Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
At a certain point in the sixties Toho's monster group in Japan took a left turn away from their own best interests. Noted exceptions aside, Toho decided that their monster romps were strictly kiddie fare and began to cut corners on their budgets. The once-threatening Godzilla became a clownish good-guy, sort of a 500 foot rubber suited Jerry Lewis. 1965 was the pivot year, when Toho's last original science fiction film Dogora made its appearance.
The nuttiest Toho so far was the horror-kaiju hybrid Frankenstein vs. Baragon, first announced in Famous Monsters as Frankenstein and the Giant Devilfish. American Henry G. Saperstein was the genius behind the simply terrible Dick Tracy TV cartoons. He partnered with the Japanese on a tale that starts in terrible taste and quickly drifts into the realm of the Plotless and Pointless. The film is reasonably entertaining nevertheless, what with American actor Nick Adams starring. It remains a perverse favorite of Kaijû fans.
With Berlin falling, Nazi doctors ship the beating heart of the Frankenstein monster to Tokyo by U-boat. A Japanese military scientist (Takashi Shimura) in Hiroshima intends to use the heart, which cannot die, to create an army of invincible soldiers. Unfortunately, the heart is barely unpacked when the U.S. Air Force A-bombs the city. Nothing more is heard of the matter until a feral boy with a strange brow shows up fifteen years later, living on stolen pets and hiding in caves outside of Hiroshima. American scientist James Bowen (Nick Adams) teams with his assistants Drs. Yuko Kawaji and Sueko Togami (Tadao Takashima & Kumi Mizumo) to capture and study the unpredictable child, who becomes aggressive only when he hears rock 'n' roll music on the television. This 'atomic Frankenstein' (Koji Furuhata) grows larger, becoming a problem for the scientists; by the time he escapes he is already fifteen feet tall. Nobody can locate Frankenstein until attacks in mines, an oil facility and a hot springs raise suspicions that the wild man is responsible. But a new subterranean digging monster with a glowing horn called Baragon (Haruo Nakajima) is behind the chaos. Frankenstein is quick to engage Baragon in a fight to the finish.
There's no denying it: Frankenstein vs. Baragon is just plain nuts. Toho's first American co-production jams together a story that would be rejected by Monogram, and should have been rethought on grounds of good taste. Dr. Bowen and his pals are serious about working to make the world safer from atomic war, while the cartoonish plot uses ground zero in Hiroshima as center stage for a cheap horror picture. Nuked in the atomic inferno, Baron Frankenstein's guaranteed-immortal heart returns in the illogical form of a ten year-old child fifteen years later. Bown brushes off questions about the kid's origin. We're then given about ten minutes of interesting story, with the feral monster kid peering out of bushes much like the unlucky astronaut-turned-amoeba Carroon from Hammer's The Quatermass Xperiment.
The balance of the narrative tears itself away from cooking scenes with Bowen and his comely assistant Sueko to follow the weird progress of the Amazing Colossal Frankenstein as he skips across Japan, as stealthily as the giant War of the Colossal Beast 'sneaks' across Los Angeles. For character development, Sueko jumps in rapture at Bowen's every smile and quip, while Dr. Kawaji keeps hoping that he can cut off a Frankenstein arm or leg -- maybe just a finger -- for further study.
Japanese monster fans come to these shows to see Japanese monsters (any arguments?) and Frankenstein vs. Baragon provides a wrestling partner for its atomic giant in Baragon, a cousin of Varan, the Unemployable (both crawl on their knees). Baragon simply looks goofy and fake, with a stiff face and eyes and a plastic horn that lights up, supposedly as a beacon for his subterranean tunneling efforts. Although Toho's miniature sets of forests and city streets are vast and realistic, the sight of an ordinary man fighting, with infrequent clues as to his actual scale, just can't surmount the credibility obstacle. The wrestling matches are active, reasonably well edited and many of the optical effects are excellent. Unfortunately, the filmmakers expend all their creativity on the silly atomic back-story. When they get to the Kaijû mano-a-mano stuff, they haven't a clue what to do next.
The production confusion can be seen in the stills and outtakes of a deleted fight between Frankenstein and some tanks, and the inability to find a satisfactory ending. Media Blasters thoughtfully provides three entire feature cuts of Frankenstein vs. Baragon. In the long international version (spoiler) Frankenstein throttles Baragon and then grapples with a large octopus that comes into the story out of nowhere. The fight is taking place in Japan's high mountains, and we suddenly find out we're next to the ocean. Although the elaborate sequence at least provides a coherent finish, somebody must have objected because both the Japanese theatrical version and the shorter American release (Frankenstein Conquers the World) use a pitiful substitute ending. (spoiler) Frankenstein chokes Baragon to death, and is immediately swallowed up by a convenient subsidence beneath his feet. Everybody walks away, apparently forgetting the part about Frankenstein's heart being un-killable.
I may have the details wrong, but Frankenstein's living remains apparently serve as the seed-source for the twin giant vegetable men in the next year's War of the Gargantuas, starring Russ Tamblyn. That's an even goofier movie, but it's best we take these one at a time.
A lot's been said about Nick Adams' personality and why his career took a path that ended in a Japanese monster movie; he certainly provided his fair share of entertaining roles. As far as American actors slumming in Japan is concerned, Adams is in the good company of Brian Donlevy, who paid his dues staring at a giant flying turtle with rockets jammed up his tail. Unfortunately, with Adams, we keep waiting for William Holden to walk up and bounce a basketball off his head.
Media Blasters Tokyo Shock's Frankenstein vs. Baragon / Frankenstein Conquers the World disc set contains three different versions. The International Cut looks great, especially in the excellent forest fire finale. The Japanese Theatrical is much less attractive. Over on disc two is the American cut. The unconfirmed word from web boards is that that "the American version is the Japanese cut with the American credits tacked on and the English dub track added. A few alternate shots that were present in the original U.S. release are missing from the body of the film, and only turn up in bad pan-and-scan in the extras."
I watched the International version through about twice, the second time to audit the commentary interview with Sadamasa Arikawa, an original crewperson on the film. He has plenty to say, although his memory has definite lapses after forty years. His prompter keeps fishing for specific information, and Arikawa answers in generalities. The track is in Japanese, translated in a second subtitle option.
The alternate ending on the second disc is just the longer Devilfish finish from the first disc's International version, perhaps to allow the American version to be released separately in the future. The deleted scenes are little more than film fragments. Some unimpressive shots of toy tanks indicate that the filmmakers just abandoned the Frankenstein-versus-Tank angle. Other alternate action bits edit the same action differently, supporting the explanation above about the American version and making us wonder if separate cutting rooms were set up to edit the American and Japanese versions.
Trailers and a still gallery complete the package. If the American poster for Frankenstein Conquers the World seems vaguely familiar, perhaps you remember it from Midnight Cowboy. Joe Buck runs several times past a 42nd street grindhouse theater decorated with one-sheets and stills from this timeless work of cinematic art.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Frankenstein Conquers the World / Frankenstein vs. Baragon rates:
Movie: Good for the kaiju faithful
Video: Excellent (international cut)
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: 3 versions of film, trailers, deleted footage, stills, commentary with Sadamasa Arikawa
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 2, 2007
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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