Bert I. Gordon’s career groove of shrinking and bloating various animals and people bottoms out in this trashy drive-in groaner: it’s colorful but nigh-unwatchable. The exploitation target is sci-fi and the teen musical, with incompatible helpings of pre-teen ‘cutes’ and girlie show jiggle for the raincoat crowd. The show apparently did well, but I heard mostly about resentful walkouts. Gordon’s early films have far more charm; this one mostly shows contempt for his audience. For fans that think there’s Camp value here, the Blu-ray transfer is sensationally good, as is the reproduction of Jack Nitzsche’s rock music score. The only thing to call this movie is Poor, but how can that be when I find so much to say about it?
Village of the Giants
KL Studio Classics
1965 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 81 min. / Street Date February 22, 2022 / available through Kino Lorber / 24.95
Starring: Tommy Kirk, Johnny Crawford, Ron Howard, Joe Turkel, Beau Bridges, Joy Harmon, Bob Random, Gail Gilmore, Tisha Sterling, Tim Rooney, Kevin O’Neal, Charla Doherty, Toni Basil, Hank Jones, Jim Begg, Debi Storm, Rance Howard, Vicki London, The Beau Brummels, June Kenney.
Cinematography: Paul C. Vogel
Art Director: Franz Bachelin
Set Decoration: Bob Benton
Film Editor: John Bushelman
Choreographer: Toni Basil
Visual effects: Bert I. Gordon, Flora M. Gordon, Farciot Edouart
Original Music: Jack Nitzsche
Screenplay by Alan Caillou screen story by Bert I. Gordon from the novel by H.G. Wells
Produced and Directed by Bert I. Gordon
I was surprised to discover that this Bert I. Gordon movie wasn’t from American-International, as it showed up on syndicated TV in the company of A.I.P. pictures and seemed to be of the same ilk as the Beach Party series. Formulas and gimmicks ensured steady customers for drive-in fare, even as A.I.P. struggled with how to handle the incursion of adult content: the beach girls danced in their bikinis but the teenaged bodies seldom touched, even with titles as suggestive as Beach Blanket Bingo.
A decade earlier the tenacious Gordon succeeded in getting his low-end productions on screens, even if it meant dealing with distributors like Robert Lippert. Mr. B.I.G. is among the short list of independents strong enough to work with A.I.P.’s Nicholson and Arkoff on a reasonably equitable basis. Unlike the more prolific Roger Corman, Gordon’s step up to bigger shows in color didn’t reveal more talent or creativity. His United Artists releases The Boy and the Pirates and The Magic Sword have split reputations: despite fans’ nostalgic memories the films themselves are not very impressive.
According to Bert Gordon’s curiously uninformative autobiography, he interested the independent mogul Joseph E. Levine on his Village of the Giants project after first pitching several other ideas. It appears to have been a two-picture deal with Embassy Pictures, combined with the thriller Picture Mommy Dead.
Bert I. Gordon’s early efforts were copycats, yet they always had something to offer monster movie fans. The Cyclops and War of the Colossal Beast boast terrific makeup effects that helped put Famous Monsters magazine on the map. Beginning of the End and The Amazing Colossal Man have enjoyably loopy screenplays. The grasshopper epic distinguishes itself with a sequence or two that exhibit terrific editing — should we credit Aaron Stell (Touch of Evil, To Kill a Mockingbird) for that?
Most importantly, Gordon’s early films give the impression that someone had a great time making them. Either Gordon was a heck of a producer or in 1956 it was easy to find good actors desperate for a paycheck. The Cyclops has an all-name cast. They don’t short-change their director, even though they must have been surprised at how tiny the production was.
Village of the Giants plays like more of a ‘deal’ than a movie anybody wanted to make. Gordon scores a couple of genuine casting coups — nabbing the talented child star Ronny Howard for his first feature since The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, and borrowing the former Disney star Tommy Kirk from his lower-rung duties at A.I.P.. In every other department the movie seems a short-cut, a dodge — in production value, in entertainment value, in ‘good taste.’
Science fiction fans took note that Village was advertised as based on H. G. Wells’ The Food of the Gods, and then discovered that the adaptation was no more faithful than a Jolly Green Giant TV commercial. A carload of teenagers ( average age = 22 ) has crashed their T-Bird in the rain, and proceed to do writhe and dance joyfully while covered with mud. They walk to the next town, into a closed theater (?) where they wash up (?). Meanwhile, local teens Mike and Nancy (Tommy Kirk & Charla Dougherty) pause their chaste makeout session long enough to discover that Nancy’s younger brother Genius (Ron Howard) has invented a colorful substance he calls Flubber Goo. The stuff makes the family cat (Orangey) and the family dog (Higgins) grow to ‘sizable proportions.’
