In mid-December, The Film Detective released their latest in a series of restorations as part of their collaboration with The Wade Williams Collection, 1958’s sci-fi cult classic Giant from the Unknown. Featuring a new 4K restoration, the film was released as a limited-edition set that also included a Giant from the Unknown-themed magnet, bookmark, lapel pin, and a deck of playing cards, as well as a 13-month “cult film” calendar. Also included were an additional “mystery” copy of a recent Film Detective 4K restoration release and a one-year subscription to The Film Detective’s streaming app.
The set was available on both DVD ($59.95) and Blu-ray ($64.95) from November 19th, 2020 until December 17th, 2020. Most readers may be wondering why I am mentioning the box set well after the order window has closed. Unfortunately, due to a computer error (not mine) and slowed shipping caused by both COVID-19 restrictions and the customary holiday overload for the postal service, I did not receive my review copy until just a few days before Christmas. All that said, a standard version release is scheduled for January 19th of 2021. Pre-orders are now available at https://amzn.to/3aU9okH
For those who may be less familiar with the film, Giant from the Unknown was produced by Arthur Jacobs and Marc Frederic, and directed by Hawaiian-born Richard “Dick” Cunha. 1958 would prove to be a busy year for Cunha, as he would churn out a few other cult favorites, Missile to the Moon, She Demons, and Frankenstein’s Daughter. All 3 of these films would also be produced by Frederic. Jacobs would go on to produce “gems” such as 1974’s The Beast and the Vixens (about a horny sasquatch), 1991’s Nude Aerobics (exactly what it claims to be), and 1992’s Fertilize the Blaspheming Bombshell (you can do your own research on this one). Cunha, meanwhile, would move into television for a short stint before later reportedly opening a video store in California.
Giant from the Unknown opens to find that someone or something has begun killing livestock near the rock formation known as Devil’s Crag, on the outskirts of the small town of Pine Ridge, CA. Soon, one of the townsfolk turns up savagely beaten to death. Some of the older citizens believe the killings to be the result of some highly undefined legendary curse that plagues the town. The town’s lone Native American citizen, Crazy Joe (played by white actor Billy Dix), believes it to be the work of angry spirits, but he’s a drunk, so no one really pays attention to him.
While he isn’t ruling out any possible suspects, the sheriff (Western star Bob Steele) seems to place most of his suspicions on Wayne Brooks (Ed Kemmer – Earth Vs The Spider, “Commander Buzz Corry” of TV’s “Space Patrol“), a local geologist who had a minor run-in with the victim just a week prior. While there is no viable reason to believe Brooks had anything to do with the man’s death, the sheriff still treats him like a potential flight risk. Brooks, however, has spent the last 3 days in the mountains and is just as surprised by the news as everyone else.
Coincidentally, at around the same time, an archeologist, Dr. Frederick Cleveland (Morris Ankrum – The Giant Claw, Earth Vs The Flying Saucers), and his daughter, Janet (Sally Fraser – War of the Colossal Beast, It Conquered the World), arrive in town for a weekend expedition in the mountains near Devil’s Crag. Janet draws Wayne’s attention, which leads to an introduction with her father. However, Wayne is already familiar with the man, having attended some of his lectures. Dr. Cleveland, on the other hand, has drawn the attention of the sheriff, who warns the doctor of the serious incidents that have recently occurred in the area.
In time, Cleveland informs Brooks that he is searching for the final resting spot of an alleged giant: a Spanish conquistador named Vargas, whose legendary cruelty was outmatched only by his immense size. As he is familiar with the area, Wayne joins the Clevelands as a guide. As first-time viewers will slowly discover, the search fails to produce much of note for quite some time.
The film does spend time fleshing out its characters. Arguably, too much time as they all remain fairly two-dimensional. There is also some extra effort notably put into showcasing the generally uneventful expedition. While this may add some sense of realism, it surely doesn’t add any of the action found in numerous other (often better remembered) monster movies of the era. Relying more on a slow (really slow) build up of dread and suspense, in many ways, Giant from the Unknown feels more akin to a gothic horror tale than a matinee sci-fi schlocker. As such, this tonal shift may not be a welcome change of pace for some viewers.
The titular Giant, portrayed by former prizefighter Buddy Baer, doesn’t actually make his appearance until just over halfway through the film. When he does arrive, rising zombie-like from the ground after his “gravesite” is struck by lightning, it is explained that he has been trapped in suspended animation for the last 500 years, thanks to some mysterious mineral composition found in the soil. Thanks to make-up effects from iconic Universal artist Jack Pierce, this leaves our giant looking like the genetic hybrid of a rather unkempt homeless man and a rather unkempt statue, one that noticeably isn’t all that much taller than leading man Kemmer.
As Brooks makes his advances on Janet, the giant makes his advance on the small town, killing a young woman. Wayne is forced to prove his innocence for this crime, allowing Vargas an opportunity to abduct Janet from the campsite. Soon, a manhunt is underway for the monstrous Spaniard. Also hot on the giant’s trail is a mob of angry townsfolk, many of whom are brutally dispatched by the beast in the process, providing the film’s final act with a much needed dose of cinematic adrenaline. However, Giant from the Unknown ultimately concludes in what I can only assume many at the time of the film’s release must have considered anti-climactic, and doesn’t fare much better by today’s standards.
Giant from the Unknown is undeniably a little dull, but by no means is it what I would call a “bad” or “poorly made” film. In fact, it’s quite well-polished considering the budget, and is quite compelling despite the obvious attempts to compensate for the minimal special effects. It’s not quite the effects spectacle of a War of the Worlds or This Island Earth, nor is it quite as endearingly embarrassing as Plan 9 from Outer Space or the aforementioned The Giant Claw. It’s suitable viewing fodder for a rainy weekend afternoon when you’re just too lazy to do much of anything anyway.
In addition to the customary commentary tracks (contributed by co-star Gary Crutcher, film historian Tom Weaver, and others) and theatrical trailer, The Film Detective’s release of Giant from the Unknown features two interview tracks: one with co-star Gary Crutcher on his career in film (both on and off-screen), and another featuring writer and director C. Courtney Joyner (Trancers III, Lurking Fear) on the career of Bob Steele. While both are short, I found the interview with Crutcher to be the more entertaining of the two, but then again, my knowledge and fandom for vintage Westerns is extremely limited.
The transfer presented on The Film Detective release of Giant from the Unknown is fairly impressive. Brightness did appear to slightly waver a couple times, but this could have just as easily been an issue caused by my television set or possibly even a trick played by my own eyes. Either way, it’s never something that serves as a hinderance or distraction.
There also did not seem to be any presence of film damage, or at least nothing that I noticed. Overall, viewers should be pleased by the attention given to the film.
While Giant from the Unknown clearly isn’t going to win over all audiences, most fans of 50’s era sci-fi and monster movies should find enough here to satisfy, even if things do proceed at a slower pace than most of its cinematic brethren.