For the majority of the year, I cover movies and shows from Japan and Hollywood. That’s just where most kaiju and giant monster films and TV comes from. But every once in a great while a different country steps up and says “Hey man, we got a monster too!” and I love that shit. It’s exciting to get entries in the genre from somewhere besides Hollywood and Japan, and the results vary from complete schlock to low-key modern classic.
This month I’m reviewing 1996’s Galgameth (aka The Legend of Galgameth or The Adventures of Galgameth), a Romanian/US co-production that lands right about in the middle of the schlock/classic spectrum. It’s a loose remake of North Korea’s Pulgasari, giving it yet another layer of… internationality (holy shit that’s actually a word?!) So what happens when the story of Pulgasari gets remade in the mid-90s, filtered through a couple more cultures and directed by the renowned auteur that mounted 3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain? Read on to find out!
Let’s kick it off with a look at the trailer!
Exclusively on KidMark Home Video! What a scoop! The trailer gives you a really solid idea of what you’re in for: straight-to-video kids’ fantasy with some crazy production quality whiplash and incessant burp “humor” (which we all know is the weak-ass wannabe cousin to fart jokes, the bad boy of bodily humor). Some parts look fucking radical (big Galgameth, the castle exterior, the charging armies) while other parts (little Galgameth, little Galgameth’s insane eating animation, some costumes and sets) don’t quite cut it. The movie’s extreme 1996-ness (particularly the color palette, billowy clothes, and precocious pre-teens) combined with medium budget effects and design work vividly remind me of the lavish but flat fantasy miniseries that played on network TV in the mid-to-late 90s. Remember those? Gulliver’s Travels (starring Ted Danson!), Alice in Wonderland (starring Deb from Napoleon Dynamite!), Merlin (starring Dr. Alan Grant!), The Tenth Kingdom (starring… Roy Batty and the guy from Night Court?!):
Those things were a big deal that nobody cares about anymore, and I don’t think it’s crazy to point to them as the precursors of the current golden age of big budget prestige TV. On the lower budget side of 90s fantasy TV, Galgameth also tends to look pretty similar to shows like Xena Warrior Princess and Hercules the Legendary Journeys. It’s fascinating that these things were the be-all end-all hotness in motion picture fantasy until Spider-Man, X-Men, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and the Star Wars prequels all blew the shit out of the box office at the dawn of the millennium. BUT THIS HAS ALREADY BEEN A LONG AND WEIRD TANGENT. What about this movie?
It’s directed by Sean McNamara, who, as I promised in the intro, directed the timeless classic 3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain. Wikipedia says he’s best known for Soul Surfer, but fuck that, he made 3 Ninjas + Hulk Hogan at a Fake Theme Park The Movie, so I say that’s what he’s most famous for. He’s also churned out a ton of tween sitcoms for Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel, which explains SO MUCH about why Galgameth looks and works the way it does.
Also in the intro I mentioned the official Pulgasari connection: that film’s director (Shin Sang-Ok) is given a Story By credit for Galgameth, but if you scan the credits, you won’t see his name! I was about to be pissed that he get shafted (credit is credit, man!), but it turns out he was going by the pseudonym Simon Sheen.
It’s also extremely worth noting that Sang-Ok/Sheen directed 3 Ninjas Knuckle Up and was a producer on Hulk Hogan In A Fucking Weird Wig For Some Reason.
The score for the film skews cheesy too, in (surprise!) a very specifically mid-90s way. 80s synth was all about icy, electronic, futuristic sounds: it was proud to be digital and artificial, and to my ear it still sounds super fucking sick:
90s synth on the other hand was working hard to hide it’s computery sound, trying to mimic different acoustic instruments to varying degrees of success. The goofy faux-horns and choir effects are what come to mind most vividly when I think of 90s synth, and Galgameth is FULL TO BUSTIN’ with ’em! I couldn’t find Galgameth’s score anywhere, so here are a couple of those 90s-ish sounds you’ll hear in Galgameth and most Nintendo 64 game soundtracks:
The music is by Richard Marvin, who’s done plenty of scores including U-571, Six Feet Under, Grimm, and oh my god two of the 3 Ninjas movies.
Galgameth kicks off with a band of knights storming a castle and pulling a floppy haired youth from his chambers. He tries to talk his way out of whatever trouble he’s in, tries to appeal to the knights’ sympathies. Oh boy, he must be in the deep shit!
Is he getting hauled off to a dungeon? To be executed? Nope! He’s the prince and it’s his turn to joust, but he hates/sucks at it! It’s a cute fake out and it sets up the character’s primary arc. He’s Prince Davin, and (spoiler alert that no one could possibly be surprised by/care about) by the end of the film he will successfully joust. Yeah, ostensibly the jousting arc is really about Davin discovering his bravery, inner strength, and confidence… but it comes across like it’s mostly about jousting.
Davin gets rushed out to the (smoke-filled, late night?) jousting field, stuffed into armor and tossed up onto a horse. His opponent looks pretty bad-ass in comparison, especially because Davin derps off the side of the horse before they clash.
