by Mark Gabrish Conlan • © Copyright 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
My partner Charles had mentioned that he’d downloaded the fourth-ever episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and the earliest known to exist — no tapes of the very first shows (the ones done for local stations in Minneapolis) were preserved by the studio and the only ones extant are home VHS recordings made by fans. The film featured on it was Gamera vs. Barugon, a 1966 production of the Daiei International company in Japan (they seem to have been Toho’s biggest competitor; I think at one point or another Akira Kurosawa worked for both of them, in this quirky period in film history in which the Japanese were making some of the greatest films in the world and some of the absolute worst, and using the profits from the awful ones to finance the great ones), and I got the impression that Gamera — a giant-sized turtle with the ability to fly (to become airborne, it has four flame jets that spurt rocket blasts and revolve it so it lifts off like a flying saucer) — was Daiei’s attempt to come up with an ongoing giant-monster character to compete with the enormous success of Toho’s Gojira (Godzilla to us).
The imdb.com entry on Gamera vs. Barugon mentioned that it was the first Gamera film in color and the only one that did not feature a child as the main human character (the latter was just as well as far as I was concerned!), and the movie as a whole was one of those monster-fests with no redeeming qualities whatsoever (though the fact that we were watching an awful copy from a VHS tape in a context where the film was being mocked — though not especially well; given how brilliant the MST3K crew became later it’s amazing that there were few jokes during the movies in these early episodes, and the jokes there were were often embarrassingly lame and unfunny — certainly didn’t help). We get a few stock clips of Gamera in action, presumably from previous films in the series elaborately tinted to match a film that’s otherwise in color — and those are the most genuinely exciting moments in this film!
Then Gamera disappears from the movie and we get instead a dull tale of skullduggery involving three Japanese veterans of World War II (one of whom, which his slicked-back black hair and sunglasses, bears a striking resemblance to Elvis Presley) who in the middle of the war found what they thought was a humongous opal in a cave on one of the islands where they were fighting. They go back for it and discover it, though two of their number are killed by deadly scorpions and the one survivor uses an infrared lamp to treat his athlete’s foot. Needless to say, the “opal” is really a dinosaur egg and the infrared energy from the lamp is just the power source needed to induce it to hatch and generate Barugon, a pretty generic dinosaur-shaped monster with a flame-thrower tongue and an ability to emit a rainbow-like ray that’s a weapon of mass destruction.
A woman the lead explorer for the “opal” met on her home island (apparently either the daughter or the ward of a middle-aged man who’s “gone native” and seems to have stepped out of a story by W. Somerset Maugham — and would probably like to get back!) rigs up a diamond-powered laser to try to kill Barugon, but the attempt merely evaporates the diamond and returns millions of dollars’ worth of gem back to its original status as carbon atoms. Later they rig up an array of mirrors to try to get Barugon’s “rainbow” energy (lampooned by one of the MST3K crew singing the opening lines of the Sesame Street song “The Rainbow Connection,” their funniest gag in the film) turned back in on itself to destroy it, but Barugon survives even that and it’s left for Gamera to do his Seventh Cavalry impression and come in at the end of the film to destroy Barugon (in a surprisingly ill-staged action scene that the guys who did Ultra-Man probably could have done better) and then fly back into space without waiting for a thank-you, something like the Lone Ranger.
Gamera vs. Barugon was the sort of annoying bad movie that reminds you of all too many great ones — when the protagonists arrive on the South Pacific island and the natives greet them with undisguised hostility, one can’t help but recall King Kong and how once in the distant past someone actually made a masterpiece about an oversized animal monster.