Friday, December 22, 1972: Night of Terror (1933) / Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1957)

Synopsis: A knife-wielding serial killer known as the Maniac is terrorizing the countryside, and the police, led by the clueless Detective Bailey (Matt McHugh) are unable to catch him. Each of the Maniac’s victims is found with a newspaper headline pinned to the body (as befits a Columbia picture, these headlines are in 42-point font, saying things like MANIAC STILL ON THE LOOSE!).

Meanwhile, at the Rinehart mansion, Dr. Arthur Hornsby (George Meeker) is working late on a chemical formula that will place a person in a state of suspended animation. To demonstrate that his formula works, he plans to inject himself with the serum, then have his body placed in a coffin, buried in the backyard, then dug up eight hours later and revived. A number of skeptical scientists will be on hand to witness the experiment. 

 Hornsby’s experiment is worrisome to his fiancée, Mary Rinehart (Sally Blane), and she is frustrated that he pays more attention to his experiments than to her. In spite of the fact that she and Hornsby are engaged, Mary is being aggressively courted by brash newspaper reporter Tom Hartley (Wallace Ford) , who is covering the Maniac killings. While Mary chides Hartley about his advances, it’s clear that she is flattered by the attention – attention she isn’t getting from Hornsby.

The servants at the Rinehart estate are as quirky as its other inhabitants. Ethnically indeterminate butler Degar (Bela Lugosi) seems to be carefully guarding a secret or two, and mystical maid Sika (Mary Frey) believes that various omens from the spirit world are pointing toward ghastly fates for all in the Rinehart household. 

When family patriarch Richard dies under mysterious circumstances, the will reveals that everyone in the household — including the servants — shares in the inheritance. What’s more, should any of the inheritors die, that portion of the estate will devolve to the others. So when members of the Rinehart family start to turn up dead, the question is obvious: are they victims of the Maniac, or each other?

Comments: Despite a distressingly high body count and the presence of a serial killer, Night of Terror is clearly meant to be light-hearted, and you’re never asked to take it seriously. People rush in and out so quickly it’s hard to keep track of them, and nobody sticks around long enough to make much of an impression. The characters are about as well-drawn as the ones you find in a game of Clue: Richard Rinehart is the no-nonsense patriarch; Arthur Hornsby is the preoccupied scientist; Tom Hartley the wisecracking reporter; Sika is the gypsy fortune-teller, and so on.

The police come and go, huffing and puffing over various cast members’ alibis, but their buffoonery is such that they make no progress whatsoever. This was a common depiction of police in this era, and it’s unsurprising that when studios began enforcing the Production Code in 1934, cops had to be shown in a more deferential light. As befits a pre-code mystery, the only way to get the cops to clear you as a suspect is to wind up dead yourself.

This is a pleasant enough time-waster, a movie that cultivates an agreeable drawing-room whodunit atmosphere. When the killer and the m.o. are finally revealed you know how dumb it all is, but you’re unlikely to complain; this is one of those movies that’s about the journey, not the destination.

No one in the cast really stands out. To judge by the marketing materials, Bela Lugosi is supposed to be the big draw for audiences, but he has little to do aside from trying to look suspicious. As with most of his post-Dracula films he’s rather badly miscast. Sally Blaine makes for a decent leading lady, and the only reason we remember Wallace Ford’s presence at all is because we know he’ll go on to play Babe Jenson in the Mummy pictures.

Godzilla, King of the Monsters

Synopsis: The city of Tokyo lies in ruins, having suffered a staggering attack of some kind. American reporter Steve Martin (Raymond Burr) wakes up in a wrecked office building, badly injured and surrounded by victims who didn’t survive. Taken to an overflowing hospital he sees Emiko (Momoko Kochi) who stops long enough to assure him that her father, Dr. Yamane, has survived the attack.

