Saturday, February 25, 2012

Caching Crew and the Blustery Day

LinkUp with the sun on this frigid and windy morning to get over to Ringgold, VA, northeast of Danville, where a group of about 25 geocachers set to work cleaning up the Shawnee Road trailhead for the Danville & Richmond rail trail. I'd been out there hiking and biking lately (Pastorale, Triskaphobia, Where the Hell Are the Undead?) and found that the trailhead had become a regular garbage dump. I'd decided it needed a touch of CITO (cache in, trash out), and the idea caught on with the Southside VA Geocachers' group. So this morning, a good hours' work turned the rubbish heap into a new, pristine bit of woodland, so that finding even a scrap of trash now might be quite the daunting challenge. There was a ton of it out there, to be sure—mostly unremarkable, but I did find an interesting bit: a pink suitcase full of porn. No, I shit you not. It was so waterlogged and heavy, it took two of us to haul it to sponsor Keith McCoy's truck.

Naturally, we're trusting Keith to do the right thing with it.

After the cleanup and a fine brunswick stew lunch at the McCoys' Corner Cafe in Ringgold, several of us set out to hunt a number of caches in the Danville area. A few highly creative hides out there, my favorite being one that involved some serious physical challenges (see pics and video below). Cold and windy out there, I gotta tell you. This, though, is what caching is all about. And all the folks who volunteered to spend a portion of their day improving a natural area are a credit to their respective communities.

Click on pics to enlarge.

Preparing to haul away the fruits of the morning's labor

Not for the faint of heart!

Also not for the faint of heart! Yep, there's a cache container up there.

After the cache has been replaced, it is determined that Damned Rodan must ascend
and make adjustments. Done and done.

The team of daredevils

Damned Rodan's ascent caught on video.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Geocaching in the Land Where Horror Dwells

A couple of weeks ago, author-journalist John Peters was kind enough to interview me for his blog, and the article went live today. It covers a little of everything—my adventures in horror writing, geocaching, Godzilla, Dark Shadows, sushi, you name it. Check it out here: Geocaching in the Land Where Horror Dwells. Then flee for your life.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Stellarcon 36

Friday, March 2 through Sunday, March 4, I'll be a guest at Stellarcon 36, in High Point, NC, at the downtown Best Western Hotel (135 South Main St., High Point, NC 27260) . You are most welcome to come and heckle the crap out of me (as long as you do it nicely, of course). Along with several panels, I have a book signing and a reading lined up. Schedule is as follows:

Friday, March 2
7:00 PM: Best Worst Movie Monsters

For every Jaws, there's an Orca. For every Bela Lugosi Dracula, there's a John Carradine Dracula. Come join the chorus of complaints about the worst monsters to grace the silver screen. With Tony Finkelstein, Dan Johnson, Les Rickard

10:00 PM: Horror Through The Ages
Even in more enlightened times, people remain scared of many of the same things that frightened us centuries ago. Our panelists discuss why. With Theresa Bane, Stella

Saturday, March 3
1:30 PM–2:00 PM: Reading

5:00 PM: Writing As Therapy

To readers, books are entertainment, but what are books to writers? Listen as several authors discuss how writing helps them. With Danny Birt, Stuart Jaffe, Andi Newton, Janine K. Spendlove

10:00 PM: Messiest Way to Kill a Zombie
The title pretty much speaks for itself. With Dan Johnson, Brad Sappington, Chris Weed, Michael Z. Williamson
Sunday, March 4
11:00 AM–12:00 PM: Book signing

I'll have copies of Blue Devil Island, The Gaki, Other Gods, Legends of the Night, and CDs of all three of the Dark Shadows audio dramas I scripted (Path of Fate, Curse of the Pharaoh, and Blood Dance), all available at a special discount for the convention only. Come on down!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

What's That Glow?

