I have to admit that the most I got out of seeing this year’s “new-and-improved” Godzilla was a desire to plunge back into the old man-in-the-rubber-suit world of the real McZilla. First stop, of course, was Ishiro Honda’s 1954 original Gojira (Godzilla), which is the only defensibly good film in the bunch — and, yes, I include the new movie in that statement. Then, because I had it on my shelves, I dropped in on its down-and-dirty cash-in sequel Godzilla Raids Again (Gigantis the Fire Monster) — which was cooked up, shot, and released a little less than six months after the original, and it looks it. It is also the last film that can be taken seriously. After that, the films increasingly become the lovably cheesy monster-on-monster action battles that enlivened many a Saturday matinee when I was a kid. These are movies that even ten-year-olds can tell aren’t good in any constructive sense. The stories are silly — though sometimes limned with anti-nuke or ecological subtexts — and the effects…well, let’s say they’re unique in their quaintness. The thing is this was part of the fun. You went to see them because of their goofiness — and to speculate what the insurance rates must be in Tokyo.
Dipping further into the movies — yes, of course, I ended up buying a bunch of dimly-remembered titles and some I’d never seen — I can’t say that I saw anything particularly revelatory. They were pretty much as I remembered them, though I found I had grown less condescending toward them over the years. Things that once struck me as “stupid” (that’s childhood critic-speak) now fascinated me. The obsession with American fashions and American gangsters (often wearing neckties that you just know glow in the dark) is now more intriguing than silly. The very strange metamorphosis of bad-ass Gojira as a nightmare come to life into a cultural icon and heroic figure is an interesting progression — even if it’s never clear whether the big guy is helping mankind or is just very territorial and objects to other giant monsters invading his stomping grounds.
By the 1970s — even the late 60s — the movies were running on fumes, which is what makes the last of the lot (everything afterwards is some kind of reboot — before the term existed) especially noteworthy. It’s not just that Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975) is an improvement over the movies leading up to it — and it seems to know that it is — but it comes across as a worthy send-off for the series. That it’s also a magnificent repository of some truly alarming 1970s fashions — those flared trousers and plaid suits are something to behold — is merely a bonus. The reappearance of director Ishiro Honda and composer Akira Ifukube — both from the 1954 film — may have been the reason that the film came across as something special. Oh, it’s every bit as nonsensical as any of the others, but it has a certain dignity, especially in the way that the scenes of mass destruction are neither shot, nor scored for excitement. Rather — as in the original — these are approached with a sense of tragedy and scored with mournful solemnity.
Make no mistake, this is still a ridiculous monster smackdown with a ludicrous plot and much unintended amusement — some of the latter is pretty mind-boggling. I mean did no one realize that a hero named Ichinose was going to get a laugh from English-speaking viewers? Lines of dialogue — like the aliens assuring the vengeance-crazed scientist that “this is the improved second Mechagodzilla,” or the heartfelt, “Even if you’re a cyborg, I love you” — are ripe for derision. The effects — believe me, money was sprared here — are dicey. The “Titanosaurus” dinosaur is just plain dopey — especially when he throws up his arms “laughing” at each indignity suffered by our hero monster in the big battle of the monsters. The movie’s attempt to be “with it” by injecting a topless heroine into the proceedings is on the lame side, since we’re so obviously looking at a false bosom. (Just in case the MPAA might think otherwise, the scene was blown-up for the U.S. release so that the offending anatomy was out of sight, assuring that all-important kiddie-friendly G rating.)
But really isn’t part of the draw of these films that they are ridiculous, cheesy, and unintentionally funny? Isn’t this why we went to them as kids? And isn’t why they still hold their appeal? Absurd and even downright dumb as Terror of Mechagodzilla is, it is a real Godzilla movie — and one that’s a lot more fun than this year’s big-budget rethinking of the big fellow. There’s something about a man in a rubber suit that CGI can’t match.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen Terror of Mechagodzilla Thursday, July 17 at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.