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Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Giant Gila Monster

Co-billed with sister production, The Killer Shrews, this independent B-movie was pretty clearly crafted for the drive-in double feature market. Where some B grade sci-fi were obtuse but somewhat artistic, Giant Gila Monster (Gila) is a market product following established formulae. Several "sci-fi" movies of the late 50s were light on the science. Gila is one of them. Almost pure monster movie, Gila nonetheless gets placed on lists of sci-fi movies. Gila "suffers" from the usual B movie hallmarks -- amateurish acting and cheap special effects -- what it doesn't lack is sincerity. This may be why it has retained a cult following, even in this era of lavish productions and million-dollar special effects.

Quick Plot Synopsis
The impenetrable wilds around a remote southwest town give rise to a giant, but otherwise normal, gila monster. The movie opens with the beast smashing the car of a couple of lovers parked on a remote road. They are implied to have been eaten. Their disappearance starts an uneasy search. Foul play, or did they elope? A stolen car is found wrecked, but no thieves. A hitchhiker's suitcase is found. A local oil truck is wrecked but the driver missing. A sincere sheriff teams up with an erstwhile, but misunderstood, hot rodder to get to the bottom of things. Viewers know it is the gila monster, but the townsfolk remain oblivious. When the beast damages a small railroad bridge, a passenger train is wrecked. The gila monster is implied to have eaten several wreck victims. This is too large an event to escape the attention of state police. Meanwhile, the teens of the town hold their scheduled sock hop in a barn. The gila monster breaks through a wall of the barn. Much screaming and running ensues. Shots are fired. The gila runs back into the wilds. Chase Winstead, the hot rodder, has an idea to stop the beast. He takes some nitroglycerine (intended for oil company blasting) which foreshadowing had placed in a nearby shed. He searches for his little sister. He finds her, but the gila monster finds them too. With no hope of escape, he drives his hot rod directly towards the beast. He bails out at the last moment. The hot rod with four canisters of nitro on the seat, explodes beneath the giant lizard. It is engulfed in flames. The town is safe and some personal tensions resolved. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Fault-finders have their usual bones to pick with Gila, but its sincerity make it hard not to like. The classic 50s monster movie formula is familiar and entertaining. The hot rods get enough screen time to supply flavor. Gila is a classic of the teens & monster movie of the drive-in era.

Cold War Angle
As a classic monster movie, there is no Cold War present. Indeed, even the seconary moral of atomic cautionary tale is skipped. It would be a stretch to cast the gila monster as atomic analogy, as Godzilla was. He's simply a big natural monster.

Natural Monster -- Unlike most 50s sci-fi monsters, the giant gila monster was not caused by atomic radiation or cosmic rays. Instead, it is accepted as a product of nature -- albeit a rare freak of one. The few lines of dialog that attempt a scientific explanation, suggest that its pituitary gland (which regulates growth) was thrown off by some disturbance in its diet. As corroboration, the characters cite giant bones found in Tanganyika and a 112 lb baby in Russia. This monster is all natural. Actually, an ordinary gila monster was prodded to walk across several model landscapes and some little model cars. That footage was spliced in the live action shots (done at McLendon's 500 acre Cielo Ranch north of Dallas).

Christian Propaganda? -- Some reviewers contend that Gordon McLendon set out to produce a "Christian" sci-fi with Gila. This is probably an overreaction to the twice-played ditty with lyrics that say "And the Lord said, laugh children laugh..." and perhaps that the opening narration does mention God. However, the way drunkenness is accepted (Old Man Harris and Smith's entry) argues against an ulterior Christian propaganda agenda.

Good Clean Fun -- McLendon and Ray Kellogg (writer and director) seem to have tried to create a targeted product for the teen drive-in market. That said, they rather obviously steered clear of the pandering to the seamy side of human nature. Instead, the teens are cast as good kids who just like to have fun driving fast in their hot rods and dancing to rock and roll. Wheeler represents the fuddy-duddy adult stereotype. Viewers will also note a total lack of gore. It is implied that the monster has eaten many people, but this is never shown. Instead, Gila follows familiar plot formulae for some good clean fun. (aside from the fact that many people got eaten, that is)

Promo Piece -- One could see Gila as a promotional tool (by McLendon) to launch the singing career of Don Sullivan (the star). Sullivan has some talent, but gets an almost intrusive amount of screen time for his singing. The movie poster makes sure viewers will know there are three songs in the movie. McLendon, as radio mogul, would naturally stand to gain if Sullivan did catch on as another Elvis. Apparently, Gila was not enough.

Moon Babe to Starlet -- Lisa Simone, who plays Chase Winstead's French girlfriend, was Miss France 1957. Her role is a small one, but at least she got some lines for her french accent. Simone was also one of the moon women in Missile to the Moon, which employed many pageant winners. There, however, she was a non-speaking moon babe. Gila was Simone's second and last movie.

Poor Monster -- Unlike many 50s monsters, the giant gila monster really has no malice. He's just a big guy, and big guys have to eat too. The problem is that he has figured out that automobiles contain snacks. Ambushing cars may be less work than chasing cattle (the Sheriff tells of missing livestock earlier). So, he is big and lazy. He damages the railroad bridge by accident (he's too girthsome to fit under it). He goes for the train wreck victims more as serendipity than sinister scheme. So, he is big, lazy, clumsy and an opportunist. All this makes the gila more of a deadly nuisance than an evil menace. This makes his fiery finale more of just an ending than a triumph.

Wheels For Fun -- Car fans will enjoy that the 50s hot rods get a fair amount of screen time. Also of interest, for car buffs, is the sheriff's '58 Ford Fairlane with the uncommon curved swoosh trim normally found on the two-tone custom body, but his car is just white with black hood and trunk. The stolen car is a '57 Pontiac, the lesser sister to the very famous '57 Chevy. Steamroller Smith's big black '58 Cadillac was quite the ride. At the end, Wheeler drives up in his big '59 Cadillac -- the pinnacle of tail fins!

Bottom line? Gila is not a deep or artistic low-budget B movie. It is simply good clean drive in fun. Keep in mind its low-budget independent nature and cut it some slack. Enjoy the hot rods, stereotypic 50s "teens" and a giant lizard. Life doesn't have to be complicated.


Mike Scott said...

GGM and Killer Shrews are two of my favorite no budget indies from the late '50s!

Funny how many Christian groups/organizations were making sci-fi/monster movies in the '50s! There were also the backers of "Plan 9" and the group that made "The Blob" and "4D Man".

GGM director Ray Kellogg was a spfx guy for about a decade prior to GGM and Killer Shrews and mostly worked as a 2nd unit director after that.

Nightowl said...

Yes, GGM and Killer Shrews are a couple of fun classics. Killer Shrews is up next for review. I think it's the better of the two.

Not too surprising that Christians funded some movies. They had money too, like other demographic groups.

Kellogg seemed to do a pretty good job on both films, given how little budget there was to work with.

Unknown said...


This is a fun movie.

What could be better than a Gila Monster chasing hot rodders?