"Mushroom Cloud." "Nuclear Fun." "Rad (a.k.a. Glow in the Dark)." "What's That Glow?" These are just a few of the names of the geocaches in Harris Lake County Park in New Hill, NC. It's the biggest park in Wake County and quite beautiful, with numerous hiking and biking trails, disc golf, picnic areas, camping, and boating. Not to mention the Shearon Harris Nuclear Power Plant just across the lake.

I'm all for the responsible development of nuclear power (which means I have serious reservations about it). There's no mistaking its dangers, of which you're clearly reminded by the profusion of "Evacuation Route" signs in the area. It's particularly disconcerting when you think about the deadly events at the Fukushima plant in Japan—and the fact that, last August, we had a magnitude 5.8 quake, with the epicenter just up the road a piece in Virginia.

Yesterday, which was unseasonably warm, Bridget "Suntigres" Langley and I spent the better part of the day hiking and caching around Harris Park. The trails led us to a few interesting destinations, such as the remains of an ancient graveyard (home to numerous undead nuclear families, no doubt), and the remnants of the Womble family house, which dates back to 1803. We also found a pair of nice little snakes and some less-innocuous man-eating vines, which nearly spelled the end for Bridget. She came out all right in the end, but it required a valiant struggle.

After all that, Brugger and I hauled ourselves to Zen Sushi for a fabulous dinner, and then we gathered with several folks for a ghost tour of downtown Greensboro, run by Carolina History and Haunts, for which we had a Groupon. It was fun and all, though we didn't see any ghosts. Zombies, yes; ghosts, no. Finally, we decided to try out the bar at Bin 33 for a nightcap, which proved enjoyable.

Writing-wise, not a bad week. Two stories accepted for a couple of anthologies. Details later on.

Click on pics to enlarge.

If I were to say something like "Bridget needs to lose weight," you probably
wouldn't be hearing from me again.

Out on the Peninsula Trail.

Wombles wobble, but they don't fall down. Or do they?
The foundations date back to 1803.

Old dude feeling a little dead, or a zombie-to-be.

These happy little folks were playing near one of the caches. They're out mighty early;
hope they don't freeze as the weather turns cold again.

The more I look at this, the more I think, "This is the wolf spider of trees."

O noze! The vines haz Bridget! Is OK, though, I vanquish them.

Or maybe not so OK. Alas.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Smith River Adventures

Brugger and I headed up to Martinsville last night to visit Mum and spend some time kicking around the place today. I needed to do maintenance on a few of my geocaches, so I did that early in the morning, and then the two of us headed down to the mushroom trail along the Smith River, back behind Mulberry Road, where several of my caches lurk, waiting patiently to ignore unsuspecting passersby. A bit chilly and breezy out there, but not unpleasant for a hike.

The pic at left shows an old dude at my cache called "One Guess" (GC1QG05)... meaning you have one guess where to find the thing (and, oh, what a giveaway). I've had to replace that sucker a couple of times previously (apparently a hawk took a liking to the hide's location), so I was glad to find it in good condition today.

When I was a lad in junior high school, my friend Charles Lewis lived in a neighborhood that, by road, was fairly distant, but if you took the proper shortcut, it was just over the river and through the woods. From the end of his road, we knew there was a trail along the Smith River, which reputedly went out to Forest Park Country Club, about four miles away. One fine Saturday we decided to try out this trail on our bikes—pioneer spirit and all that, don't you know. Anyway, there's some rugged terrain out there, and I recall we struggled up and down a lot of hills, over creeks, through briers, all through this territory into which neither of us had ever ventured. Nowadays, there are a number of factories along the river and some houses not too far from the trail; back then, there weren't quite as many of either, and it seemed the remotest, most isolated place I'd ever gone. I remember emerging from the woods into a big meadow, which at first I jubilantly took to be one of the fairways at our destination. Nope. A little discouraged but certainly unwilling to go back the way we had come, we pressed on. It seemed like forever later that we finally saw a house up on the hillside to our left, away from the river.

Okay, we figured. There's a road up there, and since I knew all the roads in the neighborhood, it seemed the simplest solution to get back into familiar territory. We started up the hill into the yard.


