Saturday, July 23, 2016

Battle In Outer Space (1959)

Battle In Outer Space primarily serves as a followup and a sequel to the events and ideas presented in Ishiro Honda's earlier alien invasion film, The Mysterians.  As such, several years have passed since the Mysterian invasion rallied Earth's forces under one banner to fend off the alien menace.  In that time, Earth has prepared for future attacks from the deep reaches of space via satellites and space stations orbiting the planet, monitoring the stars for activity.  However, with all their preparations, some incoming ships quickly destroy the orbiting satellite, and before anyone knows what is going on, Earth is once again under attack!  But from whom?

Around the globe, numerous devastating disasters occur, including a railroad bridge levitated off the ground causing a train wreck in Japan; an ocean liner lifted out of the Panama Canal by a waterspout, destroying it; and severe flooding in Venice, Italy.  A UN-connected international meeting is called at the Space Research Center in Japan. Major Ichiro Katsumiya, Professor Adachi and Dr. Richardson open the conference and describe the disasters, adding that the survivors suffered from extreme frostbite. Dr. Richardson theorizes that some unknown force lowered the temperatures of the objects so as to lower the Earth's gravitational pull, thus making the objects easier to lift, regardless of their size and weight. Katsumiya determines that such an action could only be accomplished by a force beyond the stars.

Dr. Ahmed, an Iranian delegate at the meeting, reacts as though suffering from a severe headache and slips away. Ahmed walks outside to a courtyard in a daze. Etsuko Shiraishi sees him and watches in horror as he is enveloped in a red light coming from the sky. Astronaut Iwamura comes in and Etsuko tells him what happened but Ahmed is nowhere to be seen. Back at the conference, it is believed that aliens might be behind the disasters and it is suggested that the Earth be prepared militarily. Dr. Ahmed appears and tries to sabotage the heat ray experiments held at the meeting, apparently under some sort of mind control. In the ensuing scuffle, he briefly takes Etsuko hostage and warns that the Earth will soon become a colony not of Mysterians, but from the planet Natal. Just then, a Natal saucer appears near the center and vaporizes him, but forensics find a tiny radio transmitter that was put in him, receiving signals from an alien base located on the moon.

The UN decides to launch two rocket ships, called SPIPs, to the Moon on a reconnaissance mission. En route, both ships are attacked by remotely controlled meteors called 'space torpedoes'. Iwamura, the navigator of SPIP-1, is also under mind control by the aliens. He is caught trying to disable the rocket's weapons and is tied up. Both SPIPs avoid the meteors and are given a warning by the Natal not to land on the moon, but it is ignored. Once the rockets land on the moon, the two teams look for the alien base in lunar rovers. Meanwhile, Iwamura has untied himself and blown up SPIP-1. They find a cave on foot and locate the Natal base in a deep crater. Etsuko is temporarily captured by the Natal but is rescued by Katsumiya. A beam weapon battle erupts as the teams attack the base. The Natal base is destroyed, freeing Iwamura from the aliens' mind control. Feeling guilty, Iwamura stays behind to give covering fire, allowing the SPIP-2 to escape.

Back on Earth, the world prepares for a final conflict against the Natal. Scout Ships (based on the North American X-15 experimental rocket plane) and Atomic Heat Cannons are built to counter the invasion fleet. Eventually, the Natal saucers and their mothership approach Earth. Squadrons of Scout Ships (converted into Space Fighters) are sent up into space and engage in a massive dogfight with the saucers. The Natal mothership launches Space Torpedoes that hit New York and San Francisco. The mothership descends upon Tokyo and lays the metropolis to waste with its anti-gravity ray. The remaining saucers and mothership advance on the Space Research Center, but the Atomic Heat Cannons finally destroy the mothership and the Earth is saved - though, with major casualties and damages.

Battle In Outer Space is interesting, in that it feels largely like a remake of its predecessor, The Mysterians, albeit far more finely tuned.  One part invasion/disaster film, and one part epic space opera, this is a film far ahead of its time.  Its epic space dogfights predate anything seen in Star Wars by well over 20 years, along with some truly stunning scenes of destruction during the attack sequences.  Unfortunately, despite being a fine movie, it does not have anywhere near the iconic power of The Mysterians, as the Nartal have a cool design, but a forgettable one - and there are no kaiju-sized robots on the march to give it a big memorable moment.  Overall, it's a largely forgettable experience that has remained largely forgotten against Toho's cavalcade of monsters, but still fun enough and interesting in that it provides a glimpse into what it might mean for man to travel in outer space several years before the real life moon landing was accomplished.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Varan (1958)

Varan was originally put into production to be shown on American television, and Godzilla/Rodan director Ishiro Honda went right to work on it.  However, with most of the film already completed, the television producers backed out, leaving Toho with a lot of work and hardly anything to show for it.  However, when life gives you lemons, you go ahead and make lemonade. Toho shot more scenes and ended up releasing the film in theaters.  Because it was being shot for television, it had been shot in black and white rather than in color, making this the final dip into black and white for Toho's theatrical monster franchise.  Now, I have to say, while the first act of this movie is a winner for me, Varan has always been one of my least favorite films in the franchise - as well as one of my least favorite monsters.  An engaging first act quickly degenerates into a messy retread of the tropes seen in the previous films, plus Varan himself is just staggeringly dull as a monster.  But still:

Opening with a truly stirring score from Akira Ifukube (which will largely be reworked and used as a main theme in later Godzilla movies), as well as in wide-screen (or Tohoscope, as they call it... though, I read that to accomplish that for this film, they actually cropped a good deal of the shot-for-tv footage, which is a bummer), the film takes us to a remote valley in Japan, where an extremely rare species of butterfly - usually native to Siberia - is found.  A pair of entomologists go to investigate their habitat, located along the Kitakami River, to discover why the insects might be living in Japan.  However, their journey is short-lived.  The two are crushed to death almost instantaneously.  The nearby superstitious villagers of the Kitakami River insist that the deaths were a result of the wrath of their mountain god Baradagi-Sanjin.

