For most people nostalgia is just another way of packaging the point of view that, surprise, surprise, the times we lived in were less complicated, better when we were younger. Sometimes that sentiment gets woven into rosy remembrances of past glories or sociopolitical myths built around the alleged pre-Kennedy (or pre-whatever mid-century social upheaval you want to use to fill in the blank) innocence of America and how that innocence was inevitably lost when X, Y or Z happened. And often when we watch movies we loved as kids, when we return to them on our own or in the company of kids whom we hope will be as captivated as we once were, we want nostalgia to be active rather than passive—we want the movies to affect us as they did when we first saw them—and the experience inevitably falls short.
It’s tough to return to that state of acceptance which comes so easily to a child, a state that is often required in order to remember why we appreciated some of the things we did before our tastes (and our defense mechanisms) more fully developed. Our own sophistication can sometimes get in the way. And there’s a decent, rational argument to be made for not bothering to even try, that movies and our perceptions of them should naturally evolve as we grow older and shift our perspectives on the meaning of the world around us. But if we’re lucky, sometimes a beloved movie from childhood can also function as a direct pipeline to a long-abandoned way of looking at the world that we may have thought no longer possible to access. We may find, beyond what the movie is about or what happens in it, that this is that one special movie’s great personal function for us as receptive viewers.
Which brings me to The Green Slime. One of the easier sense memories for me to access from childhood, being a eight-year-old movie and monster fan, is the tremendous rush of anticipation that was generated by the desire to see this splashy and apparently unashamedly silly 1968 space-monsters-on-the-loose adventure. I first read about it in the pages, and so memorably on the cover, of Famous Monsters of Filmland, and could barely contain myself when the bi-monthly “show calendar” for my hometown movie theater was released and it was revealed that The Green Slime would be the featured attraction—One Night Only! – for the theater’s annual New Year’s Eve horror show. Actually seeing it, after months of heightened expectations, imagining what amazement it might provide, proved no disappointment—my eight-year-old eyes weren’t tuned in to the unintentional camp factor generated by rubber monsters and toy spaceships; instead, I accepted the terror of the astronauts, overwhelmed by a self-regenerating, oozy invading force rampaging through a station in remote outer space, as my own, and I got quite a pleasurable jolt out of the movie. In fact, I’d count seeing The Green Slime as one of the formative moviegoing experiences of my life.
Seen through the eyes of most people who would consider themselves sophisticated adults, The Green Slime, financed by MGM and shot at the Toei Studios in Japan by director Kinji Fukasaku would appear to be an open-and-shut case of Mystery Science Theater 3000 royalty, a great bundle of low-hanging fruit ripe for snarky abuse. And that’s certainly how I assumed it would play out as I popped open my Warner Archives DVD and prepared to watch it for the first time in probably 30 years or more.
(I bailed on a shabby showing at a Los Angeles comic book convention a few years back when the sound from the ugly, cropped 16mm print proved too painful to bear, shrilly echoing off the walls of the Shrine Auditorium. Instead, I went to visit Lucianna Paluzzi, the movie’s pulchritudinous female star, who was signing autographs for $30 a pop on the other side of the wall where the movie was being screened.)
It took only about three or four minutes after the finish of the movie’s justifiably famous theme song spun out on the DVD over the opening credits (“Green Sliiiiiii-i-i-ime! Green Sliiiiiii-i-i-ime!”) for me to begin to dig, if you will, the pictures Fukasaku and his company of designers and visual effects artists had assembled for my delight. Right out of the gate you can feel the movie itching to get to the good stuff– that song barely lasts a verse and a chorus before Robert Horton, as Commander Jack Rankin, arrives at space station Gamma 3 ready to head up a very dangerous mission– landing on a strange asteroid and exploding it out of its collision course with Earth. Egged on by an impatient ground crew whose eagerness undoubtedly reflects that of the movie’s director and its editor (“What the hell are they waiting for?” “They’ve only been there five minutes!” “Well, they’d better damn well get a move on!”) Rankin blasts off from the Gamma 3 space station, leading a group of space explorers that includes Commander Vince Elliott (Richard Jaeckel), Gamma 3 head honcho and once Rankin’s rival for the attentions of Dr. Lisa Benson (Lucianna Paluzzi), the space station’s top medical officer.