A mean, gruff voice. A dude accompanied by a not-so-weenie dog, obviously displeased to see a pair of bedraggled young teenagers attempting to cut through his yard.

"We just want to get up to the road," we said.

"Not through my yard, you don't."

"Can you tell us what road that is?"

The burly dude looked at us and laughed. "Y'all are lost, aren't you. Well, good luck."

And that was that. No way we were getting past an asshole and his dog. So we returned to the trail and pedaled on. Finally, days and days later, it seemed, we began to see familiar signs of civilization, long last...the golf course at Forest Park. (In reality, we'd been less than a half mile away when the mean old bastard shooed us off.)

In later years, a big field along the river back there, which locals called Belmont, became the site of some pretty wild parties. I attended several in my college and post-college days. Can't say as I rightly remember anything about them, though.

Over the years, I felt a certain haunting nostalgia to revisit that old trail along the river, so probably a decade or so ago, I took it to heart to go back. There's some fine hiking there, to be sure, with numerous parallel and intersecting utility trails—clearly frequented by folks on motorcycles and four-wheelers, but in all the times I've been out there in recent years, I've never seen another living soul. Today, Brugger and I ventured farther along the river than I'd gone before, and it was certainly an interesting enough trek. Lots of signs of very old industry back God knows how long. Possibly since before I was born. Old pipes along a steep hillside completely enveloped by exposed tree roots. Electrical boxes that must have existed before electricity was discovered. Definitely some fun places to hide new caches—particularly of the more, er, challenging sort favored by many NC Triangle geocachers—so I expect I will be making a return trip in the not-too-distant future. It's a place of joy worth spreading.

Click the pics to enlarge.

View of the Smith River from near the old Redd Level Plant

The mushroom trail leading toward the legendary land of Belmont

Do not cross this woman.

View of the dilapidated Redd Level Plant near the Smith River

Old retention pond near the Redd Level Plant

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Monster X!

Gamera vs. Jiger (Gamera Tai Daimajū Jaiga, 1970)

DVD Description: Released by Shout! Factory, (2010; double-billed with Gamera vs. Guiron); Japanese version with subtitles; Sandy Frank dub; publicity gallery

Directed by Noriaki Yuasa

Starring Tsutomu Takakuwa, Kelly Varis, Katherine Murphy, Kon Omura, Ryô Hayami, Junko Yashiro

Rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars

Gamera vs. Jiger is hardly a return to the superior style of earlier Gamera movies such as Gamera vs. Barugon, but something about it just seems a little less messed up than the two preceding films in the series (Gamera vs. Viras and Gamera vs. Guiron). Or maybe it's just my imagination....

The picture starts out with all of Japan preparing for Expo 70 in Osaka, a landmark event for the country, certainly for its ailing economy. Meantime, out in the remote Pacific, on Wester Island, a giant idol has been found, and Japanese scientists want to remove it and put it on display at the Expo. First, the Wester Island people protest, to no avail; but then Gamera comes round and interferes with its excavation. However, a nearby volcano conveniently erupts, drawing Gamera away to feast on the flames. The statue is transported to Osaka, but people in close proximity to the idol begin to fall ill, and scientists determine that the statue's shaft emits high-pitched sound waves, which upsets people's equilibrium.

Speaking of upset, big ugly monster Jiger now appears on Wester Island, clearly pissed about the statue's removal. Apparently, the unearthed statue's high-pitched emanations are enough to send ugly beastie into quite the frenzy. Gamera comes back around to whoop the critter, but Jiger unexpectedly zaps big turtle with quill-like projectiles that pierce its arms and legs, preventing it from drawing its limbs into its shell. Jiger flies off by way of jet propulsion units behind its jaw (an accessory that no self-respecting monster should do without). Gamera finally manages to extract the quills and gives chase. Another battle ensues, but now Jiger uses its tail to "sting" Gamera—injecting a baby Jiger into Gamera's bloodstream. Old ugly then locates the statue and throws it into the sea, putting an end to the noise that torments it. Enter our juvenile protagonists and their handy-dandy mini sub. Using the sub, they make their way into Gamera's innards via its mouth and finally locate the baby Jiger, which is lurking in the turtle's lung. The kids turn on their transistor radio and the sound waves of the resulting static put an end to the baby Jiger.

