Sunday, October 9, 2011

Halloween Havoc: THE MILPITAS MONSTER (1976)

Damn, are we already a week into October without any horror reviews?  Who let this happen?  I blame management. We unleashed Halloween Havoc last year during the month of October and focused on slashers.  This year we’ve got a creature subtheme where we will be highlighting the claws, fangs and tendrils of horror cinema’s well-known and obscure monsters.  Kicking it off is…

THE MILPITAS MONSTER!  Truth be told, Tom should be handling this movie as the city of Milpitas, CA is right in his backyard of San Jose.  Located within Silicon Valley, it is a town that offers – according to their official website – “life @ your pace.”  And apparently this place was really cool in the 1970s as the whole town got involved in the making of a monster movie that started as a high school project.  How awesome is that?  And while the end result might leave a bit more to be desired, it is a cool back story and probably the film’s main claim to fame. After all, how many high school productions can you name that got limited theatrical releases?

The plot of this one is beyond simple – thanks to an overwhelming amount of garbage from the town, a monster grows out of the muck to attack the city (it may or may not have started its life as a fly; it is never really clear).  The monster has a craving for more trash and heads into Milpitas at night to chew up garbage cans.  If there is one thing you don’t want to do, it is mess with the garbage cans of Milpitas residents (Milpidie? Milpedia? Millipedes?).  “I had to buy two new garbage cans at $8 bucks a piece,” bemoans one angry suburb dad.  The only clues left behind are some huge footprints.  Soon the town folk are down town protesting at City Hall (one sign reads: “What happened to our garbage cans?”) and the Mayor decides to go to the State government for help.

Meanwhile, we are treated to the exploits of some of the locals.  “Crazy” George is the town drunk (played for laughs because addiction is funny), who is the only one who keeps seeing the monster. Does anyone believe him? Hell no, he is “Crazy” George the town drunk and, as Mel Gibson has shown us, drunks in California ain’t trustworthy.  We also witness the life of some teens, including the painfully awkward courtship between Priscilla and Jeff (aka Penguin).  The highlight of this blooming romance is them going to a carnival where Jeff complains endlessly about being nauseous and Priscilla wins an ashtray at a kid’s game (yes, an ashtray). When Jeff says he isn’t having a good time, she says he is a total drag and ditches him.  Also a thorn in Jeff’s side is local high school rebel Keith, who tools around town in his fancy 1950s station wagon with his cronies while smoking cigarettes.  Damn, someone get that man Priscilla’s ashtray. Anyway, this all builds to a high school dance where, in KING KONG-esque fashion, Priscilla is kidnapped by the monster and rivals Jeff and Keith are forced to work together (alongside every Milpitas emergency personal) to save the girl.

Created over a period of three years from 1973-1976, THE MILPITAS MONSTER is definitely one of a kind as it is the only high school production that I can think of that got an actual theatrical release.  And, to be honest, it is the film’s “making of” history that makes it so intriguing and endearing. Director Robert Burrill was the photography teacher at the (now defunct) Samuel Ayer High School and gave his kids an assignment to make a 10-minute movie.  What happened next was the whole town got behind the project and suddenly they were in the motion picture business.  Town shops opened their doors to allow filming, parents and kids made costumes, police and firemen offered their services, and even the Mayor tried his hand at acting by portraying the Mayor (he is so-so in the part, ha!).  It is an amateur effort no doubt, but an obvious labor of love for the community that translates to the screen.  The film itself is okay as it focuses too little on the monster and too much on other random stuff.  I can’t really criticize the acting as high school level as it really is. The VHS I have runs 79-minutes and that is painful at points.  According to Burrill, the original cut was 120-minutes (this longer cut was recently screened and will screen again this month in Milpitas) and I can’t imagine how more drawn out it is.  Obviously, the monster bits are my favorite and they really pulled off some great stuff for the tiny $11,000 budget. The monster is cool and there are some pretty impressive miniatures.  One effects crew member, Ben Burtt, went on to work with some dude named George Lucas as a sound guy and editor.  He has since won 4 Academy Awards, but is no doubt probably brooding due to lack of recognition for his work on THE MILPITAS MONSTER.

It is pretty wild to think of a community coming together to support a film project, but I guess anything was possible in 1970s California.  You’re not going to get anything that will be replacing GODZILLA any time soon, but the MILPITAS MONSTER is a fun little film and probably a total trip for local residents (that means you, Tom!).

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