Godzilla Battle Royale!

Ever hear of Jeff LeRoy? He’s one of my favourite film makers – auteur of Rat Scratch Fever, Werewolf in a Women’s Prison, Dracula in a Woman’s Prison, Creepies, Predator World and many more. And he’s actually a nice guy.

I first came across LeRoy when I was watching Creepies. It’s a sub-B movie about a giant spider. I say sub-B, it was obviously shot on a nothing budget, amateur actors, amateur effects, but for all the sub par trashiness, it was fun.

There’s a scene where the giant spider is tumbling down the Hollywood Hills past the sign. And I had this strange moment of dissonance. The spider was pretty tosh, pretty much a stuffed doll. The scale model of the Hollywood Hills was really good, realistic enough that it sold me, and for a second, I had the weird impression that someone was throwing a two hundred foot stuffed doll down the real Hollywood Hills for the shot. It was just a second’s flash. I’m not foolish.

But it brought home to me just how complicated movies are, how absolutely many moving parts there are to it, there are literally thousands of components, and you have to get every single one right. There’s so much to do, and it’s the stuff you miss out on that calls attention to itself. The audience can be very unforgiving.

But I was impressed by this one thing. The movie clearly wasn’t expensive, but it managed to do some things cleverly. So I found Jeff on Youtube, complimented him, and he sent me another couple of his films – including Werewolf in a Woman’s Prison, filled with gore, nudity, a near ludicrous plot, and an over the top sense of fun.

I loved it. And of course, in a movie filled with gratuitious gore and nudity, I listened to the Directors commentary, because that’s the kind of nerd I am. He said something that really hit me.

He said that what’s important about a film, whether it’s made for Five Thousand, or Five Hundred Million, is that it needs to make you want to keep watching every moment, it has to be interesting, it has to be entertaining.

If you’re looking at your watch, checking your texts, or just reciting the dialogue before the actor says it… it’s not a good film, even if it cost a billion dollars.

Werewolf in a Woman’s Prison was entertaining every single second.

Which brings me to the epic, feature length fan film: Godzilla Battle Royale, dating from 2014. Because my God, it’s pure undiluted fun to watch.

I like fan films. There’s something about them. There’s something wonderfully brave and ambitious about them. Something genuine and heartfelt. For any fan film, you know that it wasn’t a job, no one was cashing a cheque doing this. This was a labour of love for someone. They’re almost never perfect, there’s flaws of course. It’s literally impossible to get every single thing perfect. So you have to decide at the outset whether you’re going to be forgiving.

I’m a lot less forgiving of modern Hollywood blockbusters. Look, it’s simple, if you have more money than God, and you’ve hired the equivalent of a mid-sized town, and you’ve got people at the literal pinnacle of the game with years or decades of experience, and with all of that, you shit out something along the lines of Batman and Robin or Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom, then I’m not going to be forgiving. There is no excuse. If I’m checking my phone for texts or I walk out feeling like it’s two hours of my life I’m not getting back, I’m not forgiving. There’s no excuse for a dumpster fire like the most recent Star Wars Trilogy. None. There’s no excuse for a story that feels like someone squatted over a keyboard. There’s no excuse for boring.

A fan film which manages to be technically flawed, with glitches and blunders, but also manages to be genuinely fun and enthusiastic, entertaining all the way through. That’s simply a better film, even if they didn’t spend a hundred and fifty million on it.

Not all fan films are great. A lot are awful or uninteresting. All too often enthusiasm and hard work is no substitute for talent, creativity, technology and money. But I don’t mind. This is someone’s labour of love, and that’s a beautiful thing in and of itself, even if I don’t want to watch it.

But the cool thing is when you find one of those diamonds in the rough, when it’s great, or brilliant. When somehow, sheer enthusiasm, hard work, love and a bit of luck and gumption, and suddenly, you’ve got something that’s just a pleasure. Those films make them all worthwhile. Like Godzilla: Battle Royale.

