February 16, 1974 (Noon): Rodan (1956) / The Invisible Ray (1936)

Synopsis: In a Japanese coal mining town, a new mine shaft has been opened that is deeper than any before it. After the deepest part of the shaft floods, several miners go missing.  Safety inspector Shigeru (Kenji Sahara) goes down to look for the missing men, knowing that one of them is Goro, the brother of his fiancee Kyo (Yumi Shirakawa). Descending to the new opening with a search party, Shigeru and his colleagues are attacked by giant insects that have been living in the subterranean depths. After part of the mine collapses, Shigeru is cut off and trapped with the creatures. But later he is found on the surface, unable to remember how he got there; the trauma of his ordeal seems to have blocked his memory.

Soon there are reports of a supersonic object that is streaking at high altitude over nearby cities. At first called UFO by the press, it destroys any fighter jets that manage to get near it. It is only when a family on holiday mysteriously vanishes that the first clue to the object is discovered: the last photo taken in their camera captured the blurred edge of a gigantic wing.

During Shigeru’s convalescence, Kyo shows him a bird’s nest that was just outside the window. Looking at the eggs within, Shigeru’s memories come flooding back: he had been on the wrong side of the cave-in, trapped near the Volkswagen-sized insects. A massive egg in the chamber began to crack apart, and from it emerged a giant pterosaur, which ravenously devoured the loathsome bugs.

With Shigeru’s memory restored it is now clear what the flying creature is and where it came from. This is proof, Shigeru relates, that the dinosaurs were not extinct, but only dormant. The pterosaur — now called Rodan — has descended from the high altitudes it had kept to previously, and is now making low passes over Japanese cities, its huge wings and supersonic speeds causing typhoon-level damage below.

The military deploys tanks and bombers to dispatch Rodan in its temporary resting place, only to discover there are two of the creatures. Finding that all of mankind’s weaponry is useless against Rodan, the military must now face the fact that these invulnerable creatures may soon settle down and hatch out a whole clutch of similar creatures….

Comments: The first kaiju film to be shot in color, Rodan retains the high production values of the previous Godzilla films, expanding the boundaries of Toho’s cinematic universe beyond Big G himself, and making very good use of Eiji Tsubaraya’s meticulously-built miniature cityscapes. Over time, of course, kaiju films would become notorious for both cheap miniatures and atrocious dubbing, but Rodan can’t be faulted for either – it is, in every way, a meticulously-made film, possessing the slick production values that the early Japanese monster movies boasted.

Unlike Godzilla, Rodan isn’t depicted as a product of human meddling with nature; no H-bomb tests were necessary to bring it to life, nor does radioactivity augment the threat it poses. We could make the argument that the mining company defied nature by digging to an unprecedented depth, but this really serves a more of an excuse for the monster to appear than a warning about digging holes too far underground. “The dinosaurs hadn’t died,” Shigeru tells us, “they only slept.” The implication, of course,  is that all sleeping things will eventually awaken.

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The American cut, however, really wants the then-topical H-bomb to be involved, and adds a lugubrious opening narration about the might of atomic weapons and the advent of the altogether new and terrifying hydrogen weapons that had recently succeeded them. Over stock footage of an H-bomb test, a stern-sounding narrator first extols the power and military advantage afforded by the bomb; then pivots to speculate about the unanticipated horrors that the weapons might unleash. This is a good example of the ambivalence America had about nuclear weapons, ca. 1955. We were as a nation proud of the awesome power of our nuclear arsenal and the technological acumen that developing it required. But at the same time it was beginning to dawn on us that atomic weapons were horrifyingly indiscriminate; and that, paradoxically, the more of them we stockpiled, the less secure we became.

So while the opening narration implies that the bomb is responsible for Rodan’s appearances, Shigeru’s narration points to the opposite. For the American audience it probably didn’t make a lot of difference, but it at least adds the suggestion that Rodan is, on some level, something we brought on ourselves.

Kaiju films typically run on two tracks, with the human subplot grounding the outlandish scenes of monsters destroying whole cities. When done well, the human scenes ensure that the stakes are high, the personal conflicts are realistic, and that we have someone in the cast with whom we can identify. The perfect example of this is Ishiro Honda’s own Gojira (1954). The human subplot feeds directly into the monster story, and the two complement one another perfectly.

Compare Gojira with the movie that inspired it: The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. While it’s a very entertaining movie, the romantic subplot in Beast was never more than perfunctory, and Dr. Nesbit’s primary motivation (to convince the world he wasn’t crazy when he said he saw a monster) is laughable compared to the terrible dilemma Dr. Serizawa’s faces in Gojira:  use the oxygen destroyer and threaten all life on Earth; or fail to use it and allow, through his inaction, the deaths of millions.

