Friday, October 26, 2018

Dreams and Nightmares: The Worlds of Bruce Coville

It's all built up to this, so for this year's big feature Halloween article, I thought I'd delve into another big part of my childhood...

As much as I have talked about how much video games, cartoons, and movies (among other things) meant a lot to me in my childhood, as means of escapism from what was not a super-fun life, I can't impress enough how books also factored into that equation. As I've mentioned before, I was one of those "smart kids", the kind who had a high school reading level in grade school, etc. My reading was spurred on by my grandmother, one of the actual positive things she did for me growing up, as she herself was a huge reader. Her preferred poison was science fiction, as in practically any she could get her hands on. She even belonged to a sci-fi book club, and would regularly order books for herself (when we could afford it), out of mail-order catalogues.

For me personally, I of course started with children's books, some of which I think I'll probably dedicate an article of their own to someday. Some I only vaguely remember, and wish I could remember what they were called. But somewhere around age 8 or so, I finally entered into the world of Scholastic books. Scholastic are most known for making educational school books, but they also happen to publish fiction books for kids and teens as well. As such, around age 8, for whatever reason, we started getting Scholastic catalogues in the mail, and my grandmother, wanting to encourage my developing reading, started buying me things like Choose Your Own Adventure books and things like that. The one that stands out in my memory is a book I had called Empire of the Ants.

Classic Mystery Goodness.

The first book series, besides being read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was little, was The Boxcar Children, by Gertrude Chandler Warner. These stories were a nice "wading in" point, both for reading more complex stories in general, but also for getting into stories with a bit of a spooky edge to them. Many of the adventures of the Alden siblings, while not really featuring real supernatural elements, still had spooky moments and plenty of tension, as they solved their mysteries. I'd like to say that I got maybe the first fifteen or so of these books, at least, and was a big fan of them for a time. But then in 1992, R.L. Stine's Goosebumps series happened, and my new obsession was set. I left the poor Boxcar kids in the dust, because Stine's works featured REAL supernatural happenings, and most importantly to young me: MONSTERS!

But as much as I adored the Goosebumps books, and couldn't wait for each new entry (I legit owned around the first thirty books in that original series), and as big an impact as Stine had on my pre-teen years, there is another author who I'd like to say had an equal impact. In fact, this was an author who was a contemporary of Stine's, and another whose works really exploded in the early 90s. He too, wrote stories that both fascinated, and sometimes terrified me. But as time has gone on, R.L. Stine is a name that people still remember (thanks in part to the Goosebumps movie, etc.), while this OTHER guy, is someone who I find when I bring up to many people, they have no idea who the hell I'm talking about. Even though he too is one of the most successful children's authors in history. So I figured, you know what? It's time to do my little part to help rectify that, because quite frankly, the works of Bruce Coville are every bit as brilliant, and memorable, as Stine's.

My First Exposure.

 The novel pictured above, My Teacher Is An Alien, is the first Bruce Coville book I ever read, or even knew about. I'm sure it was something, like the first Goosebumps book, where I just saw the cover/title in the Scholastic catalogue, and it drew my interest, so I asked to get it. The book first released in 1989, so it's actually entirely possible that I read it before I ever read my first R.L. Stine book. But as I seem to recall, these many years later, I remember reading Coville's books more or less alongside Stine's. Which would place it in 1992. Either way, while this novel is fairly simple and straightforward, compared to how the rest of its series plays out, I was still enthralled from the title onward, and it had my full attention.

The general plot plays out almost like a Twilight Zone episode. At a completely normal elementary school in the sleepy town of Kennituck Falls, a couple of kids, Susan Simmons and her shy, bookish friend Peter Thompson, come back from Spring Break to discover that their regular sixth grade teacher, has been replaced by a strange, blonde substitute. The thing is, something seems terribly odd about Mr. John Smith. And as the story progresses, they learn just exactly what IS so odd about him: he happens to be an alien from another world! The kids do more snooping, and get the notion that ol' Mr. Smith is some kind of advance agent for an invasion of Earth, and as such, they do their best to stop his nefarious plans. Of course, things aren't always quite what they seem, and while they DO thwart his plans (SPOILERS), it turns out that perhaps they misunderstood his motives after all.

The Second Book.

I was hooked after this first book, especially when it ended on a major cliffhanger, where Mr. Smith, actually named Broxholm, took Peter, who didn't have a very happy life on Earth, with him into space! Luckily for me, as it probably was around '92 when I read this, I didn't have to wait long to find out what happened next, because the other books in the series were already out. Next up was My Teacher Fried My Brains, a provocative title to say the least. And surprisingly, while the first book focused on Susan and Peter, from Susan's perspective, the second book actually focused on Duncan Dougal, the asshole kid who bullied Peter all the time! An a-typical choice, to be sure.

It was the beginning of seventh grade, junior high, and Peter had been missing for months. Duncan, unsurprisingly, also comes from a bit of a rough background, and it turns out, while he acts like a major douche-nozzle to kids weaker than him, always looking for fights and so on, maybe he's not such a horrible monster after all. Duncan had also been in on the discovery that Mr. Smith was an alien months prior, and he now came to suspect that his science teacher, Miss Karpou, is ALSO an alien agent. After he is subjected to a demonstration in class on what is supposed to be static electricity, Duncan finds himself feeling smarter. And so believing that static machine did it, he sneaks back into school after hours, and uses the machine again, this time too much so, which does in fact boost his intellect greatly, something he had always felt insecure about.

The trouble is, the boost not only seems like it will be temporary, but Miss Karpou does also in fact turn out to be an alien, named Kreeblim! Duncan gets taken to her house, where she intends to deal with him, but Susan, who becomes aware of what Duncan's been up to, tries to save him. Before all of that can go down, however, Peter suddenly returns, along with Broxholm, and it turns out things are a whole lot more complicated than the kids had believed.


It is from this point on, that the series experiences a serious divide. The first two books, as explained, are fairly simple stories. But after book two, the series takes quite a turn, and gets a WHOLE lot deeper, especially for "kid's" fare. As it turns out, the aliens are on Earth as agents for an interplanetary council, who are worried about the human race's violent history, and the growing possibility of them getting out into space, to spread that violence. In that way, it takes some serious inspiration from one of the greatest science fiction films ever made (and one of my personal favorites), 1951's The Day the Earth Stood Still. In a similar fashion to that classic, this space council, a body basically dedicated to peace, fear humans getting into space enough, that they are actually considering wiping the entire human race out. And the alien agents there, are trying to determine whether or not humanity can be saved, or are even worth saving! Like I said, quite the turn.

The third book in the series, My Teacher Glows in the Dark, is probably the weirdest, just by virtue of the fact that it follows Peter's adventures out in space, learning about other races and worlds, etc. It takes place basically in between and then alongside the second book. During Peter's space adventures, he is taken aboard the mother ship "New Jersey" (named because it is the same size as the American state), where he is introduced to a number of strange aliens, including Hoo-Lan, a kindly blue alien who will serve as his teacher while he's aboard. Peter learns many things from Hoo-Lan, but the biggest thing he learns, is also one of the most interesting ideas I've ever come across in literature. The idea is put forth, as I seem to remember it anyway, that human beings once long ago had the capacity for Empathy. Not just the concept of empathizing with someone else, but the literal ability to sense, to somewhat FEEL what other people around you are feeling. Hoo-Lan explains that this ability would have made humanity far less chaotic and crazy, a state that being "cut off from each other" has rendered them. He also reveals, to his own shame, that it was actually he, who introduced humans to television, as a ploy to delay their development, as he feared their technology, and thus capacity for greater violence, was advancing too quickly. The entire book is told from Peter's perspective, as he relates his experiences to Susan and Duncan.

