Thursday, May 29, 2014

A God In the Heart of the Big Apple: Q the Winged Serpent

The year is 1982. Godzilla has been hibernating for seven years, since Terror of Mechagodzilla. Kong's 1976 outing, although commercially successful, was a critical flop. So the giant monster film remained on television, through Ultraman and its imitators, but did not make many stops at the big screen.

Q the Winged Serpent!

Larry Cohen's Q the Winged Serpent isn't strictly a kaiju film. No buildings are destroyed in this film. It's more of a regular-sized monster film, although I include it because it demonstrates a number of changes in movie-making in the eighties that would later affect kaiju films. But it has just about everything you could want from an eighties horror film: A decapitated window-washer

Gotta get some gore in!

A flayed man:

Smoking in bed?

How he got that way:

Are human sacrifices supposed to have eyes?

Female nudity:

Production Value.

More than most monster films, Q is about place, in this case New York City. Director Larry Cohen opens with an establishing shot of New York, and constantly has the actors in the middle of New York city life. As such it is a snapshot of the city in the eighties, the fashions, the filth, the cars.

Hello, New York!

The human aspect of the story is different from the standard Godzilla triad of scientist, reporter, and love interest. Michael Moriarity plays Jimmy, a two-time loser who ends up on the wrong side of some jewel thieves. David Carradine and Richard Roundtree play a pair of NYC cops assigned to find out who's killing New Yorkers. The two intersect when Jimmy discovers the nest of the creature, and tries to parlay this into a million dollars and his way out of his small-time crime life. The movie goes out of its way to show that Jimmy is a jerk. He yells at his on again/off again girlfriend, she talks about how he hits her, he's been to jail, and he's been on drugs. We hate him. But he's the character we spend the most time with.

I love that the crowd are being held back by clothesline.

Quetzlcoatl has a nest in the crown of the Chrysler Building. A moderate amount of the film takes place there. And there are several shots of the exterior, which show how neglected it was at the time.

Looks like shit, doesn't it?

Quetzlcoatl is of course, an Aztec god, and it is being summoned by human sacrifice in the city. Quetzlcoatl was a feathered serpent, and this is some sort of naked six-limbed dragon without the firey breath, and apparently female, since it's layng eggs, where the Aztec god was male.


Q the Winged Serpent is a good transitional kaiju film. It encompasses a lot of eighties trends in film making, with the increased gore, nudity, the heavy use of guns, frequent use of fuck, and a monster more sympathetic than the human protagonists.

Who wouldn't love that cudddly-wuddly face?

In the end, the cops gather at the top of the Chrysler Building and when Q comes back to roost, they riddle it with bullets. It flies to the Bankers Trust Company Building, which has a pyramid-style roof. Weakened, it roars at the sky, and, like King Kong, falls.

It's a monster! GUNS MUST WORK!

Like The Beast, Q dies like an opera tenor.

Although that's the end of the monster, that's not the end of the film. The Aztec priest who performed sacrifice to return Quetzlcoatl finds Jimmy, intending to sacrifice him. But he waits too long, and the cops shoot him in the head (the priest, not Jimmy).

We more than half want him to slit Jimmy's throat.

But the film still isn't done! There's a second egg, and as we pan across, it begins to hatch! 1998 Godzilla used this, too.

So stolen by Roland and Emmerlich.

Q the Winged Serpent's influence can be seen in a number of films, most specifically, the the 1998 Godzilla. The whole 'the monster is unexpectedly female and laying eggs, the setting in New York (although Q does this much more convincingly than Godzilla), the landmark Chrysler Building, and the complete inabilty of anyone to find a giant monster somewhere in New York. This last item was a touch more plausible in Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, partially because the rhedasaurus was land-based but also because there were a lot fewer phones in 1952. And, as with many American kaiju films, firepower provides the humans with their plot solution. Not cleverness, not science, firepower.

Cohen did an excellent job with the recurring bird and temple motif that crops up in the film. He used New York well, the film feels like it takes place in the real New York, partally because he did a lot of filming on the fly, setting up on street corners and shooting. The integration of the giant monster into the human action is fair. The animators, William Randall Cook, who went on to win Oscars for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and David Allen Cook, perhaps most notable for his King Kong Volkswagen commercial. Their work here is less detailed and engaging than that of Willis O'Brien or Ray Harryhausen. But it's not terrible.

