Directed by Bert I. Gordon
Written by George Worthing Yates and Bert I. Gordon
Whatever else, War of the Colossal Beast is at least painless, a little slip of a 69 minute film that Bert I. Gordon agreed to produce on behalf of American International Pictures as the second feature of a 1958 double-bill with Attack of the Puppet People, in a bid to squeeze all the money possible out of the phenomenon that had been the previous year's The Amazing Colossal Man. As a direct sequel picking up where the last one left off, it continues the story of Glenn Manning, that selfsame colossal man, giving him several setpieces where he menaces men of typical size, and in the process arguably refining Gordon and his then-wife Flora's special effects (mainly by overreaching less with them). It is, unfortunately, also completely pointless: it continues a story that had no need of any continuation and Gordon absolutely knew it, and so he approached it without much enthusiasm, or at least extremely selective enthusiasm. Wikipedia goes so far as to claim that this sequel to The Amazing Colossal Man, called, ahem, War of the Colossal Beast, wasn't even marketed as a sequel to The Amazing Colossal Man, though as it cites a source that doesn't say anything like that (it's a Richard Brody capsule review, of all things), I would have to assume that that is total bullshit. I mean, given this is the house that Samuel Z. Arkoff and James Nicholson built, it doesn't pass the most cursory smell test. But I was speaking of Gordon himself, who for his compulsory sequel wrote a story, with George Worthing Yates returning to do the screenplay, that somehow has fewer than just no new ideas, like if a sequel could, by some anti-miracle, produce a negative number of new ideas.
That is, I concede, slightly unfair: it has one new idea, except it's not actually new. As Colossal Man concluded with Glenn having gone splat at the bottom of the Hoover Dam, a fall that would be even more invariably fatal for a sixty foot man weighing 20,000 pounds than it would be for you or I—though since it's no fun to dwell on such things, this is why I usually don't mention them till the minutia section at the end—we can't just have him walk that off. Disappearing into a Colorado River that I guess must've been significantly more voluminous and mysterious at that time, because nobody sees anything strange about the failure to recover a sixty foot body from what is basically a mobile puddle, Glenn hit the bottom and skidded hard, and so even though we don't see him for a little while yet—washed into the Gulf of California, he arrived on Mexican shores—when we do, we'll discover that the experience has somewhat changed the giant's complexion. That is, it's smashed his right eye out and torn off most of that half of his face, leaving scar tissue that never healed right so that the inside of his mouth is now on the outside:
This is all very medically questionable, but this is superlative horror film imagery, and it has clearly seared itself into my brain irrevocably: even having seen this movie several times as an adult—mostly its MST3K presentation, but I'm sure at least one other "clean" viewing—the memory that keeps stubbornly reforming in my mind about Colossal Beast is not even remotely close to resembling what this film actually is. I recalled it, instead, as a cash-grab but an honorable one, that gave the audience what it had craved and which Colossal Man sort of didn't, Glenn Manning on a furious rampage, going, so to speak, to war with the civilization that had mutated him and, ultimately, tried to destroy him. And it says something about the power of iconic imagery that not only did I remember Glenn's face but that it warped my memory of everything else. It also says that when I first beheld Glenn in beast mode, I had not seen Gordon's other 1957 film The Cyclops, which is practically the exact same image only arguably grosser the first time around:
Auteurs will have their fixations: Spielberg and dads, Hitchcock and blondes, De Palma and surveillance. Mr. B.I.G., famously an aficionado of large size, especially liked giants with just the one eye. And that's fine here, because The Cyclops is very bad, something I suspect Gordon fully recognized after he'd made it—Colossal Man essentially rescues its premise to do something that didn't suck with it—and a movie that likewise rescued its specific visual identity would be nice. Making matters troublesome, however, is that if I described Colossal Man as a "remake of The Cyclops," that meant I hadn't rewatched Colossal Beast yet, because Colossal Beast truly is a remake of The Cyclops, and the only thing that makes it better is that The Cyclops is so dysfunctional and stupid it seems like Gordon, having learned some finesse over his last three films, would've nearly had to have done it on purpose to make a movie that bad again. (Editorial note: turns out that while The Cyclops is indeed more dysfunctional and stupid, it's not as bad as I remembered, and even with a worse screenplay I think I like it more than this.) It repeats a whole lot its sins, anyway.