Holy shit.

In the fourth and final book, My Teacher Flunked the Planet, which takes place right after the second book, it is now up to these three human kids and two kooky aliens (one of whom, Kreeblim, the female, excels at alien curse words), to try and provide the council with evidence that the human race can learn, and change. This fourth entry, by far, is the darkest and most serious, even though it still features moments of levity. I remember thinking, even at the time while first reading it, that this shit was DEEP! As the group fly around the world in their cloaked UFO, looking for cases of human goodness, the reader is shown such horrifying scenes as people who have been tortured in prison camps, and the horrors of war. Specifically, a scene where a man dies trying to shield a child from a falling bomb. The kind of stuff that I guarantee you don't find in much "children's lit", and the kind of stuff that, reading it then as a pre-teen myself, really disturbed me. Not in a "why am I reading this" way, but in a "goddamn, we really ARE messed up aren't we?" kind of way. It was an eye opener, which I think is a good thing for young people, when done right.

Without spoiling the ending, sufficed to say, Flunked was a crazy, and introspective ride for a young person to read. It made me think, but it also made me wish in some ways that what happens in the end, actually would happen. Even though I've spoiled many of the basic plot points for the series, I would say that, if you've never read it, even if you're an adult, these books are very enjoyable and entertaining. Plus you can consume them in a matter of hours, and I'd highly recommend them! I'd really like to see the series get made into movies, or at least a show, so long as they kept the stories and characters as they are.

Good Times.

Outside of the "My Teacher" series, starting in the Fall of 1993, I also got to experience his "Book of..." anthologies. These were a series of short story collections, usually featuring one or two by Coville himself, and the rest by guest authors, including the likes of even names like Ray Bradbury. The first that was actually released, was Book of Monsters, but the one with perhaps the stories that stand out to me the most in my memory, was Book of Aliens. The "feature" story, if you will, was "I, Earthling", a story about a boy whose father is a diplomat to an alien world, and the boy has serious trouble adjusting to his strange new life. The two things that struck me the most about this story as a kid, were: 1. The fact that the aliens fart as a sign of happiness or friendliness, which I found hilarious. And 2. The fact that the boy had a tiny kitten-sized panda bear as a pet, which I very badly wanted for myself!

The second story from Aliens that stands out, is "The Buddy System", by Nina Kiriki Hoffman. It's a really great story that I dearly loved at the time, and still do, because it focused on the kind of friendship/relationship, that I myself dearly wanted (and still do). The story is about a girl named Iris, who is adjusting to life after losing her father. She meets a boy named Kyle, who is something of a hellion, but who also takes an instant liking to Iris, and always behaves around her, almost like she makes him want to be a better person. They become best friends, and pretty much do everything together, including regular swims at Miller's Pond. But one day, while Iris is swimming, something grabs her leg, and pulls her under. She nearly drowns, buy Kyle saves her with CPR, nearly on the state of a nervous breakdown over the thought of losing her, and takes her home. But there was more to Iris' experience than it seemed, as there were flashes of something she couldn't understand. She finds herself drawn to go back to Miller's Pond and face whatever was down there, with a protesting Kyle going along to protect her. And as she braved the terror again, and this time didn't try to resist, she discovered that it was actually some kind of weird, wonderful alien, who hadn't meant to hurt her, and was only trying to communicate. Just a really beautiful, touching story, all around really.

The third, stuck out for a different reason. It was Ray Bradbury's "Zero Hour", which was originally featured in his collection The Illustrated Man in 1951.In that particular story, a bunch of suburban children are all excitedly playing a game they call "Invasion". The children bring all sorts of things from their respective houses, into some bushes where they're all playing, and none of the parents really investigate into what's going on, because after all, it's "just kids being kids", right? Except, too late, when a loud sound is heard, do some of the parents start realizing something is amiss. And then, all hell breaks loose, as an ACTUAL alien invasion begins! Turns out, the kids were being instructed by beings from another world, on how to build a devise that would open gateways to Earth. And just like that, the aliens start going around basically killing the parents, all while the kids laughed, thinking it was some fun game apparently. Me personally? I HATED this story as a kid. The very idea that a bunch of innocent kids would willingly not only turn on their parents and families, but even aid the aliens in destroying them? It was deeply disturbing to me, and made me kinda sick. I've never liked stories like that, to this day, and that includes the slew of modern horror films about innocent families being destroyed by various evil (I'm looking at you, Mike Flanagan).

The first of Coville's anthologies.

Another that I owned.

A later entry.

The ones that I know I owned as a kid, were Book of Monsters, Book of Aliens, and Book of Nightmares. I may or may not have owned Book of Ghosts, and for some reason I almost feel like I owned Book of Magic, but apparently that came out in 1996, so while it's possible, I wasn't really getting Scholastic books anymore by then. There was also one I had never heard of when it was new, Book of Spine-Tinglers. Even within the different volumes, there was a good deal of diversity between the stories. Some were science fiction based, some were more supernatural or even straight up horror, a few were even fantasy, and some were just plain silly. There were stories that were (surely to a 12 or 13 year old) hilarious, such as Will Shelterly's "Brian and the Aliens". While there were others that genuinely scared me, and even left me quite disturbed, such as John Barnes' "Timor and the Furnace Troll". That one, I'm just gonna say, has a pretty messed up ending, that I hated as a kid, and still dislike. But hey, they can't all be happy stories, right?

A wild ride.

Now what I definitely didn't know as a young teen in 1996 and 1997, because as explained I had stopped getting "kids books" through Scholastic or otherwise, was that Coville's anthology series kept going. In fact in those years, there was an entire "Volume II" series, meaning that there was a Book of Monsters II, a Book of Aliens II, and so on, for six more editions. The same deal as before, collections of short stories, some by Coville himself, the rest by other authors. But the one key difference, as I would discover MUCH later (in my 30s, in 2014 to be exact), is that in each one of these "Volume II" editions, there was a Bruce Coville story that was a smaller part of a larger adventure. The parts had their own separate names, such as "Little Monsters" and "Through the Starry Door", but the entire story is called "The Monsters of Morley Manor". The entire story was released as its own separate volume (seen above) in 2001.

In a nutshell, the story is something of a classic "haunted house" type of tale, with a couple of siblings, Anthony and Sarah Walker, attending an estate sale of the deceased Mr. Morley, who lives in a creepy old house down the road. Anthony winds up buying an odd little box for fairly cheap, and inside, he and his sister discover five tiny little figurines of what look like classic monster archetypes: a werewolf, a lizard man, a vampire, Medusa, etc. But when they accidentally get the figures wet, it turns out that water brings these figures out of some kind of suspended state, and back to life! At first the monsters stay tiny, but they eventually get the kids to take them back to the mansion, where they are able to revert themselves to full size. Now I say "in a nutshell", because that is the basic setup of the story. But because there was one part of the story in each of the six "Volume II" editions, there's a lot more to it than that. I suppose to fit each of the books' themes, be it Monsters, Aliens, Ghosts, etc., different parts of the story feature those themes. So for instance, "Little Monsters", as the title suggests, is about them literally finding little monsters. "Through the Starry Door", sees the kids and monsters, being taken to an alien world, being more a sci-fi story. "A Trip to the Land of the Dead", part of Book of Ghosts II, sees the story exploring more of the supernatural/spiritual side of things, and so on.

