Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Milpitas Monster (1976)

The late, great Paul Frees (trust me, you’ve heard his voice before, even if you don’t recognize the name) narrates a short history of the burg of Milpitas, California and its relationship to excessive garbage dumping (“As goes Milpitas – So goes the State”).  After a scene or two of officials and scientists (none of whom will have an impact on the film whatsoever) declaring concern over the smell of all the pollution in the bay area, we are whisked away to the local “sludge lagoon,” where hobo (in the mode of Foster Brooks) George flops around and tries to fish.  Suddenly, the titanic, titular terror appears from the water to wreak semi-havoc and steal people’s garbage cans, and we’re kind of off to the races.

There is a gang of punk kids in Robert L. Burrill’s The Milpitas Monster, and they are something special to behold.  These aren’t punks in the sense of mohawks and torn clothes.  These are punks in the sense of juvenile delinquents with too much time on their hands and likely overindulgent parents, and despite that, they are utter failures at their calling.  They delight in taunting our non-hero Jeff by calling him “Penguin” For no apparent reason.  They drive to their high school on their day off for kicks and then complain that there’s nothing going on there.  They decide they are going to “stink up the whole town” by painting giant footprints all over the place in imitation of the actual ones that are turning up all over the place (I don’t think they ever get around to actually doing this; they’re all lip).  They sneak George into the big school dance in a garbage can, spike the punch, and then just kind of hang out.  They receive more screen time than almost any other character, but they add nothing to the film other than giving us scenes of brats being bratty.  They create no tension, they suffer no comeuppance, and they advance the story not one whit.  Nevertheless, in a film about a giant monster, they are still the most interesting thing in it, and they are not that interesting at all.

Way, way back in time, monster kids formed a small cult of special effects enthusiasts and amateur filmmakers, some of whom would go on to professional careers and acclaim (the most notable I can think of being David Allen, Dennis Muren, and Jim Danforth who all worked on the visual effects for the equally low budget but exponentially more entertaining Equinox).  Magazines like Cinemagic (created by another effects nut, Don Dohler of Nightbeast fame) gave detailed descriptions of how to create special effects on very little bread.  It celebrated creativity and problem-solving (something which has become a lost art, in my opinion), and it came from a grass roots perspective that paid homage to effects pioneers like Georges Melies, even if it didn’t realize or acknowledge outwardly it was doing so.  

The magazine also gave a forum for young filmmakers to advertise and share their work with other like-minded people.  Here’s a random example from issue twenty (volume four, number two): “Company for the Night.  A quiet tale of a corpse who after a hundred years, yearns for the warmth and companionship of the living.  He leaves the grave and joins an elderly couple for the night.  Producer: ONO Productions, Ltd.  Director/Writer/Camera: John Dixon.  FX include: stop-motion, animation, miniature cemetery set and house set.  Regular-8.  Running time: 20 – 30 minutes.”  Now, not all of the stories were this seemingly mature.  In fact, a great many were simply riffs on popular horror/science fiction properties of the time, barebones skeletons existing only to hang some special effects meat on (which can be a perfectly acceptable approach, mind you).  Burrill and company are certainly in this latter category (and for the record, I have never seen Company for the Night, so I cannot comment on its actual quality or even if it ever reached completion).  He and his friends were high school students at the time of this film’s production, and they put this whole thing together for around eleven thousand dollars.  What I found amazing watching the film is how they wrung every last ounce of production value out of that budget.  There are aerial shots (granted, pretty shaky, but still) and a number of cameos from the likes of television horror host Bob Wilkins as well as the aforementioned Frees (both of whom I can only assume did this as a favor, unless they decided they wanted to work dirt cheap for a few hours).  There is the sense that everyone involved wanted to contribute and make this film work in the tradition of “let’s put on a show” storylines the world over.  It’s this spirit of community that imbues The Milpitas Monster with what charms it has.

The enviro-horror angle of the story is underplayed (and it should be stated that this film is intended more as a comedy than anything else, but even comedies can have themes and usually contain at least a few humorous moments) focusing only on the wicked bad smell of all the garbage around town.  It doesn’t delve even slightly into the actual impact of over-dumping, the actual contamination of ground and water, or anything of the sort (outside of the giant monster, but since it consumes garbage, it could be argued that it’s actually a solution to the issue; not the best solution obviously, but a solution nonetheless).  Every character comments about the stink of things (scientists complain about a fish’s odor, officials complain about water odor, Jeff complains about girlfriend Priscilla’s perfume odor) but not about the health risks involved.  

With all this in mind, then, let’s talk about the film’s effects, since they are its sole raison d’etre.  The first effect we see is the monster’s stop motion hand clenching its way toward the surface of the sludge lagoon.  This is quickly followed by a full-sized prop of the beast’s hand emerging from the water, quickly followed by some more stop motion work of the creature taking its first flight.  Even for a god like Ray Harryhausen, the process is both labor and time intensive, and for the resources they had, I’d say the filmmakers here did a competent, if not stunning, job in this respect.  The prop claw works well, primarily because it’s only shown in quick shots, but it’s still good enough to stand up to others of its ilk.  There are some forced perspective shots that effectively place the monster in real environments.  The one area where the effects work really stands out, though, is in its miniatures, particularly a scene involving the monster’s destruction of a local restaurant.  The scale is accurate, there is enough detail to pull off the illusion when compared to the actual building (come to think of it, I don’t recall offhand if the actual building is shown, so kudos for making it seem so), and most importantly, the lighting is correct.  It looks like a building lit by a street lamp, and it sells the image, even with a giant monster crouching next to it.  However, the monster suit itself is simply tragic.  Its head is a glorified gas mask (yeah, we get it, garbage stinks) with bug eyes.  Its body is formless and undetailed, like you might find on a high school mascot costume.  Worse than these are its wings, which are limp, shiny adornments that would make even The Bugaloos (look it up) laugh in derision.  For how much it does right in the visual effects department, it’s a crushing blow that the eponymous character just doesn’t work at all.  Combine this with the stilted editing, the awkward acting, and the lack of any cohesive storyline or compelling characters, and you have a film that’s more curio than captivating.

MVT:  For its myriad flaws, you truly have to admire the level of enthusiasm that gave birth to The Milpitas Monster.

Make or Break:  Once you realize that you’re going to be spending an inordinate amount of time with the pointless antics of George and the J.D. gang with absolutely nothing of consequence happening, you may want to tap out on this one.

Score:  3/10 

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