They say everything's big in Texas....
"In the enormity of the West there are still vast and virtually unexplored regionsbleak and desoletewhere no human ever goes and no life is ever seen.... It is in these lonely areas of impenetrable forest that the gila monster still lives."
As a director, Ray Kellogg only perpetrated four movies during his time (he was primarily involved in special effects). This 1959 "masterpiece" was one. Another was The Killer Shrews (1959). Then there was his shot at the big time: 1968's flag-waving John Wayne pic The Green Berets (the sun sets in the East?).1 Anyway. He's the one to blame.
Why, dear god, why?
A movie with the eponymous lizard as the villain seems like it might be a fun drive-in movie type affair, given the number of "giant" creature movies made during that era. This, unfortunately, is not a Herpetocalypse Now! It's slow and dull and the lizard looks as bored and listless as the viewer must feel.
Of course, there can be amusement found in something like this (even without the help of "Mystery Science Theater 3000"), but it's few and far between during the interminable 74 minutes this lasts. Maybe it's the joy of wallowing in mediocrity or the sense of superiority. Perhaps some Nietzschen 'what does not kill me makes me stronger.' Or the occasional gem of a line like "buying a car, son, is just like getting married or going to New York Cityeverybody oughta do it once, but nobody ought to do it twice" or "you're talkin' like my foot's asleep" or "thanks, dad, you're a cotton-pickin' friend." Maybe it's hearing them actually pronounce "zoologist" correctly (it ain't zoo-ologist). Then there's an appreciation for the absurd. Whatever it is, you've been warned.
What the hell is this about?
Though ostensibly about a menacing creature, this is barely a movie about it. It's an excuse for showing clean cut teens race around in souped up hot rods. And singing bad imitations of early rock and roll.2 The hero, Chase Winstead, is not only the leader of the pack of hot-rodders (who works at the garage as a mechanic and tow truck driver), but he's a budding singer. Not just in his spare time (to himself). But his "talent" is inflicted for two full songs. During the one, his fellow actors look like they're waiting for the song to get over with. Oh, the humanity.
Chase is so "good" that he supports his disabled sister (his dad apparently dead). She has this as her only film credit so she never went anywhere (probably was someone's daughter who got cast as a favor). She sports a southern accent that no one else in the movieeven those who have southern accentsuses. Chase is involved with the French foreign exchange student who is staying with the oilman Wheeler. There is no payoff for any of this, just details that don't mean anything. Other than the girl walks around looking pretty.
The film is peppered with pseudo-teen slang:
"That wouldn't make any difference if he goofed a speed shift or something."
"That squirrel is just the one who could do it."
"They wanted to check with the wheel cats about next Saturday's platter party."
The sort of things adults dream up when they are trying to write what they think kids talk like.
When the end comes (as we know it will), and he loses his nitroglycerin-laden car in the explosive finale,3 his reaction is:
"You rode across that rough field carryin' nitro?"
"Do you know what could've happened to you?"
"It did. I lost my car."
Sort of sums up the mentality....
"I demand a soberty test 'cause I ain't been drinkin'"
This sort formulaic genre piece always has some comic relief. Intentional comic relief. Not the kind like when they have one of the girls start up the tow truck in order to winch a car out of a ravine and she sits there and twists the steering wheel back and forth while in park. The kind where the producers are trying to be funny. The Giant Gila Monster has Harris.
Good ol' Harris is the town drunk, the typical stock character familiar from so many movies. The actor (Shug Fisher) actually has the longest and most pedigreed career of the people in the movie, having been in dozens of westerns, including John Ford's Rio Grande (1950), The Man Who shot Liberty Valance (1962), and Cheyenne Autumn (1964). Most of his roles appear to be either bit (or uncredited) parts or because of his involvement on the musical group "The Sons of the Pioneers." Of course, more telling to one unfamiliar with his work would be parts in "The Beverly Hillbillies" and The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979). He's certianly likable and entertaining enough, but he's no Gabby Hayes or Walter Brennan. More like Otis from "The Andy Griffith Show."
