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DVD SAVANT

Latitude Zero
Double Disc Special Edition


Latitude Zero
Media Blasters Tokyo Shock
1969 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic widescreen / 105 & 89 min. / Ido zero daisakusen / Street Date December 11, 2007 / 19.95
Starring Joseph Cotten, Cesar Romero, Richard Jaeckel, Patricia Medina, Akira Takarada, Linda Haynes.
Cinematography Taiichi Kankura
Production Design Takeao Kita
Special Effects Eiji Tsuburaya
Film Editor Ume Takeda
Original Music Akira Ifukube
Written by Warren Lewis, Shinichi Sekizawa, Ted Sherdeman
Produced by Don Sharp, Tomoyuki Tanaka
Directed by Ishiro Honda

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Frankenstein Conquers the World may be an odd Japanese-made international co-production, but 1969's Latitude Zero is twice as strange. The Toho release used an American writer and a number of Hollywood name stars, all for a lavishly appointed fantasy pitched at a numbingly juvenile level. The resulting hybrid is a mass of special effects both excellent and laughable, goofy art direction and characterizations two notches above kiddie shows by Sid & Marty Krofft. The color and scope film played for a few weeks in 1970, had a run in television syndication and then promptly disappeared for thirty years, allegedly due to legal entanglements. Media Blasters / Tokyo Shock's two-disc presentation is essentially a DVD re-premiere with two versions of the film plus something new in extras -- actual special effects camera outtakes from behind the scenes at Toho.

Synopsis:

Drs. Ken Tashiro, Jules Masson and reporter Perry Lawton (Akira Takarada, Masumi Okada & Richard Jaeckel) are lost when the lifeline for their diving bell snaps, but they're rescued by the undersea ship Alpha, captained by the benevolent Craig McKenzie (Joseph Cotten). The Alpha's doctor Anne Barton (Linda Haynes) nurses Masson's head injury and McKenzie calls off his investigation of an underwater volcano to return to Latitude Zero, a secret domed Utopia resting on the ocean bottom at the intersection of the Equator and the International Date Line. The Alpha survives an attack by the Black Shark, the wicked submarine commanded by the evil Dr. Malic (Cesar Romero). Malic hates Latitude Zero. At his own fortress, Blood Rock, he conspires with his paramour Lucretia (Patricia Medina) to kill McKenzie. Masson recovers while the others take in the wonders of Latitude Zero, where brilliant scientists have relocated to build a future world of peace and harmony. McKenzie is arranging to help the Nobel Prizewinner Dr. Okada (Tetsu Nakamura) and his daughter 'disappear' so that they may be spirited to their new home, but Malic kidnaps them first. The three outside scientists and Dr. Barton volunteer to take the Alpha to Blood Rock and set matters straight. But Malic has set a trap for them, laced with acid rivers, giant rats and giant bat-men!

Latitude Zero is the most eclectic, disorganized thriller Toho ever produced, a comic book undersea adventure that borrows concepts and themes from a long list of progenitors. From 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea comes a Nemo-like captain and a bad-guy sub with a very Nautilus-like profile, but scenes are also replayed from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, with a "the world is not ready for my miracles" theme from Master of the World. Sold in some international markets as "Atragon 2", the film ends with the surprise revelation that new modifications will now allow the super-sub Alpha to fly through the air. Whee!

The characterizations are at an infantile level, with Cesar Romero's sneering bad guy hopelessly smitten by his lady love Lucretia, yet determined to do wicked things for no particular reason. He doublecrosses his incompetent Dragon Lady sub captain Kroiga (Hikaru Kuroki) by transplanting her brain into a lion, to which he grafts the wings of a Condor as if he were asssembling a plastic model kit. A hypodermic shot magnifies the newly-created Griffin to gigantic proportions. Malic can perform so many miracles that it's a mystery why he should see the need to behave in such a dastardly manner. He's smart enough to outfox McKenzie yet completely surprised when the Captain Kroiga brain inside the Griffin rebels. These women can't be trusted, I tells ya.

McKenzie's undersea paradise is wholly based on ideas filched from other sources. The many matte painting views of the domed paradise recall images from Our Man Flint. McKenzie is hundreds of years old and has been building Latitude Zero since the early 1800s; both the longevity issue and the inability of Richard Jaeckel to get anyone to believe him suggest Lost Horizon. As if that were not enough, a little bit of The Wizard of Oz is thrown in to juice up the ending. With the Cold War in full swing, scientists thought to have defected are in actuality volunteering to contribute to a superior technocracy, sort of a "Wings Under the Waves" that will eventually make itself known when civilization outgrows its barbarism. Meanwhile, McKenzie leaks bits of benevolent technology to the outside world when it pleases him. A silly scene shows a Latitude Zero operative replacing a page of chemical formulas in a scientist's notebook. When the researcher comes back and finds a cancer cure already worked out for him, he'll have to conclude that enchanted elves have helped him while he slept!

Latitude Zero is different from earlier Toho films. It functions as a kiddie show yet Linda Haynes traipses about in a nearly topless doctor's costume suitable for Lili St. Cyr. The art direction and costumes are so bad, they entertain as high camp. Romero and Cotten's outfits are embarrassingly corny, while the sets are a clashing eyesore of god-awful colors and non-textures. The ugly designs are the bad news; the good news is that Latitude Zero has lots of them! The relatively high budget has a distinctly ugly visual waiting in every new scene. Somebody alert John Waters!

