How I Came to Love Godzilla; or, A Chronicle of Heroes and Villains in the Gojira Series

How I Came to Love Godzilla; or, A Chronicle of Heroes and Villains in the Gojira Series

nullGodzilla was the megaton elephant in the room of my
marriage.

I married my husband because we liked all the same things. I
know some people talk up the idea that “opposites attract,” but since books and
film and food are about 90 percent of my life, it seemed like I had better
marry somebody with a brain as much like mine as I could get, without any
cloning involved. But there was this one small thing I thought we’d deal with
later, the way most couples deal with different opinions on having kids or how
to spend and save. That one small thing was Godzilla.

Chris was really into the Godzilla family of films, and I
would rather have eaten live worms than have watched these movies with
him.  Everyone has some idea about these
movies,, right? The big dopey-looking guy in the worn-out suit, stomping on
poorly-made miniatures and fighting some outlandish other monster suit, like
a giant lobster
or a weird
thing with a buzz saw in its chest
. I just didn’t see the point. And I
didn’t understand how someone as smart as my husband could enjoy these films so
much.

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But then, worn down, I finally agreed to watch the original 1954
film, Godzilla, or Gojira. And I was impressed. Not only by the
film itself, which—thanks to the direction of Ishiro Honda, the now-classic score
by Akira Ifukube, and especially the masterful special effects direction of Eiji Tsuburaya—rose above
the traditional sci-fi/monster flick trappings to become a genuinely beautiful,
visually impressive, and deeply moving film. I was also impressed by the fact
that a film originally planned as a Japanese King
Kong
or The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms became so serious, moral, and
terrifying.

The monster in Toho’s film was more like the Beast than Kong—less humanized, more an unstoppable force. But unlike the Beast, Godzilla was
a sympathetic figure: his end is as tragic as his beginning. Of course, I
shouldn’t have been surprised that a movie about an atomic-age monster would be
imminently sadder and more impactful in the hands of the Japanese post-World
War II. And certainly the most striking images of the movie are as moving as
they are dreadful, reminders of what we did to Japan: a hospital full of burned
people; a group of children singing in the face of disaster; city block after
city block on fire; a group of sailors attacked with great ruthlessness at sea,
clearly influenced by the then-recent incident where a Japanese fishing boat
was caught in the fallout from the Bikini Atoll test.  It was a movie that resonated absolutely at
that time with audiences around the world—even with Americans, after a well-meaning
but clumsy American cut was mad
e that included American actor Raymond Burr
as a Tokyo reporter named Steve Martin.  

So after watching, and being blown away by the first film, I
was curious now to see the other films. Did they continue to preach the dangers
of nuclear warfare? It seemed they must, since that’s what Godzilla was—a nuclear horror—and yet, it
seemed unlikely that the films could sustain that same message, especially
through five decades.

And that is the
crux of what’s so interesting about the Gojira
series, despite its rather serious flaws. I have now watched all of the films,
some many times, and yes, I’ve come to love Godzilla, too. And not just because
I fell in love with the first film, which was the perfect film for its time,
and certainly the only one of the films that could be considered “great.” The
other Gojira movies, whether they are
great or terrible (and there is a wide range), are movies of their moment: that
is to say, rather than being about giant monsters and scrappy humans, these are
ultimately films about heroes and villains—and who they are says everything
about the time in which these movies were made. And by the way, that means that
sometimes the movies are deeply serious, and other times, deeply silly. As
Keith Phipps at the
Dissolve
pointed out recently, “Sometimes a monster is a metaphor for all
that’s troubling about a certain time and place; at other times, it’s just a
guy in a rubber suit smashing a bunch of miniatures.”

There can be no more fascinating series to watch, for a fan
of cultural and film history in the 20th century. Only the James
Bond series comes close, but even that is much more limited in its scope and
its necessarily static hero. The Gojira
films, on the othe handr, vary wildly in plot, character, tone, audience and
cinematography. Even the title character goes from hero to villain to symbol to
something in between.

