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Monday, March 28, 2016

Monsters Turned Loose On 1959

They Will Blast the Flesh Off Humans!!

Warner Bros. had wise 50's policy of putting sci-fi on deck each summer, much of it bought cheap from the outside, then played off fast via regional saturation where money was hauled on heels of intense TV/radio saturation (accent on TV: that medium was assuming lead once enjoyed by newspapers and radio). The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms in 1953 had shown ways, a model of how to sell monsters to youth. Again it would work with Them! a following year, then The Black Scorpion in 1957. Cynicism, as in "They'll buy anything," may have been WB thought behind 1959's spew of Gigantis, The Fire Monster with Teenagers From Outer Space, a most arrogant offer of low-grade stuff by a major studio until 20th did WB one (actually two) better with 1964 combo of Horror Of Party Beach and Curse Of The Living Corpse. But wasn't 1959 a little late going to market with cheapjack B/W horrors? Jim Nicholson thought so, taking pledge re poverty pairings in favor of colorful Horrors Of The Black Museum and in-works House Of Usher. Was chilling on a verge of new greatness?

Warners could get away with Gigantis/Teenagers thanks to distribution/sales force dragging kids from front of home sets to paying windows downtown, a trick AIP had managed until a few of their 1958 parlays lost money. Nicholson admitted as much to Variety in a 5/19/59 inquiry headlined "Horror Quickies Over?" AIP's "cheap, run-of-the-mill exploitation pix" were no longer able to compete in a "flooded market," said the producer. AIP would drop from ten horror/sci-fi's in 1958 to four for '59, result of playdates being way down. Jim recalled five to seven thousand theatres that had booked with AIP in 1957, those numbers now dipped to three thousand. The reason was more swimmers in the pool and crabbing Nicholson/Arkoff's act. Warners among majors learned how to earn money by spending virtually none, except at ad/pub level. Their 1957 bet on The Curse Of Frankenstein yielded obscene profit for nickels paid to owners Hammer and Seven Arts. Gigantis would be had for change, the case also with Teenagers From Outer Space, made by a Midwest independent, Todd Graeff, who thought he had a better deal with Allied Artists (for $60,000) until the exec with whom he shook hands died sudden, leaving Graeff to fire-sell Teenagers to WB for $28,500. He'd sue AA for the difference, alleging "a market value greatly decreased" thanks to the firm's welsh. Graeff had a point; like Jim and Sam, he knew the sci-fi/shock engine was corroding.

Randy Sweetens Drive-In Monster Mix
Gigantis, The Fire Monster was screwy sort of product from word go. First off, as any (and as it turned out, plenty) of small boys knew, Gigantis was actually Godzilla. TV spots, if not posters, tipped that off. Enterprising showmen would confirm same, or at least assert a family link (ThenPlaying's Mike Cline recalls his Statesville, N.C. venue tendering Gigantis as "Godzilla's cousin," making him, I suppose, the Chill Wills of Japanese monsters). Gigantis otherwise got formula right by giving its title behemoth another beast to fight, latter named "Angurus," which satisfied me that he/it suffered anger issues, or is that too obvious a read? Anyway, the two do vigorous wrestle over toy structures toppled, albeit in black-and-white as opposed to color tendered two years previous by Rodan and MGM's competing-with-Gigantis, The Mysterians, also Nippon-made and head-to-head with WB in many situations. Did distributing copycats get in arguments at the golf course or card tables over alike stuff they were assigned to peddle, as in "Our monsters are bigger and badder than yours"?

I missed Gigantis in theatres, but heard older boys clucking about it, and a few years later saw reference in Famous Monsters to a Godzilla Raids Again, which was .. what? Certainly nothing I'd seen. Eventually it came to light that they were one and same, Gigantis limping onto Channel 2 Greensboro's weekday afternoon schedule, where I'd see it through snow endemic to that 83 mile-away station. You'll imagine faint impression Gigantis made. Recent revisit came courtesy DVD release, under proper label Godzilla Raids Again, and full-frame, which I cropped to 1.85 for OK result. There was the Japanese version as disc option, but I always prefer US re-jigger of these, wanting to experience what domestic attendance got. To our distributors, all of monsters from abroad were raw clay to be molded, as in overdub, fresh music (well, not fresh, usually old and recognizable library themes), and often whole sections shot anew or cast membership swelled by Yank players (Ray Burr in the first Godzilla most noted instance of this).

