The Giant Gila Monster (1959)
A drive-in classic today, one that has been maligned and derided by online reviewers for decades. To all those people I just have to say, "balls", because it's really not that bad a movie, certainly not worthy of the Track of the Moon Beast levels of scorn that is usually heaped upon it. Sure, it has its lame moments and an occasional dry spell where nothing happens, but for the minuscule budget they got some quality acting performances from their leads and the monster footage is as good as you could expect it to be. So lay off it. And, yes, I know, I'm the worst offender when it comes to torching bad movies, but I've been redeemed by the healing powers of The Giant Gila Monster, amen! Can I get a witness from the congregation!?!
On to the show...
Let's meet our film's hero, a young man with the All-American name of Chase. Chase is played by twentysomething Don Sullivan, who was also the lead in Teenage Zombies from earlier in the same year. He's tall and lanky, he's got perfect teeth, and his hair is sponsored by the Mobil Oil company.
Chase's girlfriend is Lisa, a tall buxom brunette with a taste for long skirts and loose ponytails. For some reason, her character is a French exchange student with a fake accent so thick you can barely understand her half the time. As far as the plot is concerned, she might as well be Somalian.
The happy couple gets all cuddly.
Chase and Lisa live in a small podunk town in southern Texas, near Houston but so far out in the boonies that it's a long drive to the city. Chase is the informal ring-leader of the town's 17-22 demographic, most of whom seem to spend their idle days racing hotrods and their nights going to drive-in theaters to see movies like The Giant Gila Monster. It was a simpler age back then, before reality television, before twitter, before reruns of Law and Order: SVU, a time when kids actual socialized face-to-face and enjoyed being outside in the sun. Chase is the embodiment of being young in the '50s, in all its cheesy, aw-shucks, optimistic glory.
Kids enjoying some wholesome fun.
The problem is that, while you really, really want to poke fun at this movie, you just can't. And I think the primary reason is that the main protagonist Chase is just such a darn swell guy. He's absolutely the most perfect person who ever lived, bar none. He loves his mother, gives all his money to his little sister with polio so she can buy leg braces, treats his hot French girlfriend like a gentleman, never curses, never drinks, never smokes, never looks at Asian fetish porn on the internet, never misses a day of work, helps local law enforcement every chance he can get, keeps the other kids in town on the straight and narrow by directing their raging hormones into such activities as sock hops and auto repair work, has a steady job doing a valuable service for the community and even does pro-bono work out of the kindness of his heart, and he's so goddamned handsome that I wish I had a daughter so I could arrange for them to get married so I could have cute grandkids. He's tall, he's polite, he's respected, and he has 1,836 friends on facebook and he takes the time to comment on all their walls every day. I really should hate him and his otherworldly perfection, but instead I just find myself all doe-eyed and swoony, completely comfortable with my newfound man-crush.
Chase entertains his kid sister, awwww.
The town's sheriff is an Andy Taylor-type of character, firm when he needs to be, but aware that he has to treat people as people, even if it means bending the law a bit to do what's right. In a lot of ways, the sheriff's role is the most prominent of the cast, even more so than Chase and his dreamy hair. Another reason why I find it hard to pound this movie is that the frumpy middle-aged man playing the sheriff is really, truly a very good actor. You never get the feeling like he's just reading a script or chewing scenery, or that he's anything other than just a good, honorable small town lawman trying to do the right thing. Combine this with the fact that Chase's line-reads are usually spot-on and the frequent scenes of him and the sheriff talking are definitely some of the stronger points of the film.
The sheriff with one of those dialy ringie things again (on a party line, no less!).
