Monster a Go-Go (1965) -**
Bill Rebane’s filmmaking career really got rolling with Invasion from Inner Earth in 1974, but that wasn’t quite his first movie. Way, way back in 1961, Rebane started work on a 50’s-style monster rampage picture by the somewhat perplexing name of Terror at Halfday. It was a remarkably ambitious production, with a climax that called for swarms of soldiers, cops, and firemen, together with their vehicles and equipment, taking over the subterranean portion of Chicago’s street grid between Lake Shore Drive and Wabash Avenue, south of the Chicago River. (If you’ve seen The Dark Knight, then you’re acquainted with the area I mean. It’s the setting for the chase between the Joker’s gang and the armored police van carrying Harvey Dent.) Terror at Halfday required airplanes, helicopters, and laboratory spaces that could not be faked with stock footage, not to mention a full-scale prop space capsule. The monster was supposed to be so tall that only a circus giant would suffice to play it. And Rebane proposed to do it all on a budget of just $60,000. Not surprisingly, he ran out of money before Terror at Halfday was anywhere close to finished, and he never did scrape together the funds to complete the project. The nearest Rebane ever came to recouping his costs was the $8000 he received from Herschel Gordon Lewis in 1965, when Lewis bought about two hours’ worth of silent Terror at Halfday footage (counting coverage and outtakes) with the aim of turning it into a supporting feature for his forthcoming Moonshine Mountain. Let’s take just a moment now to marvel at that: when Bill Rebane was unable to finish his first movie, Herschel Gordon Lewis did it for him. Monster a Go-Go (as Terror at Halfday was even more perplexingly called after Lewis got done with it) combines the superhuman tedium and indifference to audience engagement of a Lewis production with Rebane’s superhuman illogic and unreason. It’s like the Captain Planet of terrible Midwestern exploitation filmmaking!
Monster a Go-Go opens with the most perfect imaginable line of voiceover narration: “What you are about to see may not even be possible within the limited conception of the human mind…” That’s exactly right, but probably not in quite the way Lewis meant us to take it. Evidently some largish objects have appeared in orbit around Earth, and no space-faring Terrestrial nation will lay claim to them. Consequently, NASA sent up astronaut Frank Douglas to investigate. Ground control lost contact with Douglas as he approached the mysterious satellites, and worse yet, his Gemini orbiter disappeared from NASA’s radar screens shortly thereafter. Reports have come in, however, of an unidentified object falling from the sky into a fallow field only a few miles from the NASA Astrophysical Research Lab near Chicago, and a team of investigators led by Captain Steve Connors (Phil Morton) has been dispatched to check it out. The search helicopter locates the fallen whatsit soon enough, and it is indeed Frank Douglas’s Gemini. But when the pilot lands to take a closer look, he is killed by something that leaves him “mutilated in ways no one had ever seen before.” Or so the narrator tells us, anyway. Rebane’s budget wouldn’t stretch to cover unprecedented mutilation, and what we see of the pilot’s body shows no visible injuries at all. Also, Rebane’s 60 grand was apparently enough to cover only a ¼-scale Gemini capsule, because Captain Connors is noticeably bigger than the wrecked spacecraft.
Connors calls in civilian scientists Carl Schreiber (billing order suggests that this might be Rork Stevens) and Henry Logan (George Perry, maybe? Again, just a guess based on the placement of Perry’s name in the opening credits). Schreiber in turn brings Dr. Nora Kramer (possibly Lois Brooks?) and a woman named Ruth (definitely Jean Travers), the latter apparently sister and next of kin to the missing Frank Douglas. Their examination of the scene is inconclusive. They find no clear trace of Douglas, yet the Gemini’s condition is inconsistent with the pilot burning up on reentry. Meanwhile, although Logan tentatively identifies the chopper pilot’s nonexistent wounds as radiation burns, there doesn’t seem to be any commensurate radiation source in the area. There are also some scorch marks in the scrub grass, but those could simply be the leftovers of somebody’s campfire.
