The Giant Gila Monster (1959)
Film review #515
Director: Ray Kellogg
SYNOPSIS: When a young couple go missing, their friends try to find them with little success. One of them, Chase Winstead, is a mechanic and tow truck operator, who gets called out to strange goings on in the ravine near town. Could everything be the work of some sort of giant lizard monster?
THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: The Giant Gila Monster is a 1959 film, produced as a drive-in double feature alongside The Killer Shrews, typically regarded as the first “double feature” films that premiered back-to-back in drive-in theatres. In the opening scene, we see young couple Pat and Liz in their car at a local ravine, when they are suddenly attacked and their car falls into the ravine below. The only clue of the culprit is a giant, scaly foot that comes down upon the car. Later on, we see a group of young friends hanging out at the local diner, wondering where their friends Pat and Liz are. The sheriff is unable to find them, and Pat’s Father is unhappy with the investigation. Chase Winstead is a young car mechanic and tow truck operator in town who eventually stumbles upon the wreckage of their car, and a number of strange incidents that he happens upon while doing his job suggests that something strange is happening in the ravine outside of town. The film is very much a typical b-movie monster film, and as mentioned, one of the first films produced especially for the double feature drive-in theatres. The format is very typical of those films, featuring a monster terrorising local residents, and a runtime of just over one hour. Also very typically, the film barely deals with the monster itself, leaving it a mystery until the final few minutes of the film. The majority of the film just focuses on the goings on of the town, including the Sheriff’s investigation, Chase’s towing job, his family, and so on. There are a lot of scenes that just feel pointless and go nowhere. Having the “monster” appear on screen through-out interacting with the cast would have been logistically impossible, because it is a lizard that moves about on model sets, meaning we never see the monster and the cast on screen together. We should remember the film’s target audience though: young people (teenage boys) taking their dates in their cars to the drive-in theatre. As such, the film centres mostly around the young cast, who all have their own cars and are coupled together, as well as Chase being a mechanic obsessed with working on his car. Oh, and there’s some contemporary (for the time) music and dancing too. All of of this adds up to definitely appealing to that target audience, but their is very little substance to the film itself in terms of story, or highlighting the giant monster threat. As such, you’ll be looking back at this one with befuddlement at how any of this fits together. You can be forgiving with the format being notoriously low budget, but there’s so many scenes which just aren’t interesting or have no relevance, meaning that it won’t be very entertaining out of the context in which it was made. I suppose the less interesting scenes give viewers time to interact with their dates in their car (I’ll lave that to your imagination…).
The cast of characters, again, are meant to resonate with their target audience: the teens driving cars, Chase always talking about tuning up his own car…the main focus is on them being relatable and relevant. There’s some attempt to expand Chase’s character by introducing his family and such, but it all seems a bit superfluous. There’s also a lot of minor characters, like the Sheriff, and Pat’s Father, who show up from time-to-time to explain the plot, or try and justify any inconsistencies in the story, but that is really the limits of their purpose. There’s also a comic relief character who doesn’t really do anything (and isn’t really funny), and also a real DJ from the area it was filmed has a minor role too, which again adds some relevancy to the target audience. Again, there’s just so many scenes where the characters just talk about really minor or tangential things to pad out the run-time without actually developing the characters. Still, there’s at least some attempted variety with the characters, and an effort to make them relatable. It’s not that they’re all necessarily bad, just a bit harmless.
The budget is pretty average for these types of films. As mentioned, the “gila” monster is actually a lizard (Mexican beaded lizard, to be precise) that stomps around on a model set, so you never see it interact with the cast on screen at the same time. There’s at least plenty of shots that show off the local area and set the scene, and the film definitely has a vision in that respect. I think that sums up the film as a whole really: it aims to appeal to a specific audience, and fills it with relatable characters, music, and a local setting (in/around Dallas, where it would be premiered). In this sense, I think the film works. On the other hand, the “monster” element is pretty weak compared to similar films and barely plays a part in the story. Also, due to being so entrenched in its time, it doesn’t really hold up as a viewing experience today. Back when it was released though, it achieved a fair amount of success, and was released across the country and abroad, so it must have resonated at the time. Unfortunately, it doesn’t hold that same interest nowadays, except historically, as being one of the first drive-in double features, and the beginning of a cinematic phenomenon.