G Is For Giant Gila Monster Movies

Giant Gila MonsterI’m combining my ongoing “A to Z  Challenge” with my occasional reviews of old and/or favorite movies. As I’ve said before, when I was a kid, my brother and I would stay up late to watch old SF movies in black and white on the TV. The movies were always much cut up to allow for noisy used car dealer commercials and we sometimes fell asleep before the end.

“The Giant Gila Monster” of 1959 (“Devouring people as if they were flies!”) was one of the favorites of whoever programmed movies at the little station we watched, so we saw it fairly often.  It was a typical 1950’s movie with giant creature bent on devouring the world (ants, spiders, crabs, you-name-it became giant people-eating beasts in those old flicks all the time) and plucky teens who defeat it when no one else can. Actually this Gila monster apparently just wanted to eat the local townspeople and had no further ambitions. I always rather enjoyed the scenes of a real Gila monster rampaging through model train sets. The hero, Chase,  hot rodder with a heart of gold, was portrayed by Don Sullivan, who also got to sing three songs in the course of the movie. (Don’t tell him,  since I believe he wrote the songs, but the station we watched as kids cut about one and a half  of them every time as best I can recall.)

One staple of 1950’s SF movies in this genre that always amused me was the heroine with the random, charming foreign accent that usually went unexplained (although in one of my alltime favorites “The Killer Shrews,” the heroine asked the hero why he wasn’t curious about her accent!). My family had a theory going that these actresses were former Miss Swedens, who had won a role in a “big Hollywood movie” as one of their prizes. Turns out the lady in this Gila movie was Miss France 1957.

gilaAt any rate, I recently stumbled across the 2012 remake, a made-for-TV movie entitled “Gila!”  I had to watch it so I ordered the dvd.  The tagline on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) is “Hot Music, Hot Cars, Hot Chicks…and One Big Monster.” I don’t know if that was the official tag or someone’s plot summary but the cars at least were hot. The cars were the best thing in the movie – beautifully restored, shiny 1950’s vehicles that drew your eye every time one was in the scene. The characters drove quite an odd assortment of cars, probably based on what the film makers were able to find. It was glaringly obvious to me how extremely careful everyone was being not to get a scratch on  the perfect paint. Anytime there was a “car wreck” the camera would cut away right before the  actual collision and then you’d get a scene where the car was obviously still in pristine condition.

So when the cars are the eye candy, that’s probably not a good sign overall. The movie seemed to be trying to be in the 1950’s without really being there. It was shot in a washed out color palette that approximated black and white (except for the cars, which almost glow). The costumes were suggestive of the 1950’s at best and glaringly wrong at other times. One dress the heroine wore briefly looked like she’d sewn it herself  the first week in Home Ec class. I kid you not.

Throughout the ENTIRE movie I was annoyed every time the sheriff showed up, not because the actor wasn’t doing a good job (he was)  but because the costume person couldn’t be bothered to find a matching shirt and pants for his uniform.

The bad boy (human, not the monster) was named “Waco Bob,” which at first I assumed was a joke but no….

Frankly when it came to the monster, I preferred the 1959 real one and his  destruction of train sets to the cgi thing that lumbered through this movie…

This movie seemed to be largely following the plot of the original, with a few differences. They had a scene at a burger joint which appeared to primarily allow the heavily accented car hop to explain she was a foreign exchange student, which I took as a  wink to the 1950’s trope I mentioned above. She wasn’t the girl friend in this version though.

I’d forgotten the subplot in the original about the little sister with polio…

And actor Don Sullivan reappeared, as a professor who is an expert on – you guessed it – giant Gila monsters!

Another fun bit of casting was Kelli Maroney from “Night of the Comet” (a movie I personally love) as the Deputy.

And our 2012 version of hero Chase, played by Brian Gross, got to sing the main song at the end. Known as “Laugh, Children, Laugh”, the real title was apparently “The Mushroom Song.”

Here’s the original version (song starts at about :45):

I think, all in all, I prefer the approach Steve Latshaw and James Best took with “Killer Shrews”, where they did a modern day sequel rather than rework the original. (Here’s my review of “Return of the Killer Shrews”.)

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Interview with Director Steve Latshaw – “Return of the Killer Shrews” Premiere

It’s my pleasure and honor to have Director Steve Latshaw as my guest today, talking about his latest movie “Return of the Killer Shrews” and other fascinating topics! “Shrews” has its world premiere this week, as a major fund raising event for a worthy cause –  Speedway Children’s Charities.