The kids make their escape, and Gamera revives to fight old ugly yet again. Gamera retrieves the sunken idol from the ocean and uses it to whoop Jiger once and for all. The end.

Gamera vs. Jiger, like its immediate predecessors, suffers from a miniscule budget, though a special effects scene or two manages to rise above the film's limitations. The idol itself is creepy looking, and Jiger itself, while remaining well within the cheezy zone, has a bit of that cool reptilian monster thing going on—more reminiscent of Barugon than of Viras or Guiron (not that this is too grand a compliment). There's a bit more urban destruction than we've seen in a while, and—yay!—no stock footage. The story is still very much aimed at the younger set, with children playing pivotal roles.

Like most of the Gamera films, Gamera vs. Jiger was never released theatrically in the U.S.; AIP-TV released it directly to television in 1970 under the title Gamera vs. Monster X. In the 1980s, Gamera vs. Jiger was part of the package of Gamera films dubbed and distributed in the U.S. by that international doofus, Sandy Frank.

The 2010 Shout! Factory release (a double-bill with Gamera vs. Guiron) is another winner, with superb video and sound quality, featuring the original Japanese soundtrack as well as the Sandy Frank dub (which is more grating than the Wester Island statue's sound wave emanations). Extras are sparse—primarily promotional still galleries—but the first-class presentation of the films (two for the price of one) is sufficient to make this a more-than-satisfactory DVD purchase.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Attack of the Monsters!

Gamera vs. Guiron (Gamera Tai Giron, 1969)

DVD Description: Released by Shout! Factory, (2010; double-billed with Gamera vs. Jiger); Japanese version with subtitles; original AIP dub; Sandy Frank dub; publicity gallery

Directed by Noriaki Yuasa

Starring Nobuhiro Kajima, Miyuki Akiyama, Christopher Murphy, Yuko Hamada, Eiji Funakoshi, Hiroko Kai, Reiko Kasahara

Rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars

The best thing about Gamera vs. Guiron is that it inspired Bill Gudmundson—illustrious Japanese Giants guy, long-time friend, and former roommate (visit—sometime long or about the late 1970s, to devise a Guiron butter knife, using... yes... an honest-to-god butter knife, sculpting compound, and a spot of paint. Beyond that, I don't know that there's any real need to review this movie.

But I will. Briefly. It's like this: Gamera hits the penultimate nadir of the series (yes, I realize what I just wrote, so pipe down).

The damning evidence:

Two young boys, Akio (Nobuhiro Kajima) and Tom (Christopher Murphy), spy a spaceship descending into a nearby field, and they bicycle their young carcases to the site to investigate. To their delight, they find the ship and manage to steal into it. Then, without warning, the ship takes off and soars into outer space...straight toward a field of asteroids. On cue, Gamera appears and clears a path for them. Alas, the spaceship leaves Gamera in the stardust and transports the boys to an unknown planet, where it lands on the outskirts of an inexpensive, miniature alien city. Suddenly, a silver "Space Gyaos" appears, but just before it attacks, a second, bizarre monster—whose head resembles a knife—emerges from an underground lair. After a violent battle, the knife-headed monster kills the Gyaos by chopping it into pieces.

Akio and Tom soon meet the planet's only inhabitants: two beautiful women, named Barbella and Florbella, who explain that their planet, known as "Terra," orbits the sun directly opposite the earth, which is why it has never been discovered by earth's astronomers. The knife-headed monster, which the Terrans call "Guiron," is their defender against the Space Gyaos monsters.