Godzilla Fan Films are a particularly interesting breed. They’re all over the map. You’ve got a lot of miniatures and hand puppets, you’ve got stop motion animation, you’ve got line art animation, CGI, even full sized suitmation. At the top of the bar, you’ve got Toho level epics like Godzilla vs the Legendary Wolfman or Gamera 4. It’s a near impossible challenge, you’re trying to make an amateur homemade film about a city destroying giant monster. It’s not impossible, but it’s an uphill battle royale.

Which leads us, finally, to Godzilla Battle Royale. This is a full length feature move, by the way. A lot of Godzilla fan films are shorts, just for the sheer logistical difficulties, and a lot of the long ones are… is there a polite word for excruciating?

Not this one though. Full length and watchable. The brainchild of Bill DuBose, who wrote, directed, starred, produced, edited, and probably made coffee, over a period of four years, almost entirely out of his own pocket, without any crowdfunding whatsoever.

Here’s the story in a nutshell: A bunch of classic Toho monsters invade Tokyo and start destroying the city. Bad news, usually they only show up one at a time, but now it’s a full scale assault. Even worse, some of these monsters are dead and have been reanimated.

Tokyo’s secret civil defense force launches its special anti-kaiju Fighter Jet, Skyshark (or something) with a devil may care hotshot pilot (played by writer, producer, director, editor Bill Dubose), and special monster busting armament. But it’s pretty outmatched. Even worse, it turns out that the monsters are being controlled by an evil Space Queen. Ouch! That’s not good.

But heroes perservere, the aliens grip is partially broken, good monsters throw down against bad ones, Tokyo is trashed as the battle rages, the balance sways back and forth, but eventually good triumphs and the surviving monsters make their way back to Tokyo.

I’m quite sure that if I’d watched this when I was ten years old, this would qualify as THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER MADE!

But I’m not ten years old, so I only watched the whole thing grinning from ear to ear, thoroughly entertained every step of the way.

Why do I like it so much? A lot of reasons. First, it’s trading on nostalgia and fondness big time. This movie, the story, the monsters, is a loving tribute to the Showa era of Godzilla and Gamera films from 1954 through 1975. It’s a golden era, full of monsters, an era that veered from terrifying, to comic, to childish exuberance, which brought in monsters, space aliens, and crossed genres with naive abandon. There was a sort of free for all quality – were spy thrillers big, throw some spies into your monster movie, planet of the apes – throw in some ape men, sci fi was big let’s have some alien invasions, space age – astronauts, pollution it was all there. You never knew what they were going to come up with next, all with a stirring musical score, and no matter how ridiculous, everyone gave it their all.

It was a perfect era for giant monsters, they were just the right size. Monsters varied between 50 and 150 feet in height as they levelled buidings and crashed through Tokyo, and at that scale, you could just touch on the human stories, the scale was huge but realizable.

Later on, in the 80’s and onward, the buildings got bigger and bigger, Tokyo and other cities became labyrinths of these faceless, featureless, anonymous steel and glass towers, buildings several hundred feet tall, so vast as to be anonymous and impersonal. So they scaled the monsters up three hundred and four hundred and higher. And we lost a bit of something there, they were too big to relate to, it drifted towards abstraction. It’s hard for a human story to relate to a 500 foot monster.

So Battle Royale gives us a kind of Showa era scale, the monsters and the cardboard Tokyo they rampage through are just the right scale. The headlong sense of ‘anything can happen’ fun and inventiveness that we associate with the Showa era is perfectly captured in the wild succession of monster battles, alien invasions and plot twists which are both goofy and engaging.

And there’s no shortage of monsters. Off the top of my head, we have Godzilla and Hyper-Godzilla, Anguiras, Varan (unbelievable!), Hedorah (the smog monster), Ebirah (giant lobster), Gezora (giant cuttlefish from Yog Monster from Space), Queen Ghidorah, Zilla (from Godzilla 1998), Mothra, Mecha-Godzilla (third version), Zombie King Kong, some human sized ‘Alien-things’ or ‘Hedorah Slugs’ half inspired by Geiger, based on the Licker of Resident Evil.

There’s also Manda (Atragon), Maguma (giant walrus from a really obscure Toho movie), Gigan, Orga (Godzilla 2000), Biollante, Rhian (from Marvel’s Godzilla comics), Zigra (from the Gamera films), and G-Fantis (the Godzilla Fan magazine mascot).

