Yeah, we’re talking a low budget 1950s indie film today. In short, it’s our wheelhouse, baby!
Livestock are being mutilated in a small town in the mountains of California. Unfortunately, a man has just been murdered, and the hard headed sheriff thinks geologist Wayne Brooks did the deed. Meanwhile archaeologist Dr. Frederick Cleveland has just rolled into town with his beautiful daughter, Janet, on the search for evidence of Vargas the Giant, leader of a band of Spanish explorers known as the Diablo Brigade. What are the odds you think they’ll find him still alive? If you said, “100%,” then you win a prize.
What’s the prize? This freaking movie! Yeah, it’s ridiculous, but Vargas has been able to survive by existing in a state of suspended animation after having been entombed in rock or buried alive. Of course, local racist depiction of a minority Indian Joe doesn’t want the white folks digging up burial sites, so he tries to warn folks and stop them by scaring them off, but no stereotype is going to keep the good geologist down! Nor will we have any of those pesky feminist gender politics neither; Janet knows her place is making the coffee and not getting her head in a tizzy with science thoughts. She’s also totally down for being the damsel in distress to Vargas so Wayne can save the day and get the girl, including with some chaste but romantic kissing that implies they’re totally gonna bone the instant they’re off camera.
Look, we’re not gonna break any new ground here. If anything, we’re retreading some old classics while also reinforcing the tired stereotypes and roles that we still struggle with. That said, while it isn’t exactly progressive, the retreading is interesting. Vargas the Giant is a mean-looking man with Spanish armor, a massive axe, and a sneer that’s as cruel as his legend. He lumbers, he grunts, and he never speaks. He was probably revived by lightening. If you haven’t thought of it yet, he’s eerily reminiscent of the 1931 version of Frankenstein, and for good reason: Jack Pierce, the make-up artist at Universal Pictures who worked with Boris Karloff on both Frankenstein and The Mummy as well as Lon Chaney Jr. in The Wolf Man, did the effects for Buddy Baer, the man playing the killer giant Vargas.
More importantly, we get a few scenes that are reminiscent of Frankenstein, such as the giant attacking a young woman alone by the well in a way that reminds me of the child that Karloff murdered as the monster. Sure, there’s more screaming in Giant from the Unknown, but it’s still a lone female, isolated with a hulking brute, who ends up murdering her with his bare hands as if it were nothing. The final battle also occurs partly in a wooden cabin, where hero Wayne fights the killer giant in isolation, though this time it ends with the monster falling off a waterfall as opposed to throwing the good guy from the roof.
There’s no way around it, Giant from the Unknown has problems. However, it also gives us a lot of campy fun, the sort of thing that the 1950s B-movie is made for. The exposition is blatant, the social values and morals are old-fashioned, and the budget is cheap. It’s exactly the kind of thing that should be shared with friends, along with a big bucket of popcorn and whatever soda or booze you all prefer. In a hot rod would be even better, though I doubt you’ll find a drive-in showing it these days.