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Bert I. Gordon's co-production deal with Arkoff and Nicholson's American-International Pictures wound down with this pair of low budget creature features that made full use of 'BIG' Gordon's threadbare special effects. All of Gordon's earlier opuses had stumbled in the special effects department, a failing that didn't matter in the cheapjack exploitation market of the day -- if the cigar-smoking Arkoff could think of a grabber title and an effective poster design, the movie would play. The pictures were rarely around for more than week, by which time every theater patron would have had the "fun" of seeing some of the most unconvincing effects of the 1950s. This is the kind of picture that Drive-In movie theaters might show as early as possible, so that the setting sun would keep the patrons from getting a good look at the screen!
Actually, Gordon's films have always been entertaining, even if only on the humorous rebound. The A.I.P. library from this period is still tangled in a three- or four-way pull of ownership: When the studio was dismantled in the 1970s, rights for the older films were haggled over until they simply got divided up between the studio's heavy hitters. James Nicholson's estate grabbed off a sizeable chunk of the more exploitable oldies, while Sam Arkoff hung on to a slightly less stellar selection. Many more stayed with A.I.P. as it was sold to Orion Films. Orion was sold to M.G.M, which is now controlled by Sony, etc., a process that sounds like so many Biblical "begats." That's why this first offering of A.I.P. double bills debuts the sequel War of the Colossal Beast before the film it was meant to follow, The Amazing Colossal Man: That title was inherited by the Nicholson heirs, on the other side of the legal campfire.
Bert Gordon's main stock in trade was making little things look big and full-sized things look tiny. He had no shame when it came to borrowing ideas; this Big Bug movie rips off Them! just as had his Beginning of the End from the year before -- it even has the same writer, George Worthing Yates. The effects in this one are really rather pitiful, with absolutely terrible mattes being used to paste one hairy tarantula into various unconvincing composites. Gordon accomplished his effects by bi-packing elements in his camera, resulting in density and exposure differences that make the matte lines stand out like cigarette burns in a tablecloth.
It's not easy to align things accurately in a tiny camera viewfinder, so practically every shot has a matte mismatch of one kind or another. In the rather clever cave sequence, a few shots of teenagers wandering on a set are combined with photo blowups taken in Carlsbad Caverns. Unfortunately, the kids have the bad habit of walking behind stalactites and limestone arches that are meant to be far in the background. The illusion falls apart like ... like a Bert I. Gordon effects shot. Elsewhere, an anemic spider leg that looks to be made from old broom straws (is this the work of Paul Blaisdell?) is waved in the faces of actors from time to time. It's not too hot either. The most effective scares in the film come from the reveals of the Spider's shriveled victims, represented by a nice dummy or two that flop down with a jolt in front of the camera. Maybe that was Paul Blaisdell's contribution.
Earth vs the Spider (also released with ads reading just The Spider) works better than most Bert I. Gordon pix because we basically like the teenaged heroes, even though they're so badly directed that it's hard to believe anything they do. Bert Gordon rarely put a lot of effort into dialogue or direction, which leaves the kids wandering into obvious danger (with spooky Theremin music telling them so) as if taking a stroll in the park. Cute June Kenney and Gene Persson borrow a pal's hot rod to go snooping around in Bronson Caverns; they're hardly fazed when skeletons and bone-dry corpses pop up along the way. The kids fall into a cargo net that's unaccountably sticky, yet never think that it might be a spider's web ... a few minutes later, they're surprised to find that the net is sticky -- all over again! No wonder the boy's name is Simpson. These kind of non-sequiturs are sheer joy for creature feature fans. The topper is when June's distraught mom complains to the science teacher Mr. Kingman (top-billed Ed Kemmer) that, "June just didn't seem to be herself today." Well, duh .... her father just got killed by a giant spider the night before.