Next week, the Big Guy returns.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

That Other Island God: Atragon (But the Monster is Manda)

Toho wasn't just making monster movies in the sixties. They created a series of war films that were quite popular, such as developing several different types of film in the sixties. In 1961, the released Storm Over the Pacific, about the Battle of Midway, as well as The Last War, concerning the outbreak of World War Three. Both were popular. Perennial Godzilla scribe Shin'ichi Sekizawa decided to adapt another novel (as he had with Mothra), this one a fantasy about an undersea kingdom, inspired by the work of HG Wells.

Atragon rises from the waters

This isn't really a monster movie. The majority is a mystery, in which agents of Mu move among the Japanese people, abducting them. This is a strange foreshadowing of the North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens, which wouldn't happen for a decade, but the Modus Operandi is eerily similar. The film's chief items of interest are Manda, the dragon-god of Mu, which shows up in Destroy All Monsters as well as Godzilla: Final Wars. But this isn't really about Manda, he shows up late and doesn't do much. The focus of the film, is the flying submarine Goten, which received an anime follow up, Super Atragon, and also shows up in Finals Wars. The ship's name was changed to Atragon for the foreign market.

The first half ot the film is abductions and implications, spies, deception, and delving into the past. It's interesting as drama, but has absolutely nothing to do with Manda. The famous ship doesn't even show up until forth-six minutes into the film. The model is pretty well integrated into the live-action with the actors. The film also gets some very well-shot beauty passes. These are a bit more interesting than the usual giant robot deployment scenes.


The overall plot is that Captain Jinguji has been hiding out on an island since the end of World War II, building Atragon so that he can continue the fight against Japan's enemies. The people of Mu have just declared that they will be takng over the surface world, and Atragon seems to be the only thing that can stop them. Atragon is an interesting supersubmarine, with a front drill to supplant the spur on Welles' Nautulus. More than that, though, it can fly. And it has an absolute zero gun, a weapon that freezes its opponents. This shows up on the third iteration of Mechagodzilla in 2002's Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla.

Once Atragion has been shown to the audience, the protagonists are kidnapped and taken to Mu. There, they will be sacrificed to Manda, the god and guardian of the Muvians. The Muvians have submarines with images of Manda on them, and these are the super-weapons that destroy ships. Ironically, Manda has no such breath weapon. Manda is clearly a mationette, surprisingly like Reptilicus, which came out two years previous, in 1961.

The confrontation: Manda vs Atragon!

If there was any doubt that Atragon was inspired by 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas, it's dispelled when Manda wraps itself around the submarine. Like Nemo, Captain Jinguji electrifies the hull, throwing the dragon off the ship.

Of course, they're UNDER WATER!

The solution to Manda is as simple as using the referred-to but never seen Absolute Zero Gun. Manda freezes, and Atragon can go about the business of destroying the Muvian culture.

Manda, frozen, as Atragon passes by.

Well, we've destroyed another civilization

As monster movies go, Atragon is unsatisfying. I wouldn't have bothered, but Manda shows up in a couple of films later, and Atragon herself is central of Godzilla: Final Wars. The movie is one of the more popular non-Godzilla films Toho put out. The origin of the Absolute Zero gun was a happy discovery.

Next week, the flashback is over. It's back to New York, in a 1982 American production.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

You've Been Lying To Us: Godzilla 2014 (FULL OF SPOILERS)

Short version: Godzilla 2014 is eminently worth seeing. It's a fitting tribute that respects the Godzilla franchise, and at the same time, is not bogged down by the weight of the franchise's sixty-year history.

The new Godzilla

Long version: Godzilla 2014 has a light sprinkling of nods and tributes to previous films, both inside and outside of the franchise. It is very much informed by the late Showa films such as Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla, or Invasion ogf Astro-Monster, in which Godzilla is more the hero than the antagonist. Gareth Edwards has made an entertaining film, which may not have the strongest protagonists, but I found their story worth watching. The MUTOs are very different from anything Godzilla has previously faced. It'll be interesting to see what the Big G goes up against next.

MUTO: pretty dark cool

Dr. Serizawa, a character named for the 1954 original, is played by Ken Watanabe. He's one of the most fascinating characters in the film. In the original, he invents the oxygen destroyer, which ultimately kills Godzilla. However, there is a lot more of Dr. Kyohei Yamane in the 2014 iteration of Serizawa. Dr. Yamane wanted to study the creature, but is eventually forced to concede that saving Tokyo is a greater priority. In Godzilla 2014, Dr. Serizawa has been studying the monster for a very long time. And according to the comic prequel, so has his father. It gives me a little warm feeling to note that in some way, someone has finally gotten time to study Godzilla.

