Growing up in the 70s and 80s in Phoenix, AZ, there were two main malls close to my neighborhood: Metro Center, the newer, bigger mall with two floors of shopping excitement (you can see it in all its glory in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, where it served as the shooting location for the "San Dimas Mall")...
...and a few miles south from there, the older, smaller Chris-Town Mall. Even back in the late 70s, Chris-Town already seemed like a throwback to simpler times. If Metro Center was the trendy mall where you went to listen to the newest records, shop the latest fashions, and play the hottest videogames, Chris-Town was the mall your Mom went to sip a cup of coffee while getting her watch battery replaced.
Despite its slower pace and quieter ambiance making it the less desirable mall for youngsters, Chris-Town had an allure all its own, and in a case of not appreciating something until its gone (it was turned into a Wal-Mart over a decade ago) I recognize it now as something of a crown jewel among the local malls (check out these photographs of its charming fountains and "modern" hanging sculpture. All Chris-Town photos came from the excellent Chris-Town Retrospective.)
During summer breaks, from kindergarten on up through grade school, my Dad would sometimes take me to Chris-Town's UA Cinema 6 for an afternoon matinee on those occasional weekdays that he had off from work. The UA Cinema 6 box office sat in a self-contained island in the middle of the mall, a good distance away from the actual theater.
A short walk towards the end of the mall bought you to the escalator that took you over the food court to the theater above. The ride up lent a sense of excitement and anticipation, as if queueing for an amusement park ride. Hang on everybody! We're going to ride the movies!
Many of my earliest sci-fi/horror cinema memories were in that theater, among them Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), The Cat From Outer Space (1978), At the Earth's Core (1976) and a quartet of genuine turkeys that, to this day, I still have a soft-spot for because of residual memories from those pleasant Chris-Town afternoon matinees. They are Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973), Great White (aka The Last Shark) (1981), Empire of the Ants (1977) and Food of the Gods (1976).
EMPIRE OF THE ANTS (1977) and FOOD OF THE GODS (1976)
Double-features were still common in those days, and the Empire of the Ants/Food of the Gods combo was one of the few occasions where we actually stayed for both the A- and B-picture.
Both Empire... and Food... are products of disaster king Bert I. Gordon, and each bears an attribution to H.G. Wells in the title (although what either of these films has to do with the guy who chased Jack the Ripper through time is a mystery.)
Aside from whatever tenuous connection the films may have to the source material, they both involve ordinary animals enlarged to monstrous size, with a tacked-on commentary on man's contamination of nature, making them a logical pairing on the double-bill.
In Empire... a group touring real estate in Florida, among them Joan Collins (Tales That Witness Madness) and Robert Pine (CHiPs) are terrorized by enormous, radioactive ants.
Eventually its revealed that the highly intelligent ants have a master plan to enslave mankind to toil in the sugar fields. But until then, they're presented as mindless, ravenous man-eaters.
The special effects are hit and miss, the giant ants realized through up-close photography of real specimens composited into the frame...
...supplemented by first-person "ant-vision" shots where You! Are! The! Ant!
This is a pretty silly film, but there is at least one effective vignette, the primal horror story distilled to its basic elements. An elderly couple, fearing they won't be able to outrun the attacking ants on foot, takes refuge in an abandoned shed.
After hunkering down in the dark for a few hours, they finally emerge...
...only to find the shed swarming with ants, their fate sealed. This grim reveal still gets me to this day.
In Food of the Gods, Marjoe Gortner (Mausoleum, Starcrash) is one of several folks terrorized by giant animals on an island in British Columbia.
A mysterious liquid food bubbling from the ground is causing wasps...
...and, most horrifying, carnivorous grubs, to grow several times their normal size.
A nightmarish sequence involves a pregnant woman giving birth in a cabin while giant rats are trying to bite and claw their way in from all sides...
...and one nearly gets through to the new mother's bedroom, repelled only at the last second when its head is slammed in the door.