Mike decides that he owns the Goo and swears Nancy to secrecy, but the word gets out at a community picnic, especially after some ducks also become king-sized. The delinquent out-of-town kids clash with locals Mike and Horsey (Johnny Crawford, complete with cowboy hat) which leads to the delinquent gang ingesting some stolen Goo on a dare. A few moments later they’re all 25 feet tall. Adjusting to his new height, their aggressive leader Fred (Beau Bridges) gets his fellow giants behind the idea of taking over the town. Fred neutralizes the Sheriff (Joe Turkel) by kidnapping his daughter Cora (Debi Storm), along with Nancy to keep the little kid company. He also engages Mike in a David vs. Goliath battle in the park.
The synopsis may sound interesting but Village of the Giants doesn’t really hang together. Scenes are choppy and shapeless. Unless the kids are dancing, Gordon often keeps them in stiff poses, so as to facilitate his random cutting between static wide masters and singles. People just appear in new places, transformed, as when the mud-dripping delinquents suddenly have clean bodies, hair and clothing.
Scenes really break down when the oversized people interact with the un-Gooed cast — the angles and cutting are not interesting, and get no help from the aimless script and weak dialogue.
Motivations, actions and reactions don’t connect. The giants ‘just want to have fun’ but really don’t do much of anything. When the guest go-go star (and choreographer) Toni Basil is dispatched to distract the giants with her sexy dancing, Gordon gives us one wide down angle of her entire performance. It goes nowhere — we not only don’t see what good the distraction accomplishes, we don’t see any approving reaction from the giants, or any sense of satisfaction from Ms. Basil. Joe Turkel’s Sheriff (accompanied by Ronny’s dad Rance) throws in the towel as soon as Fred threatens his daughter. We don’t see how she could have been kidnapped, and we don’t see her reunited with her family. For that matter, we don’t know how the giants even exit the theater — no door would be big enough. The giants simply ‘appear’ in the park two or three times, where scattered observers stand still to regard them with mostly neutral expressions. The only real entrances and exits in this show are the arrival of the Sheriff, and the delivery of some fried chicken to the hungry giants.
Gordon’s Attack of the Puppet People is no classic yet is much better than this show. Puppet People needed many more special effects angles to sell its concept, but the only place Gordon could match Universal’s The Incredible Shrinking Man is on his poster art. Village of the Giants has only one effects angle for every special event — the ducks on Nancy’s back porch, the ducks in the teen nightclub, various solitary giants standing by buildings on Universal’s backlot. Everything else is cutaways.
Most annoying is the musical padding. Singers Freddie Cannon and Mike Clifford each sing an inane pop song, surrounded by adoring girls. The rock group The Beau Brummels play in the nightclub scene, reacting to the presence of the giant ducks. The title sequence plays over colorized slow-motion shots of go-go dancers, and that’s immediately followed by the dance & grope mud romp outside the crashed car. More random dancing breaks out at regular intervals. Even with Jack Nitzsche’s music it’s extremely repetitive.
None of this mindlessness is connected to a single idea, satirical or otherwise. Becoming ’embiggened’ makes the teen gang into sneering, wicked tyrants, with no explanation. Gordon must have rushed his players into figuring it all out for themselves. The experienced Beau Bridges chooses to behave like an obnoxious jerk, while the poor women around him preen or strike hostile attitudes in their ‘giant’ bikinis. Joy Harmon clearly made an impression on the director, winning more screen time than the other dancer-actresses put together.
Down in normal-land Tommy Kirk seems aware that he’s in a movie with no script: he compensates by making Mike selfish and petty. Actors often have to vamp their way through undefined parts, and this bunch surely earns ‘trouper cred’ for their efforts. But none could have thought that being in this show was a good career move. Johnny Crawford tries to underplay, which is difficult when he’s hanging from Joy Harmon’s giant breasts.
Mickey Rooney’s son Tim seems inexperienced but had been working since he was ten; he and the 24 year-old Beau Bridges really look like their fathers. Tisha Sterling (Coogan’s Bluff) is also a Hollywood kid, but like most of the actress-dancers she’s used in an entirely decorative way. Actor Robert Random stayed fairly busy with TV work, and later landed a part in Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, the show that was shelved for decades. According to the IMDB Random is still alive, so at age 75 he got to see a premiere of a film he shot at age 30!
Only Ronny Howard survives with his dignity intact — he aces the nerdy-cute Genius, rattling off all those chemical names. It’s a dumb role, but it’s the most professional thing in the whole movie.