Now on its face, it might seem as if these disparate parts wouldn't fit together very well. And honestly I do wonder if it was a gimmick to help sell the books suggested by the publisher, or just a neat idea that Coville himself originated. Either way, I can tell you that, surprisingly, while it certainly creates one hell of a weird roller coaster ride, as a story, "The Monsters of Morley Manor" flows pretty well, and it all fits together pretty nicely. All things considered, I remember the "Book of..." series fondly, and still need to go back and read all the stories (as I took it upon myself to buy them all in 2014). I earnestly feel that a lot of Bruce Coville's work would make for good movie/television adaptations, and I feel that an anthology format show, featuring stories from these books, could be really awesome as well.

Another strange adventure.

One other Bruce Coville book I know that I owned before my grandmother passed away (I had stopped getting any Scholastic books later into 1995, once she got really sick), was Aliens Ate My Homework, seen above. It was the first in another series that he wrote in the 90s featuring aliens, but in quite a different, and wackier way. The young hero, Rob Allbright, is in his room, working on a papier-mache science project, when suddenly a small blue alien ship comes in his bedroom window, landing in the mache. Out come several tiny, toy-sized aliens, who proceed to induct him into their mission to capture a notorious alien criminal, who just so happens to be posing on Earth as Rob's most hated school bully. This was the only entry in the series I owned, I'm pretty sure, but the other book titles can clue you in to how bizarre and funny it probably is: I Lost My Sneakers in Dimension X, The Search for Snout, and Aliens Stole My Body.

Great cover art.

One of my childhood dreams, to have a dragon!

Never trust a demon.

He has, of course, written many more books than I myself have ever read, and in fact many of them I should read someday. From fantasy stories like The Unicorn Chronicles, to his Magic Shop anthology, or darker, scarier fare like his Chamber of Horrors and Camp Haunted Hills books. He's also dabbled in more "mature", young adult fare, with titles like Armageddon Summer and Space Station Ice-3. He's even done several kids' adaptations of classic William Shakespeare plays, such as The Tempest, Hamlet, and Twelfth Night.

To me, in my pre-teen years, those "My Teacher" and "Book of..." books, meant as much to me as Stine's Goosebumps series did. They taught me, made me think, scared me, and inspired me. They helped to further grow one gift that I have always had, thanks in part to an "only child" childhood: a powerful and vivid imagination. I honestly wish that I had been able to own and read more Coville books when I was in that 11 through 13 age range, but I was obsessed with those Goosebumps tales, and we only had so much money to spend on mail-order books. But if you've never read any of Bruce Coville's work, whether you're still somewhat a kid yourself, or merely a kid inside, I would highly suggest that you do. Even his "kids books" are usually much deeper and more entertaining than I'm sure many would assume such books could be, and in this man's humble opinion, he's one of the best storytellers I've ever encountered.

So to you, Mr. Coville, I just want to say, thanks for helping to make a shitty childhood better, and to all of you, have a very happy (and safe but spooky) Halloween!

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Silver Screen Stories: Die, Monster, Die! (aka Monster of Terror)

As the October march continues, let's take a look back at a somewhat forgotten cult classic, and the somewhat forgotten actor who was its star.

This year, in a similar fashion that I once did for my article on the John Carpenter hit They Live, treating it as both a look at that film and a tribute to its star, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, I decided I'd look back at an even lesser known film, and treat it as something of a tribute to its own star, Nick Adams. Born on July 10th, 1931, as Nicholas Aloysius Adamshock (which by the way, is a bad ass name), Nick Adams was born into relative poverty. Becoming something of a hungry hustler in his youth, because of that background, Adams eventually found his way into the world of stage acting by the age of 17. After not getting anywhere in the New York scene, legend has it that he hitch-hiked all the way across the United States, to go to Los Angeles seeking better fortunes.

Rough and tumble.

After still languishing for a few years in Hollywood, Adams started getting acting roles in movies and on the burgeoning platform of television. His first breakout role was as Chick in Rebel Without a Cause, starring the young James Dean. He wound up becoming friends with Dean, though Dean would die young the same year the movie released, 1955. He later became friends with rock star Elvis Presley, a friendship that would last till Nick's own untimely death in 1968. His first major leading role, was in the popular TV show The Rebel, which ran two seasons from 1959-1961. In 1963 he landed the kind of leading role he had long sought after in movies, playing John Dillinger in the film Young Dillinger. But overall, sadly, while often on the cusp of being a star, Adams never did find the sustained success in Hollywood that he wanted. He ultimately died at the young age of 36 in 1968, after over-dosing on prescription pills. But while his personal life wasn't always very stable, I think he should be remembered better for what he was on the screen: a pretty damn good actor, who could have easily been the kind of star he wished to be, on the level of his contemporaries like Steve McQueen, but just had some runs of bad luck. Either way, he found his way into my memories and heart, though some of the "B movies" that he did late in his life. 

An early childhood scare of mine.

The first movie I remember seeing Nick Adams in, though I doubt I remembered him being in the movie at such a young age, was actually one of the very last roles he did before his death. It was the very low budget sci-fi romp, Mission Mars, which released in 1968. Now while it certainly isn't a great movie, I have a certain amount of love and nostalgia for it, because it was one of the first movies I can remember seeing on TV at a very young age, and it left an impression because the alien/monsters in the movie scared me. The film co-starred Darren McGavin (most famously known as the dad from A Christmas Story), and featured a story about the first manned mission to Mars, with America competing with the Soviet Union to get there first. Once there, they encounter a deadly alien menace, that gradually kills them off, and won't let them leave the planet unless they can defeat it. Again, not great fare, and certainly not aided by its clearly tiny budget (the spacesuits feature what look like motorcycle helmets), but it has always stood out in my memory.

Dr. James Bowen

Astronaut Glenn

Late in his career, Adams went overseas to feature in a couple of Toho films in Japan. Toho was looking to cast American stars in some of their films, hoping to appeal more to American audiences. One phenomenon that was born out of this, was the odd practice of having the Americans speak their lines in English, while the Japanese cast spoke Japanese. So in both the Japanese versions and English dubs of these films, someone was always speaking their native language. The first film Adams starred in, was one that I wouldn't actually get to see until my adult years, and that was 1965's Frankenstein Conquers the World (also known as Frankenstein vs. Baragon). In it, he plays a doctor, opposite Toho stars Tadao Takashima and Kumi Mizuno, who are working with victims of radiation sickness, from the fallout of the Hiroshima bombing in World War II. They discover a strange teenage boy, who turns out to be the result of the last surviving piece of Frankenstein's monster, regrown due to the radiation of the bomb (it had been transferred there by Axis powers for study in WWII). The boy grows at an astounding rate when he gets protein, and eventually becomes a giant, who the people fear and blame for a rash of attacks in Japan. It later becomes clear that there is another monster, Baragon, who is responsible, and the boy "Frankenstein" must help end its threat.

Of course, the movie I know him best for, also happens to be my favorite Godzilla movie of all time, Invasion of the Astro Monster. In it, he features once again with Kumi Mizuno, but this time co-stars with the great Akira Takarada, as international astronauts sent on a mission to explore the recently discovered "Planet X", a smaller planet which exists beyond Jupiter. Once there, they discover the world inhabited by strange alien people, and eventually become embroiled in a plot that sees Planet X come under the control of the Earth monsters, Godzilla and Rodan. This is the movie and the role that I naturally most associate Nick Adams with, as this film was one of the first VHS tapes I ever owned, and one of the first Godzilla movies I ever remember seeing. My affection for Nick Adams stems from this film, just as much as my love of Akira Takarada does from both this and Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster.

A cheeseball title for a pretty great film.

