The Monster Mash-Ups - Part 2: the 1960s


Looking at the 60s, there are two trends that become abundantly clear.  American monster mash-ups were becoming alarmingly cornball, and Japan was on the rise.

The Godzilla series came out of the giant atomic creatures of the 50s and became King of Monsters.  The ambitions of Toho studios far exceeded the low-budget drive-in camp coming from America, although it seems pretty evident to me that kaju wrangler Ishiro Honda's enthusiasm waned as the 60s wore on.

Hammer Films in England was reviving several of the classic monsters, but avoiding many of the choices that now looked particularly campy in retrospect -- including the crossover.  Then again, they would have been hard pressed to make crossovers with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing playing three roles each.

The use of the name "Frankenstein" got abused pretty badly, and nothing good came of "The Monster Mash."  Yeah I said it.

King Kong vs Godzilla - 1962
Written by Shin'ichi Sekizawa & team
Directed by Ishiro Honda

Featuring: a giant ape, a giant octopus and a giant monster

Godzilla is freed from ice and makes a b-line for Japan.  Meanwhile, the Groucho-esque showman/president of a pharmaceutical company foots an expedition to Faro Island to harvest and exploit a giant berry with the promise of promoting health and longevity.  The natives aren't too keen to bargain with the berries, since its juice is what keeps their mysterious jungle god appeased.  The jungle god is, of course, King Kong, or at least the Toho version of him.  First he fights with some forced-perspective footage of an octopus (which is actually pretty cool) and then he drinks his juice, which puts him to sleep long enough for the expeditionaries to strap him to a raft and tow him back to Japan.  Kong and Godzilla fight, but Godzilla is too powerful despite Kong's greater intelligence, so he retreats.  They both wail on Japan some more and Kong is knocked out again and hauled with balloons to face Godzilla again.  Getting dosed up on electricity (because everyone suddenly knows that electricity makes him stronger), Kong is stronger and wiser and thus able to throw down kaiju-style.

Despite its shortcomings -- and there are plenty -- KKvG was much better than I expected.  Sure, Kong looks more like Jim Belushi in a rented gorilla suit than the classic version we're used to and he's really just filling the role of Godzilla's Next Round, but the effects still impress for 1962.  The models, I thought, were particularly well done.  The live octopus crawling across a miniature jungle was a nice effect, although when it turned from a live, orange octopus to a gray model in Saran Wrap when King Kong picked it up took a little something away from the moment.I also enjoyed some of the subtext about commercialism, exploitation and industry.  I'm not saying it was deep, but it's still relevant, and that says more bad things about us than it does a silly movie.

Monster Mash - 1962
by Bobby "Boris" Pickett & the Crypt-Kickers

I'm not a fan of the song (or indeed most novelty songs), but I can't deny that it played a role in our continued impression of classic monsters hanging out together.

Mothra vs Godzilla - 1964
Written by Shin'ichi Sekizawa
Directed by Ishiro Honda

Featuring: Godzilla, a flying Mothra, 2 caterpillar Mothras

While Mothra is now an ensconced part of the Godzilla universe, there was in fact a Mothra solo movie in 1961, making their meeting here a genuine crossover.  This is almost certainly my favorite of all the old-school Godzilla films, although I now realize that it must have only been 10-12 years old when I first saw it on TV as a kid.  I never forgot the tiny twin fairies from Mothra's home island, and I still find them completely charming.  Despite Mothra's lack of expression and ineffectiveness in fights (while in moth form), it's really the most consistently good monster in the Godzilla pantheon.  MvG also has one of the least convoluted stories ever, and the non-monster scenes don't annoy me the way so many of the others do.  I tend to feel that Godzilla is at its best when it has a message about relevant issues, and MvG has several; addressing exploitative capitalism, corruption, native rights, the environment and of course nuclear threats.  The effects are pretty cheesy in places and the Godzilla suit looks floppy and silly, but it succeeds on passion (where Destroy All Monsters stumbles).

Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster - 1964
Written by Shin'ichi Sekizawa
Directed by Ishiro Honda

Featuring: Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra & Ghidorah

Like Mothra vs Godzilla, this film folds another Toho giant monster with a solo debut into the greater Godzilla cast.  In this case, it's the pterodacular Rodan joining the proceedings along with the returning Mothra, and one of Godzilla's greatest rivals, Ghidorah making its debut.  And as you might guess, it's kind of a mess!