The films can be roughly split into
three periods.
The classic or Showa series, spanning
1954-1975; the Heisei series, spanning 1984-1995; and the Millennium series,
spanning 1999-2004.  In the first part of
the classic series, the two films made in the fifties, doctors and scientists
are in ample supply as heroes, and the films wrestle with important subjects –
nature, and the monsters that supply it, are villains, though human-made.

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In the sixties, the movies veer away
from the original message. As Jim Knipfel writes at Den
of Geek
: “Early in the franchise and often
under the guidance of director Ishiro Honda, when things just got really
fucking weird, when images straight out of Salvador Dali, Andre Breton, or Luis
Buñuel were inserted into the reality of the Toho universe, and none of the
human characters really batted much of an eye about it.” A distrust of
corporations went along with the weirdness: in King
Kong vs Godzilla
and Mothra vs. Godzilla,
it’s the corporate types who are trying to make money off of exploiting the
monsters – they become laughing stocks and goofy villains by trying to beat
nature at her own game, while the monsters become more sympathetic. In Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster,
a princess runs from assassins while possessed by the spirit of aliens – and
the series takes a turn for the wacked-out science-fiction quality which has become
a hallmark of the series ever since. The films seem less about nuclear war than
they do about the fear of invasion. In these later sixties films, Godzilla
becomes a world hero, saving the earth from alien invaders and monsters from
other planets.

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By the 1970s, the films seem to be largely
for and about children – with the powerful exception of Godzilla vs. Hedorah (more on that in a minute.) Bullies and scary
criminals are villains, and absentee parents and latchkey kids abound. Godzilla
suddenly has ‘friends,’ and the monsters are become cute, hi-fiving,
kid-helping pro-wrestlers of sorts. In some of the films, the monsters live
together on an island (like
Monster Island)
and come to the rescue when needed. If the kids aren’t the heroes, they’re
still central to the story. These movies are pretty much the worst of the
series, often liberally making use of stock footage from past films and
featuring monsters so cartoonish they’re slapstick.

(Godzilla vs Hedorah,
of course, from 1971, is an exception that is also very much of its time – it’s
a strange, bleak look at the environmental havoc caused by pollution, which
comes to life in the form of a giant smog monster. It’s a serious film, despite
its odd psychedelic dance sequences, one that shows people and animals literally
being burned alive by Hedorah.)

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The Heisei series of the eighties and
nineties is more uniform in tone, though the stories vary wildly. From a
rip-off of Indiana Jones that turns into an environmental message where the real bad guys are the corporation pushing
for deforestation; to a recurring character named Miki who has a psychic
connection with Godzilla, to a mutant Godzilla clone from space; these films
usually hold up humans as the bad guys, while another group of humans works
with Godzilla or other monsters to save the planet. During the eighties,
Godzilla would become a villain once again – only to morph into a hero by the
mid-nineties. I should also point out that at this point in the series,
Godzilla once more faces some of his classic foes, in an attempt to revive the
popularity of the series. Most of these films were not released in American
theaters, including
Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah,
a fascinating film that features a pre-atomic Godzilla-saurus ravaging American
troops and saving Japanese soldiers during WWII. (It also features
time-traveling humans from the future called Futurians, tiny adorable Ghidorah
babies, and a Terminator-like android named M-11.)

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The Millennium series is the most
unwatchable group of Godzilla films (in my opinion), despite a higher production budget. The
stories are unmemorable, and the heroes are usually military characters,
admirable and steel-jawed, given little to do or say other than climb into a
giant robot or shoot “mazers.” Godzilla is, at least, fierce and very much the
harbinger of real, deeply felt terror. A dark and modern tone fills the films –
even the palette has shifted from the bright colors of the 80s and 90s films to
a dark mix of steely greens and grays. An odd quirk of this series: each one is
pitched as a separate sequel to the original 1954 Godzilla (with one exception
centering on Mechagodzilla.) The movies are all pretty grim, and some seem
close to the spirit of the original film: for instance, in Godzilla,
Mothra, and King Ghidorah, Giant Monsters All Out Attack
, Godzilla is an
ancient beast from hell who’s formed of the tormented souls of the dead of
World War II.