Once they land on the asteroid, Fukasaku and his crack team of designers and effects artists, led by the delirious vision of effects specialists Akira Watanabe and Yukio Manoda, and art director Shinichi Eno, lay out a spectacular alien playground, a brilliantly artificial and eerily vibrant landscape which writer Richard Harland Smith accurately described as perfectly evocative of the Major Matt Mason space station and lunar base command toy sets of the 1960s, reproduced with full-scale reverence and a dash of pop sci-fi psychedelia. On the asteroid science officer Dr. Hans Halvorsen (Ted Gunther) discovers pools of oozing green goo which appear to be pulsating with a never-before-seen life-force, and in the name of scientific advancement he naturally wants to take some aboard for the ride back to the space station. Rankin nixes the idea, but not before a tiny glob gets smeared on the doctor’s spacesuit, assuring that the strange alien creature, in this form and whatever other it might eventually take on, will make the successful transition from a phosphorescent interstellar tide pool on a wayward asteroid to the new and exciting environment of the Gamma 3 space station and, perhaps, the wide open spaces of planet Earth.
The crew barely escapes the path of destruction set in motion by the exploding asteroid. But their moment of triumphant return to the space station is only short-lived. The green slime begins to mutate within the toasty confines of the station’s electrically charged decontamination chamber into extremely mobile mounds of hungry, vicious terror– tentacles and pincers flailing, each with one giant red eye dominating hundreds more, tinier eyes peering out from the creatures’ chests as they bear down on their latest victims (and the camera) with relentless force. What’s worse, Rankin and Elliott soon discover that any attempt to blast the creatures with pulsating laser guns will only feed their insatiable appetite for energy, and that the monsters are able to reproduce rapidly, to self-generate from pools of their own spilled (green) blood into wholly new and separate organisms.
What was initially most exciting about revisiting The Green Slime was the discovery that, far from being the inept disaster that deserves remembrance only for its ability to keep legions of MST3K fans smugly chortling into their cereal bowls, the movie was actually, on its own terms, quite good, fully aware of its own limitations and surging with enough of its own creative imagination to spin a glorious play-world out of resources that, while clearly pretty lavish in some respects, were undoubtedly reined in by certain budgetary caps. That said, at the same time we’re enjoying the sight of actors in rubber monster suits marauding down the halls of the Gamma 3, we’re also noticing the movie’s nods to its own sci-fi predecessors– it’s fun to recognize the degree to which The Green Slime is intertwined in the genetic ancestry of such influential hits-to-come as Alien (1979) and Armageddon (1998). And director Kinji Fukasaku was himself no slouch as a filmmaker. By the time of The Green Slime’s release he had directed several features, including Wolves, Pigs and Men (Okami to buta to ningen; 1964) starring Ken Takakura and the cult classic Black Lizard (Koro takage; 1968), and would go on to work on notable films such as Blackmail is My Business (1969), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973) and perhaps his most widely known movie, the infamous and revered cult phenomenon Battle Royale (2000).
Fukasaku’s visually impish directorial style, in full flower in most of those movies, is in evidence in The Green Slime as well, as well as a poker-faced approach to the silliness of the plot and the visual rendering of it. The director’s self-awareness is clever but never obnoxious, unimpaired by the need to pander to the kids while winking at the adults—no eyebrows were arched during the production of this movie. That said, he does work in what could even be a sly homage to Hitchcock, or more accurately Bernard Herrmann. The movie has a functionally exciting score credited to Charles Fox and Toshiaki Tsushima, but it’s at its most sonically experimental when the orchestra drops out entirely and the soundtrack gives way to the incessant electronically processed screeching of the Slime, in much the same way that Hitchcock’s movie traded a traditional musical soundtrack for the multilayered sound of those thousands of birds descending on Bodega Bay which Herrmann is given credit for designing.
In the most straightforward manner possible (which some have predictably mistaken for ineptitude), Fukasaku honors the material by not insisting that he’s superior to it. Instead, he indulges in the depths of the space-age fantasy and creates a movie that easily accesses the desires of viewers of all ages to escape into a day-glo universe of chittering monsters and pulsing ray guns and ships with impossibly beautiful rounded-edge designs. This is an outer space where they hear you scream, all right; it’s also one where the absence of oxygen is no impediment to explosions which result in raging fires and billowing smoke, which then in turn produce anachronistic and preposterously lovely images of destruction that could only exist in the physics of the imagination. Those who demand absolute fealty to the laws of science are probably not this movie’s ideal audience.
