The Giant Gila Monster

The Giant Gila Monster / The Wasp Woman
The Giant Gila Monster
Director: Ray Kellogg
Screenplay: Jay Simms (story by Ray Kellogg)
Stars: Don Sullivan (Chase Winstead), Fred Graham (Sheriff Jeff), Lisa Simone (Lisa), Shug Fisher (Harris), Bob Thompson (Wheeler), Janice Stone (Missy Winstead), Ken Knox (Horatio Alger "Steamroller" Smith)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1959
Country: USA

The Wasp Woman
Director: Roger Corman
Screenplay: Leo Gordon (from a story by Kinta Zertuche)
Stars: Susan Cabot (Janice Starlin), Fred Eisley (Bill Lane), Barboura Morris (Mary Dennison), William Roerick (Arthur Cooper), Michael Mark (Eric Zinthrop), Frank Gerstle (Les Hellman), Roy Gordon (Paul Thompson)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1960
Country: USA
Drive-In Discs Volume 2 DVD Cover

The Giant Gila Monster may have been the perfect make-out movie. After all, as a low-budget, B-movie sci-fi/horror hybrid aimed directly at the insatiable teenage market, it played drive-ins in the late 1950s and early 1960s, yet it is so inept and boring that I can't imagine anyone actually wanting to watch it all the way through. So, even if stuck on a blind date about whom you're not particularly enthused, making out was certainly the better option over watching the movie.

Even hard-core fanatics of 1950s-era creature features will have a hard time getting excited about The Giant Gila Monster (which, by the way, is pronounced Hee-lah). Right up front is the problem with the creature itself: As movies of this sort live or die by the novelty of the rampaging creature and the subsequent delight it gives the audience watching it crush things, the titular monstrous lizard seen here is quite yawn-inducing. In fact, it is nothing more than a beaded gila lizard shot in extreme close-up wandering around poorly constructed models. While the classic-era stop-motion animation of FX wizards like Ray Harryhausen and Willis O'Brien were never particularly convincing, they were still a joy to watch because you got an immediate sense of the hours and hours of hard work and toil that went into them, the love and dedication of the labor (even the rubbery Godzilla movies at least feature the intricate details of the elaborate Tokyo sets). Watching a lizard drag its belly around a mound of dirt with a few branches stuck in it to resemble trees does not elicit the same response.

The Giant Gila Monster follows the prototype established by The Blob (1958), in which the producers combine the creature feature with the juvenile delinquent film, thus getting two drive-in genres for the price of one. That way, teenagers got to see themselves projected on-screen as larger-than-life heroes who get the monster in the end, rather than cops, military officers, or scientists, as in earlier atomic monster movies of the 1950s.

The hero here is a young, misunderstood rock-a-billy youth named Chase Winston (Don Sullivan). He works at the garage in a small, rural, West Texas town and dreams of being a singer-songwriter, but everyone in town seems to think he's a bad seed. The local sheriff (Fred Graham) has a soft spot for him, and understands that he is basically a good kid who has taken on a great deal of responsibility in his life (a single mother and a crippled little sister). This is not the perspective of Mr. Wheeler (Bob Thompson), the wealthiest and meanest man in town. Mr. Wheeler's teenage son has disappeared along with his girlfriend, and he believes that Chase may have had something to do with it.

In fact, a lot of people are disappearing, as well as cattle. Lots of wrecked cars with no bodies are found, yet no one seems to catch on that a large lizard living in the underbrush outside of town is responsible until it literally crashes a barn dance near the end of the movie. This brings up the movie's other major creature-related problem, which is that the Gila Monster is never posited as being particularly evil or malicious. Rather, most of the damage it does seems to be out sheer clumsiness due to its size (for instance, it causes a massive train wreck by destroying a bridge, but it's only because it couldn't quite fit underneath). Thus, the final attack on the barn dance seems out of step with its earlier behavior.

But, then again, this is the kind of movie where simple continuity between day and night proves to be a problem. Director Ray Kellogg, screenwriter Jay Simms, and producer Ken Curtis, the same team who made The Killer Shrews (1959), try to liven the movie up with some bad rock songs and a few heavy doses of sentimentality, but nothing can save this ill-fated disaster. The lesson learned here is, if you concoct a movie that requires something as elaborate as a giant lizard crushing cars and buildings, makes sure you have a budget that is, at the very least, large enough to pay for some blue-screen shots so the human victims can be seen in the same frame with the monster a few times.

King of the Bs Roger Corman, on the other hand, was a much more practical schlock filmmaker than Ray Kellogg was. He knew his tight budgetary and aesthetic limits, yet he still managed to churn out movies that weren't half-bad because they were firmly grounded in interesting ideas. The Wasp Woman is a good example, as it is a campy creature feature that also has some interesting themes regarding science run amok and the fruitless human search for eternal youth (as an added bonus, the acting is pretty good, too).

The lead actress is Susan Cabot, one of Corman's favorite actresses (she appeared in six of his films in three years, including 1957's Carnival Rock and 1958's Saga of the Viking), in her final film role. Cabot plays Janice Starlin, a beautiful and business-savvy woman who has founded her own cosmetics company. Unfortunately, the company is floundering because its products have always been sold using her face as the selling point, and Janice isn't getting any younger. Although still very attractive, she does not have the perfectly smooth, early-20s visage that once sold millions of cosmetics to eager women who wanted to look like she did.

Enter Dr. Zinthrop (Michael Mark), a slightly off-kilter scientist who approaches her about a youth serum he is working on that is made from the jelly of queen wasps. Janice is skeptical at first, until she watches Dr. Zinthrop inject an adult guinea pig with the serum, which then proceeds to revert back to being a baby (he does this with dogs and cats, as well).