The best acting role I've ever seen Adams perform, however, would also come from a movie I didn't see, or even known about, until my adult years. Released in the U.S. the same year as his two Toho features, 1965, the alternatively titled Monster of Terror, was filmed in the United Kingdom. The film is very obviously done in a deliberately similar style to the 60s Hammer Films horror pictures of the time, as well as the Roger Corman Poe Series from the same era. The story is an adaptation of sorts, of the HP Lovecraft tale "The Colour Out of Space", and the director, Daniel Haller, would actually go on to do another Lovecraft adaptation in 1970's The Dunwich Horror.

The legend himself.

The film co-stars the great Boris Karloff, in one of his own final roles. Karloff himself would ironically also pass away in early 1969, about a year after Adams. By this point in his career, he was mostly stuck using a wheelchair, as a back injury he suffered in his most famous role, 1931's Frankenstein, haunted him for the rest of his life and only got worse over time. Even so, Karloff is in his usual top form here, as the haunting Nahum Witley, aged heir of the once-prestigious Witley Estate. Nick Adams plays the charming American, Stephen Reinhart, who has been summoned to England by Nahum's wife, Letitia. She herself is bed-ridden with a mysterious illness, and with strange and spooky ongoings on the Estate grounds, she wants Reinhart to take her daughter, Susan, back with him to America. He had met Susan when she went to Boston for college, and the two had fallen in love.

Cursed land.

The problems for poor ol' Stephen, however, begin when he first reaches the small fictional British town of Arkham. He quickly learns that the townspeople hold no love for the Witleys, and all of them refuse to help him get to their estate. After having to walk the entire way, as seen above, he discovers that the land surrounding a great crater near their property, is completely scorched and dead, with nothing at all growing back, almost as if the land itself is cursed. And of course when he finally arrives at Witley Manor itself, he is met with the decidedly spooky and unfriendly presence of Susan's father, Nahum, who cautions him to leave.

Susan, however, is elated to see him, and wants him to stay, as does her mother Letitia, who sent for him. Letitia reveals to Stephen that she is afflicted with some mysterious disease, which is essentially destroying her body, and that the same illness struck her maid, who has since disappeared. She wants her daughter to get out while she can, as though she won't reveal everything, she hints that the house and land are indeed cursed somehow. Nahum for his part, still wants the young man to leave, but consents to allow him to stay the night.

An original illustration for the Lovecraft story.

The Food of the Gods.

The story itself differs a bit from the original tale by Lovecraft. In that story, it was very vague by design, just what the "colour" that fell from space really was. In that story, the events took place in New England, in America, as most of Lovecraft's stories did, whereas in this film, they moved Arkham to Great Britain (in part likely to explain all the British actors). In the film, it is eventually revealed that a meteorite fell from the sky onto Witley land, at first causing incredible fauna to flourish all around the impact site. But later, that same vegetation quickly rotted and died, leaving nothing but dead, scorched earth for a mile or more around. It even affected the other local townsfolk some, and their livestock, etc., causing them to fear and even hate both the land and the Witley's, whom they believe are the cause of it all.

In Lovecraft's tale, a local farmer finds something that fell out of the night sky, and once he discovers it has a strange energy to it, he uses it to help him grow incredible, unnatural crops. But in this case, the crops, the livestock, the land, and even the water, eventually distort and decay. It is discovered, too late, that what fell from space was some kind of terrifying, undefined alien life force, that basically drains everything around it of life. As you can see above, Nahum Witley in this adaptation,  has also been experimenting with the strange properties of the thing from space, and has high hopes of having discovered a means of producing more food for the world, but that is somewhat where the similarities end.

Spooky stuff.

Tragic stuff.

The one major difference in the story, other than location, is that in Die, Monster, Die!, it is revealed that the meteorite Nahum found, carries with it a strange radioactivity, which causes things to grow and mutate unnaturally. And it is exposure to this, which has sickened and changed the maid, and his wife Leticia, and even their poor loyal butler Merwyn. Leticia eventually goes mad, as things take a turn for the darker and for the worse.

As a movie, I think that, cheesy title aside, it's actually very well done. Visually it definitely has that gothic horror vibe that early-to-mid 60s Hammer films and Corman Poe films had going. The "Old Dark House" motif is ever-present, with a great mansion falling into decay and disrepair, mysterious goings-on, a dark and tragic undercurrent, etc. And the acting, by Adams himself, as well as Karloff, and the ladies Freda Jackson (Leticia) and Suzan Farmer, both Hammer actresses, are all around quite good. The writing and dialogue are smart, the pacing and tone are suitably somber and creepy, as is the soundtrack. The production company, Alta Vista Film, was small time compared to their UK competitors Hammer and Amicus, but I think they managed quite nicely with this movie.

Gothic style horror at its finest.

If you've never seen this film, which I'd wager most have never even heard of it, it is definitely worth a watch, especially during this wonderful Halloween season. Adams shines as the hero, and Karloff is quite effective, even bound to a wheelchair, as the sinister but tragic antagonist. I would put it right up there with the top Hammer Horror films and Poe Series films of the 60s, which I tend to associate together as they're all great gothic style horror. If you want a spooky good time, then dig up Die, Monster, Die! (or Monster of Terror if you're outside the US), and give it a whirl!

RIP Nick Adams, 1931-1968.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Forgotten Gems: Eternal Darkness

It's that time of year once again. Retro Revelations' anniversary season, the Halloween Season! So let's kick it into high gear in style! 

Back on November 18th, 2001, the Nintendo Gamecube debuted. Its predecessor, the Nintendo 64, had been the first console I ever bought myself, with my own money from my first real summer job, in the summer of 1998. As I've stated in the past, the NES is my favorite video game system of all time, closely followed by the SNES. Similarly, 2D sprite-based gaming was, is, and always will be my favorite, and preferred type of games. As far as I'm concerned, the mid-80s through mid-90s was THE "Golden Era" of gaming. It had the best of everything going on, arcades, PC games, the debut of true portable gaming, and of course home consoles. That being said, I did and still do have a fondness for the Nintendo 64, because it was my first system I got myself. I didn't love the era itself so much, as most companies veered hard away from 2D gaming, into early, clunky, fairly ugly 3D gaming. But I still had a lot of good times and fond memories with that system, and to a much lesser extent (because I didn't own one) the Sony Playstation.

When it came to the early 2000s, once the PS2 and Gamecube, and the new entry on the market, which sadly replaced Sega, the Microsoft Xbox, had all released, it was during that "generation" of gaming, that I became for a time, something less of a"gamer". It wasn't that I didn't like video games anymore, I did. But I wasn't AS interested in the new stuff coming out as I had been years prior. Part of it was because those were lean years, and I didn't myself own a Gamecube, and wouldn't come to have my own (used) PS2 until 2004. And part of it was, as I've said, the further push to mostly 3D gaming, just didn't always appeal to me.The tides of gaming were changing, and I wasn't fully on board with where things were going (or have continued to go).

My often mentioned friend Harold, however, DID have both a Gamecube and eventually a PS2. So when he would rent or buy certain games, I was able to still check them out, if I was interested. I'll fully admit that even had I the funds to buy one myself, I wasn't in a great hurry to buy a Gamecube, as there weren't a ton of games I loved on it. There were some that caught my fancy, like Wave Race: Blue Storm, Super Smash Bros. Melee, and Metroid Prime. But there were two games, in particular, that Harold rented when I was around, that I DID fully fall in love with, and in both cases wound up liking and playing them more than Harold himself did. The first was the original brilliant puzzle/exploration game, Pikmin. The other? Was Eternal Darkness.

Darkness there, and nothing more.

