blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

The Giant Gila Monster (1959, Ray Kellogg)

I thought this one was called The Great Gila Monster, not The Giant Gila Monster. During the first act, I kept thinking how Great was one heck of a flex given the content, but it’s not Great; it’s Giant, which is technically correct. The film is about a giant Gila monster terrorizing a bunch of hot-rodding Christian high school post-grads as they try not to go too fast, either with their cars or their girlfriends.

The film never identifies the location beyond “The Southwest,” with an opening narration about the vast empty plains (they’d be perfect for high-speed rail, don’t you think), in what turns out to be an homage to one of the Citizen Kane newsreels.

In this no-budget regional indie giant monster movie. It’s a cool enough way to start, and while the film never reaches those heights again (knowing Citizen Kane exists), it’s reasonably good, all things considered. The leads are Don Sullivan and Fred Graham. Sullivan’s the leader of the hot-rodders; the film opens with their richest kid member getting eaten by the Gila monster, which leads to the kid’s obnoxious father, poorly played by Bob Thompson, getting sheriff Graham to start an investigation. Thompson’s kid was with his girlfriend, but besides acknowledging she has a family, the film completely forgets about them.

What’s interesting about Gila is how long it takes everyone to find out about the monster. They don’t have the budget for much in the way of special effects—the Gila is an uncredited Mexican beaded lizard who only gets to crawl around the model train set when there’s an effects sequence. There aren’t even miniature cars until the finale. For a movie without Matchbox money, Gila does all right.

There are some obvious problems. Texas explains the casual, low-key racist slang and Christianity (Sullivan’s also a singer-songwriter who’s got a doozy about Adam and Eve, apparently because he doesn’t know the end of the story). Kellogg’s a lousy director for most of the material; everything’s a medium two-shot, which is fine with Sullivan and Graham; they’ve got personality and charisma. Everyone else is an energy vampire, starting with Thompson. Oh, wait, I’m forgetting about town drunk Shug Fisher. He hates his wife and drives drunk everywhere and gets away with it. He’s not good, but he’s not an energy vampire.

But Sullivan’s got a little sister—Janice Stone—who just got her leg braces, so she’s learning to walk again; their dad recently died (which is apparently when Graham took an interest). Thompson hates Sullivan, whose father died working for Thompson, and Sullivan’s dating Thompson’s French maid, Lisa Simone.

It’s all very convoluted, and only in Gila to get the run time past sixty minutes. Without the character drama and musical numbers, Gila would struggle to crack an hour.

Surprisingly good photography from Wilfrid M. Cline—his black and white day-for-night is noteworthy—and maybe an actually great score from Jack Marshall. Maybe some of it on a Theremin. It’s weird but also way more imaginative than the film needs.

Sullivan’s not exactly good, but he’s got a decent screen presence. Though once you realize he looks like a young Robert Taylor doing a James Stewart impression, you can’t unsee it. Graham’s just full-stop good. It’s a bewildering, welcome performance.

Giant Gila monster isn’t great (or really giant), but it’s engaging and successful as a “Giant” monster picture, at least a close to no-budget one.

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