Gigantis isn't too well regarded, but I had fun. Godzilla roars different this time --- was there a reason, as in trying to blur his identity? He also doesn't spit fire until the final showdown ... or did he, and I was dozing? Godzilla/Gigantis's opponent looked turtle-ish with a porcupine shell, lacking gravitas that made his defeat both appropriate and welcome. Besides, "Angurus" for a name seems too on-the-nose, sort of like "Gigantis" for Godzilla, come to think of it. Here's a theory: Since Godzilla was utterly destroyed in the 1954 pic, was Gigantis actually his son, or close friend, or as Mike's local manager claimed, a cousin? I would accept that and live with it if so. Further reality my generation must face: the Godzillas, Rodans, etc. were the only Japanese films we'd see during the 50/60's. It's not like we'd exit a Mothra saying, "That was swell, but just wait till the new Kurosawa gets here next week." There was, however, exposure to Japanese culture in these monster rallies. A Gigantis wedding party segment illuminates as to Eastern way of celebration, even if dubbing dulls reality otherwise. Anyway, it's close as most of us got to other culture practices. Between Toho and Hammer, I'd get extent of a foreign film education, at least until spaghetti westerns came along to augment the curriculum.

For a second feature, Warners found it more efficient to again shop outside for a quickie than make their own. That had worked before, most notably with The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. Collapse of the Allied Artists deal had indeed compromised producer Tom Graeff, allowing WB to again put lion's share of investment in merchandising and exploitation. Teenagers From Outer Space (the studio's idea for a title) wasn't half-bad for what amounted to Graeff's home movie with friends. The story as spun at chase pace: Aliens land, Good titular teen breaks with invasion plot and goes on run with Bad teen in pursuit. They cover much of unspoiled L.A. circa late 50's. Forbearing trades gave Teenagers more credit than Gigantis, encouragement for such pick-up deals and for Warners to buy American. Biz suggested there was pulse yet in B/W cheapie pairs, Gigantis clocking $467K in domestic rentals, Teenagers $215K. Maybe Warners was satisfied, or maybe not, as this would be a last such combo until mid-60's release of Brainstorm and The Woman Who Wouldn't Die, these remarkably sold monochrome despite near-overtake of movies by color.


Blogger Jerry Kovar said...

The RKO circuit in NYC paired "Gigaantis" with a re-issue of "Rodan" which had success there in the previous year.

8:13 AM  
Blogger Mark Mayerson said...

I can't think of too many places besides Greenbriar where that Chill Wills joke would get a knowing laugh.

9:44 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Thanks for the plug. I recently researched Gigantis' heritage on, and he is, indeed, the cousin of Godzilla, on his mother's side.

10:12 AM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

Adding a color Boetticher/Scott to the show must've made "Teenagers" seem even more threadbare, though probably kept the audience awake.

11:44 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Don't know if it would be the same on the coasts, but searching mid-west newspaper theater pages circa 1958 is a revelation regarding the over-saturation of sci-fi/horror bookings. I'm astounded by the sheer quantity of chiller double features and not just at drive-ins, and not just during the summer. It is not uncommon to find three quarters of the screens filled on any given week with kid/teen oriented programs!

As to GIGANTIS and TEENAGERS FROM SPACE, both were afternoon regulars on our Harford CT station. Even our indiscriminate twelve year old noses were turned up at the threadbare latter, but as to the fire monster, that was another deal entirely. Did realize he was Godzilla incognito, didn't realize how much stock footage was spliced in, didn't mind the Caucasian-free cast and awkward dubbing (including George Takei!) In short, we thought it was great! Multiple viewings did not diminish the fun. In fact, when did finally see the big guy on the big screen, color and scope, it was KING KONG VS. GODZILLA, the dopiest of American re-packaged jobs and NOW we were disappointed!

Today, I can appreciate that amazing fact that TEENAGERS with a budget of small change and pocket lint got made at all much less receive release by a major studio. Alas, I still think it's only watchable after a run through the MST3K snark-mill (and they were right... the spaceship does look like Audrey Hepburn's hat.)

1:25 PM  
Blogger Phil Smoot said...