Also impressive is the peek at the car culture of the 1950s, shown here in the kids' obsession with tire-burning custom hotrods. The hotrods in this movie are fantastic and get enough collective screen time to essentially be supporting characters. There are Ford Model Bs, Model Ts, and even a few old 1920s Model As, all customized with huge rear tires, open cockpits, and juiced-up V8 engines. Sure, they lack the balls-swinging muscle of later model Mustangs, or the technological beauty of a Skyline GT-R, but there's a certain honest appeal to a big-blower eight-cylinder hotrod built off a 1928 Ford Model A chassis. Street-legal today? No. Impossible to insure? Certainly. An absolute show-stopper oozing through downtown Scottsdale on a Saturday night with a hot girl in a short skirt in the front seat and an engine rumble so throaty and fierce that bikers hang their heads in shame? Oh my yes.
The only cringe-worthy aspect of this film, in my humble opinion, are the several unnecessary musical interludes. In real life, Don Sullivan (Chase) was a fair singer and a better songwriter and on several occasions has an opportunity to sing a little ditty, either on a ukulele or a capella. This was 1959, to be fair, and a lot of drive-in b-movies had a few musical numbers in them, but these seem a bit shoehorned into The Giant Gila Monsters. I wonder if the actor had some sort of agreement in his contract about his songs?
Chase makes his David Bowie face while strumming the ukulele.
But enough set-up, let's get to the plot. All is not well in this sleepy idyllic South Texas town. Two local kids have gone missing and there's some serious discussion that they ran off and eloped. In a bit of a nod to 1950s societal norms, everyone is concerned that they "might be in trouble" (ie: knocked up) and they seem more worried that they disappointed their parents than something unpleasant happened to them. And, as it turns out, something very unpleasant did happen to them as they were munched by a giant Gila Monster! Surprised? Really? Because, you know, seriously, it's right there in the title of the movie. Come on.
Soon-to-be dead kids, proof that premarital sex will get you killed (your mom was right after all).
Throughout the rest of the film we get to see this huge beast lumbering around the brushy washes looking for more victims. The much-maligned Gila Monster footage inserts are indeed bottom-of-the-barrel, but they are done in such a way that you really don't notice them that much. They are just extreme low-angle shots of a real lizard crawling around and flicking his tongue out a lot, occasionally stopping to hiss and dart his eyeballs a bit. They put a bit of effort into finding sticks and twigs that looked like full-sized trees to place around the set, and the couple of scenes of the lizard interacting with props on a miniature diorama are fairly effective. Say what you will about how the beast and the actors are never in the same shot, but at least they didn't drag out the back-projection screen and force the girls to scream and point at a mark off-camera.
The Giant Gila Monster!
There's some middle scenes in here that, while they do advance the plotline and provide us some more character development, they do drag a bit. Chase has some adventures, including rescuing a stranded semi-famous disc jockey from Houston and impressing him with his freeform singing while hammering out a dented fender with a hammer. He also has some girl trouble as his dear Lisa's host family isn't so keen on her dating Chase (he works it out). The Gila Monster is also busy, mauling a random traveler on the road and then snagging a bigger treat with a gasoline tanker that happens to drive by too close. The kids also go out looking for their lost friends, and find their empty car at the bottom of a ravine.
Cruising around searching for their friends.
The Gila Monster's carnage meter really pegs now as it causes an Amtrak train to derail by damaging a bridge across a narrow wash (it seems the lizard was just walking under it, not deliberately trying to knock it down). Some pretty good miniature work here as the monster doubles back and crawls around the HO-scale train cars scattered about the set, though I could have done without all foley'd in panicked screams. The dialogue is unclear, but it seems the beast wandered off after the wreck, as only a few witnesses claim to have seen it nearby (if it had stopped to snack on survivors, you'd think more people would have noticed). The State Police swarm the area and take charge, sending the small town sheriff away (pssh, city cops...).
With numerous eyewitnesses reporting a giant black and pink lizard as long as a bus in the area, the sheriff has an idea and he calls a zoologist in the city and asks him what would make a regular sized Gila Monster grow so big. The theory is that the lizard's thyroid gland, which is in all animals, was somehow mutated by unique minerals in the area's water, causing its metabolism to race out of control. To the movie's credit, at no point do we have a lab-coated scientist spouting pseudo-science, just a smarter-than-he-looks country sheriff trying to figure out why a 20-ton lizard is wandering around in his jurisdiction. Also happy not to have it blamed on nuclear testing, that gets old after a while.
