The Giant Gila Monster (1959)
If you love hot rods, explosives, and giant lizards, then you’ll love this cheesy, low-budget B-movie from 1959. The Giant Gila (pronounced HEE-la) Monster follows the misadventures of Chase Winstead, a young car enthusiast, as he tries to uncover the mystery of how one of his good friends Pat Wheeler and his girlfriend, Liz Humphries, mysteriously disappeared. With a runtime of just 74 minutes and lame special effects, this movie has earned itself the title of “cult classic” and was satirized on the television show Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1992.
The movie begins with Pat and Liz in Pat’s car, which out of nowhere is pulled down into a ravine by a giant reptilian paw. The two of them scream for help and are never seen or heard from again. Pat’s father, a Texas oil tycoon, reports the two of them missing and demands that the local sheriff track them down immediately. The sheriff insists that he’s the only officer patrolling 10,000 square miles and he can’t possibly do it on his own. He then proceeds to conduct the most embarrassing investigation ever, enlisting Chase’s help despite the fact that he is neither a police officer nor a forensic scientist. Chase has a lot on his plate—his job at the garage, the tragic death of his father, his little sister who has difficulty walking and needs expensive braces for her legs, and his girlfriend who might be deported back to France, but somehow he finds the time to help the sheriff with the investigation while completely disregarding the protocol in place for preserving a crime scene.
Chase goes out with some friends to look for Pat’s car, which he ends up finding and pulling out of the ravine with the winch of his tow truck (destroying evidence). Another empty car is located shortly after with blood all over the interior, and Chase takes the new tires off that car and puts them on his own (also destroying evidence). The lizard continues its reign of terror by running a train off the tracks, and when the passengers who survived the accident report what they saw, the sheriff entertains the possibility of this new development instead of writing it off. He lets Chase in on this information and tells him that there have been reports farther south of animals that grew far past their natural size, but Chase is skeptical. After telling him all of this, the sheriff tells Chase to just “keep it to himself” and enjoy the barn party he’s about to go to because the lizard only attacks near the canyon and he thinks that everyone should be safe in the meantime.
Pat Wheeler’s father hears about the giant lizard theory and supports it. He is also convinced that Chase is partially responsible for the authorities’ inability to find his son, citing the negligence around the crime scenes. He tells the sheriff to arrest Chase, and the two of them drive down to the barn party to bring him in. At this point, the monster chooses to reveal itself and terrorizes the town’s population of teenagers. The monster is supposed to be a 70-foot-long killing machine, but the part of the antagonist was played by a bored-looking, ordinary Mexican beaded lizard walking around a scale model of the set. Always the hero, Chase packs his beloved car full of nitroglycerin acquired from a different car he was repairing at the town mechanic’s and drives it directly toward the monster, jumping out right as the vehicle collides with it. So, there you go. If a giant monster is terrorizing your sleepy small town, just do what anyone else would do and blow it up.
This movie was produced by Gordon McLendon, who owned a drive-in theater near Dallas, TX. He filmed another production directly after this one, called The Killer Shrews, intending for them to be the drive-in’s double feature. The awkward acting, bad special effects, and underwhelming antagonist make this movie more humorous than scary—there’s a reason it’s only scored 21% on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s another Cold War-era mutant monster movie from the atomic age. The classic 50s/60s “aw shucks” humor runs all through it, with all the adults accusing the teenagers of causing trouble with their fast cars and loud music. Although this movie has been colorized, I would recommend watching it in the original black and white for full immersion. I usually prefer a horror movie with more substance and a better semblance of a plot, but sometimes you just have to sit back and laugh at an old low-budget film and wonder if that was really frightening to people back in the day. The director of this movie was also too decent to show any blood and gore, so if that’s what you’re in the mood for, look elsewhere.