Then more dead bodies start turning up, radiation-burned exactly like the helicopter pilot. Connors is skeptical, but the scientists believe that some sort of monster came to Earth with the crashed spacecraft, and Logan in particular has a sneaking suspicion that the monster is really a transfigured Frank Douglas. (Maybe Logan has seen First Man into Space, Night of the Blood Beast, or The Creeping Unknown.) Skeptical or not, though, the captain decides that the time has come to seek the direct involvement of his military and civilian superiors, General Whatshisname (who knows?) and Dr. Chris Manning (Peter Thompson). The boss-men are on hand for the discovery of a few more random victims, but don’t seem to have much success in moving the situation forward toward resolution. Logan, however, becomes increasingly convinced of his Douglas-as-monster hypothesis, to the point that he returns to the Gemini’s crash site to look for new and more specific clues. What he finds is the most convincing evidence imaginable— Douglas himself, transformed by cosmic rays into a scarred, radioactive, nearly mindless hulk (Henry Hite, whose stage name, it suddenly occurs to me, is a nearly criminal pun). Douglas seizes Logan from behind, and the next thing we know, it’s the scientist’s body that Connors, Schreiber, Kramer, Manning, and General Whatshisname are carting back to the lab.
Then something truly amazing happens— or at any rate, something that would be truly amazing if we didn’t know that Monster a Go-Go sat uncompleted for four years in Bill Rebane’s closet, only to be sold to and finished by somebody else. The film vaults ahead two months into the future, and half the cast disappear, never to be mentioned again! Ruth, Manning, General Whatshisname— all gone. Connors, meanwhile, is inexplicably promoted to lieutenant colonel, Dr. Kramer ages so much as to become virtually unrecognizable, and a replacement boss by the name of Brent (not a clue) appears out of nowhere, with only the barest shred of explanation. All of that pales, though, beside the fallout of Henry Logan’s death. After the two-month jump, we’re informed that he had a brother named Conrad who is not only a scientist in his own right, but a scientist on the staff of the very same laboratory— and Conrad is played by the same actor as the original Dr. Logan, only with different facial hair, and without his toupee! What’s really bizarre about Emergency Backup Logan is that we apparently can’t blame him entirely on Herschel Gordon Lewis, even though he is introduced only at the point where Lewis’s contributions begin to outweigh Rebane’s. If you look closely during the climax— which we know Rebane shot, since Lewis would never have spent that kind of money— you’ll see Bald Logan (or someone who very much resembles him) in a few of the long-range shots. The print I watched was in such bad condition that I’m not prepared to swear that it’s really him, but it looks enough like him that I’m also not prepared to call out Lewis for what would normally seem an eminently Lewisian misjudgement.
Anyway, it’s two months after the death of Henry Logan, and there’s strangely been no sign of Frank Douglas in all that time. That’s because Conrad Logan has him locked up in his laboratory, unbeknownst to anyone. It’s never explained just how that came to pass, or just what made Conrad think keeping the monster’s capture a secret was a good idea, but the doctor’s object is to cure the astronaut of his condition. Logan has enjoyed a fair amount of success, too, although the antidote he’s concocted works only incompletely and temporarily. And as is generally the case with these things, each dose Douglas takes works less well and for a shorter time than the one before it, and Frank’s symptoms, when they return, become ever more severe. Inevitably, the day comes when Douglas regains his full monster-hood faster than Logan can sedate him, and he escapes from the lab to resume terrorizing Chicagoland. Monster a Go-Go looks like it’s going to remain a fairly standard Moseying Monster flick at that point, but just wait ‘til you see the ending. Most people will be flabbergasted by the direction this movie takes at the last. However, those who know Rebane’s work from the 70’s, will recognize (once the initial shock wears off) that they’ve just seen a decade of inexplicable non-climaxes and anticlimaxes foreshadowed.
