Monday, August 5, 2019

“Stampeded by Rubbernecks and Souvenir Hunters” - Giant from the Unknown (1958) - Film #146

At Senseless Cinema, we rarely examine films from before the mid to late 1960s (because, apparently, all movies before 1960 are either acknowledged classics or worthless). Let us delve back into those early days of cinema to discuss Richard E. Cunha's Giant from the Unknown (1958), in which a towering giant who is well over 6 feet tall comes back from the dead to inconvenience the residents of a small mountain town.

As always, some critics are shockingly unimpressed by Giant from the Unknown. Reviewer shugaron316 writes, "This is one of the most dreadfully bad of the 50's B flicks." Reviewer khunkrumark writes, "From the stolid (not in a good way) direction and the hackneyed script, to the multiple narrative failures of the plot, there must have been better ways for Astor Pictures to squander the $50,000 budget that was set aside for this turkey, right?" And reviewer Michael_Elliott writes confusingly, "The look of the monster really didn't impress me either nor did his little outfit." (Spoiler: His outfit is not little.)

Read on for a true picture of this misunderstood giant...

In the small mountain town of Pine Ridge, a group of men wait for the sheriff to return with a body. An elderly man helpfully summarizes the backstory: “I’m telling you there’s something mighty strange going on around here. First, the cattle and the horses ripped apart, then Old Man Banks is found dead under mighty peculiar circumstances. Just ain’t natural.” He believes something strange is cursing a place called, perhaps unsurprisingly, Devil’s Crag.

Sheriff Parker (played by Western veteran Bob Steele, sporting both the demeanor and the eye makeup of a silent film actor) arrives in a pickup truck with Banks’s body in the bed, covered by a sheet. The townsfolk immediately life off the sheet and grimace, though the audience does not get to see the body. The sheriff explains that Banks was killed via a brutal beating.

One of the townsmen says, “It’s supernatural. That’s what we think it is.”

A teenage girl, Anne, says, “Supernatural? That’s silly.”

The townspeople scoff. The old man says, somewhat convolutedly, “If you’ve lived here as long as most of us, you’d have heard of the legend of the curse.”

A local drunk Indian stereotype (1958) agrees. “The spirits of my people return for their revenge.”

The sheriff replies, “Yeah, sure, Joe, sure.” He adds, “I want you to keep your inside information from the spirits to yourself.”

Joe leaves with a parting warning: “People who walk on Indian grave die.”

We are then introduced to Wayne Brooks, a young man who has been off in the mountains for the past few days collecting rocks. Anne and her brother Charlie Brown fill him in about the suspicious goings-on, so Wayne talks to the sheriff, who figures Wayne is a prime suspect because of mild animosity between Wayne and the victim, Brooks. The sheriff tells him to stay in town.

We are next introduced to an archeologist, Professor Cleveland (played by Western veteran Morris Ankrum), and his daughter Janet on a camping expedition to the mountains. The sheriff warns them not to poke around Devil’s Crag.

At dinner at the local lodge, Wayne reiterates the story so far to Professor Cleveland, including the mutilated animals and the curse of the Indian graveyard. Cleveland says he is looking for a giant who has been dead for 500 years, a man named Vargas, renegade lieutenant of the Spanish conquistador Bartolome Forelos.

“Why do they refer to this Vargas as a giant?” Wayne asks.

“Fragmentary accounts of the period relate that we was...well, he was a man of extraordinary size.”

Back at Wayne’s house, Wayne shows Cleveland and Janet his collection of Indian artifacts (not a euphemism). Janet screams when she sees a lizard in a box.

“It is extinct,” Wayne tells them about the lizard, perhaps contradictorily. “It’s the only one in existence. Here’s the reason why. I found that lizard sealed inside this rock.”

“Alive?” Janet asks.

“Yes. That animal has lived in suspended animation for countless centuries.”

Cleveland adds, “I have heard similar reports.” Cleveland is more interested in Indian arrowheads, however, than a lizard that has survived for centuries inside a rock.

Unseen by our protagonists, Indian Joe is lurking right outside the window, a fact that quite rightly forces the filmmakers to add a shocking musical sting.

While Wayne and Janet have an offscreen date at a movie theater, Cleveland has taken the two hours or so to assemble some of Wayne’s relics into something he describes as a cross.

Cleveland explains: “Well, don’t you see? This shows that the ancient Indians of this area were influenced by Europeans long before the earliest recorded white settlers arrived. Possibly by the very band of men that I’ve been looking for.”

“It sounds logical, sir,” Wayne says.