Now Harold and I, being the bright young teenagers we were, who kept up on gaming news and such pretty well, had been aware of this weird game, kind of obscure and offhandedly mentioned. It was originally in development for the Nintendo 64 late in its life, as many other Gamecube games had been, including Animal Crossing, Doshin the Giant, and Dinosaur Planet. But the developer, Silicon Knights, headed by designer Denis Dyack, decided (probably wisely), to move the game over to the more powerful upcoming Gamecube, which delayed its release by quite a bit. But when it finally did come out in the summer of 2002, I came over and Harold rented it. And as the saying goes, the rest was history.

I remember it pretty well, that first night playing it. We both started playing it together, and were impressed by the graphics (which were pretty good for the time), the better-than-usual voice acting, the better-than-Resident-Evil controls, etc. Now when I say "better than Resident Evil", what I mean, is that while Eternal Darkness isn't flawless by any means, and in its own way itself is kinda clunky, it was still worlds better to actually play than the early Resident Evil games, whose clunkiness was rivaled only by the likes of early Tomb Raider. I'll get more into that in a bit. Eventually, Harold got sleepy, and went off to bed, after we were a few chapters into the game. But me? Oh hell no! I was very much into the story, and wanted to see more.

In fact, I was enamored with this game from the moment I was pleasantly surprised, when it opened with that Edgar Allen Poe quote pictured above. The poem "The Raven" happens to be my favorite, perhaps of all time, and I was big into Poe in general in my teens (he was the reason I chose the Baltimore Ravens as my football team, because they were named after him). The smooth combination of Poe and HP Lovecraft influences on the game's setting and plot, aided greatly by voice acting that wasn't painful or laughable to listen to (like early RE games), really captured my attention and imagination. And so, there I was, up till the wee hours of the morning at Harold's house, playing this game, with the lights off, by myself, getting the ever living shit creeped out of me in the process.

The Tome of Eternal Darkness.

There is one such moment in the game, that I won't fully spoil because if you haven't played it, you really deserve to experience it. It was this moment that I experienced, alone, in the dark, after Harold had gone to bed. It involved the main character, in this huge dark mansion she's exploring all alone, and let's just say that when it (quite literally) popped up, it was perhaps the only moment in the entire otherwise VERY spooky game, that genuinely made me jump, and I was like "What the fuck!?" There were other WTF moments in my initial playthrough that I also didn't see coming, though they weren't the "made me jump" variety, but rather, involved a unique game mechanic that I'll ALSO explain in a bit.

As for the (unusually involved and fairly decent) storyline, the basic gist is as follows. Edward Roivas, a psychologist living in the ancestral mansion he inherited in Rhode Island, upon digging too deep into unknown secrets, is found not only dead, but his body quite destroyed, in the library of his home. His granddaughter, the main character Alexandra Roivas, a college student, was summoned to the mansion by police to try, however impossibly, to identify the mushed up corpse as that of her gramps. She is able to confirm his identity, because magically enough, one hand was left fairly untouched, with his ring that she recognized. From there, Alex is left alone in this spooky ass mansion, determined to find out just what in God's name could have possibly done that to her poor grandpa, her only living relative, and more importantly: WHY? Her search around the gloomy place, leads her to discover a secret room branching off from the library, where she finds the gross-ass book you see above: The Tome of Eternal Darkness. It is then that you, the player, along with Alex, start reading/experiencing the history of not only this evil book, but the very dark secrets that killed her grandfather.

The opening area.

The Tome itself, is obviously modeled after the fictional Necromomicon, originally from Lovecraftian lore. Like the Necronomicon appearance in the Evil Dead films, the Tome is also a book seemingly made of human flesh and bones, its pages written in human blood. Upon beginning to read the first "chapter", you the player are whisked away to Ancient Persia, 26 BC, and assume the role of Pious Agustus, a Roman Centurion, who is lured by mysterious whispering voices in the desert, to a strange, almost Stonehenge-esque stone circle. When he steps inside, he is teleported elsewhere, assumedly below to some secret temple. Weary but curious, Pious makes his way through this (relatively small) opening area, where the game teaches you pretty quickly, how to attack, etc. You run into ghoulish reanimated corpses, of the nearly skeletal variety, that you can dispatch quite easily, once you get the hang of the attack system. And then, as Pious, you too enter some secret room, and discover three mysterious glyphs. You have to choose one to advance, and once Pious does, he is permanently transformed into an undead sort of wraith himself, now the servant of whichever ancient horror you chose.

That rat-fuck son-of-a-bitch.

That is how the game starts out, and then of course you're taken back to the Roivas Mansion, and as Alexandra, must search the mansion for more pages to the Tome, to learn more of the story. The game unfolds thus, shifting between searching the mansion (and sometimes fighting monsters) as Alex, and playing various characters that she's reading about, and she herself basically experiences their parts of the story. That alone is pretty original, and I must say, even compared to most of today's more modern attempts at "cinematic, playable movie" type games, Eternal Darkness was far better at actual quality storytelling. The game features a total of twelve playable characters (if you include Pious at the beginning), each from various countries and time periods. In fact, there was originally supposed to be thirteen, as a Templar Knight character from the Crusades, was taken out (in my opinion wrongly), after the terror attacks of September 11th 2001 happened. In reality, you only go to a handful of locations in the game, Ancient Persia, an ancient Khmer Temple in Cambodia, a cathedral in France, the Roivas Mansion in Rhode Island, and the hidden underground Forgotten City. But you revisit these locales, playing as different characters throughout the centuries, starting in 26 BC, and leading all the way up to the present Alexandra lives in, 2000 AD. The locales are a bit different when you revisit them, accounting for time passed, and the machinations of the dark forces at work in the game. 

The symbols of the unspeakable Ancients.

As for the mysterious glyphs? Well, they actually represent a very key and important part of the gameplay itself. As you can see in the diagram above, the game (and story) has four major other-worldly powers at work, and they form some kind of arcane, and uneasy, balance with one another. When you, as Pious, choose one of the three glyphs at the beginning of the game, you are in a sense "choosing your own destructor" (ala Ghostbusters), because that glyph represents not only the power that Pious will serve, but it will also affect the entire game in many ways.

The three glyphs around the triangle, represent the three Ancients, basically Lovecraft's "Great Old Ones", timeless dark gods from some other plane of existence, who long to retake and probably destroy this world/universe that they once ruled. They are: Ulyaoth, represented by the blue glyph, a jelly-fish-like being whose domain is magickal power and the ethereal; Xel'lotath, represented by the green glyph, is a many-armed eel-like being, whose domain is the mind, and sanity; and Chattur'gha, represented by the red glyph, a great lobster-like being, whose domain is raw power and physical matter. Lastly, the fourth Ancient, represented by the purple glyph in the middle, is Mantorok, the only one of these creatures who is "on your side", in a way. "He" is a giant, many-eyed and many-mouthed slug-like being, who is said to have once been revered as a "fertility god", and is something of a Lord of the Earth, as well as being a rotting "Corpse God" of the dead. While the other three represent a strange "Rock, Paper, Scissors" kind of balance with each other, and exist outside of this reality, wishing to break back through, Mantorok existing on Earth somehow keeps the others at bay, and keeps their powers in check. However, "He" is also imprisoned in an ancient temple, impaled by many pillars, left slowly rotting and weakening over the centuries. Thus, his power over the others is waning, and they are able to exert more and more influence on the physical plane as time goes on.

Hey pal, you got a light?

