Critters (1986) – Review

Critters was released in 1986, and was definitely not a cash-in on the success of Gremlins two years prior (incidentally one of my favourite films of all time). It was apparently written before the Joe Dante film was released and they claim to have actually reworked the script to make it less similar. Regardless, it’s not the first time, and far from the last time, that two films have stark similarities so I’m not going to try and draw comparisons between them. (But obviously it’s nowhere near as good as Gremlins.)

Eeeewww.

The sci-fi opening to this film immediately demonstrates the good intent of this film. It has a visibly low budget, but a great deal of care has gone into the sets and costumes of this sequence. It’s a simple set-up scene with the “Crites” escaping a meteor prison (?). The apparent chief, an obese blue… thing, instructs two bounty hunters to hunt them down. No explanation is given about any of this, and it’s perhaps for the best. On their way to Earth, they take on human form in a sequence with some awesome Raiders of the Lost Ark-esque effects. One of them takes their form from a transmission of fictional rock star Johnny Steele’s music video “Power of the Night”. This is seemingly an enormous hit in the film’s setting as it’s played repeatedly by different characters throughout the film, but oddly no one ever seems to recognise the alien who’s taken on his image, but I digress. This duo is given some of the best scenes of the film, as they wreak havoc across the town in their search for the Crites. Their deadpan destruction lends a genuine dark humour to the film that carries over in many later scenes.

“Take me to your leader”

We are also introduced to a family that lives in Kansas. Supposedly the main characters, they’re lifted directly from every family film that has ever been made; the troublemaking brother that irritates his older sister and their parents who are just there with little purpose beyond the Dad owning a shotgun and the Mum from E.T. screaming a lot. They’re likeable enough, but a little bit too long is spent setting up their paper-thin characters, and those of some other citizens of the town, with some incredibly awkwardly acted/directed dialogue and ensuring that the boy has plenty of dangerous toys and hobbies that would come in handy in the slim possibility that a group of alien beasts started terrorising them, or anything like that.

Etc.

It seems like quite a long time after the opening scene that the Crites feature again, and they’re only seen in brief glimpses for the first part which gives a good build-up to the attacks.Eventually it builds to a full face-off which is exciting and tense and funny when intended, especially a gag involving the Crites’ subtitles that I expect will be rehashed through the sequels. It does feel like this film was dialled back to attain a more family-friendly rating as the brief glimpses of somewhat nasty deaths coupled with the antics of the bounty hunters and wide pool of expendable secondary characters suggest much darker early drafts, but the result is an entertaining, funny sci-fi monster movie that’s a good introduction to this type of horror for younger viewers and a good, if almost entirely by-the-numbers example of 80’s horror, for better or worse depending on your view (in my opinion for the best).

7/10

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Ebirah, Horror of the Deep (1966) – Godzilla 60th Birthday Challenge

Ebirah

This post is part of my Godzilla 60th Birthday Challenge.

Another release within a year of the previous entry, this installment ditches the space-age, sci-fi feel of Invasion of Astro-Monster in favour of… well, I don’t really know what this film is. It opens so suddenly that you wonder whether you’ve just accidentally skipped 10 minutes, as a woman struggles with the loss of their fisherman son, refusing to accept he’s dead, before her second son vows to find him. He instantly attends a dance competition where competitors have been dancing for three straight days to music that sounds just like the Batman theme in order to win a luxury yacht. He’s too late to enter so he is driven to the docks by two failed competitors who show him a nice boat that happens to be occupied by a shifty bank robber. The following morning an argument breaks out between the robber and the clueless duo before they realise they’re already halfway out into the ocean as the young man has commandeered the boat. A completely unexplained whirlwind, all this happens in about 10 minutes. Reading the above description might in fact make more sense than actually watching the film’s opening.

“Hi Mum!”

It slowly becomes slightly less chaotic as we focus on the four travelling across the sea hoping to bump into the missing brother somehow. Unfortunately they instead bump into Ebirah, the monster of the title. The effects in the initial attack are actually really good, even if Ebirah amounts to little more than a really big lobster (one character actually refers to it as such). Washing up on Devil Island they encounter the shady organisation by the name of Red Bamboo, who enslave natives of Infant Island; Mothra’s home. It may be less chaotic, but never does the plot stop for a minute to pretend it makes any sense, nor do any of the characters make us particularly care what happens. It’s well into the film that we get our first glimpse of Godzilla who is lying dormant. His awakening offers a weak promise to shift the film into a more straightforward Godzilla feature.