It takes a true connoisseur to find anything of the slightest interest in Monster a Go-Go. The casual viewer will see only an uncommonly inept example of a genre five years past its expiration date, an Amateur Night fiasco that makes even The Beast of Yucca Flats look accomplished in comparison. And of course they’ll be right about that. The cast have visible difficulty remembering their dialogue, and neither Rebane nor Lewis cared much what their delivery was like, so long as they did eventually get the lines out. The narration suggests somebody aiming for Ed Wood and Criswell, but failing to meet even that lenient standard. The characters’ (or the narrator’s) descriptions of things stubbornly refuse to match what the camera shows us. The crew appears to have been plagued by miscommunication, the most conspicuous result of which is the tiny Gemini capsule designed and built like a forced-perspective model, but used as a full-scale prop instead. The “terrifying,” “world-threatening” monster is just a freakishly tall guy with minimal lumpy-face makeup, wearing a space suit made of industrial coveralls and duct tape. And all those defects were already in place before Rebane ran out of cash, and put Terror at Halfday into the cocoon from which it would emerge as Monster a Go-Go.
But let’s return now to that true connoisseur, and to what they would see that is of interest, even if only slightly. Understand that such seeing requires watching Monster a Go-Go more times than any normal person would ever want to. Our object here is to exploit the opportunity this movie offers to compare and contrast two important regional filmmakers’ distinctive forms of badness, and that means familiarizing oneself with Monster a Go-Go sufficiently to disentangle Lewis’s contributions from Rebane’s. Fortunately for us, Lewis made that relatively easy by hiring back so small a fraction of the original cast. Now I should start by emphasizing that it’s not entirely fair to take Monster a Go-Go as indicative of Lewis’s style, as his primary concern in this film was to get it finished as quickly and cheaply as possible. Consequently, it’s only to be expected that most of his scenes would consist of little or nothing more than people yakking at each in other whatever interior spaces he could beg, borrow, or steal, and that the closest thing to an action scene to be found in his portion of the film is noteworthy for failing to depict the action that supposedly takes place during it. (The scene in question is Frank Douglas’s escape from the lab, which shows us not the escape itself, but rather what Conrad Logan is doing at the time to prevent him from noticing Douglas breaking loose.) At the same time, though, that laser-like focus on the bottom line is very much a Lewis trademark; the same sort of thinking famously led him to switch from sexploitation to gore-horror in 1963, and would later inspire him to give up filmmaking altogether to go into the junk-mail business. And of course it isn’t as though Lewis’s legit movies don’t heed well the maxim that talk is cheap, while action costs money.
As you might expect, though, Monster a Go-Go has more to tell us about Bill Rebane, and what it has to tell us about him is more surprising. Most conspicuously, what we see in this movie is that Rebane, unlike so very many others operating at his level, was not overly concerned about the relative cost of talk vs. action. He overreached himself with Terror at Halfday, obviously, but once you’ve watched Monster a Go-Go, it becomes apparent that even the cheapest and most set-bound of Rebane’s later movies tried for bigger and more impressive set-pieces than their competitors. Think of the Spidermobile’s afternoon out on the town in The Giant Spider Invasion— such crowds of fleeing, panicked extras are not often encountered down here in the film industry’s sub-basement. Another unifying feature of Rebane’s career that Monster a Go-Go brings into focus is a preoccupation with cosmic horrors and violations of the ordinary laws of physical reality. I don’t want to go all the way to the overused epithet, “Lovecraftian” (although Rebane did make a movie about a frog-man once, and it’s hard to invoke Lovecraft more specifically than that), but that is the general direction in which I’m trying to point. The Alpha Incident has its head-swelling plague from Mars; The Giant Spider Invasion has its arachnid-spewing black hole; Invasion from Inner Earth has… well, whatever that bullshit at the end was supposed to mean. Monster a Go-Go fits pretty neatly into that pattern, not just with its central “astronaut comes home a monster” premise, but also with its utterly inexplicable, infuriatingly obscure denouement. Without going into detail regarding the latter, I assumed at first (as I think most people probably will) that Monster a Go-Go’s conclusion had to be an artifact of the incomplete state in which Lewis acquired the picture. That is, I assumed that Rebane filmed no proper ending, that Lewis couldn’t film a proper ending without Henry Hite (who was not one of the performers he hired back when finishing the project, whether because Hite was busy with other things or because that’s just how little Lewis cared), and that consequently the ending we got was decidedly improper. The more I think about it, though, the more obviously of a piece with Rebane’s later career this movie’s idiotic conclusion looks. I’ve therefore come around to the belief that it’s what Rebane intended all along— he just would probably have tried to show something of it, instead of just talking about it, had his funding not dried up on him.