Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Monster from a Prehistoric Planet (Nikkatsu, Manson, American International, 1967)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Monster from a Prehistoric Planet, a 1967 Japanese monster movie from a short-lived studio called Nikkatsu, which was the double-bill companion on the “Internet Drive-In Shocker” package that also featured Yongary, Monster from the Deep, but was a considerably better movie. The fact that it was a Japanese production was the initial surprise — the archive.org page on the download had hinted that both features were Korean, but the names of the cast members gave its true origins away (and incidentally at least two people in it, including the leading lady, were played by actresses named Yoko; it’s not than unusual a female given name in Japan!) — and though it had the usual messy plot and tacky effects, it was also clearly the work of a director, Haruyasu Noguchi, with a good camera eye. The plot is basically a fusion of King Kong and the 1957 Boris Karloff vehicle Voodoo Island — in which he played a professional debunker of phony spiritualists hired by a developer who wants to build a mega-resort on a deserted island and seeks to put an end to all this nonsense being spread by the natives that the place is cursed (which, of course, it is). In this version, Playmate publisher George Inoue (Tatsuya Fuji) wants to build “Playland,” a super-resort on a South Pacific island, and in order to stock his island with suitably exotic flora and fauna to draw in paying customers, he sends out a scientific expedition headed by young scientist Hiroshi Kurosaki (Tamio Kawaji) and his photojournalist girlfriend Itoko Koyanagi (Yoko Yamamoto — see, I told you the leading lady was an actress named Yoko!). Also along is the obligatory “comic-relief” idiot, Daize Tonooka (Yuji Okada), who for some reason came off (at least for me) as a Japanese version of Paul Lynde. The first half of the movie is a farrago of shipboard scenes and native dances once the expedition lands on Playmate Island (or whatever it was called before Inoue bought it), and director Noguchi shows his readiness for biggers and betters with overhead shots, daring editing and some quite artful angling and color in the native dance sequences. The natives, it turns out, worship a godlike creature called “Gappa,” a prehistoric remnant (there’s no indication, pace the American title, that the creature is from another planet, prehistoric or otherwise), and while exploring a cave the expedition discovers an egg from which Gappa hatches.

It turns out there are actually three survivors of the species — a Papa Gappa, a Mama Gappa and a little Baby Gappa — and when Inoue insists that the Baby Gappa be taken to Tokyo, where he intends to suppress any revelation of its existence until the next issue of Playmate is ready for the presses and he can scoop the world, Papa and Mama Gappa understandably get upset and come to Tokyo. They start doing their Godzilla impressions and stomping out the city (I was amused when they crushed all the big apartment buildings but left one whose neon sign identified it as “Bar” — shades of The Leech Woman! — in place) until finally Kurosaki (whose name, almost inevitably, I kept hearing as “Kawasaki” and wondering why he was named after a Japanese motorcycle or SUV) figures out that the only way to make them go away, since of course no human weapons affect them at all, is to give them back their kid and have them high-tail it back to the island. (Apparently Kurosaki, or the film’s writers — Ryuzo Nakanishi and Gan Yamazaki — had seen the original Mothra, another film in which a presumably invincible monster is persuaded to leave urban Japan alone by being allowed to return to his place of origin with his pets, the nine-inch-tall women in a cage around whom much of that film revolved.) Alas, once the Gappas (flying creatures with bird-like wings and beaks grafted onto the basic Godzilla-style Japanese mega-monster template) come on the scene and start stomping out Tokyo, Noguchi seems to lose all interest in coming up with interesting visuals and shoots it as flatly as most of the competing films from bigger Japanese companies, hamstrung by the fact that the Gappas are people in ill-fitting monster suits stamping out balsa-wood model buildings and easily fending off attacks from toy tanks. (As with Yongary, one suspects the local Woolworth’s or whatever the Japanese equivalent is was the production’s prop department.) Still, it’s a good deal more interesting and more fun than many of the competitors in the genre, and though it was hardly a great film it was the sort of mindless fun that helps you unwind after a long and tiring day.