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THE Giant
Gila Monster

The Giant Gila Monster
Image Entertainment
1959 / B&W / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 74 min. / Street Date August 13, 2002 / $24.99
Starring Don Sullivan, Fred Graham, Lisa Simone, Shug Fisher, Bob Thompson, Janice Stone
Cinematography Wilfred M. Cline
Set Decoration Louise Caldwell
Special effects Ralph Hammeras
Film Editor Aaron Stell
Original Music Jack Marshall, Don Sullivan
Written by Jay Simms
Produced by Ken Curtis, Gordon McLendon
Directed by Ray Kellogg

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Giant Gila Monster stands out among independent 'regional' filmmaking in that it was made mostly by Hollywood professionals. With no scares and a rather unfrightening monster, it's consistently well-shot and edited, but rather static. It came at the tame end of the monster cycle, when little movies about giant beasts run amok were becoming scarce.


Chase Winstead (Don Sullivan) is a song-writing, guitar-playing garage mechanic in a rural Texas town and also the unofficial leader of 'the gang', a group of nice kids who go to the malt shop and the drive-in in hot rods but don't break the speed limit. When Pat Wheeler and his date disappear, Pat's father (Bob Thompson) puts the pressure on Sheriff Jeff (Fred Graham) to find them with the assumption that the teens have eloped. But other odd happenings are cropping up on the lonely country roads. As the town's tow truck driver, Chase helps Sheriff Jeff try to figure out why car skid marks go sideways and luggage is left abandoned at the side of the road. Then a tanker truck explodes and a train is derailed, and Sheriff Jeff becomes willing to accept a more weird explanation.

The Giant Gila Monster is much more interesting as a production than a movie. Gordon McLendon owned a chain of theaters and radio stations in Texas and like many regional entrepreneurs liked the idea of graduating to movie production. John Ford regular Ken Curtis also felt like expanding his horizons to producing. They teamed up to do this film and The Killer Shrews, both directed by Ray Kellogg, a career effects technician and second unit director. As with many regional films, Gila Monster was an opportunity for local talent. I'm unclear whether star Don Sullivan came from Texas or Hollywood, but a player like Ken Knox, judging by the fact that he shows up in the next year's Texas-originated Beyond the Time Barrier, was probably a local. Both Fred Graham and Shug Fisher were Hollywood veterans who had experience with Curtis in John Ford and John Wayne movies, and Fisher seems to have also come from Curtis' Sons of the Pioneers singing background.

Curtis must have recruited Hollywood talent with the promise of a break from the LA grind. Wilfred Cline was a pro with top cinematography credits and editor Aaron Stell had recently graduated to cutting hi-grade industry product. Veteran production manager Ben Chapman was indeed one of the men who wore a rubber suit to become The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Writer Jay Simms appears to have been plucked from Curtis' TV Western community. He went on to write two notable science fiction films: The Creation of the Humanoids is stilted but quite visionary, and Panic in Year Zero! conservative and alarmist.

The dialogue in The Giant Gila Monster is reasonable, even if the characterizations are straight stock. With the likely market the Southern drive-in circuit, the producers saturated the script with wholesome values, reflecting their own taste as well as avoiding censorship -- many small communities in the South were just beginning to relax their bans on rock 'n' roll and delinquency movies. 'Discovery' Don Sullivan plays an earnest but colorless snitch who polices his gang's morals and activities for the sheriff, yet is the most popular guy around. Chase works to help his polio-afflicted sister (sniff) get the braces she needs to walk. He's into the light ballad kind of drivel that doesn't know if it's rock or a folk song. Sullivan wrote the songs himself, and they're always made fun of in 'Bad Movie' critiques: "And the Lord said, 'Laugh, Children Laugh' ..." Lisa Simone (Missile to the Moon) plays a French girl somehow dropped down on the Texas plains, who has a bright smile but no real part to play beyond, 'the girlfriend.'

You can tell this teen movie is made by middle-aged men as everything even slightly amusing, like Shug Fisher's drunk antics, involves the older actors. The kids inhabit a Texas wasteland where the reality was probably more like The Last Picture Show yet they're all squeaky-clean and good-mannered, without even the bland 'wildness' of the pushing-30 teens in something like AIP's Earth vs. the Spider.

The effects by veteran Ralph Hammeras are obvious and unexciting. We see competent closeup photography of a Gila lizard crawling, sticking its tongue out and being pushed in the sand through some unconvincing shallow-focus miniature sets. I even recognize a Fleishmann HO-scale model train in the laughable wreck sequence. The screaming people on the soundtrack, about to be gobbled by a monster a five year-old could outrun, don't have any connection to the monster. There aren't any shots that combine live action with effects -- the only really successful angle is an insert of a giant Gila claw blacking out the screen. No suspense or originality accompanies the monster's appearances - it just shows up.

A weak pseudo-scientific reason is given for the lizard's enlarged size. The sheriff casually comes forth with rumors about thyroid problems and industrial pollution creating giant animals. It's as if they decided at the last minute that some mention needed to be made. Most of the movie is concerned with details like the sheriff's allowing Chase to swipe headlights and tires from wrecked cars that should be kept as police evidence.

The Giant Gila Monster does have some of the naive charm of a regional effort like the original The Blob, yet it was made by pros on vacation and might not be a good example of a regional film. It's a well-known title, and its fans don't need reviews to point it out.

Image's DVD of The Giant Gila Monster is a good transfer of a 35mm print in decent condition, with frequent light scratching that somehow doesn't offend. The 16:9 enhancement enforces a proper cropping that helps the static images look better-composed and eliminates tell-tale fuzzy foregrounds from the tabletop monster footage. The effective trailer tries to give the lizard a personality, calling it a 'Kong-like' monster and claiming that it hates people and eats them like flies. A fairly classy extra is a reprint of an academic Images Journal essay that in its cultural analysis leaves the actual film far behind. The animated menus are arresting and well-designed.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Giant Gila Monster rates:
Movie: Fair
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Trailer; essay from Images Journal
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 18, 2002

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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