Is Village of the Giants really too Hip for the House? Is it an overlooked Camp classic, an unacknowledged bit of brilliance from the ’60s from just before the psychedelic Summer of Love upset the teensploitation applecart? No way. My take is that Village is a Dirty Old Man movie in disguise. Shots of two of the growing women’s tops flying off are more daring than any mainstream release of the year, and are certainly not kiddie content.
Remember George Axelrod’s wild, off-balance California culture satire Lord Love a Duck? With his bikini-brained focus on shaking bottoms and shimmying tops, Bert Gordon shares a mindset with Duck’s schlock producer T. Harrison Belmont, the King of Beach Party movies (Martin Gabel). Axlerod cited Beach Party movies as evidence of the decline of Western civilization, and his dancing close-ups are filmed from the viewpoint of a middle-aged lecher. Village follows the same formula: 1% authentic teen spirit and 99% male menopause hysteria.
If Village of the Giants did well at the box office I’d guess that Embassy’s distribution expertise helped, along with the fact that genre pictures were just beginning to be ‘transgressive.’ The next year brought us Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels and The Trip and of course a wave of action films with more explicit violence.
Did Bert I. Gordon’s special effects improve with time? Not really, I’d say. He always had a good cameraman in his corner. His cinematographer here is Paul Vogel of High Society, The Time Machine and Gordon’s own The Magic Sword. Gordon and his wife Flora continue with their rudimentary matte shots, that taught every proto-Joe Dante teen expert to pick out egregiously obvious matte lines. But Village of the Giants also credits Farciot Edouart, the pioneer of the fine art of Rear Projection (Process or RP) Cinematography. Working as a consultant, Edouart may be behind many shots in Village that aren’t that easy to dissect.
Design-wise things haven’t improved. A medium shot of Mike and Nancy staring at the freshly enlarged housecat has the same problems as any Gordon movie — the people don’t react to the threat, and their eye-lines don’t align well. (top image) ↑ But the composite is technically very good — is this an RP shot? Is Edouart experimenting with Front Projection, or using an improved traveling matte optical? I wouldn’t say any of the shots is well designed or laid out, and seldom are the Big and the Small characters connected through action. But for image quality they’re quite good.
Other details are as awkward as ever. The film uses two giant-sized props. A pair of hairy giant legs are used for a scene in the middle of the street, when a girl on a motorbike tries to rope Fred. The legs are so skinny, so pitiful that audiences surely laughed. Poor Beau Bridges must try to stand still because the legs don’t move. Remember, by 1965 we kids expected Ray Harryhausen wonders in our movie fantasies. Ilusions as sad as this might be met with shouts of “Fake!”
They also built a full-sized Joy Harmon torso from the hips to the neck, complete with partial arms and a bright red bikini. It’s a much better match. When Harmon dances Johnny Crawford ends up riding this thing as if it were a bucking bronco. The torso is far better than the silly rubber hand crafted for Attack of the 50 Foot Woman; if the sequence were better directed the gag would be twice as good.
I suppose it’s no secret by now that Village of the Giants mostly irritated this viewer, a monster fan who eagerly awaits known losers like Monster from Green Hell. But we respond to the vibes projected by individual films. This show has little sense of real fun, and almost no sense of humor. However, there is one cute moment that could have been discovered in the cutting room. When the Beau Brummells perform in the nightclub, the camera view cuts from a dancer’s shaking, shimmying derrière, to the similarly twitching tail feathers of a king-sized canary duck, itself rocking out on the dance floor.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Village of the Giants is said to be a 4K restoration by its present owner, StudioCanal. It looks better than I ever expected, with Paul Vogel’s lighting attractive at all times. I should think that Bert I. Gordon fans would be thrilled by this disc — the quality is excellent. Jack Nitzche’s score sounds like some of his surfing instrumentals, and it’s often by itself on the soundtrack.
Kino has thrown on a couple of trailers and also a full commentary by none other than Tim Lucas. I found it a good listen for the wealth of information and research Lucas provides — it’s not easy to identify all those young thesps, and he has something interesting to say about each of them. He picks up on the dancing ducks’ rear-end gag as well. Why do the nightclubbers not freak out at the sight of the giant ducks? . . . Tim reminds us that LSD was still legal at this time.
To fill out the running time Tim describes the animal actors, details Tommy Kirk’s career troubles and gives us the lowdown on Baby Boomers and the Tom Swift books. He finds Village to be good light entertainment, and ” an important neglected turning point in 1960s cinema.” Tim asks if the film’s final scene is tasteless. It’s Bert I. Gordon’s idea of a joke, I guess.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Village of the Giants
Supplements: Audio commentary by Tim Lucas, trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: February 21, 2022
Text © Copyright 2022 Glenn Erickson