Your choice of glyph in Pious' chapter serves more than just the story, however. As stated, it also affects and even alters the game itself. It slightly changes the monsters and trials you will face, as well as directly affecting you the player. For instance, if you choose Chattur'gha, because he is the Ancient of Power, his minions glow with red power, tend to be physically stronger and larger. But you the player also start out physically stronger, and the "focus", if you will, of your gameplay, is put more on your red Power meter, which becomes larger if you choose red. If you choose Ulyaoth or Xel'lotath, likewise, they are the Ancients of Magick and Sanity, which again alters the types of minions and challenges you will face, but also gives either you more Magick or Sanity meter. Ulyaoth's minions are smaller and weaker than Chattur'gha's, but later in the game some of them are also capable of great magical attacks, etc.

Now where Xel'lotath and Sanity comes in, is the one truly unique outstanding feature of this game that I mentioned before. Along with the Power/Health meter and Magick meter, you also have have a Sanity meter. Why this is important, is that depending on what character you're playing at any given time, and what they experience, what kind of success you have at killing monsters, etc., your Sanity meter will be affected. If you're good at kicking monsters' asses, your Sanity meter will refill and you'll just hunky dory. But if you suck, your Sanity meter will drain. And the lower it gets, the more your in-game "Sanity" is affected. And different characters, depending basically on how spiritual/superstitious they might be, are affected more, or less, by the scary things you encounter. So some have weaker sanity, while others are stronger. If you choose Xel'lotath at the beginning of the game, your Sanity meter will be stronger, which helps, but in turn your physical power will be weaker.

Do you have a moment to talk about our Lord and Savior, Xel'lotath?

As for the Sanity Effects themselves? Well, if your meter only drops a bit, you will eventually encounter surreal effects like hearing spooky whispers, having statues watch you and their heads follow your movement through a room, hearing a woman's crying in the background, spooky noises start getting louder and louder, having the room/camera tilt, the walls looking like their bleeding, etc. But if it starts getting SUPER low, the game really starts messing with you. I myself experienced some of these, having no real idea what was coming, so they all came as a surprise to me. Just some of the things I experienced included walking into a room that isn't supposed to be there, that you can't get out of, etc., and then BAM, you're back in the last room you were in. Or walking into a new room, and your character slowly starts sinking into the floor for no apparent reason, only to once again, BAM, back in the other room. Some of the most extreme effects, however, were when the game would make it suddenly seem as if your TV's volume was turning itself down to silent, only to come blaring back. Or probably the worst one I can remember, that actually made me mad for a second, was when I suddenly got a notice on screen that my save card data had been corrupted, meaning I was going to lose all of my progress and then, OH SHIT JUST KIDDING BRO! And needless to say, while all of these "Sanity Effects" are going on, and getting worse, it makes the game itself harder to play, the dangers harder to navigate. So it's in your best interest to "git gud", and keep your Sanity meter as high as possible.

Magick is a hell of a drug.

As for the other two aspects of the game, Power and Magick? Well, with Power, that deals with your physical attacks and health. As I said early in the article, the original Resident Evil games were clunky as hell. They were SPOOKY and interesting, but the actual gameplay could at times be a bit of a chore, ESPECIALLY when trying to fight monsters. With ED, they have a system in place where when you are faced with a monster, you hold down the R-button to "center" on them, similar to 3D Zelda games. And from there, you can highlight their torso, right or left arm, or head, and you are then able to individually single out and attack those specific body parts. The combat itself is still a BIT clunky, but it's far more workable in the heat of battle than early RE games. Once you get the hang of it, it is actually possible to get pretty good at the combat, and be able to competently defend yourself against most monsters. If you choose Chattur'gha, your power meter will start out bigger and you'll get stronger as the game goes on, but your Magick and Sanity will be weaker.

As for Magick, as you can see above, the game has a fairly complex Magick system. In fact, I could see someone arguing that it's a bit TOO complex, simply because you have to find and learn all of these different glyphs, you need a specific tablet to translate/read them, you need specific scrolls for specific "spells", etc. At first, your spells are simple, with only a few runes to work with, but eventually, as you can see, you learn more complex and more powerful configurations, that can do a variety of things, from refilling your own Power or Sanity, to temporarily freezing or even damaging an enemy. Late in the game, knowing how to use Magick in tandem with physical attacks becomes a must.

Alexandra Roivas, monster slayer.

Ultimately, which Ancient alignment you choose at the outset, truly does shape the whole game. It changes monster types and encounters you may have, subtly alters certain little story bits, etc. For one thing, as previously stated, the Three Ancients exist in a kind of "Paper, Rock, Scissors" limbo with each other, meaning that each one is specifically strong against one other while also being specifically weak against one other. For example, red is strong against green enemies, but is weaker against blue ones. As you play through the game the first time, this will come up, especially at the end, as you will, ironically, need the power of one of rival Ancients to the one which you've chosen for Pious to serve, to "aid" you.

And once you beat the game that first time? Well, you can go back, choose one of the other two alignments, and then do it all again! It's basically the same game each time, but there are enough differences in how the powers affect your playthrough, to make it interesting. In fact the game will not allow you to choose the same alignment again on a specific save file, until you have beaten all three. And yes, when you beat the game with each alignment, you do get a slightly different ending each time. If you're patient enough and strong enough to beat the game THREE times, with all three alignments? Then you are rewarded with the TRUE final ending of the game, which of course I'm not going to spoil. It can be a bit tedious to beat the same basic game three times, but it does add nice replay value, when these types of games are far too often a matter of "beat them once to see the story and then never touch again".

Why...hello there!

Getting back to my own experience, playing this trough that first time, I did generally really enjoy myself. The story had my attention, and while I'm sure there were some frustrating parts later into the game that probably made me mad, I soldiered through to the end, and beat the game with at least one of the alignments that first time Harold rented it. I really enjoyed how you got to play all of these different people, and saw their varying parts in this unfolding horror. Yet it wasn't merely an unfolding horror, as each one of them also contributes in some meaningful way, to essentially being some kind of resistance to this inevitable return of the Ancient which will destroy our world. In fact, in a very real way, as you see all of these characters' little pieces of the story throughout the game, from time to time you even encounter the spirits of past characters in the same locales, and thus they help you, and are adding their knowledge and power to your own, to help you beat them. So in that way, in SOME small way, each character you play throughout the game, helps to empower Alexandra at the end, in 2000 AD, to face down the threat and try to defeat it.

The Final Confrontation.

Without spoiling TOO much, that rat bastard Pious Augustus acts as the primary villain throughout the game, popping up at nearly every turn, serving whatever Ancient power you chose, committing all kinds of dastardly acts and vile evil in the name of his master. Eventually, once Alexandra has read all of the chapters of the Tome, she discovers a secret way to the ancient Forgotten City, a place where unspeakable horrors exist, and you muar fight your way through to have your final, fateful encounter with Pious. It's basically up to one poor girl in her 20s, to save the world, nay, the UNIVERSE, from destruction.

I wouldn't say that Eternal Darkness is in my Top 10, or perhaps even Top 20 favorite games EVER. But, I WILL say, with surety, that it is definitely my favorite "Survival Horror" game of all time. Everything from being a more involved, action-y type of game than those games at least USED to be, to having an actually engrossing, interesting story of Lovecraftian otherworldly terror to keep you playing. The game has genuine chills and moments that will make you jump, but it also puts it in you, the player's hands whether you get a horrible, depressing ending or not. You can, in a way, affect your own fate, and that's a nice feature too.

Who likes episodic content?