Back at the lab which had sent the original entomologists, another expedition is prepared.  All of their interest in rare butterflies, however, is entirely forgotten, and instead their main goal is to investigate the deaths of their two comrades.  This time the investigation is funded by a film company named 20th Century Mysteries Solved, an organization that seeks to uncover the truth behind the two deaths to report on it.  The party includes two reporters from the company: Horiguchi, a photographer, and Yuriko, the sister of one of the men who had been crushed to death, along with an entomologist named Kenji from the scientific community.

The three of them head out, and find that the bus only goes so far inland.  To reach the village where the men were killed, the party is forced to travel on foot.  This first act of the film is thoroughly interesting.  I'd even go so far as to say that it benefits from the black and white photography.  That, coupled with the excellent scenery and cinematography culminates in a truly mysterious and tense tone for the film.  And that tone is skyrocketed to epic heights when Akira Ifukube's score kicks in.  I cannot stress how much I love the main musical theme of this movie - a theme which almost exclusively plays during the first act of the film.  The group travel further inland and stumble upon a village doing a ritualistic prayer to their mountain god. The priest of the village warns the travelers that their presence will make their god, Baradagi, angry. However, the warnings fall of deaf ears, as the expedition scoffs at the idea of humans in the 20th Century believing in such paranormal garbage.  Moments later, trouble ensues when Ken, a young local boy, runs out of the village after his dog.  The villagers are barred from chasing him by the priest, who claims that going further inland toward the nearby lake will only anger their god.  The expedition, however, speaks up, saying that there is no such thing and that there is clearly nothing to fear.  "Even the small boy ran in there," one of them points out.  A portion of the villagers agree, forsaking tradition, and agreeing to head into the forest, toward the lake to rescue Ken. 

At the lake's edge, shrouded in some really atmospheric fog, they find Ken and the dog, and all reunite happily.  Their reunion is cut short, though, by a reptilian monster rising from the Kitakami River. The villagers flee back to their homes, but the giant lizard gives chase.  It enters the village, killing the priest who was guarding the entrance, and then proceeds to tear apart the huts inside. After the destruction, the monster retreats to his underwater lair.  It's a pretty good scene.  The creature has a truly impressive form, with a long whip-like tail that is pretty spectacular on screen.

Reports of the creature's existence are sent back, and the creature is dubbed Varan.  I didn't realize this until about a year or so ago when I googled "Varan" and it came up with a picture of a bunch of lizards, but the Varanidae are a family of lizards of the superfamily Varanoidea. The family includes a group of carnivorous and frugivorous lizards, including monitor lizards and Komodo Dragons (the largest living lizards).  As news spreads, Japan decides to take preventative measures.  Rather than wait for another city or village to be destroyed, the defense force is mobilized near the Kitakami River.  Nearby villages are evacuated, as tanks and ground artillery units move into position. Shortly after the evacuation, the military begins releasing toxins into the river to drive the monster out.  Dead fish rise to the surface, and soon so does Varan.  Splashing angrily in the water, phase two of the SDF's plan is put into operation as tanks and artillery units begin to unleash their destructive fury on the monster. The conventional weapons have no effect, though, and the military is forced to retreat. Amongst the confusion, Yuriko manages to get caught under a falling tree, placing her right in Varan's path. Kenji narrowly manages to save his colleague, and the two seek safety in a nearby cave where Varan pursues the two, reaching his clawed hands into the cavern groping for them. Luckily, the military intervenes, firing flares over the monster's head.  Varan becomes attracted by the light, and climbs a nearby mountain in order to get a closer look. Once at the peak, though, Varan raises his arms to reveal hidden flaps of skin, similar to a flying squirrel. The creature then leaps from the mountain and glides off into the sea.  The film fades to black, and probably should have simply ended there.  All of the interesting ideas have been spent at this point, and the rest of the film is a purposeless montage of the JSDF trying to kill the monster, more or less diving this film to a pretty low ranking as far as my personal favorites go.

As the next day breaks, Varan's reign of terror continues as he capsizes a fishing boat not far from Tokyo's shores. Why is he going straight for Tokyo?  Who knows.  It is never really explained or even questioned.  The three people from the expedition still play a part in all of these events too, but there is no explanation for that either.  They serve no purpose, and we never spent/spend enough time with them to really care whether they are there or not.  It's really pretty sloppy.  The defense force remobilizes, sending a squadron of jets to intercept the creature. The jets are met with little success, as Varan manages to sink one of them that ventures to close to the water's surface.  Eventually, the monster submerges and continues his swim toward Tokyo. The military moves into phase two of their counterattack, deploying battleships to the surrounding waters and blast him out, but unfortunately the battleship's artillery has no effect against the creature.  Undiscouraged, the JSDF quickly launches a third campaign to try and stop Varan's advancement, this time using mine sweepers to seal off Tokyo. This attack, like the rest, is met with failure. Out of options, the defense force again remobilizes its forces to the area around Tokyo bay, lining the water with battleships and dispatching a battalion of tanks near Haneda airport.

Varan obviously breaks through and begins wrecking the airport.  There is a whole lot of pointless destruction and sequences of the army firing their weapons - a good portion of which is stock footage ripped shamelessly from Gojira.  Finally, they deploy more flares to try and distract the creature - which honestly seems like an obvious choice.  One would imagine that they would have thought of this earlier.  But they didn't.  They deploy some flares and find that not only is Varan distracted by them, but he is eating them as well.  Loading a flew flairs with bombs filled with a newly developed special explosive, they drop them from overhead and Varan eats them, only to have they all explode within his throat and gut.  Wounded, Varan drags himself back into the ocean, where the final explosive detonates underwater.  He has vanished, and the JSDF believe they have succeeded.  It is "another victory for mankind," or so the film posits as it ends.

