Judge Paul Corupe once wore a rubber suit for Halloween, but he went as a giant cockroach, not a turtle.
Gamera is really neat, he is filled with turtle meat. We love you Gam-er-a!
Retromedia's latest DVD blast is a double dose of kaiju craziness starring everyone's favorite giant, airborne fire-breathing turtle, Gamera. Return of the Giant Monsters, Gamera's third adventure of city flattening proportions is matched here with the one-of-a-kind The Magic Serpent, a lesser-known fantasy matinee that mixes swordplay and magic with battling giant monsters.
Facts of the Case
In Return of the Giant Monsters, an active volcano awakens Gaos, a giant pterodactyl-like creature with a thirst for human blood. Under the cloak of night, Gaos begins raids on nearby towns. Gamera, "friend to all children," returns to stop the carnage, but an early confrontation leaves his arm badly wounded. With the help of a young boy (Naoyuki Abe) and a group of scientists, Gaos's weakness to sunlight is exposed, and a plan is developed to help Gamera defeat the mighty monster.
The Magic Serpent is considerably more complicated. Set in a feudal period of Japan's history, Daijô Yûki (Bin Amatsu, Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Land of Demons) and his wizard Orochi-Maru (Ryutaro Otomo, Festival of Swordsmen) take over a kingdom with their samurai army. Orochi-Maru turns himself into a giant dragon to finish off the survivors, but young prince Ikazuchi-Maru (Hiroki Matsukata, The Yakuza Papers), escapes with the aid of a magic hawk sent by good wizard Dôjin Hiki. Once schooled in the ways of magic, Ikazuki-maru returns to reclaim the throne. He quickly takes care of Daijô Yûki, but must draw on his newfound skills and transform into a fire-breathing giant horned toad to combat Orochi-Maru's serpent form.
Why are double-feature DVDs so much fun? God love Retromedia for uniting these two monster mashes onto one enjoyable disc for a great price; proof positive that you can take two barely interesting public domain films, slap them together on the same disc, and suddenly you have a home cinema experience far more enjoyable than the sum of its parts.
Of course, "barely interesting" is a relative term, because if you're a fan of kaiju films, you know that Return of the Giant Monsters is one of the best entries in the entire Gamera series. The Daiei Company's flying half-shell competition for Toho's Godzilla may not be quite as famous as his lizard cousin, but he's often just as much fun. By Gamera's third appearance, Daiei had finally figured out how to make the most of their biggest franchise character, and the monster action comes fast and furious. An uncharacteristic early battle between Gamera and Gaos sets the stage for the later blowout climax, while between rounds, the requisite young boy, played with typical gag reflex-testing style by Naoyuki Abe, draws pictures of his amphibian friend and wishes Gamera a speedy recovery from his bloody battle scars.
The early clash may grab audience interest in a way that was lacking in the series before, but it's really the rival monster that makes Return of the Giant Monsters a good ride. The diamond-headed pterodactyl Gaos, able to emit Ginsu-like lasers from his mouth, actually seems like a palpable threat to Gamera and the nearby cities. In retrospect, Barugon, Gamera's silly rainbow-shooting foe from his last adventure, seems an obvious miscalculation. Gaos's deadly laser attack is well used in several scenes to slice planes, helicopters, and cars cleanly in two, much to the shock of the local civilians. It's a slightly low-rent effect, but makes quite an impression, and helps propel Return of the Giant Monsters to the top of the man-in-rubber-suit crop.
Although executed with slightly less precision, special effects also prove to be the highlight of the second half of this double bill, the Toei Company's 1966 rarity, The Magic Serpent. This is a pretty unique attempt to inject a little kaiju excitement into a typical Japanese sword and sorcery samurai epic. Like Return of the Giant Monsters, The Magic Serpent gets going with an early appearance by the serpent, an impressively detailed dragon that likes to hang out by the beach and splash in the water. But by the time Ikazuchi-Maru is ready to go back and face his father's usurpers, he has already emerged victorious from a house guarded by an army of killer flying doors and honed his ability to make his head fly off his body to double team villainous assassins. Of course, these moments of fantasy are just small fry to tide us over until the obvious and inevitable end, where Ikazuchi-Maru will take on his monstrous toad form to fight the serpent with the help of third giant creature, a magical flying spider.
But in light of the confusing storyline, the borderline-insane magic occurs far too infrequently, and technically, The Magic Serpent is simply laughable. I didn't exactly dislike the film, but I found the fight choreography extremely amateurish, with awful swordplay and wire-fu with plainly visible wires. The giant serpent's head, much too tall for the actor inside the rubber suit, is kept aloft with the same blatantly obvious strands of fishing line that define the spider's flight path.
To be fair, poor effects and disposable plots are par for the course for giant monster films. Questionable technical work and odd storylines won't be surprising for followers of the genre, and certainly don't detract from the enjoyment of this release. As a Gamera fan, I enjoyed the first film on the disc much more, but I have no doubt that many will be quite excited to see The Magic Serpent, which is truly a Reader's Digest of Japanese genre film like nothing I've ever seen before.
Both Return of the Giant Monsters and The Magic Serpent receive full frame pan and scan transfers, faithfully replicating the English dubbed versions that originally debuted as 16mm TV prints. The transfers on this disc are not in pristine condition, and even contain a disclaimer to that effect; however, it should be noted that this DVD looks considerably better than those put out by budget label Alpha, the only other company currently releasing the Gamera films in North America. The Magic Serpent looks slightly worse for wear, sporting a slightly hazy, washed-out look, but Return of the Giant Monsters isn't too bad at all with strong colors and a good level of detail. Audio artifacts are sometimes noticeable on the Dolby 1.0 mono soundtracks, but generally, they deliver dialogue with an adequate level of clarity. Interestingly, you can hear Godzilla's famous cello string-created roar standing in for the Magic Serpent's cry in this dubbed version. There are no included extras on this release.
The quality of these films may not be ideal, but they are they are far and away the best available. Retromedia's release of Return of the Giant Monsters and The Magic Serpent makes a great, budget priced addition to any kaiju collection worth its weight in giant reptile flesh.
Not guilty. Retromedia and Gamera are friends to all children and DVD fans.
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