Martin recalls the events of recent weeks, when he visited Tokyo en route to Cairo. Wishing to meet a friend, the eminent scientist Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), Martin and all the plane’s passengers are first detained and then interviewed individually, asked if they saw anything unusual en route. Smelling a story, Martin digs further. He discovers that a number of ships at sea have been destroyed in the same area. Rescue boats sent out to hunt for survivors have been similarly destroyed. The few survivors found floating on debris describe a blinding flash of light; the men suffer strange burns and die quickly from an unidentified sickness.

In a hastily called meeting of scientists and officials, Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shumura), whom Martin knows to be Emiko’s father and Dr. Serizawa’s future father-in-law, tells the offcials that they should interview the inhabitants of Odo Island, which is not far from the area where the ships were destroyed.

Martin joins the expedition. While on the island, there is a sudden windstorm, and the natives believe it is the work of a sea monster called Godzilla. The next day, Dr. Yamane identifies gigantic tracks that he believes are those of an enormous monster. The tracks themselves bear traces of radiation, and it is clear that whatever the creature is, it was awakened from dormancy by hydrogen-bomb tests in the area.

The islanders are driven into panic when the monster appears again, this time in broad daylight. Before long it makes its way into Tokyo harbor and begins to wreak havoc. Emiko tells Martin that Dr. Serizawa has developed a terrible weapon that might stop Godzilla, but so fearsome are the weapon’s effects that Serizawa dares not reveal its existence, since in unscrupulous hands it might spell the end of the human race….

Comments: I’ve spoken of my admiration for this clever recut of Ishiro Honda’s Gojira (1954)  before, and upon repeat viewings it still works well. Until the early 21st century, this bowdlerized version was the only one American audiences had ever seen; and though audiences lost a lot in translation, they gained quite a bit too.

Gojira was a staid, rather mournful allegory about the horrors of the nuclear age that dragged a bit in its middle third. Godzilla, King of the Monsters tightens up the pacing significantly. It’s by no means a better film, but the decision to retcon Raymond Burr into each crucial scene (it must have sounded absurd when first pitched) was ultimately a good one, as American audiences in 1957 probably weren’t ready to follow an all-Japanese cast for the length of a motion picture. Nevertheless, the recut is surprisingly respectful to the narrative of the film, and this wasn’t necessarily a given. AIP, for example, routinely pulled expensive special effects footage from eastern-bloc SF films and tossed out their stories, building (usually terrible) narratives of their own.

But here the source material is treated quite deferentially. Steve Martin is able to guide the American viewer through the film, framing the big action set pieces, and introducing and then stepping back from the Serizawa / Emiko / Ogata love triangle, which really lies at the heart of the narrative. In this way the terrible choice that Serizawa must make – and his choice to sacrifice himself at the end —  carries the added dramatic weight of his rejection by Emiko.

Raymond Burr was still a largely unknown character actor at this time. Best remembered for the role of the murderous neighbor in Rear Window, he was about a year away from achieving fame as Perry Mason on TV. It’s true that his character’s inabilty to speak Japanese is a clumsy expository device (“Hmm, my Japanese is a little rusty — what’s being said here?” “Well, Steve, Dr. Yamane is explaining that the government should mount an expedition to Odo Island”) but it is a time-saver, and Burr brings a surprising amount of compassion to the role when talking about the plight of the Japanese people who live in fear of the coming onslaught. And he adds great tension to the scene where he’s narrating in the tape recorder for his wire service, only to see Godzilla demolish the building he’s in.

And of course, we get Godzilla crushing, crumbling and chomping Tokyo, in what must have been an absolutely thrilling sequence to audiences back then; even today it’s engrossing. Big G would appear in many more adventures, but no Godzilla movie would ever be as scary or as mournful as this first outing.

One comment

  1. NIGHT OF TERROR goes back to 1970, but apparently Godzilla was making its debut on the show. Adding an American actor to preexisting footage from a Japanese Toho production was only done twice more, with John Carradine in HALF HUMAN (from DCA, the same company that issued GODZILLA and RODAN) and Myron Healey in VARAN THE UNBELIEVABLE. KING KONG VS. GODZILLA also displayed a great deal of new footage for its US version, not the same as its black and white brethren.


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