When the film was finally distributed to American theaters, the American film studios took a page out of Godzilla, King of the Monsters!'s book, by reworking the entire movie.  An entirely new film was created, using American actors for all the significant dramatic scenes, and a new plot was created, which now centered around an American military scientist named James Bradley and his Japanese wife Anna conducting desalinization experiments in the salt water lake which awakened the monster.  All scenes involving Varan's ability to fly were removed, all of Ifukube's incredible music was cut, and the film is a whopping 15 minutes shorter.  Andrew Smith, of Popcorn Pictures, noted how awful the butcher job that the American version had done of the Japanese original, but also said that the original wasn't that great either.  He was perplexed at the decision to give Varan its own standalone film, saying that "considering how some of the more popular Toho monsters have never received their own film, the decision to give Varan his own vehicle is mind-boggling."  And indeed it is, even when considering that the film was originally intended for television in America, Toho would later come up with an entire pantheon of great monsters.  Why was this one so forgettable?

The familiar themes of man vs. nature are in tact here, along with a message about pillaging some of the wilderness' most deep and remote treasures, but its most interesting moments have to do with the opening scenes of the movie where both expeditions come into contact with the remote village.  The villagers there are superstitious mystics, praying that their god will not destroy them.  Both teams of scientists, as well as the reporters, mock these rituals, and they do so in the name of rationality.  There are some interesting ideas afoot as scholarly, learned characters scoff at those who are rooted in traditions and myths.  The educated fail to head the warnings of the superstitious.  They even go so far as to "convert" most of the village to their way of thinking.  And in the end, the educated were right.  There was no angry god.  But there was a price to pay for not heeding the warnings.  While no god was there, there was something which was to be feared.  Sure, it was physical and a part of nature (though, likely a mutant relic of the past), but still, the villager's superstitions had kept them safe from it up until that point.  But when they all go and catch its attention, it gives chase and destroys the whole village, killing the priest who still insisted it to be Baragadi the god, thereby shattering everything that was left about their way of life.  Is this the price of progress?  Perhaps.  Perhaps there was wisdom on both sides.  Either way, the "educated" are all that remain for the rest of the film, and when they come back to harass the creature, it more or less plows through them all wreaking havoc along the way until they finally repel it.  The price we pay still, I guess.

It's interesting, but beyond Varan's first attack at the village, the film turns into an unbelievably boring chase-sequence, following the world's worst monster as he makes a completely senseless beeline for a heavily populated area.  It's tired.  It's trite.  It's not that good.  Varan himself, though visually interesting for his initial appearances, is boring and hardly able to keep up his presence for an entire feature film.  With no powers or abilities beyond his gliding skills (which he only uses once), it's sort of the equivalent of watching an angry bear thrash around for an hour while people scream at it.  Fun for a while, but it gets old - especially when there aren't any fresh action pieces in the latter parts of the film.  Oh well.  While production of this film was clearly troubled, it also clearly was never meant to hold its own for such a long runtime.  Another extremely clear fact is that this giant monster outing from Toho is, above all, predictable.  It's something we've seen several times before - all of which were done with more skill and heart than this.  It was time for the series to shake things up with something a little more original and interesting.  And that they would do, in several years when Ishiro Honda gave another crack at giant monsters in the form of 1961's Mothra.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The H-Man (1958)

Ishiro Honda, Eiji Tsuburaya, and Tomoyuki Tanaka return with another monster movie, this time in the form of The H-Man.  The H-Man is immediately distinguished from this team's usual monster fair, in that this time the monsters are not Godzilla-sized behemoths, toppling buildings in titanic battles, but are instead human-sized assailants, silently stalking their prey in the night.  In fact, the whole film takes on a tone of a serious, mature horror film more so than any other films on this list - save perhaps for Ishiro Honda's later Matango.  Infused with noir ambience and a crime-thriller flavor, The H-Man features haunted ships, anti-nuclear sentiments, extramarital relationships, yakuza, drug-running, scantily-clad dancers, and people being melted alive. The film was originally titled Beauty and the Liquidpeople, but the plot has nothing to do with the fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast, but instead offers a mature, scary, brooding modern-day crime drama wrapped in a horror film.  The experience is overall extremely unique, and the concept can only be commended.

On a dark night in the outskirts of Tokyo, a drug smuggler by the name of Misaki is mysteriously killed while trying to get away from police, leaving only his clothes behind. The police investigate by going to his apartment, only to find his girlfriend, Arai Chikako, who says he hasn't returned for five days. Arai works at a cabaret, so the police decide to go there for further investigation. After her performance, the police go back to Arai's room and find a man backstage with her. After finding a note to Arai in his pocket, they bring him in as a suspect. However, upon his arrest they discover that he isn't one of the usual gangsters who frequents the cabaret, but is instead identified as Masada, an assistant professor at Jyoto University.  Masada explains that he wanted to talk to Arai about her missing boyfriend, Misaki, and explains his theory that Misaki's disappearance is the result of his physical form melting away, possibly from an extreme amount of radiation in the rain that night. The police don't buy a word of it, and set up patrols at Misaki's apartment where Arai is living.

That night, another criminal by the name of Nishiyama sneaks into the apartment and threatens Arai, asking her where Misaki is; however, he gets no answer as Arai explains that she simply doesn't know. Angry, Nishiyama states that he will spare her life for tonight, and leaves by the window. Not long after, Arai hears gun shots that are followed by a scream. Arai then opens the door to the apartment and faints in the hall. The police go the room to investigate, and look out the window only to see Nishiyama's clothes and a gun lying out on the street - but Nishiyama himself is missing.

In the morning, the police take Arai in for questioning, but get no new information from her. Professor Masada arrives at the police station to try and prove his theory to them once more, this time he invites them to go back to the hospital with him where he announces that he has collected witnesses that will prove his theory.  The witnesses tell a gruesome story about a stormy night at sea when they discovered the Ryujin Maru II - a seemingly abandoned derelict ship floating the stormy waves.  Curious, the men entered the ship, only to find it was entirely abandoned, but that it looked as though the crew had left suddenly, as their clothes and personal possessions were still on board.  However, just as they were beginning to suspect some kind of foul play, they were confronted by several ghastly, greenish phantoms in humanoid form.  Able to change shape, the creatures killed several of their comrades, instantly liquifying them upon contact.  Only two of the original six men who went aboard to investigate made it out alive, leaving the ship to drift at sea with its abominable inhabitants.