Watanabe-san. Magnificent.

There is a nice nod to 2002's Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah. Godzilla's finishing move on the male MUTO is to smash it with its tail, in a very similar fashion to Godzilla smashing Mothra.

For some of Godzilla's history, Godzilla's dorsal plates have glowed when he breathes his terrifying atomic fire. Only in the Milennium series did the directors begin to play with that. In Godzilla 2000, the sizzling of the dorsal pllates indicates when Godzilla is about to use his breath, to the detriment of the creature that has stuck Godzilla's head in its mouth. In Godzilla vs MechaGodzilla and Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S., Godzilla's fins sputter with light and make a thumping noise when he's about to blast something. This is an innovative way to increases the dramatic tension. In Godzilla 2014, after a long battle without using th atomic breath, there's a shot of Godzilla's tail, and a very subtle glow climbs up the spines from the tail, then rushed up to the head just before Godzilla disgorges hot atomic death. It was one of the most fantastic and satisfying nods to a fandom I have ever experienced.

Glowing dorsal plates--1954

Godzilla 2000 unleashes havoc

For those who have been following my blog, the 'military is useless" meme is something that's very prevalent in the Showa Godzilla films. This wavers a bit in the Heisei series, when humans build Mechagodzilla, and actually come very close to killing Godzilla. But tanks, rockets, jets, and helicopters all serve little purpose other than to make pretty explosions as they demonstrate how tough the monster is. And this is right. In Godzilla 1998, Godzilla was a military problem. With no giant monster to fight, the conflict was between Godzilla and the military. If the solution to the giant monster problem is enough ordinance, or the special ordinance, then the solution to the plot is waiting for that ordinance to be delivered. And that's dull. It's much of what made Godzilla 1998 so improbable. In order to keep the military from destroying Godzilla in the first reel, the 50 meter tall lizard somehow avoided detection. Whoops! We sort of lost this 18-story building. Small wonder the film had credibility problems.

Godzilla is the hero of the film, and the plot manages this without making it silly. The relationship is perhaps a little too cozy, the aircraft carrier group traveling a bit close to Godzilla in the approach to San Francisco.

Kim Newman is correct in that the inspiration for the plot could have come from the unexpectedly magnificent 1995 Gamera, Guardian of the Universe. Godzilla is an apex predator from the past, come to destroy the giant monsters, not because he's an ancient guardian, but because he's hungry, and MUTOs are what he hunts.

That said, the teasers and trailers have been deceptive, and I find that interesting. For example, the initial Comic-Con teaser shows the body of a creature that is not in the film.

This is not a MUTO

This awesome speech? Not in the film.

And a lot was made of Bryan Cranston, who doesn't make it into the second third of the film. Still, I enjoyed the film, will be happy to buy it and watch it in the years to come. As I write this, a sequel has been confirmed, so here's to a long, healthy franchise to the King of the Monsters.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Breaking the Monster Mold Hard: Mothra

The gap between Toho's last monster movie, 1958's Varan and the 1961 Mothra saw little Toho monster action. However it had seen the production of Reptilicus and Gorgo. The influence of Gorgo, I would argue, is easily seen in Mothra. It is also the beginning of a number of tropes that would eventually take over the genre.

One religious imagery-laden, blue-eyed moth larva coming through!

Mothra begins with a natural disaster, another typhoon battering the Japanese coast. A ship runs aground on Infant Island, where nuclear testing has been conducted. In an interesting footnote, one of the rescue ships is named the Satsuma. Kenpachiro Satsuma would me the man in the Godzilla suit in the Hesei series. But where horrors of nuclear testing created Godzilla, and radiation is discussed a good deal throughout the beginning of the film, it does not birth any grotesques in Mothra. The sailors who survived the crash have not suffered from radiation poisoning. Instead, they joke that they did not get enough rice on the rescue ship. This sets the tone for the trest of the film. Yes, there's a giant monster, and yes, it's wrecking cities, but there's always a joke to be said. This is a lighter film than Godzilla Raids Again or Rodan. Although Rodan was Toho's first kaiju film in color, and it was as grim as Godzilla Raids Again. Mothra has a lighter touch, and uses the color to make the film a colorful spectacle.

Mothra smashes a ship!

