Saturday, February 8, 1974 (Noon): Godzilla’s Revenge (1969) / Son of Frankenstein (1939)

Godzilla’s Revenge

Synopsis: Ichiro (Tomonori Yazaki) is a lonely schoolboy who lives in Tokyo. His parents work long hours and have little time to spend with him. He loves monster movies, and by far his favorite monster is Godzilla, whom he sees as almost infinitely powerful. Ichiro is constantly being harassed by a local bully named Gabara and his gang, and his only escape from this dreary existence is dreaming of being on Monster Island, where he watches powerful creatures engage in fierce battles. On the island he befriends Godzilla’s son Minya. Minya is about Ichiro’s size (though he can grow somewhat larger when he chooses to do so) and he can also speak. He tells Ichiro that he himself is being bullied by one of the young monsters on the island — a monster, coincidentally, that is also named Gabara.

Minya wants very much to be like his father, but he isn’t very big by juvenile monster standards; and he isn’t able to breath fire like his father either. In spite of his best efforts all he can do is puff out comical smoke rings.

Nevertheless, Godzilla has impressed upon his son the importance of standing up to bullies. Minya learns that he can defeat Gabara by being brave and standing his ground.

In the real world, Ichiro tries to take this lesson to heart. But he gets more than he bargained for when he’s kidnapped by a pair of bumbling bank robbers….

Comments: As a kid I was a big fan of Godzilla movies, and I still have a great deal of affection for them.  But even as a small child I hated Godzilla’s Revenge, which is widely regarded as the worst Godzilla film ever made.

And with good reason. This movie is dreadful for lots of different reasons: it’s silly; it talks down to kids; there is little of importance at stake; the action in the movie is essentially a dream; and worst if all, it is (to borrow from the parlance of television) a clip show.

Most of the Monster Island footage was cobbled together from earlier pictures (even the scene where Godzilla tries to teach Minya how to breathe fire is taken from 1967’s  not-quite-as-terrible Son of Godzilla). As a cheap and cynical way to wring a few more pennies out of dying franchise, it’s a great idea. As a way to maintain the viability of said franchise, not so much.

To be fair, Toho seemed confident that their kaiju films had run their course. 1968’s Destroy All Monsters was supposed to be the final film in a series that was becoming visibly threadbare. Series weren’t “rebooted” or “reimagined” in the way they are nowadays. Instead, studios just ran their franchises into the ground and walked away. But Godzilla wasn’t an ordinary character like Charlie Chan or Francis the Talking Mule; he had captured the imaginations of moviegoers and he would be back. The results weren’t always great, but they were usually interesting.

All the same, Godzilla’s Revenge is unquestionably the low point, the indisputable nadir of the franchise. And no matter how many more Godzilla movies are made, I’m confident you’ll still be able to say that.

As a bit of a palate-cleanser, let’s take a moment to watch the trailer for a much better movie, the aforementioned Destroy All Monsters:

Son of Frankenstein

Synopsis: Wolf von Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) travels from America with his wife and young son to take possession of his late father’s estate. He is met at the train station by the citizens of Frankenstein village, only to find that his ancestral name is hated by all who live there. Wolf, believing that his father’s work was unjustly maligned by superstitious yokels, tries to convince the people that his intentions are good, but to no avail.

At the family estate he is visited by the local chief of police (Lionel Atwill), who warns him to lay low, since the locals are convinced that no good can come from another scientist named Frankenstein carrying out more weird experiments during raging thunderstorms.

Frankenstein opines that over time the locals no doubt exaggerated the stories of his father’s “monster”; but the chief politely disagrees. The stories, he says, are all true. He points out his own wooden arm, saying that when he was a boy, the rampaging monster tore his arm out by the roots.

Later, Frankenstein is inspecting his estate when he discovers an odd character skulking near the ruins of his father’s laboratory. This, we learn, was the late doctor’s assistant Ygor (Bela Lugosi). Ygor had been hanged for a number of crimes including grave robbing, but survived; his neck did not heal properly and his head is tilted at an odd angle. He tells Frankenstein that the monster had been his friend and that he wants to see it restored to life. He takes Wolf to a chamber where the monster still reposes in a kind of suspended animation. Excited by this discovery, Wolf is determined to vindicate his father’s work by bringing the creature back to life…

Comments: This was the last film Basil Rathbone worked on before starring in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939), which vaulted him permanently onto the Hollywood A-list. Up until this point Rathbone had been a splendid supporting player, cast most effectively in villainous roles (Tybalt in the 1936 production of Romeo and Juliet, and Sir Guy of Gisbourne in Michael Curtiz’s The Adventures of Robin Hood), but he also excelled as fellows who were at least partially sympathetic — Major Brand in The Dawn Patrol, and the French pirate Levasseur in Captain Blood. But Rathbone was not seen as leading man material. In spite of his Shakespearean pedigree and obvious strengths as an actor he didn’t project the same warmth as his contemporaries Errol Flynn and David Niven.

This would not matter when he donned the deerstalker cap and became for decades the embodiment of Sherlock Holmes in the public imagination. Holmes was always a difficult character to cast, or perhaps more accurately an easy character to miscast (Roger Moore, Frank Langella and Matt Frewer being only three of many actors to embarrass themselves in the role). What makes Holmes such difficult territory is that he isn’t a conventional hero and is strangely immune to screen adaptations that try to make him one. Over the years many filmmakers have tried to domesticate him: prettying him up, giving him a love life, making him warm and accessible. Those adaptations invariably fail. The only successful Holmes adaptations have kept him as both more — and less — than human. This is a big reason why Rathbone was so successful with the role. He couldn’t do warm or romantic the way Niven and Flynn could, but those actors could not match the icy determination, the cerebral coolness, that Rathbone projected.

For the same reason he is perfect as Wolf. Frankenstein père was depicted as little more than a simpering neurotic, who loses all agency once the monster is created. We are happy to discover that Wolf is made of sterner stuff. Even when events spiral out of control he manages to keep his head, and he regains the upper hand in the end. And unlike his father or the sinister Pretorious, Wolf’s intentions remain good. He is motivated primarily by his desire to erase the graffito found on Henry’s casket: Maker of Monsters.

He wants to erase that sobriquet not just from the casket, but from the hearts of the people of Frankenstein, and from his own guilty conscience. His circumstances are outsized, but Henry’s impulse — to redeem the reputation of his father — is almost Shakespearean in its ambition and in its ubiquity. Wolf’s also motivated by a surprisingly honest desire to expand the frontiers of knowledge. In reviewing the notes in the laboratory he realizes that his father did not fully understand the implications of the lightning that he was using to give life to the creature. In fact, Wolf concludes, it was cosmic rays, not lightning, that gives the monster its titanic strength and near invulnerability. At this point the monster ceases to be “just” an undead creature stitched together from corpses and reanimated with electricity. “He cannot die,” says Ygor. “He lives for always”. Accidental exposure to cosmic rays must have seemed a fairly novel explanation in 1939, but audiences would soon get used to it : by the 1950s radiation would be a one-stop shop for Universal’s screenwriters. It could cause any problem and become every solution. This is movie that wears quite well on repeated viewing. Bela Lugosi is simply delightful in this movie, and made me with Ygor had turned up in a few more of these pictures.

2 comments

  1. This may well have been the afternoon that my life changed. Godzilla’s Revenge was the first Godzilla movie I ever saw. And it was on Horror Incorporated. I was 11 years old. It captured my imagination. Then came Famous Monsters. Aurora monster models. The rest is history.

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