Having watched, many times, this
evolution of culture reflected in the evolution of the Gojira films, I (and of course, my husband) are fascinated to see
what the
American
film
(I’m not even bothering to count the
1998 garbage fest) will be. It certainly promises to be dark, serious,
well-acted, and – perhaps in the troubled, pessimistic spirit of our times, Godzilla
will be the metaphor, more than the guy in the suit.

Amber Sparks’ short stories have been widely published in journals and anthologies, including New York Tyrant, Unsaid, Gargoyle, Barrelhouse, and The Collagist. Her chapbook, A Long Dark Sleep: Stories for the Next World was included in the chapbook collection Shut Up/Look Pretty from Tiny Hardcore Press, and her first full-length story collection, May We Shed These Human Bodies, was published in 2012 by Curbside Splendor. You can find her at ambernoellesparks.com or follow her on Twitter @ambernoelle.

Viva Los Hijos de la Noche: The 1931 Spanish Version of DRACULA

Viva Los Hijos de la Noche: The 1931 Spanish Version of DRACULA

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Everybody knows the iconic 1931 Dracula. Even
if they’ve never seen the film, most people can call up images of Bela Lugosi
waxing poetic about wolves on a ruined abbey staircase, or a coffin slowly
opening as a very white hand emerges. But does the phrase “hijos de la noche”
resonate in the same way? Certainly not, yet in 1930, while Tod Browning spent
his days filming Dracula with Bela Lugosi, another director, George
Melford spent his nights filming the same script, on the same set, with the
same costumes–with Spanish-speaking actors. In the early days of sound, this
was a fairly common practice; studios often produced foreign-language versions
of their films that way. Dubbing had not yet come into vogue as a practice, and
under the studio system it was simply a matter of substituting a cast who spoke
Spanish, or German, or French, and shooting on a set after the English-speaking
actors and crew were gone for the day.

The practice only lasted a few years, as it became cheaper and easier to dub or
subtitle films for a foreign audience. Most of those foreign-language versions
have faded and been forgotten, lost like so much early film. Most did little to
distinguish themselves from the English-language films. But the Spanish version of Dracula is a little different.  Not only superior to the English-language
version, it’s necessary viewing for anyone who’s watched the Lugosi film and
come away bummed. I know the English version has its champions, but I think
that has much to do with Lugosi and little with the film’s direction. It’s
creaky, static, with little camera 
movement—almost a silent film in many parts, and the actors are often
given little to do but stand and speak. The pacing is dreadfully slow and
inorganic.  Whereas the Spanish language
version  takes a script that should have
been shocking but ended up rather staid—stiff and stuffy—in the English version,
and it tops that version by leaps and bounds. Oddly, it’s a half hour longer
than the English version, but the improved pacing, the superior acting, and
better artistic direction make it much more fun to watch.

The cast and crew of the Spanish version were competitive,
and they would watch the dailies from the English-language version to figure
out how they could improve them, with better camera angles, lighting, pacing,
and acting. And it shows: in the Spanish version, the special effects are
better, the shots are more interesting, and the camera movement is much more
fluid–more modern. Watch the way the camera swims up toward Carlos Vilarilla in
the abbey, captures the wild menace of the place, and compare that to the slow,
stately pace of the camera movement toward Lugosi in the same scene. Of course,
part of this is due to Tod Browning’s and penchant for long, static shots. Browning
made some remarkable films, particularly those with Lon Chaney Sr. But here hee
was clearly still learning how to transition from silent films to talkies, a
transition that his short list of sound films and subsequent retirement from
film probably attests to.  

