Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Gorgo (1961)

Written by: Robert L. Richards and Daniel James
Directed by: Eugene Lourie
Starring: Bill Travers, William Sylvester, Vincent Winter

I first found out about Gorgo from a made-for-TV special called Dinosaurs, Dinosaurs, Dinosaurs with Gary Owens and Eric Boardman. A tape of the latter show was given to me as a present by my mom. I was pretty easy to buy for as a kid – if it had anything to do with dinosaurs, I was happy. It was a fun mix of then-current (and some oddly speculative) paleontology, corny humor, and clips from movies that featured prehistoric monsters. Needless to say I nearly wore the tape out, and in the days before the internet took all the fun out of hunting for movies, a lot of the clips were tantalizing glimpses of things I had no way of seeing.

In those days, the only media outlet in town aside from the small VHS racks at K-Mart and Target (which yielded some surprising fruit once in a while too, I got my first copy of Mothra at K-Mart and The Last Dinosaur at Wal-Mart pre-juggernaut days when their store was even smaller than the local Shop-Ko) was Music Land in the mall (and then there was the day Kay-Bee Toys sprouted a bin full of garishly-colored Sandy Frank edition Gamera flicks). I got some pretty great stuff from there, and it was always exciting to go in with my allowance money and discover a new Video Treasures or Goodtimes Home Video release of a Toho monster mash. I had just about every movie Godzilla and company appeared in that had been released in the states, and discovering there was another monster out there I had never seen put me on a mission. And so Gorgo became a seminal part of my obsessive love of movies by being the first flick I ever special ordered. In those days, after you fought your way past mammoths and smilodons uphill in the snow both ways through a tornado, that meant asking the clerk (yes, you had to talk to an actual person in an actual store!) to get out this massive catalog of every movie ever and go through it and physically put your order on the store's next invoice and take your number down and call you at home on your land line (sort of like a telegraph or smoke signals, kids) when it came in.

Maybe all the effort I had to put in to see it has made me more forgiving of its shortcomings than some, but I still think it's a damn entertaining movie. Even (or perhaps especially) as a sprout, I knew Gorgo was an inferior monster to his Japanese brethren, but with some solid special effects and a well-paced, breezy 77-minute run time, there are far worse ways to spend a Saturday afternoon than in the company of giant Irish dinosaurs.

When a freak undersea volcanic eruption off the coast of Ireland damages the salvage vessel of Captain Joe “My Name Sounds Like A Film Noir Detective” Ryan and his first officer Sam “My Name Sounds Even More Like A Film Noir Detective” Slade, they put in for repairs in the harbor of a small island called Nara. On the way to the island, they notice the surface of the ocean is littered with large, weird-looking fish. We only get the briefest glimpse of these things, which has always made this one of my favorite parts of the movie. The quick look we get at these odd creatures doesn't give you much time to absorb the details of their physiognomy, but they're really interesting. I remember rewinding and rewinding this part as a kid, trying to commit them to memory.

The locals are a surly bunch who speak mostly Gaelic, and the harbor master is also a government-funded archaeologist who is none to happy to have a bunch of salvage guys poking around his waters, which happen to be a treasure trove of ancient Viking ships, weapons, and loot. He tries to get them away from the island with talk of some bogus permit, but when it comes to light that some of his divers have been killed near the wreck by what is believed to be a shark, and then it's later discovered that the “shark” is in fact a gigantic, amphibious dinosaur, Ryan and Slade figure they can use some of the gear from their ship to help Dr. McCarten get rid of his reptile problem in exchange for a share of the treasure from the Viking wreck.

One of the biggest strikes against the movie is the two leads, particularly Ryan, are colossal douche bags. McCarten's apprehension at having a couple of thugs barge into his office, rummage around in his safe, and handle priceless ancient artifacts with reckless abandon is perfectly understandable. I'd want these two fuckwits off my island as fast as possible too. Hell, he probably only agrees to let them try to capture Gorgo because he hopes the fucking thing will eat them. In the original screenplay, the two leads were simply explorers, and the movie had a much more pro-nature attitude. When producers the King Brothers stepped in, they demanded the characters be changed to treasure hunters to make it more exciting. Since word on the street is the King Brothers were made men, and since they ruled any production they worked on with iron fists, it wouldn't surprise me if Richards, James and Lourie made the pair intentionally unsympathetic as a dig at their hardass bosses.

On the way back to their vessel, Slade mentions to Ryan that a live dinosaur would be worth considerably more alive than dead, and so after a surprisingly smooth plan (that didn't work out nearly as well for the scientist when Lourie used the exact same plot device in Beast from 20,000 Fathoms) to use the lights on a diving capsule to attract Gorgo, they drop nets on him from the ship and haul him aboard.

A couple of scientists from the University of Dublin show up to give the crew instructions – based on pure guesswork because who the hell has experience transporting 65-foot carnivorous dinosaurs? – on how best to get the beast to U-Dub. As soon as the boffins are out of earshot, Ryan shows Slade a telegram from Dorkin's Circus in London, who are willing to pay a lot more than any college, no matter how well endowed, could afford. They do at least take the scientists' advice about keeping the animal's skin wet with a constant stream of water. Unfortunately, once Gorgo is set up in his new digs at the circus, the two scientists (who have been oh-so-generously been allowed to continue to study the greatest discovery science has ever seen when screaming kids and their dull-witted parents aren't ogling and teasing and throwing half-melted ice cream cones at it) determine that not only is Gorgo not an adult of its species, it's barely more than a hatchling, making an adult Gorgo somewhere in the range of 200 feet tall. Ominously, all radio contact with Nara Island was lost shortly after Ryan's ship left with the baby creature aboard. Remember that constant stream of water they were pouring over it all the way back to London? Maybe they shouldn't have listened to the scientists after all. Mom's coming, and she is pissed.

Aside from the fact that you spend the whole movie hoping the main characters will die, the movie's only real downside is the fact that you spend a good portion of it wondering how the hell Ryan and Slade weren't met at whatever English harbor they put in at by squads of military and police ready to put them in jail and send Gorgo back to Ireland. I can't imagine there aren't any customs regulations in place regarding the transport of rare and endangered animals across borders without permission in England and Ireland, especially giant prehistoric ones with a track record of killing humans. But logic isn't really what we're here for, is it? Eugene Lourie was an art director first and foremost, and the effects in this movie are outstanding for their time. VCI's spectacular Blu ray transfer brought out details I never could have made out on my murky old VHS copy, and contrary to expectations, the bright and vibrant high-def picture actually makes them look better.

Oddly enough, the worst effect (apart from the British Army shooting what are blatantly bottle rockets at Mama Gorgo) is the monster suit itself. It's a neat looking design, but in an attempt to make the suit more expressive than the original Godzilla, which Lourie thought was stiff and unrealistic, they crammed it full of hydraulics to control things like its eyes and flapping ear fins. Packing in all that extra machinery had the opposite effect of what was intended, and restricted the stunt man's motion so much that Gorgo's movements are even stiffer than Godzilla's.

Still, minor quibbles with what is overall a very satisfying and entertaining monster flick that will always have a special place in my memories.

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