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Man of Steel Meets the Body Stealers (and Gigantis)


So I’m just back from the annual trip to Manchester for the Festival of Fantastic Films (see blogs passim), which means once again I have watched a somewhat random selection of old movies. Here are the three that stood out for me.

      Godzilla Raids Again was the big scaly fella’s second screen outing, made in 1955 just a year after the original Gojira. However, it didn’t make it to American theatres until 1959. The US distributor, thinking that no-one would recognise the name ‘Godzilla’ (and in all fairness, at that time why would they?) rechristened the beast Gigantis in the newly dubbed dialogue, and the film was released as Gigantis the Fire Monster. The version we watched was this US dub – but with a modern, computer-generated title card restoring the film’s name to Godzilla Raids Again (a literal translation of the original Gojira no gyakushu).

      There is another theory that the distributor of this film was unable to use the name ‘Godzilla’ for legal reasons because the previous movie’s distributor owned the rights. This sounds massively unlikely for a whole host of reasons. The first Godzilla had been a big success, but it was pretty much forgotten by 1959. Looking back through 50 years of Godzilla films, we retrospectively see the name as having brand value but that wouldn’t have been the case after a single film with no indication of any further sequels. And furthermore, Gigantis the Fire Monster is a direct sequel to the first film, makes numerous references to it and includes a considerable amount of footage from it. No, I think it’s much more likely that someone in 1959 just said, 'What the hell is a Godzilla anyway? How about ‘Gigantis’? Now that’s a monster name.'

      The film’s serious tone is in keeping with other early Toho monster flicks like Rodan and Mothra, a long way from the sci-fi silliness of the 1970s kaiju eiga which the cinematically narrow-minded associate with the entire genre. It certainly doesn’t hold back on monsters, just spending a few minutes introducing our central pilot character before he and a colleague, stranded on a remote island, witness two giant reptiles battling it out.

      The attempt to present ‘Gigantis’ and ‘Angurus’ as some sort of dinosaurs is laughable: they are identified by leafing through a children’s book on prehistoric life, with extra pictures stuck into it. But the scenes of Godzilla/Gigantis trampling Osaka are well-done with superb miniatures crumbling under his weight. The film’s biggest problem is the monster vs monster scenes. When filming a ‘giant’, you have to overcrank the camera so that their movements appear slow and heavy when projected at 24fps. Apparently the cameraman on Gojira no gyakushu got mixed up and undercranked the camera instead – which is what you do if you want to show people moving at high speed like the climax of The Benny Hill Show. As a result, the G vs A battles look bizarre, with these giant monsters making swift movements that don’t chime at all with their size.

      Another ‘first sequel’ which I watched was Superman II, screened immediately after my on-stage interview with Sarah Douglas. (We discussed her role as Ursa as well as her work on The People That Time Forgot, V: The Final Battle, Puppet Master 3, Falcon Crest, Conan the Destroyer and The Return of Swamp Thing but not, for diplomatic reasons, Strippers vs Werewolves.) The version screened was the ‘Richard Donner cut’, which differs significantly from the original released version. Basically Donner shot Superman I and II simultaneously, then got dropped from II, parts of which were shot/reshot by Richard Lester, who received the original credit.

      I’m not going to bore you with the differences, partly because there are plenty of DVD obsessive websites that can help you find those, and partly because I haven’t seen Superman II for many years. I just want to judge the film I saw on that screen on its own merits. And on its own merits… it’s not great. Not terrible. Certainly not Superman IV terrible. But it’s very dated, very slow and far from satisfying.

      I know we’re spoiled for superhero movies nowadays, and they’re packed with explosions and CGI effects, but the good ones (and there are plenty) find room among the bangs and the bytes for characterisation and plot. The one does not preclude the other. The Superman films were made in a simpler time - a time when the concept of the ‘summer blockbuster’ was still in its infancy. Jaws had created the concept in 1975, King Kong tried to do the same in 1976 and fell on its giant, hairy, robotic arse. Star Wars defined the concept in 1977. And in 1978 the Salkinds solidified the notion with Superman: The Movie. Although Superman II didn’t open in most places until 1981, much of it was made – as noted – simultaneously with its predecessor.

      The film’s biggest problem is simply its wafer-thin plot. Basically, Lois discovers that Clark is Superman, so he takes her to the Fortress of Solitude where the ghost of his father/mother (depending on which version you’re watching) tells him he must lose his superpowers forever – for love. Which he does, and shortly thereafter gets beaten up in a bar. Meanwhile three Kryptonian villains who appeared briefly in the first film – General Zod, Ursa and, um, Ringo - escape their prison and arrive on Earth, which they set about conquering. So Supes goes back to the Fortress of Solitude, gets his powers back (you recall: the ones he just gave up ‘forever’) and fights the bad guys. He can’t beat them so he flies back up to the Fortress yet again and the villains follow. In a staggeringly half-hearted climax, Zod forces Superman to once again lose his powers – but the Man of Steel does … something? … which makes the three baddies lose their powers instead. And in an epilogue which completely contradicts the most fundamental aspects of the Superman character, Clark Kent goes back to that bar and beats up the guy who hit him. What the hell? When did Superman take revenge on people?