Using superdynawhopping technological devices, the alien women probe the boys' minds, in the process learning about Gamera—who, they discover (again via stock footage), has a terminal soft spot for human children and is hurtling toward Terra on a rescue mission. Much to our shock, the Terran women turn out to be cannibals, who plan to feed on the boys' brains. Now, however, Gamera lands on Terra in search of our hapless protags. The women deploy Guiron to attack the giant turtle, and after a brief battle, Guiron renders Gamera helpless, sending it into a lake...unconscious and on its back.

Tom manages to free Akio using a toy dart gun but, in the process, inadvertently releases Guiron. Out from under the aliens' control, Guiron rampages through the Terran city—even attacking its masters as they attempt to flee to Earth. The knife-headed creature slices the spacecraft in half, mortally injuring Barbella...who then dies at the hands of her own heartless, merciless, thoroughly annoyed companion. Guiron attacks the base where the boys are imprisoned, but Gamera awakes and renews its assault on the alien creature. After a furious Punch-and-Judy battle, Gamera finally rams Guiron's head into the ground, pinning it in place. Using a missile launcher they have retrieved, the boys fire a missile at Guiron, slicing it in half and killing Florbella. Gamera uses its flame energy to weld the alien spacecraft back together, so that Akio and Tom can use it to return to earth, all safe and sound.

I suppose one can't deny the imaginative prowess at the heart of this chapter of the Gamera saga. Or perhaps one could. At any rate, it probably isn't the motion picture I would elect to convince a doubting layman that he or she really ought to give daikaiju movies a sporting chance. In its day, Mystery Science Theater 3000 did showcase this flick on any number of occasions, and in fact used the memorable scene of Gamera swinging like a gymnast on a horizontal bar, which doubles as a structure in the Terran's alien city, as a promo segment for the show.

Of course, it is to Shout! Factory's credit that they released this movie on a double-bill with Gamera vs. Jiger (a similarly moving example of the cinematic arts), with an excellent print, featuring not only the original Japanese soundtrack but the atrocious Sandy Frank dub and the entertaining AIP-Titan dub from its original 1969 U.S. television release.

The old butter knife never looked or sounded so good.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Destroy All Planets!

Gamera vs. Viras (Gamera Tai Bairasu, 1968)

DVD Description: Released by Shout! Factory, (2010; double-billed with Gamera vs. Gyaos); Japanese version with subtitles; original AIP dub; publicity gallery

Directed by Noriaki Yuasa

Starring Kôjirô Hongô, Tôru Takatsuka, Carl Craig, Peter Williams, Carl Clay, Michiko Yaegaki, Mari Atsumi, Junko Yashiro

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Unbeknownst to its people, the earth is about to come under attack! As a bizarre cluster of striped spheres hurtles toward the unsuspecting planet, Gamera suddenly comes round, pops the spaceship a good one, and down it goes. Before their demise, the aliens on board report back to their home world that they have an enemy on Earth—the big flying turtle.

Cut to Japan, where we meet Jim (Carl Craig) and Masao (Tôru Takatsuka), a couple of precocious Boy Scouts who are visiting an aquarium with their troop. They finagle their way into an experimental mini sub and take it cruising around the bay. Under the sea, they discover Gamera, who engages them in an amusing race. Suddenly, another alien spaceship appears and unleashes a force field beam that entraps the monster as well as the boys. Jim and Masao manage to get free, but the aliens examine Gamera's memories (by means of stock footage) and discover its affection for children—a weakness they intend to exploit.

The aliens capture Jim and Masao and take control of Gamera by means of a brain-wave control device. Gamera...again via stock footage...inflicts serious damage on some miniature sets. Aboard the alien ship, Jim and Masao encounter a grotesque, squid-like being, which they assume to be another captive of the aliens—only to learn that it is, in fact, the alien leader. The ingenious younsters figure out how to make Gamera do the opposite of what the aliens order it to do, and so it attacks the spaceship, saving the boys and forcing the aliens to rethink their plans of conquest. In desperation, the squid-like alien decapitates its minions—all of which transform into squid-like critters and then combine to create one gigantic, malevolent Viras monster. For the final ten minutes of the movie, Gamera and Viras battle to the death, and in the end...shock of shocks...the big turtle again emerges victorious.