Rodan doesn’t swing for the thematic fences in the same way Gojira did. The movie quite admirably gives its hero a blue-collar profession (mine safety inspector) rather than a white-collar one (eminent scientist), but this decision comes at a cost: the second that Shigeru has his flashback to the traumatic events that occurred after the cave-in, his utility to the plot comes to an end. He keeps showing up in subsequent scenes, but there’s no real reason for him to be there.

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But the movie still works, thanks to the ingenious aura of mystery it builds. So many strange and seemingly unconnected events pile up: the missing tourists, the miners hacked to pieces, the gigantic insects, the egg fragments, the UFO, the blurred photograph of a wing. It’s the mystery, not the characters themselves, that keep us hooked.

Rodan is a great introduction to one of the mainstays in the kaiju pantheon. I’ll admit though that as a kid, while I liked the movie, I wasn’t a big fan of the character. Lacking arms, opposable thumbs or a cool breath weapon, most of Rodan’s damage is collateral, and in a fight he is usually reduced to frenzied wing-flapping or (as in Godzilla vs. Monster Zero) dropping rocks on his enemies from above.

But here he is dignified, even graceful; and it’s hard to watch the tragic ending without feeling pity for the two doomed creatures, who would rather die than be parted.

The Invisible Ray

Synopsis: Renowned scientist Janos Rukh (Boris Karloff) demonstrates his newest discovery to a skeptical group of savants, including Dr. Felix Benet (Bela Lugosi). In a somewhat surreal and complicated sequence, he reveals that all light and sound waves are preserved in space and time, and that looking back far enough he can see the moment millions of years ago in which a meteor containing an ultra-rare element called Radium X fell in southwestern Africa.

Radium X, as the name implies, is a souped-up form of radioactive material, possessing great potential for both healing and destruction.

Somewhat baffled but convinced by his demonstration, the scientists join Rukh on an expedition to recover the meteorite.

In Africa, Rukh works obsessively to unlock the secrets of Radium X. Meanwhile, Rukh’s beautiful young wife (Frances Drake) begins to fall in love with another man on the expedition (Frank Lawton).

Most of the party returns to Europe. Dr. Benet quickly discovers that Radium X, applied properly, can cure any physical ailment, and he uses it to heal the sick, though he assiduously credits Dr. Rukh with the element’s discovery.

When Rukh returns home he learns of his wife’s infidelity and of his rivals building new careers on his work.

After receiving an accidental overdose of Radium X, Rukh discovers that his skin glows in the dark and that his touch can kill. The overdose also seems to have left him deranged, and he decides to murder all those whom he believes have betrayed him, starting with the scientists who accompanied him on the expedition….

Comments: The third of Universal’s Karloff – Lugosi screen pairings, The Invisible Ray is decidedly odd, and while it never really comes together it is interesting to watch. It begins with a confused science-fiction premise, becomes a jungle movie in the middle (lots of white men in pith helmets and “African natives” pounding on drums), then sprints through the third act with a revenge subplot reminiscent of James Whales’ The Invisible Man.

The device we see demonstrated at Rukh’s castle — basically a television that can see into the past — is really just a throwaway idea, trotted out to explain how Rukh knows where the Radium X meteorite is located. But in fact, the machine would require several Nobel-prize-worthy discoveries in order to work, and seems at least as big a deal as Radium X itself. The implications of such a device hadn’t yet been explored in science fiction — T.L. Sherred’s “E for Effort” wouldn’t be published for another 11 years —   and so we can assume the screenwriters just banged their shins against what could have been a great story idea and  moved on. The irony is the African expedition subplot, presumably added to make Radium X seem more exotic and unobtainable, doesn’t add to the story and could been cut out anyway; Rukh could just as easily (and much more credibly) have discovered it in his laboratory.

The movie still might have succeeded with a strong director and engaging cast, but that was not in the cards. Lambert Hillyard, who cut his teeth on B-westerns and serials, seems uncertain of his material here and wastes a number of opportunities to build suspense.

Boris Karloff is overcooked in more ways than one in this film, and it’s Lugosi who really shines in a rare sympathetic role. By contrast, Frances Drake and Frank Lawton are crashingly dull as the romantic leads — so much so that you wonder how they ended up in a major studio release.

Add to this some special effects that would not have been that impressive even in 1936, and you’re left with a standard-issue mad scientist flick from that era, almost aggressively generic and almost immediately forgettable. Still, it’s always interesting seeing Karloff and Lugosi on-screen together, and Karloff’s death scene alone is worth the price of admission.

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