Saturday, June 23, 2012

El Professore Movie Review: Frankenstein Conquers the World (aka Frankenstein vs. Baragon)

Frankenstein Conquers the World (aka Frankenstein vs. Baragon)

Director: Ishiro Honda
Starring: Nick Adams, Kumi Mizuno, Tadao Takashima
* * * 1/2

As a kid in the pre-cable T.V. daze of the '70s, I was always infatuated with Japan's giant monster films. I remember my heart would race just a bit whenever I would find a listing for one of these oddities and couldn't wait for the day it would air (usually either on a Friday night or Saturday afternoon). There was just something about these films that their American counterparts couldn't match (except for maybe a few of the Ray Harryhausen stop motion films, that is). They had a definate feeling of exotica that just seemed to strike a raw nerve at my young age. This hightened excitement on my part however, was sometimes met with a sense of confusion; "just what the hell is going on?" was a common thread that ran through my young and undeveloped cranium while viewing many of these films (it helped later on when I first heard the Japanese term 'Kaiju' and that it translated as 'Mysterious Beast' which kinda, sorta explained some of my bewilderment). Surely one of the oddest Kaiju Eigas that I was lucky enough to catch back then was this positively freaky melding of Universal's most famous monster and Toho's post WW2 fantasy sensibilities.

Full review after the jump.

Our incrediby convoluted strory begins in 1944 Germany where a scientist is working on the heart of the Frankenstein monster. With a pounding at his door, he finds his prize seized by the Nazis who are ordered to transport it to Japan (Hiroshima, precisely). Once there, scientists begin to try to learn from the ever beating muscle the secrets of life and death. Unfortunately, the allies drop the A-Bomb, wiping them from the face of the Earth. Amazingly, this all happens in the first five minutes! The film quickly settles down (with the cue card '15 Years Later' prominently displayed) and we follow the adventures of one Dr. Bowmen (Nick Adams), an American living in Japan. One night while he and his nurse/love interest (played by Kumi Mizuno who as fans are well aware, was rumored to be carrying on an off screen relationship with Adams). come upon a strange 'caucasian' boy (unconvincingly so as the actor is clearly Japanese) who as it later turns out is the Frankenstein monster (the heart survived the A-Bomb blast and grew a new body!). They attempt to study young 'Frank', but he slowly begins to grow, eventually reaching gigantic proportions (of course he does, this is a Toho production). He manages to escape and flees to the countryside, but not before leaving behind a little souvenir; a severed hand which detatched with his handcuff and was now living on it's own (it was reasoned earlier in the film that should Frank lose a limb it will grow back, plus the severed limb will take on a life of it's own). Around this point in the film, the giant sunterranean horned dinosaur, Baragon (again this is a Toho production) rears it's ugly (yet oddly playful looking) head and begins to dine on happless villagers. Initially, the murders were blamed on Frank, but eventually the truth is revealed and the two monsters have a long, drawn out battle that looks to have been the blueprint for the Ultraman series that debuted the following year. Originally, there was an extra ending tagged on at the insistance of U.S. distributor Henry G. Saperstein that featured a giant devilfish (an octopus actually) crawling up out of nowhere and dragging Frank into the water, seemingly to his death. Sapperstein so liked the idea that the U.S. title was originally to be called 'Frankenstein vs the Giant Devilsh' (no matter that said creature pops up in the last five minutes and doesn't fit into the rest of the picture). However upon seeing this print, it was decided at the last minute to scrap this scene and opt for the original Japanese ending where Frank simply gets swallowed up by the ground he's standing on.

There's no doubt about it, Frankenstein Conquers the World is one of the most gleefully screwy monster movies ever made. Just the very idea of a giant radioactive Frankenstein monster (though by the picture's end, he more resembles a giant caveman) is enough to make one's head spin. That it's portrayed as straight faced as it is just adds to the effective weirdness of it all. As goofy as it is, there IS something about seeing said giant Frank that is oddly creepy, if not downright scary (I personally always found giant humanoids to be more frightening in films than any giant mammal or reptile). Particularly effective is the 'escape from the lab' sequence which is the first time we get a good look at just how large he has become. The first shot of him behind the cage, breaking his bonds, dwarfing onlookers in the foreground is quite alarming. Credit director Ishiro Honda and effects man Eiji Tsuburaya as well as musical director (the maestro) Akira Ifukube (all three being major players in the Kaigu genre in general and Godzilla films in particular) for a (odd) job well done.

This was the first of three Toho films that Nick Adams appeared in (the other two being 'Monster Zero' again with Kumi Mizuno and 'The Killing Bottle', a detective satire that he apparently coproduced and one that I've yet to find). By all accounts, he was extremely well liked in Japan (being called 'a good guy' and 'a team player'). It's a shame that he died so young in 1968 from an apparent drug overdose as his portrayls in the this film and Monster Zero are charasmatic, heartfelt and carry a genuine feel of bravado.

Incredibly, a sequel of sorts was unleashed the following year. Known as 'Frankenstein Monster: Sanda vs Gaira' in Japan, it was retitled 'The War of the Gargantuas' here in the States. More on that cult classic (and fave Brad Pitt film!) next week.

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