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