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The Giant Gila Monster (1959)
At this writing, everyone's talking about the final episode of Friends (I'm sorry, I meant, F • R • I • E • N • D • S ), and I have to say it can't come quick enough for me! I can't turn on a TV this week without hearing something about it. As the theme song goes, "I'll...be...there...for...you". I get it, OK, they're friends! If Chandler asked him to, Joey would give himself a chainsaw colonoscopy. That's how tight they are. I GET IT! And The Giant Gila Monster hero Chase Winstead also has friends but in the form of a gang. I mean -- G • A • N • G. They're kind of similar. For example, F • R • I • E • N • D • S character, Ross, is a
paleontologist. Giant Gila Monster character, Chase, is a ukulele-playing tow truck driver with a knack for handling nitroglycerine and an uncanny knowledge of Gila monsters. They're mirror images!
The Giant Gila Monster technically shouldn't qualify as an Atomic Monster because it's just an ordinary lizard (technically, it's not even a Gila monster, but a Mexican Beaded Lizard). And it didn't become a giant due to exposure to radiation. What did make it grow? We're saving the answer to that question as a tasty teaser! (Hey, it's all I've got, OK?) Regardless, this movie is, without a doubt, one of the most popular drive-in movies of the 1950s. It was produced by Gordon McLendon who had already given us The Killer Shrews earlier that same year. You might say, "Please, Gordon, you've done too much, already!" But no, he wasn't done yet!
The opening narration (by the selfsame Gordon), explains that there are "parts of the west that no man has ever explored. And it is here, in these impenetrable forests, the Gila monster lives. How big the Gila monster grows, no man can say for sure!" Actually, according to gila-monster.org, about 20 inches. (That's right, the next time you feel like laughing at Atomic Monsters.com, just remember someone went to the trouble of creating gila-monster.org!)
Teenage lovers Patrick and Liz are about to make out when a giant Gila monster claw suddenly swats their car, rolling them into a ravine. Strange -- Gila-monster.org doesn't mention anything about the lizard's ability to swat its prey. In any case, we've now met the monster, or at least several of its fingers, and we're transported to a malt shop where we meet the G • A • N • G led by all-around good guy Chase Winstead and his girlfriend Lisa. How cool is Chase? His girlfriend is from France! Top that all you cool guys out there! I'm referring, of course, to all the cool guys out there who are reading reviews about The Giant Gila Monster. (Just kidding.)
Enter: Old man Harris (town drunk and the movie's comic relief guy)! Every word from his mouth is absolutely hilarious! For instance, Harris tells the soda jerk (for you kids unfamiliar with 50s malt shop lingo, the guy who worked behind the counter was actually called a "soda jerk". I'm not sure how that one occupation got stuck with the world's most insulting name.) Anyway, Harris says, "Give me a snort of that there sodie pop." And oh, how the kids roll on the floor laughing! Oh, that Harris!
Patrick's father is the wealthy and ornery Mr. Wheeler. Even though Patrick and Chase were best friends, Wheeler blames Chase for his son's disappearance and he blames the sheriff for not doing enough to find him. The sheriff defends Chase's honor. "Chase has been supporting his mother and sister ever since his dad died on one of your drill rigs!" (Ooh! Good one, sheriff!)
Chase works as a mechanic at Compton's Garage. One day his boss (named, oddly enough, Mr. Compton), arrives with four quarts of nitroglycerine in his car to be used at Mr. Wheeler's drill rigs. Chase locks it up in a shed. Gee, with safety procedures like these, I can't imagine why Chase's dad died on a rig.
Chase works very hard to put food on the table and to pay for his little sister's leg braces. He has an arrangement with the sheriff and the hospital that if there's a wreck, he gets the tow job. Chase hears about a car accident and meets the sheriff at the scene. The skid marks mysteriously go at a right angle as if something had forced the car off the road. The car shows no sign of being broad sided by another vehicle and neither the sheriff nor Chase suspect the work of a giant Gila monster. The sheriff notices that Chase's headlight is burned out and offers one from the wrecked car claiming the insurance company won't miss it.
