Thursday, January 21, 2010

Random Movie Report #73: Frankenstein Conquers the World

DVD cover and Amazon link
Enough of this! Politics begone! Time for monsters!

Despite having one of the greatest titles you could possibly give a film, FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD is surprisingly obscure. It’s one of Toho’s lesser-known monster epics from the mid-60s, another Honda film; this is becoming a thing with me, and why not? Like I said, they consistently made good genre flicks with a lot of imagination, and the films hold up astoundingly well. Anyhow, this one rumbled around on TV for a while but was hard to find on video, but the Tokyo Shock DVD gives us both the American and Japanese versions of the picture, plus extras. The film itself is engagingly weird, if not very well paced, and it features some interesting twists on the classic formula.

The film opens in Germany in 1945, where Axis scientists studying the heart of the Frankenstein monster (yep, he was real), have it transferred to Japan just ahead of the Allied advance; there, they hope to use the creature’s apparent immortality to grant a similar condition to soldiers. Unfortunately, the lab is in Hiroshima, and the first A-Bomb is dropped before any work can get started. Over a decade later, Dr. James Bowen (Nick Adams), Dr. Yuzo Kawaji (Tadao Takashima), and Dr. Sueko Togami (Kumi Mizuno) are working at Hiroshima’s institute for studying the effects of radiation, which includes ministering to people who still have lingering sickness from the original blast. Togami runs across a strange feral child (Koji Furuhata) running through the city, and helps bring him in to the institute, where the big forehead eventually gives him away; he is somehow the result of the irradiation of the Frankenstein heart, and apart from eating by the truckload and being easily angered, he’s also growing constantly. He breaks free, and near the same time, a series of strange disasters are reported around Japan. Ironically, most of these are not Frankie’s fault, but can be blamed on a subterranean dinosaur monster named Baragon, who’s taken to eating people, livestock, etc. It’s not really until the end of the film that the two actually face off, but suffice it to say it’s an epic confrontation.

Takes a while to get there, though. The film suffers from a strangely bloated feel, moving along very deliberately as the new Frankenstein monster is suspected of causing various horrific incidents around the country. We know better, and so did the original audience, as this was billed in Japan as “Frankenstein vs. Baragon”. There is some conflict between Bowen and Togami on one side, who think the Frankenstein child is fundamentally non-aggressive, and Kawaji who sees him as a danger, but even with this to sustain the plot it feels unnecessarily slow. The film isn’t that long, but the rhythm is a little languid. I actually wonder if the American version, which I haven’t watched yet, isn’t a little tighter- Henry G. Saperstein, who supervised the import of this as well as many other Toho films, understood that his audience expected things to go a little faster. I may update the post if I get around to seeing it. Watch this space.

On the upside, the film features some decent character work, the three scientists having a nice dynamic. Having an American in the lead in a story that directly builds on the Hiroshima bombing makes for an interesting dynamic; Bowen is an idealist, trying to make some good come of this situation, and even in the monster he sees something like hope, since the creature can regenerate tissue and regrow lost limbs. It’s bound to end in tears, but the dedication of the main characters does help drive the plot.

Baragon is an oddly popular beast, considering how infrequently he’s worked; after this he made a short appearance in DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, but that was it until 2001, when he rounded out the cast of GODZILLA MOTHRA KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTERS ALL-OUT ATTACK. Though he’s not that far off from Godzilla himself, what with the fire breath, scaly skin, and hatred for humanity, he does develop his own personality, and the design is interesting as well. I like the ornamentation that the classic Toho monsters have, frills and horns and all- for some reason this has fallen out of fashion.

The Frankenstein monster (who is just referred to as Frankenstein throughout, but dammit, I have standards) is well-acted, and it’s neat to see a human being traipsing around Eiji Tsubaraya’s elaborate miniature sets, even under makeup. Both monsters are actually smaller than most of the Toho stable, which means the sets can be built to a larger scale and detailed more closely, and that Furuhata isn’t sweating under 200 pounds of rubber means the fight scenes are more kinetic than usual. A lot of the slowness of the film can be forgiven by the fiery awesomeness of its final battle, as well as the eerie mood created throughout.

Toho’s Frankenstein monster never resurfaced, though the story formed the basis for the earlier-reviewed WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS; I guess the problem with classic horror characters is they’re hard to slap a trademark on. Still, his one appearance is a memorable one, a genuine curiosity of a film hampered only slightly by being a bit dull in places. It’s not so much a “must-see” picture as a “this I gotta see” one, and on that level it delivers.

Vaguely inspired by the novel “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley
Screenplay by Kaoru Mabuchi
Directed by Ishiro Honda

Grade: B+

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