Tuesday, June 6, 2023

From the Clyde’s Movie Palace located in the underbrush of a Texas drive-in theater comes The Giant Gila Monster (1959)

Gila Monster ReviewCompleted Cast Picture

In the enormity of the West, there are still vast and virtually unexplored regions, bleak and desolate, where no human ever goes, and no life is ever seen. It is as though the land has been posted by God. It is in these lonely areas of impenetrable forest and dark shadows that the Gila Monster and the entire 2023 population of Texas now live.

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The Giant Gila Monster (1959)
is one of the great Science Fiction/Horror movies to come out of the 50's. The production values are top-notch. The close-ups of the monster crawling through the brush to destroy humanity are terrifying. As if that weren't enough, the creepy creature wreaks havoc on one classic automobile after another, rivaling the Fast and Furious movies in automobile destruction. Teenagers in Texas didn't stand a chance against the tongue-lashing creature out of the stone age.

That is except for one teen, our hero, Chase Winstead (Don Sullivan), who fights the forces of Evil, keeps all his hot-rodding teen friends in line and can hammer out one helluva song while beating out the fender while working for a pittance in Compton's Garage.

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Our Super Hero, Chase, also has a sidekick. Sheriff Jeff (Fred Graham) drives around in his used but mighty patrol car while complaining about the Texas State Troopers who get a new vehicle every year. Jeff hurries to Compton's to seek help from do-gooder Chase whenever there's trouble afoot.

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And right from the beginning, the horrid Gila causes trouble, devouring two necking teenagers, Pat Wheeler (Grady Vaughn) and his hot girlfriend Liz Humphries (Yolanda Salas). This dastardly deed takes place before the credits roll, and Gertie the Gila devours his lunch off-camera. I think it's in Gertie's contract that because he's such a sloppy eater spilling blood all over the Texas landscape, he can't be shown ingesting his breakfast, lunch, or dinner. As for Liz and Pat, your time in this movie quickly ends. Bye, bye. We hardly knew you.

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But we do get to know Pat's rich Daddy, Mr. "no first name" Wheeler (Bob Thompson), who seems to want to do nothing but harass Chase, Sheriff Jeff, and any other teenage hot-rodding low-life who gets in his way. His son is missing? Chase's fault. His son's girlfriend might be knocked up? Chase's fault. Pat and Liz may have eloped? Chase's fault. Chase's father got killed on one of Wheeler's oil rigs? Chase's fault.

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To make matters worse, Chase's girlfriend, Lisa (Lisa Simone), works for the old bastard. It is she who relays the bad news to the low-rent Grease cast that Pat and Liz didn't come home and that Wheeler is on the warpath. 

Lisa is an immigrant from France. As misfortune would have it, Fart-face Wheeler, her sponsor, and employer, threatens to have her deported if she sees Chase again. Chase tells her not to worry, that as long as Greg Abbott doesn't get his grimy paws on her, she's safe.
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Keeping everybody on their toes as the comedy relief is Old Man Harris (Shug Fisher), who drives a car every teen wants to turn into a bomb. Old Man Harris comes from the school of Mad Dog 20/20 and Thunderbird, whereas alcohol is a comedienne's best friend.

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On the Andy Griffith Show, Otis Campbell (Hal Smith) was the town drunk who would lock himself up in his own personal cell when he was too inebriated. In the movies, Arthur Bach (Dudley Moore) was a funny drunk driven around town by his chauffeur, Bitterman (Ted Ross), and looked after by his Butler, Hobson. (Sir John Gielgud). The writers of The Giant Gila Monster believe it's hilarious if you put your drunks behind the wheel of a vehicle. So they give us two of them. Old Man Harris and Disc Jockey "Steamroller" Smith (Ken Knox), who wrecks his vehicle after seeing the pink polka-dotted Gila, and must have thought he was having the D.T.'s.   Gila 0013
Compton (Cecil Hunt), of the World's Famous Compton's Garage, hauls in some nitroglycerin in the hopes that he might get to imitate John Wayne in The Hellfighters putting out some oil well fires. The nitro does come in handy, but not for that.

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One car after another gets wrecked by Gertie and dragged into the underbrush, leaving our caped crusaders, Chase and Jeff, scratching their heads as to what's going on, especially since there are no bodies lying around. They find Pat Wheeler's car, but not Pat and Liz. They find another vehicle, and then there's that abandoned suitcase which does double duty when Chase's sister Missy, uses it for an overnight bag to stay with a friend.

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Speaking of Missy, there is one moment when Chase arrives home to find that Lisa has bought the child's new leg braces, enabling her to walk a few steps and for the audience to shed a tear or two, but I imagine that in 1959, most drive-in patrons headed to the restroom.

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Chase is so moved that he sings one of his musical compositions for Missy, where God tells Missy she should just laugh off the fact that he gave her a handicap to live with. 

Why is this in the movie? My best guess is to pad the already short running time so that Missy and Mama can be in on the suspense at the end of the movie, if you want to call it that.

I've seen The Giant Gila Monster many times over the years, and since the film is in the public domain, you can watch it just about anywhere for free, including this colorized version on Amazon (with commercials).  Quality varies from place to place.  The clips on the Instagram Post at the end of this review came from a version on Paramount Plus.
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It carries a lowly 3.6 out of ten-star rating on Amazon. Why do I keep coming back to it? Because I find the whole thing kind of goofy. Like watching a home movie with a plot. The kind of movie Steven Spielberg might have made with his Super 8 camera when he was a boy genius of about 11 or 12.

I would like to say that all these people went on to bigger and better movie roles. I'd like to say that, but I can't.

Shug Fisher and Fred Graham already had established careers. Graham was known mainly for his stunt work, and Fisher, like he is here, was often the comedy relief in Westerns such as those with Roy Rogers. 

Don Sullivan appeared in about 13 films before hanging it up in 1962. He did appear in the remake of this movie called Gila!, which you can find on Amazon Prime for free at the moment. Don passed away in 2018 at the age of 89.

If you've never seen this film, you owe it to yourself to look it up and watch it not only from a historical viewpoint but just because the fact that this movie is still hanging around over 60 years later is a testament to its staying power.  You can find it almost anywhere, but there is a fancy definitive edition coming in September along with another movie like it called The Killer Shrews.

This project was produced and partially financed by Ken Curtis, who made a career out of playing an Old Man Harris-type character called Festus on Gunsmoke. The difference is, if memory serves me correctly, Festus wasn't an alcoholic. My guess is that the budget for these films was so low they somehow managed to make a profit from them.

I'm going to give the movie a C, and I know I'm being generous. But I grudgingly admit I like some of these low-budget horror movies from the 50's, and I think of the many times I watched movies like this when I was growing up. And besides, watching it in my home theater on my 85-inch screen was almost like being transported back in time to a 1959 drive-in. 

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