The scenes in high school are almost dreamlike -- the students all look 25 or older. Science teacher Kemmer demonstrates an electric arc that we'll see come in handy when it's time to dispatch a giant monster. His wife at home (Sally Fraser, the star of the co-feature) is threatened when that spindly spider leg is waved at her through the kitchenette door. Gordon composes several exterior shots of Kemmer getting out of his car in front of a hedge, using a blank interior cyclorama. It's a down angle, but there's nothing behind the hedge ... no lawn, no neighborhood, no Earth!
Occasionally the film seems to exist in a different dimension. The big action scene consists of two ho-hum shots of the spider walking in downtown traffic. A minute later a character describes the havoc being caused elsewhere in town. The unflappable sheriff (Gene Roth) looks at the camera, as if to say, "Wow, wouldn't that make a great movie? Too bad we can't see it."
Gordon's The Amazing Colossal Man was a sneaky inverted rip-off of Jack Arnold's superb The Incredible Shrinking Man. It turned out to be a sizeable hit for A.I.P., boasting a couple of suspenseful scenes amongst its silly science lessons and cardboard scenery. The publicity for this sequel promises a grand-scale confrontation between the ill-fated Colonel Glenn Manning and an entire army. What Gordon gives us is a laughably small-scale gigantism drama that takes forever to get going and then ends before anything is allowed to happen. In a way, that's not bad filmmaking for a 50s monster show with no pretensions -- it's all fluff and filler. Gordon reprises a hefty chunk of the first film as the memory flashback of a growling giant, making his producing job even easier.
It's hard to decide whether War of the Colossal Beast is incompetent or brilliant; Bert I. Gordon has succeeded in making a (barely) feature length sequel with a tiny fraction of the resources used for the original. A full half-hour of the seventy-minute running time is expended by having two investigations of the same trucking mystery -- the blustery proprietor of an (unseen) hunting club goes to survey the scene, followed by Joyce Manning. She, a handsome Army major and a Mexican cop wander around what looks like the San Fernando Valley's Stony Point before finding and trapping the Colossal Man with a truckload of doped bread.
The Fed-exing of Glenn-the-giant to LA is handled via an economical fade-out, King Kong-style. From then on Glenn is chained on his back in a hangar, simplifying the special effects work; he escapes for perhaps six shots' worth of wandering around LAX before being gassed back to snoozeville. Then he simply disappears, somehow, while the LAPD puts out an All Points Bulletin for a 60-foot giant. Glenn reappears at the Griffith Park Observatory for a final anti-climactic climax. That means he's walked from the airport, through Westchester, Culver City, the Fairfax District, Hancock Park and Hollywood before reaching Griffith Park, and not a soul has spotted him on the way. In 1958 the population of Los Angeles was only a fraction of what it is now, but, honestly .... Why didn't Forry Ackerman spot Glenn from the Ackermansion? He should have had a perfect view of the scene at the Observatory.
War of the Colossal Beast strongly resembles Gordon's The Cyclops, his earlier opus biggus about another distraught female who heads to Mexico in search of a loved one who has become larger due to unresolved radiation issues. The real star of both movies is makeup man Jack H. Young, whose arresting, grotesque facial appliances for actor Dean Parkin are terrific. The Cyclops was a nightmarish bald guy with a melted-face look; one side is covered and staring from the other half is a garish, bloodshot pop-eye. I can remember getting chills at seeing that disturbingly surreal face on television back in the early 60s -- it was a genuine fright. Actor Dean Parkin played the Cyclops and his casting in War of the Colossal Beast (actor Glenn Langan, his waning career already demolished, didn't reprise the role) possibly came about because makeup man Young already had the molds of his face on which to build the new makeup.