Even though he flops off his horse like a jabroni, Davin still manages to knock his opponent off his horse, and holy shit it was
TJ Miller his dad the king!
By sort of winning at jousting, Davin has finally proven himself worthy of knighthood! In addition to introducing us to our hapless teen hero, we establish that the king is a swell dude, and that his “highest knight” El El is a laser satellite away from being a straight-up Bond villain. He already dresses in all black and seriously loves his cat:
Later that night (so like, 1 or 2 in the morning considering they were jousting in the dead of night?), King Dad and Davin are chatting when El El invites himself in to treat King Dad’s jousting wounds. El El of course has an ulterior motive, using this kingly proximity to make one last push for invading and annexing nearby Lovania, instead of granting them their hard-fought sovereignty. Even Davin is on El El’s side here, but King Dad holds firm: the Lovanians are a free people and will rule over themselves as such. El El is totally fine with this and goes on his merry way.
El El’s a creeper though, so he does his poisoning covertly by powdering the king’s bandages with poison right before applying them. El El peaces out after some delicious dramatic irony:
(impressed with El El’s handiwork)
You might have a new calling, El El!
(oozing with Professor Snape-style sneering evil)
You might be right.
Davin opens up to his soon-to-be-dramatically-dead dad: he’s worried that he doesn’t have the guts for knighthood. Dad, already starting to get woozy and dead-ish, settles in to tell the perturbed prince about their family’s guardian monster:
You know, Gelgameks! Wait.
Galgameth is a legendary beast that adorns their coat of arms and their signet rings. He’s also a little stone statuette that King Dad reveals and gifts to Davin. He tells Davin that Galgameth isn’t just a figurine and has the power to protect Davin and make him brave. King Dad starts fading fast, and tells Davin that “when [Galgameth] comes to life, it can only be destroyed by that which gave it life.”
This is one of the few important places where Galgameth’s story and lore differ from Pulgasari’s. Galgameth clearly states what brings him to life and what kills him, whereas Pulgasari keeps those details vaguer, more couched in mystery. Pulgasari’s approach creates a more emotional connection and mystical mood, but I appreciate the simple clarity Galgameth provides. With his dying breath King Dad wishes for Galgameth to absorb his spirit and protect Davin. This doesn’t bring the statuette to life, so “heartfelt dying breath requests” aren’t Galgameth’s kryptonite.
Dad’s barely gone cold when El El comes in and confirms the king is dead, steals the Galgameth statue, and shatters it in a nearby firepit. The royal family’s trusty maid Periel (gotta love fantasy names!) meaningfully saw that last part though! Intrigue abounds! Galgameth as a whole is corny and clunky, but the story itself is clever and engaging. All this low rent Hamlet/Lion King backstabbery is another important story element that differentiates Galgameth from Pulgasari. Galgameth’s villain has to sneakily usurp the throne, whereas in Pulgasari the powers-that-be are shit-heads from square one.
El El “graciously” offers to run things for Davin while he grieves. Surprise, not only does El El immediately implement shitty decree after shitty decree (tripling Lovanian taxation, drafting all boys 12 and older into the military, capturing Lavonia’s newly appointed king and queen), he blames it all on Davin, who the people haven’t seen in days.
The 90s kids’ movie-ness kicks back in when El El also commands that all dogs be kicked out of the castle. Not killed of course, just… escorted away. It’s a pointless, barely acknowledged sub-sub-plot that smacks of a KidMark Home Video exec giving notes, but who knows? Maybe Shin Sang-Ok was pushing for more dog scenes in Pulgasari and finally got his wish with Galgameth?
After a few days of “Davin’s” shitty ruling, Periel confronts him in his chamber. She pieces together that El El is really the one turning the kingdom into a fascist shithole and gives Davin the recovered pieces of Galgameth. Seeing the broken remnants of the Galgster shakes Davin out of his grief-fueled numbess, and he starts weeping for his lost father. Specifically, weeping (huge, loudly whooshing, cartoon) tears onto the shattered Galgameth.
Davin, still wracked with grief, crawls back into bed and misses out on the delicious mid-90s CGI caused by his tears interacting with Galg:
And this friends, is when the movie REALLY starts to get weird. Davin wakes up the next day with a chewed up soup spoon up his ass. A human might react to that by saying something like “What the heck is this doing here?”, “How did this get here?”, or even “Why is there a chewed up soup spoon up my ass?” But Davin, potentially revealing that he is not human, says none of these things, and instead chuckles to himself and states “Well, I got my appetite back.”
THAT AIN’T HOW FOOD WORK MOTHER FUCKER. NOT EVEN CLOSE. But we don’t get much time to process that because Davin’s sporting some serious morning wood:
It’s like something out of Eraserhead. They try to curb the (unintentional) surreal body horror by zooming in and showing us how “cute” micro Galgameth is. It does not work.
