Sunday, January 22, 2012
Oddball Film Report: FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD (1965)
The legend of Dr. Frankenstein has been one of the most enduring tales in the world's collective pop culture. It was a massive best-seller in print, a success on the stage, and was one of the earliest horror stories adapted to the screen. A year seldom goes by since Universal's definitive 1931 release that a new Frankenstein film doesn't get made or released. The Frankenstein Monster is as much a part of American halloween decoration as Santa Claus is to Christmas festivities. And like Santa Claus, Frankenstein and his monster get endlessly updated, altered, and tinkered with as each new story tries to be at least somewhat novel compared to the countless versions that came before.
Picking a single candidate for Weirdest Frankenstein Film is just asking for trouble. Among others, some obvious candidates include JESSE JAMES MEETS FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, FRANKENSTEIN 1970, FRANKENSTEIN'S DAUGHTER, I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN, BLACKENSTEIN, FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN, FRANKENSTEIN'S CASTLE OF FREAKS, FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN (in 3D yet!), FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE SPACE MONSTER, a version starring Mr. Magoo (!), and numerous 'adult' takes on the material.
Still, you could make a strong case for FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD. After all, only the Japanese would depict the Frankenstein monster as a giant caveman that can grow back missing limbs and fights a fire-spitting dinosaur!
The story goes that Toho Pictures in Japan was looking for another project for Godzilla to star in. They also wanted to do their own version of the Frankenstein characters. Reportedly, Toho planned to sequel their 1962 hit THE HUMAN VAPOR with a story in which the titular vapor-man goes to Dr. Frankenstein for help in reviving his dead lover! That same year, Toho had bought the story for "King Kong vs Frankenstein" from John Beck (who more or less stole the the idea from Willis O' Brien, who had been trying to get the picture made since the 30's). Thinking the project a good chance to bring Godzilla back, Toho substituted the Big Blue Dinosaur for the Frankenstein monster. Supposedly, it was dropping Frankenstein from one picture that made them eager to use the character in another film.
Following the success of GODZILLA VS THE THING in 1964, plans were made to team Frankenstein's monster with Toho's top star. "Godzilla vs Frankenstein" was a bare-bones treatment that eventually evolved into our current subject. This time, though, on the way to the screen, Godzilla found himself replaced by a new monster! Assuming Toho had the same casting in mind, Godzilla still got a chance to work with American actor Nick (The Rebel) Adams in 1965's MONSTER ZERO (which, for some reason went unseen in the States until 1970, when it played double bill with THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS -another Toho production starring an American actor, Russ Tamblyn). The substitute monster, Baragon, meanwhile, became the workhorse of the effects department as the suit was durable enough to withstand constant use and redress for multiple television series. When the suit was called for use in another Godzilla movie in 1968, it had finally been beaten up enough to warrant construction of a whole new costume. Said costume, though, wasn't ready in time and Baragon had to be substituted with another beast (Gorosaurus from KING KONG ESCAPES, 1967). The new Baragon suit can only be briefly glimpsed in the final film, DESTROY ALL MONSTERS.
FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD is typical Toho of the period. Outlandish, breathlessly paced, yet fun and entertaining, the film remains much, much better than one would expect from any plot synopsis. The cast is packed with familiar faces, and the technical crew is mostly the same team that has been in place since GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS. Akira Ifukube offers one of his most stirring scores, for example, although he actually starts us off with an impressively somber track as we open our story toward the end of Word War 2....
For some reason, about the time of Germany's surrender, the Nazis had the still-beating heart of the Frankenstein monster turned over to the Japanese. The object eventually reached a medical center in Hiroshima. Either the trip took months, or we jump ahead at this point, because suddenly the Enola Gay is flying overhead and the city is quickly vaporized. (It might be worth noting, too, that the A-bomb being dropped didn't come as the surprise indicated here. The Allies gave much advanced notice in order to limit the number of lives lost in the attack, although there was just as much doubt from the Imperial Japanese that the bomb would actually BE dropped. The result was one of the most devastating attacks on an enemy in any war, and the event changed warfare itself. Another thing worth noting that is often overlooked, is that the A-bomb actually saved countless thousands of lives. The predicted outcome of an expected land assault would have spelled disaster for both sides. Weirdly, the ultimate outcome of the Hiroshima bombing was a positive one, as it brought about a swift end to the war and American occupation over the next decade shaped Japan into one of the most powerful economic entities in history. Lest I be unfairly attacked for this statement, that is in no way meant to diminish the horror of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. For the record, though, the aftermath of those bombings has been greatly exaggerated.)