On a final note, back when the Nintendo Wii U console was new (circa, let's say, 2013 or so), Denis Dyack and Co. tried, and failed, to run a crowd funding campaign for a spiritual sequel/successor to ED. I think part of why it failed, was because their dumbass idea, was to have it be an "episodic" game, meaning that you had to separately pay for and download parts of the story, which you would have to WAIT for each one to release to be able to see the next part, etc. I don't know about you, but that isn't very appealing, and also stinks of fleecing the customer. To me, what they SHOULD have done, was worked directly with Nintendo again, made a legit, straight up "Eternal Darkness 2", officially, and made it ONE game, no bullshit. But then again? ED also doesn't NEED a sequel. It was a perfectly good, self-contained story, in and of itself. What I WOULDN'T mind, however, was an HD remake of sorts. Keep the original voice acting, but give the game improved/updated graphics and sound and music. Maybe polish and tweak the gameplay somewhat to make it smoother. But THAT, a good remake/remaster of this game, I'd buy.


 So if you're looking for a spooky game to play this October, and own an old Gamecube or Nintendo Wii, you can find used copies of this for sale for reasonably cheap online, considering how rare the game probably is now (it wasn't a "best seller" in its original release). Unfortunately, Nintendo is stupid and never kept their word about releasing Gamecube games for Virtual Console on Wii U, and now that Switch doesn't HAVE a VC, who knows if they'll ever re-release this game, digitally or otherwise. They SHOULD go the remake route, as I think it'd sell. But if you can snag an old copy, and haven't played it before, then I'd say you're in for a treat! Just watch out when you're peeking around that mansion.....

Friday, August 31, 2018

Godzilla Chronicles: Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster

The Godzilla Chronicles continues! Last year, as a lead in to my annual "Halloween Countdown",  I talked about a movie I didn't get to see until my adult years, but one that had major significance to the Godzilla franchise as a whole, that being Ghidorah The Three-Headed Monster. And then this past spring, I finally got to talk about what is easily my TOP favorite Godzilla movie of all time, Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (aka Invasion of the Astro Monster).

As I've explained before, while it's entirely possible that I saw some Godzilla movie or other at a younger age, likely on TV if at all, the first Godzilla movies I REMEMBER seeing, coincided with the first VCR we finally got. As I've also explained, I grew up a fairly poor kid, being raised by a single grandmother, which in and of itself was a journey, to put it mildly. Similar to how I didn't get an NES (and thus the genesis of my true video game love) until the second half of 1990, we didn't get a VCR until, I'd say, no earlier than 1989. Prior to that, anything and everything that I saw, had to have been playing on cable TV. But once we got that VCR, it helped open up a whole new world for me, of classic (and not so classic) movies.


What you see above, is the VHS cover art of what was very likely the first Godzilla movie I ever saw, let alone owned. Taken on its own, it's not amazing art, though it's hardly BAD art either. But to me, that box art is solid gold. I'm going to get this out of the way early, but I absolutely love Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster. Not AS much as Monster Zero, because as far as I'm concerned, that movie takes the cake when it comes to the purest, most entertaining representation of classic "Showa Era" Godzilla. But in this man's mind, Sea Monster is a reasonably close second.

An alternate VHS cover.

I will acknowledge that my opinion of Sea Monster being "one of the best" Godzilla movies to ever exist, is not one that is widely held by other Godzilla fans. But that's perfectly fine, because I feel like I have plenty of good reasons to hold it in such esteem. For one thing, yes, there's the Nostalgia Factor. If this really WAS the first Godzilla movie I ever actually saw as a kid, that alone for most people is a reason to continue loving something and giving it high value as an adult. And I'll fully admit, that factor for me is strong here. This was a movie that sold me on how bad ass and cool Godzilla was, it was knee-deep in that mid-60s era when they transformed the "Big G" from a terror to humanity, to being a HERO. And he very quickly became MY hero.

But I also think the movie stands up on its own merits, and deserves recognition for what it is. It certainly has arguable weak points, for instance, the titular "Sea Monster", Ebirah. While I like him, one does have to admit that a giant lobster isn't exactly the MOST threatening enemy for a walking nuclear furnace of destruction like Godzilla. There is also a questionable (and brief) fight scene against a giant condor who appears out of nowhere, which I'll talk about a bit later. But overall? I think this movie has far more going FOR it, than against. For example, just straight off the cuff, I will name drop Akira Takarada. I don't mind telling you that he's my favorite Japanese actor of all time, and YES, it is 100% because of the classic Toho films he's been in. Being honest though, Mr. Takarada IS a badass, and perhaps never moreso than in this film. It also has veteran Toho actors like Jun Tazaki (aka Mustache Man), and Akihito Hirata (who bears an eye-patch here just as he did in the original Gojira film), as classic style villains. For bonus points, although that's getting ahead of ourselves, it also features a cameo appearance by (adult form) Mothra! And last but not least, it has a very unique "James Bond" type of vibe to the whole affair, which sets it apart from other Godzilla movies.

Most of the main cast.

As far as story goes, the main thread here, is that a young fisherman, Yata (Toru Ibuki), has been mysteriously lost at sea along with his ship. His younger brother Ryota (Toru Watanabe), sets himself out to find him, believing he is still alive. Being something of a "simple country boy" type, he isn't quite sure how to do this, with the authorities giving him no real help. But he spots a poster for a marathon dance of sorts (that kind of thing was all the rage in the 60s), with the grand prize winner receiving a boat. This inspires him to try and enter the dance, but he discovers that he's arrived considerably too late to enter. By a stroke of Fate, Ryota encounters two teenaged friends, Ichino and Nita, who as it so happened, had both just exited the competition from exhaustion, as Ryota had arrived. Ryota explains that he needs a boat, and thinking him some weird kid who is "boat crazy", the two decide to take him on a joy ride to the harbor to go look at boats.

Once there, the boys decide to just show themselves aboard such a boat, a yacht called the Yahlen, just to take a look around. But once on board, they find that the boat's "owner", a shotgun wielding man named Yoshimura, is not happy about the intrusion. But after the guys explain that their friend just loves boats THAT much that he had to see inside this one, Yoshimura suddenly has a change of heart, and tells them they can stay the night, but have to BUZZ OFF first thing in the morning. Just on its face, like, who would actually invite trespassers on their property to stay the night, right?

The weather started getting rough, the tiny ship was tossed...

Fast forward to morning, where Yoshimura awakens to find that his "shotgun", in actuality a realistic looking toy gun, was broken. Assaulting the sleeping teenagers, thinking they had done it, to get them off of his ship, the three of them emerge topside only to discover that they are sailing out on the open sea. It turns out that good ol' Ryota, being a strong believer in the Shinto religion, believes he has been given this boat as a "Gift from the Gods", and as such he intends to use it to find his lost brother. And seeing as none of the others, not even Yoshimura, knows how to drive a boat, OTHER than Ryota, they are "left with no choice" but to go along with his crazy scheme. Yoshimura, for his part, seems mysteriously not nearly as upset as you'd think, considering his boat just got hijacked.

Well as it would turn out, ol' Yoshimura is actually a bank robber, and the Yahlen isn't even HIS boat (SPOILERS!). He just hid out on it, and the boys happened to find him. So their adventure at sea begins, with Ryota combing the fishing lanes to try and find his brother's wreck. Unfortunately for Ryota and Company, they are hit by one hell of a monster storm (literally), and while helpless to the thrashing waves, their boat is wrecked by what looks very much like a gigantic lobster claw (because IT IS!). They fortunately all survive, only to be washed ashore on some remote, unknown island.

The Red Bamboo.

Much to our heroes' misfortune, it would seem that this island, called Letchi Island, was the adopted home of a clandestine terrorist outfit who call themselves "The Red Bamboo". These Bamboo chaps seem to have their eyes set on becoming a nuclear power unto themselves, and to that end, have set up a base, complete with a "Heavy Water" installation. The boys hear the siren heralding a ship approaching the island, and at first think they are saved, only to quickly learn that it is actually these Red Bamboo jerks, bringing another shipment of kidnapped slaves. The slaves are natives to an island that has popped up in the Toho-verse previously, Infant Island, home to the monster known as Mothra!