Bill DuBose build the Godzilla suit, as well as some of the paper mache monsters. Jacob Baker deserves a shout out, for buillding Hyper Godzilla, Varan, Maguma, and the Hedorah Slugs. Chris Elchesyn made the Biollante and Queen Ghidorah puppets.

These are all monsters we have come to know and love from the movies, there’s a familiarity to them, this may not be the best Godzilla, but it’s Godzilla, and the sheer number of them, over twenty, their interactions as they battle and bounce off each other, it just takes on an exuberant life of its own. Toho’s middle to late era was always a monster fest, constantly bringing back familiar monsters, inventing new ones. This takes that wonderful novelty and nostalgia that the Showa era did so well and amps it up to 11.

I’ll be honest, these aren’t professional level costumes. They don’t look like actual animals, the way Toho Godzilla or Baragon do. But then again, a lot of the later Tokatsu for Ultraman or Zone Fighter, or Power Rangers don’t either. These costumes don’t look like animals, they look like re-creations of animals. Nobody spent fifty thousand dollars on one of these. They’re clearly homemade and handmade by fans with limited resources and money and figuring out how to do it as they go along.

Take DuBose’s Godzilla costume. It’s not bad, the dorsal spikes are wobbly and their edges are painted, they wobble like cardboard or styrofoam. There’s a visible square panel in the throat, so the actor can see where they’re going. The headpiece is clearly a head piece, you can see where the fabric of the neck drapes over the body of the costume. And as for the head… there’s this pronounced overbite. It’s the damnedest thing. Remember when Scooby Doo got a hillbilly country cousin, Scooby Dum. This is like that. The round head, big eyes and overbite make this sort of the friendly, inbred, not-too-bright version of Godzilla. You can almost imagine Godzilla’s iconic cry proceeded by a ‘Duh!’

I’m sure a purist would be annoyed, but it gives this version of Godzilla a kind of goofy amiable charm. The jaws work though, and there’s enough of a glare built into the eyebrows, that this monster can project basass convincingly. Besides, this version of Godzilla eventually morphs into a different costume, Hyper-Godzilla, who looks genuinely mean.

Hyper-Godzilla, that’s one of the cool twists, that you used to get from the old Toho movies. No build up, no warning, it’s just, Godzilla gets a new super power, live with it. In some more serious work, we’d object. Here, it’s just more Showa goodness. It’s one of my favourites, that and Zombie King Kong. Why is King Kong a zombie? Just because? I loved it.

Not all the home made costumes reach that level of charm, but they’re all competent enough. Someone went really mental with papier mache for the more inhuman costumes, that’s obvious, but it’s tolerable. And they’re all pretty much on the same level. There’s nothing so super polished that they make the rest look bad, or so awful that it take you out of the story. What works best is the sheer number of them, it literally overwhelms your objections. It’s like superhero costumes, you walk into a room and there’s one person in a superhero costume, it’s kind of ludicrous. You walk into a room and everyone’s dressed as a superhero… you just go with it.

The other thing that sells the monsters is the city. DuBose and his friends managed to find a very very large room, bluescreened the walls somehow, and they built a city in it out of carboard and styrofoam. Not just a few buildings, but a lot of it, dozens of buildings, roads, streets, telephone poles, a monorail. It’s a demented level of effort. Every time I watch it, I’m literally in awe of the amount of time and work that it must have taken to create that.

I’m not sure how accurate it is. Technically, the movie is set in Chicago, and the landscape of the battle is the (nonexistent) ‘Little Tokyo’ section of Chicago. There are a couple of vintage era Tokyo landmarks in it, I think. So it may be an accurate or semi-accurate representation of 60’s Tokyo. Or generic with a few touches. But it’s a wonderful amount of work. And it’s used as background and setting, so it’s unobtrusive, but it fills in the space wonderfully and gives real texture and presence to the monsters.

There were short cuts – there’s one scene where Zombie Kong knocks Godzilla into a building with some markings. I looked at it upside down, and it’s a cardboard box for the dixie cups company. The city is like the costumes – clearly not actual realistic, more representational. You look at it, you know what it is and what it’s supposed to be, but not photo realistic. But you know what? That works. It’s all at the same level – the city has that same representational/not realistic quality that the costumes do, so they fit together without jarring. The visual look of the film is consistent and coherent, so it avoids striking false notes.