You mention zooming in to 1.85 for Gigantis the Fire Monster, but as the film was 1955 in Japan (just a year after Gojira aka Godzilla), I think 1.33 or 1.37 is the proper aspect ratio. I think that 1956 Rodan was 1.37 as well. Even though the USA was all widescreen by the end of 1953, Japan started widescreen around 1957 (Toho first possibly being "On Wings of Love"), as far as I can tell, some of the Japanese masters continued to use 1.37 into the 1960s.

As I saw both Gigantis the Fire Monster & Teenagers from Outer Space in the theaters, it must have been this double bill. I recall thinking that Gigantis looked like Godzilla, but I did not know the relationship. I did not understand until "King Kong vs. Godzilla" was released with Godzilla being revived from the ice that he was entombed in at the end of Gigantis.

When I first visited Austin McKinney at his home in Los Angeles in 1980 (as I first met him when he was the Cinematographer on the Charlotte regionally produced and financially successful "Hot Summer in Barefoot County" shot Sept 1973), Austin showed me a short film called "Toast to Our Brothers." I told Austin that there was something odd about the sound and that it reminded me of the sound in "Teenagers from Outer Space." Austin then showed me published articles for the pre-recorded sound system that he had made for "Toast to Our Brothers" -- A short 1951 film shot by Austin for Tom Graeff. Graeff used that same system for "Teenagers from Outer Space." Austin & his companion, Lee Strosnider, told me some strange tales of the adventures of Tom Graeff. Austin said that Graeff sold "Teenagers from Outer Space" for twice what he had in it. I cannot verify whether or not that is true, but it makes a good legend regardless.

1:26 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Fascinating background about Tom Graeff, Phil. Thanks for supplying it. Joe Dante mentions in his "Trailers From Hell" entry (one of my favorite sites) that a documentary was/is in the works about Graeff. I hope someday it will be completed.

As to ratio for Gigantis and Rodan, I suspect you are right that they were done 1.37, and I at first debated as to cropping Gigantis, but then realized that by 1959, virtually all theatres would play it 1.85, so went ahead that way. Your mention of Rodan tempts me to re-watch the DVD, which as I recall was OK, if not outstanding. The movie itself was the first Japanese monster movie I saw in a theatre, so is very much a sentimental favorite.

5:36 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

When RODAN first hit U.S. theatres, I saw it on two different days during its three day run at our local hardtop. Then twice more when it played at my family's drive-in theatre.

Maybe three years ago, I watched the original Japanese version on TCM.

10:03 AM  
Blogger rnigma said...

I've seen "Teenagers" when it got the MST3K treatment. I recall that Graeff went off the deep end some years later and took out ads declaring himself to be "Jesus Christ II." The film's star, "David Love," was reportedly Tom's boyfriend (it was erroneously stated, perhaps by the Medveds, that Love was Graeff himself).

5:10 PM  
Blogger Joe Dante said...

Thanks for the Trailers from Hell plug, John!

For the record, here are the links to the Gigantis/TFOS commentaries:

10:10 PM  
Blogger Phil Smoot said...

Yes, Austin McKinney told me how Tom Graeff managed to get that ad (declaring that he was Jesus returned and would be making an appearance) published in what I think was the Los Angeles Times(?) -- He told Austin about his plan before going through with it. Story is too long for here, but, as Austin said, "If you want to fool the people and make money, you have to be part of the religious carnival and you cannot pretend to be the man himself."

Austin also shot a feature for Graeff called "The Noble Experiment," but I have never seen that one.

As to the documentary about Graeff, Lee Strosnider told me that there were two groups that had talked and interviewed he and Austin, but nothing seems to have been completed by either party. Lee was somewhat suspicious of the documentary folks, but, as to why, that is a story that might be out of bounds for this site. Tom Graeff had a lifestyle that was not "open" in the 1950s.

11:27 PM  
Blogger b piper said...

GIGANTIS/TEENAGERS was the first movie I ever saw on my own in a theater. Loved GIGANTIS, but even at that early age TEENAGERS seemed a little threadbare and the shadowy crustacean horror wasn't particularly convincing.

12:42 PM  
Blogger Jerry Kovar said...

On the initial release of "Rodan" at my local RKO, they had a box in the lobby for weeks before the opening claiming that Rodan was in there. A loop of Rodan roars played from inside the box. Willima Castle worthy.

8:08 AM  

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