Obscure giant critters get a new lease on life thanks to new film restoration and distribution company
By Jim Bray
Talk about a couple of monster hits!
Well, they may not have been huge box office successes, though the supplements accompanying this two-disc Blu-ray set say the producer made his investment back multiple times over, but The Giant Gila Monster and The Killer Shrews are well worth your "guilty pleasure" time even though they have never gained the kind of adoration of such contemporaries as Forbidden Planet, or even Them!
Still, if you have a short attention span (the longer of the two films is only 74 minutes!) or just enjoy slumming in the home theatre with a couple of "better than you might think" titles, this new release from Film Masters could be right up your alley.
Both films came out in 1959, and were made outside the traditional Hollywood studio system. Of the two, I preferred The Giant Gila Monster the best, but both have their moments – quite a few of them, actually.
The Giant Gila Monster is the "A" list title here and has not only been upgraded to high definition, Film Masters also gave it a new, 4K restoration – and it shows! But no 4K disc, alas.
Both films were the brainchild of Texas entrepreneur and radio giant Gordon McLendon and they were released as a double bill that was ideal for the drive-in movie crowd (remember drive-ins? They were great ways to catch films when you had small kids, or just wanted to make out with your girlfriend if you didn't care about the films).
But let's talk about the movies themselves.
The Giant Gila Monster, arguably the better of the two, tells the tale of – believe it or not – a giant Gila monster that suddenly shows up and starts terrorizing a small town and its environs. Here's how the PR blurb describes it:
"When two teens disappear from a small Texas town, the locals think they've eloped. But soon it becomes clear that something much more sinister is afoot. And if a giant Gila monster isn't enough for you, there are plenty of cool cars and some ersatz rock 'n' roll sung by star Don Sullivan (The Monster of Piedras Blancas)."
Yessiree, you're not only getting a pretty entertaining giant monster flick, it also features some cool hot rods (and models of same that aren't quite as cool, but needed to be made so the real, live Gila monster they used as their villain looks big enough to be threatening). And, yes, there's some music as well, though if I agreed it was rock 'n' roll I'd probably be struck by lightning.
The last time I saw a flick that offered rock 'n' roll music in an otherwise straightforward (well…) story was Top Secret, though that movie never pretended to be anything other than a broad comedy a la "Airplane!", especially since it was the follow up to Airplane! by the same writer/directors. But I digress…
"Gila" is pretty cool, in a kind of amateurly way, and there are some interesting characters ranging from the cool kids to a rather decent sheriff and even an evil businessman who'll stop at nothing to get his way and damn the torpedoes – until life slaps him upside the head and he sees the error of his ways.
The Killer Shrews, meanwhile, tells the story of a group of scientists on an isolated island who are messing with critters in order to find a way to help prevent human overpopulation of the world. Or something like that. It stars James Best (best known, apparently, from The Dukes of Hazard), Ken Curtis (Festus in Gunsmoke) and former Miss Universe Ingrid Goude.
The story unfolds after a riverboat pilot (Best) and a small group of passengers get stranded on a remote island where there just happens to be a scientifically-modified population of shrews the size of (and, to a great extent, the look of) German shepherds. And they're vicious and always hungry.
While I liked "Gila" better, this 64-or-so minute bit of fluff is still a lot of fun.
And that's what you can say about both of these movies. They'll never go down in history as monster movie classics such as King Kong (even the much-pilloried 1970's remake), but they're fun and interesting and just compelling enough to keep you interested (like the much-pilloried 1970's King Kong remake).
I'd never seen either of these flicks before, but I'm glad I have now – and I may even watch them again. And this Blu-ray set not only does the movies justice – which I can't imagine would be difficult! – it also provides some interesting background via the supplemental materials in the box.
Gila has been given the full meal deal with a new, 4K scan from the original 35mm elements, and it looks marvelous. The black and white 1080p picture is bright and clean and sharp, just what you'd want. And Film Masters has included both the original widescreen picture and the truncated TV version that lops off the sides to better fit the old-fashioned CRT TV screens from the days before HDTV took television into the wonderful world of widescreen.
The Killer Shrews (I actually thought going in that it was some kind of documentary about Greta Thunberg and her unhappy little band) didn't get the full treatment that Gila did – it's restored, but only to 1080p specs – but it's just fine anyway, all things considered. And you get both widescreen and "full screen" versions as well.
Audio for both movies is offered in DTS-HD sound (lossless) as well as Dolby AC3 (DVD quality) and I don't really know why other than to offer extra choice. Stick with the DTS-HD one and you'll be fine; besides, it isn't as if these soundtracks offer glorious multi-channel surround sound anyway. But it's fine overall, with good fidelity and clarity.
One might think that such fluff wouldn't merit a lot of supplementary material, but in this case one would be wrong. Film Master, which is a consortium of historians and enthusiasts whose apparent raison d'etre is to celebrate the preservation and restoration of films, takes their jobs seriously. "We are archivists, committed to storing film elements for future generations and reviving films that have been sitting dormant for decades," their PR blurb says. "By scanning in 2K and 4K, we give these lesser-known films the red-carpet treatment they deserve. Leveraging modern means of distribution to release forgotten films back into the world, we also produce original bonus materials—including feature-length documentaries, audio commentaries and historic articles—to contextualize and celebrate these works of art as they were meant to be."
And so they did. "Gila's" disc (each movie gets its own disc) comes with a restored trailer and a full-length commentary track from dudes involved in "The Monster Party Podcast." There's also a full-length audio interview with star Don Sullivan, though the audio is bloody awful and I ended up shutting it off before it was over.
"Shrews" includes an interesting documentary on director Ray Kellog, a mostly special effects and second unit craftsman who just might be responsible for making these movies as good as they are – thanks to his talent for camera shots, suspense building, etc.
There's also an interesting and quite entertaining commentary by author Jason A. Ney (does that make him a "Ney-sayer"?). And there's a selection of original radio spots for both films.
Not only that, but there is a written essay on each movie in a booklet inside the box.
It's actually a darn fine package!
This is the first release from Film Masters and I hope it isn't their last. Thanks to them, you can now revisit or, as in my case, finally visit, a couple of minor non-classics that are smarter and more interesting than they have any right to be.
Heck, at least during Gila, I even laughed out loud a few times – and I was laughing with the movie, not at it! It's as if the producers knew they were making schlock, and didn't take themselves or their product too seriously. I liked it a lot!
Copyright 2023 Jim Bray