The story is frightening, but too amazing for the police to believe, and so Masada continues his explanation by showing them a bullfrog that he has exposed to the Ash of Death - radioactive fallout after nuclear weapons are detonated.  Upon contact, the frog is liquified, and Masada explains that he believes the Ryujin Maru II had drifted too close to a hydrogen bomb test at sea, and when the crew was exposed, they were liquified into these strange being - the Hydrogen-Bomb-Men, or H-Men.  Probably retaining some primitive form of their original humanity, the H-Men have now come to Tokyo because they remember it as being their home, and are now treating it as their own personal hunting territory. The police still don't buy that the Misaki disappearance is related to this, though, and they instead decide to question Arai again, this time showing her a group of pictures, asking her to identify who came into the apartment the night before. She points out Nishiyama out of the pictures, a member of the Hanada gang.

Meanwhile, Masada finds a lifesaver on the docks that belongs to the Ryujin Maru II, and he starts to suspect that the liquid might have attached itself to it and traveled to Tokyo. Masada takes the lifesaver back to the University, where he and his colleagues find out that the lifesaver is indeed radioactive. Arai then visits the institute to find Masada and tells him about the murders, and how a liquid killed the victims. Professor Maki is intrigued by the girl's story, and asks that Masada goes to the police station and tell them their findings. Masada complies, but is still laughed at down at the station - again. The police becomes notably annoyed with his persistence in pursuing this theory. So, to stay in their favor, Masada divulges that he believes that a waiter at the cabaret may be in on the drug smuggling.

That night, the police visits the cabaret again, disguised as customers. They watch, and mark down which tables the waiter stops at for long periods of time. Every time someone from one of these marked tables starts to leave, they arrest them as a suspect. Eventually the guests of the club begin to catch on, and one of them fires his gun right before they cuff him. The waiter hears this and warns Uchida, an intricate figure in a drug smuggling ring, and they retreat to one of the dancer's rooms. Once inside, they try to escape through the window, but are cut off by an H-Man who has been skulking in the shadows, waiting to take its next prey. The waiter, along with one of the dancers is killed. The H-Man next tries to get Arai, but is distracted by one of the policemen, who starts firing at it. The H-Man liquefies the officer, and then escapes through the window. During the commotion, the criminal Uchida takes off his clothes to fake his death, and escapes.

The police now accepts Masada's theory about the Ash of Death. It's also confirmed that the liquid got to Tokyo by attaching itself to the lifesaver. Maki explains to the authorities that the only way to kill the creatures is by electrocution or incineration. Then Masada, after studying Uchida's clothes, explains to the police that they weren't radioactive, meaning Uchida must have tricked them and escaped. Shortly after this discovery, Arai is kidnapped by Uchida. Meanwhile, the authorities, upon discovering that the H-Men are living int he canals and sewers around Tokyo, plan to fill the surrounding bodies of water with gasoline, to incinerate them once and for all.

However, before the authorities can put this plan into operation, Uchida leads Arai into the sewers to retrieve a stash of drugs that the cabaret waiter had been hiding down there. In the meantime, Masada finds a piece of Arai's clothing floating in the water near one of the sewage valves, and rushes into the sewers to find her before they are incinerated by the police's plan to destroy the H-Men. Luckily, the police catch wind of Masada's actions and ask permission to go down with one of the teams preparing the gasoline operation. A rescue team is then prepared, and goes in after them. Uchida is killed shortly after by one of the H-Men, and Arai begins to flee for her life. Masada finds her, and manages to help her get away as the rescue team discovers them both, with the H-men in hot pursuit. The water is then ignited, burning alive all of the monsters and putting an end to their reign of terror.

The H-Man has drawn inevitable comparisons to The Blob, which came out at around the same time, and the comparison is fairly reasonable.  Both involve amorphous monsters that eat and liquify their prey, unable to be harmed by conventional weaponry.  Still, the two films are quite different in both tone, plot, and even subtextual message.  Whereas The Blob is a fun and frightening teeny-boppers vs. monster-on-the-loose tale, The H-Man is considerably darker and more mature. Rather than The Blob's hot rodding teens in a small town, The H-Man centers upon ruthless gangsters prowling the rain-streaked streets of Japan's largest city, and running a bar teeming with exotic dangers in the city's seediest of underbellies (though, perhaps it's the second seediest of Tokyo's underbellies, as beneath the streets is the sewer lair of the titular H-Men, the film's most savage and deadly antagonists). The hard-bitten police officers face off against the gangsters, and in the midst of this war between law and disorder comes a new and terrifying force that literally dissolves victims right in front of the camera. Eerie, dark imagery prevails, and the mystery behind the monster unfolds slowly, building tension step-by-step. While the central concept of the film is obviously pure fantasy, the plot has enough of a hook to really captivate audiences.  Certainly the pacing slows a bit once the police accept the existence of the liquid monsters in their city, overall The H-Man is one of Toho's most unique monster offerings, as well as one of its most adult - along with the original 1954 Godzilla, that is.  And, of course, the H-Men themselves - radioactive ghosts, more or less, made of oozing ectoplasmic fallout - are as unique and memorable foe as any monster put to screen.

The Mysterians (1957)

Aliens and other science fiction/space opera elements are commonplace in Godzilla movies by today's standards.  In the 1970s, nearly every film rounding out the original Showa Godzilla series featured an alien invasion as the main conflict for increasingly cliched plot.  However, that wasn't always the case.  In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Toho and Ishiro Honda cranked out several alien invasion epics that stood as unique twists on a classic plot, bolstered by Eiji Tsyburaya's magnificent effects work.  The first outing into alien territory came in 1957's The Mysterians.

Astronomers and Astrophysicists have discovered a new asteroid, along with an interesting theory that the floating space debris was originally part of an undiscovered planet located between Mars and Jupiter.  The debris is named the Mysteroid, though most of Earth's scientists laugh off the theory as being somewhat fantastical.  Furthermore, Shirashi, the man who came up with the theory, has gone missing following several fires and earthquakes that have wiped out his hometown.