Jump ahead to 1965. The city now houses a center devoted to radiological research. The chief of staff of this institute is Dr. James Bowen (Nick Adams). Bowen and scientist lady-friend Sueko (the delectable Kumi Mizuno) discover a wild boy running around the city and eating small animals. One older character makes note of the fact that there were children like this after the War, who would eat anything they could get their hands on. The basic premise here is one which is the subject of much debate, and there is little evidence to support either theory. This child is our new incarnation of the Frankenstein monster.
Now, where did this boy come from? There are two schools of thought on this, and neither explanation is specifically mentioned in the movie. Either the heart of Frankenstein regenerated into a new creature, or the wild boy found and ate Frankenstein's heart and the organ took over the entire body. Either possibility opens the doors to numerous questions. Let's say we go with the "wild boy eating the heart" idea. Okay, how was the heart not vaporized in the blast? How did the boy find it before the authorities? It would seem eating the heart counteracted the radioactivity the boy's body was subjected to, but where has he been in the 20 years since the end of the War? Why has he not aged in that time? Why would the full mutation wait until 20 years to begin?
Onto the other theory which I support, though not without reservations. We are told that the heart requires a steady supply of protein to keep it beating. Say it did survive the bomb, and the fallout caused the object to grow into a new being. What was the heart converting into the mass required to make a whole body? How was it able to do this without protein? Why did this process take 20 years? Where was this organism hiding for two decades before it emerged a ravenous child with a taste for small animals? Let's say the bomb triggered the heart to go into a state of suspended animation until far more recently, what sudden rush of protein caused the quick growth? Where has the heart been all this time?
And let us step back and examine the simple thesis here. Dr. Frankenstein sewed together parts of dead bodies and charged the new body with electricity. This resulted in a monster that we are told could re-grow severed limbs! "Frankenstein was actually killed many times over" we are told, "but the creature always returned to life!" First, how did the monster become reduced to a living heart? How does a human heart super-charged with electricity make for a creature that can regenerate itself like a starfish? And then how does exposure to the A-bomb cause the same creature to increase in overall size?
At any rate, Bowen and his staff capture the child and take him to the center for study. Now getting a steady diet of food, the boy begins to grow into a man, and beyond! In short order, Frankenstein grows into a 20 foot giant who must be kept caged in the institute's basement. At his continuing pace, however, no cage will be able to hold him and plans are made to move him to a sanctuary for further study. Bowen's right hand man, Dr. Kowaji (Tadao Takashima), meanwhile, has traveled to Germany to speak with an old scientist who has an idea as to the boy's origin (we opened the movie seeing this same scientist being forced to turn over Frankenstein's heart to the Nazis).
The scientist tells Kowaji that the only way to know if the boy is really "Frankenstein" is to cut off his arms or legs. If they grow back, its Frankenstein! [Was this regeneration subplot cooked up to justify why the Monster was always escaping death in his many movie appearances? It was an odd choice, given that the monster always survives intact. For instance, the Monster falls into a sulfur pit at the end of SON OF FRANKENSTEIN. When we meet up with him again in GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, Ygor finds the Monster in the dried up beds, exposed by an earthquake. In HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, the Monster wanders into quicksand, and emerges from the mud in HOUSE OF DRACULA, each time intact! (Although the location of his demise/discovery often fails to match up, as was also a habit with Kharis the Mummy.) In fact, I can't recall that the Monster was ever dismembered prior to 1970's DRACULA VS FRANKENSTEIN, so I'm not sure where the writers got this idea. The Monster was always indestructible, but he never lost any limbs.]