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The acting, with the exception of Lugosi and Edward Van
Sloan, is also improved in the Spanish version. I love Dwight Frye, but Pablo
Rubio is a more naturalistic, interestingly mad Renfield. Frye either
plays it creepy and subservient, or fearful and guilt-ridden—two notes for the
duration of the film, while Rubio’s performance is much more subtle,
changeable—human. Barry Norton gets the thankless straight man role, but runs
circles round the notoriously stone-stiff David Manners. Lupita Tovar, only
seventeen at the time, is a beautiful, lively lead–so much more fun to watch
than the lovely but lifeless Helen Chandler.
As Lupita Tovar has said of
the film
, “We Latins have a very different way of expressing ourselves, more
emotional. And I think the Americans were just kind of subdued.”

Perhaps most
importantly of all: this film puts the sex back in Dracula. Plenty of heaving
bosoms are on display, and the sensuality is more overt than implied,
particularly in Tovar’s hungry, delightfully predatory performance as Mina/Eva.
This is Mina as she should be: seduced by Dracula, perhaps a little tormented,
but not-so-secretly enjoying the respite from stuffy society, from her safe,
boring fiancee and her overprotective father. This is the wilder Dracula
Lugosi should have starred in.

Amber Sparks’ short stories have been widely published in journals and anthologies, including New York Tyrant, Unsaid, Gargoyle, Barrelhouse, and The Collagist. Her chapbook, A Long Dark Sleep: Stories for the Next World was included in the chapbook collection Shut Up/Look Pretty from Tiny Hardcore Press, and her first full-length story collection, May We Shed These Human Bodies, was published in 2012 by Curbside Splendor. You can find her at ambernoellesparks.com or follow her on Twitter @ambernoelle.

VIDEO AND TEXT: Nelson Carvajal and Amber Sparks on Guillermo del Toro

VIDEO AND TEXT: Nelson Carvajal and Amber Sparks on Guillermo del Toro

Guillermo del Toro: The
Unlikely Auteur

As Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim release date fast
approaches, I can’t help but feel a little depressed.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge fan (pun intended) of the kaiju—or giant monster—film, so I really
am looking forward to the release of this film, director and ultimate fanboy
Guillermo del Toro’s attempt to reboot giant monsters and mecha warriors for a
new generation. I seriously can’t wait to see Idris Elba and Ron Perlman battle
giant monsters from the deeps.

That said, I’m still in mourning for The
Hobbit
-that-could-have-been, a film that—instead of a lesser Lord of the Rings for small children and
people who love dwarf slapstick—might have featured an entirely new Middle
Earth. Imagine a brilliant, sadistic dragon-against-type; imagine troll-like dwarves
and sylph-like hobbits inhabiting an alien, immersive new world (instead of
wandering around in the digital landscape of LOTR like wide-eyed tourists:
“Look! There’s Galadriel!”); imagine Tolkien’s book, transformed utterly, in
the hands of a true auteur.

That’s right. An auteur. But,
you might say, shocked and appalled—he does genre
pictures
!

Yes. And?

His body of work reveals a filmmaker
who, along with a handful of contemporaries (both Andersons, Malick, Haneke,
Von Trier, etc.) has transformed his source
material so that it reflects absolutely his personal vision. And after
all, Hitchcock did genre, as Kurosawa often did. In del Toro’s case, the
personal vision was shaped by perhaps less
traditional sources
: by Forrest Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland, by Universal Horror classics and
Godzilla and Gamera films, by a childhood in Mexico steeped in Catholicism, and
by a self-confessed nerd’s affinity for children, outcasts, and monsters.