If this movie sounds ridiculous, it's because it's a ridiculous movie. While none of the preceding Gamera films were shining examples of cinematic sophistication, this is the first of the series to cast off its shackles of inhibition and shamelessly shoot straight at the kiddie market. That's not to say Gamera vs. Viras isn't reasonably entertaining for the older set; you just need to be a member of the older set with more than a few remnants of the ten-year-old left lingering in your psyche. Then again, I'm really not so sure. As I've said many times before, as a ten-year-old (and even younger), I wanted my daikaiju played straight. I wanted merciless monsters, hard-boiled heroes, and exquisite destruction. Nothing irked me more than juvenile protagonists and muppet-like monsters. To a large extent that's still true, though in my old age I tend to have a more sporting attitude.

The threadbare budget works against this movie right from the start. The miniatures and sets are sparse, and the cinematography does nothing to disguise the fact. Gamera looks more puppy-like than ever, and Viras treads the line between the wicked and the comical. Stock footage from the previous films comprise a distressing percentage of the film's running time. However, much like its predecessor, this film trusts that its younger viewers can handle it and features one of the most surprisingly violent scenes in all daikaiju history. Once the Viras leader has revealed itself, furious at having been foiled by the earthlings, it uses one of its arms to graphically behead its subordinates—which then grow new squid-like heads that protrude grotesquely from their humanoid bodies. I don't believe I saw this movie until I was well into adulthood, and I recall being quite taken aback (agreeably so, I must say) by this unabridged display of savagery. It's one of those little moments that turn what might be an otherwise forgettable movie into something of a novelty.

Like Gamera vs. Barugon and Gamera vs. Gyaos before it, Gamera vs. Viras received no theatrical release in the United States. Instead, in 1969, AIP-TV released it directly to television under the title Destroy All Planets—no doubt to capitalize on the success of Toho's Destroy All Monsters, which AIP had released to theaters in May of that year. The Shout! Factory double-feature DVD (which also features Gamera vs. Gyaos, reviewed here) presents the film with both the original Japanese language version and the AIP-Titan Studios dub. It's a good buy, to be sure, assuming you're one of those daikaiju completists (like me) with the squid-like heart of a child.

Return of the Giant Monsters

Gamera vs. Gyaos
(Daikaiju Kuchusen: Gamera Tai Gyaos, 1967)

DVD Description: Released by Shout! Factory, (2010; double-billed with Gamera vs. Viras); Japanese version with subtitles; original AIP dub; Sandy Frank dub, publicity gallery

Directed by Noriaki Yuasa

Starring Kôjirô Hongô, Kichijirô Ueda, Reiko Kasahara, Naoyuki Abe, Taro Marui, Yukitaro Hotaru, Yoshirô Kitahara

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

With the third Gamera film of the Showa era, one can clearly see that, for Daiei Studios, a period of declining budgets and a focus on younger viewers was in the offing. While Gamera vs. Gyaos has more in common with its marginally grimmer-toned predecessors than with the juvenile romps that were to come, the increasing budget constraints of the day lend the special effects a cheesier quality than either of the preceding films, and the storyline ventures farther than ever before into the domain of the ludicrous. The Gamera suit is clearly cheaper and less menacing in appearance than the previous two, reflecting the monster's definitive transition from marauding daikaiju to savior of the earth's children. Gyaos is an interesting enough creation, clearly inspired by Rodan; however, the suit is poorly realized, far less convincing than even the inferior Rodan suit designs of the mid-to-late 1960s.

Ironically, despite their predominantly juvenile tone, several of the Gamera films—perhaps this one above all—do anything but shy away from relatively graphic violence. Gyaos is quite clearly carnivorous in this movie, and our protagonists even exploit the monster's taste for human blood in their attempts to destroy it.