Not too long ago I wrote a blog post on my favorite old science fiction movies, one of which was the original “Attack of the Killer Shrews.” Turned out to be one of Steve’s favorite movies as well. We exchanged e mails about the movie and I was very excited to hear he had just finished directing the sequel, with James Best returning to star again in the role of Thorne Sherman, which he originated 50 years ago! The movie also stars John Schneider and Bruce Davison.

Steve was kind enough to do an interview for my blog on his many experiences with the magic of movie making and “Return of the Killer Shrews”  in particular. So welcome, Steve, and let’s proceed with the interview!

Please tell us a little about your background in film making.

I made my first Super 8mm movie at the age of 8… a documentary about making plaster art.  Made home movies into teen years… was obsessed with old flicks… serials, monster movies, westerns.   Anything made by Republic Pictures.  Plus schlock sci fi like THE SLIME PEOPLE, ROBOT MONSTER, DR. ORLOFF’S MONSTER, etc. Dreamed of one day living in Hollywood.

1972:  Saw a horror film about killer snakes called STANLEY at the Decatur, Illinois Lincoln theater.  Read an article about the picture and its director, William Grefe.  Turns out it was shot in Florida.  So immediately got the idea to go to Florida and start making low budget horror movies… and that would be my route to Hollywood.

1988:  Move to Orlando, FL. Worked as entertainment reporter for local TV station, doing documentaries and news stories about Florida moviemaking and moviemakers.  Met, became friends with William Grefe, director of STANLEY.  He mentored me.   I was introduced to prolific, genius genre film king Fred Olen Ray, who started his career in Florida.  He also knew Bill.  I made a low budget horror film in Orlando with my writing partner Pat Moran called VAMPIRE TRAILER PARK.  Bill talked me up with Fred… Fred was impressed enough to finance some low budget movies for us with real stars, and on film –  and we were off!

Between 1993-1995 we cranked out DARK UNIVERSE, starring Joe Estevez, a huge hit for Curb Entertainment (We made it for $40,000 – it took in over $400,000 in world wide sales)… shot that one in ten days.  More monster stuff followed for Fred… BIOHAZARD 2 aka BIOHAZARD THE ALIEN FORCE, starring Chris Mitchum.   Big hit for Trimark.  JACK-O – big hit for Royal Oaks… featured for an entire hour of the Phil Donohue show (scream queen contest – winner got to be in our movie).  JACKO starred Linnea Quigley plus the late John Carradine and the late Cameron Mitchell.  Producer Fred Ray had leftover footage of them and we gleefully put it in our film, using doubles to cover.  To this day, JACK-O is a big cult hit.  We put out a 10th Anniversary DVD in 2005.  An indy movie followed… the little seen DEATH MASK, starring and written by my dear friend James Best.

In 1995 moved to Hollywood… fell into screenwriting after this successful run as director.  Got known for family films after INVISIBLE DAD (1996).  Got known for military action and disaster movies after SCORPIO ONE (1997).  40 movies later, here I am, thanks to William Grefe, James Best,  Producer Andrew Stevens and, especially, Fred Olen Ray.  And a lot of help from co-conspirator Pat Moran.

 When did you first see “Killer Shrews” and what did you like best about the original movie?

Tight.  Compact.  Full of action.  Suspense.  Dark and scary.  James Best.  Saw it first on video cassette back around 1988.

 What drew you so powerfully to the idea of making a sequel?

James Best, James Best and James Best.  I wanted to bring him back as Thorne Sherman.  I met him in Florida after the DUKES OF HAZZARD had finished its run.  He had a big acting school in Florida.  I did a news story on him and saw a lobby card for Shrews on the wall of his office.  Gotta do a sequel.  For the first five years he laughed at the idea.  For the next fifteen we worked on various scripts.  I only wanted to do the film if Jimmie played Thorne again.  Otherwise, for me, there was no point.

I understand it’s been quite a journey from concept to finished film. How did you persuade Mr. Best to reprise his role as Thorne Sherman?

See above.  He was always willing if it was a good script.

The cast has a number of amazing actors – Bruce Davison, John Schneider to name a few. Were they fans of the original? I heard Bruce’s remarks on the website about the interesting challenge of acting with cgi – was that what drew him to the project?

John agreed to do the film because of his friendship with James Best.  But when he hit the set he realized the bar was pretty high in terms of acting and comedy… and he turned in an amazing performance.  You’ve never seen John like this… funny, intense, imitating cultural icons, amazing.  It’s like that moment when the first AIRPLANE came out and we all suddenly realized that great character actor Leslie Nielsen also happened to be a comedy genius.  Bruce Davison loved the script.  He agreed to do it as soon as he read it.  Bruce told me he liked the fact that all the other characters do the set up and he delivers the punch lines.  He insisted on doing a number of WILLARD references in the film, among them the iconic line  “Tear ‘Em Up!”

