Saturday, May 31, 2014

Random Movie Report: The Manster

Manster DVD cover

The story of Jekyll and Hyde is one of the classic horror tales, one of hubris and the inescapable animalistic nature lurking in the calmest of men. There have been many attempts at this material, but only one quite so bold as to set the whole thing in Japan and posit Mr. Hyde as a second head growing out of Jekyll's shoulders. Hence The Manster, a gleefully insane, sometimes weirdly adult, and generally not-ineffective take on the classic story. Of the many monster movies pervading American drive-ins and matinees in the late 50s, this has a distinctive character, which carries it through its slower moments.

Dr. Suzuki (Tetsu Nakamura) is a scientist working on bizarre evolutionary experiments with human beings- the last one of which got out and murdered quite a few people before being killed, leaving him in need of a new subject. Enter reporter Larry Stanford (Peter Dyneley), wrapping up his time in Japan with a visit to Suzuki, who is quickly hypnotized and injected with something sinister. He doesn't turn into a ravenous beast right away, of course- no, first he just gets sleazier, flirting with the Doctor's lovely assistant (Toyoko Takechi) and enjoying the local sake bars and communal baths, all while neglecting Linda, his wife back home (Jane Hylton). She eventually shows up with friend in tow to try and figure out what's gotten into Larry, but he soon has bigger problems to deal with, as by night, it seems he's been stalking the streets of the village and terrorizing innocent women. And to top things off he now has an eyeball on his shoulder. That can't be good.

There's a weird sexual undercurrent to this movie that seems atypical for the time. Censorship standards for movies were very slowly loosening in the late Fifties and exploitation producers raced to see just what they could get away with staging, and while there's nothing explicitly R-rated in this movie, there's enough obscured nudity and implied adultery to make it clear that Suzuki is trying to bring out the primitive animal in Larry. The violence is also bloodier than it would have been a few years earlier, and the lurid atmosphere helps give the story a certain power.

Of course there's an element of sinister Orientalism here, with Japan being a source of bestial temptations to our white protagonist, but of course most of the victims are Japanese as well and the picture was actually shot on location as a Japanese-American coproduction. It's possible this is an outgrowth of the success of Godzilla, King of the Monsters and its imitators, with American producers seeking to give their monster stories a new flavor. To be sure, the locations give the picture a distinct visual style, enhanced by noir-esque photography. If nothing else it helps to hold our interest before Larry starts growing a second head and the story gets really crazy.

About that, yeah, the story takes a very odd turn in its last act (one that at least partly inspired the "evil twin" subplot in Sam Raimi's Army of Darkness), with Larry's bestial half starting to emerge as a separate creature in a way that anticipates the gory body horrors of the 80s. For all this the wrap-up is pretty typical of the genre, but the ride there is interesting at least. The Manster doesn't fully explore its story potential but it pushes at the borders of the genre in ways that make it memorable.

Story by George Breakston
Screenplay by Walt Sheldon
Directed by George Breakston and Kenneth G. Crane

Grade: B+

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