      I’m maybe slightly spoiled because TF Simpson and I have for the past few months been working our way through box sets of Lois and Clark (we’re on Season 3 now, of four) which is just so much better than the old films. Once the show-runners had got the first season out of the way, which was basically a dull series about two reporters solving crimes, with a brief appearance by Superman at the end of each episode, Lois and Clark settled down into a well-written, fun science fiction series that played with the central concept in all sorts of interesting ways. The Season 2 episode Tempus Fugitive is one of the defining moments of the Superman legend, as a villain from the future takes great delight in telling Lois the truth. Waving a pair of spectacles in front of his face, he taunts: 'Look, I’m Clark Kent. Now I’m Superman. Clark Kent. Superman. How dumb are you?'

      But I’m being distracted. We didn’t watch Lois and Clark last weekend, we watched Superman II (The Richard Donner Cut). I’ll say one thing: for a movie bolted together from the work of two directors with very different visions (and significantly different scripts) it’s remarkably cohesive. But that’s probably because the fundamental problems – that not a lot happens and the resolution is quick, random and not properly explained – combined with the naturally dated look of the effects, design and costumes, effectively disguises whatever jagged edges may exist between the Lester and Donner footage.

      The other film we watched wasn’t the second part of a global franchise but a little British B-movie from 1969 – The Body Stealers. It’s not exactly highly regarded but I found it a lot of fun and I’m pleased to have finally watched it after all these years. The picture starts with a terrific hook. George Sanders and a couple of other military types are on an air-field witnessing a demonstration of a new type of parachute (which, to be honest, looks like any other type of parachute). Three soldiers jump from an aircraft and we’re treated to some surprisingly good air-to-air footage as they freefall then pull their ripcords.

      Down on the ground, the top brass do what people in films always do when looking through binoculars: they lower their binoculars so we can see their faces then raise their bins again instead of just, you know, keeping an eye on the thing they’re supposed to be looking at. 'Good heavens!' exclaim Sanders. Because the three parachutists have disappeared, leaving their backpacks to descend gracefully to Earth underneath the opening titles. What the jiminy heck is going on?

      Straight after the titles, we’re at the Farnborough Air Show for some terrific archive footage of the Red Arrows. You can tell this was shot many moons ago because they’re flying the old Gnat aircraft rather than the Hawks which they have used since 1979. I’m a sucker for air shows, me, and I loved this. Next on the bill is a freefall parachute display but once again the jumpers vanish, this time before they’ve even had a chance to open their chutes. Plus we get to see that some sort of weird glow surrounds them – like they’ve been eating Ready Brek – immediately before they vanish.

      It’s all very mysterious so Colonel Sanders calls in an outside investigator to find out what is happening. Step forward Patrick Allen as Bob Megan, in the sort of cardigan rarely seen outside of the Littlewoods catalogue. He’s a pal of none other than Neil Connery, younger brother of Sean, who had decided to follow in his sibling’s footsteps. Connery Minor had starred in a dodgy Italian Bond rip-off variously (and unsubtly) known as OK Connery and Operation Kid Brother (also featuring Bernard Lee, Lois Maxwell, Adolfo Celi and Daniela Bianchi – I told you it wasn’t subtle). Anyway, Patrick Allen and his natty threads start digging around, as part of which he’s billeted at a little B&B run by Shelagh Fraser as a sort of sexual proto-Sybil Fawlty. She’s about the only woman in the film that Megan doesn’t try to bed, as the ‘who is stealing our parachutists?’ plot takes back-seat to a series of lothario scenarios that raise sexism to an art-form.

      Seriously, it’s like watching an Austin Powers movie as Megan’s approach to women is basically 'Shall we shag now or shag later?' He meets a young woman sitting on a pebble beach at midnight, immediately starts pawing her and then gives chase when she very sensibly runs away. He makes moves on a sexy scientist too (Sally Faulkner from Prey and Vampyres). And when we’re not watching Patrick Allen chasing around after smashing birds, we’re treated to the great Allan Cuthbertson as a Junior Defence Minister who hires his secretaries on the basis of their tastiness and stays late at the office to exercise his ministerial prerogative.

      In the end it all turns out to be an alien plot of course and the missing parachutists are recovered from plastic capsules in a cellar somewhere. The final twist, at least for cult movie fans watching this at more than four decades’ remove, is that the invisible alien spaceship, when it briefly becomes visible, is the spacecraft from Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150AD! Directed by Gerry Levy from a script by American actor Mike St Clair, The Body Stealers is one of many uncelebrated British sci-fi pictures from the post-Quatermass era – and to be honest, you can kind of see why.

      So: a mixed bag of movies last weekend, but that’s why I love retro events like the FFF. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have chosen to watch any of these three films (well, maybe Godzilla…) so it did me good to get away from my endless diet of new British horrors waiting to be reviewed and just sample some old-fashioned cinematic delights.

 

 

 

 

 

 

MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of 'Bride of Frankenstein' Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time, but he promises to have it finished soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.