At least this time my longwinded preface dealt with issues of substance relating to the actual movie, and in doing so I've practically recited the plot, but we have a format to adhere to, don't we? So: though the world has written Glenn Manning (Duncan Parkin) off as dead in the wake of his fall, it hasn't been so easy for the one who loves him. Obviously, I mean his sister Joyce Manning (Sally Fraser). Did you think I meant Carol Forrest, Glenn's fiancée? I did not, and it's one of the curiouser choices Gordon and Yates made, particularly considering they've already recast Glenn. In any case, Joyce is on hand to hear a very convenient lighter-side-of-the-news report detailing much of what we saw in the credits sequence and prologue, in which we found a young lad in Mexico (Robert Hernandez) driving desperately away from something, right into a muddy creek. When the truck's owner (George Becwar) arrives at the police station to complain about his missing property, the town's cop, Luis Murillo (Rico Alaniz), listens patiently—with more patience than Gordon ought to have expected the audience to have with this extremely obnoxious and largely superfluous character, whose only role is to deliver information to another character, but winds up being in the movie long enough to repeat the stock phrase "get the picture?" approximately two hundred times in between harangues (you can tell he's at least supposed to be obnoxious, yet he does not die)—but, having gotten the picture, Luis reunites him with his erstwhile employee, now a basket case, shrieking and sweating and screaming about ogres in his convalescent bed.
Upon learning of this, Joyce seizes upon this new lead, heading down Mexico way. Along with her comes Maj. Mark Baird (Roger Pace), who's less optimistic, but when she, Mark, and Luis go out into the wilderness, of course they find Glenn, who's survived these months as something of a giant-sized bandit, waylaying trucks traversing the area for the foodstuffs therein. They hatch a plan to capture him using his modus operandi against him, loading a truck full of bread with sedatives, and, despite a near-disaster, they successfully knock Glenn out. He's shipped back to the U.S. while bureaucrats wring their hands about exactly what to do with poor Glenn, during which time Joyce discovers that her brother's injuries included significant brain damage, leaving him in a non-communicative and almost atavistic state, unable to do much but feel confusion, pain, and fear—but not so debilitated that, when the opportunity arises, he can't escape. And now the Southwest faces another confrontation with a very angry giant.
I will leave aside that, right down to "a loved one pursues a missing radioactive mentally-impaired mute giant into the Mexican wilderness, and the giant is played by Duncan Parkin," this is precisely The Cyclops reheated; I'll leave that aside, because at least this film has the decency to have its titular tragic monster show up in the first twenty-five minutes of the picture, rather than the last fifteen. I will not leave aside, however, that all this means is that once the plot of The Cyclops is rehashed and Glenn is captured, it's basically just The Amazing Colossal Man reheated, except now literally everything about it except Glenn's face is less interesting, and you could make a reasonable argument about the face. You noticed I said Glenn has been recast, and that fact casts a shadow over every single choice Gordon makes; I do not know this, but I strongly suspect whatever enthusiasm Gordon might still have had about the project evaporated in the face of Glenn Langan not returning to what, after six decades, surely must be considered the minor star's signature role. It is, anyway, a fairly handy explanation for a Glenn Manning who has precisely one line of dialogue besides "RRAWGH" and whose face is obscured by a grody battle damage applique, not that this actually obscures the recasting, since so long as one eyebrow is still visible it's pretty obviously not the same colossal man we met before.
Maybe Gordon never even called Langan, but this is absolutely bound up in the fundamental reason that it doesn't work. I can't say if this was Gordon's version of artistic integrity at play or not, but honestly this could be exactly what it is, since as the sequel to a humane minor classic of 50s sci-fi cinema, Colossal Beast feels determined to retain every bit as much of that as possible, constitutionally unwilling to just cut loose with the popcorn-munching prosect of Glenn taking his revenge on a world that rejected him, and just wrecking shit, as a form of pure B-movie spectacle—the amount of what you'd feel comfortable calling "war" coming from this colossal beast is positively none—and while even that would have been more interesting coming from a Glenn who could still speak and think and articulate his grievance, with the movie as it stands, locked into a scenario where Glenn's personality has been all but completely extinguished, what we wind up with is a character tragedy that we've already seen once, and now with no character. Accordingly, the character drama we do get comes from Joyce, who's not remotely an adequate Replacement Carol, coming off like all she's really managing to do is interfere and guilt-trip the major; there's a whisper of a romantic subplot that conspires to turn a difficult question of ethics that's been slammed up against the sixty foot wall of a violent dilemma into just a story about some dickhead who keeps making questionable decisions about a deadly monster because he wants to fuck the monster's sister.
