Saturday, November 25, 1972 (Noon): War of the Gargantuas (1966) / The Mask of Diijon (1946)

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Synopsis: A cargo ship traveling at night through a storm is attacked by a giant squid. The terrified pilot is astonished when the giant squid is in turn attacked by a giant green humanoid. After dispatching the squid, the humanoid turns its attention to the ship, destroying it.

A single survivor of the ship disaster tells authorities about the monster, who consult with Dr. Paul Stewart (Russ Tamblyn), an American scientist, and his assistant Akemi (Kumi Mizuno), who five years earlier had studied a similar giant humanoid creature. However, Dr. Stewart tells them that the creature they studied was native to the forests, not the ocean; moreover, it was quite gentle.

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The green giant — called the “Gargantua” by the media — begins appearing off the Japanese coast. It finally ventures onto land at Narita airport, causing extensive damage and even eating one unlucky traveler. However, when the sun comes out from behind the clouds the creature retreats to the sea.

Stewart investigates reports that the creature was seen in the mountains, leaving giant footprints behind. He discovers hair samples left behind by it; when examined, they are identical to those found on a boat destroyed by the gargantua.

Meanwhile, the military lays a trap for the gargantua, which has been more and more frequently attacking the countryside after dark. Running lines from electrical transmission towers to a lake, they draw the creature into the water, then pour enormous amounts of electricity into the creature. An assault with tanks and guns follows, topped off with an attack with laser cannons, which so badly cripples the creature that its death is imminent. But unexpectedly, a brown gargantua comes out of the woods, helping the green gargantua to safety. Dr. Stewart and Akemi recognize the creature as the one they had nurtured as a baby five years before….

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Comments: War of the Gargantuas is one weird movie. So weird, in fact, that we should take a moment to discuss its origins.  Merian C. Cooper, who had produced King Kong, had long been unhappy with its lackluster sequel Son of Kong, and for years shopped around a nutty addition to the franchise: Kong would battle a giant named Prometheus, a creature sewn together from body parts of other creatures (it should be noted that ownership of the Kong character was a point of legal dispute between Cooper and RKO, one that wasn’t resolved until the 1970s). Toho bought the idea but then kicked Prometheus out, instead making King Kong vs. Godzilla.  Around the same time Toho, apparently inspired by the Prometheus concept, became interested in making a kaiju about Frankenstein’s monster.

Now, if you’re thinking that Frankenstein’s monster is too short to be in a kaiju movie, you are underestimating Toho’s resourcefulness. Frankenstein Conquers the World employs a delightful Rube-Goldberg-esque sequence of events to get Frankenstein a) to travel to Japan and b) to grow to 400 feet in height. The movie starts out with Germany on the brink of losing the war in Europe. The Nazis deliver a top-secret cargo by submarine to the Japanese islands. This cargo is….the beating heart of Frankenstein’s monster!

The Japanese scientist tasked with studying it says that there is no doubt that much can be learned from the heart. But with the war and all, they’re kind of busy.

At that moment, there’s a tremendous flash of light and a mammoth explosion — the heart, we discover, has been delivered to Hiroshima, and it’s August 6, 1945!

Twenty years later an American scientist (Nick Adams) is studying the latent effects of atomic radiation on Hiroshima. He and his lab assistant / girlfriend (Kumi Mizuno) discover a feral child that has been living on small animals it catches and eats. The child is, we learn, Frankenstein’s monster, which has absorbed enough atomic radiation to reconstitute itself. As if that weren’t enough, it’s growing at a dizzying rate, and before long he’s 400 feet tall, and as luck would have it, another 400 foot monster shows up for him to fight (Baragon, a minor player in later Godzilla films; he was kind of Joey Bishop of Godzilla’s rat pack).

Frankenstein Conquers the World spawned a sequel, called War of the Frankensteins, featuring two creatures who, while humanoid, didn’t really look like Frankenstein at all. For the American release, all references to the previous film were excised. The creatures had names (“Sanda” and “Gaira”) in the Japanese version, but for American audiences they were referred to simply as the “green gargantua” and the “brown gargantua”.  And of course, the title of the film was changed to War of the Gargantuas, released in the US in the summer of 1970, on a double-bill with Monster Zero.

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The lovely Kumi Mizuno was in both films, in essentially the same role as the American scientist’s assistant / girlfriend, though she has different names in each film. She’s called Sueko in Frankenstein Conquers the World and Akemi in War of the Gargantuas. Sueko / Akemi is sweet and nurturing, and quite passive, with very little to suggest she has a life of her own. Her relationship with her boss / boyfriend is curious — she always calls him “Doctor”, even when they are alone together. The couple’s body language — holding hands when running together, or holding each other close when danger approaches — strongly suggests an intimate relationship, yet the relationship is never spelled out explicitly. And she is often treated more like a child than an adult — and while not unusual in American films of this era, it’s much more pronounced in Japanese films.