As a couple of Infant Islanders try to escape, getting gunned down in the process, a native girl slips away making her own run for it. The girl, Dayo (played by Kumi Mizuno),  runs into the gang hiding out in the forest, and at first runs from them in fear, but they later convince her that they're not with the Red Bamboo. The group then go on the run together, being discovered by the soldiers, and wind up finding a seaside cave to hide in. The only problem? They ALSO discover that, for whatever random reason, the cave happens to be the current residence of a sleeping Godzilla!! After a near disastrous expedition into the enemy base, that sees one of them get caught, and another get literally carried away by a huge weather balloon, the group decide on a plan of action: They're going to try and wake up Godzilla, in an effort to distract or defeat The Red Bamboo, so they can free the slaves and escape.

Bitch SLAP!

Wake the sleeping giant they do, utilizing some MacGyver type tactics involving some metal wire and a sword they found, which acts as a lightning rod. The lighting succeeds in jolting poor Godzilla awake, and he busts out of the cave, literally smashing through the cliff-side out to the beach, understandably grumpy. I mean, he was having a really peaceful power nap, and then THIS shit happens! Well, the island ALSO happens to be home to an enormous (titular) Sea Monster known as Ebirah, a huge lobster, who patrols its surrounding waters territorially. A fact that The Red Bamboo capitalize on, using a yellow juice made from local fruit, that apparently lobsters HATE, to keep Ebirah away from their ships, while at the same time utilizing him to keep everyone ELSE away from the island (and to keep slaves from escaping).

When Grumpy Godzilla meets up with Crabby (Get It?) Ebirah, shit gets REAL, and we the audience finally get the fight we've all been waiting for. In all honesty, while somewhat silly as a concept, Ebirah isn't all that bad of a monster. And fighting Godzilla in his own element (the sea), he does manage to hold his own. He even engages Godzilla in a game of catch featuring a giant boulder! The two monsters actually fight twice in the film, the first ending in a bit of a stalemate after Godzilla (literally) toasts Ebirah's ass and he swims off. So while our heroes hope that Godzilla will take it to those evil Bamboo guys, meanwhile, Ryota is brought by fair winds to Infant Island, where he finds his brother alive and well! The two brothers plan to set out to rescue the others, while the Infant Islanders set about a sweet song and dance routine, led by those adorable Fairy Twins, in hopes to awaken their god Mothra, to have her go save everyone. And without spoiling the ending, that's the basic rundown of the plot.

Safety Dance!

As I said before, this film has a very unique vibe that you don't really find in any other Godzilla movies, and I like that about it. It has a VERY 60s soundtrack, featuring very Bond-esque surfer guitar work. Not the classic Akira Ifukube fare of so many great Godzilla films, but it's catchy, and I consider it classic in its own right. Another possible reason for this film's unique tone, is that it is one of only a small handful of Godzilla films from the 50s and 60s NOT to be directed by the great Ishiro Honda (whom I just recently revealed as one of my Top 5 Favorite Filmmakers Ever).

Instead, it is directed by Jun Fukuda, aka the second most prolific Godzilla director of the Showa Era. Along with directing the little-known but actually rather good sci-fi thriller Secret of the Telegian, he also directed this, the following Son of Godzilla, and he went on to become the main Godzilla guy in the 70s, directing three more films (Gigan, Megalon, and the first Mechagodzilla). While I do vastly prefer Honda's work, I have to give Fukuda major props for what he accomplished as a G-director. He DID, after all, direct this, which is basically my second favorite Godzilla film of all time. And while the 70s movies did get a bit hokey, and dipped in quality (due to Toho budget cuts), they still have heart, and Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla is another of my favorite Godzilla movies.

The Giant Claw....?

There are a couple of negative points the film DOES deserve. The first of which being the aforementioned fight with a giant bird. See, right after his first fight with Ebirah, all Godzilla really wants to do is go back to sleep. So instead of crawling back into the cave, he just sits down and naps out in the open. But seeing as he's so huge, he makes himself a giant target, and the first thing to attack him, is a gigantic condor, who swoops in and just starts pecking the shit out of his face. Now the CONCEPT of a fight with a giant bird is pretty solid. Unfortunately, what makes this fight a negative point, is that the film must have already busted its budget on everything else, because the bird is arguably the cheapest looking Toho monster ever put to film. The poor thing looks so rough, that the camera barely focuses on it, and after being a brief annoyance, Godzilla tells it to PISS OFF, burning it to a crisp with his death breath, and it plummets into the sea.  

The second negative point is actually something that had nothing to do with the filmmakers. It has everything to do with the post-production English dubbing. There was an English dub made, which is on the original VHS tape I own (and can be heard in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode featuring this film), which in my opinion was actually rather good. The actors actually TRY, it has a sense of dramatic timing and the voices fit the characters. However, upon buying the widely-available DVD for my collection in the 2000s, I discovered to my horror, that they did NOT use that dub! Instead, they used some OTHER shitty "International Dub", with completely different voice actors, who basically just phone it in with the laziest cartoon style acting imaginable. The single worst offender, is the voice for Nita, the "comic relief" character of the story. In my cool VHS dub, yeah, he's a goofball, but he's still a cool character. In the SHIT dub from the DVD, he now sounds like a whiny, high-pitched cartoon character, apparently played for laughs but actually just annoying. And that sucks, because as stated, the OTHER dub actually fits the movie and characters very well.

Coaching up The Boys before their next big fight.

As the story goes, similar to another mid-60s Toho film, Frankenstein vs. Baragon (aka Frankenstein Conquers the World), this movie was allegedly originally supposed to feature King Kong, whom Toho had the rights to use after their Kong vs. Godzilla film, and would later use in their movie King Kong Escapes. But they thankfully decided to use their marquee star, Godzilla, instead. Don't get me wrong, King Kong vs. The Sea Monster has a certain ring to it, and I'm sure it would have been a delightfully bizarre escapade. But I'm personally very glad it stars Godzilla instead, both because I feel it's overall better that way, and because this movie led me to discover my childhood love/obsession for Godzilla. And that on its own means an awful lot to yours truly.

Overall, while this movie lacks the monster star power of a SUPER memorable opponent for Godzilla, like a King Kong, or a Mothra, or a Ghidorah. I feel that it hits enough of the right notes, and stands out with enough of its own particular vibe, that it merits a recommendation from me. Is it "campy" and "cheesy"? Yes. But as I've said in past articles, Toho's use of "suitmation" (actors in rubber suits), and elaborately detailed miniature sets, while it may strike modern audiences as "cheesy", or "cheap", it was anything but at the time. Most of the budget on these films, small as the already were, went directly to the special effects, and they were (and are) an artform all their own. An artform that I really wish Toho would remember, and honor, today.

If you only feel like ever watching ONE Godzilla film ever, I'd probably recommend the original 1954 classic Gorija, or my top favorite, Godzilla vs. Monster Zero. But if you're inclined to watch more than one, I would recommend Sea Monster as a very fun and trippy ride. It is an enjoyable movie from beginning to end, at least I think so. Just a word of warning: If you DO watch it, which I hope you do, if at all possible, just watch the original Japanese audio with subtitles, because I'm telling you, that "International English Dub" is terrible!

As for what's next on the Retro Revelations docket? Well, hold onto your butts, because this was just a taste of the Halloween goodness to come...Stay Tuned!!!