Sunday, August 21, 2011

Giant From The Unknown (1958)

A series of mysterious property damages culminating in a murder in an area called Devil's Crag has the small Northern Californian mountain community of Pine Ridge quite disturbed. I don't think the fact that the local Sheriff, Parker (Bob Steele), is a terrible policeman even for a 50s monster movie helps the situation much.

Parker has a favourite suspect for the murder in form of geologist Wayne Brooks (Ed Kemmer), but the good Sheriff has nothing at all on Brooks except for an unreasonable dislike bordering on a paranoid fixation.

While Parker is still walking around pestering Brooks instead of doing his job, the archaeologist Frederick Cleveland (Morris Ankrum) and his daughter, coffee cook, sandwich maker and professional love interest Janet (Sally Fraser), arrive in town. Parker is looking for evidence that might help him prove his theory about the appearance of a giant conquistador named Vargas in the area's past. The spot where Cleveland is planning to look is - of course - Devil's Crag. Despite the Sheriff's dire warnings, the Clevelands, accompanied by Brooks who has become fast friends with them and has begun "romancing" Janet faster than you can say "eww", make their way up to the dangerous place.

There, they find more of Vargas (Buddy Baer) than anyone could ever have suspected, for some local geological anomalies have kept the conquistador in a state of suspended animation, and of course their poking about is going to wake the dead man up again. Vargas will turn out to be decidedly rude.

Richard E. Cunha's Giant From The Unknown is a mildly entertaining, yet pretty weird - thanks to the nature of its monster - example of the especially low budget 50s monster movie. This is the sort of thing I can watch with interest and without rueing the loss of 80 minutes of my time or so, but I do have a particular soft spot for films like it, and find their 50s mores more entertaining than annoying, as little as I share any of their values and ideas.

You might have noticed the film's biggest problem right up there in the plot synopsis: since Vargas is only awakened with the scientists (or "scientists") poking around over his grave (at least that's how it looks to me), there's the little problem that the audience never learns who committed the murder the Sheriff wants to hang on Brooks - perhaps the square-jawed one is actually guilty? And while I'm thinking about the script - what exactly is the reason for Vargas serial killer behaviour? Did he have bad dreams while he was doing the Snow White thing? Or is it all just because poor make-up genius Jack Pierce was slumming in this production after having been fired from Universal, and somebody wearing monster make-up designed by him must necessarily begin killing sooner or later?

This scripting gaffe is pretty typical of a film filled with a cornucopia of mildly amusing errors and continuity problems (obvious favourite: the railing our monster crashes through in the end is magically complete again in the next shot). Given the extreme constraints of the film's budget and Cunha's inexperience as a director, this isn't something that should come as a surprise. I'd argue the film's fallibility is a feature, not a bug, and mainly responsible for its slight charms.

However, there are also things (beyond Pierce's monster design, that is cheap, effective and makes perfect use of Billy Baer's physique) that work out well for Giant From The Unknown. First and foremost among them are the decent performances given by the main cast. Nobody would ever confuse Bob Steele or Ed Kemmer with great actors, but they are getting through the ropey dialogue and the loopy science with dignity intact, which is quite an achievement, given the stuff we see and hear. The actors playing the side characters are the absolute dregs, though, wooden enough to even fence a giant conquistador in.

The rest is 50s monster movie by numbers: there's the icky romance where I'm not completely sure if the hero is romancing the woman or romancing her father; the caveman idea of what women are there for (sammiches and kidnapping!); an excellent geological lab that can't even afford the mandatory multi-coloured fluids; the hero being something of a dick; racism (hi, Indian Joe); and a not-all-that-giant monster with a taste for killing and another taste of kidnapping the heroine.

In short: this 50s monster movie sure is a 50s monster movie.


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