In addition to all the monster juggling, it also throws a convoluted story in on the human side of things.  First of all, there's a meteor shower with a large strike occurring on the far side of some mountains, so a team of scientists is dispatched to investigate that.  They discover a strange meteor that is magnetic at times, super-heated at others, and slowly growing.  Then there's a police detective sent to meet a foreign princess on a security detail.  She comes from some country with outfits that combine style elements of Arabian sultans with 17th century frilly collars.  There's a plot to blow up her plane, but when she hears a voice in her head, she jumps out of the plane just before it explodes.  The police detective's sister is a reporter who's friends with one of the mountaineering scientists, and she's also investigating the mysterious new prophetess in town who claims to be a martian.  But wait, there's more!  The twin fairies from Mothra's island are in town for a TV appearance on the Japanese equivalent of You Asked For It.  The detective figures out that the prophetess from Mars is actually the believed-dead princess and tries to find her.  She shows up when the Double-Moth Twins are about to board a ship back home with warnings of its doomed fate, so they decide to follow her.  Then Godzilla just shows up and destroys the ship.  About the same time, Rodan bursts out of a volcanic crater, so he and Godzilla decide to fight, 'cause that's what you do.  Meanwhile, back in the mountains, the meteor goes nuts and cracks open, releasing a golden three-headed monster into the sky.  Fortunately there's a prophetic Martian to tell us that its name is Ghidorah, and it was responsible for wiping out all life on Mars.  Speaking of princess/prophetess Martian, she's pursued by a team of goons from her homeland, and we spend a lot of the movie distracted with that.

With all this mayhem loosed upon Japan at once, the pressure is on the government to do something, so naturally they turn to the twin fairies, who eventually agree to summon Mothra, still in caterpillar form, to come and reason with Godzilla and Rodan that they should all team up on Ghidorah.  This leads to a particularly ridiculous scene where the three monsters discuss the situation.  Coming so soon after Mothra vs Gozilla, I had higher hopes for this installment but they really seemed to make some different choices, which is odd since it's exactly the same creative team.  MvG delivered a much cleaner, more solid story, while this one tried to cram so much in that none of the parts were as satisfying, and ended up either too easily solved, or just left dangling.

The Munsters - 1964-1966
Developed by Allan Burns & Chris Hayward

Featuring: a vampire, a Frankenstein's monster, a vampiress, a wolf boy and a teenage girl

The Munsters ran concurrent with the similarly themed Addams Family, although the Addams Family doesn't qualify as a monster mash-up because they were really just weird humans, whereas the Munsters were based on Universal Monster archetypes.  Consequently, the Munsters were a bit more over-the-top, which was just fine and dandy in the 60s, and it had the slightly better ratings of the two.  That didn't last for long, however, when the full color Batman series debuted against the black-and-white Munsters, and it was kaput.  It's funny how many 2 and 3 season shows from the 60s would go on to become "classics" in syndication.

Looking at the way things have developed, I can't help but see The Munsters as a gateway to all the really dumb monster mash-ups for kids that would come after.  And yet, I am also obligated to acknowledge they planted the seeds of monster love in dumb little me.

Frankenstein Conquers the World - 1965
see link for writing team
Directed by Ishiro Honda

Featuring: a giant Frankenstein's monster and Baragon

Nazis raid a science lab during WWII, claiming a locked trunk and shipping it to the Pacific for experimentation.  The trunk, we soon learn, contains Frankenstein's heart (the heart of the monster, anyway), which, it is said, cannot die.  The heart is believed lost after the atomic bomb strike on Hiroshima.  20 years later, a feral boy stalks the outskirts of the rebuilt city.  When scientists start experimenting on him, they unleash the full regenerative properties of the heart, discovering not only that he is Frankenstein, regrown from the heart, but that he is capable of radical growth.  Soon, he's big enough to tromp around Toho Studio's miniature sets.

Meanwhile, the prehistoric "Baragonasaur" Baragon (a Godzilla rival/comrade) surfaces from beneath the earth where it has survived for millions of years.  Each cause havoc in their own way, but Frankenstein doesn't really mean it.  He's just hungry and misunderstood.  Ultimately, they have to throw down while humans flee their swath of destruction.

This movie had every excuse to suck.  And yet... it did not suck.  Most of the film is focused on the Frankenstein part of the story, and it actually makes an effort to pay homage to the story of the misunderstood monster.  Barugon mostly seems to be there for him to fight, which is fine; we've heard pretty much every variation possible to explain the rising of giant lizard monsters from dozens of kaiju movies.  Frankenstein also makes a more credible giant hero than, say, in the 70s when Godzilla was supposed to be good.  Also good; we get plenty of effects scenes, and they're really rather well done.  Some of the "miniatures" are massive, really giving Frankenstein a credible environment to inhabit.  He occupies urban and forest settings, and both work very well to demonstrate a sense of scale.  The forests are lush with large, realistic trees, so he doesn't just tromp around knocking them over, but thrashes through them and uproots them as weapons.  Sure, it's super corny, but that's a given here.  As far as giant monster movies go -- especially for a second stringer of its era -- it really... grows beyond expectations.

Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster - 1965
Written by George Gaffney
Directed by Robert Gaffney

Featuring: an android, aliens and an alien monster

When all the women (except the princess) on an alien world die, thanks to ATOMIC WAR, they send a ship to Earth to replenish their stock.  As they approach Earth, they shoot down a space capsule containing an android named Frank.  The android is disfigured and "brain" damaged, sending it on a rampage in Puerto Rico, and earning it the nickname "Frankenstein."  Meanwhile, the aliens get to work kidnapping bikini babes.  Then "Frankenstein" fights with the aliens' pet monster.

With a premise like that, it's hard to see how it could be considered among the worst movies ever made.  Sadly, I can neither confirm nor deny this position, as I have not had an opportunity to view it.  I can't imagine why I haven't made it a higher priority.

Dr. Terror's House of Horrors - 1965
Written by Milton Subotsky
Directed by Freddie Francis

Featuring: Vampires, a Werewolf and more

An anthology using a tarot reading to frame assorted tales of terror.  It also brings together longtime Hammer Horror comrades Christopher Lee & Peter Cushing with horror stalwart of the 70s, Donald Sutherland.

War of the Gargantuas - 1966
see link for writing team
Directed by Ishiro Honda

Featuring: TWO giant Frankenstein's Monsters and a giant octopus

War of the Gargantuas is a sequel to Frankenstein Conquers the World, although the "F" word is never used.  It refers back to the original, but the monsters are now known exclusively as "gargantuas," natch.

It opens with a giant octopus attacking a fishing boat, and then a giant hairy humanoid beast attacks the octopus.  Once he's disposed of the octopus, then he too attacks the fishing boat, leaving one traumatized survivor with a hard-to-believe tale.  Following that mysterious attack, the beast is seen closer and closer to shore.  After the events in the previous film, the gargantua-formerly-known-as-Frankenstein is handed the blame, although the scientists who encountered him in the past remain skeptical.  Eventually he reaches the shore, causing wanton destruction on cities and towns, gulping down humans when he manages to catch one.  The military reacts the way militaries do, developing plans to kill the monster.  Meanwhile, there are also sightings of the beast in the mountains, far removed from the coastline.  How could he cover so much ground so quickly, and unseen?

The military lures the shaggy green beast into a trap, hitting it hard with lasers, lightning guns and an electrified stretch of river.  He seems near death when, from around the mountain comes a second shaggy monster to rescue him and help him limp away.  This new one is brown, as it turns out that he is the gentle but misunderstood "Frankenstein" we once knew.  How are there two?  Why are they different?  Can the gentle giant be saved from the scorched earth policies of the military?  Why is Russ Tamblyn dubbing his own dialogue when he shot his parts in English in the first place?  Only some of these questions ever get answers, and none of them satisfactorily.  But that's okay, because there's plenty of giant combat.

The gargantuas are not as large to scale as the monsters in Godzilla movies.  At first you'd think that bigger would be better with giant monsters, but that doesn't seem to be the case.  Shorter monsters means larger miniatures.  The forests are up around their armpits here, rather than simply trod underfoot.  They battle down the canyons of Tokyo, crashing into buildings that reveal individual floors within.  Godzilla, particularly moving into the 70s, battles in much emptier arenas, squashing buildings like shoeboxes and trees like cotton candy loosely cluttered around his shins.  As in FCtW, Gargantuas makes extraordinary use of its miniatures.  Though seen as an also-ran to the Godzilla series, both films make exemplary contributions to the kaiju oeuvre.

Mad Monster Party -  1967
Written by Harvey Kurtzman & Len Korobkin
Directed by Jules Bass

Featuring: Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, the Monster's mate, Gill-man, Werewolf, Mr. Hyde, the Invisible Man, the Mummy, Zombies & more

This is a stop-motion animated movie for television from the people that brought us Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer and the like.  While Rankin/Bass' Christmas productions continue to skate by on nostalgia, schmaltz and holiday goodwill, Mad Monster Party cannot do quite the same.

The story is that Dr. Frankenstein (voiced by Boris Karloff) has invited all the monsters (and one human) to his island for a party to show off his latest experiment (a massively destructive explosive) and to name his heir once he steps down from his role as leader of the monsters.  The heir-apparent is his nephew Felix, a clumsy, wheezy human with a Jimmy Stewart impression for a voice.  The mad doctor's inappropriately-hot-for-a-kids'-show assistant, Francesca, plots with Dracula to kill off Felix, making her the most likely heir.  This backfires on her when Dracula double crosses her, and she conveniently (and literally) falls for Felix.  Then there's a chase, a party crasher, a sacrifice and and explosion.  The end, thank heavens.

