The Milpitas Monster (1975/1976)

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The Milpitas Monster (1975/1976)

Post  BoG on Sat Apr 03, 2010 2:20 pm

(MUCH OF THIS INFO IS FROM AN ARTICLE IN FILMFAX #117, APRIL 2008) Perhaps the ultimate independent film (and a monster film, to boot), this began as a project for a school teacher and his class in the small town of Milpitas, just north of San Jose, CA. Robert Burrill arrived there in 1969 to teach photography at Samuel Ayer High School. During commercial arts class in October 1973, the students were asked to develop a movie poster for Halloween. Burrill suggested that a poster called 'The Milpitas Monster' should be done; local artist David Kottas worked that one out; it was completed as a sort of homage to Godzilla & King Kong (it also reminds me of Man-Thing, the monster-hero created for Marvel Comics in 1971).

Then, the filmmaking class got the idea to do a short film based on this monster; they had seen the now-classic animated short Bambi Meets Godzilla (69). Burrill had just finished his master's degree in filmmaking and had a 16mm camera. There was then this convergence of events & people - it was the right time & the right place for a full length feature film to get made, in a small town in California. The local Kozy Kitchen restaurant was the next entity to get involved; a parent built a professional scale model of the place to get wrecked by the monster and another parent, a seamstress, made a body suit to fit the largest kid at school. And yes, the monster's face looks like a gas mask - which I believe it is. The resulting footage looked good to the new filmmakers and they sent it to local celebrity Bob Wilkins, host of the Creature Features show on TV in the Bay Area. Wilkins thought it was cute.

I remember seeing this footage because I watched the Creature Features show almost religiously back then; this must have been around mid-1974. This ignited the project even more; Burrill got phone calls from all over the Bay Area from people wanting to help with the film. The planned 10-minute short now turned into a half-hour film. It was community involvement at its best. Bob Berry, a professional musician, was willing to do the score for credit only. Burrill's next big contact was David Boston, a screenwriter who interned for Robert Wise on The Hindenburg film; Boston wrote the initial script during the '74 X-Mas holiday. Most of all, though, what helped the film was the involvement of the locals - everyone from the mayor, his daughter to the Fire Dept. The eventual big premiere - of a now 70 or 80-minute film - was very festive. My VHS copy is 85 minutes long, including a 2-minute prologue on the town's history.

Now, some background on Milpitas: the town was the butt of unpleasant local jokes because of how a nearby garbage fill's odor would drift through the town due to the wind direction; people would be driving by, sense the smell, and say "oh, we must be near Milpitas" (Wilkins himself joked about this on his TV show). The film builds on this sensibility and the overall concern with the environment back then. The monster is apparently created due to the local pollution, mostly in the water - the Bay (this has antecedents - Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster and remember The Horror of Party Beach in the sixties?). In Milpitas, it's a big monster, about 50 feet tall, and it goes inland to steal garbage cans, basically (or, what's in them, I guess). This causes quite a stir, to the point that there are protests at city hall due to a perceived cover-up or something. The main characters are a group of high school kids and a town drunk; this drunk is the only one who sees the creature in the first half of the film.

ABOVE: Bob Wilkins in his brief role and the only real actor in the film as a local drunk.
I think the humor was actually intentional, so this is a parody of the usual monster pictures. The townspeople call a monster expert/scientist (played by Bob Wilkins in a 1-minute appearance) who sends them an 'Odorola' machine - the one way they can locate the monster; the joke is that they need this gadget to find a 50-foot monster; no one else seems able to spot the huge creature except the town drunk. The film is poorly paced (very slow), with badly dubbed dialog/sound (almost unintelligible in places) and with pretty much non-acting all around (since most of the characters are played by townspeople). But, it's astonishing that this was done at all - a complete feature-length film with almost no budget, mostly thanks to an energetic young teacher and a lot of local cooperation. Burrill recalls that initial costs were about $6,000 and, as usually happens with these very independent efforts, another $10,000 was spent later for re-cutting the film.

The FX are actually a combination of a 'man-in-a-suit' (like Godzilla) with miniatures and, surprisingly, some brief stop-motion animation, thanks to another contributor,  graphic artist Stephen Wathen, whose hobby was emulating Harryhausen's work; Wathen also worked on the film Planet of Dinosaurs. The stop-motion stuff doesn't match the monster suit scenes very well but, again, it's surprising to see it in such a low budget film. Tennessee Ernie Ford was the original narrator but his agent didn't want him tied to a sci-fi/horror film, so Paul Frees, who did local recordings in San Francisco, was contacted. Even those who admire this film admit that it would only be of interest to those who live/lived in the area; however, I think this would be of interest to those who wish to see how a film created by novices/amateurs had turned out. BoG's Score: 2 out of 10
The film was finally given an official DVD release a year ago: MILPITAS MONSTER DVD at Amazon
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