Chase has this weird thing where he has to put one leg up on a table or chair or something in every scene.
Off now to a Saturday night sock hop, held in a big barn and attended by all the kids in town. There's dancing, there's lemonade, there's 45rpm records on a turntable, there's boys in suit coats and girls in poodle skirts, and everyone seems to be having an awesome time. This being 1959, there are no gaggles of kids off in the corner updating their myspace pages on their Blackberries, no smuggled-in bottles of vodka offered to skanky cheerleaders, no near-pornographic dirty dancing bump-and-grind moves on the floor, no loser stoner kids out back burning a blunt, and not one single Black Eyed Peas song at all. Sadly, I think we've lost that innocent 1950s culture forever, and I, for one, want it back.
The Gila Monster looks at a barn full of kids like it's a Happy Meal box from McDonald's and makes his move. Watch as the lizard crawls through the little toy cars parked around the well-built miniature barn set, it's really a hoot. The hardest part of using miniatures is the lighting, very obvious on the toy cars, which over-shine in the set lights (using matte paints would have helped, the gloss reflects most unnaturally).
The lizard sticks his head through the barn window, he just wants a taste.
The sheriff is here now and he gets the kids out of the barn without casualties. He pulls his shotgun from his car and lets the lizard have it. The monster (for some reason), retreats and disappears into the darkness again. If this was a bigger budget film, we'd have copious amounts of badly-edited stock footage jets and tanks blazing away at the beast while "blam-o!" and "pshwang!" sounds are foleyed in and girls scream and clutch their boyfriends in insert shots. That sort of thing can be tedious, so I was happy that it was absent here, sometimes having a very limited budget can be a good thing.
Shooting (boo to all you directors who film your critical scenes in the dark.
Chase has one of his typically brilliant ideas, remembering that his boss has four quarts of nitroglycerine in a storage shed behind the garage (from an earlier scene). He and Lisa roar off is his hotrod, get the cans and carefully put them in the car. After warning Lisa that even a little bump might cause them to explode, Chase then proceeds to burn rubber down a rutted dirt road! He even barrels over a cowcatcher at breakneck speed (for you city folk, a cowcatcher is a grate over a road to keep the cows from wandering away). Chase chases (ha!) the monster through the fields (again, over the bumpy sod with his girlfriend trying desperately not to have the cans of nitro go Port Chicago on them) and catches up to it after it has smashed through a farmhouse. His little sister was there on a sleepover (imagine the odds) and Chase saves her most heroically.
Cans of flaming death!
With the Gila Monster looming close by, Chase sends Lisa off to wait and then kamikazes his car at the beast, leaping free at the last second. The driverless car somehow keeps a beeline over the broken ground and thumps right into the monster's head, exploding in a nice fireball. Oh my god, did they just kill a real lizard? Because it sure looks like they rammed a toy car filled with black powder and a lit fuse into a real live Gila Monster and blew it up. Somebody tell me I didn't see that. [Editor Pam: Looking closely, I think it may have been a model of a Gila monster that blew up. The shot of it burning after the explosion looks like a fabric-covered structure of some sort, not a reptile.]
The sheriff arrives with congratulations, the sister learns to run like Forest Gump, the old town drunk is vindicated, the doubting rich guy begrudgingly admits life is not all bad, and Chase and Lisa kiss by the light of the burning reptile. Ah, sweet embrace.
The End. Find it. Watch it. Enjoy it.
[Editor Pam: Not a bad movie at all. The people who made it had a small budget but used it to good effect. True, the special effects barely qualify as "special," but overall it's a good way to spend 73 minutes.]
Written in October 2009 by Nathan Decker and edited by Pam Burda.
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