HCF REWIND NO.121: FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD AKA FURANKENSTEIN TAI CHITEI KAIJU BARAGON, FRANKENSTEIN VS THE SUBTERRANEAN MONSTER BARAGON [Japan 1965]
AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 93 min/ 90 min [US version]
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In Nazi Germany during the final days of World War II, Dr. Riesendorf is experimenting on the heart of the Frankenstein Monster when it is seized and transported by U-boat to be given to their Japanese allies via the Atlantic. A US plane sinks the submarine but the heart is still taken to Japan where, when the atomic bomb is dropped on Hiroshima, it disappears. Fifteen years later, a feral boy runs rampant in the streets of Hiroshima, catching and devouring small animals. He comes to the attention of American scientist Dr. James Bowen and his assistants Sueko Togami, who are puzzled to not only find out he is resistant to radiation but is growing rapidly. Meanwhile, an oil refinery is destroyed by what could be an underground monster….
Now this really is an odd beast, Toho does Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s creation transplanted to Japan’s land of huge city-stomping monsters. Quite dark and serious for its first half, it winds up as just another fun monster movie, albeit a little more low-key than some others, but still resulting in a slightly awkward film with its two distinct elements somewhat at large with each other. It’s still quite an interesting watch, even almost going into horror occasionally, though it never fulfils the promise of its early scenes, where it really feels like it’s going to be impressive, and suffers a bit from padding around the middle, while technically it’s very uneven, far more so actually than Ghidorah The Three-Headed Monster, which has far more special effects. It certainly has some memorable scenes and enjoyably outlandish ideas, but this is one Toho monster film that remains a bit of a disappointment even if still just about manages to retain some of the qualities of the films from Toho’s Golden Age, an era which was drawing to a close.
You will recall, if you’ve had the time to laboriously read through all these Toho reviews of mine, that King Kong Vs Godzilla originated as an idea from Willis O’ Brien called Kong Kong Vs Frankenstein, and that just before they decided to make Mothra Vs Godzilla, Takeshi Kimura wrote a treatment called Frankenstein Vs Godzilla. The script for Frankenstein Conquers The World is credited as being based on a treatment by Reuben Bercovitch, but it obviously uses a great deal of Kimura’s material though,of course, replacing Godzilla with another monster called Baragon. This film was the first of five proposed collaborations between United Productions Of America [UPA], both realising how profitable Toho’s pictures were in the US, and even had an American leading man, fading star Nick Adams, who supposedly had an affair with his co-star Kumi Mizuno. When the film was completed, UPA asked for a couple of extra effects shots during Frankenstein’s escape from the laboratory and a more dramatic ending then Frankenstein being swallowed up in an earthquake. Toho complied, and for a short while we had a film that was being announced as Frankenstein Vs The Giant Devil Fish, but the new ending of Frankenstein being attacked by a giant octopus and both creatures falling into the sea ended up not being used in any version [though one of the versions on the Media Blasters DVD restores it]. A planned battle scene between Frankenstein and some tanks was partially shot but also discarded [it would have added more much-needed action]. The film was successful enough in Japan for Toho to immediately plan a sequel.
You’ve probably realised by now that this movie makes the common mistake of calling Frankenstein’s Monster Frankenstein, even if it does open with the good doctor himself. The opening scene of the monster’s heart being taken away by some German soldiers, sort of Toho meets Hammer, gets the film off to quite an odd start with its odd feel and exaggerated acting, helped greatly by the moody Akira Ifukube score, and just think of a ‘proper’ Frankenstein film set during Nazi Germany [actually Dario Argento came close to making one]! The early part of this movie was inspired by a real event; the Germans transferred the ingredients for an atomic bomb to a Japanese submarine, the idea being that Japan would destroy some of the US, but an American plane sunk the submarine. We even see a brief recreation of the bombing of Hiroshima, quite a stunning few seconds probably achieved by shooting an upside-down city with an upside-down camera, using a flame thrower on it, then shooting a smoke bomb in slow motion for the mushroom cloud.
Yes, for a while Frankenstein Conquers The World [really a pretty misleading title] is very serious and even grim. Even as a boy, Frankenstein is a rather creepy character as he lurks around in the dark sporting quite disturbing facial makeup which cleverly incorporates the brow of the iconic Universal Studios Frankenstein Monster. The film moves fairly leisurely and spends some time on the rather sweet cultural exchange programme that our two main characters embark on. James Bowen and Sueko Tagami are well sketched and Nick Adams and Kumi Mizuno certainly have chemistry. The horror aspect boiling in the background comes to the fore when Frankenstein escapes the lab and leaves behind a severed hand which crawls around rather creepily despite it being an obvious mechanical prop. Sadly after this, the film becomes bogged down, with, despite a second monster appearing, little happening except the military searching for the monsters, and even starts to go for laughs, such as Baragon belching out feathers after eating a chicken and a tank falling into a ditch. It really seems to be marking time, but thankfully the battle between Frankenstein and Baragon is a good lengthy fight [the longest of director Ishiro Honda’s films] even if the guy playing Baragon makes little attempt to act like an animal, and it jars with much of the first half of the film. It’s good Toho monster fun, but what happened to the dark, brooding movie of the early reels?
The awkwardness of Frankenstein Conquers The World is increased by considerable vagueness – for a start it’s never really explained how this Frankenstein came about. It seems that we’re supposed to believe that the heart which had been taken from Germany regenerated when the atomic bomb was dropped and grew into a boy, but some have said a human boy eats the heart. For a while Frankenstein seems to fancy Sueko, but this element is virtually forgotten about and the film doesn’t really create enough sympathy for Frankenstein either. There is some fine matte work in this film, especially in a bit where Frankenstein rises out of the sea and we assume the point of view of the deck of a ship, the deck and even the windows very carefully matted in, but Baragon, despite his cool abilities of being able to burrow underground, leap in the air and fire some kind of laser when his horn glows, looks hastily created and mostly just inspires laughter with his ping-pong eyes and constant goofy smile. The octopus in the extended cut doesn’t look very impressive either, barely able to move its tentacles, and the less said about a model boar the better [though interestingly this is one of the few Toho monster movies where the monsters eat].
Honda directs parts of the film with conviction, while Hajime Koizumi often shoots characters in the early section through bars or glass, making them look like prisoners, and Frankenstein in darkness. Aside from Adams and Mizuno, Tadao Takashima does his best with a weakly written role of a scientist who wants to destroy Frankenstein, while Koji Furahata, a non-actor who Honda found in a shop, is quite affecting as the poor, misunderstood creature even when the script doesn’t really allow us to get to know him. Akira Ifukube’s score is often appropriately moody but plays to death its eerie theme for Frankenstein in the first half, and its two marches are from Varan The Unbelievable and Battle In Outer Space, while the octopus ending re-uses his music for the octopus sequence in King Kong Vs Godzilla. Frankenstein Conquers The World comes across as two different films fighting for control over an hour and a half, with neither part satisfactory. Its eccentricity is quite infectious though and there’s definitely enjoyment to be had, but it just doesn’t quite work and, come to think of it, neither ending is satisfactory either, random earthquake or random giant octopus.
It’s not very different. Three minutes of footage, none of it important, were cut and those two or three extra shots of Frankenstein escaping his cell were added.