 I noticed quite a few ties to the “Dukes of Hazzard,” in the cast, one way and another – will movie goers see some hidden references to “Dukes” perhaps?

Hidden and not so hidden.  We also have Rick Hurst, who starred as Cousin Cletus  on the Dukes… there are plenty of delightful references for Dukes fans.

 What was the major challenge you encountered in making the sequel?

Convincing the world it was ready for a sequel.   Now they’re convinced!

 The original had an underlying message about overpopulation – does the sequel hold any “message” or is it pure adventure?

Adventure, horror, comedy.  And one of my favorite movie themes.  You’re never too old to kick some serious monster ass.

 Any humorous anecdotes you can share from the Making of Return of the Killer Shrews?

Too many to count.  It was the happiest set I’ve ever been on.  Jimmie (Best) and actor David Browning, who do a lot of personal appearances together (David, a talent actor, is also known world wide as “The Mayberry Sheriff” – doing a faultless Don Knotts imitation at various Andy Griffith Show conventions).  Jimmie and David would do classic comedy routines spanning everyone from Laurel and Hardy to the Johnny Carson show.  Jimmie would also be doing his Jimmy Stewart and W.C. Fields imitations (I am almost as good as he is on that one)… periodically we’d have to cut down the laughter so we could shoot.  Jimmie would also tell great stories about the old days in Hollywood.  There was a very emotional day at Bronson Canyon.  James Arness had just died.  He’d been a friend of Jimmie’s; Jimmie had done many GUNSMOKE episodes.  So there Jimmie was, at Bronson canyon, where he’d filmed so many westerns (and it looks the same).  I think that was a tough emotional moment.  Shooting –wise, we had seasoned crew members running away from the set in tears from laughing so hard during the “goat” scene… probably the funniest scene in the movie, thanks to our comic genius Chris Goodman and a wonderful deadpan performance from young Sean Flynn.  Working with Sean was a delight.  He’s the grandson of the great Errol Flynn and a talented comic actor on his own.  He’d spent four years as the teen idol star of Nickelodeon’s ZOEY 101… ours was his first “adult” role.  For me, I’d been a surf music fan since the 1970s.  I got the opportunity to work and record with Dean Torrence of JAN & DEAN on some songs for our soundtrack.  Bruce Davison had actually played Dean on screen in a 1978 CBS TV movie about Jan & Dean called DEADMAN’S CURVE.  So I had a fun afternoon listening to Bruce singing Surf City and Barbara Ann.  Later, in the fall, we were able to reunite Dean with Bruce in the recording session (“The Two Deans!”) so that was a thrill… which we have immortalized in the closing credits of our movie.

Will we learn what happened to the character of Ann Craigis from the original movie?

Yes.  Her character motivates a major plot point.

(VS sez: Good! I liked her character in the original, glad we’ll find out what happened to her!)

Toward the end of  ”Killer Shrews” Dr. Craigus explains to Thorne that by the next morning only the largest shrew will be left on the island and it will die of hunger. How does the sequel get around this point? (Or do we have to see the movie to find out!)

We got around this by conveniently ignoring any scientific or plot points in the original film that did not gel with what we had in mind for the sequel.  Look at the Universal horror films of the 40s… they do the same thing.  HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN… movie ends with the monster sinking in a bog with Boris Karloff.  HOUSE OF DRACULA (sequel) begins with monster being found in a cave near the edge of the ocean.  THE MUMMY’S GHOST ends with Kharis the Mummy dying  somewhere in New England.  THE MUMMY’S CURSE finds him waking up in the swamps of Louisiana.  In all seriousness, though, we stuck as closely to the original film as possible.  It’s a good solid retro sequel  to the original, with a visual style we described as “1965: SECOND SEASON MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.”  The original film was in B&W and dark and grungy, which added to the appeal.  Because ours is a bit lighter, a genre blend ala SHAWN OF THE DEAD (with horror and comedy), we went the opposite way,  as if this was a brightly lit, garishly colored A.I.P. Euro backlot jungle epic ala 1965, in Pathecolor and TechniScope.

 What is your favorite aspect of directing a movie, versus being the scriptwriter? Do you prefer one role over the other?

