War of the Colossal Beast Review
If it's true that the horror of every generation reflects the times that they live in, it was never more true than in America during the 1950s. Beginning with a generalised paranoia about 'the other,' it slowly developed into a very specific fear of the power of science to change the individual into that other. This was, of course, the height of the Cold War, moving towards the apex of the fear of atomic destruction, either at the hands of the dreaded Communists or, worse, at the hands of a breed who were even worse than the Reds - scientists. You only have to look at classics such as Them or The Incredible Shrinking Man to see this in action. But even more revealing are the endless stream of B-Movies which played on the same fears as their more respectable counterparts, many of them produced by Samuel Z.Arkoff and James H.Nicholson for their company American International Pictures. The War Of The Colossal Beast may not be a good film, or even a good bad film, but it is very representative of their product during the late 1950s.
The film, directed by the infamous Bert I.Gordon, is a sequel to his quite well reviewed The Amazing Colossal Man. Gordon made a lot of films but virtually none of them are even mediocre, let alone good. His particular fetish is for gigantic monsters - The Spider, Food of The Dogs, Empire Of The Ants - which would be fine if you ever got the sense that he has even a basic knowledge of pacing, suspense, character, narrative or even where to put the camera. The generally awful special effects are pretty unimportant in such a context, except for the fact that they make the films more amusing than painful to watch.
Yet, despite its basic awfulness, for indulgent monster movie fans War of the Colossal Beast is full of incidental delights. It begins during the immediate aftermath of its predecessor, with Colonel Glen Manning, the eponymous anti-hero, having vanished across the border into Mexico. His sister Joyce (Fraser) is understandably concerned about him and she gets in touch with the military after seeing reports of a mysteriously vanished truck which seems to have been picked up by some giant creature. She rushes down to Mexico, in the company of Major Baird, whose constant staring at her bust indicates a not noticeably hidden desire to get into her girdle. Once over the border, the duo meet Dr Carmichael, a friendly neighborhood scientist introduced as "our expert in radiation exposure", suggesting that this wasn't an uncommon problem amongst the US military at the time. The driver of the truck, Miguel, is having nightmares about a giant, but the suspiciously Californian accented police chief can't understand a word of what he's saying. A trip into the mountains confirms that something big is afoot - "That's a very big footprint !" gasps the police captain - and Dr Carmichael is intrigued - "Let's drive slowly. Maybe we will find some more footprints." It appears that the giant creature has made for the hills - "He has a WHOLE mountain range to hide in !" intones the Major - but there appears to be a certain lack of valour on the part of the police chief - "It's getting late, we should go. It's not good to be here after dark," he worries, apparently under the impression he's wandered into a vampire movie by mistake.
Then, right on cue, the Amazing Colossal Man makes an appearance. He's horribly deformed and generally pissed off, as you might be if you were wearing nothing but a loin cloth and been obliged to wait 20 minutes before appearing in a film that has put you in the title. He doesn't do much, sadly, but his appearance is enough to send the entire Mexican police force into a bit of a panic. A plan is hatched by the not entirely reliable Dr Carmichael to drug him with mountains of bread spiked with chlorolhydrate. His sister is nervous but Major Baird reassures her that all will be fine - "We have to catch him. Dr Carmichael says it won't hurt in the least", this being the same scientist who exposed the Amazing Colossal Man (henceforth called ACM) to plutonium in the first place.
An interesting subplot now develops in which Major Baird becomes unusually eager to send Joyce home to Los Angeles. She demurs, saying that she'll have nothing to do but worry, but the Major has a solution to this ailment - "Here's a remedy that's old but it works. Try to find something else to occupy your mind. Do you work ?", "Yes, I write copy for an advertising agency", "Well, that should take your mind off it." Baird even offers to take her home himself, which seems rather a dereliction of duty given that ACM is preparing to destroy large parts of Central America, but Joyce seems quite pleased. Pleased, that is, until the horrific truth hits her once again - "A colossal freak... and he's my brother !"
Diverting us back to the mainstream of the narrative, ACM is caught having scoffed all the bread and is taken to the USA. None of the usual agencies want anything to do with him so he's confined to an aircraft hanger and tied up. The drugs are having an unfortunate effect, sending ACM into a ten minute delirium of flashbacks to the original, which is, at the very least, a cheap way of filling up the somewhat anorexic plotline. Marvellous stuff abounds here, the first film being considerably better than this sequel, with highlights such as ACM screaming "I don't wanna grow any more !" and going on a very cheaply rendered rampage in Las Vegas. But the real highlight is the scene where he kills a scientist with a giant hypodermic needle, a scene that was surely the inspiration for Patrick Troughton's impalement in The Omen.
Sadly, preparing us for the tragic conclusion, ACM has gone seriously loco during his aircraft hangar sojourn. Dr Carmichael confirms this for us, sagely reflecting that "the big question now is... his mind". A bigger problem is the deformity make-up which resembles the aftermath of a misguided decision to use pizza as a mascara, but that's just by the way. ACM tries a big escape but makes the mistake of standing there looking on while soldiers fire bazookas at him rather than running away, so he's soon chained up again. Jenny gets on the phone to find some blood to replace what he's lost during his breakout - "A man's life depends on this plasma !