Mothra just lies there for most of the film

This promise of mostly met, while the human story doesn’t get forgotten about it certainly takes second billing to the monster scenes. I’m just going to write off the human story now as a failure and get to the main point. The monster scenes in this film seem much better quality than in previous films; something about how they’re shot & lit makes it much more realistic and more exciting. Similarly, interaction with the scenery and composites with actors are much better making Godzilla and the other monsters seem much bigger than they ever have. Naturally Godzilla is angered Ebirah’s presence leading to some awesome sea-based fights, including some parts that take place completely underwater. The music for these scenes is incredibly frustrating; surfer music like taken straight out of an episode of Scooby-Doo that is as well-suited as Jeremy Clarkson speaking at a Greenpeace convention. Bizarre moments come in the form of the two monsters doing some sort of volleyball with boulders, and a moment between Godzilla and the female lead that err close to a King Kong-esque humanising scene, but thankfully this is never followed through as Godzilla is distracted by some pesky fighter jets, which would be cool if it wasn’t for more shocking surf music.

I’d forgotten about this fight. I don’t know what it was, or why. Answers on a postcard.

I had one other confusion about Mothra’s appearance. Godzilla fights her briefly which makes no sense given they teamed up in the last 2 films. Turns out this film was never meant to feature Godzilla, that it was written for King Kong but changed at the last minute. This may explain why it feels so different to the previous entries. Oh well, on to the next film I guess.

5/10

Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster (1964) – Godzilla 60th Birthday Challenge

This post is part of my Godzilla 60th Birthday Challenge

After the series vastly improved with Mothra vs. Godzilla, I was enthusiastic about going further into the series. However, on seeing that Ghidorah was produced immediately after it, completing in the same year, I did wonder if it may be a rushed effort. Unfortunately it does seem so. While Mothra vs. was completely baffling in an enjoyable, loony way, this film simply makes no sense for the most part. Opening on a UFO Society, they’re spotting UFOs while chastising the non-believers as their brain waves will prevent the aliens from showing themselves. They spot some UFOs but they turn out to be meteors which some other characters spend about a fifth of the movie pointing three different scientific instruments at. Meanwhile, Princess Selina Salno of Selgina (say that quickly ten times) is visiting Japan for some reason, where a policeman is put in charge of protecting her from ‘the opposition’ who are plotting to assassinate her. Incidentally, the inhabitants of this made-up nation look like a really bad Shakespeare society. Her plane is blown up half way, but she is saved by some mysterious voice telling her to jump off the plane. When she finally makes it to Tokyo, however, she has no recollection of Selgina and believes herself to be sent from Venus to inform us of the impending doom the Earth faces – probably something to do with the meteors that landed earlier.

Those tiny twins are back as well, with even less explanation than before

That isn’t actually a particularly spoilerific paragraph – I’ve summed up the first 20 minutes or so. There’s never any explanation about these events; everything is taken at face value and we’re expected to simply accept it, so while so much happens in the time, it makes such little sense that it really drags. If the film ever veers close to being coherent it’s saved by something bizarre, such as one or two songs from The Peanuts that seems to last 15 minutes and have no bearing on absolutely anything. It goes without saying that Godzilla shows up before too long, and Rodan also makes an appearance, as predicted by the Venusian Prohpet/Selginan Princess rising from the ashes of Mt. Aso. It goes further without saying that each creature is none too pleased at one another’s presence, but whenever a fight starts to break out it frustratingly cuts back to the increasingly convoluted plot.

Rodan was particularly displeased

Despite the complicated plot, unexplained events and brief moments of relatively unpleasant violence this feels like an really cheap children’s TV special rather than a “proper” film. Production values are at rock bottom and the lack of refinement to the script doesn’t help. I can’t find a figure for the budget but when the titular (King) Ghidorah eventually appears it does seem apparent where the money went. A brilliant ‘birth’ sequence reveals the awesome creature design as the golden, lightning-spitting, three-headed dragon wreaks havoc.

Too powerful for any one of the monsters to overcome, The Peanuts request Mothra try to reason with Godzilla and Rodan to team up to defeat Ghidorah before it destroys the world. Re-read that sentence if you want. The conversation between the three monsters is hilarious; seeing the monsters’ personalities is at once bizarre and brilliant. The final act is clearly what the film is all about as we see Godzilla become the good guy for the first time, with all the complicated plot threads buzzing around actually having little to no impact on this outcome.

Unimportant. Look at the monsters fight!

As a whole, this doesn’t come close to Mothra vs. Godzilla but it is oddly entertaining for the most part (perhaps not intentionally), due to the human plots being almost impossible to follow and shockingly poor production values. I’d recommend anyone but the most determined to skip through to any scenes featuring the monsters as these hilarious sequences are all I’ll remember this entry for.

5/10

For clarity, before the final act I was thinking I’d be giving it more like 2 or 3 out of 10…

Godzilla Raids Again (1955) – Godzilla 60th Birthday Challenge

This review is part of my Godzilla 60th Birthday Challenge

After the massively successful Gojira this sequel was rushed into production and released only a year after the first. In my review of Gojira I mentioned that it would be interesting to see how the transition was made from a powerful atom-bomb allegory to the stereotypical Godzilla that fights a seemingly unlimited onslaught of beasts. It turns out that the transition was rather sudden, as Godzilla Raids Again introduces Anguirus; a dinosaur awoken by the same atomic bomb tests that awake Godzilla who, we are told through some painfully blatant & unexplained exposition, is extremely aggressive towards other similarly sized reptiles.