This time around the makeup is a genuine optical illusion, revealing a bared skull, a staring empty eye socket and even some teeth. The stunning result somehow looks more acceptable than the equally unrealistic makeup in William Castle's Mr. Sardonicus, where Guy Rolfe was decked out with at least 58 teeth, all of them frontal incisors. 1
This time the production is done in minimal doses, using only a few actors, all of them adults. It's possible that the live-action scenes were shot in less than a week, with even less time spent on exterior locations. Director Gordon really leaves his cast adrift, rushing them through scenes that nobody, not even the author, could have carefully read. Huge laughs erupt due to inept screenwriting:
Joyce, jumping at the amazing coincidence: "Why, my brother is sixty feet tall! "
The script tries to give the Mexican cop the dum-dum lines: "Giants can run fast. They have long legs!" The joke ends up being on the rest of the cast, for actor Rico Alcariz is the only one with a solid work record after this movie.
Speaking of great talent, the art director on both of these films is Walter Keller, the man responsible for Val Lewton's classic pictures. War of the Colossal Beast was Keller's last credit, according to the IMDB.
Glenn Manning walks unhappily behind the Griffith Observatory and hoists a bus in the air. There's no place to stand behind the Observatory, which is built on a cliff. The shot is surprisingly effective, considering that the scale of the bus makes Glenn grow about 50% in size. It also looks as though he must reach about fifty yards to pick the bus up, but what are Bert I. Gordon films for if not to ponder mysteries like these? Manning belches sentimentally at his sister, and then (spoiler!) purposely electrocutes himself on some handy high power lines. Here's where the film switches to color stock for the last few seconds ... you'll be happy to know that Glenn's modesty diaper is colored a fashionable baby blue. If he'd been the Amazing Colossal Woman, perhaps it would have been pink.
Sam Arkoff must have had a big laugh over his advertising scam on this show. "See the Giant Beast electrocuted ... IN COLOR" was the boast on the posters, leading ticket buyers to assume that War of the Colossal Beast was a color picture. That's pretty sneaky.
Glenn simply disappears in a fade-out during the electrocution, perhaps because the high power lines (high power lines? In Griffith Park?) caused his electro-kinetic hyper-irradiated atoms to dissolve. Either that, or Glenn was merely demonstrating another super-power originating from his Atomic accident: he can make himself invisible. At least that would explain how he walked across town from the airport without being seen.
Lion's Gate's DVD double bill of Earth vs. The Spider and War of the Colossal Beast looks okay but is a major disappointment for monster movie fans -- the transfers are indistinguishable from the low-grade masters made for cassettes and TV distribution in the early 1990s. They aren't even flagged for progressive scan players. This is all the more frustrating because movies like these two have been turning up in Hi-Def on cable television. It's possible that better masters exist but that the Arkoff heirs are withholding them. These features would look much better matted to widescreen where the ragged margins of Bert Gordon's flimsy effects would be cropped off screen, as they were in theaters.
In a way, one can't be too critical of Lion's Gate. This same package was shopped around to studio home video companies a couple of years ago, and I know of one studio that was interested but rejected them over the bad transfers. When independent rights holders control titles completely, they sometimes pinch pennies much more than the majors, doing little or nothing to make video masters and then offering them on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. No company is going to volunteer to spend big sums to re-master films that will quickly revert to their rights holders ... at least on pictures with modest sales projections.
Lion's Gate, or the Arkoff heirs, have elected to put the films out in double bills without extras, like MGM's line of monster thrillers. The really depressing thing to consider is that the planned sets of double features will include movies that require widescreen to be properly seen. The Day the World Ended is a bona-fide SuperScope picture with a wide 2:1 aspect ratio. Lion's Gate may give us a flat, pan-scanned, non-enhanced TV master from the 1990s on that one too. In which case Savant's recommendation will be to just skip it entirely.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. A repeated story, remembered by editor friend Steven Nielson, from his third grade playground in 1958. All the kids stood in awe as one lucky boy, who got taken to the drive-in to see War of the Colossal Beast, proudly exaggerated what he saw to impress his peers: "And he didn't have one eye, just a hole in his skull. And when you looked in real close, you could see his Bra-a-a-ins!