Instead of Nick Adams’ Dr. James Bowen, we have Dr. Paul Stewart, played by Russ Tamblyn. In spite of the change of name (and change of actors), it also seems to be the same character. It’s hard for us to buy either actor in the role of a sober American scientist, but Adams at least brought an intensity to the role. To call Tamblyn laconic is an understatement. He plays Stewart as though he had just been rousted out of bed at 3 am  and is in desperate need of a cup of coffee. This must have been frustrating for the Japanese producers, who liked big, over-the-top performances from their leads, but Tamblyn looks too disinterested to take direction from anyone; his eyes are hardly open in some scenes.

Nevertheless, War of the Gargantuas is a lot of zany fun, with Tokyo serving as a wrestling ring for the two giant monsters, who get a remarkable amount of screen time. Because the costumes are so much lighter than the rubber suits worn in other kaijus, the action scenes are much faster paced and the creatures have a wider range of expression than competing Toho monsters. And it’s refreshing to see the monsters actually taking some damage for once, as the perpetually winless Japanese military essentially defeats the green gargantua before he is bailed out by his twin brother.

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And if this weren’t enough, we come to this film’s greatest delight, the scene everyone remembers: Kipp Hamilton’s big number. Kipp is inexplicably credited above everyone else in the movie except Russ Tamblyn himself. How is this possible? Did she (and her gargantuan cheekbones) sleep with the producer in order to get this role? It seems incredible; what woman would debase herself in order to get a cameo in a monster movie?

She is in exactly one scene, as a lounge singer who warbles the unforgettable love song, “The Words Get Stuck In My Throat” — and then gets the world’s worst review:

The Mask of Diijon

Synopsis: A successful stage magician named Diijon (Erich Von Stroheim) has retired his lucrative act in order to study the mysterious art of hypnotism.  He feels he is on to something big, but his obsessive devotion to his studies is troubling to his wife Vicki and their friends.  His lack of income is putting a strain on their marriage, but all attempts by Vicki’s friends to help are rebuffed by the proud and arrogant Diijon.

About this time, Tom Holliday arrives in town.  He is an old flame of Vicki’s and he too is concerned that she is being neglected.  In an attempt to help her, he offers Diijon a gig at the club where he works as a bandleader.  After much convincing, Diijon finally agrees;  but because he is long out of practice he botches the act and is fired.  Diijon is furious, and accuses Tom of trying to humiliate him in front of his wife.

On his way home, Diijon stops at a diner for a cup of coffee.  A shady character enters and tries to hold the place up – but Diijon manages to hypnotize the man, forcing him to give up his gun and return the money to the owner.  Intrigued by his success, Diijon hypnotizes the man selling papers at a newsstand  — getting him to shout for all to hear that he is selling the evening edition, when he is in fact selling the morning edition.
It becomes clear to him that he can hypnotize anyone, and his subjects will do whatever he orders them to do.  But how far does his control go?  As something of an experiment, he hypnotizes family friend Danton, forcing him to write a suicide note and then throw himself off a bridge.  

Now that he has established a means to kill through hypnotism, Diijon decides to take revenge on Tom and Vicki – by hypnotizing his now-estranged wife, and forcing her to kill Tom at the club, in front of hundreds of witnesses….

Comments: Right from the opening scene, Lew Landers’ The Mask of Diijon paints the title character as an arrogant and thoughtless man, who is openly rude to his wife and her friends.  Quickly establishing a list of grievances against Diijon makes it easier for us to accept that Vicki will, later in the film, leave him for another man.  Even so, it’s a little hard to accept that Diijon becomes a cold-blooded murderer so quickly.

Maybe this is because the screenplay is in such a hurry to raise the stakes. With his newly-developed power of hypnotism, Diijon first chooses to play a prank – he gets the man at the newsstand to shout that he’s selling the evening edition when he is in fact selling the morning edition. Having succeeded at this, he then decides to commit a murder.  It would have been more convincing if Diijon had gradually ventured into more and more dangerous stunts, and only then stepped over the line to murder.

Well, we can’t expect too much from a PRC programmer, can we?  The movie clocks in at 73 minutes so it has to keep things moving; and Eric Von Stroheim glowers and murmurs so ominously that it’s easy to believe he is up to no good. All the same, I think the movie would have worked better in dramatic terms in Diijon had been given a stronger motivation to begin a series of murders.

In some ways the deck is stacked against Diijon in the same way it was stacked against Wilfred in Werewolf of London. Diijon’s motive for revenge is an unfaithful wife, but we’re expected to blame Diijon himself for pushing her into the arms of her old flame Tom Holliday.

It seems to me that The Mask of Diijon would have worked better if Diijon himself had been a bit more sympathetic –  an antihero we can empathize with, even if we don’t approve of his actions.

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2 comments

  1. Without THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS I would never have heard of Kipp Hamilton. It’s a rare kaiju that defies simple logic right from the beginning, when the gargantuan save the ship only to devour the crew himself! It’s been quite a few years since I screened THE MASK OF DIIJON, which I recall more for Edward Van Sloan.

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  2. It’s been noted by a number of people over the years that Russ Tamblyn appears to have a black eye in one scene (it’s the scene that takes place on the train). Looking at it carefully, he clearly does — it’s covered with makeup, but he’s definitely got a shiner. How it came about would be interesting story, but I don’t know that any interviewer has ever asked him about it.

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