Discovering The Milpitas Monster

The Milpitas MonsterWill called me the other day to tell me that he and his wife had discovered a film I might like, The Milpitas Monster. They had seen part of the film, but couldn’t take the bad sound quality and turned it off. I went onto YouTube and found the whole film and watched it. I’ve watched it three times now. And I ordered it on DVD. The truth is that the bad sound and video quality are due to the transfer, not the film itself. Just see the trailer below.

But as I watched the film, I was thinking about why I have so much respect for low and no budget films. It’s because it is really hard to make a film. I mean: really. I’m sure I’ve talked about this to some extent before. I once made a short (10 minute) film that got to the first-cut stage. So I know what it is like. For example, suppose you want to film some random people walking into a building. The first couple of times you can probably do it, because you’ll ask your friends. But then you run out of them. And frankly, I never found friends to be that helpful.

How These Films Get Made

A great example of this was one really simple shot: the main character drives up in front of a hotel. The doorman comes out and opens the car door, then refuses a tip. It took us several attempts to get a doorman to do it. I think I tipped the one guy who would ten bucks. But we had to time the whole thing right so it didn’t interfere with the hotel’s customers. The whole thing — after finding a doorman who would do it — took two hours. Most of it was just standing around.

That’s a lot of work for about seven seconds of MOS film.

The Milpitas Monster Does More

But whenever I see something like a police car in a low budget film, I’m always amazed. Where do you get a police car? Police uniforms? Well, you rent them. But when you are trying to make a film with no money, that’s usually out of the question. And that’s the first thing that really struck me about The Milpitas Monster. It not only had police and fire vehicles, it had a helicopter! (Last I checked, they rent for several hundred dollars an hour. Since everything takes ten times as long as you think is the absolute longest it will take, that would mean thousands of dollars.

Yet The Milpitas Monster managed to have all of this. And more. At about 10 minutes into the film, I was shocked to see that a garbage truck that the monster attacked is upside down. How do you do that?! That would be very expensive. It’s possible they did it with optical effects. And if that’s the case: that’s really impressive too!

The Story Behind The Milpitas Monster

Luckily, I learned how this $5,000 ultra-cheapie managed to do so much. It’s all laid out in an interview with the director, Robert L Burrill, in the book, Regional Horror Films, 1958-1990: A State-by-State Guide with Interviews. In it, I learned that Burrill was a teacher at the high school in Milpitas, CA. He taught commercial art, and I guess part of that was photography.

So one day, he got the idea of making a short (10 minute) film about some garbage monster. There were a lot of elements to it. It had models and animation, for example. They showed the film to people in the area, and the response was good. Burrill refers several times to people thinking it was “cute.” So they continued to work on the film, gradually making a feature-length version of The Milpitas Monster.

School Time to Big Time

Because it was a school project, a lot of people got involved. For example, at the end of the film, there is a list of almost 100 local businesses that paid $50 to have their names listed in the credits. But it was more than that. The city council was behind it. So the filmmakers got help from the police department, the fire department, and most especially the high school. Thus the film is a lot more visually diverse than, say, Death Bed: The Bed That Eats. (Just the same, Death Bed works in ways that The Milpitas Monster does not.)

I was glad to see that Burrill didn’t apologize for the film at all. He specifically discusses the editing and how the film does a good job of covering simultaneous action in multiple locations. This is probably the biggest thing that new filmmakers blow. And it’s important. You can put up with the limited abilities of the actors if the dramatic momentum is carrying you through the film.

I said that I ordered the film. It cost me 10 bucks. But if it is good enough, I think I’ll spring the $40 that they want for the director’s cut that contains 20 more minutes of film.

Different Films for Different Times

There are lots of times when I want to watch a professionally made film. It’s very hard for a low budget film to do anything quite like Dean Spanley. But a film like this, that involves an entire community over the course of several years? It’s totally unique. You’ll never have the experience of watching the first time again. None of the people who make these films are masters at the art of viewer manipulation.

It’s probably best to think of films like The Milpitas Monster as categorically different than professional films. And once you see that, you can pinpoint how they ought to be viewed. My problem is that people want to compare a film made by a bunch of young amateurs with $5,000 with the newest Hollywood blockbuster made by professionals for $100 million or more. Hollywood has exchanged authenticity for professionalism. And that’s fine. But more people should respect those who choose authenticity.

2 thoughts on “Discovering The Milpitas Monster

  1. I think it’s fair to think of low-budget movies the same way we would musical performers. If a listener wants technical skill of a certain level, they’re best off listening to something like U2. But there’s local talent at all kinds of levels, in all kinds of genres. And some of my favorite concert experiences were extremely low-tech. I’ve seen a cappella ensembles that blew me away.

    What a neat poster this film has! It’s a little hard to see in the thumbnail photo, but on the film’s website you link to there’s a clearer view. Under the title words, there’s backwards script reading “OUR RESPONSIBILITY IS TO STOP POLLUTION”. That’s very clever, to do it backwards.

    • Yeah, there’s a whole other part of the story of the film. The Milpitas dump was known to be very smelly. So much so that people made jokes about it. So this film was addressing that as well.

      What you get with low and no budget films is idiosyncrasy. That’s the kind of stuff that will never fly in a Hollywood film. And it’s what I find most interesting. It’s also what made A First Full of Dollars so amazing. Although I just watched The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and it really is a great film. But I would call the two dollars films psychotronic whereas I wouldn’t call GBU.

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