Monday, June 1, 2009

Village of the Giants (1965)

Directed by Bert I Gordon
Starring Tommy Kirk, Beau Bridges, Ron Howard, Joy Harmon, Toni Basil
Rated G

"I was big enough before!"

What do you get when you mash together a beach party movie and a giant-monster-run-amuck flick? You get a confusing, uneven, pseudo-star studded, sometimes-enthralling and often bewildering hot mess called Village of the Giants. A mere blip on the teen-scene radar at the time it was released, Village has (no pun intended) grown in stature over the decades, and is now considered a bonafide cult classic. It may also be the flash point for the contemporary "Giantess fetish", but that's another subject entirely. A UHF staple in the 70's and a VHS favorite in the 80's, people never seem to tire of giant ducks literally shaking their tail feathers or cowboy-kids hanging precariously from gigantic bikini straps.

Bert I. Gordon - AKA Mr. BIG - is a name most b-movie fans know quite well. He pioneered the giant man/creature genre with films like The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) and its more sinister follow-up, War of the Colossal Beast (1958), as well as Earth VS. the Spider (1958) and Food of the Gods (1976), his cinematic tribute to the HG Wells novel which Village is also (very loosely) based on. Gordon combined projection screens with over-sized props to achieve sometimes-effective (and sometimes laughable) scenes where ordinary animals - or teenagers, or scientists - are either blasted with atomic rays or accidentally ingest strange potions and grow a hundred times their normal size. These films were all created in an era when movie-going audiences were a lot more forgiving when it came to things like continuity and wonky special effects, and their ragged edges are even more obvious in these more technologically sophisticated times.

You could, for example, shoot a more realistic looking spider invasion with your webcam, a copy of Movie Maker, and that Daddy Long Legs crawling on your window sill than Bert did in 1958. Still, despite their hopelessly dated effects, BIG's films are pitch-perfect glimpses into a long-gone era in American culture when teenagers and monsters and rock n' roll were everything, and Village is one of the most hilariously eager-to-please entries in the 60's teen-movie cycle. It tries to make everybody happy: the monster kids, the nerdy pre-teens, the with-it rebels, the good-girls and nice-guys, the grumpy old what's-wrong-with-the-kids-today parents, the rock n' rollers and hot rodders. This movie quite literally has something for everybody.

The first thing you might notice about Village is the awesome title theme, a brooding bit of instrumental sleaze by Jack Nitzsche called The Last Race. Chances are, you've heard it before: Quentin Tarantino nabbed it for Death Proof's main theme. The story opens with a torrential rainstorm and a car crash. Perhaps adrenalized by their near-death experience, a group of snotty rich kids and rebels pour out of the mangled vehicle and proceed to dance, wrestle, and make-out in the mud. There's a strong implication that things eventually escalate into a full-on, everybody-in orgy; certainly, you're given the impression that these are not your average gang of good-natured kids, but rather a sinister clutch of amoral troublemakers. The clear leader of this motley crew, Fred (Beau Bridges, his blue eyes shining like electric marbles, even through the mud) suggests they all walk to the next town, Hainsville, because he knows a girl there, Nancy, who he'd like to look up. Lacking any other viable option, the filthy, sopping wet group trudge toward the sleepy town like dirty demons.

Meanwhile, in Hainsville, good-guy Mike (Tommy Kirk), is trying to make time with his best-girl Nancy (Charla Doherty), but is constantly interrupted by her precocious little brother, Genius (an 11 year old Ron Howard).

Genius has a mad-scientist lab in the basement, and is sure he's on the verge of some sort of major discovery. After hearing an explosion coming from the lab, Mike and Nancy run downstairs to witness the birth of "The Goo". They don't even know what it is at first, but when the family cat nibbles a bit of it and grows twenty times his normal size, the three kids realize they've got something major on their hands.

The experiment is repeated on the family dog and a couple ducks in the yard, all with the same results. Already, Mike's scheming about how he'll end world hunger by raising enormous cattle. It's a very exciting time for them all.

