Home Video Hovel: Giant from the Unknown, by Tyler Smith
Perhaps the most enjoyable thing about watching old genre movies is seeing all the different variations that the filmmakers can come up with. When a genre is popular, every possible story iteration is entertained until there is eventually no gas left in the tank. Watching those last few cinematic gasps before a genre is declared officially creatively bankrupt can be a disheartening experience. We remember when the genre was new and exciting, before finally ending with the most pitiful of whimpers.
Such is the case with Richard E. Cunha’s Giant from the Unknown, a rightly-forgotten 1958 entry in the oversized monster genre, which produced such classics as Godzilla and Them!. After cycling through just about every possible giant menace film had to offer, it seems that writers Frank Hart Taussig and Ralph Brooke just shrugged their shoulders and thought, “What about a giant conquistador? Could that work?” After watching Giant from the Unknown, the answer to that question is a firm “No”.
The film begins well enough with a series of mysterious murders in a small mountain town. The worried locals are eager to find someone to blame. The sheriff is content to blame upstart geologist Wayne Brooks (Ed Kemmer), but is rebuffed upon the arrival of respected archeologist Frederick Cleveland (Morris Ankrum) and his daughter Janet (Sally Fraser). The three of them work together to search for the remains of a 500-year-old Spanish expedition, led by a particularly ruthless giant named Vargas. They soon discover that, due to a series of bizarre natural events, Vargas’ dead body – buried nearby and perfectly preserved – has come back to life and is killing at random.
It is in the explanation of Vargas’ return that the film goes from campily enjoyable to utterly interminable. While it is common in films like these for our main characters to have unnaturally long conversations (the better to pad the running time), the director of Giant from the Unknown spends so much time painstakingly explaining how this is all possible that he seems unaware that the audience likely doesn’t care that much. A little hare-brained explanation is delightful, but too much and the film turns into a slog.
Then, of course, there’s Vargas himself, played by boxer Buddy Baer. He is certainly physically imposing but lacks any personality. He is meant to evoke a malevolent version of Frankenstein’s monster, but too often just lumbers around with no real direction. While the filmmakers go to great lengths to demonstrate the indestructibility of Vargas, that does very little to make him intimidating. Perhaps it’s just the fact of Vargas as a conquistador. His armor, his helmet, his little ax; none of it adds up to a particularly frightening image. If the character spoke, perhaps, it may have been easier to characterize him as sadistic, but it would have ruined the monstrous mystique that the film is going for.
And so we’re stuck with an unengaging sci-fi horror film built around an uninspiring monster. So much of the film feels like one last desperate attempt to capitalize on an already-flagging genre. What’s funny, though, is that desperation like that usually yields a sense of urgency; an eagerness to please. Giant from the Unknown, however, seems to bore even itself, as it slowly moves towards a resolution in which nobody – from the viewer to the characters to the director himself – seems particularly interested.