In doing the research for this week’s column, I discovered an extraordinary trivia nugget: when “Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster” first played theatrically in the United States in 1965, it was presented on a double bill with the Elvis Presley musical “Harum Scarum.” One might pause to question the pairing of these titles, but at the same time it is hard to imagine the Japanese monster film playing on a double bill with some of the more notable releases of that year such “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” “Ship of Fools” or “The Sound of Music.” In any event, that double feature must have been a wild ride for the B-movie masochists who paid to see that pairing.
I also discovered that the film’s original Japanese title was “San Daikaiju Chikyu Saidai no Kessen.” Roughly translated, it comes out as either “Greatest Giant Monster Battle on Earth” or “Three Monsters’ Decisive Battle for Earth.” Either way, it proves the Japanese know how to make great monster movies but have no idea how to name them.
Yet despite its strange original title, “Ghidrah, the Three Headed Monster” is a significant film within the Godzilla series. It represents the first time that a kaiju plot is pegged to an alien invasion of Earth, complete with giant monsters being used for global conquest (or at the very least, downtown Tokyo and the Osaka suburbs). It also offers Godzilla’s debut as a hero – in all of his previous films, the Big G was the bad-a*s lizard with a mission to destroy mankind (or at the very least, downtown Tokyo and the Osaka suburbs – you may have noticed that Godzilla never invades Detroit or Mexico City or any truly funky metropolis outside of Japan).
The film also provides the first tag-team action of Japanese monsters working in unison, in this case the trio of Godzilla, Rodan and Mothra. And it introduces one of the strangest villains in movie history, King Ghidorah (who was renamed Ghidrah for the American release).
Ghidrah (we’ll use his Yank name here) is a flying dragon from outer space who consists of three horned heads atop serpentine necks that feed into a rather chubby golden scaled body. Ghidrah has two tails and walks upright on two legs. He (it?) has no arms, but has large butterfly wings. When provoked, Ghidrah sprays lightning bolts from his fanged mouths.
From an aesthetic standpoint, Ghidrah is thoroughly ridiculous. The creature’s flimsy wings look like they are going to tear at any moment, and the casual observer can easily spot the wires used to make the monster airborne. Wires can also be detected for moving the three heads and two tails. As scare-inducers go, Ghidrah is about as frightening as a lollipop. Yet for some inane reason, the powers that be at Toho kept bringing Ghidrah back in film after film to help various alien forces conquer the world. And in each film, the aliens get the hides’ tanned while Ghidrah gets flattened by Godzilla and his friends (most notably in the 1968 classic “Destroy All Monsters,” when all of the behemoths of the Toho studio gang up and kill Ghidrah in the most hilariously lopsided fight in movie history).
“Ghidrah, the Three Headed Monster” is a typically entertaining kaiju romp about a Himalayan princess who, through circumstances beyond her control, is taken to believing she is a prophetess from Mars. She actually has some talent for prophecy: her predictions about a monster invasion comes true when Rodan emerges out of a mountain, Godzilla rises from the sea, and Ghidrah pops out of a meteor which conveniently landed outside of Tokyo.
The only hope seems to be in Mothra, who is a mere larva in this film but who arrives on the scene with his own groupies, the tiny Fairy Twins (who are in town to appear on a Tokyo variety show!). Mothra actually tries to negotiate with Godzilla and Rodan (who are too busy fighting each other). When Mothra goes it alone against Ghidrah and fails, Godzilla and Rodan belatedly join the fight. The battle royale goes on for rough tumble, and at one point Ghridrah flies off with Godzilla and drops him onto an electrical tower (I’d hate to see the utility bill resulting from that). Eventually Ghidrah flies off back into space and Earth is spared. The Himalayan princess regains her sanity and the world is safe – until the film “Monster Zero,” when Ghidrah came back to Earth for a reprise match against Godzilla and Rodan (Mothra sat that one out).
The film opened in Japan in December 1963. The U.S. release of this film came two years later, with three minutes of footage cut and a few scenes rearranged. No one seemed to notice. Over time, however, Godzilla fans noticed that “Ghidrah, the Three Headed Monster” virtually vanished from sight. Whereas the other films in the Toho series have found their way into home entertainment channels, this film has been conspicuously absent. Even New York’s celebrated Film Forum had problems getting a decent print of the film for its recent retrospective of kaiju classics: it showed “Ghidrah, the Three Headed Monster” in an English-dubbed print with Spanish subtitles! The now-defunct Video Yesteryear catalog used to offer this title on VHS, and knowing that brand its video probably came from a faded 16mm print. Bootlegs of that can be found floating around.
Earlier this year, the Cine Vu label released a DVD of the film. Red flags went up immediately when the title was goofed up on the label: the Cine Vu package called it “Ghidra: The Three-Headed Monster.” I’ve not seen this version yet, nor do I wish to based on the coverage it has received. Jim Knipfel, writing for the weekly New York Press newspaper, said it looked like it “was lifted from a fourth-generation VHS.” An uncredited review on the DVD Today web site claimed the last chapter of the DVD does not play and that the writer replaced the disc twice and still kept coming up with the last chapter mishap. Incredibly, this blatant bootleg found its way into retail stores and even Amazon.com. While bootleg quality varies wildly, it is hard to recommend this particular version based on what I’ve read about it.
“Ghidrah, the Three Headed Monster” may eventually turn up in a genuinely Toho-approved DVD release. In the event that occurs, I might recommend picking up a DVD of Elvis Presley’s “Harum Scarum” to see what 1965 audiences endured when that double feature unreeled. And what a royal combination: the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll and King Ghidorah. Now if only Col. Parker allowed Elvis to star in Godzilla movies…
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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