Well, Rocky tries to kill Ken with a forklift, so I guess you could say that something happens then.

Magically, you can tell from the costumes and design and cars that the original series, much like Ultraman, was set in the near-future, with technology we could imagine as right around the corner from the present day. So you’ve got average joes in 1977-78 clothes riding around in Jeeps watching slideshows and punching up information on TRS-80s talking about their centuries-old alliance with the Planet That’s the Middle East.

The film does have an actual ending, but it also says “To Be Continued.” I did not break my son’s heart when I told him I did not have a copy of Fugitive Alien 2 and that we would not be watching it.

Ultraman 1.39 – Farewell, Ultraman

Ultraman’s final adventure was first shown in Japan on April 9, 1967. It starts with a long special effects sequence in which a massive invasion force of UFOs is repelled, but, as is often the way, this just gets in the way of the meat of the episode.

“This is not the show for me!” said our upset son, huddled under cover as the alien Zetton critically damages Ultraman’s warning light and leaves him powerless. Or at least that’s what the English dub claims. Ultraman Wiki transcribed the original dialogue, which is a little different. The English dub has Ultraman and a “chief” called Zoffy talking about the need to go back to the home planet to have the light repaired. Originally, they discussed that by leaving the planet, Ultraman would be condemning Hayata to death. Zoffy is moved by Ultraman’s willingness to sacrifice himself and gives Hayata life on his own.

Ultraman was a big enough hit for a sequel to be greenlit immediately. As fans of the modern Power Rangers (“Super Sentai”) programs know, it’s common in Japan to make a sequel with different casts and costumes rather than continue with the same stars and premise for additional seasons. Ultra Seven debuted in October 1967 and was probably even more successful than this show. Nevertheless, Eiji Tsubaraya seems to have declined the opportunity to immediately continue with the superhero vs. monster formula, and instead devoted resources to a new franchise called Mighty Jack.

After Tsubaraya passed away in 1970, his company resumed production on Ultra series along with quite a few other live-action sci-fi television serials. The Return of Ultraman started in 1971, and three others followed it. There were only a handful of Ultra shows throughout the eighties and early nineties, some of which were made in Australia and America, but the franchise came back in a huge way with 1996’s Ultraman Tiga. This was the first of what I count as nineteen television series, fifteen feature films, and twenty-eight direct-to-video movies. Devotees know these things inside and out. It all seems fascinating, if just a little confusing.

Along with Ambassador Magma, which I wrote about last year, the original Ultraman was perfectly poised to ring in the era of color TV in Japan with kid-friendly sci-fi melodramas. Within a year, both programs would have a positive avalanche of imitators. I’ve seen very little of these, and most of what I saw, years ago, was “raw,” neither dubbed nor subtitled. But there’s such a neat sense of design across all these many and disparate programs. In part that’s because a famous comic artist named Shotaro Ishinomori co-created a pile of them, such as Kamen Rider, Kikaider, and Robot Detective, and you can sense some thematic continuity in some of his designs.

But also there’s just a great sense of place to these programs of the late sixties through the mid-seventies with their bold color and grainy 16mm film. Even at their dopiest – and Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot is too dopey even for me – there’s an incredible energy to what I’ve seen with these old shows. Even when they’re completely mired in topical issues, like Spectreman and its obsession with pollution, there’s still such fun experimentation as the shows’ producers pushed the special effects teams to do anything and come up with crazy creatures and wild situations.

Unfortunately, almost none of this material is presently available, dubbed. We may circle back to Ultra Seven and a couple of the Ultra imitators, which are available in the United States, although subtitled, when our son is a little older and can read them. This blog has a “pay for play” policy, so we won’t be watching some of the other period shows like Robot Detective which can be downloaded with fansubs from known torrent sites.

But I mentioned that Tsubaraya Productions was making some other sorts of science fiction TV series throughout the seventies, not just Ultra-related. These, as edited into feature films and dubbed by Sandy Frank Productions, tend to play best with a lot of riffing from Joel, Crow, and Tom Servo, but there’s one that Tsubaraya made which we’re going to risk looking at in a couple of months. Stay tuned!