His interest in film began as an interest in makeup
and effects
, and his films are his
films precisely because of the love and care he takes in designing his
creatures and his unreal worlds: the pagan, organic nature of his creatures is
uncanny and frightening—even the mechanized creatures resemble insects or
animals or very old gods. In a Hollywood in which horror movies routinely make
monsters and demons from a few ready-made molds, when comic book films
(with a few exceptions) follow a format that doesn’t deviate too much from the
standard—del Toro makes films like Pan’s
Labyrinth
, with possibly the most terrifying creature in all of recent
cinema—The Pale Man, Norn-like and flesh-draped and utterly original. He makes
films like The Devil’s Backbone,
which turned the ghost story genre on its head. He makes films like Hellboy and Hellboy II: The Golden Army,
which took a wildly popular comic book and transformed it completely. The Troll
Market in Hellboy II is worth the
price of admission alone, as are the bizarre and frightening tooth fairies.
These creatures are unlike any you will find in any other film, because they
don’t come from formula and they aren’t lifted from other films. As Daniel
Zalewski wrote in his fascinating New Yorker profile of del Toro, “When movie monsters look largely the same, Del
Toro’s reach deep into the past and into mystic and pagan iconography to
present something else entirely—something far more terrifying and familiar . . . A
del Toro monster is as connected to a succubus in a Fuseli painting as it is to
the beast in ‘Predator.’ His films remind you that looking at monsters is a
centuries-old ritual—a way of understanding our own bodies through gorgeous
images of deformation.”

Del Toro himself seems motivated to keep moving, to keep
making it new. On
his sources of inspiration:
“The worst thing that you can do is be inspired
solely by movie monsters. You need to be inspired by National
Geographic,
by biological treatises, by literature, by fine painters, by bad
painters.” Indeed, in Pacific Rim,
del Toro has said he wants to create something entirely new, despite the
Godzilla and Gamera-like kaijus of
the genre’s heyday. He was instead inspired by perhaps not such an unlikely
source: Goya’s
The Colossus.

But a visual feast alone would make del Toro a great artist,
not a great filmmaker. The compelling and very dark stories he chooses to tell
are what animate the films and give them their haunting quality. Beauty holds
hands with horror, two sides of a coin in all of his films. Del Toro seems much
more in debt to Grimm’s Fairy Tales
than to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

One gets the impression that perhaps del Toro deals in
horror because of his dark view of human nature. People are the real monsters
in most of his films, not the fantastic, often ambivalent, only cruel-as-nature
creatures that inhabit his worlds. Humans are the ones who do the real, lasting
damage. He says, “I ended up thinking that monsters are sort of the patron saints
of imperfection. I try to celebrate imperfection in my movies; the really scary
characters are always the ones who insist everything has to be perfect.”

All this is the reason I’m still in mourning. I loved Peter
Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy
just like everyone else, and after that it would have been great to see what a
true auteur could do to put a different spin on the prequel. (I also would have
loved to see Del
Toro’s canceled adaptation of Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness
.) But
I suppose it’s not such a bad consolation prize to get a new and exciting kaiju movie, one that will feature new
creatures but follow the old wild joy of the kaiju orgy of destruction in the (important for a pacifist
director) empty city (thus the scenes
of frantic evacuation in every giant monster movie ever). And maybe I’ll even
(fingers crossed) get to see him team with Charlie Kaufman to make what could
be the first
good screen adaptation of Slaughterhouse Five.

The man with endless creative ideas, who lives
in a mansion he calls Bleak House—filled with monsters, aliens, and comics—seems
perhaps more in touch with a pop-culture obsessed public hungry for good horror than any other director
since Hitchcock. And as del
Toro has said himself
, “Hitchcock would have gone
to Comic-Con. He would have signed collectible shower curtains. He
was a showman and an auteur.”
–Amber Sparks


Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content
creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually
contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the
London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW
which boasts the tagline: “Liberating Independent Film And Video From A
Prehistoric Value System.” You can follow Nelson on Twitter
here.

Amber Sparks’ short stories have been widely published in journals and anthologies, including New York Tyrant, Unsaid, Gargoyle, Barrelhouse, and The Collagist. Her chapbook, A Long Dark Sleep: Stories for the Next World was included in the chapbook collection Shut Up/Look Pretty from Tiny Hardcore Press, and her first full-length story collection, May We Shed These Human Bodies, was published in 2012 by Curbside Splendor. You can find her at ambernoellesparks.com or follow her on Twitter @ambernoelle.

Awake in a Sea of Sleepers: How Insomnia Made Me Love Horror Films

Awake in a Sea of Sleepers: How Insomnia Made Me Love Horror Films

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Two statements, seemingly separate and unrelated: As a kid I was an insomniac. As a kid I was a horror movie buff.

