Ray Kellogg’s The Giant Gila Monster is a low-budget horror film set in Texas. It follows the experiences of Chace Winstead, a teenage boy who leads a very responsible gang of teenagers. Chace aids the sheriff in an investigation of mysterious car accidents that begin with the disappearance of two of Chace’s friends. Eventually, through the efforts of Chace and the sheriff, a giant Gila monster, which has mutated due to a thyroid condition, is found to be the culprit behind the disappearances. Chace devises a plan to kill the monster, which is impervious to bullets. He loads his hot rod with nitroglycerin and drives it into the creature. The ensuing explosion kills the monster.

The teenagers attend a dance in The Giant Gila Monster.
The Giant Gila Monster works to exonerate teenagers from the label of juvenile delinquent by illustrating that they are the virtuous alternatives to authority figures who are at best clueless and at worst willfully corrupt. While the film seems to start on a note of condemnation of teen culture, as we see Pat and Liz, parking in the woods to neck, killed by the Gila monster, it soon changes tone and allows the teens to emerge as the heroic force in the film. The film sets up Chace as an ideal figure. He works at an automotive repair shop in order to support his widowed mother and his sister (who suffers from polio). The typical scene of teens at a soda shop is the second scene in the film and here, with Chace as their leader, they are seeking only good, clean fun. Chace brags to the sheriff that he has controlled the other teens, commenting that "Pat’s the only one of the gang I couldn’t slow down" and reminding the sheriff that Pat is the only one of the group to have received a speeding ticket.

The disappearance of Pat and Liz causes the authorities to suspect the worst of the missing teenagers. This suspicion highlights a common fear associated with the emergent teen culture of the Fifties -- sexual transgression. In Gabriel Almond’s 1954 study of juvenile delinquency, The Appeals of Communism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954), he linked the American teenagers' desire to join the Communist Party with a rebellion against authority. This rebellion frequently took a sexual form. In a case study of a female teenager, Almond commented that "Joining the party made it possible for Frances to have sex relations, not because they gave her satisfaction, but because she could show contempt for the ordinary laws of society" (291).NOTE 3

The teenagers react in horror as the monster interrupts their party in The Giant Gila Monster.
The authorities in The Giant Gila Monster suspect sexual transgression is at the base of the disappearance when, in fact, a zoological mutation is to blame. Pat’s father, Mr. Wheeler, approaches the sheriff for help in locating his son, and the sheriff immediately suspects that the two young people have eloped, or worse, telling Wheeler that "If they were out together all night, you’d better hope they have [eloped]." The sheriff grills Chace, asking if Pat and Liz were in any kind of trouble, meaning sexual trouble. Chace denies this, but this suspicion continues to motivate the sheriff’s investigation. Thus, even though Chace continually helps the sheriff with his investigation, the sheriff remains suspicious of the motivations of teenagers.

The film takes pains to illustrate that Chace and his gang are much more responsible than the authority figures who surround them. Chace’s relationship with the sheriff makes it clear that Chace is in control of the investigation, and, in fact, Chace does finally solve the problem of the Gila monster. Moreover, every authority figure he is opposed to comes off negatively. His boss, Mr. Compton, does not know how to handle nitroglycerin, and Chace has to prevent an accident from occurring when Compton transports some to their garage. DJ Steamroller Smith, whom Chace admires, drives drunk and wrecks his car, so Chace must tow his car out of a ditch. Even Chace’s mother criticizes her son for spending too much time fixing up his hot rod, even though he is simultaneously providing admirably for her and his sister. Wheeler is the most flagrant example of malicious authority. Because he irrationally blames Chace for Pat’s disappearance, Wheeler uses his influence as a wealthy oilman in order to influence the investigation. The film's final scene illustrates Wheeler’s recognition that Chace has solved the mystery. Acknowledging that he is a poor example of authority, Wheeler returns his deputy’s badge to the sheriff and offers Chace a job.

The title character from The Giant Gila Monster.
Perhaps the most striking manner in which the film attempts to recuperate teen culture as admirable and non-threatening results from its portrayal of rock 'n' roll. In Fifties America, rock 'n' roll was perceived as a threat related to juvenile delinquency. In God's Country: America in the Fifties (New York: Dembner Books, 1986), J. Ronald Oakely discusses the fear associated with teen reaction to "Rock Around the Clock," a song that appeared in the 1955 film The Blackboard Jungle. Oakley states that "All across the nation, public school principals and teachers held special meetings with town officials to try to determine how to handle the young when the movie came to their town, and some cities dealt with the problem by banning the movie" (273). In 1956, a psychiatrist testified that rock 'n' roll was "cannibalistic and tribalistic" and encouraged wanton rebellion (Clark 69). The issue of race was paramount in many of these objections. For example, segregationist Asa Carter concluded that rock 'n' roll "appeals to the base in man, it brings out animalism and vulgarity" (qtd. in Clark 69).

The Giant Gila Monster reframes rock 'n' roll as a positive force in American culture. In one of the film's subplots, Chace pursues a rock 'n' roll career. Steamroller Smith plays one of Chace's recording for the teenagers at the barn dance. The teens love Chace's rock 'n' roll song, but they love equally a religious song he sings while strumming a ukulele. Earlier in the film, we saw Chace sing this song to his sister, who is learning to walk with her new leg braces. Thus, as the film argues, rock 'n' roll is morally regenerative, not degenerative. Therefore, when the monster shambles up to the barn dance and threatens to break in, it is important to note that the monster comes from outside the teenagers' group. The threat does not originate from teen culture, as many in Fifties America believed.

The Giant Gila Monster, then, works to remove the taint of the monstrous from teen culture by making one example threat to American society turn out to be a zoological freak of nature. One moral of the movie is that authority figures should learn to stop suspecting monstrous acts among teenagers and should look for the real threats in their society. Moreover, the film suggests that whenever possible authorities should use teenagers as their role models. Another teen horror film from the same time period also sets up teenagers as more vigilant than the adult authorities.

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Page One: Introduction  |  Page Two: The Giant Gila Monster  |  Page Three: The Blob
Page Four: I Was a Teenage Werewolf  |  Page Five: Monster On the Campus

Photo credit: © 1959 Hollywood Pictures Corp. All rights reserved.