Moviemaking is the director’s palette.  He calls the shots.   It’s his movie, win or lose.  Writing a movie is like drawing a blueprint of a sculpture, then handing the blueprint to someone else who actually uses their hands to make it.  Having said that, Jimmie, Pat (Moran) and I spent lots of time re-writing on the set.  Our actors were so good and adding so much we kept adding scenes, refining scenes, etc.

 As a director, how do you work with the actors? Do you let them explore their characters pretty freely or do you give detailed notes and direction?

I give them a certain amount of detail… enough to build a character from.  Sometimes they might not use it.  The best situation is when an actor comes in with a good idea for the character.  We had written the character of the director (Willard) a certain way… but Chris Goodman came in with something that was completely differently, yet brilliant and incredibly funny.  The second half of the film is much more serious and with this tone change I had to push Chris in a different, more serious direction.  He handled the transition beautifully.  With really good actors, you don’t have to say much.  Just be prepared to answer  their questions intelligently and usefully if they have them.

 If you could tell ANY story on film, rights, budget and stars being no object, what would that be? What’s your all time favorite movie monster and why?

I have a number of projects I’d like to do.  Books I’d like to make, etc.  I like to keep them to myself.  RETURN OF THE KILLER SHREWS was a movie I’ve wanted to direct since 1989, after first meeting James Best.  I still get a thrill when I think to myself that we actually got it made.  I love showbiz biographies and am currently circulating an original screenplay about  Al Jolson’s 1950 trip to entertain troops in Korea.  I don’t have a favorite sci fi film… I have eras… for me,  1951 to about 1962 is my favorite period.  However, I have a few guilty pleasures I always return to… THE SLIME PEOPLE… NIGHT OF THE BLOOD BEAST… ROBOT MONSTER… FLYING DISC MAN FROM MARS (A Republic serial – if anyone can find me the feature version of this one, called “MISSILE MONSTERS” – I’ll be eternally grateful)… GIANT FROM THE UNKNOWN… WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST… RADAR MEN FROM THE MOON… INVISIBLE INVADERS… BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS… HIDEOUS SUN DEMON… ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS… NOT OF THIS EARTH…. IT CONQUERED THE WORLD… MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND… ASTRO ZOMBIES… and all the early 1980s Fred Ray classics like BIOHAZARD, THE TOMB, PHANTOM EMPIRE, WARLORDS, ALIENATOR, HAUNTING FEAR, BAD GIRLS FROM MARS, STAR SLAMMER, SCALPS, etc.

(VS sez: You’re listing a lot of MY favorites above as well!)

 What’s your favorite science fiction book or series?

Original Star Trek series and movies.  Even GENERATIONS.  Heinlein’s FUTURE HISTORY stories. TIME ENOUGH FOR LOVE.  But my biggest influences are adventure fiction writers (novelists).  Alistair MacLean (GUNS OF NAVARONE, WHERE EAGLES DARE, ICE STATION ZEBRA) probably has had the biggest effect on my writing, in terms of stories and characters.  And Ian Fleming, in terms of how, and when and how much I write.  I’ve been reading and re-reading his James Bond books since 1969.  A great travel and historical writer… his novels are now picture perfect looks at the bad old world of the 1950s and 1960s.

 When can we expect to see “Return of the Killer Shrews” released?

We’re doing festivals right now and benefit screenings.  I’d like to see it out soon.

 Besides this movie, which of your other projects is your most favorite and why?

BIOHAZARD THE ALIEN FORCE because of the wonderful memories of Florida, our cast and crew, and the fact that we broke all the rules and made an action-packed sci fi adventure with 28 speaking parts, 50 locations, car chases, helicopter battles, running and jumping fights, more car chases at Universal studios, exploding lab complexes and Chris Mitchum.  And all for about $50,000.

COMMAND PEFORMANCE (2009) because it was a wonderful, fun collaboration with co-writer/director/star  Dolph Lundgren.  Dolph and I set out to make a fun, 90s retro action piece, with tongues firmly in cheek.  And we did it.  Set in Moscow, Dolph plays a formerly violent ex-biker turned rock and roll drummer for a metal band in Russia.  He’s opening for a Brittany Houston type.   Fun stuff… we had one of the Pussycat Girls as the singer.  Not surprisingly, it was a major ingredient in Dolph’s recent career surge.  And I got to work with Dolph, who’s a hell of a nice guy and a fine filmmaker, heading rapidly for Clint Eastwood status as he directs more and more of his own stuff.  It has one of my favorite lines… “Dying is easy… rock &roll is hard…”

 What’s the next creative project for you?