Soon after, the cause of the earthquakes is discovered to be Moguera, an enormous robotic mech specialized at digging and burrowing.  Moguera is something of a fan favorite in the Godzilla fandom, perhaps more well known for its later appearance in the Heisei series in Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla.  In fact, the whole idea of adding the giant robot came as something of an afterthought quite late in the film's production.  Still, the hulking mech is one of (if not the) the film's most iconic additions, and is a delight to watch on screen.  Moguera's rampage continues, and the JSDF is called in to destroy it.  However, preliminary attacks show that the mech's metallic hull is impervious to conventional weaponry.  As the enormous robot tries to cross a bridge in order to level a nearby town, the bridge is detonated as a last resort, causing the robot to tumble into the river below, short circuiting and exploding. At the Diet Building, Atsumi briefs officials on what has been learned about the Moguera automaton. The remains of the giant machine reveal that it was manufactured out of an unknown chemical compound. 

Shortly afterwards, astronomers witness activity in outer space around the moon. They alert the world to this discovery, and not long after the aliens emerge, as a gigantic technological dome erupts through the Earth's crust near Mount Fuji. A group of scientists are politely ushered into the dome, where the Mysterians, a scientifically advanced alien race, list their demands from the people of Earth: a two-mile radius strip of land and the right to marry women on Earth. The reason for this is that 100,000 years ago their planet Mysteriod, the once fifth planet from the sun, was destroyed by a nuclear war. Fortunately, some Mysterians were able to escape to Mars before their planet was rendered uninhabitable. However, due to the nuclear war, Stronium-90 has left 80 percent of the aliens' population either entirely sterile, deformed, or crippled. The proposed interbreeding with women on Earth would produce healthier offspring and keep their race alive. The latter part of their demands is downplayed as they admit to already taking three women captive and reveal two others that they are interested in.

Appauled at the arrogance of the Mysterians, Earth refuses their demands and begins the mobilization of its armed forces around Mount Fuji. It's also discovered that the missing scientist whose theory about the Mysteroid was correct has resurfaced, and revealed to have sided with the aliens due to their technological achievements.  Furious at Earth's opposition to their plight, the Mysterians increase their demands, asking for a 75-mile radius of land, as the Earth continues to develop a new method of attack. Earth's efforts in this matter pay off as the Markalite Flying Atomic Heat Projector, a gigantic lens that can reflect the Mysterians’ weaponry, is developed and put into action against the alien base. 

Ultimately, a twofold final attack on the Mysterian base is enacted, as the abducted women are rescued, and Shirashi - who had previously sided with them - turns on the aliens and sabotages their defenses from the inside, while the forces of Earth attack from the outside.  Finally, the Mysterian base is destroyed, and Earth has been saved from the extra terrestrial attack... for now.

While the premise of alien invaders abducting Earth's women and holding the planet hostage isn't anything new, The Mysterians does a valiant effort at trying to give this premise the most cutting edge effects and visuals of the time.  While it's not overtly impressive by today's standards - beyond the Moguera sequences, and perhaps the Mysterians' brazen and colorful appearance - this is a tactic that has been tried many times throughout cinematic history to great success.  For what is Independence Day if not a remake of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers with newer effects and a bigger budget?

Rodan (1956)

When discussing sequels, spinoffs, and continuity within the Godzilla franchise - and especially when dealing with the various series that take place within that franchise - things can get a little sticky.  Especially with spinoffs.  There are many films which very obviously tie-in to the main Godzilla narrative, and some... not so much.  It's actually a subject that has many fans greatly divided.  Still, it's apparent in various cameos and later films - as well as in the general marketing of Toho's monster franchise - that Toho considers most of their sci fi/fantasy movies something of a piece with one another.  As such, most of those films (I might miss a few along the way) will be reviewed.  That said, 1956's Rodan isn't one of the films only loosely tied to the Godzilla franchise, as it clearly comes into play in later films.

1956 saw the return of Ishiro Honda following up Half Human by returning to enre tropes established by his previous Godzilla and its sequel (which he did not direct) Godzilla Raids Again, with the release of Rodan - and in full color, no less.  Since the first Godzilla attack in 1954, it appears that Japan has been cursed to feel the wrath of nature time and time again.  In the small mining village of Kitamatsu, two miners have gone missing. The two men, Goro and Yoshi, had brawled earlier that day, and no sooner had they entered the mine when the shaft quickly flooded. Shigeru Kawamura, head of security at the mine, heads below to investigate the mysteriously flooded tunnels, where he and the local police quickly make a gruesome discovery: Yoshi's severely lacerated corpse. Above ground, a doctor examines Yoshi, and discovers the cause of death to be a series of deep gashes caused by an abnormally sharp object.  As some of the miners comfort Yoshi's wailing wife, the others discuss the possibility of Goro's involvement in the death. The two had never been friends, and had, after all, gotten in a fight earlier that very morning.  With Goro still missing, murder seems likely, and many suspect that he could be on the run or still be hiding in the mine.  Outside, Shigeru meets with his fiance Kiyo, who is also Goro's sister. He tells her that he is sure of Goro's innocence, which comforts hear greatly.

Meanwhile, inside the mine, three policemen stand guard at the edge of the water, knowing if Goro tries to escape, he will surely come that way, as it is the only exit.  Suddenly, they hear a splash in the flooded mine, and venture into the water. As they wade deeper into the shaft, they get more and more nervous, until one of the policemen begins to scream and then disappears under the water.  Panic ensues, and it is not too long before another is pulled under by something beneath the surface.  The last policeman flees, but before he can escape, he is cornered and attacked by someone - or something.  Soon after, his body, along with the bodies of the other two policemen, are brought up and examined. The doctor announces that they, too, were killed by a sharp object that simply sliced them apart, and the village outcry that Goro be brought to justice reaches its peak.  So much so, in fact, that the wife of one of the murdered men runs to Kiyo's house and screams threats at her through the door, as she believes that her brother, Goro, is the killer. Shigeru soon arrives and comforts her, telling her that the officers who were killed were Goro's friends, implying that someone else must have killed those men. As the two sit together, the answer to the question of who - or what - murdered the men suddenly reveals itself: a gigantic creature, resembling an insect larva enters Kiyo's home, and both Kiyo and Shigeru flee. The police enter the home, but the giant insect fights them off. When they regroup, they chase the creature to the top of a hill, where it launches itself down the hillside and grabs two officers, clutching them in its pincers as it flees. It soon drops them and quickly escapes back into the mine. When the police and Shigeru reach the injured officers, they discover that their wounds match the wounds of the murdered policemen and Yoshi. They have found the killer.

