Giant from the Unknown (1958)
Studio: The Film Detective
Release date: January 19th 2021
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
There’s something about 50s B-movies that just works for me. I can’t even come close to claiming a nostalgic attachment to the era since I was born a few decades later, but its creature features and monster movies sing with such an unapologetic pulp quality that they achieve a certain platonic ideal. These efforts aren’t so much scary so much as they’re whimsical and harmlessly spooky: even though they debuted in theaters and played to matinee audiences for years, I feel their more natural habitat is late-night TV, forever accompanied by a horror host during the witching hour of silly esoterica featuring beasts, mutants, monsters, and giants. Or even movies that promise giants but don’t deliver them, like Giant from the Unknown, a rickety, ragtag production that scored the participation of legendary effects artist Jack Pierce, giving it at least one claim to fame. It might be its only claim to fame at that, but who’s counting?
This is a familiar if not remarkably brisk tale of a small town—in this case, Pine Ridge, California—where the good people are befuddled by a rash of gruesome livestock slayings. When a local farmer also turns up crushed to death, the alarm sounds with more urgency, and law enforcement starts to look for possible suspects. Yokel sheriff Parker (Bob Steele) immediately pins the blame on Wayne Brooks (Ed Kemmer), a geologist locked in a long-standing feud with the farmer. He protests his innocence, citing his desire to just dig up rocks. It’s a big deal to him, but not big enough to commit homicide. Because evidence is scarce, Wayne is able to go free and join up with Frederick Cleveland (Morris Ankrum), a historian in search of a historical site that could hold the remains of a Spanish expedition that was led by Vargas (Buddy Baer), the legendary “Diablo Giant” who terrorized the natives. Thanks to a bizarre chemical element in the soil, everyone gets more than they bargained for when a well-timed lightning bolt reanimates Vargas, allowing him to resume his reign of terror.
The first thing you should know about Giant from the Unknown is that its title is a bit hyperbolic. While Buddy Baer—a heavyweight prizefighter before turning to acting—was a large man, standing at 6’6” tall and large enough to go toe-to-toe with Joe Louis, I’m not sure I’d call him a giant. We also know exactly where Vargas comes from since he was a Spanish conquistador, so he can’t claim to hail from Parts Unknown. But I guess “Big Man from Spain” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, and you can’t help but smile at the huckster charm of it all. Here’s a movie with a title that evokes the stuff of cosmic nightmares, only to deliver a cut-rate Frankenstein riff where a reanimated monster wreaks havoc on the countryside before the angry mob comes for it.
And yet, it’s tough to be really mad about it, though some of the regressive sexism (women largely exist to be terrorized and/or serve the male characters and racism (Billy Dix, who seems very white, plays a sketchy Native stereotype) hasn’t aged well. This obviously wasn’t much of a concern for the filmmakers, who were looking to script as much cheap thrills and carnage as they could on a threadbare budget that reveals itself at every turn. Giant from the Unknown is one of those movies where the extremely still lake in the background of scenes is obviously a matte painting. It’s a movie where characters go around exclaiming “jeepers!” and everyone’s a little too slow on the uptake. The “giant” is probably its most memorable aspect, and even he doesn’t represent Pierce’s best work: he mostly looks like an unkempt vagabond, with frost in his beard and wild, manic eyes.
Many moments will have you nodding along to the familiar beats (of course Wayne falls for Cleveland’s whip smart, doe-eyed daughter); others may startle you with an unexpected mean streak (one character is surprisingly—and mercilessly—dispatched. Still others might leave you wishing the filmmakers had the resources to help realize their somewhat grand vision, like the climactic showdown between Wayne and Vargas that unfolds on a snowy precipice, where the two eventually tussle on a precarious hanging bridge. Too bad even this evocative imagery is swiftly undone by some shoddy compositing effects that turns the entire thing into a cartoon.
In short, it’s a lot like other films of this ilk, going so far as to share a lot of talent with its contemporaries. Director Richard Cunha went on to direct stuff like She Demons, Missile to the Moon, and Frankenstein’s Daughter for Astor Pictures, the same outfit responsible for Giant. Ankrum was a B-movie staple, having appeared in Invaders from Mars and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, while his on-screen daughter Sally Fraser featured in War of the Colossal Beast, It Conquered the World, and The Spider (where she reteamed with leading man Kemmer). The familiarity only heightens the “been there, done that” deja vu: there’s the sensation that everyone involved knows what type of movie this is supposed to be, and it’s realized with a workmanlike efficiency. Giant from the Unknown breezes on by, largely content to nurture monster movie expectations with a meager plot and mild shocks. Whatever its shortcomings, it captures the gestalt of this particular era, which so often treated its horror fare with a light touch that feels quaint and cozy now, like a blanket you can wrap around you as the warm glow of the television reveals another assortment of beasts and madmen.
To say Giant from the Unknown has been long overdue for Blu-ray is an understatement. Its lone DVD release came 21 years ago courtesy of Image Entertainment, and it was nothing to write home about thanks to a cropped transfer and lack of supplements. The Film Detective’s high def upgrade rights both of those wrongs, starting with a nicely restored 4K transfer of the original negative. Some occasional blemishes on the source material are noticeable, but this is an otherwise sterling transfer—in fact, details are so good that they sometimes expose some of the cheaper effects work that was previously obscured in standard definition.
Considering the film’s age and obscurity, the disc boasts a nice assortment of extras, including two commentary tracks: one features author/historian Tom Weaver, while the other features star Gary Crutcher, who also appears for an on-screen interview. Historian C. Courtney Joyner also provides an interview about Bob Steele’s storied career, which functions as a nice tribute to a long-time staple of both the big and small screens. The film’s original trailer and a 16-page booklet featuring a stills gallery and liner notes from Weaver round out a nifty little package for a movie that isn’t exactly regarded as one of the classics of its era.
This release’s timing is serendipitous too. Arriving just a few months after Scream Factory’s latest Universal Horror collection, it gives you the opportunity to run a double feature with The Thing That Couldn’t Die, a fellow ‘58 programmer with a similar plot about a European madman returning from the grave to terrorize some bumpkins. Someone was clearly convinced this was something audiences were craving. Universal’s effort is the more compelling of the two (its occult trappings are more imaginative, and it’s hard to compete with the studio’s more impressive production values even on a B-movie), but both are fun representatives of an era perched on the precipice of a seismic shift in genre far. Within the next decade, such films would become increasingly rare, their whimsical thrills and chills yielding to more grim and garish flavors of schlock. They never made them quite like this ever again.
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