Director Kenji Fukasaku is known for his gritty yakuza films and boundary-pushing social commentary, and also for flicks with little kids in green rubber suits pretending to be alien slime. Over the decades, Fukasaku’s reputation flourished, not because of his 1968 sci-fi romp The Green Slime, but rather in spite of it. Plagued with bad reviews from the moment it was released, Green Slime languished for years in the U.S. in a rarely-shown, nearly unwatchable print, forgotten except by a few people who only remembered the psychotronic theme song and aliens that looked like sentient gherkins. Though Green Slime recently saw widescreen release on MOD DVD, the studio marketed it as so-bad-it’s-good, expecting sales only from those wanting a cheap ironic laugh.
The curious thing, though, is that the flaws of The Green Slime are often the same found in B-grade sci-fi movies that are beloved precisely because of their cheesy earnestness. There are lights blinking for no reason and vague charts strewn about and delightful mispronunciations of sciencey words like “ass-TAH-roid” and “ah-ZEE-mooth.” Green Slime combines that soft science of 1950s black and white sci-fi flicks with the bright visual aesthetic of popular TV shows. Writers Bill Finger and Charles Sinclair had both written for “Batman” and were recruited specifically for the production. Also recruited was art director Shinichi Eno, who had just completed The Terror Beneath the Sea, another modernized, color-saturated version of a 1950s monster movie.
When one of those ass-TAH-roids threatens to collide with Earth, retired Commander Jack Rankin (Robert Horton) is called back into service to work with Commander Vince Elliott (Richard Jaeckel) in a desperate plan to destroy the asteroid before it destroys the Earth. Rankin and Elliott had been the best of pals until a few years prior when Elliott ordered a doomed rescue mission, losing several soldiers along with Rankin’s friendship and respect. Complicating matters is the love triangle between Elliott, Rankin and Elliott’s fiancee, Dr. Lisa Benson (Luciana Paluzzi).
One of the most fascinating things about The Green Slime is that the cinematic surrogate for kids in the audience is not a child actor but rather an adult, the scientist Dr. Hans Halvorsen (Ted Gunther). Rankin’s unlikable, overbearing manner is a pastiche of hard-ass military men who care more about being obeyed than being right, but that hard-ass is also a father figure, the archetype of the angry, unapproachable dad. While on the asteroid, Halvorsen finds a bubbly green substance and picks it up. As he sees a series of oozy specimens lying before him, he runs from slime to slime to find the best one, and when he does, he proudly displays his discovery to Rankin like a kid showing his dad a neat new bug in a jar.
Rankin is unimpressed. Short on time and with an apparent grudge against both science and fun, he knocks the jar from the doctor’s hands, causing some of the slime to splash undetected onto an astronaut’s uniform. Mission successful, the team returns to the space station where Rankin’s grouchiness quashes the spirits of those celebrating. He then insists the uniforms be decontaminated three times, at Commander Elliott’s protest. Unbeknownst to anyone on the ship, the splotch of slime feeds off the energy from the decontamination chamber, thus resulting in a league of slime monsters bent on destroying the crew.
As the disaster unfolds, Rankin repeatedly wrenches control of the station from Elliott, deeming him unable to handle the situation. What’s important to remember here is that this disaster is entirely Rankin’s fault, the direct result of his unprofessional behavior. No true professional would petulantly destroy a scientific specimen or usurp the authority of the base commander on such skimpy pretenses, yet that’s precisely what Rankin does. Rankin demands respect that he simply does not deserve and, thanks to the militaristic, highly-structured society of Green Slime, gets it, with only Elliott challenging his self-appointed authority.
So when he bellows to Elliott, “You’re not fit for command! You make too many mistakes!” it’s an ironic joke, one with a punch line involving the fiery destruction of an enormous international space station and the deaths of a whole hell of a lot of soldiers. Yet Rankin smiles as he flies away from the still burning base while standing over Elliott’s corpse, happy because he’s finally broken the one man willing to question him, and in the only way he knew how: by getting him killed. It’s a cynical thing, especially in such light matinee fare, yet it’s not at all unexpected from a director like Fukasaku.
There is a sharp visual aesthetic within The Green Slime, with some exceptional framing and distinctive sets. Seeing it only in an edited pan and scan version means losing the ultra-mod 1960s sets and moments like the “futuristic” dancing, where “futuristic” means jerking about like a poorly-oiled robot attempting the Frug. There is a sheer delight of color in the film, but the desire to create these tableaux means the occasional gem like the yellow and red air canisters that make the astronauts look as though they’re breathing out of truck stop condiment bottles instead of oxygen tanks.
The effects are often competent with the occasional fun gross-out, though any good effects are undermined by the failure of the unconvincing scale models. The set of the asteroid is stunning, as gorgeous as anything in Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), and though both films use models, in Crusoe they were employed sparingly and combined with matte paintings to achieve a sense of realism. In contrast, miniatures in the Green Slime were barely-disguised toys, with sloppy details and implausible physics.
And there is the small matter of the alien slime, played by children in lumpy green costumes with a single red bicycle reflector for the eye. Toho alums the Yugi Brothers and Akira Watanabe were responsible for the monsters and the special effects, but despite their prior work on classic creatures such as Godzilla and Gamera, the monsters in Green Slime simply disappoint. The first slime seen squirming and shrieking on the floor is effectively creepy, but when that little slime guy stands up, everything goes to hell. The kids might be convinced that these are scary aliens, but for the adults, there’s nothing left to do but laugh.
And that’s okay. The Green Slime is not a serious film. It was created to entertain audiences, to be enjoyed by kids and parents alike for an afternoon of fun. There is a simple joy in the bright colors, a lunatic hero and funky theme song. It’s not a movie to laugh at but rather with, to enjoy the exuberance rather than scoffing at the flaws. If we can love “Star Trek,” the Toho monster movies and the obvious zipper on The Creature from the Black Lagoon, there is room in our hearts to love The Green Slime.