Friday, June 21, 2024

Whatever Wednesday: ‘The Green Slime’

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The Green Slime is not a good movie but it is an awesome one. Its reputation would make it seem like some unwatchable boondoggle and not the cheesy bare-bones sci-fi monster movie it is. The cable show, “Mystery Science Theater 3000” even used the film for its unaired pilot. 

Still, even discounting that bit of trivia, its pedigree is curious. Directed by Kinji Fukasaku, who would go on to direct the influential and infamous cult classic Battle Royale, it is a co-production between the Japanese Toei Studios and MGM Studios. The crew was Japanese but the cast was a mixture of Western and European actors. 

The co-production itself is not unusual for the time. But what is odd is that the story of The Green Slime is meant to be the third in a series of Italian sci-fi movies about Space Station Gamma One by the legendary Italian schlockmeister Antonio Margheriti. 

As a result, The Green Slime is a strange film whose vision of the far-flung future was out of date even when the picture was being filmed. Though we wouldn’t land on the moon until a year after the film had been released, much of The Green Slime feels culled from an era of dime-store pulp magazines before the atom was split. Fukaskau’s vision of the future has a clever ambiguity in regards to when the story takes place. 

We’re never told when any of this is happening, if only because it couldn’t possibly matter.

An asteroid is headed towards Earth and if it isn’t stopped it could mean catastrophe for the planet. (Sound familiar?) A crew of astronauts based on Space Station Gamma Three, led by the awesomely named, just about to retire square-jawed, Commander Jack Rankin (Robert Horton), are tasked with landing on the asteroid and, wait for it, blow up the asteroid before it can crash into Earth. If you’ve sworn you’ve seen this before, take a seat, because we’re only getting started.

While on the asteroid the astronauts discover a mysterious pulsating glowing green slime. The scientist Dr. Hans Halvorsen (Ted Gunther) tries to collect some slime to take some back to his lab on Gamma Three. But Rankin isn’t having any of it and throws the vial of slime onto the ground. Upon returning to the station and going through decontamination they inadvertently cause the ooze to mutate. The ooze mutates into man-size tentacled monsters one normally sees in old Japanese Kaiju movies.

From there Gamma Three is plunged into chaos and destruction.

The script by William Finger, Tom Rowe, and Charles Sinclair peppers colloquialisms and hip slang throughout the film. “Commander Rankin and I have doped out a plan.” In a way, this lends The Green Slime some strange untethered timelessness. A cinematic paradox; it is steeped in the time it was produced while somehow feeling out of sync with the times as well.

Fukasaku however, embraces every curious and schlocky aspect of the film and never once apologizes for it. The production design seems like something out of an old television Saturday morning kids show with its blocky computers and honking huge dials painted in bright primary colors. Even the monsters with their wobbly tentacles and shuffling gait are brightly lit so you can see every inch of the painstakingly spray-painted rubber suit.

Make no mistake, The Green Slime is perfectly aware of what it’s doing. One of the first lines in the movie is a space station worker looking through some memos and muttering about how, “Nothing exciting ever happens around here.” Heck while on the asteroid the astronauts drive around looking for places to put the explosives until finally, they come to a stop. The scientists look around before saying, “This place looks as good as any.”

The Green Slime charms the audience into going along with it purely because it’s putting up no pretensions about what it’s doing. But this is not to say Fukasaku is hamming it up. Au contraire, he directs his actors as if they were Shakespeare in the park. 

Horton as Jack Rankin swaggers through every frame bursting with machismo and an air of irritating but charming arrogance. Horton is the type of actor you get when Charlton Heston isn’t in the budget and Doug McClure is too busy. But pound for pound he is every bit as good and commanding as Heston or McClure.

The script tries to cram in a bizarre love triangle between Rankin, his ex-lover Dr. Lisa Benson (Luciana Paluzzi), and his ex-best friend and commander of Gamma Three Vince Elliot (Richard Jaeckel). Jack spends most of the movie trying to get Lisa back despite her repeatedly telling him she doesn’t love him anymore. 

Poor Paluzzi is given little to do but to stare into the camera and look aghast or indignant; all the while flipping her perfectly coiffed hair. Despite being forced into a thankless role, Paluzzi finds moments to lean into the camp with just as much grace and pizazz as her co-stars.

Vince is shaken by Jack’s arrival, fearing that Lisa might still have feelings for Jack, despite Lisa repeatedly telling Vince that she loves him. Sadly at no time does she ever wise up and just dump both of them after realizing if the galaxy contains green slime then surely she could do better. The rift between Jack and Vince though isn’t just because Lisa left one for the other, but also because Jack believes Vince is unfit to be a commander. “You make too many mistakes!”

Jaeckel’s Vince is a tragic character—a man ruled by impulse and bogged down with a pittance of confidence in his own abilities. His marble blue eyes flash with rage every time he and Jack square off throughout the film with their not so subtle genitalia measuring contest. Jack is right, however, as Vince makes far too many mistakes. It’s a miracle Vince makes it as far through the film as he does. 

To be fair to Elliot, almost everyone in The Green Slime makes far too many mistakes. It’s a miracle anyone survives to the end. 

Granted, this is a space film in which you will see a space station hurtling through space as the flames burn stubbornly and brightly. The Green Slime may play it seriously but it never once takes itself all that seriously. It’s the type of movie where men answer the phone without taking off their tactical helmets, holding the receiver next to their cheek, like manly men. 

The Green Slime would possibly be hard to watch if not for the framing of Yoshikazu Yamazawa’s camera. Together with Fukasaku, they lend the film a pristine and gorgeous visual elegance. Yamazawa loves angling the frame to give a sort of distinctive off-kilter feel. But even beyond that, the duo manages to find ways of milking every ounce of melodrama from a situation. 

Look at how they show a discussion between Jack and Lisa. The two are facing one another, with the editor Osamu Tanak cutting back and forth between them. But each of them is onscreen by themself but on opposite sides of the frame. The result is a stylish and romantic scene buried smack-dab in the middle of this cleverly and carefully constructed monster fest. 

Moments like these are what raise The Green Slime above mere schlock. There is a technical mastery and pride in the set design that is often lacking in other low budget movies. Fukasaku and his team want you to see everything regardless of how cheezy it may look. This isn’t real life, this is The Green Slime and reality is for the birds.

No discussion of The Green Slime would be complete without mentioning its catchy psychedelic theme. A funkadelic groovy number with lyrics like “Is this just something in your head? Would you believe it when you’re dead? You’ll believe it when you find something screaming across your mind…GREEN SLIME!”

The original Japanese score was done by Toshiaki Tsushima but the American version was done by Charles Fox, and that includes the theme song which only appears at the beginning and end of the movie. The theme, though written and produced by Fox, is arranged and performed by Richard Delvy, a pioneer of surf rock music. That the song is never played during the film itself is somewhat tragic but also understandable. 

Delvy’s performance of the song works best as images pass by in a montage. But were it to be played over any actual scene during the movie it would overpower any of the schlocky fun The Green Slime was aiming for. Still, the theme stands as one of the coolest theme songs I’ve ever heard from a low budget sci-fi adventure flick.

The Green Slime is one of those movies that while it is by no means good, it is also by no means bad. It can soar through space unburdened with any kind of dramatic or pretentious gravitas, powered only by the simple pleasure of fighting men in large rubber monster costumes. In other words, it’s fun. 

Image courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

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