The Giant Gila Monster, 1959. 8/10

The Giant Gila Monster fits just so in that 1950s classic-era sci-fi sub genre: the monster in the desert/scrub brush. Gila Monster is actually closer to 1957’s The Blob in that it’s steeped in teen culture: hotrods, rock ‘n roll, dismissive adults, etc.

There’s the cool-cat Chase (Don Sullivan) and his girl Lisa (Lisa Simone), the Sheriff (good guy Fred Graham) and local rich guy Mr. Wheeler (bad news Bob Thompson), and assorted teens, not to mention a has-been type (Shug Fisher as Old Man Harris), and others making convenient monster victims. Something unique is a deejay, ‘Steamroller’ Smith (Ken Knox), sort of a slick version of Wolf Man Jack.o

No nuclear nonsense in this one! Nope, that ‘ol lizard fella has just been out in the mesquite forever, folks reckon. That’s fine, but where’s the city-slicker scientists to figure it all out? Don’t need them, or the State Troopers, neither. Even before the credits roll, a lover’s-lane couple (Pat and Liz), in a semi-customized 1940 Ford coupe, are thrown off a cliff by the Gila Monster. We next see a local teen hangout, complete with Old Man Harris, who turns down offers for his original ’32 Ford (‘Deuce’) coupe.

Mr. Wheeler bugs the Sheriff about the missing couple–he thinks his son Pat has eloped with his girl Liz. The Sheriff checks in with Chase and Liz’s folks about them…Sort of off to the side, but not out of mind, Chase finds out about a stash of nitroglycerin–hmm.

Then they find a wrecked car–a different one. This is when we get the five-finger-discount on the wrecked car’s headlight for Chase’s Deuce roadster; then the tires. Anyway, the Gila Monster takes out a meandering guy, as the Sheriff and Chase are shadowed by the monster. Next up is ‘Steamroller’ Smith, careening his Cadillac into a ditch, squawking about a giant pink and black lizard; sounds suspect, not least because Steamroller is way drunk.

Man, daddy-O, then we get Chase’s first song, which isn’t bad at all. Anyway, the Sheriff gets Chase to round up the gang for a search party; more hotrods show up, again the monster peeks in (probably in a terrarium). Chase finds footprints, another couple finds the wrecked ’40. They winch it up. Pretty good suspense, as we can figure the monster is very near at hand.

Strangely, Wheeler blames Chase–the sheriff’s investigation deviated from procedure, etc., and wants Chase arrested. But hold on–a tanker truck attacked on a lonely road explodes (why is it always a truck that monsters attack?). Anyway, it’s sappy scene time at Chase’s house: his younger sister, a polio victim, is cheered up by Chase’s next song. “There’s a mushroom, sad little mushroom…” Oh, man. Thankfully, the Sheriff calls with news of the truck wreck. Old Man Harris tells the tale. The Sheriff surmised that these accidents aren’t really accidents.

Meanwhile, the Steamroller is coming around. Old Man Harris has the next drunken sighting of the monster, and witnesses the ensuing train wreck. A very cool tidbit ensues, as the Sheriff locks up Harris, offering that he can call his wife, and he responds “What would I wanna do that fer?!” Staying busy by consulting a zoologist, the Sheriff puts all the evidence together, and figures that they are indeed dealing with a giant Gila monster.

The DJ party is happening: plenty of cool rods, rock ‘n roll, dancing. Actually, it’s Wheeler that figures out where the lizard’s hanging out. There’s a really good Elvis-like song by Chase. Followed up by sappy song #2. Ever so timely, the lizard shows up, perhaps smelling the donuts. This is the best lizard scene, as we cut rather deftly from the exterior shots of model cars and buildings, with a real lizard, to closer-up stuff with the crowd, reacting to the lizard.

The denouement is spectacular. Chase loads the aforementioned nitro in his car and rams the rod into the monster. Even Wheeler is impressed. I’m impressed too–somehow it looks like a real car hitting a real giant lizard.

This movie is notable for a couple of things. The teen plot is actually well-thought-out and dovetails very easily with the sci-fi Gila Monster aspect. Other than Chase and the Sheriff, though, (plus Steamroller and Harris in their limited roles) the acting isn’t memorable. What’s really intriguing is a believable premise; the lizard is simply there, and the people have to deal with it. Except for the scene in the sheriff’s office, absolutely no time is wasted debating, with a whole cast of experts and authorities, why something obvious has happened.

I admit that I usually enjoy the controversy about the creature and its origins in this sort of movie. That’s if it’s necessary to explain what we’re seeing; to establish suspension of disbelief. But in Gila Monster credibility is pretty much automatic. We see the monster right away, once enough (sober) people see it, then the plot sensibly turns on how to kill it.

It’s appropriate that the monster goes undetected for most of the movie (except to its victims); that device maintains suspense, and prevents the repetitious scenes where several types of weapons (any one of which would probably kill any organic entity) are used against the creature until a semi-magical one finishes it off. The plot in Gila Monster is already kind of thick by having to switch between the monster and the rock n’ roll stuff, so we don’t need more exposition.

Speaking of the monster, we know of course that it’s a regular Gila Monster. But there’s a reason that the real ones are called ‘monsters,’ and not simply lizards. They’re scary looking. It’s smart to use real animal life in a giant creature movie; you don’t need a guy in a rubber suit, or an abstract image. A lot of authenticity, though, depends on the quality of the modeling. The train wreck scene is fairly awkward, but the truck explosion, and especially the attack at the dance, are convincingly done. There’s nothing distracting here other than the couple of scenes with dippy songs.

Very entertaining, and highly recommended for fans of classic-era science fiction. Farmermouse really dug the hotrods, so he give this eight moon disc hubcaps. 8/10.

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