Soon after, Shigeru and a group of the metro-police and army head back into the mine to confront the insect monster and attempt to locate Goro, dead or alive. Unfortunately, as they enter the deepest part of the mine shaft, they discover the butchered body of Goro laying on the ground, and as they approach, the giant insect emerges and chases the men back up the mine shaft. Taking action, Shigeru releases the mine cart, which rolls down the shaft and collides with the insect, crushing and killing it. Shigeru and the others then venture back into the shaft and remove Goro's body. They discover a large hole in the wall that opens up into a large cave, and realize that this is the hole through which the water and the giant insect originally emerged. As they peek through, they are noticed by not just one, but dozens of other giant insect creatures like the one they had just destroyed. Before the monsters can attack, however, the ground begins to shake, and the mine begins to cave in. Shigeru is trapped in the cave with the creatures, and the police can do nothing as the mine collapses around them.

The next day, the police investigate the recent happenings. Dr. Kashiwagi identifies the giant insect as a form of Meganulon, an ancient species of dragonfly larvae that had lived on the Earth millions of years earlier (these insects would later reappear in 2000's Godzilla vs. Megaguirus). As the doctor reveals his findings, an earthquake suddenly strikes the area again. Rumors begin to circulate that Mt. Aso, a nearby volcano, might be on the verge of an eruption. When the police arrive at the base of the volcano to investigate the damage caused by the earthquake, they are shocked to discover a man wandering around the epicenter. When they reach him, they discover that it is Shigeru, somehow having escaped the mines and coming out at Mt. Aso.  However, he has received a blow to the head and has lost his memory.  The doctors are not optimistic about his chances for recovery, but nevertheless do their best to try to help him in any way that they can.

Several miles away, in Kyushu, an air base receives an alert from one of their jets. The pilot has observed an unidentified flying object performing impossible maneuvers at supersonic speeds. He is ordered to pursue the object at a distance, but as he follows it, the object suddenly changes course and turns around. The object then flies straight towards the jet and destroys it. Soon after, reports from all over the world come in about the UFO. The strange object is observed flying over China, the Philippines and Japan, and rumors of a secret military weapon test begin to circulate. Back in Japan, a newly married couple disappear, as well as several heads of cattle around Mt. Aso.  When the authorities develop the film from the newlyweds' camera, they discover a photograph of what appears to be a gigantic wing. They match the photo with a drawing of a Pteranodon, an ancient reptile thought to be extinct millions of years earlier.

Meanwhile, Shigeru's treatment is progressing slowly, but no one, especially not Kiyo, is giving up. One day, as Shigeru sits silently in his hospital room, Kiyo shows him the eggs that her pet birds have laid. As one of the eggs hatches, a terrible memory returns to Shigeru and he begins to freak out, regaining all of his memories.  He recall that deep within the mine, he awoke after the cave in. To his horror, he was surrounded by hundreds of Meganulon. The creatures crawled all around the cave, having survived millions of years underground. Shigeru then looked up and was shocked to see what appeared to be a giant egg sitting right in the middle of the cave. Suddenly, the egg began to stir and hatch. From out of the fractured shell emerged a gigantic, winged creature with a sharp beak and a head like a bird of prey. Shigeru watched in horror as the enormous hatchling bent over and began to eat all of the Meganulon. The monstrous insects that had terrorized the town and had killed his friends were nothing more than a snack to this new creature. With all of the Meganulon gone, the giant monster spread its wings and roared, and Shigeru blacked out. As he recovers from seeing the horrifying vision, Kiyo weeps with joy over his memory's return.  Shigeru confirms that the creature he saw did indeed resemble a pterosaur, and that it had eaten all of the Meganulon. He and a group of police and scientists once again descend into the mine and enter the cave where the egg had been. They are able to recover a fragment of the shell, and in a lab, Dr. Kashiwagi is able to determine the size of the egg and its age, finding it to be several million years old. After amassing the evidence, Kashiwagi calls a meeting with members of the town, along with members of the Japanese Self-Defence Force to communicate his findings. He tells the men that the UFO seen flying all across the world at supersonic speeds is a gigantic pteranodon he has named Rodan. The 50 meter tall monster is capable of flying at extremely fast speeds, which create a sonic boom that more than likely led to the destruction of the jet that had first observed it. Kashiwagi still has no explanation as to how the creature could have transversed the globe so quickly, and why reports of sightings occurred in multiple, distant countries at the same time. But, as to how Rodan could have resurfaced after millions of years, and why he and the Meganulon are so large, Kashiwagi theorizes that nuclear bomb testing, which loosened the Earth and opened cavities to long buried crevices and caves, might be the culprit.  Rodan's egg must have been in an ancient nest, and the mother, millions of years earlier, had filled that nest with insect larvae to feed the hatchling.  They had remained buried in suspended animation until nuclear tests loosened the ground, flooding the cavern with radiation, mutating and awakening the creatures.

Soon after, Rodan emerges from the ground near Mt. Aso, near where the beast had hatched. The creature takes flight and begins to head for Kyushu, with a squadron from the air force hot on his tail. They pursue Rodan over the city in what is an amazingly shot aerial action sequence - years ahead of its time - and it's extremely cool.  The jets eventually succeeds in forcing Rodan into a river. The flying reptile soon emerges, but his flight speed has been cut by half. Rodan flies over the buildings at Fukuoka, and the sonic wave created in its wake literally tears the structures apart. The flying monster lands in the city and flaps its wings, and the entire city is literally pulled down by its own weight. Fires spread as the men, and the machines who are on the defense are simply blown away. Just when it seems that things can't get worse, the JSDF reports that another Rodan has been spotted heading towards the city. With the mystery of the spread out sightings now revealed, the second Rodan now flies over and rips apart the buildings. After leveling the city and leaving the remaining buildings in flames, the monsters both fly away together, leaving thousands dead, and return to their nesting ground in Mt. Aso.  Apparently, there had been more than one egg, and it is implied that these two have possibly chosen each other as mates.