One can't deny the imaginative allure of film's plot. An engineering corp building a new highway through the forest near Mt. Fuji encounters an unseen, horrifying unknown—something capable of emitting a highly destructive sonic beam. A team surveying the area is killed when the beam emanates from the forest and obliterates their helicopter. A reporter arrives to investigate the situation and ventures into the forest with a young boy named Eiichi from the nearby village. The monster Gyaos appears, and the reporter leaves Eiichi behind while attempting to escape. Gyaos devours the man, and it's not looking too good for Eiichi until Gamera appears and engages Gyaos in battle. Gamera saves Eiichi by placing him on its back and flying him away.

Scientists identify Gyaos as a type of prehistoric monster, whose unique, twin vertebrae structure functions as a kind of tuning fork to generate its sonic beam. Gyaos is vulnerable to fire and even sunlight, but despite this handicap, it remains powerful enough to severely injure Gamera during their next battle. Gamera retreats to the ocean to recuperate and Gyaos sets out to wreak havoc in the city of Nagoya. With some of its strength restored, Gamera attacks Gyaos again and attempts to destroy it by restraining it in the ocean as the sun rises. However, Gyaos uses its beam to sever its own foot and make its escape.

The Japanese Self-Defense Force attempts to entrap Gyaos by constructing a rotating platform filled with synthetic human blood (True Blood?), the idea being that the rotation will affect Gyaos's equilibrium and keep it immobile until the sunlight destroys it. Unfortunately, however clever, this endeavor fails. Now Gamera appears and engages Gyaos in battle once again, and this time, the big turtle manages to keep Gyaos from escaping the sunlight. Weakened, Gyaos succumbs to Gamera's superior strength and is finally destroyed.

Gamera vs. Gyaos never received a theatrical release in the United States. Instead, in 1968, AIP-TV released the film directly to television under the title Return of the Giant Monsters. In the 1980s, Sandy Frank released a number of the Gamera films with new (and mostly atrocious) dubbing to the American television market. This, and several other of the Sandy Frank–released Gamera films, frequently appeared on Mystery Science Theatre 3000.

The Shout! Factory DVD release this time is a double-feature; Gamera vs. Gyaos is paired with Gamera vs. Viras, Daiei's next—and far sillier—entry in the series. The video and audio quality are quite good, per Shout! Factory's usual standards, and it's definitely a bargain to get two for the price of one. I must say, I'm glad that the original Gamera and Gamera vs. Barugon came out as single DVD releases, being that both are superior films and certainly warrant the more "respectful" treatment. As far as Shout! Factory is concerned, they probably make out better pairing the subsequent films as they have.

Despite its limited appeal, at least for me personally, seeing the entire Gamera series given a decent-quality DVD release is indeed a fine thing for us hardcore daikaiju enthusiasts.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Criterion Collection: GODZILLA

Godzilla, King of the Monsters
(Gojira, 1954)

DVD Description:
Released by Criterion (DVD and Blu-Ray); additional material: Japanese and U.S. versions, trailers, commentaries, documentaries, booklet

Directed by Ishiro Honda

Starring: Akira Takarada, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura, Momoko Kochi, Fuyuki Murakami, Sachio Sakai, Raymond Burr (U.S. version)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The original, 1954 Japanese version of Godzilla is surely my favorite monster movie ever. Maybe even my favorite movie ever. While most westerners equate Godzilla movies with hokey monsters, model cities, and bad dubbing, the original Japanese film transcends the genre that birthed it and, in its day, transformed that genre into something altogether new and different. Countless words have been written about Godzilla being a metaphor for the nuclear horror Japan experienced at the close of World War II, so I'll not belabor that point. While the U.S. version, with its added footage of Raymond Burr, retained at least a portion of the original's power, the Japanese version may be viewed through the same "serious" lens one would view Japanese classics such as Seven Samurai, Rashomon, and Ikiru, and find it in no way wanting. Despite some crudities in its special effects, the film's grimness and documentary-style narrative imbues it with a sense of real-world horror that no other monster film, Japanese or otherwise, has ever achieved. Its limited U.S. theatrical release in the early 2000s received almost unanimous accolades from critics and, in a sense, opened a lot of eyes to a product that most American viewers only thought they knew.