I’d be annoyed if an atomic bomb woke me up too

This film, probably due to its hurried production, has nothing like the careful, restrained effects of the first; fights between Godzilla and Anguirus are occasionally reasonable but the majority of the time less than good. Some sequences are sped up making them look nothing less than laughable, and the quality of the suits really doesn’t allow the fully-lit, long shots that make up these sequences. Inbetween these sequences are various human stories. The main plot is about two pilots who first discover Godzilla and end up in the teams trying to stop him. This is a pretty straight forward plot, with a Saturday matinee mix of light comedy and light romance, with a few brief but intriguing moments thrown in that seem to challenge some misogynistic ideals of the era. One or two other plots appear without warning that on one hand give the film a wider scope, showing some different perspectives on the city’s destruction, but on the other hand make very little sense in context, meandering along for 5 or 10 minutes without a clear purpose before disappearing from the movie, having created a setpiece for more key characters to be involved in. It’s an interesting way of telling the story but the way it’s pulled off here feels very disjointed and setpieces feel quite forced rather than organically forming as this style could have allowed. That said, regardless of how they’re created, the setpieces in this film have a great sense of spectacle that foreshadows the very visually-charged stylings of more recent Japanese films (not just Kaiju films).

“We need a sequel written by the end of week”

While I was completely aware that my expectation had to be held back as I moved on from the brilliant first movie, I was still disappointed to find this film sitting uncomfortably between the darker, more realistic tone of Gojira and the spectacular, outlandish tone the latter movies are known for, never willing to commit to one or the other. In the context of the series it serves as an interesting transition, but as a standalone movie I had difficulty finding much to enjoy, ultimately being glad of the relatively short 80 minute runtime.

4/10

Gojira (1954) – Godzilla 60th Birthday Challenge

This post is part of my Godzilla 60th Birthday Challenge

Godzilla is a franchise known primarily for men in rubber dinosaur suits fighting each other. However, to start my marathon review of every single Godzilla film I naturally go back to the first one and though I have seen it before, it always manages to surprise me with just how good it is. Much more than ridiculous giant monster action (that I’ll no doubt soon be reviewing with glee nonetheless), this film has a very strong dramatic presence. It’s no secret that this is a thinly veiled way of dealing with Japan’s shock from the then-recent Nagasaki & Hiroshima atomic bombings. It was taboo to make a film directly depicting the bombings or indeed war at all at the time, so Toho produced Gojira which manages at once to transpose the frenzy, horror, and despair of the events into an awesome monster movie.

The reptile in question isn’t actually visibly present for the first half an hour or so, with his attacks being presented from a personal, human perspective. It isn’t clear what is causing the disasters to happen and the civilian hysteria is coupled with a mixture of bemusement and arrogance in the political world, instantly hitting some very raw nerves from World War 2. The building tension throughout this section is brilliantly executed too. Some pretty horrific disaster scenes for the time and the complete mystery of the cause all comes to a head when our main characters first witness Godzilla looming over a mountaintop. This first glimpse is… well… actually, it’s pretty terrible.

It’s a shame that this first glimpse is so poor as many later scenes have pretty convincing effects, especially in longer shots where careful lighting and composition coupled with some great composite shots and miniatures really sell the difficult image of a 50-metre reptile destroying Tokyo. Close-ups do suffer in the same way as the first sighting we have, but the content of the film is good enough that these shots only take you out of the action for a brief moment. And you can’t be too harsh on a film that was made 60 years ago which pioneered the new ‘suitmation’ style of effects.

That’s more like it

The destruction of Tokyo is certainly on a wide scale but never creeps over the line to be sensational as there are constant glimpses of the true, human horror of it, again echoing scenes from the real-life bombings. A particularly poignant scene featuring reporters broadcasting literally till the end stands out amongst many and when the destruction ends, truly affecting scenes in makeshift hospitals are painfully reminiscent of documentary footage from the real-life aftermath. The strongest hint of B-Movie styling comes from Daisuke Serizawa, the ‘mad scientist’, complete with eye-patch and pseudo-scientific babble. In practice though, Serizawa is a well fleshed out character and in the wider context of the film doesn’t simply avoid being corny; he provides the more difficult moral discussions in this film.

“Bring me a Dutch angle, STAT!”

It’s fascinating to see how the campy monster movie was dissected to create a pretty balanced account of Japan’s recent history that would otherwise have been frowned upon. So too it will be interesting to see how faithfully these origins are treated in the following films. As for this film in itself, that the only real negative point I can make is about a few dated effects shots proves that it’s actually a fantastic film, not just for fans of monster movies – I would call it a truly essential classic, a precursor and template to the blockbusters that fill cinemas nowadays.

10/10