Back in the days well before video-on-demand, fare like this was played almost routinely across small market television stations around the country. Hundreds of prints of like-minded, forgettable, and low-budgeted productions would be bundled and sold into these secondary markets; and they’d get reasonably good airtimes as part of local movie programming, monster marathons, and/or ‘Creature Feature’ events on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday nights. Yes, yes, and yes: for those of you wondering, a great deal of these efforts was suitably lampooned by those merry yucksters at Mystery Science Theater 3000, but kids like me had seen them (and probably laughed at them) long before Joel, Mike, and the robots put their signature satire in motion.
So I can assure you that I went into this newly-restored pressing of The Giant Gila Monster: Special Edition knowing full well what the stakes were. In fact … wow. I’d probably watched this thing a half-dozen times in my youth, and I remember that maybe even with a bit of pride. Where I grew up, we mostly only had access to these small market TV stations; so I’ve chuckled at this attempt years ago and just again today. And – succinctly – there’s nothing wrong with that, though I do find it rather sad that such formative experiences are disappearing from our cultural lexicon. The explosion of point-and-click availability likely means this Monster may have finally met its match … and that’s a low-down dirty shame.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last few paragraphs for the final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
From the film’s IMDB.com page citation:
“A giant lizard terrorizes a rural Texas community, and a heroic teenager attempts to destroy the creature.”
Anyone viewer who’s had the good (or bad) fortune of watching The Giant Gila Monster more than once probably knows full well that this is the kind of picture only occasionally made these days. The people at Troma Entertainment are still in this business, though their efforts might involve far more blood, bruising, and blondes. The folks still shucking their wares under the label of The Asylum are also guilty-as-charged: their mockbuster line-up tends to only be visible to audiences who partake of the occasional Syfy Saturday Night movie, and – despite what you think – there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. And the occasional indie feature might try to give it a whirl, but – if and when they do – they more often than not spin it for laughs as opposed to telling a legitimate coming-of-age-with-monsters yarn. As for the big studios? Those tentpole outlets? Those Hollywood executives? Well, they’ve mostly left this stuff behind, considering it best left in the trash bin of history.
With all that’s going right in his world, what could possibly go wrong?
Well, that’s where the monster of The Giant Gila Monster comes in!
While this oversized species of venomous lizard is seen amply enough onscreen, we’re never quite provided the particulars necessary to grasp literal complexity, nor are we offered any suitable explanation for how and why it grew so big. Instead, the script largely glosses those facts over, instead hoping the small budget effects of pairing this impressive reptile against an array of miniatures (mostly landscapes) provide the context. Though at one point its described as being “as big as a bus,” a later sequence set against the backdrop of a derailed train suggests it’s a bit larger, so don’t be alarmed if such data appears lost in the shuffle. It’s merely unimportant as director Kellogg was far more impressed with what’s accomplished here at not quite ‘top dollar.’
Now, none of that is meant to imply that the effort isn’t appreciated because Gila works surprisingly well. Whereas other ‘giant monster’ pictures of the era attacked their … erm … monstrosities with greater optical trickery, Kellogg’s project stuck to old school efficiency most likely because its proven track record. Besides, it isn’t as if the lizard was going to be up for any Academy Awards for its work here, so whatever poking and/or prodding was necessary to get it to hiss, glare, and crawl is good enough to evoke some meager spectacle. Suffice it to say, no living person ever shares the screen with this lumbering behemoth; and I could argue that that fact alone makes Gila one of the weaker entries into sub-genre of Science Fiction and Horror films. Why, even one shot would’ve been nice.
Perhaps the greater truth here is that Gila remains less an authentic ‘monster movie’ and more an exhibit for how such ‘drive-in’ fare of a generation went about the business of enticing its audience.
So it’s also safe to suggest that wherever all of Gila takes place it clearly isn’t somewhere wherein the military would come marching in to save the day, and the script instead opts to leave most of its significant developments in Chase’s ever-capable hands. Part-mechanic, part-crooner, part-lover, and part-hotrodder, he’ll stop at nothing to fix every auto, sing every song, romance that French foreign exchange student (ooh-la-la), race his rig, and deliver that crawling menace up into the hands of the Lord before all is said-and-done. It’s fitting that such a formula – pitting young whippersnappers against the usual voices of authority and winning the day – was behind so many great genre entries from the 1950’s; and it isn’t hard to see why they supported such cinematic adventures.
The Giant Gila Monster (1959) was produced by Hollywood Pictures Corporation (II). DVD distribution (for this particular release) has been coordinated by the fine folks at Film Masters. As for the technical specifications? While I’m no trained video expert … wow. I once spoke with a film historian who told me, “It’s a crime when such shlock looks this good,” and I’d have to echo those sentiments here: Monster has an incredible crispness never seen before (in the days of TV), and it sounds equally tempting. As for the special features? The disc boasts two different aspect ratios for your viewing pleasure along with the original restored 35MM trailer, an archival interview with star Sullivan, and a solid audio commentary coordinated by The Monster Party Podcast. (FYI: I listened to the commentary yesterday evening; it’s quite good, loaded with facts and trivia related more to the cast and crew, not very much information that specifically applies to this production.) Also, the collection includes a second disk with an exclusive companion flick – 1959’s The Killer Shrews – which I’ll be reviewing separately.
Mildly recommended, but …
As I tried to explain above, I think that the audiences welcoming such a bit of good-hearted shlock like The Giant Gila Monster is shrinking (and shrinking fast!); and that’s sad. This is the kind of feature that used to enjoy some harmless notoriety, and this type of storytelling and filmmaking has really fallen into disarray. (Yes, yes, and yes: I realize some might find that a positive development!) Beyond the low-budget execution and hammy acting there’s still an adventure in here some might enjoy, and there’s definitely an attempt made by all involved to tailor this story of a boy, his car, and a giant gila lizard into the bigger-than-life escapade audiences of its day would’ve welcomed. Hopefully, that will always count for something.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Film Masters provided me with a complimentary Blu-ray of The Giant Gila Monster by request for the expressed purpose of completing this review. Their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.