Next up is a balls-to-the-wall horror western called COWBOYS & ZOMBIES.  Leone meets Romero.  Writing this with Pat Moran and Steve Spear.  Spear is an up and coming writer/producer you’ll be hearing a lot more from in the near future.  The project was his concept; we are collaborating with him on characters, story, settings, everything.  It’s got homages to everything from RIO BRAVO to the MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, DJANGO, GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY, THE BIG GUNDOWN and DAWN OF THE DEAD.  This has actually been in play for a while.  Some would suggest comparisons to COWBOYS AND ALIENS but our films are distinctively different.  There’s was a western that happened to have aliens in it… something that hurt the film with present day audiences (though I loved it, as a western buff).  Ours is a flat out, rapid fire zombie movie that happens to take place in the old west.  I think it’s what you want to see with a title like that.

 Do you have a question you’d like to ask the Readers today?

What movies haven’t you seen that you’d like to see?  What do you like and dislike about today’s movies?

 Where can the fans find more information on line?

www.killershrewsmovie.com

Thank you so much for being my guest today – I can’t WAIT to see the movie!

Readers, we appreciate any comments you’d like to leave for Steve and/or your input on his questions above…

Killer Shrews & Other CLASSICS of the Late Nite Movies!

When I was a kid, there was a Saturday night ritual at my house – we stayed up till midnight, ate popcorn and freshly baked cookies, and watched really bad science fiction movies broadcast in black and white, sliced and diced with commercials for sleazy car dealers and weird gadgets. It was FUN!

We watched movies like “Attack of the Giant Crab Monsters,” “Attack of the Giant Octopus,” “Attack of the Giant Gila Monster,” “Attack of the – well, you get the idea. My favorite of the really bad movies was “The Killer Shrews,” which was so bad it was great (to my 7 year old self anyway). Deliciously terrifying and the good looking hero (played by James Best) had a Southern accent and a devil may care attitude predating Han Solo. Here’s the plot per IMDb: “On an isolated island, a small group of people are terrorized by giant voracious shrews in the midst of a hurricane. “ Giant voracious poisonous shrews as I recall!

Deathless dialog, heroine to our intrepid hero: “You’re a strange man, Thorne. I never met anyone like you. You seem so disinterested in everything. Aren’t you the least bit curious? Don’t you wonder about the unusual things around here? The guns. The fence. The shattered windows. My accent. Anything?”

Since they ended up in a clinch by the end of the movie he must have cared about something. A number of these old movies had very blonde, very buxom heroines with unplaceable foreign accents. I always wondered if they’d been Miss Eastern Finland or something and won a “starring role in a Hollywood movie” as one of their prizes. Sometimes the heroine’s accent was explained and other times you just took it on faith. Foreign exchange student maybe? Turns out Ingrid Goude,  the actress in this classic, was in fact Miss Sweden 1956 and runner up to Miss Universe!

This movie actually made money. It even had a foreign release (in Germany!) But perhaps the scariest part is that they’ve now made a sequel, to be released in 2012….wait for it…”Return of the Killer Shrews”! James Best is one of the writers and acts in it, along with John Schneider and Bruce Davison. I kid you not. Presumably this time around the shrews will not be large dogs with very bad rugs or sheepskins or something thrown over their backs and maybe the movie can be in color? Unlike the 1959 original? Here’s the tagline: The Killer Shrews are back, and only one man remembers how to stop them…or die trying!

There was another one of these movies that actually scared me as a kid – “From Hell It Came.” Here’s the plot: “Tabanga, a prince wrongfully accused of murder and executed, becomes a killer spirit reincarnated as a scowling tree stump, comes back to life and kills people on a South Seas island. A pair of American scientists save the day.” I have no idea WHY it terrified me – the special effects were probably really bad….apparently one of the reviews at the time the movie was released said “Back to Hell it can go!” But I was petrified for weeks afterwards.

Here’s the intense dialog snippet I found on IMDb: Hero: “If you didn’t want me to kiss you, why did you kiss me back?”  Heroine:”I don’t know. Maybe it’s my metabolism.” Oh, well THAT explains a lot…..

Maybe I should dig that up a dvd copy of “From Hell” and watch it now, just to get the childhood trauma out of my system? On second thought, Nah! I think I’ve recovered LOL.

There were others that were really good, for their time – “Forbidden Planet,” “It Came From Beyond Space” (which is so much like “Alien” that it’s uncanny), “Thing From Another World,” which is still on my alltime favorite list and I DO watch that one fairly often…”Them”…..

Perhaps another day, in another blog, I’ll revisit those. Did you have a favorite “really bad late night movie” when you were a kid? Or a really good one?