There's also a fair amount of subtext happening, Following Gorgo, the main antagonist of a wealthy and selfish businessman. Similar characters would appear in Mothra vs Godzilla, and many other giant monster films. These characters often take the place of the the monster as the true antagonist or plot problem which has to be solved. The antagonist Mothra is not only Clark Nelson, but ultimately the Rosilican government. Rosilica is a thinly disguised amalgamation of the US and the Soviet Union, and Mothra can be seen as the protest of a Japanese citizen, caught between the ambitions of the two superpowers. This would become text twenty-odd years later in The Return of Godzilla. But Mothra examines the nature of national power, not at a combative level, but at the more insidious level of protecting the interest of its citizens abroad.

Pay Special Attention to the Flag.

When Mothra initially shows up, it is in larval form. Mothra is unique in the kaiju world in having a transformational stage in several films. It starts out as a larva, and then cocoons itself, attached to the broken Tokyo Tower. The attack is beautifully realized by Eiji Tsuburaya, who was still innovating with miniatures special effects. Mothra's approach doesn't look like Godzilla's rampage, despite ending up at Tokyo Tower. The miniatures work deserves a lot of praise here. Mothra's miniatures, as well as the live action/miniatures intergration is stellar. Eiji Tsuburaya was trying new things for a spectacular film. The military uses heat rays on the cocoon, which blazes up beautifully.

When viting Tokoy, be sure to smash Tokyo Tower!

Introducing the Heat Ray.

Burh That cocoon!

The humans constantly think they've won against Mothra. When she's approaching from the sea, they bomb her, and congratulate themselves at defeating the monster. When they burn the cocoon, they slap each on the back, because they have defeated Mothra. Mothra is referred to as one of the great monsters of this centutry in a radio broadcast, so it's possible that the creators, and Honda, saw this as one of a continuum of Toho monster films, all taking place in the same universe.

Mothra smashes a ship!

Again like Gorgo, Mothra presents a monster with motivations. Mothra is looking to retrieve the shobijin. the tiny twin priestesses that were kidnapped by Clark Nelson's expedition to Infant Island. She isn't trashing cities because they're there, she wants what is hers. This gives her a notable motivation, and therefore, we can treat Mothra as something that can be negotiated with. Godzilla can't be stopped. It doesn't have desires. It just plows through a city because the city is there, no more mindfull of it than a hurricane.

Mothra takes it to New Kirk City.

Morhta is also unique because all the action doesn't take place in Japan. Clark Nelson manages to retreat to Rolisica with the shobijin in his suitcase. This gives us the first attack on a cit that is not in Japan. And if there were any doubts that Rolisica was supposed to be America, the fact that Nelson owns a ranch with guns mounted on the walls might give the game away. Once Nelso can no longer hide out, he's mobbed by Rolisicans. Nelson pulls a gun, shoots a cop, and attempts to make a getaway. Pausing to break an old man's cane, he's gunned down by the police. This allows the Rolisicans to offer the shobijin to Mothra as a peace offering, before she completely destroys New Kirk City.

Nelson reacts in what the Japanese probably think it a typical American way.

Before this can be done, a pair of priests offer up a prayer. This is another moment that sets Mothra apart from other monster films, the religions overtones. Mothra is an island god, and religious imagery is often present in films involving Mothra.

When all else fails, try prayer.

It's perhaps an indication of Mothra's more genteel nature of the film that the first ship it encounters and sinks is a luxury liner, rather than a fishing boat. The Japan of 1961 was very different from 1954. But the mood is kept deliberately light in all cases. Even when Nelson and his thugs are beating up a kid, one of them is comically bitten on the thumb. At the end of the film, the humans wave goodbye to Mothra, shouting "Sayonara". Later films would say farewell to Godzilla in precisely the same way.

Mothra makes a perfect landing.

Mothra is a highly-influental but seldom-seen kaiju film. It is the beginning of the kinder, gentler monster, one that can be reasoned with. Mothra attempts to negotiate an alliance between Godzilla and Rodan in Ghidorah, the Three Headed Monster. And it's not a bad thing here, although the trope of the heroic kaiju becomes a bit itrritating in the seventies. Betwen the motivagted kaiju and the greedy antagonist, it's difficult not to assume that scriptwriter Shin'ichi Sekizawa, or possibly Takehiko Fukunaga, Shinichiro Nakamura, and Yoshie Hotta (writers of the serial novel The Luminous Fairies and Mothra, on which the film was based) had seen Gorgo.

Next up, tribute to Japanese nationalism, Jules Verne, and another Kaiju that's worshipped like a god. Undersea Warship next week, on My Year of Monsters.