One might be tempted to link these two traits, to tie them together through the seemingly obvious cause and effect equation of Fear = Sleeplessness—but one would be wrong to do so. At least, one would be wrong to use the equation that way, instead of turning it on its head to come up with this equation instead: Sleeplessness = the Absence of Fear.

That is to say, I was scared of everything but the things that went bump in the night. 

My insomnia has stuck with me for most of my life. Even as a baby, my mother tells me I refused to nap; I would just calmly stare at the ceiling until naptime was over. It seems strange now, but as a kid, I was never panicked or perturbed at my insomnia. I suppose when you’re a kid you’re always being made to go to bed, sometimes even as punishment, and since I couldn’t, I bought myself more time in the waking world. And that was exciting, back then, before I had to get up and go to work in the morning. I’d read under the covers until my parents caught me, or sneak downstairs and watch TV with the volume way down until the sun came up.

And what was on TV so late at night? You had two choices, really: horror and soft core. Of course, being a girl, and thus uninterested in the 80s pancake breasts and asses of full-grown women, I chose horror. I remember watching Jeff Goldblum morph into a fly, watching Nicolas Cage turn into a demon. I remember watching the Crypt Keeper introduce those gory little shorts, Rosemary giving birth to the demon baby, the ghastly scream of the monster’s bride, and yes, watching Jason’s mother fly out of the water at the end of Friday the 13th.  

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I especially remember when I first saw The Shining, late one night at a friend’s sleepover.  By the time that elevator opened, I was the only one left awake. I loved the feeling that the ending was just for me, that the picture of Jack at that long-ago New Year’s Eve party was a secret only I knew. I clung to that wild idea, that somehow I was the only one who could see the evil burning itself out all over the screen. That I alone, the only waking one among a sea of sleepers, would see not only the chaos unleashed at the beginning of a film, but the triumph of order, of good and grace, after a near-biblical flood of gore.

And besides, I could not sleep. I was always the kid awake at sleepovers. I was always the kid awake on the bus, on the plane, on the long car rides to visit my grandparents. I was the kid who could not sleep. I was invincible, at least where so many of the terrors that visit children were concerned. What happened when you fell asleep? Freddie Krueger would kill you in your dreams. The boogeyman would come to eat you. The monsters under the bed would show themselves. Even in the traditional children’s prayer, you had to pray that you would not die in the middle of the night. Terrible things can happen to a child asleep. But not to me. I had a competitive advantage.

Don’t get me wrong—I was not a brave child. In fact I was scared of everything: dogs, illness, adults, birds, the dark, bugs, you name it. So the trick of not-sleeping gave me a superpower, gave me a weapon and a fighting chance against the monsters of childhood. Of course I liked to watch other children fare poorly in movies, struggling to stay awake and finally succumbing to the nightmare. Of course I liked to picture myself, my cowardly small self, beating Freddie Krueger at his own game. Sitting up in bed and wielding a huge cross when Dracula or Nosferatu approached, because I’d only have been pretending to be asleep.

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How simple it was, as a child. There were no repercussions to insomnia; only a strong sense of security, of self-control. If you stayed awake long enough, the world made sense. If you stayed awake long enough, you could be safe in so many ways. As a small child in other movies, other shows—in your day-to-day waking life—you were powerless to change your world. You were buffeted by the winds about you. But in horror movies, even a child could stave off the darkness, the dreaded evil. You could save yourself and maybe even the whole world, as long as you could stay awake.

Amber Sparks’ short stories have been widely published in journals and anthologies, including New York Tyrant, Unsaid, Gargoyle, Barrelhouse, and The Collagist. Her chapbook, A Long Dark Sleep: Stories for the Next World was included in the chapbook collection Shut Up/Look Pretty from Tiny Hardcore Press, and her first full-length story collection, May We Shed These Human Bodies, was published in September by Curbside Splendor. You can find her at ambernoellesparks.com or follow her on Twitter @ambernoelle.