Schlock Value: The Giant Gila Monster (1959)
This week, it’s hot rods and gargantuan lizards as we head back to the Atomic Age with the 1959 black-and-white “classic,” The Giant Gila Monster. Produced by Hollywood Pictures Corporation and directed by renowned effects artist Ray Kellogg, the film depicts a small midwestern town as it is suddenly terrorized by a giant gila monster (fun fact: it’s actually a Mexican beaded lizard, but who can tell?). It was originally made as part of a double feature, running alongside The Killer Shrews (also directed by Kellogg), and both are said to be the first feature films shot in and produced in Dallas, Texas. The jury is still out on whether or not the good people of Dallas are proud of this because good lord is it bad.
The film opens out in the midwest somewhere, as a narrator spins a yarn about the legendary gila monster that lives out in the American wilderness. Scotland has Nessie, we have a gila monster. Before long, a couple sitting in their car get pushed off the edge of a cliff by an enormous, scaly claw, killing them instantly. Across town at the local diner, it’s a happenin’ scene as the jukebox is playing and high school kids are dancing and drinking “sodee pop.” This is where we meet our hero, auto mechanic and hot rod enthusiast, Chase Winstead, who learns that his two friends Pat and Liz are missing. Later that evening, the local sheriff receives a visit from Pat’s dad, Mr. Wheeler, who explains Pat never came home the night before, and neither did his girlfriend Liz. Although the sheriff seems to think maybe they just eloped together, Mr. Wheeler believes they’ve been up to no good on account of Chase Winstead, and how bad of an influence he is. But the sheriff doesn’t buy it. It turns out Chase’s dad died years ago on one of Mr. Wheeler’s drill rigs, and Chase has not only been caring for his mom and disabled younger sister ever since, but he’s been keeping all the other kids in line too. With all the exposition out of the way, the sheriff is on the hunt.
The next day, as Chase is working in the shop, he receives a whole case of nitroglycerin for no logical reason whatsoever. He also overhears a call from the sheriff. Turns out there’s a wrecked car that’s been abandoned on the road, so he takes his tow truck and heads out. Meanwhile, the man who crashed the car is elsewhere, suitcase in hand, hitchhiking into town. This is when we finally get a good look at our monster. Lurking in the trees, cloaked by the dark of night, the giant gila monster begins to stalk his prey. On his way home, Chase spots the hitchhiker’s suitcase abandoned on the side of the road. The next day, Chase is toolin’ around in his tow truck when he spots a drunk who’s gotten himself stuck in a roadside ditch. The man, who introduces himself as Horatio Alger Smith, talks about “this big pink and black thing” that ran right by him, causing him to crash. But he’s absolutely plastered, so of course, no one believes him. After sleeping off his buzz at Chase’s shop, Smith introduces himself as the famous disc jockey “Steamroller” Smith before taking off (fun fact: Steamroller Smith was played by real life local DJ, Ken Knox). Shortly after, the sheriff arrives, and enlists Chase’s help to find his two friends.
As Chase and his girlfriend Lisa search for (and discover) Pat and Liz’s wrecked car, they are unknowingly being stalked by the massive gila monster. But not to worry. It attacks a tanker truck instead. When Chase arrives home, we’re finally introduced to his family. The already plodding film grinds to a halt so Chase can sing his sister (wearing her brand new pair of leg braces) a horrible song on the ukulele. Fortunately for us, Chase receives a phone call from the sheriff when the tanker wreckage is discovered, so he heads back out to lend a hand. Cut to Old Man Harris, another local car nut, who’s zipping across town when he notices the gila monster decimate a bridge just as a speeding train approaches. He can only watch in absolute terror as the train hurtles off the bridge into the ravine below. Cut back to the sheriff who explains to Chase that a local zoologist seems to think all the recent events could be caused by a giant gila monster (how he came to that conclusion, I have no idea), and that he should just keep it to himself so as not to cause a panic. So Chase does what anyone would do in this situation; he goes to a local sock hop, being hosted by none other than Steamroller Smith, and has some fun. After a long scene of dancing and music (and ANOTHER inappropriate ukulele song from Chase), the gila monster arrives, and begins tearing the place apart. When the policemen's’ rifles don’t seem to have any effect on it, Chase remembers the nitro in his shed, and heads home to load it into his car. How convenient, right? Well, it doesn’t take long for Chase to realize that the only way to destroy the monster is to speed toward it in his nitro-filled hot rod, which he does, culminating in an explosive climax.
Now, to be fair, there’s a certain level of bad one expects from a film like The Giant Gila Monster, but I was wholly unprepared for this level of garbage. First off, the characters are as dry and bland as all get out. Not one of them stands out as anything other than a boring, generic 1950s B-movie character and, literally, none of them change by the end of the movie (unless you count dying). Even Chase, the HERO, somehow manages to make the movie WORSE by stopping to sing not once but TWICE. Sure, Don Sullivan was tasked with providing original music for the movie on top of playing Chase, but he could not have picked more tonally inappropriate (and bad) songs. They just stop the movie in its tracks, and make an already slow movie even slower. As for the monster, pretty much all of the footage was shot on miniature sets with toy trains and cars, which is to be expected, but what’s baffling is that the filmmakers didn’t even attempt to make it look like it inhabited the same space as the characters, not even with rear projection. This makes the entire premise a bit difficult to believe. You’d think a guy like Ray Kellogg, who had 8 years of SFX experience and over 100 SFX credits, could make a movie look better than this. Unfortunately, he was not responsible for the effects here. But this made me wonder: if someone were to edit out all of the gila monster footage, what would be left? The answer: a movie about a young mechanic who drives around town helping the police and doing a bunch of favors for people. Because it really is just a series of events where the police find some wreckage, Chase checks it out, Chase helps a man stuck on the side of the road, police find some more wreckage, Chase checks it out, throw in a little bit of unexciting footage of the gila monster crawling across some miniature sets, lather, rinse, repeat. YAWN. Perhaps if they had played up the hot rod angle, and made it about a group of street racers who have to deal with a monster attack, that would have at least been a little more fun.
As much as I want to love any ridiculous giant monster animal movie, The Giant Gila Monster is Snooze City, and is a complete waste of 74 minutes. You can find it included in Mill Creek Entertainment’s 50 Horror Classics set or on YouTube, but honestly, you’re better off taking a nap instead. If you absolutely MUST watch it, please seek out the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version. At least the jokes should help make it palatable.