The action, when it does come, offers some fun; I've belabored it, but there's something just unaccountably magnetic about the sight of this mutilated giant roaring at things and occasionally smashing them, and, giving the Gordons leave for some intermittent translucency, the effects used to render Parkin a giant are by and large well-done, and in fact are a little less prone to the ghastly white that attended our colossal man last time. The truck gambit and Glenn's first, abortive escape attempt are cool, and the finale at the Griffith Observatory throws out some aggressive editing and abrasive high-contrast lighting effects to tap into Glenn's animal terror. (It also concludes with what I believe might be the first color footage in an AIP film, though I'm afraid it's taking a lot of strength not to say "color"—I don't know if it's absence of restoration or total shit sources, or what, but the scene we have before us today looks atrocious, like we're dealing with some kind of experimental color process from the 1910s. The scene itself is good, however, finally managing to get back to "character tragedy" and, let's say, serving as notice that Gordon would not be doing any Amazing Colossal Man 3.)
The photography has its moments, too; Gordon's direction isn't especially sophisticated and is frankly several steps backwards for him (for instance, we're introduced to Joyce in a shot that I thought was sophisticated, with her head framed a little to the side so that what almost dominates the image is the liquor cabinet in the background, and it turns out this exists, I guess, simply because that's what was in this house, as it's not actually communicating anything about her character here, and in honesty I assumed at first we were dealing with Carol, who after all would have cause to drink). But, anyway, the photography can be pretty good, courtesy Beginning of the End's Jack Marta—Colossal Beast doesn't represent Gordon continuing his tradition of working with (I hate to describe them thus, but it's the word that comes to mind) overqualified cinematographers like Joseph Biroc and Ernest Laszlo, though as Marta did go on to shoot Duel, heck, maybe it does—and he manages numerous fearsome angles on Glenn, marred by his scarring and even moreso by the hideous shadows that scarring casts. I suppose I also like the sneering "bureaucrats, huh?" montage that swings us across successive agencies of the U.S. government, each more concerned with passing the buck to someone else. Albert Glasser's score is, as usual, good and insistent; but sadly, the fascinatingly subjective sound design, that had been such a significant part of Colossal Man, that's just gone.
And I would like to say it's at least well-paced once we're past the "get the picture" guy, but it's not true. So on top of all of the deeper problems, we also have the enormous aggravation of Gordon stopping his story right in the middle to do a Colossal Man stock footage recap, long after that could have been useful, and occupying no less than an ungodly nine minutes out of a 69 minute film. I am, likewise, annoyed and baffled that the most exciting and violent thing in the movie—Glenn's escape—happens offscreen, which kind of looks like it could be a budget-conscious "choice" to disorient the viewer, as it had been in the similar turn in Beginning of the End, but feels like it might really just have been Gordon and Yates straight-up cheating, because they couldn't figure out how to get their monster, who's always been portrayed with some sobriety as far as his potency goes (a big guy, not an invulnerable superbeing), out of the steel chains they've put him in. It's not really a lazy movie otherwise, but it is one bankrupt of creativity. We can say worse than that, though, because Gordon's creativity was of course often a pretty narrowly-channeled thing, and that never meant the movies he made had to be bad; War of the Colossal Beast, however, is bankrupt of his vitality, and that is disappointing.
That which is indistinguishable from magic:
- A "big skull-exposing hole in your face" that doesn't kill you after living in the Baja Californian or Sonoran highlands is pretty fantastic.
- Electricity makes you vanish in a double-exposure, apparently?
- I'm a little bummed we didn't get to see what might've happened to that Globemaster (I think, the Internet Movie Plane Database has failed me) if Glenn had woken up while they were still in transit. I guess I'm still asking, "what if you gave in and this were just a monster movie? wouldn't that be more fun?"
The morality of the past, in the future!:
- As this is a rather extreme case, could we maybe consider "mercy killing"?
- One thing you get from mid-century flicks (see Black Scorpion, for example) is that it's actually quite possible the movies liked Mexico and Mexicans better in the 1950s than they do now.
- Sense of rad, queasy horror from Glenn's disfiguring makeup job, I'll give it that.