Director Bert I. Gordon (yes, his initials make him Mr. BIG…haha) was a low-budget filmmaker in the drive-in, Jack Arnold-style who secured a reputation for himself making really BIG movies; movies about giant, bald, irradiated men in diapers (“Cyclops,” “Amazing Colossal Man,” “War of the Colossal Beast”), giant arachnids/insects (“The Spider” “Beginning of the End”), giant rodents (“Food of the Gods”) and in the one I remember all too well from my warped childhood, “Village of the Giants” (1965).
“Village of the Giants” (VOTG) was one of Gordon’s more unusual films that was a bit outside of the director’s typical monster-movie stable. This film is a weird hybrid of 1950s’ atomic-giants-on-the-loose movies with 1960s teenage beach party flicks. The result was a truly odd duck of a movie (and yes, it does feature giant ducks) that is more camp and far less serious than Gordon’s typical, scarier giant people/creature/spider flicks.
After a bizarre, psychedelic, color-wheel tinted credits sequence of giant teens dancing in slow motion, the story opens with a blue T-bird seemingly crashed into a phone pole during an oddly sunny rainstorm (?). The car isn’t full of injured passengers, but rather eight lily-white rebel ’teens’ (each of whom looks to be about 25 or so) who fling open the doors of their wrecked car and immediately take to wild dancing in the rain & mud (which is usually my first reaction in a car wreck, of course…).
The group is led by big man off campus, “Fred,” played by a very young Beau Bridges (Lloyd’s son, Jeff’s brother) and his lusty, busty, crazy-eyed girlfriend “Merrie”, played by Joy Harmon (better known to movie fans of a certain age as ‘that car washing girl’ in 1967’s “Cool Hand Luke”).
Also in the group are Mickey Rooney’s son Tim, and Ryan O’Neal’s brother Kevin. We also see Ann Sothern and Robert Sterling’s daughter Tisha. So help me, everyone in this movie is related to someone a bit more famous. And of course, we know that these so-called teens are bad apples because well, they drink Blatz beer, blast their car’s AM radio, and dance in the mud. Anyway, the kids finish their spastic dancing and decide to raise a bit of hell in the nearest town, Hainesville (which looks like every neighborhood in every sitcom made in the ‘50s and ‘60s). Anyway…
Cut to the ‘good’ kids, led by former Mousketeer Tommy Kirk as “Mike” and his wholesome-as-Wonderbread girlfriend “Nancy” (Charla Dougherty) and her annoying, 10 year old, science-geek kid brother named “Genius,” played by a very young Ron Howard (yes, the future “Happy Days” star and world-class film auteur). Anyway, Genius concocts a formula he calls ‘goo’ that looks like a pink Play-Doh milkshake (and about as appetizing, I’m sure). This goo has the bizarre side-effect of circumventing the law of conservation of mass by making living things instantly grow 10 times their size (at first with ducks, a stray cat, the family dog, and later on, a spider).
Mike immediately decides they will patent the goo, market it, sell it and make…
At this point, we’re supposed to bear in mind that this opportunist, exploitative, hyper-capitalistic little creep is one of ‘the good guys.’ These good guys now have a giant cat, a giant dog and two giant ducks that somehow wander off the premises (they disappear only moments after they grew…you’d think they’d be rather difficult to lose track of, but I guess not).
Cut to later that evening; the bad kids have holed up in an abandoned theater, cleaned up, change clothes and decide they want to “go dancing” (do these kids do anything else?).
At the town’s local discotheque (shot in L.A’s historic “Whiskey A-Go-Go”), the young, would-be goo entrepreneurs meet the rebel teens, and the giant ducks also decide to crash the party. Most of the kids in attendance seem strangely unfazed by the sight of car-sized ducks having their tails yanked by unseen wires (no movie animal protection in those days). Fred and his gang of rebels get it in their heads that Mike and Nancy must’ve supersized the ducks with some kind of “pill or something.” Their plan? Cozy up to Mike and Nancy and kiss the secret formula right out of them. But despite Fred and Tisha Sterling’s painfully awkward attempts at seduction, their plan fails. Plan B (to break into Genius’ lab and simply steal the formula) is now good to go.