Janice quickly volunteers to be his first human test subject, and when minimal doses of the serum over a period of weeks do not get the necessary results, she starts sneaking into the lab and shooting up with a lot more (the overtones of drug addiction, especially heroin and morphine, are hard to ignore). This gets the results she needs, as she starts looking like she's 23 again, but it has the unfortunately nasty side effect of turning her into a giant wasp at night who feeds on the blood of anyone she can find. Dr. Zinthrop doesn't turn out to be any help because he is hit by a car and suffers serious brain damage.

The make-up effects in the movie are certainly cheesy—Janice's silly wasp head and claw-like hands are directly inspired by the similarly ludicrous make-up effects in The Fly (1958). Corman knows this, and he wisely keeps his camera from lingering for too long on Janice when in wasp mode; instead, he cuts quickly, allowing us only quick glimpses before Janice moves in for the kill (which is depicted in fairly gruesome terms by 1950s standards).

Corman and screenwriter Leo Gordon (who scripted two more Corman-directed efforts, 1962's The Tower of London and 1963's The Terror) play with the conventions of the horror movie in some interesting ways. For instance, much of the action takes place in a modern high-rise office building, yet it is used in much the same was as an old Gothic castle would be, with foreboding hallways, locked doors, a mad scientist's laboratory, and victim's screams barely being heard by others through the walls. Corman and Gordon figured quite rightly that Janice could do some nasty work in the building without anyone noticing for some time; the building's sheer size makes it easy for her to kill victims and hide the bodies late at night.

The movie's underlying paranoia about aging is also a prescient one, especially in the cruel irony of a powerful businesswoman who, despite her professional skills and economic success, is still tied to her physical appearance. Yet, that physical appearance is deemed so important that is literally willing to kill for it. The Wasp Woman's ultimate message about the dangers of science tampering too much with nature is as old and well-worn as themes come in science fiction and horror (dating back at least to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein), yet Corman makes it work again, even with minimal resources at hand.

Drive-In Discs Volume Two: The Giant Gila Monster / The Wasp Woman
This is the second entry in a multi-volume collectible DVD series from Elite Entertainment, each of which contains a double-feature and memorable drive-in extras such as cartoon shorts, commercials, coming attractions, and intermission.
AudioDISTORTO! in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
1.0 Monaural
Supplements Popeye animated short
Betty Boop animated short
Preview trailer: I Bury the Living
Classic ads, including "Pic, the smoking bug repellant" and "Chilly Dilly"
"Let's All Go to the Lobby" animated intermission clip
10-minute countdown clock
"Hello Young Lovers" promo
"Keep Quiet During the Movie" warning
"Tex Rides Again" refreshment break short
Announcement warning viewers not to drive off with speakers
"America, the Beautiful"
DistributorElite Entertainment

At least half of the image quality on this disc is a marked improvement over the quality of the two features included on the first volume of Elite's Drive-In Discs series. Both films are presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1), although The Wasp Woman is by far the better looking of the two movies, with a clear, sharp image that is almost completely free of any dirt, scratches, or other signs of age. The black-and-white image is nicely detailed, with fine shadings of gray and generally solid black levels. The Giant Gila Monster proves to be significantly more problematic, as there are numerous signs of damage in the form of nicks, scratches, and vertical lines throughout. More troubling is the overall softness of the image, which washes out any sense of texture or detail, and the muddiness of the night scenes, which are all but indiscernible at times. I have the suspicion that this film did not look very good even when it first played in 1959, as the darkest scenes are the ones that feature the titular monster, and were most likely shot in such a manner to purposefully obscure the lousy special effects. Given the low quality of the image, one wonders why Elite chose to include The Giant Gila Monster, since it is available on DVD from no less than three other companies.

Again, the second volume of the Drive-In Discs series utilizes the aural gimmick of DISTORTO!, which is actually in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround, but the soundtrack from the film is in one-channel monaural and is isolated in the left front speaker, thus mimicking the drive-in single speaker that you used to affix to your driver's side window. The other four channels are then used to emit various background noises that you might hear at a drive-in: crickets chirping, people chattering at the concession stand, cars driving in and parking, and the crunching of gravel beneath people's feet. Once again, the 5.1 surround soundtrack does an excellent job of making these background noises subtle, but effective, with creative imaging between the two rear speakers. While the movies are playing, the surround channels generally emit only the sound of crickets chirping, although, during The Giant Gila Monster, the sound of a plane flying overhead is thrown in at one point. During the ads between the movies, though, the surround speakers are active with the sarcastic comments and laughs of a group of teen viewers, which gives you the feeling of being inside the car while they are talking.

This second disc features many of the same nostalgic drive-in extras that appeared on the first volume (all of which are presented in anamorphic widescreen), including the famous cartoon commercials for "Pic, the smoking bug repellent" and "Chilly Dilly" pickles, as well as the "Let's All Go to the Lobby" animated intermission clip. New this time around are different Popeye and Betty Boop animated shorts, a new candy counter animated ad, a different 10-minute intermission countdown clock, and a new preview for I Bury the Living, which will appear on Volume Three of the Drive-In Discs series. (However, the preview for The Hand, which will also appear on Volume Three, was apparently left out, even though the press materials claim it was included.) As before, the disc offers the option of watching the double-feature presentation straight through as if you were actually at a drive-in theater, which means that all the extras are shown in a particular order structured around the two movies. Or, you can view the features, ads, and shorts separately (with the odd exception of the I Bury the Living trailer, which can only be viewed as part of the double-feature).

Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (1)

James Kendrick

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