Kowaji becomes obsessed with the Frankenstein idea and plans to amputate one of Frankenstein's limbs, much to the displeasure of Sueko, who has developed a bond of sympathy with the giant. Kowaji readies his experiment after hours, but is interrupted by a newsreel crew come to film Frankenstein. Kowaji objects when the stage lights make Frankenstein outraged, but you know reporters and caged/chained monsters! Frankenstein escapes, and destroys a couple of squad cars in the process.
Frankenstein manages to melt into the wilderness and avoid recapture. Meanwhile, a giant dinosaur that burrows through the earth has appeared, and it has quite the appetite! With the body-count rising, the military is convinced Frankenstein is doing all the eating. Bowen and his crew know better, though Frankenstein does require untold amounts of protein, so things aren't looking good for our heroes! (In a side-plot, Frankenstein lost one of his hands in the escape by yanking the shackle off his wrist, which was already too small for him. The hand is later discovered and kept alive in a protein solution, until it escapes and dies. Kowaji wants to reclaim Frankenstein even more after the loss of this specimen, while Bowen and Sueko are trying to make a way for Frankenstein to live alone in the mountains.)
I won't go into any more plot detail than that, except to say you can expect what may be Toho's most savage and exciting monster duel!
Nick Adams and Kumi Mizuno remain one of the most popular romantic leading couples in all of Toho's stable. The pair are also seen in MONSTER ZERO, and the sadly obscure spy film THE KILLING BOTTLE (which, word has it, was dubbed for US release TWICE but never made it into theaters). Adams, known for self-destructive behavior (though blessed with a charm and likability few actors can claim), fell for Mizuno and tried to start an affair with her. Mizuno said "no" but Adams ruined his own marriage to actress Carol Nugent. He later died of a drug overdose in 1968, but the incident is the cause of much controversy. Many believe he was murdered, others believe it was suicide, while still others believe it to have been a tragic accident. He remains best known for playing Johnny Yuma on the teleseries The Rebel.
A "sequel" of sorts was produced, and released state-side as THE WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS (where any connection to "Frankenstein" was dropped). Kumi Mizuno was back, although the American actor enlisted for this epic was former child star Russ Tamblyn, playing Dr. Paul Stewart. In that film, the scientists in question had a baby "gargantua" in captivity for a short time, which later escaped. When a voracious flesh-eating giant appears, the authorities believe it to be the same creature Stewart's team had examined, while Stewart and his friends fight to prove that their Gargantua isn't responsible. The Gargantuas also regenerate lost flesh (although the cells of these creatures never die, meaning that any sizable chunk of them can grow into a whole new monster, just like REPTILICUS). Thematically, a very similar picture.
FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD, meanwhile, remains a curious picture. Very good, but very strange, the film didn't spawn a series of Japanese Frankenstein films (although more or less every Toho film that got released in Germany had the title changed to reference Frankenstein! GODZILLA VERSUS THE SEA MONSTER for example, saw German release as FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM THE SEA!). Given Frankenstein's ability to survive anything, and a character noting we are sure to hear from the giant again some day, it seems weird that a more official follow-ups didn't occur.
I should, of course, mention that the film once ended with Frankenstein doing battle with a giant octopus! Perhaps realizing how bizarre this element seemed (even for THIS movie), the entire segment was dropped prior to release. The footage was restored to the Japanese print for a 1980's Japanese laserdisc release. It has since become standard to include this version in Japanese studies. The AIP release, meanwhile, despite being a staple on American television in the 70's, 80's, and early 90's, has become rather hard to obtain. I find this situation irksome, and await remedy.
The only official release on the young medium of DVD largely uses footage from the Japanese print with the US dub laid over it. This results in some missing footage, as Toho actually filmed some scenes differently for the US release! (The scenes are included in cropped format as extras, a very disappointing release.) ----For GODZILLA VS THE THING, by the way, American audiences actually got an entire scene featuring The Big Blue Dinosaur that wasn't included in the Japanese version!
In the end, FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD does a really good job of holding the viewer despite some wildly wacky plot threads. Let's be extremely generous and say that the Frankenstein monster can grow into a giant cave-man. Okay, but really, a dinosaur?
You've gotta love this movie.