The intersecting stories of Emiko Yamane (Momoko Kochi), Ogata (Akira Takarada), and Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) propel the drama, but Godzilla is the fourth character in this relationship, affecting and influencing the human characters' every decision. Emiko and Serizawa are engaged, their marriage having been arranged when they were young; however, Emiko and Ogata are in love and wish to marry, but both have deep feelings for Serizawa and have no desire to hurt him. Serizawa, in his scientific research, has discovered an unusual energy force with the power to destroy oxygen molecules, and his dilemma is whether to use it against the monster and risk it falling into the hands of politicians — the one thing he fears more than Godzilla — or allow Godzilla to trample Japan unimpeded. It's his sense of honor as well as his compassion for Ogata and Emiko that motivate him to make the decision he does.

Tangential to the "love triangle" is the character of Dr. Yamane, Emiko's father and Japan's preeminent paleontologist, who fervently opposes the government's position that Godzilla must be destroyed, preferring that the monster be studied for its unique in its ability to survive both untold millions of years as well as massive doses of radiation from hydrogen bomb tests. Yamane is less susceptible than Serizawa to Ogata and Emiko's efforts to convince him that Godzilla must be destroyed, despite his recognition of the fact that Godzilla might inflict upon Japan a nuclear holocaust far worse than Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Only toward the end, after Tokyo has been reduced to ashes, does he appear to be reconciled to the destruction of the greatest laboratory sample the world has ever produced.

The American version retains the better part of the original plot, but too much of the character development has been edited out to make room for Raymond Burr for the story to come across as more than melodrama. That's not to say the scenes with Raymond Burr, directed by Terry Morse, are totally superfluous; certainly, for American audiences of the day, relatively soon after World War II, having a recognizable American star to participate in the drama, in effect becoming the audience's eyes and ears, served to make the original Japanese story more palatable. While the added scenes are occasionally too obvious — especially when stand-ins are used for the original Japanese actors — they are played very straight, and oftentimes blend in surprisingly well. For all its flaws, the Americanization did allow much of the original to remain undubbed, and Burr's scenes occasionally add an additional touch of suspense, such as during the storm when Godzilla first appears on Odo Island.

While most American audiences would probably never know the difference, Godzilla's rampage in the original Japanese version is far superior, in that Tokyo has been wonderfully reproduced in miniature, with Godzilla making a logical and accurate progression through the city. To Japanese audiences, the reshuffled scenes must appear quite confusing. Having Godzilla attack at night was a wise move, since the darkness adds immeasurably to the sense of menace and also offers the practical advantage of concealing flaws in the effects. Regardless, Eiji Tsuburaya's work in this film is masterful, particularly when one considers the limited budget, the time constraints, and the fact that it was all new and largely experimental at the time.

Akira Ifukube scored the film and also created the ominous sound effects for Godzilla's roar and footsteps. Many of the themes that fans explicitly identify with Godzilla originated in this film, and it's all the more remarkable that Ifukube composed the score without having seen a frame of film. He was instructed to write music for "something big." I believe he succeeded beyond anyone's wildest expectations.

The Criterion Collection DVD release is a true masterpiece. The Japanese and U.S. versions come on two separate discs (single Blu-Ray disc), and each film features a commentary track by noted author/film historian David Kalat. Extra features include interviews with actor Akira Takarada, Godzilla suit actor Haruo Nakajima, effects technicians Yoshio Irie and Eizo Kaimai, soundtrack composer Akira Ifukube, and film critic Tado Sato. The prints of both versions have been painstakingly restored to near-mint condition, and the soundtracks have never been more impressive. I couldn't give a higher recommendation to the presentation of these films. Some have complained about the art on the packaging, but I find it quite effective, if not spectacular. While the Criterion release is no doubt the definitive release of Godzilla, the Classic Media edition (previously reviewed here) at least offers several noteworthy extra features. It pays to own both.