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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Retro Review: Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965)

This here is the kind of a movie that is going to help determine if you are a tried-and-true kaiju fanatic, or just someone who enjoyed watching a couple of Godzilla movies on syndicated TV when you were a kid. Simply put, Frankenstein Conquers the World is not for everyone. But if you love this sort of thing--Japanese giant monster movies--then it's a veritable treasure trove of rubber-suited goodness.

Who knew the mythos created by Mary Shelley and reinterpreted by Universal would come so far, and be taken to such a nearly unrecognizable point? Toho co-opts the classic Euro-American pop culture figure with an enthusiasm that's just tough to knock. Sure, they seem to have no grasp of what the source material is really all about--but it just seems mean to trash a movie in which the Frankenstein monster grows to gigantic size and fights a classic Japanese kaiju. This is the kind of a movie where you know what you're getting into. Either it's exactly what you're looking for, or it's nothing you'd ever go near. And you can count me firmly amongst the former.

The story begins in Germany at the end of World War II. Nazis raid what appears to be Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory (in 1945? and was it in Germany to begin with??) and seize the heart of the monster--which is inexplicably the only part left of him. The scene in which they steal the heart is quite bizarre, as it is done completely in mime, almost as if the screenwriters couldn't be bothered to write German dialogue. It's weird and goofy, and pretty much sets the tone for the entire flick.

The Gerries hand the heart over to their allies in Japan, just as everything is going to hell in Europe. It's interesting, by the way, to notice how in Takeshi Kimura's script, the Japanese distance themselves from their former wartime buddies--they seem to regard the Nazis as pathetic and desperate losers that they can't wait to see crash and burn.

Anyway, just as scientists in Hiroshima are studying the heart in order to breed a race of super soldiers (what else?), the city is hit by the big one. Well, there goes that experiment. Ah...but you forget, this is a Japanese monster movie, which means that the Frankenstein heart, irradiated from the atom bomb, mutates into a sort of bizarro clone of the original creature.

Fast forward 15 years later, and the young monster is discovered by yet more scientists--who, it's interesting to note, insist on pointing out that the creature is Caucasian, when actor Koji Furuhata clearly is not. And thanks to the dose of radiation, he's growing way beyond the bounds of his platform shoe-wearing predecessor In fact, he grows big enough to be able to take on the mighty Baragon, who for no reason at all shows up out of nowhere to wreak some havoc. Frankenstein (as he's referred to throughout the movie) escapes the lab, and fights Baragon, followed by....a giant octopus! Why? Not a clue. But I loved every minute of it.

The 1960s is often looked at as a golden age by fans of this sort of stuff, and Frankenstein Conquers the World (which he doesn't even come close to doing, by the way), is an excellent example of how much fun these movies were. Ishiro Honda, the director of the original Gojira, takes the reigns, accompanied by his ace special effects man Eiji Tsuburaya, and musical composer Akira Ifikube. Together, this trio delivers a balls-to-the-wall mega kaiju extravaganza which will either have you jumping up and down on your couch with glee, or scratching your head quizzically for 90 minutes. This movie will definitely determine what kind of genre fan you are!

The effects in Toho films take a lot of flak, and much of it is deserved, but a lot of it is also ignorant. Yes, the effects suffered a decline in the 1970s, but during the mid-'60s they were pretty slick for the time. Here in America, the completely different, stop-motion approach of the Ray Harryhausen school may have tended to bias some fans (the constant maligning in the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland didn't help, either), but there's definitely something to be said for Tsuburaya's work in this film, and others like it. There's some very cool composite work to be found, for example.

Yes, the whole thing builds to what amounts to a guy with fake teeth, a flattop wig and a furry loincloth wrestling with another guy in a rubber lizard suit, but hey, what were you expecting, Wuthering Heights?

Ifikube contributes some of his best film music, and that's saying a lot. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the score helps save the movie in parts, adding much-needed atmosphere at times. Actually, since with Frankenstein in the title, one would think this movie was vaguely connected to horror, it should be pointed out that Ifikube's music really helps to convey a sense of dread and mystery in places. I was surprised to find that there are several moments in the film, mostly involving the monster, that are actually pretty creepy.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the one and only Nick Adams, the poor man's James Dean, in the role of American doctor James Bowen. This was Adams' first kaiji film, followed soon after by Godzilla vs. Monster Zero. Unfortunately, unlike that film, the version of Frankenstein Conquers the World currently on DVD is subtitled rather than dubbed, which means you don't get to hear Adams own voice speaking English in that woefully out-of-place Bowery boys accent.

The beautiful Kumi Mizuno appears as Bowen's love interest, Sueko. She and Adams would be reunited immediately after for Monster Zero, and in fact Mizuno even appeared in the last (to date) G-flick, Godzilla: Final Wars. Adams' partner, Dr. Kawaji, is played by Toho favorite Tadao Takashima, who had already appeared in King Kong vs. Godzilla and Atragon, and would later turn up in Son of Godzilla.

All in all, Frankenstein Conquers the World delivers on everything one would expect from a movie called Frankenstein Conquers the World. It's boatloads of fun, and just plain cool to see a classic Western monster interpreted in such a foreign milieu. It might not be everyone's cup of tea, but for lovers of Japanese giant monster fare and general Cold War-era cheese, it's a relative rarity that yields some wonderful, oddball things.


Unknown said...

Don't forget that it actually had a sequel (of sorts). War of the Gargantuas was (loosely) based on events in this movie.

B-Sol said...

That's right, and I do believe Nick Adams turned up again in that as well! Also, I saw a couple of guys dressed up as the Gargantuas at the last G-Fest. It was breathtaking.


I have a lot of fond memories of this film.

Oddly enough they showed it for kids movie night after school back when I was in 6th grade.

I'm not sure you could pull a stunt like that anymore...

Rick Bman said...

How is it that I haven't seen this movie? This would have fit perfectly into the Frankenstein blog-a-thon I did a while back. This must be added to my netflix queue immediately.

B-Sol said...

I actually just watched it for the first time last week. Definitely lots of fun!

I Like Horror Movies said...

I just recently watched this one as well and enjoyed the heck out of (most of) it, I thought the build was excellent and the modeling was top notch for sure (the image of The Monster outside of the window comes to mind), but I found the final battle to be lackluster and blurred in a sea of typical Kaiju battles. Great review B!

B-Sol said...

Yeah, the climactic battle is a bit of a letdown. Not very well choreographed at all. But still, all-in-all a very entertaining movie.

Anonymous said...

i used to go around and just sing a little tune to the title alone. *singing* frankenstein conquers the woooooorld. no one ever new what the hell i was talking about. i would just laugh. nice to see this one up in print. it's been a long time since i've seen this one. love the movie stills!

B-Sol said...

Thanks, Scoob!

Rick Bman said...

I finally got around to seeing this. It was pretty enjoyable.

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