I know ten gallons is a lot but...." - but is soon taken off the case when Major Baird arrives and suggests, once again, that she would be better burning the midnight oil at the advertising agency.
Science is the villain here rather than ACM himself and Dr Carmichael makes a reappearance to remind us of this fact. He hooks up ACM to a monitor and gives a priceless explanation of how it works:
"This is an electrical encephalograph. It records impulses set off by different parts of the brain. It records them on this paper, making these wavy lines."
He then says, somewhat redundantly, "We're gonna stimulate his mind", which sounds kind of fun. So a group of hapless men in white coats climb on cranes and show ACM gigantic blow-ups of photographs while screaming "Do you recognise this". This makes ACM very cross indeed and who can blame him ? But what can society do with him ? After all, as Major Baird reminds us, rather callously, "There's no place in a civilised world for a creature that big !" So, with typically nimble backsliding, the army manage to disown all responsibility for a situation which they caused in the first place. Joyce is distressed by this but Major Baird comforts her, being careful to grope her from behind, by saying, "There's nothing you, I or anyone can do to return him to what he once was." In other words, let's blow the shit out of him instead.
This little jewel of bad filmmaking concludes with a semi-rampage in Los Angeles during which ACM is limited to waving about one school bus and playing with some electricity pylons, the shock from which results in the film bursting into rather muddy colour during the last minute. By this time, you'll either have made use of the fast forward button or be in hysterics by how idiotic the whole thing is. My favourite moment concerns the explanation of how ACM arrived in Mexico by river - "He just floated down from the Hoover Dam". Surely, for the love of god, someone must have noticed a 60 foot man sailing down the waterways of Southern America. What about the Border guards ? Were they too busy harrying illegal immigrants to notice ? If you don't find that funny then don't bother watching the film. If you do then this is the movie for you. Bert I.Gordon's direction consists of pointing the camera at his actors and occasionally moving it to emphasise some of the more 'complex' special effects. Mr Gordon, a charming man who is still alive and represented by an agent, devised said technical miracles himself with the assistance of his wife. It's nice to know that, just occasionally, crap can bring a couple together.
This is one of several releases from Direct Video Distribution called the Arkoff Film Library. The films are all from the late 1950s/early 1960s and are mostly down to the standard of this one. In due course I'll be treating you to my views on the incredibly camp How To Make A Monster and another Bert I.Gordon classic, The Spider. The releases aren't great but they are quite nicely presented and the extra feature (identical on all of them) is surprisingly interesting.
The film is presented in a fullscreen version which appears to reflect the way it was originally made. I say this because there's a scarcity of reliable information on films like this one. But most films of this period that were made in a 2.35:1 process advertised it in the trailer and on the poster and there's nothing to suggest cropping or panning and scanning here. The print used for the transfer was obviously damaged and there are tears evident in places. There is also a lot of white speckling throughout. However, the monochrome image is impressively crisp and the shadow detail is excellent. Contrast is also good and there isn't a serious problem with either grain or artifacting. The colour conclusion doesn't look good at all but that's possibly because it was only recently restored to the film after having vanished for a number of years, so I guess we're lucky to have it at all.
The soundtrack is in the original mono. It's a good track, free from hiss or distortion.
There are two extra features. The first is a delicious collection of trailers from the Arkoff vaults, namely: How To Make A Monster, The Brain Eaters, The Spider, War of the Colossal Beast, The She Creature, Blood Of Dracula, The Day The World Ended, Voodoo Woman and the non-horror but equally wonderful Reform School Girl. The quality of these varies greatly and they sometimes look as if they've been around every projector in the world before being transferred to DVD but they're still a sheer joy for cult movie fans.
The second extra is a 50 minute interview with Samuel Z.Arkoff, in audio only and recorded at the National Film Theatre during the mid-1980s. I was in the audience for this one and it was as interesting as I had remembered, although the enlightening selection of audience questions is omitted. Lots of good anecdotes from the very engaging Arkoff, notably the one about his perturbation at receiving a film called "The Monster With A Million Eyes" only to find that the filmmakers had forgotten to include a monster. The visual accompaniment is dismal, being the same four photos repeated ad nauseum but it's essential listening all the same.
Both these extra features are repeated on every disc in the collection. This is regrettable but if a studio as big as Columbia can do the same thing with their Harryhausen releases then I suppose a much smaller DVD distributor can do the same thing.
The film is divided into 9 chapter stops - more than adequate for the 68 minute running time - and there are German and Dutch subtitles. Each disc comes with a free collection of postcards featuring a selection of original film posters, which is a nice little bonus.
If you think bad movies have nothing to offer then War of the Colossal Beast might just change your mind. It's terrible but fun and is short enough to keep you smiling without wondering whether your brain might implode if it goes on any longer. The DVD presentation is basic but certainly better than average. Fans of 1950s monster movies should find little to complain about.