Of all the shitty monster movies that I’ve watched so far for the October Horrorshow Giant Monstershow, The Giant Gila Monster might be my favorite, just for how bumbling the whole thing is. It wallows in everything clichéd and bad about the giant monster subgenre of horror flicks from the 1950s. It does away with the expository scientist, sure, but replaces that tired trope with a hip teenager and his girl, following the lead of The Blob.
Released in 1959, The Giant Gila Monster is the second feature from director Ray Kellogg, who was trying to carve out a career as an auteur after having established himself as a visual effects artist. That didn’t work out so well, as his career basically stopped dead not long after this flick was released. Why he didn’t go back to visual effects is anyone’s guess. Why he didn’t get many more opportunities to direct is obvious.
The movie follows Chase Winstead (Don Sullivan), a young mechanic and hot rod enthusiast who also has dreams of someday becoming the next Ricky Nelson. It wasn’t uncommon for movies of this era to feature a young singer in a primary role in order to boost their careers. The movies would tend to play out normally, but then for some reason the young pop star would find an excuse to sing a song. In westerns this has a decidedly anachronistic effect.
Besides the aforementioned Nelson, Pat Boone got in on the act, as well, appearing in a whole pile of movies. Don Sullivan was, in fact, a budding musician, credited as writing the songs he sings in the movie. He was no Ricky Nelson or Pat Boone, though.
Chase is part of a group of teenage hot rodders who live in Middle of Nowhere, USA. About all there is to do in their rural community is go to the local drive-in or burger shack, or take their souped-up cars screaming up and down the country roads.
A couple from the group has gone missing. Chase and the local Sheriff (Fred Graham), go out and try to find them, but it’s little more than a token effort. Chase’s friends are missing, and he doesn’t have more than a passing interest, it seems, in their fate. That’s doubly-so for the Sheriff. It’s his job to search diligently when one of his charges turns up missing, but he doesn’t try that hard. Even after the missing couple’s car is found, wrecked and empty, the Sheriff doesn’t organize a search party.
This incompetence is a theme. The jurisdiction the Sheriff watches over is going through a plague of car accidents. Chase, being an employee of a garage, is always on scene with a tow truck to investigate the wrecks with the Sheriff. These cars are totaled. In one instance, the upholstery is covered in blood. The Sheriff’s reaction, and I am not exaggerating, is “tow the car in and see if anyone claims it.” What?! Someone could be bleeding to death mere feet from the side of the road and the Sheriff never even strolls on over to the shoulder to take a peek. It’s astounding. I love it when shitty movies have important characters behave in the exact opposite fashion in which they would in real life.
All these wrecks and disappearances are being caused, of course, by a giant Gila monster. It’s grown to huge proportions because of…you know, it’s never explained. Without a scientist character to exposit, the viewer is free to let their imagination come up with an origin for the Gila monster. Could be nuclear fallout, ever popular in giant monster flicks, or it could be a previously unknown creature from beneath the earth. Kellogg, unlike so many other filmmakers in the past, figured out that it doesn’t matter where the monster comes from, really.
That’s about all he figured out. The important stuff in a movie, such as pacing, plot, character development, what have you, he wasn’t good at. It takes a very long time for any meaningful action to occur in this film. It’s stuffed with scenes of Chase and the Sheriff talking and trying to figure out what’s happening. Maybe these scenes would be more endurable if Graham didn’t limp though them half-asleep, but that’s doubtful.
Even when things do happen, they’re not filmed well. The special effects are mostly non-existent. The real Gila monster used in filming never shares a single composite shot with the cast. It’s never seen towering over either man or building, nor is it shown actually attacking anyone. There’s a little model work near the end, but most of the shots of the Gila are of it just crawling along on some dirt, with nothing provided to give it any scale. I understand that films like this didn’t have money for real effects, but even Bert I. Gordon made more of an effort.
In the end, The Giant Gila Monster is basically a Gordon clone. The story is the same, and the acting is on a par. But, and I can’t believe I’m writing this, it’s missing the action that Gordon brought to his films. In a competition of cinematic ineptness, Kellogg wins over Gordon. Put another one in the win column for Alien: Resurrection. It’s a better movie than The Giant Gila Monster.
Of final note, if one is inclined to watch this movie, I highly recommend watching the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode where Joel and the bots riff on this movie. They are merciless in tearing it apart. It’s in the argument for best MST3K episodes of all time.