But his moments onscreen help make the movie a bit more bearable. Or, perhaps, a bit less unbearable. Whichever. Still worth it for this little ditty:
Oh I hate the ground you walk on little darlin',
For all the things that you have did to me...
Oh you nagged me 'til you're hoarse,
So I'm suing for divorce
Little darlin' I'll forget your memor-eee....
Manages to be more entertaining and shorter than all the lame "rock 'n' roll" the audience is subjected to. And you just knew that it'd be the drunk who is one of the first to see the creature and live.
There's only two characters that the audience can "feel" for. There's the sheriffably playedeasygoing, likable, though mainly ineffectual. Of course, this is a teen movie, so the main adult can't overshadow the hot-rodders. Despite the fact that a rewrite making him the main protagonist and downplaying the kids would have made a far better film (such as it would be). The other character (obviously) is the "giant" gila monster. For whom (or "which," depending on one's level of anthropomorphism directed toward the lizard) the chief feeling is one of sympathy.
Kellogg and his crew took an actual gila monster and had it plodding around poorly made sets or simply through grass and twigs (apparently "giant gila grass"). At least once you can see that the lizard is actually being pushed through the sand. She/he/it is clearly not interested in an acting career nor appreciating the "work."
See: the "giant" monster with "prints the size of bicycles"!
Stare: in awe as the mere sight of the creature flicking its tongue makes a man's truck turn over and explode!
Watch: in horror as a toy train is tipped off a track!
Observe: the "pink and black" beast with "stripes 'this wide'"!
Marvel: at the black and white photography of the lizard that has no stripes!
One interesting thing is that for a movie of that era, the gigantism of the creature is not the result of some form of radiation. The sheriff relates information from the zoologist he spoke to, explaining that a "change in diet" can affect the "thyroid or pituitary gland" that regulates growth, throwing it "out of whack" and making either "runts or giants." He tells a tale of distant Tanganyika where giant bones have been found. The "theory" (in the loosest sense of the word) is that certain "salts" were washed into the valley/delta where the creatures lived. The salts were absorbed by the plants and eaten by the animals. He also mentions a 130 pound baby born in "Russia or the Ukraine" that, at ten months, was taller than its mother. Besides: "why notthere have been giants before?" Science rules! (sigh).
If a lizard can be bored and annoyed, this one clearly is (perhaps one of the better performances). In fact, it isn't too hard to imagine the gila monster giving a sigh of relief when the end comes.
Or the audience.
1He wasn't entirely responsible, as Wayne directed also, as did an uncredited Mervyn LeRoy, who actually did some quality workthough interestingly, this was his final film.
The third movie, My Dog, Buddy (1960), sounds like a nice family film. Not having seen it, I can't say for sure. Kellogg's name on it doesn't bode well.
2Gordon McLendon, the uncredited producer, was involved in radio in Texas. In a tradition of putting on-air talent into his pictures, the DJ Horatio Alger 'Steamroller' Smith was played by Ken Knox, an actual DJ (the fictional station is the unsubtle KILZ). His performance wasn't convincing or realistic. So it fit right in.
3The four quarts of explosive are helpfully marked with XXX on the bottles. And conveniently do not explode even while racing over winding dirt and gravel roads and gunning the car through a pasture, the girl holding the bottles next to her on the seat.
Sources: personal copy of the DVD and the IMDB
Note: the DVD of this (paired with The Killer Shrews) may be the best available print, but it's pretty bad (scratches and plenty of snap, crackle, and pop). The digital transfer adds a few glitches to it, also. Adding to it, the whole movie is presenting in two chapters. Point? If you must (and can't catch this on TV), rent it. Leave these sorts of purchases to us professional cinemamasochists.
Finally: yes, this was used in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Deservedly so.