The next day, the poor disco ducks are now barbecued on giant rotisseries, and Mike hosts an impromptu free cookout (but…who the hell knows what eating giant mutated duck meat might do to a person, right?). Soon Genius pedals up on his bike, holds up a jar of what looks like the pink goo, only to have it vanish in sunlight. One of the girls in Fred’s gang, Elsa (Gail Gilmore) is sunbathing nearby and decides to woo the 10-year old boy (yikes, Mrs. Robinson!) with her feminine wiles to learn the location of his goo (it’s a bit creepy seeing 10-year old Opie wooed by a woman who’s clearly in her mid-20s at least…). Genius, of course, tells her everything…
Later that evening, Mike and Nancy return home to find that a giant spider has apparently nibbled a bit of Genius’ goo. They now they have a four-alarm Orkin crisis on their hands. But have no fear; Mike the ex-Mousketeer is here! Mike breaks an overhead water pipe (while hanging from it) and wets the floor the spider is standing on. He then shatters a dangling lightbulb to drop the open bulb socket onto the wet floor and electrocute the creature; which somehow completely disappears in the very next shot (don’t ask how; the movie is chock full of bizarre sh!t like that…).
After a not-so-careful break-in at Genius’ lab, followed by a bit of fisticuffs with the good kids, the bad kids retreat back to their theater hideout with the highly coveted goo. After a few minutes deciding what to do with the stuff, a grunting rebel named Rick (Bob Random), wants to eat the goo himself. He’s stopped by Fred, who decides that they must ALL take a piece (“Nobody chickens out!”). Fred then cuts the Play-Doh into eighths, and after a bit of taunting, each of the teens takes their slice and eats it…
…and I’d safely bet that the scene that follows is the sole reason this movie was made. Immediately, the rebellious teens begin to grow. Elsa’s bikini top pops off, Merrie’s sweater bursts open, Fred’s shirt splits apart, etc.
It’s pretty clear that about half of the movie’s budget went into this scene as well; as a variety of vintage FX are used, such as rear-projection, rapid-fire editing (to prevent any overly risqué exposures) and scale miniature sets. These techniques are all employed to convey the not-terribly convincing illusion that these kids are now 20-30 ft. giants living in a dollhouse-like theater.
The teens proceed to fashion togas and bikinis out of a convenient nearby storage bin of curtain fabric, and then decide raise a bit of hell with the townsfolk…
…which amounts to crashing an outdoor party, and several LONG minutes of slow-motion dancing to Jack Nitzche’s musical score.
During the dancing, Merrie grabs a townie (Johnny Crawford of “The Rifleman” TV show) and leaves him hanging onto her giant bra for dear life (I’m not making this stuff up; look ^).
At this point, Mike’s had enough of that; he smashes a chair across giant Fred’s fiberglass-prop legs, and shouts, “Tell her to put him down, or I’ll beat the daylights out of ya!” The next scene is arguably the best in the entire film as giant-Fred bitch slaps Tommy Kirk’s Mike into next week…
Soon the sheriff (“Blade Runner”’s Joe Turkel) and his deputy (Rance Howard; Ron Howard’s real-life father) arrive and demand that the giant teens keep it down (haha) and return to the theater. After a few empty threats back and forth, the supersized kids meekly retreat… for now.
The next day, the sheriff and Mike (was he newly deputized?) arrive at the theater to confront to Forever 21 Goliaths and order them to leave town. The teens drop a bombshell on the sheriff by revealing that they have his daughter as a hostage, and that her safety is dependent on the town’s cooperation. The giants’ plan: demand that the townspeople bring them fried chicken & soda, surrender all of their guns, and oh yeah, don’t tell the giant kids to turn down their music. Ever.
Mike and his incompetent crew then try to take down Fred (or at least a pair of oddly-spaced fiberglass legs) using a motorcycle, lasso rope and a few George Barris custom surf wagons (WTF??). Needless to say it doesn’t work, and Nancy is soon captured by Mickey Rooney’s giant rebellious son, who plays the giant “Pete.”