The effects are often very good. The submarines look like toys but in most angles are cleverly photographed. Then come angles that show wires so plainly, we expect to see Geppetto upstairs pulling the strings. Latitude Zero has many more effects than Atragon, and some seascapes look quite good. The pyrotechnic effects are very large-scale and elaborate, as if Eiji Tsuburaya's successors at Toho were determined to out-do the English work being done for Thunderbirds. The monsters don't fare as well. The galumping Griffin looks like a flying plush toy, and some hilarious giant rats scuttle about with their noses on fire. The unpleasant end for the rodents comes when they inexplicably leap into an acid river and are dissolved. Ick.

If the IMDB is correct this time out, the American writer Ted Sherdeman (Them!, The McConnell Story, Scandal Sheet, Hell to Eternity) teamed with newbie Warren Lewis (late of Black Rain and The 13th Warrior) to adapt a radio show with Japanese writer Sinichi Sekizawa, the scribe of many of Toho's biggest Kaiju hits.  2 The movie slows down in the dialogue sections because everything comes in threes. We see examples of three foreign scientists defecting when one would do, and after the volunteers take a bath that makes them 'impervious', we watch while all three patiently allow bullets to be fired at them, one at a time. If the movie seems overly complicated, it's only because every bit of information is repeated at least three times.  1

The attack on Blood Rock is a spirited series of action scenes involving flying jet packs, fighting gloves with fingertip weapons and fights with the aforementioned monsters. Kiddies must have loved the pitiful clash between oceanauts and the silly brown bat-men; the first fearless monster fighter runs right up and kicks a bat-man in the butt!

Joseph Cotten, Cesar Romero, Patricia Medina and Richard Jaeckel must have formed a huddle and decided at what level to pitch their cartoon performances, and they're all quite professional in their 1/2-dimensional roles. Romero and Medina try to play off one another as mad lovers to keep things from being boring, while Cotten poses thoughtfully and patiently answers every question requiring an expository answer (or three). The Japanese cast plays everything deadpan straight and come off as marginal figures. Masumi Okada imitates a French scientist by adopting a Frankie Avalon hairstyle -- perhaps he was trying to do Alain Delon? Low-billed Linda Haynes' exact path to Toho stardom isn't all that clear, although the full story may be out by now in one of the websites devoted to Kaiju thrills. Admittedly there to look pretty and show some skin, Ms. Haynes returned to the states and ended up appearing in a short list of titles, every one of them a memorable movie: Coffy, Rolling Thunder, The Drowning Pool, Brubaker. It would have been nice to hear her story of the making of the film.


Media Blasters /Tokyo Shock's DVD of Latitude Zero comes in both its original English-language (105 min.) and dubbed Japanese (89 min.) versions. The color looks good on both pictures with the American cut being a bit less sharp but more pleasing to the eye. The audio is fine; Akira Ifukube's music alternates between bombastic orchestrations and a delicate theme played on an organ.

The American version has a stills section and a series of Latitude Zero teasers and trailers in English and Japanese. Oddly, most of them give away the end of Patricia Medina's Lucretia character. The Japanese version has a disorganized 23-minute interview with assistant director Seiji Tani, Teruyoshi Nakano and effects men Koichi Kawakita and Motoyoshi Tomioka. The first two gentlemen spend a lot of their time criticizing the American producers and writers as incompetent meddlers and lechers who wanted Linda Haynes to do her bath scene topless. They assure us that Japanese methods are best in all circumstances and that the 'American system' of filming is artless and wasteful. Perhaps it's just the translation, or maybe these responses came because somebody was asking arrogant interview questions. Nobody's going to dispute that for making Japanese-style Sci-Fi monster fantasy films, nobody's better suited than Japanese Sci-Fi monster fantasy filmmakers. No sir.

A better behind the scenes extra might have elaborated on the stories told by Stuart Galbraith IV in his book Monsters are Attacking Tokyo!. Stuart's interviews tell us that American producer Don Sharp (apparently no relation to the English director) couldn't cough up the financing at the eleventh hour. The expensive production almost folded until the American stars decided to trust the Toho executives. Although very sick, Joseph Cotten finished the picture and everybody eventually got paid.

The most interesting extra is a long reel of special effects outs that must have been saved by a cameraman or other technical person. We see some alternate matte shots for Latitude Zero followed by interesting outtakes from Atragon. An elaborate earthquake scene might be from Atragon or The Submersion of Japan (a guess). Then a series of daily outttakes shows rather magnificent sea battles from some WW 2 epic, with a huge battleship (The Yamato?) exploding and a Japanese aircraft carrier wiped out by aerial bombardment. Some of the shots are flat ratio open-matte views that reveal the top of the sky backing with another camera working above. As the flat scenes use high-speed slow motion camera motors, I can safely guess that the shots were intended to be optically reformatted for Tohoscope, cropping away the mostly empty frame above and below. It's a fascinating reel; some of the shots of boats are remarkably realistic. We see original slates and an occasional flash frame with a technician adjusting a model. I'll be looking forward to Stuart Galbraith IV's review to hear an expert's opinion on the source of these outtakes; they're preceded by a title card written only in Japanese.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Latitude Zero rates:
Movie: Very Good but VERY juvenile
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailers, stills, interviews, special effects dailies outtakes.
Packaging: Keep case? Savant's review is from check discs.
Reviewed: December 13, 2007

Footnote:

1. The IMDB also lists the venerable Sekizawa as the writer and director of a B&W 1956 feature film called The Fearful Attack of the Flying Saucer, aka Across the Universe. I've never heard of it before.
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2. Reader Jason Bott sends this documentation affirming that Latitude Zero was indeed a radio show, written by Ted Sherdeman in 1941. So it's all true! Thanks Jason!
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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