After ascertaining their location at their old nest in the base of Mt. Aso, the military plans to shell the volcano and trigger an eruption that will trap the monsters under the resulting lava. However, Kitamatsu will be completely destroyed in the attack, and the town is forced to evacuate.  Once everyone is out of harm's way, they launch rockets and torpedoes at the mountain, and soon the volcano begins to spew smoke and lava into the sky.  One of the Rodans emerges, but is soon overcome by the fumes. As the second Rodan arrives on the scene, the first loses altitude and finally falls into the stream of lava flowing down the side of the volcano. The ancient reptile begins to scream in pain as it burns alive in the lava. The military, Dr. Kashiwagi, Shigeru and Kiyo watch from a safe distance as the second Rodan watches its companion die in agony. Suddenly, the second Rodan descends and lands with the first in the lava, and it too begins to burn. Rather than live on alone, the creature will die with its companion. Whether they be siblings or mates, the two Rodans lie dying together in the flowing lava. Kiyo buries her head in Shigeru's shoulder and weeps, and both Kashiwagi and Shigeru watch solemnly as the two monsters, each unwilling to live without the other, die together on the slopes of the erupting volcano.  Interesting parallels are drawn in this final scene between the monsters and humanity.  Moments before their defeat, Kiyo had risked danger to come to Shigeru's side and watch the attack, willing to put herself in danger to be with the man she loves.  Even though the two Rodans caused a considerable amount of damage, it becomes clear as well that they weren't doing it out of any deep-rooted malice.  They were perhaps just too big for a world that had grown so much smaller since their age of origin.  Their death is all the more poignant as the military literally turns around, packs up, and heads out without even a second thought as soon as the creatures are dead, leaving Shigeru to wonder who the more monstrous species is.

Rodan is a solid movie with an intriguing plot, as well as showcasing some sincerely remarkable special effects.  While the ongoing thread of nuclear power being to blame is still present, as well as some heavy themes of man vs. nature as a mining company unearths horrors best left buried, Rodan starts to dip the series more towards the mythos of the Godzilla universe and the spectacle and power of it all, more than the deep, brooding symbolism.  As it should have been.  Japan was healing, and though anxieties still clearly existed, it was time for the series to evolve into something that could have more longevity.  The series begins finding its footing in the art of special effects films here; and in full color, it begins to even thrive.  There are so many incredible shots and well-choreographed action sequences in this film, it's clear that Ishiro Honda was cranking out true blockbusters well before the George Lucas' and Spielbergs of the 1970s. The aerial attack sequence is one of the best in the series, and its work like that which would eventually inform and inspire a great many sequences in American blockbusters like Star Wars for years to come.  There's even a pretty great shot that zooms in on a shocked Shigeru as he watches Rodan hatch that instantly brings to mind the famous use of the "Vertigo Zoom" used in Jaws (well, and Vertigo) several decades later - not to mention the scenes in the first act where the Meganulon are stalking people by hiding under the water off camera.  Brilliant work.  The makeup is even top notch here (one scene where they recover a pilot's helmet, spattered with blood, is really standout).  All in all, without the technical fine-tuning of Rodan, Godzilla would have likely never been able to thrive on the big screen.  And equally as fortunate, Rodan proved to be popular enough character that the creature would eventually return to the series, growing into one of the more popular monsters in the Godzilla franchise's roster.

Half Human (1955)

Half Human has garnered a lot of curiosity in the Godzilla fandom, because it was Ishiro Honda's second monster offering, following his work on the original Godzilla, yet it is notoriously difficult to get ahold of. In fact, all of the people behind the scenes on Godzilla, including Eiji Tsuburaya, and Tomoyuki Tanaka (though, sadly, this entry lacks Akira Ifukube as composer), went to work on Half Human, but these days, the film has been classified as a banned film.  Toho took the movie out of circulation due to its depiction of some deformed inhabitants of remote mountain villages due to generations of inbreeding - as well as showing them as a backwards and violent culture - which was seen as a racist depiction of the real life Ainu peoples who are indigenous to regions of Japan as well as Russia.  An Americanized version of the movie still exists, though is long since out of print, and for many years it was assumed that Toho had destroyed or lost the original print of Half Human.  This, however, is not so, and a select few (yours truly included) have been able to see Half Human in its original entirety.

Starting off as so many horror films, five university students have come to the Japanese Alps in Nagano during New Year's for a skiing vacation. Among them are Takashi Iijima, his girlfriend Machiko Takeno, her elder brother Kiyoshi Takeno and their friends Nakada and Kaji. Rather than the five of them skiing together, Kiyoshi announces that he will follow Kaji to the cabin of a mutual friend named Gen, and then meet the other three at the local inn. Splitting up, Takashi, Michiko, and Nakada arrive at the inn, welcomed by the manager who informs them that a blizzard is approaching. The caretaker tries to telephone the remote cabin where Gen, Kaji and Nakada are hanging out, but nobody answers. While they continue trying to get ahold of the cabin, a woman named Chika who lives in a remote village somewhere in the mountains arrives at the lodge to display her people's upset that there are so many visitors to the resort this year.  You see, Chika's people aren't too keen on outsiders.  Suddenly, the lodge telephone rings, and they answer, only to hear the sounds of screaming and a gunshot.  With all their worries heightened, the troop (minus Chika, who heads back out as soon as she can) heads to the cabin only to find it in shambles.  Gen is dead on the floor, while Kaji's body has ben dragged outside and left in the snow.  Kiyoshi is missing entirely, but their injuries suggest that they were attacked by some kind of brutally strong animal.  More clues are discovered in the form of tufts of thick hairs laying around, as well as a set of large, bare footprints in the snow.  Could the Abominable Snowman of the Japanese Alps truly exist?  And if so, was this phantom yeti the culprit?  