Mike’s crew then plan to rescue Nancy and the sheriff’s kid by distracting giant-Fred as some of the townies slip into the theater through the roof hatch. Johnny Crawford then oh-so bravely volunteers to jump spider-like onto giant-Merrie’s boobs again (some might think Bert I. Gordon was a fetishist), and in a disturbingly post-Bill Cosby scene, he renders her unconscious with a giant cotton wad soaked in anesthetic, as he climbs down off of her makeshift bikini bra…
After his friends free Nancy and the sheriff’s daughter, Mike takes to shooting at giant-Fred with a slingshot (really!?) in one of the slowest fight scenes ever filmed. What’s supposed to be ‘David and Goliath’ comes off more like a half-asleep me at 3 am trying to kill a pesky fly. Luckily, Genius comes to the rescue, and releases a giant cloud of mustard gas-like vapor into the atmosphere (oh yeah; I’m sure that’s perfectly safe) which immediately shrinks the giant rebels back to human-size; even giant-Merrie, who was unconscious only minutes before. The now down-to-earth rebels desperately try to cover themselves up with their now-oversized clothing. Mike clocks a dazed Fred as soon as he’s man-sized again.
The sheriff and the townsfolk run the delinquent octad out of town…
On the way out of town, the teens come across their wrecked T-bird and are met by an unseen, deep-voiced male who asks them if Hainesville is “the place with the goo?” Fred assures them that it is (even though the goo is gone). The movie then finishes with a cruel bit of physical mockery as the voice is revealed to belong to one of a group of little persons, who then file past the former giants on their way to Hainesville…
I realize that the movie is a fantasy, so I won’t address the multitude of basic, 7th-grade scientific contradictions throughout (such as how the giants aren’t suddenly crushed by their newfound mass, etc.) but there are nagging issues even within the movie’s own silly, natural laws-defying universe:
* The scale of the giants is all over the place.
They seem to oscillate anywhere from 15-50 ft. (4.5-15m) in height, depending on the scene. Sometimes a bottle of coke seems to fit between their fingers and other times, a child can fill their hands. Other scenes have the giants leaving through the front doors of the theater simply by ducking down (!?), and then rising back up into frame. And of course, after the giants revert back to their normal sizes, their makeshift curtain-material clothing still fits far too snugly, considering these kids were previously the size of buildings…
* The movie’s opening credits state that Alan Caillou’s screenplay is based on H.G. Wells’ classic novel “Food of the Gods”…
Okay, seriously. I’ve read Wells’ book and other than children who grow into giants, the two stories have about as much in common as “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” does with SyFy network’s “The Expanse.”
* The movie is very sexual, yet oddly puritanical.
Throughout the movie, the twentysomething-aged ‘teens’ are being virtually ogled by the camera, as there is a lot of skin for a ‘60s Disney-style family movie. As kids, we used to watch this movie on Sunday afternoon television, for chrissakes (!). And while the rebel teens’ blatantly sexual nature is clearly desiderated by most, they’re also often admonished by the ‘law-and-order’ teens who only want to protect the status quo. And what makes the ‘good’ kids so noble, anyway? We see early on that the only thing on Mike’s mind is to exploit and make money off of the goo. Is such a guy really the right person to assume ownership of his girlfriend’s brother’s clearly dangerous invention? Odd morality mix from the writer and director Bert I. Gordon, who clearly didn’t ‘get’ the 1960s like he did the 1950s…
* Much of the movie is languidly paced, even for the time.
Despite those moments throughout that are intentionally or unintentionally amusing, there are large stretches of the movie that are quite dull. The dance sequences feel like interminable script-padding. If those scenes, and the various non-sequitor musical numbers were cut? I’m guessing the movie would clock in at just over an hour. It’s 45 minutes into the movie until we actually see the village’s giants (!). For an 80-odd minute teensploitation movie, it feels much longer.
* The dialogue.
“I was big enough before!”
“It’s either pancake mix… or an octopus.”
“Dig that nitty-gritty!”
“Baby, you make me wish I was your size again.”
“I don’t like (good girls); they talk too much… so, stop talking too much,”
(That last little gem was from the ‘good’ guy Mike).
Lots of ’60-isms like ‘groovy’ and ‘right, baby’ are sprinkled throughout in an effort to sound then-hip, but it doesn’t help. It still feels like a middle-aged writer trying to emulate ‘these kids today.’