The plot thickens! It seems Chase's French girlfriend, Lisa, works for Mr. Wheeler! What are the odds? (No, really, what are the odds??) and if Lisa continues to date Chase, Mr. Wheeler will send her back to France.
The next day, a drunk driver races past Chase's tow truck, sees a giant lizard and swerves off the road into a tree. His name is Mr. Smith (at this point, we don't realize who he really is!) Chase tows Mr. Smith to the garage and he "sleeps one off" on a cot in the back. If he had been pulled over by a cop, Smith would've taken a sobriety test and would have been forced to walk ... Gila-to-toe! Ha, ha, ha, ha ... (sorry.) But Mr. Smith learns the folly of passing out in an auto garage because he is soon jarred awake by the sound of Chase singing, "My Baby She Rocks" while hammering out fender dents. I can't prove it, but it may be the only lyrics containing the words, "tippy toe."
The mysterious Mr. Smith turns out to be (drum roll) ... popular disc jockey "Steamroller" Smith! (Still never heard of him? Me neither.) He likes Chase's voice and gives him $40 for the tow. (That's a lot of money even today! I wish someone would give me $40!) The sheriff doesn't have the manpower to search for Pat and Liz, so Chase volunteers the G • A • N • G to help out. The gang turns out to be one other guy.
Headquarters doesn't believe the sheriff's claim that the skid marks went off in right angles. "But that's what happened!", fumes Chase, "I even wiped up the rubber dust with my fingers!" (You did? Why??) The sheriff, feeling particularly unlawful today, also gives Chase the tires! Later, Chase and Lisa look for Pat and Liz in the ravine, unaware that a lizard the size of a greyhound bus is silently following them through the woods! You might think that a gargantuan creature crashing through a forest might make some noise. Nope! (In these close-up Gila scenes, it's obvious the lizard's handler is shoving it across the ground because the lizard's legs aren't moving but it's still sliding across the ground on his belly!)
They discover Pat's car in the ravine and tow it back to Compton's Garage. The sheriff says, "Mr. Wheeler's sure gonna raise Ned about this!" (Did anyone speak English in the 1950s?) That night, the giant Gila monster destroys an oil truck driven by Mr. Compton (You may have heard of his garage?). Meanwhile, Chase goes home to discover that his little sister, Missy, can walk with her new leg braces. She takes a few steps, but then falls. Chase cheers her up by playing "The Mushroom Song" on his ukulele. I've broken the song into four parts for faster downloading time.
When Chase has finished, his mom says "That's enough for one day." Yeah, you said it, mom!
Back at compton's garage, the G • A • N • G hears on the radio that "Steamroller" Smith is going to perform at a local barn dance. Meanwhile, Harris is driving drunk and recklessly racing a train to the crossing. Oh, that Harris! He's so funny when he endangers the lives of hundreds of travelers! Suddenly, a giant Gila monster destroys the trestle and the train falls into the ravine. Click below to hear the horrific sound of a train wreck!
Chase gets a call from the sheriff who wants to borrow a book on reptiles. (Is Chase the only person the sheriff knows in the whole world???) They learn the Gila monster's size is controlled by a pituitary gland. Sometimes a change in diet can "throw the balance all out of whack." The sheriff says the bones of giant animals have been found in a nearby valley. The theory is, rain washed certain salts into the valley which was absorbed by the plants which were eaten by the Gila monster, causing it to grow into a giant. (The only problem with this theory being Gila monsters eat eggs and small animals. Thanks again, gila-monster.org!) Nevertheless, there you have it ... salt! Salt created the Giant Gila Monster!
When the sheriff informs Chase of the train wreck, Chase gets all excited! "A train wreck? Where? When?" (Calm down, Chase, you can't tow a train!) But the sheriff tells chase to forget about it for now and have some fun at the barn dance. (Yes, forget there's a giant lizard roaming the countryside that can knock over semi trucks. By all means, have fun at the barn dance!) Sure enough, the barn is hopping, packed with dozens of 30-year-old teenagers! Chase introduces "Steamroller" Smith who's every bit as corny as you'd imagine.