Nor are those who insist on the “believability” of their special effects. In a somewhat ironic coincidence, The Green Slime premiered in the United States at the end of the same year which saw the initial release of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and the race toward ever more indulgent levels of detail and assumed verisimilitude in special effects hasn’t really stopped since. As audiences, we are constantly asked to accept as “real” places and situations that don’t exist in reality, that aren’t even based, thanks to the dominance of CGI, in physical space itself, and in this pursuit 2001: A Space Odyssey’s influence, though itself largely science-based, is probably most far-reaching. But the greatest irony that seems to have emerged from pop culture’s obsession with created realities through effects is that, because we have become so “sophisticated” in our processing of visual information (as far as special effects go, anyway) we believe almost nothing that we see on screen, no matter how grand and spectacular and ostensibly “convincing” it appears to be.
How wonderful then to be free of the obligation to convince anyone of anything! The Green Slime, along with many of the classic Japanese science fiction epics of the 1960s which have been very predictably derided for their “fakiness” for a couple of generations now, functions not as a stab at documentary “realism” but instead as a fanciful attempt to access the level of imagination that most kids bring to their own improvised adventures on the playground. Last year, in an essay entitled “Seeing and Believing,” I wrote about recently revisiting King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962).
“…(W)e often reject some of these early spectacles as too silly or somehow less worthy of our attention because the tricks are easier to see through… (I)t’s easy to see why the Japanese monster movies and many of their descendants, often orchestrated by physical effects master Eiji Tsuburaya, have held such sway over kids, even spilling over into appreciation by manga and anime enthusiasts. It’s because these orgies of destruction, these epic battles staged over the skylines of cities just waiting to be decimated, are almost literally the incarnation of a child’s most elaborate dream of toy sets come to life. There’s a sequence about halfway through King Kong vs. Godzilla in which the military digs a big hole in the ground to use as a sort of Burmese tiger pit in ensnaring one or both of the monsters, and I couldn’t help but be struck by all the shots of construction equipment digging around in the dirt, dump trucks moving loads of earth around, and noticing how the scene was exactly the sort of scenario boys play at all the time in their backyards, perhaps even staging battles between their favorite monsters in the same way.”
I would even suggest that by its very existence alone a movie as deliriously unafraid of silliness as The Green Slime automatically poses an argument in favor of less believability in special effects, in more reliance on the ability of inspired effects and design teams, in concert with talented directors and cinematographers and editors and other craftspeople, to create an atmosphere which stimulates active imaginative participation on the part of the viewer to go along with the passive thrills. Without the pretense of “reality,” there is the possibility of more for the viewer to do, more gaps to fill in so that the situation might come fully alive. (In this regard I think The Green Slime has as much in common with The Grand Budapest Hotel and its blissful artificiality as it does with, say, It! The Terror from Beyond Space.)
In 1968 my eight-year-old pals and I absorbed the adventure of The Green Slime and took that template to the playground, turning every jungle gym or set of monkey bars into the Gamma 3. Looking at The Green Slime today I confess I am not seized with the urge to run over to the nearby elementary school and start back up where I left off 46 years ago. After all, there are plenty of reasons to put away childish things, to bid a safe farewell to childhood and our nostalgia for it. (My bathroom scale insists this is so.) But for me The Green Slime beautifully recreates a playground of the mind to match the one I had to leave behind. With unassuming assurance Kinji Fukasaku marshaled the resources of an inspired group of artists and craftsmen to infuse a familiar tale of alien invasion with something akin to little bursts of stylized visual nirvana, luring us into the frame with visions of ridiculous and unearthly delights rendered with crudity and sublimity, making the invitation for us to play along completely irresistible. May I never become a grown-up who’s too smart to respond to the pop-art pleasures and the memories of childhood awe to which a movie like The Green Slime grants us access.
See also Richard Harland Smith’s “Complete and Utter Foolishness”
The Green Slime is available in all its glory at Warner Archives
And for even more Green Slime love, check out John Landis’ TFH commentary.