Ultraman 1.38 – The Spaceship Rescue Command

With production on Ultraman winding down, and thoughts at Tsubaraya Productions and TBS most likely turning ahead to the show that would replace it, Ultra Seven, six months later, it looks like the team went all-out on the most special effects-heavy episode of the entire series. “The Spaceship Rescue Command” is a real visual treat, with lots of miniature work with ships, space stations, and moon rover-vehicles, plus two new monster costumes and a great big set to represent Planet Q. It’s called Kralon in the English dub, which is nowhere as fun-sounding.

The Science Patrol even got some new pressure suits to go out and explore Planet Q’s surface, which is of course just a quarry filmed with a red filter, but there’s something new to look at almost every minute of the thing. The dub has its dopey moments – Captain Mura cautions Ito not to touch any radioactivity, which isn’t a warning I’d ever heard before – but this is a really fun half-hour that we enjoyed a lot.

Our son’s favorite bit came when the Science Patrol freezes one of the two monsters and shatters it into fragments, which is a tremendously neat effect. His comment: “They turned him into frozen broken alcohol!”

Ultraman 1.37 – The Little Hero

What a delightfully oddball episode. It starts with Pigmon, the human-sized monster we met way back in episode eight, barking and hopping around in a department store toy department. Bizarrely, Pigmon has found the Ultraman monster aisle, and some of the beasts that you, young viewer, can pester your parents to purchase are available on the store’s shelves.

After several days working with scientists to translate Pigmon’s barking, we learn that Pigmon has come to warn the Science Patrol that a super-monster called Geronimon has resurrected all the dead enemies of Ultraman and the Patrol to destroy everybody. Why he decided to pick Pigmon as one of the first three is anybody’s guess. The others are Telesdon (from episode 22) and Dorako (from episode 25). Unfortunately the script claims that they’re Red King and Gabora, but the promise of something new and wild is there.

It is a tiny little letdown that we only get a couple of returning foes instead of a Destroy All Monsters free-for-all, but it’s still one of the very best fight scenes in the series, and to be fair, these may have been the only old suits available. Others were cannibalized for other monsters or discarded after being set on fire and otherwise damaged in the making of the show. The suit for the previous episode’s monster, for example, was actually a refurbished Gomora (from episodes 26-27) with a new head.

Pigmon dies in action, heroically saving Ito from Dorako, leading to a solemn and very cheesy finale with the Science Patrol removing their helmets and stoically saluting while a military hymn is hummed on the soundtrack. The grownups kept from laughing, even as we could imagine Crow and Tom Servo just falling apart over it. It would have been a little disrespectful to our son to giggle at something that intended to be sad and meaningful. Part of why it’s important to watch programs with an audience of the intended age is so you can see how the thing works for viewers that age. It’s only us boring grownups who care about reused costumes and riffing.

Ultraman 1.36 – Don’t Shoot, Arashi!

This week’s monster is called Zaragas, and it’s another beast that has made several return engagements to the Ultraman franchise. In the nebulous way these things are scripted, it somehow has the power to adapt and get stronger after any attack, so the military overrules the Science Patrol and orders them off until some other scientists can figure out how to fight it.

So the episode becomes a character piece about duty and following orders for children: Arashi is absolutely certain that the “M-disintegrator” gun that Ito built will kill the creature, but Captain Mura has told him not to. I don’t know whether this story’s origin came from somebody suggesting to the producers that they do an episode about doing what you’re told, or whether actor Sandayū Dokumamushi, who plays Arashi, asked to have a week where he gets to do something meaty and take center stage, but either way, this is definitely an atypical and interesting episode as seen through a grown-up’s eyes.

For kids, though, it’s the usual mayhem. According to our five year-old critic, his favorite part was the fight, and his “very favorite part” was the end of the fight.

BONUS MATERIAL: Thanks to Atari Days for spotting this little clip released a year ago. There are some impressively super-adaptable Ultraman toys with a million joints and poses on the market, and some creative fellow made a stop-motion animation with the first two in the series. Check it out!