* Lots of song numbers that just stop the movie dead in its tracks.
Musical numbers by such ‘60s pop stars as Freddy Cannon (of “Palisades Park” fame), Mike Clifford and The Beau Brummels (a very poor man’s Beatles). The songs aren’t entirely horrible, they only serve to stall the hell out of an already unevenly-paced movie.
* Conflicting tone.
The odd tonal mismatch between science-fiction giant monster flick and beach party movie just doesn’t work. There are scenes that try to make the audience feel some genuine dread of the giants, but they move so slooooowwwwly that they have all the menace of an approaching garbage truck from three miles away. There’s even a bit of social satire attempted, as giant-Fred announces to the sheriff that the townspeople all have “freedom of speech… so long as we approve of what you say.” Nice try, but I sincerely doubt that first amendment rights are the first thing on the rebel kids’ minds, and more like the screenwriter’s. But then again, in a movie that’s all over the map-crazy like this, what’s off the table, right?
* An absolute lack of ANY diverse casting.
There is not one face in this movie that isn’t lily-white (and most of them blonde), even among the musical talent. I realize this was a common thing with movies of the time, but this was only a year away from 1966’s Star Trek and its multiracial crew, as well as a few other pioneering movies and TV shows at that time. Even one of the beach party movies had Chuck Berry, for god’s sake. It may have been business-as-usual then, but it’s glaringly obvious and downright embarrassing today. Would it have really put the casting department out to cast at least one non-white person somewhere in this movie?
* Not ONE person in all of Hainesville could’ve phoned, radioed or simply WALKED into the next town for help??
What I actually like about “Village of the Giants”:
* Jack Nitzche’s musical score (not the songs).
Nitzche would go on to score far better movies such as “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975), “An Officer and a Gentleman” (1982) and many others (including some incidental music for 1973’s horror classic, “The Exorcist”). His deep, slow-strumming, Dick Dale-style surf-rock guitar musings are actually quite hypnotic. It’s no surprise that latter-day exploitation filmmaker Quentin Tarantino actually used Nitzche’s VOTG main theme as the title music to his 2007 Grindhouse epic, “Death Proof”, and it fit like a charm. His music for the teen’s ‘growth’ scene has a nice undercurrent of menace to it, beginning with low strumming electric guitars segueing into loud brass as they become giants. Even today, that soundtrack works.
* An attractive, if non-diverse cast.
Maybe not the most uniformly talented troupe, but Beau Bridges would go on to legitimate fame in many movies and TV shows. And busty Joy Harmon would help kickstart a lot of youngsters (including myself) into puberty. Tisha Sterling, the very attractive daughter of Ann Sothern and Robert Sterling, had a Sharon Tate-vibe about her. I remember seeing her in a “Night Gallery” episode a few years later (“Return of the Sorcerer”) as well as playing her mother Ann Sothern’s younger self in “The Whales of August” (1987). Ron Howard would go on to do “Happy Days” (VOTG was post-“Andy Griffith Show”) as well as direct a slew of terrific movies, including “Apollo 13” (1995), one of my favorite movies of all time. Howard is also directing Disney’s forthcoming “Han Solo” movie. I met his brother, actor Clint Howard (“Gentle Ben” “Star Trek” “Apollo 13”), in Las Vegas about a year and a half ago. He was a character…
A camp, inconsequential little movie that tries to straddle the line between giant atomic monster flicks and teenage beach party movies, with that mesmerizing Jack Nitzche score.
It’s the kind of movie that drive-in theaters were created for (you could walk to the snack bar during the incessant singing or dancing bits, for example). It’s also a movie that my younger self and my sisters used to watch on television at least once a year. Back in those days, if it had monsters, or giants or some other weird crazy thing in it, we watched; and we didn’t care about much else…
Maybe that’s the audience for this movie; younger kids who feel threatened by older teenagers or adults screwing with their lives, as well as that dreaded fear of puberty encroaching on childhood. The teens bursting out of their clothes, for example; it’s almost like an embarrassing Freudian nightmare of what younger children fear a growth spurt will be like.
On that level is perhaps where the movie works best.