American Stars in Japanese Films, Part 1: THE GREEN SLIME (1968)

22 Apr

I remember seeing the trailers for THE GREEN SLIME back in 1969 and being put off somewhat by the cheesy-looking design of the title monsters, so I didn’t make the effort to see it back then. I was a high school sophmore at the time and more interested in “serious” sci-fi, such as 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, PLANET OF THE APES and…BARBARELLA!  I eventually saw it on TV and kicked myself for not seeing it in a theater when I had the chance. It’s a film that’s historically important for several reasons. It was the first U.S.-Japan co-production shot in Japan with an entirely Caucasian cast and the first with more than one name actor from the west. It was the first science fiction film directed by Kinji Fukasaku, who would make two other significant entries in the genre, MESSAGE FROM SPACE and VIRUS, both also featuring American stars. (He’s been more famous in the past decade for his final film, BATTLE ROYALE, 2000.) The film was released in December 1968 in Japan and in May 1969 in the U.S.

I have a still from the film, scanned here, as well as screen grabs from the Warner Archive DVD, which I watched for this review.

Robert Horton, in dark blue uniform, on the far left; Luciana Paluzzi, with stethoscope, on the right, in THE GREEN SLIME

The film stars Robert Horton (from TV’s “Wagon Train”), Richard Jaeckel (who’d co-starred in THE DIRTY DOZEN a year earlier) and Luciana Paluzzi, an Italian actress familiar to American viewers from MUSCLE BEACH PARTY, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E,” and THUNDERBALL. The rest of the cast is made up of westerners working in Japan at the time, including Robert Dunham, a race car driver who’d appeared in a number of Japanese monster films (MOTHRA, DOGORA) by this time, and Ted Gunther, an American actor who was working in Japan. Most of the cast were amateurs, including several Israeli students who were called up to fight during the shoot because of the Six-Day War, but wound up not having to go because the war ended so quickly.

The film was shot entirely at the Toei studio and made generous use of miniatures to show any and all action in outer space. The plot, with echoes of Howard Hawks’ THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951), involves the invasion of a space station, Gamma 3, by an alien organism that seeks electrical power which causes it to grow and reproduce. The station is soon overrun by the slime creatures and the crew members have to fight them off without splattering their cells and risking the creation of even more of them and without taking any of the slime with them when they prepare to evacuate the station and head for Earth. This creates quite a number of genuinely suspenseful situations. As in THE THING, there is a scientist who wants to keep the monsters alive for study, even if it costs the lives of crewmen.

The “green slime” monsters look like this:

All the slime creatures, even in their short, nascent form, were played by actors in suits. While they’re not the most convincing monsters I’ve ever seen in one of these films, I like the fact that they consistently appear in the frame in real time with the actors, rather than being fashioned by some other method that would have required them to be matted in optically, as was done with stop-motion animation or with giant monsters played by men in suits on miniature sets.

Here the actors have something to react to and one feels the dangers more palpably, particularly when crewmen are zapped by the creatures’ tentacles and electrocuted, resulting in gruesome makeup effects that were overlooked by the ratings board at the time, which gave the film a “G” rating.

There are harrowing scenes where the lead doctor, played by Paluzzi, and her team of gorgeous nurses, have to pack all the injured crewmen on hospital beds and wheel them out of the way of the rampaging monsters. Having something to react to on set surely helped the amateur performers in the cast give more convincing performances.

I never had trouble suspending my disbelief during the movie.

The three lead actors are thorough professionals and play their roles with dead seriousness even when faced with situations they might have found laughable at the time. There’s a love triangle subplot informing the three characters’ melodramatic back story.

L-R: Luciana Paluzzi, Robert Horton, Richard Jaeckel

Commander Jack Rankin (Horton) and Dr. Lisa Benson (Paluzzi) were once lovers. Rankin and Commander Vince Elliott (Jaeckel) were once teammates and close friends who had a falling-out after Elliott made a decision on a mission which cost the lives of ten men, a breach Rankin has never forgiven. This tension comes into play often as the two men dispute the chain of command once the battle with the slime begins, with Rankin even ordering Elliott’s arrest and removal from the scene at one point. Benson is now Elliott’s fiancée, a sore point with Rankin, who declares that what she feels for Elliott is not love, but pity. Okay, so we’ve seen all this before, but it adds a couple of dramatic layers to the proceedings and is well played by the three actors.

