16 December 2013

A History of Godzilla on Film, Part 1: Origins (1954–1962)

Other Installments
Part 2: The Golden Age (1963–1968)
Part 3: Down and Out in Osaka (1969–1983)
Part 4: The Heisei Era (1984–1997)
With the release of the teaser trailer for the upcoming Godzilla from Warner Bros. and Legendary pictures, a decade of cinematic silence has come to an end. Godzilla last appeared in 2004 in the Japanese movie Godzilla: Final Wars, which Toho Studios intended as the monster’s final bow before going on sabbatical. It’s the longest break in the iconic monster’s career, and regardless of what happens next, the forthcoming Godzilla ’14 is a reason for G-fans to celebrate. Maybe stomp a few cities. The trailer makes San Francisco look particularly stomp-able.

At this point, we only know as much about Godzilla ’14 as we’ve seen in the teaser. But it was an exciting glimpse that at least assured fans the new movie would not repeat the horrible mistakes of the first American attempt at a stateside Godzilla, the 1998 Roland Emmerich disaster.

This is the first of five (projected) installments covering the history of Godzilla on film, written and condensed for a broad audience. I hope these articles will help readers who have only a passing relationship with Godzilla—the general knowledge from pop culture osmosis—see the unusual variety of one of the longest and most durable film franchises in history. Many of my readers are probably familiar with much of the information I’ll provide in these articles, but since I’ll also sling around my own opinions about the movies mixed in with the history, Godzilla fans may find parts of this worthwhile… if perhaps only to ignite arguments.

11 December 2013

The Vincent Price Collection: Pit and the Pendulum

Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
Directed by Roger Corman. Screenplay by Richard Matheson. Starring Vincent Price, John Kerr, Barbara Steele, Luana Anders.

I should move faster on the films in Shout! Factory’s Vincent Price Collection Blu-ray set. But once Halloween drifts past, you can’t spend all your time on horror films. And now it’s December. Oh well.

Anyway, moving on.… Now that the House of Usher has fallen, it’s time to lower the pendulum.

(To be a stickler about the title, although advertised as The Pit and the Pendulum, the onscreen title has no first “The,” and therefore I will treat it as such.)

Pit and the Pendulum, the second of the Corman-AIP-Poe cycle, faced a larger adaptation problem than The Fall of the House of Usher. Where Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” contains enough story to create a beginning-middle-end structure, “The Pit and the Pendulum” is more typical of the author’s adherence to storytelling economy. Essentially, the short story is a great finale for a movie, but has nothing before that. Screenwriter Richard Matheson needed to craft an original opening and middle in order to create a full movie. What he devised feels like Poe, with a man character dropping down into madness, and it stays within the Spanish Inquisition setting of the short story and its emphasis on torture. I don’t beleive a better feature length film could be fashioned from the material.

10 December 2013

Godzilla ‘14 Teaser Trailer Is Here and Life Is Good

You might not have noticed it, because you don’t read my blog often, but Godzilla is sort of a huge big damn bloody deal to me.

Well, Godzilla is just plain huge to anybody, especially if you are in its way.

That’s why I hovered over my keyboard today at 10 a.m., hands palsied, awaiting the premiere of the first teaser trailer for the new Hollywood Godzilla from director Gareth Edwards. And… when the camera at last found the great lengths of the Japanese leviathan looming through the rubble of its devastation, and the beast let loose the legendary roar… I also roared out loud with him at the top of my lungs.

I was at work, mind you. Some impulses cannot be stopped. We’re a loose workplace, fortunately. They expect weird actions from their writers.

There’s no need to describe the trailer further—you can behold it for yourself—except to say that using György Ligeti’s “Requiem for Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, 2 Mixed Choirs and Orchestra” for the HALO-drop opening is perfect. This music is best known for its use as the “monolith theme” in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and is anything more monolithic than Godzilla? (As a hardcore Stanley Kubrick fan as well, this slammed my geek-meter up to “Do Not Pull This Lever Again.”)

Although the trailer leaves many open questions, as any early teaser trailer should (will Walter White have to move the cook now that a monster has stomped it?), it does show that Gareth Edwards and company have created a genuine interpretation of the figure of Godzilla.

This is crucial: there are many different Godzilla interpretations since the beast first crashed onto Japanese screens in 1954. Godzilla has served as a nuclear metaphor, a force of nature, a butt-kicking anti-hero, a child friendly superhero, and a near-demonic force. All of these are legitimate interpretations of Godzilla, who can absorb many concepts and channel many human emotions. I prefer some versions to others, but as a dedicated G-fan, I can find some enjoyment in all of them.

What isn’t acceptable: not interpreting Godzilla at all. This was the major failure of the 1998 Roland Emmerich-Dean Devlin disaster. The filmmakers did not care about Godzilla whatsoever—its history, its importance, or even why people liked it. They wanted to create their own monster and do their own thing with a popular brand name attached. The fans and the public rejected their crass endeavor. If you make a film titled Godzilla, you must interact with Godzilla in some way.

And this trailer tells me that’s what the new Godzilla is doing. They are going for a 1954 version (perhaps without the radioactivity metaphor that is less timely than it was for Japan in the ‘50s) that emphasizes the beast’s catastrophic effect on everyday people. This was a key part of the power of Ishiro Honda’s original movie and if Godzilla ’14 can capture even a quarter of that film’s epic, bleak power, it will be a winner.

I couldn’t be more ecstatic. Come get in line for the first screening with me right now.

For the sequel: Godzilla doing flying jump kicks and shaking hands with a giant robot! Like I said, legitimate interpretation.