Sweet baby Jesus. You can see what they were going for, but they just missed the mark enough for it to end up grotesque instead of cute. He actually looks okay from certain angles, or maybe I just got numb to it after a while. Either way, he clearly looks like a malformed knock-off of the live action Ninja Turtles from 1990:
Or some distant (but equally upsetting) cousin to the baby from Dinosaurs:
I can pinpoint a few elements that make micro-Galg blood curdling instead of cuddly for me, but your mileage may vary:
- Permanent bedroom eyes
- Permanent, smug rictus grin
- Weirdly short teeth
- Big distended (pregnant?!) belly
- Ginormous pupils and irises
- Disconcerting body language
Unsurprisingly micro-Galg scares that shit out of Davin, and him freaking out scares the shit out of micro-Galg. It’s not bad but the moment would have been a lot more fun and cute if Galgameth himself was cuter, or at least ugly in a charming way. Micro-Galg is portrayed with a mix of composite shots, giant sized sets and a suit actor, and occasionally a small prop monster for Davin to hold or interact with. It all looks decent, but I couldn’t help comparing Galgameth’s serviceable set-and-actor shots to the masterful ones in Mothra vs. Godzilla and even Pulgasari.
Galgameth proceeds to cavort around like a dickhead. Moments and gags range from exhausting spazzery to unfunny attempts at humor to unearned tenderness. It all works visually, but emotionally and narratively it never lands. They try to wedge a heartfelt moment in between weird slapstick gags where Galgameth acts fucking unhinged, of course it doesn’t work. If Davin was freaked out just by the sight of Galg, why isn’t he scared of him ping-ponging around the room eating shit and breaking shit?
Yeah, you can’t reference The Creation of Adam (or E.T.!) in the middle of your wacky goof-around sequence and expect it to tug on anybody’s heartstrings. Galgameth also jumps on top of a mantle like a fucking idiot:
And then he super condescendingly rolls his eyes and shrugs his shoulders in response to Davin’s totally understandable and justified bewildered wonderment.
And then he like… fucks some birds?
Of course he doesn’t actually bang them, but look at how grossly satisfied he is in that last image. He seems awfully blissed out for just having non-sexually fought/chased off a couple birds. Like almost every second of this scene, it’s supposed to establish how cute and precocious teeny Galgameth is, but he just comes across like an obnoxious, Scrappy-Doo-esque douche. A Scrappy-Douche.
Sure the cat was sneaking up on Galg, and sure the cat belongs to El El, but by this point in the movie I straight-up hate this smarmy little creep: he’s not even close to having earned enough goodwill from me to be beating up animals. The cat “reacting to the punch” by running in the opposite direction is hilarious though. Galgemth’s vital introduction scene never connects the way it’s supposed to and it ends with me hating the title monster. That’s no bueno, but it does make the following scene unintentionally satisfying and funny:
Davin sticks his head out the window just long enough for disgruntled peasants to blast him in the face with cabbages and it is cathartically delightful. Between this and Periel chewing him out earlier, he realizes El El has been running the joint like a total knob-job. Davin confronts him and demands his throne back, but El El is like “No way in Hell-Hell,” and slaps the shit out of our hero.
El El follows that slap with some pretty bad-ass scenery chewing. He monologues about fighting countless battles for Davin’s dad with nothing to show for it besides a crappy ceremonial dagger inlaid with gems–gems that fell out the first time he drove the dagger through a man’s chest. Frankly that is metal as fuck and I can see what El El is so salty. Sadly that blood-soaked, gemless dagger never makes an appearance in-movie: it would have been a good, scary call-back and Galgameth saving the day by eating it would have been a really satisfying, symbolic conclusion. Oh yeah, Galgameth eats metal!
Davin is bound in chains, thrown in a carriage and carted out of town, but the Galgster (terrifyingly) stows away on the carriage roof:
Galg does eat through Davin’s chains like in the picture above, but by the time he does they’ve already arrived at the… prison colony(? or just a shitty part of the kingdom?) they’re dropping Davin off in. Also nobody seems to care that he’s mysteriously unchained when they let him out of the carriage? I didn’t think about if for long because Davin’s immediately scooped up a disgusting man with a snotty mustache.
Boogerstache manages to grab Galg and throw him into his stew pot (replacing the unskinned, whole rat he was cooking previously), which leads to another fun metal eating gag:
Galg scares the bejeezus out of Boogerstache when he investigates the punctured pot, giving him a chance to find and bust out Davin.
Galgameth’s gotten bigger! Just like Pulgasari, the dude grows every time he’s eaten enough metal. He is exactly as creepy at toddler size as he was at action figure size, so Davin does the smartest thing he’s done all movie long:
I’m sure this was a budget/convenience choice, but narratively it makes sense too, and most importantly it’s a relief to not have to look at little Galg’s shitty face for a while. Our hero finds a horse and makes a break for it, bagged-up Galgameth in tow!
Unfortunately, I gotta cut the review here for now. Between the Thanksgiving holiday and some personal/work stuff, November slipped right through my fingers like a smug, pudgy, little metal-eating goblin. Click here for part 2!