It helps that they are surrounded by colorful, well-crafted sets representing the various space station interiors and containing the kind of equipment and infrastructure such interiors would hold.

These are intercut with well-designed miniatures representing outer space shots of the space station, and the various rockets and space shuttles needed for their maneuvers.

I thought the cinematography was excellent with good lighting throughout and sufficient light in the “dark” scenes where power has been deliberately cut so as not to attract the electricity-seeking monsters.

Many of the extras came from U.S. military bases, so they did not look out of place in such a setting.

What struck me as I listened to the dialogue was that the three leads often seemed to be recorded sync-sound, meaning their lines were recorded on the set, while most of the rest of the cast appeared to be post-dubbed and probably not even by their real voices.

Of the non-star cast, only Ted Gunther, as Dr. Halvorsen, the resident scientist studying the creatures, appears to speak in his own voice in sync-sound.

I’ve seen enough films where Robert Dunham, who plays Captain Martin, the second in command at the station, uses his real voice to know what he sounds like, but I couldn’t tell if this was his voice or not. He sure sounded post-dubbed.

Robert Dunham, center, in between Jaeckel and Horton

The film’s associate producer was William Ross, who was based in Japan and used to supervise the English dubbing of many Toho films, including the Godzilla ones. (When the Toho films were picked up for American distribution by companies like American International Pictures, a New York post-production company was usually employed to provide an all-new English dub. When GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER was released on DVD in the U.S. by Sony in 2004, fans were outraged that the Toho dub was used and not the superior AIP dub.) I’m guessing Ross supervised the post-dubbing of this film as well.

Of the stars in the cast, Jaeckel would make one more sci-fi film in Japan, LATITUDE ZERO, the following year, and I’ll report on that in a future entry.

My one quibble with GREEN SLIME is the inclusion in the American release version of a catchy, infamous rock song as the title theme. It’s quite memorable but completely at odds with the tone of the movie.

Well, that and the fact that there’s a fiery finale, even though fire can’t exist in space—no oxygen!

Ten days before watching GREEN SLIME, I watched another Japanese sci-fi film with a predominantly Caucasian cast—TERROR BENEATH THE SEA (1966), which stars Sonny Chiba as a Japanese reporter partnered with a blond American woman, played by amateur actress Peggy Neal.

Peggy Neal and Sonny Chiba in TERROR BENEATH THE SEA

A story about an undersea base run by a mad scientist who turns humans into Creature from the Black Lagoon-like monsters who can live underwater, it featured a total of six Japanese men in the cast, no Japanese women, and about two dozen Caucasians, mostly men and all amateurs living and working in Japan. It was, I believe, the first Japanese film to feature a predominantly Caucasian cast. It was co-produced by American distributor Walter Manley, who is also a producer of GREEN SLIME. It has some similar-looking scenes to GREEN SLIME, as if this were some kind of crude blueprint for the later film.

I believe it was the success of Toho bringing Nick Adams (TV’s “The Rebel”) over to Japan to make three films, including FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD and GODZILLA VS. MONSTER ZERO, that convinced Japanese producers that the expense of casting American parts with actual name actors was worth it.

THE GREEN SLIME was released in New York in May 1969, the same month in which two Italian films I’ve re-watched in the past week were also released in New York: A FINE PAIR and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. All three featured American stars and Italian leading ladies. Both of the Italian films had scores by Ennio Morricone and both starred Claudia Cardinale in the lead female role. Only one of them, A FINE PAIR, used Cardinale’s actual voice, though. Of the three, I only saw ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, directed by Sergio Leone, in a theater at the time, although I did see trailers for the other two.

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One Response to “American Stars in Japanese Films, Part 1: THE GREEN SLIME (1968)”

  1. Melvin Lee May 8, 2017 at 12:11 PM #

    Thank you for sharing this! Not sure but I might have seen the Green Slime in my childhood! Love those 60’s movies; beautifully coloured sets, gorgeous women (and masculine males too) and I agree: the actors were very professional not to laugh out loud at the silly plots and men in rubber kaiju suits…

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