Mostly... it's just disappointing.  The jokes are not funny AT ALL, and that's not even taking into account the sexism.  Oh, and there are songs -- painful songs.  It's clear that the movie just has not aged well, but doesn't help that it aimed low to start with.  Like our lower-aiming animation today (Shrek, Hotel Transylvania), it doesn't attempt a good story well told with universal themes and naturally occurring humor.  Rather, it assumes that its target audience of children are stupid, and treats them thus.  Further, it decides that any adults in earshot can be bought off easily with stale jokes based on pop culture.  These are not things that become richer like wine over the years.  They spoil or desiccate.  Gutless jokes dry out like a mummy's husk.  Bloodless songs crumble like a vampire in the sun.  Well, except in this movie where Dracula constantly wanders around in daylight.  In fact, the monsters are very rarely true to type except in the most token ways possible -- usually when it's convenient.  With Mad Magazine impresario Harvey Kurtzman listed as a writer, I had some hope, but this was that other side of Mad, where the jokes are supposed to work because they've already repeated them to death.

There is a part that's not bad, and that's the art direction.  Many of the characters are designed by Jack Davis, legendary illustrator for Mad and EC's horror comics.  Many of them are pretty cool, and I'd buy a set of toys based on them, even though I cannot count myself as a fan of the movie.  The sets are often stylish and full of details.  I'd buy the Frankenstein's Lab play set in which to pose the toys.  Unfortunately, the animation is pretty low quality; maybe even jerkier than the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials.

Sure, there are bound to be people who still get nostalgic for Mad Monster Party, but then, there are still people who get nostalgic for slavery, so that tells you what nostalgia is worth.

Destroy All Monsters! - 1968
Written by Ishiro Honda & Takeshi Kimura
Directed by Ishiro Honda

Featuring: Godzilla, Angiurus, Rodan, Mothra (caterpillar form), Gorosaurus, Kumonga, Manda, Varan, King Ghidorah & Minilla

It's the far distant future year of 1999, so naturally there's a base on the moon.  Many of the giant monsters have been rounded up and sent to live on the "Monsterland" island.  That is, until an alien force in spangly outfits frees the monsters, and using mind-control devices, turns them loose on the world's major cities.  All of this is designed not only to weaken Earth's defenses, but to distract from their establishment of a secret base in Mt Fuji.  Or something.  Who cares?  That's the part with the humans, and we're here to see monsters.  Sadly, for a movie so jam-packed with monsters, we don't get to spend as much time with them as it seems like we ought to.  There's the first scene with the monsters frolicking around their island.  Then the shots of them attacking cities, which is pretty cool albeit brief.  Then a bunch of people scenes happen.

FINALLY we get the big throw-down between King Ghidorah, a space monster doing the space invaders' bidding and everyone else.  They go straight hate-crime on his ass, knocking the side off a mountain and revealing the secret alien base in the process.  As Godzilla's son Minilla dances triumphantly atop the defeated foe, big poppa blasts and stomps his way into the base.  There's some rocketship scenes, but they're remarkably slow and there's that issue with the exhaust smoke flowing upward like a road flare on a wire.  Once again, the miniature work is excellent, although we barely get any urban settings this time out.  Even being "miniature" the mountain with the alien base is taller than Godzilla, so it had to have been at least 10 to 12 feet tall in the studio.  In addition to the paucity of kaiju scenes, much of the King Ghidorah battle felt a little lazy to me.  The attacks were fairly pedestrian, and the camera did little to emphasize the scale of things.  We're treated to a few shots over Godzilla's shoulder, which just doesn't seem like an angle we should ever see -- certainly without a helicopter.  I'm sure I'll get kicked out of the Monster Squad for this, but I felt like King Kong vs. Godzilla had a much better sense of scale.  For the biggest giant monster movie of its time, it just didn't feel that, well, big.

Wacky Races - 1968-1970

Wacky Races was a Hanna-Barbera cartoon in which a variety of racing teams competed to dubbed the "World's Wackiest Racer."  One of those teams was the Gruesome Twosome; Big Gruesome being a lumbering Frankensteinian monster, and Little Gruesome being a small purple vampire. They drove car #2, the Creepy Coupe; a cross between a hearse and a haunted house.  They ever-scheming duo kept various secret weapons in the belfry of their car, including a dragon.

Continue reading with The Monster Mash-Ups - Part 3: the 1970s!

OR take it from the top with The Monster Mash-Ups - Part 1: the 1940s & 50s!

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