Of course, the trio decides to go to where the cross was found—Devil’s Crag—but it takes some time and involves a low-speed car chase when the sheriff sees them driving up into the mountains. They park their Jeep and the sheriff confronts them, but Cleveland convinces him to drive away. “That man has a badge instead of a brain,” quips Wayne.

The next day, Indian Joe shoots at Wayne, but Wayne just walks up to him and scolds him for shooting in his direction. (We never find out why Joe shot at Wayne.)

Back at their tent, Professor Cleveland watches Wayne walk back, then casually says, “We heard a shot, Wayne. Is anything wrong?”

Wayne says everything is okay. He shows them an excellent map he has sketched, evidence that he would have had a fine career as an architect or landscape designer.

Janet asks what she can do to help the expedition.

“Well,” her father replies, “since you’ve made the beds, you can wash the dishes and tidy up the camp.”

Wayne, who is courting Janet in the traditional manner, adds, “And then start lunch, and plenty of it. We’ll be famished.”

The men go over a few square yards with a metal detector, but ironically it is Janet’s wandering about with the detector that finds something—and, doubly ironically, she finds it seconds after her father announces he has given up his three-year obsession of finding evidenced of the giant Vargas. After some digging, they find a conquistador helmet, along with armor and other evidence of Spaniards. The most intriguing find, however, is a skeleton, complete with what appears to be a remarkably well preserved right eyeball.

To make the scientific find even more interesting, Wayne identifies a large rock formation that he believes—based on no evidence presented to the audience, alas—is exactly like the rock that held the lizard in suspended animation. He also finds an axe handle that he identifies—based on no evidence presented to the audience, alas—as the giant Vargas’s axe.

At this point, over 36 minutes into the 77-minute feature, that we see the hand of the giant Vargas moving under some leaves.

The giant is buried under less than an inch of topsoil. As lightning strikes, he climbs out of his dirt prison.

The next day, the trio finds an amulet that Cleveland identifies—based on...etc.—as belonging to Vargas. They also find an armored chest plate that looks slightly bigger than average. “Look at the size of it!” marvels Wayne.

“Oh no!” says Janet, jumping to a very reasonable conclusion. “You don’t think he could still be alive?”

“If he were, it could explain a lot of things that have been happening.”

Cleveland plays the skeptic: “That’s impossible. He’s been dead at least 500 years!”

“So was that lizard I found.”

Later, Charlie Brown stumbles upon their find. Wayne says, “I’ll get rid of him. If news of what we found gets around, we’ll be stampeded by rubbernecks and souvenir hunters.”

At night, Wayne shows Jan a lake. Oddly, the water doesn’t move at all, not even a ripple. “Oh, Wayne, it’s breathtaking!” she says.

Wayne pours on the charm: “You know something? You ought to go out in the moonlight more often. It makes your eyes even more beautiful.”

They kiss, but decide to return to camp. “It’s a shame to waste all this moonlight,” Wayne says remorsefully.

Janet replies, a little awkwardly but with an admirable internal rhyme scheme, “There’ll be other moonlight nights.”

After they turn in, the giant finds his armor, and then sees a tent-canvas silhouette of Jane changing into her nightgown. Intrigued, he moves toward the tent, stoogily tripping over a bucket. The sound spooks Janet, who grabs a pistol and fires straight into her cot. In the confusion, the giant gets away.

Wayne and Cleveland decide they should, instead of running away because a giant undead Spaniard with a battle axe is on the loose, stay awake and build a fire, just to be safe.

Frustrated he missed out on the chance to either speak with or attack Janet, the giant makes his way to the nearest house, the home of brother-and-sister Charlie Brown and Anne. Anne, for some reason, is fetching a bucket of water from a well at midnight. The giant assaults her and she screams.

Unable to sleep, Wayne and Cleveland reiterate their theory that Vargas is alive. “During that electrical storm,” Wayne posits, “a bolt of lightning struck near enough to rekindle a spark of life.”

“I know, I know, it sounds impossible,” says Cleveland. “But it’s the only possibility I can think of.”

“There’s just one other possibility. It’s possible that someone’s just trying to frighten us away.” Possibly, that is.

Sheriff Parker suddenly appears and holds everyone at gunpoint. He snaps handcuffs on Wayne, but Janet protests: “This is ridiculous!”

“Since when is murder ridiculous, miss?”

The sheriff takes Wayne away, convinced he murdered Anne.

Distraught, Janet tells her father they need to help Wayne. The professor replies, “We’ve got to do everything we can to help him. But first I have to make a plaster cast of that footprint.”