Mr. Wheeler drops by the sheriff's office to ream him out for allowing Chase to tow his son's car before proper evidence could be collected. (OK, a small technicality!) Also, he's not too thrilled about the sheriff giving away the tires! "Something may have hit this car," says Wheeler, "but it didn't take the tires off! Where are the tires? You gave them to the Chase boy, didn't you?" (Ooh, busted!) "That's insurance fraud and theft. You're last official act as sheriff is to arrest Chase and I'll go along to make sure it's done."
Back at the barn dance, "Steamroller" Smith coaxes Chase into playing a live version of "The Mushroom Song." Chase needs to be convinced to perform even though he just happened to bring his ukulele! (But isn't that just like every teenager? Always dragging their ukuleles around with them wherever they go!) The teenagers sway to The Mushroom Song's haunting lilt! Suddenly, a giant Gila monster head crashes through the barn wall and Chase yells, "Don't panic!" Once the kids are safely outside (where the lizard can catch them easier), the sheriff opens fire with his rifle. The bullets cause the lizard to become covered in ketchup and it turns back into the woods. The sheriff deputizes Mr. Wheeler, telling him to keep all the kids under control while he deals with the monster.
Chase gets the nitro from the shed. While running with two quarts of nitro in his hands he says, "There's enough here to blow up half this town!" (Really, Chase? HALF THE TOWN!? Is it nuclear?) Chase feels the safest way to transport canisters of nitroglycerine is to balance them on the front seat of his jalopy while flying 80 mph down bumpy roads! Chase stops at a fence with a giant hole in it. "He went through here, alright. He must've gone this way because Gila monsters generally travel in a straight line!" He stops at the home of Missy's babysitter, to find the place smashed and everyone missing! Then Chase says the words you wouldn't want to hear if you were riding with him: "Hang onto that nitro, Lisa, we're gonna drive through this field!" They just happen to find Missy running through that particular field because little sisters generally travel in a straight line!
Chase stops and lets Lisa out of the car, then sends it crashing into the lizard, blowing him up. To which I say, "Physician, Gila thyself!" Ha, ha, ha, ha ... (sorry.) I ran this scene in slow motion and I think they really blew up a real, poor little lizard!
Chase is bummed that he totaled his hot rod, so the sheriff says the railroad will be glad to buy him a new one. (I'm sure the railroad will be glad to hear the sheriff's promising people new cars on their behalf!) Meanwhile, Wheeler, unable to control the teenagers, tells the sheriff that his job is tougher than he thought. Wheeler has a change of heart and gives Chase a job! Let's hope Wheeler gives Chase a different job than the one he gave his dad!
Not much is known about the actor, Don Sullivan, who played Chase Winstead. Sullivan wrote the two songs in this film and also starred in
The Monster of Piedras Blancas. Rumor has it he started his own cosmetics business and currently resides somewhere in Ohio.
Some b-movie fans find The Giant Gila Monster a little slow, but there are some great scenes accomplished with miniature models and the songs, "My Baby She Rocks," and "The Mushroom Song" are not to be missed! Listen to audio files below.
Chase: Where's Pat and Liz? Bobby: Maybe their car broke down? Chase: Hey, I worked on that car myself! Bobby: That wouldn't make any difference if he goofed the speed shift or something! Chase: And that squirrel is just the one that could do it!
Mr. Smith to Chase: Thanks for everything, "dad," you're a cottin-pickin'' prince!
(Chase and the sheriff find a suitcase on the side of the road.) Chase: I found this suitcase. Sheriff: It must have fallen off a moving car. Chase: But there are no scratches on it. Sheriff: Maybe it landed in the bushes. (Maybe you just like to argue! It didn't land in the bushes, it's right
there on the side of the road!)
Mr. Wheeler: Have you heard the reports about a "giant lizard"? Sheriff: Yes, But it's just not possible. Mr. Wheeler: Well, why not? There have been giants before!