War of the Colossal Beast (1958) War of the Colossal Beast (1958) -**½

     A funny thing about American International Pictures… Sure, if one of their movies was a hit, studio heads Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson would add six more just like it to the production schedule that very day, but at least during the 1950’s, when the company was first making a name for itself, AIP didn’t really do sequels. Indeed, I can think of only two films from that early period that directly continue the story from some previous AIP production: The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow, which reunites most of the members of The Hot Rod Gang, and War of the Colossal Beast, which resurrects the sadsack atomic mutant from The Amazing Colossal Man. I’ve never encountered a definitive explanation for Arkoff and Nicholson’s apparent aversion to sequels, so I suppose I can’t really go anywhere with this observation. It’s interesting, though, considering how unashamed of repeating themselves those guys were otherwise.

     In Guavos, Mexico, gringo gun club owner John Swanson (Bride of the Monster’s George Becwar) hires a boy named Miguel (Robert Hernandez) to help him caravan his truck and his station wagon to the club premises from the garage where the latter vehicle was undergoing repairs. The two drivers get separated on the way, and Miguel never reaches their destination. Swanson, being the sort of man that he is, leaps immediately to the conclusion that Miguel has stolen his truck, and goes at once to report the presumed crime to Sergeant Luis Marillo (Rico Alaniz, from Phantom of the Rue Morgue), the little town’s highest-ranking policeman. There’s something much weirder going on than grand theft auto, however. Swanson’s truck wasn’t just stolen, but has vanished literally out of its tracks, as completely as if it had been lifted from them and carried away. The tracks in question lead into a small, shallow pond some way off the nearest road, as if Miguel had tried to ford it for some reason, but then abruptly cease. As for Miguel himself, he was picked up not far from the scene, wandering in a daze of deep shock. Neither Swanson nor Marillo nor even the village doctor (George Navarro) can get a word out of the boy, so it looks like the hotheaded American will just have to take the matter up with his insurance company.

     In the least plausible development of the entire film, Swanson’s predicament catches the eye of somebody in the newsroom at KTLA-TV in Los Angeles, which runs it as a “news of the weird” story some days later. Among the viewers who catch that broadcast is a young woman called Joyce Manning (Sally Fraser, from Earth vs. the Spider and It Conquered the World). This is the first we’ve heard of Joyce, but perhaps you’ll remember her big (heh) brother— Lieutenant Colonel Glenn Manning, the US Army officer who was transformed into a giant last year by an accident during a plutonium bomb test. Glenn went mad, and was shot off the top of Hoover Dam after a brief rampage through Las Vegas. His body was never recovered afterward, but it’s been generally assumed that nobody— not even a 60-foot monster-man— could survive both a volley of bazooka fire and a 700-foot plunge into the Colorado River. Joyce, however, has never given up hope that her brother is alive somehow, somewhere. When she hears about John Swanson’s truck disappearing as if it had been lifted and carried off, it takes her just seconds to realize that there’s one potential thief who really could do such a thing. Major Mark Baird (Roger Pace), who commanded the battalion charged with defending Las Vegas against Colonel Manning’s attack, considers it a long shot indeed when Joyce comes to him with her theory, but eventually agrees to accompany her to Guavos to investigate.

     Fortuitously, Joyce visits the infirmary where Miguel is being treated just in time to hear the first intelligible words he’s said since he was picked up beside the road that fateful day. On the one hand, what he says is intelligible only in a very narrow sense; he merely screams, “Ogron! Ogron!” over and over again. But on the other hand, Sergeant Marillo’s translation of his ranting— “It’s a big fellow, like an ogre in a story. A monster, a giant man.”— carries a lot more significance for Joyce than it does for the cop himself. And when Marillo takes her and Baird to tour the site of the vanished truck, this time they spot a clue so weird that none of the previous investigators could recognize it for what it was: a human footprint more than nine feet long. Going next to a range of hills which Marillo and Baird identify as the only nearby place where a creature of Manning’s size could long escape notice, they soon find not merely Swanson’s truck, but a veritable auto graveyard of trucks and vans, most of them bearing the logos of markets, farms, or bakeries. Evidently Glenn’s been using the road as his pantry, which raises the disturbing question of why his depredations were never reported by the drivers of any of those vehicles. (Glenn’s implicit turn to cannibalism is never overtly acknowledged, to the extent that I’m not even sure it was really intended. It’s still the closest War of the Colossal Beast ever comes to generating an effective chill.)