It’s also shot quite cleverly. One of the nice touches is foregrounding telephone poles and lines, with the monsters rumbling in the background, a trick that grounds the action in a semi-real way, and also gives a feeling of scale and distance. There’s close ups, and high and low angle shots, there’s quick shots of stomping feet or yawning jaws, juxtaposition between buildings and monsters, or between monsters themselves. The cinematography breathes a lot of life into the action. It’s one of those things that people don’t notice, largely because it’s supposed to go unnoticed. Good cinematography is almost subliminal, you only notice when its bad. But this is good, very sharp, very clever, in many ways the most professional aspect of the production, apart from sound design, and more professional than some of the stuff I’ve seen in movie theatres.

So what we have here are a lot of very good solid baselines – excellent cinematography, epic scale, coherent visual look. And it’s enhanced by a lot of CGI. An amazing amount of CGI. Someone once told me that the original Blade Runner had a dozen CGI effects. It’s built up steadily from there, until you had movies with dozens and then hundreds, and then eventually its so ubiquitous that it’s in practically everything. I find that astonishing, just how much and how subtly its grown. So it’s worth acknowledging here, a ton of CGI used very effectively – beam and breath weapons of course, and fighter jet stuff, there’s some explosions, some composition with real buildings. But it’s also used with subtlety, in terms of the clouds of dust that accompany the monsters footfalls. I’m assuming it’s all cheap off the shelf stuff, but really, I find myself amazed again and again by how much CGI is accessible and how good the non-commercial, domestic user stuff is. There’s a lot of CGI Godzilla fan films, mostly short, some of them are utterly astounding, even photorealistic.

Finally, if this was just a giant monster wrestling match, I’d probably go away happy enough. Most Godzilla fan films don’t aim for much more than that. And if I had to level one big criticism of the genre, that would be it. There’s no human component, in the struggle to render gigantic monsters in a megascale world, humans and human scale gets lost. The idea of a hundred or three hundred foot tall monster gets a little lost because it gets caught up in its own milieu, the size becomes abstract.

So it’s nice to actually see people. Some, or much of the shooting was at the G-Fest Convention(s), and so we get the stereotypical scenes of fleeing civilians running away from the monsters. Well, it’s a stereotypical scene for a reason, it connects the audience to the notion that there are big awful things looming above us all. It merges the kaiju world with the one we are stuck in. In this case, it’s a bunch of convention goers running through the hotel yard, it’s not a huge crowd, and they’re not running fast, so it doesn’t really sell. I mean, me in situation like that, I’d practically be teleporting. But it’s there, and it’s both an affectionate homage and an essential part of the cinematic language of the kaiju genre. You lose it at your peril.

Filling the gap between civilians fleeing and monsters battling, is the military or paramilitary response, including our happy go lucky jet fighter pilot, and the alien invaders, all human sized and scaled, but integrated with the giant monster’s stature. Thematically and aesthetically, you’ve got some nice bridging which ties the thing together, and helps both the story and the monsters feel properly colossal.

The military response actually feels more like it’s from the Heisei Era. That was when the government was actively building all its high tech platforms and mechs to stop Godzilla. It was a lot less pronounced in the Showa era. Regardless, it effectively drives the story and holds the story together, gives it purpose and momentum – it’s not just about monsters running around randomly kicking buildings over, there’s motivation, there’s tension, there’s conflicting goals and objectives and a struggle of both the human sized and the kaiju characters to overcome each other.

The acting, costumes, the human scale sets or locations, none of these are great shakes. Particularly the acting. But let’s be serious, no one has been studying at Stanislavsky, there’s no Method, the script is inherently cheesy, we’re not recruiting Brad Pitt or George Clooney. What you get is regular people like you and me. But they’re not wooden, they get their lines right and speak them convincingly, and they bring enthusiasm to their parts, and that has to be enough. And frankly, it is for me.