The rat uprising is finally put down when a flood drowns them, leaving our heroes stranded in the middle of a giant disgusting soup.
GREAT WHITE (aka THE LAST SHARK) (1981)
Great White was an Italian Jaws knock-off, whose major selling point was that it featured a 35-foot shark that made the 25-footer in Jaws look puny by comparison. Great White was no doubt going to be 10-feet better than Jaws!
Of course, most of that yardage is kept out of view below the water, with only the head visible, bobbing at the surface like a giant shark-shaped buoy.
Great White turned out to be somewhat of an exclusive engagement, as Universal apparently sued successfully to have the film removed from theaters after opening week on the grounds it was a blatant rip-off of their successful franchise.
Having recently rewatched both films, I don't think anyone would confuse the two. Still, there are plenty of similarities. You have Vic Morrow (Twilight Zone:The Movie) as the Quint-essential gruff, shark-obsessed fisherman...
...the use of a tethered floating object to indicate the presence of the shark without having to actually show it (a floating red ball instead of a barrel)...
...the discovery of boat wreckage containing a floating body part...
...and a pier that gets pulled into the water after a couple of bozo fisherman tie a grappling hook baited with roast to it. Of course Great White ups the ante by loading the pier with people before it gets pulled out to sea.
Finally there's the shark's demise, an explosion (this one caused by the remote detonation of an ingested dynamite belt.) Smile, you son-of-a....
Okay, so maybe watching Great White was like flipping through a scrapbook of photographs from your half-remembered summer at Camp Jaws years earlier. But it has one memorable kill scene unlike anything Jaws has to offer, when our 35-foot friend bites onto the legs of a man dangling from a rescue helicopter...
...and somehow manages to detach them several inches above the point where his teeth actually make contact!
GODZILLA VS. MEGALON (1973)
I have to warn you up front, despite poster promises of a World Trade Center nature, at no point does Godzilla, Megalon, or anyone else wind up standing atop the two towers, or anywhere near New York, for that matter. I can only guess someone decided to include the WTC Towers on the poster because they happened to open to the public the same month as the film, August 1973.
The actual film is set entirely in Tokyo... and, of course, the lost, undersea kingdom of Seatopia (duh!) where exotic ritual dances are held every hour on the half-hour.
I have never been one to take my Japanese monster movies too seriously, even as a Godzilla-worshipping kid. Which is a good thing, because in a genre that already lends itself to silliness, Godzilla Vs. Megalon is as silly as they come.
The Seatopians have decided its time to extend their kingdom above the surface, and towards that end summon the monster Megalon, who proceeds to level the city of Tokyo with his hood-ornamentish head-mounted laser weapon.
But for reasons never adequately explained, the Seatopians also need the aid of a human-like robot called Jet Jaguar.
Jet Jaguar is the invention of a pair of scientists who seem to live and work out of a small art-space loft...
We may not fully understand how the Seatopians know of Jet Jaguar's existence, much less how the flying, fighting robot is necessary to complete their plan of world domination, but one thing is certain: at some point, the robot and the monster are gonna fight!
Jet Jaguar is presented as a sophisticated robot, so complex it can actually program itself to expand its own powers, and yet it receives instructions through cardboard punch-cards!
And even though Jet Jaguar can move and think for itself, it lacks the power of speech, and is forced to communicate in clumsy hand-motions resembling football referee signals. Man, I wish I had a translation key so I could learn Jet Jaguar's arm talkin'.
Eventually Godzilla enters the picture, fighting for the good guys alongside Jet Jaguar, with cartoonish moves right out of a professional wrestling ring. And in what has to be one of the most outlandish moments in all of Godzilladom, the big lizard dispatches Megalon with a tail-sliding maneuver never seen before or since.
Empire of the Ants, Food of the Gods, Great White/The Last Shark and Godzilla vs. Megalon are all available on DVD as of this writing.
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