And then, as they often do, the ducks waddle off somewhere, putting the entire plan into jeopardy. The oversized birds end up at a cramped club (The Whisky A Go Go!), where a red-headed, go-go dancing Toni Basil serves as DJ and the Beau Brummels perform their hits on a hilariously tiny stage.

The mud kids are all in attendance, having broken into a local theater to clean up and change, and they are, naturally, astonished to see ten foot tall ducks dancing in the middle of a club. Personally, I'd be pretty wigged-out to see regular sized ducks dancing. I have no idea how they achieved that particular part of the effect - perhaps the old hot-plate-on-the-feet, like the Tic Tac Toe Chicken they used to have at that arcade in Chinatown - but as far as the projection screen portion of the gag goes, it's pretty underwhelming.

Mike and Nancy figure out where their missing mallards have gone, and show up at the club to fetch them. Correctly assuming that there's a fortune-making potential at work here, Fred quickly gets to work on old-flame Nancy, while Fred's partner-in-grime Jean (gorgeous Tisha Sterling) flirts with Mike, hoping to crack him with kisses.

It would easily work on me, but Mike is made of sterner stuff - as is Nancy - and they take off with the giant ducks, their secret still safe. The next day, they hold a town-wide bar-b-que in the park. The ducks, naturally, are on the menu. How do you slaughter a giant duck?

While everyone else is feasting on roasted mutant and listening to Freddie Cannon sing his latest hit, Fred and the gang bust into Genius's lab and steal the goo. In one of the dumbest moves ever, instead of just bringing the stuff back to Fred's dad - the owner of a meat processing plant - they decide to cut the stuff up into slices and eat it themselves. They grow 50 feet tall (or 20, or a hundred, it's really impossible to tell) and use the curtains at the theater to make togas.

Then they stomp over to the party, first to dance, and then to make demands on the terrified townspeople. The sheriff is forced to gather up all the guns in town and hand them over to Fred - his daughter, and later Nancy, are both held hostage as leverage - and then everyone in town is put to work keeping the teen giants happy with fried chicken and many, many gallons of soda pop.

Mike will not take this lying down, however. First, he strings together a posse of hot-rodders and jalopy drivers, and they attempt to kidnap Fred via lassos. That plan is thwarted, so he comes up with an alternate one involved an enormous cotton ball full of ether. This second scheme also involves furious frugging from Toni Basil, which is always fun to watch. Some sluggish monster movie mayhem ensues, and then, in typical 50's/60's sci-fi fashion, a retarded/obvious solution to the problem is presented, and everything goes back to normal.

As mentioned, over the years, this grungy little b-movie has garnered a sizable cult following. A lot of that has to do with the remarkable cast. Ron Howard, of course, went on to fame and fortune on Happy Days and later as a director. Beau 'Son of Lloyd/brother of Jeff' Bridges has had a long and successful run in movie and television, usually playing smug bastards like Fred. Tommy Kirk was a constant presence in the beach party movies, went on a drug binge for a decade or two, and made a pretty entertaining Z-movie comeback in the past 10-15 years, appearing in shlock like (naturally) Attack of the 60Ft Centerfold (2005) and The Education of a Vampire (2001). Tim Rooney - who was one of the giant-kid gang - is Mickey Rooney's son, and looks eerily like him.
Joy Harmon, who played Merrie, the most benevolent of the giantesses, is also well-known as the sultry car-washing chick in Cool Hand Luke. She owns a bakery now. Vicki London - the short-haired enormo-chick - quit acting soon after. Tisha Sterling did a ton of 70's TV and made the odd film appearance up until the late 90's. Dunno where she is now, but I'm assuming she's still tropically hot. And speaking of still-sexy-after-all-these-years, Toni Basil looks none worse the wear, 40+ years later. It's gotta be all that dancin'.

The music is still pretty boss, too. Otherwise, you're left with a film that never really achieves its goal. It's not funny enough to be a beach party movie or menacing enough to be a giants-on-the-loose flick, and so it teeters drunkenly between the two. The girls are great-looking though, and they all dance pretty good.

What can I say? The fucker grows on you.

Availability: Village of the Giants is available on DVD.

Link: Seriously awesome Village of the Giants fansite!

- Ken McIntyre

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