Cinema Fearité presents 'The Giant Gila Monster'
More hilarious than horrifying, 'The Giant Gila Monster' is the epitome of a fifties science fiction B-movie.
With the slick Godzilla: King of the Monsters roaring into theaters last week, Cinema Fearité thought it might be fun to take a look at the other end of the big reptile movie spectrum. And the other end of that spectrum is the 1959 sci-fi classic The Giant Gila Monster.
The Giant Gila Monster begins with a teenage couple disappearing while parking on a deserted road. The local lawman, Sheriff Jeff (The Crimson Ghost’s Fred Graham), enlists the help of the couple’s friends to help search, and one of them, mechanic/tow-truck driver/hot rod racer/aspiring musician Chase Winstead (Don Sullivan from The Monster of Piedras Blancas) locates the car in a ditch, with no trace of the occupants anywhere around it. There is, however, evidence that the car was attacked by a giant lizard. And the lizard is not even close to being done with its reptilian rampage.
So, The Giant Gila Monster is pretty much exactly what it’s advertised to be – a movie about a huge lizard. The film was directed by Ray Kellogg from a script that he wrote with Jay Simms (the same pair was behind The Killer Shrews), and it really does seems like just an excuse for Kellogg to do some fun monster stuff. The movie’s already quick runtime of 74 minutes is padded with teenage soap opera subplots and overly expositional conversations, and the whole thing culminates in an ending that is silly even by silly movie standards. The Giant Gila Monster is the type of movie that “Mystery Science Theater 3000” was created for. It’s bad, but in the most awesome way.
The monster in The Giant Gila Monster is lo-fi, even for the pre-CG effects world of the fifties. The lizard is not stop-motion, or even an actor in a lizard suit, but a real live Mexican Beaded Lizard that Kellogg set loose on a miniature set full of Matchbox cars and HO scale model trains. Monstrous sound effects are pumped in to make it sound like the beast is smashing huge trees and crushing tall buildings, but it’s all manufactured through the use of macro photography and balsa wood structures. The effect is both ingenious and economical. And hilarious. But that’s what audiences expect from the filmmaker who dressed dogs up as rodent-like creatures in The Killer Shrews.
There’s an air of catering to the youth demographic in The Giant Gila Monster. The young people use hip slang, race their hot rods, and listen to rock & roll music, and all of the adults are portrayed as squares, daddy-o! The only “cool” grown-up is a radio personality who shows up to DJ a sock hop that is promptly threatened by the titular beast. And while the sheriff does do his part, it is ultimately the hot rodder Chase who heroically saves the day and gets the girl.
The music in The Giant Gila Monster also speaks to the kids. In another example of padding the run time, Chase breaks into song twice, and has a third tune of his played at the sock hop. Incidentally, all of Chase’s songs were written and performed by Don Sullivan, the actor who plays him, so it seems as if The Giant Gila Monster also functions as a showcase for the budding star’s music career. The cinematic score is a tasty mix of Theremin-soaked sci-fi music and rockabilly swagger, but that’s no surprise, seeing as how it was composed by Jack Marshall, who would go on to write the theme song to “The Munsters.” It fits in perfectly with the “too cool” vibe of the movie.
The Giant Gila Monster is the epitome of a B-movie. Ray Kellogg worked with what he had and made a movie that is more hysterical than horrific. But monster movies don’t have to be frightening to be fun.