Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2013-07-17 05:57

Written by: Reuben Bercovitch (story), Takeshi Kimura, Jerry Sohl, and Mary Shelley (uncredited)
Directed by: Ishirô Honda
Starring: Nick Adams, Kumi Mizuno, and Kôji Furuhata

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

“Frankenstein? It's alive?"
"It is immortal."

By 1965, Toho’s monster rally was underway in earnest, as Godzilla had already thrown down with King Kong, Mothra, Ghidorah, and others at that point. No rally was complete without Frankenstein’s Monster, though; I know I already dubbed King Kong the godfather to giant monsters, but Mary Shelley’s creation is really the godfather to all modern monsters, particularly those who are awakened or created by overly ambitious science. Of course, you could hardly blame Toho for not having gotten around to somehow shoehorning him into their universe given that he doesn’t exactly measure up to their beasts. However, that was just a minor inconvenience for Frankenstein Conquers the World, a batty co-production between Toho and American studio UPA that literally made the creature larger than life.

The film’s solution is a familiar one in the atomic bomb. Set during the final days of World War II, a prologue reveals that German soldiers seized control of the immortal heart of Frankenstein’s monster, which they managed to slip to the Japanese despite a raid by the Allied powers. Unfortunately, the heart winds up in Hiroshima on that fateful day, where it presumably goes up in smoke along with the Japanese scientists’ research. Fifteen years later, American scientist James Bowen (Nick Adams) has dedicated to surveying and cataloging the damage of the blast, and he and a team of Japanese researchers are particularly intrigued by whispers of a strange, feral boy scavenging in and around Hiroshima. Upon finally confirming the child’s existence, they’re astounded that he’s Caucasian and that he’s developed an immunity to radiation. Naturally, Adams and his crew take the boy in to study him; however, he soon becomes more of a captive when his body begins to rapidly swell to an enormous size.

James Whale’s Frankenstein becomes the obvious reference point here—from the Monster’s childlike demeanor to his flat forehead, it seems like Ishiro Honda is especially attempting to echo the cinematic legacy of Shelley’s story. Sure, Frankenstein actor Koji Furuhata isn’t a dead ringer for Boris Karloff, but his mannerisms (which recall a tortured adolescence more than childhood) connect him to that performance more so than to Shelley’s original creature. As such, Frankenstein Conquers the World feels like the Universal films on a much larger scale, complete with the bewildered Monster roaming and terrorizing the countryside. He even becomes infatuated with Sueko (Kumi Mizuno), one of the female scientists that was actually quite kind to him, and the scene where he peeps in on her in her high-rise apartment really captures the adolescent nature of his rural romp, which also finds him tossing rocks at birds and attempting to wrangle wild boars.

This time, his creator isn’t around, though, and this is where the film gets quite strange, as Bowen and company don’t tame the beast as much as they simply talk about him. In an effort to get to the bottom of the strange discovery, Bowen visits with Kawai, one of the scientists that experimented on Frankenstein’s heart all of those years ago. He glibly assumes that this child must have somehow fully formed from the heart itself—but, just to make sure, he instructs Bowen to hack off a few appendages to see if they grow back. The mere suggestion is probably enough to insure that Frankenstein Conquers the World is positively nuts, but the fact that one of Bowen’s assistants actually follows through on it is an even better indicator.

It gets nuttier. As it turns out, Frankenstein isn’t the only beast roaming the hills, as the earth has spewed forth yet another Kaiju named Baragon (at this point, Toho’s Japan probably actually had developed some kind of category system for their Kaiju like the one in Pacific Rim—I’d say that Baragon here would probably be a Category 2). As that monster wreaks havoc, most assume that it’s Frankenstein causing all the carnage and that the military will eventually have to put him down; Kawai remains unconvinced, though, and talks Bowen and his men into abating and instead forms a search party (sans torches and pitchforks) to track the Monster down. Of course, this winds up being fruitless since the film has only been leading to one inevitable conclusion where Frankenstein and Baragon finally meet and tussle. The film is definitely a patchwork thanks to the joint production, but it seems to be especially reverse engineered from this point where everyone agreed that the world needed a Kaiju Frankenstein film where the Monster would battle another beast.

At least it does stick that landing pretty well. We’ve come a long way from guys wrestling around in rubber suits (well, in this case, only one is hemmed up in the old zip-‘em-up), but the clash here is pretty fun, even if it only sees the two laying waste to a forest (as opposed to another miniature city biting the dust--Baragon does lay waste to some diminutive villages, though). The two really go at it, as Frankenstein pummels Baragon in an effort to stop its destruction (thus rendering the film’s title a misnomer—if anything Frankenstein saves the world). Baragon himself isn’t among Toho’s most memorable Kaiju because he also seems to be a patchwork creation—part lizard, part turtle, part triceratops, part rhinoceros, and, eventually, all mincemeat for the Monster. And, depending on which version of the film you watch, it immediately becomes bafflingly anticlimactic or even more insane, as Frankenstein either inexplicably sinks into the earth or proceeds to wrestle with a giant fucking octopus.

The latter ending was actually never seen in theaters despite the UPA's inistence that it be shot. Originally, the studio intended to end the film with the sequence because its producers apparently had a thing for Oodako, the giant octopus from King Kong vs. Godzilla; however, logic must have won out (the scene truly is astonishingly random and speaks to how the film is a shameless monster mash) because it was never utilized. It’s perhaps appropriate that King Kong vs. Godzilla did influence the film even in a small way, as that film was derived (and subsequently remolded several times over) from Willis O’Brien’s notion that Kong should battle a giant Frankenstein-esque monster in the unproduced Frankenstein vs. Prometheus.

The long, winding road to super-sizing Frankenstein (Toho first kicked around the idea at least a few years earlier) resulted in a film that’s surprisingly spry considering the Kaiju genre was over a decade old. With Honda at the helm, it’s an assured production, of course, but it’s really the zaniness that brings it to life: the casual dismemberment of a child, the random monster fights, the fact that it revolves around a 50 foot version of the Frankenstein monster—all in glorious, garish Tohoscope. It’s a prime example of the loony direction the genre was headed, as things only got weirder from here (and immediately so in the case of this film’s sequel, War of the Gargantuas). Tokyo Shock appropriately bestowed Frankenstein Conquers the World with a lavish special edition DVD release that gathers three different versions of the film under one hood: the original, uncut Japanese feature, the American version, and an international cut that features the aforementioned giant octopus ending. Additionally, the two disc set features some deleted scenes, a photo gallery, and an audio commentary by Sadamasa Arikawa. Shelley’s famous monster has seen oodles of interpretations over the years, but few are as downright bonkers as this one. Buy it!

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