Due to harsh weather conditions, the rescue teams and search parties unfortunately have to hold off the hunt until the snow thaws in the summer, so the story picks up six months later as Takashi and Machiko set off into the summery mountains with a large search party.  Joining them is Professor Shigeki Koizumi, an anthropologist who serves as leader of the expedition - his interests being primarily in running into any of the remote villages in the mountains, as well as possibly discovering the mysterious humanoid (or Half Human) attacker.  Unfortunately, along the way, their team runs into a rival party scouring the mountains led by a man named Oba, an animal broker capturing wildlife for circuses and zoos.  He too is hunting for the legendary Snowman of the Japanese Alps.  The two rival teams continue their search, running into mysterious goings ons along the way, such as mysterious mountain hermits, and boulders being thrown at them from unseen heights.  One night, as Machiko rests in her tent, the creature finally reveals itself as it peaks in and touches her face. 

Upon being touched by the beast, Machiko screams for help, scaring the Snowman away, while some of the men in the search party take off after it.  Takashi, in particular, gives chase, only to end up lost, and then captured by Oba's men who beat him and leave him for dead in a ravine.  Injured and unable to get back to the camp, Takashi believes he is going to die until he is rescued by Chika, who takes him to her remote mountain village.  Unfortunately, the horror hasn't ended, as the village is so isolated from the outside world that its population has survived through generations of inbreeding, causing the villagers to all be disfigured and somewhat mentally unstable. Furious to find an outsider in their midsts, they bind the recovering Takashi with rope and hang him over the edge of a cliff, where they leave him to die.  Once again giving himself up to death, Takashi waits to pass away, only to be spotted by none other than the Snowman.

The Snowman is carrying a fresh kill back to his cave, and its truly an impressive sight.  Carrying an actual deer carcass over his shoulders, the monster gives off an impressive aura of strength, while also immediately placing himself into the ecosystem as a predator, but one with some human tendencies as well.  It's a terrific scene.  The Snowman thoughtfully lowers the deer carcass to the ground, and then begins pulling Takashi back up to the top of the cliff, rescuing him, where he unties the bonds before picking up the deer again and wandering off without a second glance.  Takashi is astonished, but clearly thankful for the beast's help.

Meanwhile, Oba stumbles onto the home of the Snowman in order to set a trap for the monster, only to discover that there are more than one monster living in the cave, as there is a juvenile Snowman playing near the cave entrance.  Quickly, Oba captures the young creature, hoping to use it as bate for the adult.  The plan more or less works, as when the panicked Snowman adult arrives and finds its offspring missing, it storms out only to be immediately captured by Oba's men.  Oba and his team are then confronted by the people of the remote mountain village, who worship the Snowman as a deity, but he simply kills their leader, and the others fall back. Unfortunately, during all of the excitement, the juvenile Snowman escapes, and begins undoing the bonds that hold the adult in its cage.  In a spectacular set piece as Oba's trucks drive down a mountain road, the Snowman escapes and total chaos ensues.  In the end, all of Oba's men are killed, while Oba himself - the last survivor - shoots and kills the baby snowman.  The adult is, of course, outraged, and in another spectacular show of brute strength it grabs Oba, and hurls him down a ravine to a gruesome death.  Still enraged and struck with grief, the Snowman rampages into the remote mountain village and utterly destroys it.

Meanwhile, Takashi has reunited with his search party, but just as he is able to recount what he's been through to them, the Snowman appears and abducts Machiko, escaping into the night.  At dawn's first light, Takashi and the professor lead a team off in pursuit of the Snowman, entering its cave to find that it lives in a massive subterranean expanse filled with sulfuric pools to provide warmth in the harsh winters.  There, they discover Kiyoshi's bones, along with fragments of his journal which reveals that he had actually been injured in an avalanche following the Snowman's arrival the cabin six months earlier.  The Snowman rescued him and brought him to the cave, feeding him and so on.  There are also larger bones of other Snowmen in the cave, where the team discovers poisonous fungus growing, and they speculate that eating these mushrooms is what killed the Snowman population, and perhaps even their friend Kiyoshi.  But, at that moment, the Snowman storms in, with Machiko over his shoulder. They chase the beast further into the cave, until it stops by a pit of boiling sulfur. Chika - the final survivor of her village - comes to the rescue, attacking the Snowman with her knife; she distracts the creature enough that Takashi is able to get a clear shot at it. He shoots, and the mortally wounded Snowman grabs Chika and drags her down with him as he plunges into the sulfur pool to certain death.  Takashi is reunited with Machiko, and have found the answers they had been looking for - but the Snowman himself, and his entire race, are gone.

While it's one of Ishiro Honda's weaker offerings to the genre, Half Human is not entirely without merit or entertainment value. Its strongest asset is most certainly some beautiful scenery and some of the most gorgeous and cinematic sets/shots to come out of a Toho monster movie.  The Snowman himself was originally intended to be a gargantuan beast, towering over the humans he hunted, but for budgetary and time restraints, they were forced to take a more subdued route with the monster's sizing.  Furthermore, Ishiro Honda insisted that the monster's design be toned down from its original frightening appearance in order to add some pathos and benevolence to its features.

Of course, as was customary, an Americanized version of the film - the version that most fans are probably familiar with, considering Half Human's status as a banned film - hit in 1958 with some interesting changes to the overall story.  Extensive new scenes starring John Carradine were shot, in which the story is framed as American's get ahold of the juvenile Snowman's carcass and perform an autopsy on it - for which Toho actually shipped the juvenile costume out to America so that it could be used in these scenes.  The entire soundtrack was also replaced with stock music, to varying degrees of successful results.  Overall, it's a shame that the Americanized version is still the most prominent cut to be found - and even then, it's still fairly hard to come by - and it's perhaps even a further shame that the actual Half Human has been missing from public circulation for so long.  It's status has made it something sought after by many fans, but from my experience, finally getting ahold of the thing is a somewhat disappointing experience.  Honda was still experimenting with how to best do a monster movie, and so the film comes off as far more generic than any other of Toho's kaiju outings.  Still, it is not without its merits and, as noted above, is especially enjoyable for its - perhaps uncharacteristically - beautiful cinematography.