Honestly, this is not the Greatest Movie Ever Made, I’m just not ten years old. There are plenty of flaws, and if you want to, you can stop dead at the homemade costumes, or the cardboard city, or you can dwell on all the scenes where it’s clear that the city is inside some conference room because you can see the outlines of the door or light switch in the distance. We are all used to the hyper-polished hundred million dollar Hollywood productions.

This is not hyper-polished. These guys didn’t have a hundred million dollars to throw at it. What they had was enthusiasm, hard work, the change they were able to scrape up from checking under the hotel seatcushions… that and genuine love, and more raw talent than they had any right to.

Bill DuBose is proud of the fact that this was entirely self funded, no kickstarter, no go-fund-me, no crowdsourcing. It all came out of his own pocket, both in money and sweat. Him and friends and supporters like monster makers Jacob Baker and Chris Enchesyn, Matt Frank who did the poster art, Kyle Gilmore who helped with the opening credits sequence, J.D. Lees and Paul Gavins, G-Fest organizers who allowed shooting, Akira Takarada and Robert Scott Field appearing as actors in human cameos, and other the friends and supporters.

It has shortcomings, and maybe these will stop you dead and prevent you from enjoying it, which would be a shame. Or maybe your MST3K side can lean back and laugh at those shortcoming, which I’d be fine with, as long as you’re willing to go a little further.

But this is a movie that you have to meet half way. You have to be prepared to go along to get along, to forgive, to just go with the flow. You have to open up to enjoy it in all its glorious silliness. And if you do that, it will reward you.

Honest to god, look at Legendary’s Godzilla films. Yes, they’re great, they’re beautiful, the monsters look real as hell – triumphs of CGI.

But the first one shorts Godzilla in favour of this absolutely uninteresting hero, after ditching Bryan Cranston, who then ends up in the absolutely right place in every single scene to be at the center of action no matter how contrived and illogical – so really, it should be titled: “Some Guy! Guest starring Godzilla”

And as for Godzilla King of Monsters, again, wonderful production values, top rate actors, but a story that makes my head hurt, about a painfully implausible blonde Hitler, and B-movie notions shoved at us in A-movie packing, with monster fight scenes that often verge on incoherent, and a loss of human scale.

Now, I enjoyed them both. I’m not slagging (well kind of). But my point is that these movies cost the GDP of small countries, and while they’re great, they’re also flawed. And to me, for half a billion dollars, these flaws are really hard to excuse.

Godzilla Battle Royale is flawed, but it’s budget basically amounts to leftover lunch money, there’s no way it can’t be flawed under these circumstances. And personally, I’m willing to look past those flaws, and maybe you should too. Because if you can, then what you get is a movie that on its own terms is as or more entertaining than the Legendary pictures productions. I really think you should give it a chance.

Sadly, right now, you can’t. After four years up on Youtube, it’s been struck by a copyright notice and is no longer available. The problem, as I understand it, is the use of some of Toho’s music. That’s a shame.

Toho is notoriously touchy about it’s intellectual property. They’ve torpedoed some crowdfunded fan film project. Up till now, this one seemed to fly under the radar. I think perhaps because it is so clearly a fan project. No one is going to mistake this for the real thing, obviously. And maybe the folks at Toho, if they’ve seen it, appreciated it for what it is, a loving and respectful homage.

I suppose that it might be re-flagged on some other site like Dailymotion. Or possibly some young composer might re-score parts of it. Or maybe it can get passed from hand to hand, or file to file among fans. I’d like to think that something this clever will hang around for a bit.

But probably not soon. One of the downsides of fandom is it’s narrowness and negativity. Sadly, Bill DuBose’s gotten his share of insults, mocking and hatred from toxic fandom, and there are unflattering comparisons to professional product.

You’d think that if we are united in our appreciation for something, we could be more open minded. But I suppose the good and bad are out there. The long and the short is that the creator’s feeling a bit kicked around. The project has consumed a big chunk of his life, and it can be heartbreaking to put that kind of work into something and get slapped in the face.

Nevertheless, it’s worthwhile, and I hope that it hangs around and perhaps finds a following. It would be a shame for something so much fun to be lost. It’s flawed and cheesy, but so what? So was the Showa era for which it is an affectionate tribute.