     Glenn himself turns up soon thereafter, visibly much the worse for his fall from the dam. The right side of his face is mostly bare skull, and his body is marked with the scars of wounds only slightly less horrid. (The facial appliances go some way toward disguising that Manning is now played by a different actor— Dean Parkin, whom Gordon had cast to play a similarly disfigured giant in The Cyclops— but not far enough.) What’s more, he shows no sign of having regained any of his lost marbles. Indeed, it’s likely that a few more have gone missing. In any case, there’s clearly no prospect of just talking him into going home with Joyce and the major, so Manning’s would-be rescuers must resort to subterfuge. Since the one thing they know about his current lifestyle is that he feeds himself by stealing grocery trucks, Marillo commissions the local bakery to whip up a van-load of bread impregnated with a powerful tranquilizer. He, Baird, and Joyce then drive the bait truck through Manning’s territory themselves, and when Glenn catches them and devours their cargo, he puts himself to sleep like the world’s most inconveniently massive baby.

     Glenn is not exactly welcomed with open arms back in the States. Considering what a pain in the ass he was in Vegas last year, maybe that’s only to be expected. One government, agency, and department after another disclaims the necessary authority or responsibility for admitting giant monsters into the country, until Joyce and Baird see no alternative but to fly Glenn to Los Angeles International Airport, presenting the city with the fait accompli of his presence. (If quietly raising the specter of half a hundred cannibalized truckers is this movie’s nearest approach to being scary, the battle with buck-passing bureaucracy is its nearest approach to being smart.) Even then, though, the authorities just stuff Glenn into an idle hangar at LAX, and leave it to the Army to figure out what to do with him permanently. The answer to that question depends in large part upon why Manning has been acting the way he is. If Glenn’s madness is a response to the emotional trauma of everything that’s happened to him since the plutonium bomb test, then he might respond to psychotherapy, and eventually become something approximating his old self. But if he suffered some organic brain injury, either in his fall from the dam or from the cerebral oxygen starvation that his doctors were worried about in the previous film, then the options are both much more limited and much less palatable. The task of determining which it is falls to a psychiatrist by the name of Carmichael (Russ Bender, from The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow and The Strangler), but we might guess the prognosis ourselves from the movie’s very title, which both demotes Glenn from “Colossal Man” to “Colossal Beast” and promises a war against him.

     War of the Colossal Beast is one of those rare sequels that compel at least a partial reevaluation of their predecessors. The Amazing Colossal Man always struck me as just a silly 50’s monster movie, and I’d still say that’s mostly a valid assessment. Now that I’ve seen the sequel, however, I realize that I’ve been unfairly dismissive of some nuances that set the original a little distance apart from the run of that mill. I’ve said before, in other reviews, that the plight of Glenn Manning was an inversion of The Incredible Shrinking Man, but it wasn’t obvious to me until now that Bert I. Gordon initially made a good faith effort to duplicate the psychological dimension of his model. When he could have just said, “Big guy smashes shit! Woohoo!” he instead devoted a decent amount of time to examining the emotional toll of Manning’s out-of-control growth. As you’ve probably surmised already, what brings all of this to my attention now is that “Big guy smashes shit! Woohoo!” is pretty much the approach taken by War of the Colossal Beast. To the extent that this movie has a psychological dimension at all, it’s displayed mainly in the recycled-footage flashbacks brought on by Dr. Carmichael’s attempts to bring Glenn back in touch with the man he once was— and those, of course, accomplish nothing but to drive Manning fully berserk. Considering what a low bar The Amazing Colossal Man set, War of the Colossal Beast is almost shockingly short on ambition.

     What might be even more shocking is that what little ambition it has goes largely unrealized. Having served up a premise that offers not much more than the promise of Big, Dumb Action, War of the Colossal Beast is thwarted at every turn by the fact that Big, Dumb Action costs money. Gordon had no more of that on this picture than he did the first time around, leaving him no choice but to string us along with scene after scene of Manning almost breaking loose. And when Glenn does finally escape from the airport into the Hollywood Hills, the main threat teased by the resulting set piece is so obviously beyond the pale for this kind of movie that there’s never any question of Gordon following through with it. In the end, War of the Colossal Beast is a film for Bert I. Gordon completists only. If you’re already a fan of his particular brand of crap, then it’ll probably give you most of what you want from it. For everyone else, though, the appeal comes almost exclusively from just about the most gruesome monster makeup that a movie could get away with in 1958.



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