Surprisingly, Wayne successfully convinces the sheriff, perhaps through blatant racism, that Indian Joe is a more likely suspect because of course he would steal the amulet and other Spanish trinkets. However, when they search Joe’s cabin, they find the poor Indian has been gruesomely hung from a hook.

At the 55-minute point in the 77-minute movie, the heroes finally catch sight of the giant. Professor Cleveland faints and Janet screams, running from the giant, who must be well over 6 feet tall. Trying to escape in the Jeep, Janet faints, and the giant carries her away.

Through means too complex to describe, Wayne and Cleveland end up in the sheriff’s police car driving from town back up into the mountains, followed by the sheriff and a posse of gun-toting locals. In a thrilling chase, the sheriff hangs off the edge of the Jeep and fires at his own police car, though his aim is as atrocious as Janet’s.

In perhaps the film’s most visually accomplished and suspenseful shot, the professor frees Wayne from his handcuffs with an axe.

In a thrilling rescue, Wayne finds the giant and fights him briefly, though he uses common sense and makes use of a rifle.

Wayne fights off the giant, rescues Janet, and returns to camp.

At night, the posse, along with Wayne and the sheriff, trap the giant against a rock wall, shooting at him while he throws rocks at them for several minutes. When Wayne throws a flare near the giant, the men successfully shoot him a dozen times. Just when it seems the giant is nearly dead, however, the sheriff decides everyone should return to camp to treat the mens’ wounds.

Finding Janet back at camp, Wayne makes her day: “I’m glad you’re here. Some of the boys need medical aid.”

Feeling guilty that he left their house when his sister was killed, Charlie Brown goes off into the night to attack the giant by himself. Wayne and Sheriff Parker find him injured in the woods, though he says he shot the giant. The sheriff returns to camp, but Wayne goes after the giant. A light snowfall starts suddenly while Wayne tracks the giant to an old mill.

In the final confrontation, Wayne hits him with a slender stick, forcing him onto a small dam. The giant is only defeated, however, when he grabs the stick from Wayne and swings wildly, overbalancing and falling off the dam.

The last words are given to the professor and the sheriff. The professor asks (assuming the giant died falling into the water, though he had survived for 500 years), “Will you help me recover the body? It’s of immense scientific importance.”

The sheriff replies, “Sorry, professor, but that’s impossible. You see, that river empties into a volcanic crater lake. No one’s ever been able to find the bottom of it.”

Showing a keen understanding of the scientific process, the professor says, “Well in that case, I guess the world will just have to take our word for it.”

Featuring makeup designed by the legendary Jack Pierce, music by Albert Glasser, and an appearance by Buddy Baer (brother of world heavyweight champion Max Baer, uncle of Beverly Hillbillies actor Max Baer, Jr.) as the giant, Giant from the Unknown has a fine pedigree, even though the title is not strictly accurate, as Professor Cleveland knows everything about the giant's history. What is unknown about the giant is why he is unable to speak--and, to a lesser extent, why he is so grumpy and aggressive, particularly after sleeping for 500 years.

As a late entry in the classic monster movie cycle, the film is interesting in that there is no talk of saving the giant for scientific investigation until after the giant is believed to be dead. The townspeople therefore show an admirable single-mindedness: Once the giant is revived, their only mission is to kill him. It takes quite some time to accomplish this mission, what with returning to town every ten minutes to pick up a posse or supplies, but in the end they succeed. (Or rather the giant succeeds in killing himself by making a poor attempt at hitting Wayne with a stick.) Scientific discussions could wait until 1977's The Crater Lake Monster, a film prefigured at the end of Giant from the Unknown when it is mentioned the giant will be dragged by the river's current into a crater lake (which appear to be far more common than I ever realized). One can only imagine the crossover that might have been between The Crater Lake Monster (perhaps a good description of the giant Vargas in his final resting place) and The Giant from the Unknown (perhaps a good description of the plesiosaur in the later film) if the two had met up. Perhaps in some other universe, this film has already been made and is considered a timeless classic.

In the end, Giant from the Unknown shows us that there is still room for wonder in the world, and that our everyday assumptions about life and death and history should always be questioned. Even time is questioned in this film, as it is unclear if Vargas is responsible for the livestock mutilations, or if he really was revived while buried under an inch of topsoil during the lightning storm when Wayne and the professor were searching for artifacts. Like all classic films, Giant from the Unknown is a rich tapestry of mysteries and unanswered questions, and I for one wouldn't have it any other way.