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Monday, June 14, 2010

Latitude Zero (1969) review


Joseph Cotten (Captain Craig McKenzie), Richard Jaeckel (Perry Lawton), Cesar Romero (Dr. Malic), Akira Takarada (Dr. Ken Tashiro), Patricia Medina (Lucretia), Akihiko Hirata (Dr. Sugata), Linda Haynes (Dr. Anne Barton), Hikaru Kuroki (Captain Kroiga)

Directed by Ishiro Honda

The Short Version: Spectacularly implausible and over the top Toho fantasy film is one of their most lively pictures filled with gadgets, mechas, monsters and destruction. Plagued by numerous production problems and hassles, Honda's science fiction opus still comes through as a grandly entertaining movie perfect for a Saturday afternoon in front of the tube.

Joseph Cotten, Richard Jaekel, Akira Takarada

A massive underwater volcano erupts and puts a group of investigative scientists in danger. They are rescued by an atomic super submarine named The Alpha under the command of Captain McKenzie. The group is quickly taken to a vast underwater city known as Latitude Zero, a fantastic, Atlantean type utopia, a world beneath the ocean with its own sun. It is soon discovered that Captain McKenzie is at war with the evil Dr. Malic, a cruel scientist who wishes to rule mankind all the while conducting genetic experiments on humans and animals. Malic sends his agents to kidnap Dr. Okada, a human scientist who has created a serum that can immunize exposure to radiation.

Impressively gaudy and enormously entertaining Japanese science fiction pulp fantasy spectacular from Ishiro Honda. Following in the footsteps of previous international co-productions with the likes of Joseph Brenner and Rankin-Bass, this underwater adventure movie would be anything but smooth sailing. Leaving its cast and crew lost at sea in a Titanic level of calamities that threatened to drown the picture, those that didn't abandon ship came together to make the best of this last film to feature the guidance of Honda, Tsuburaya and Akira Ifukube.

Despite several disasters suffered during production, LATITUDE ZERO reminds one of just why being a kid immersed in monster movies was so much fun. At the time, the Japanese were so in tune with what made escapist entertainment so wonderfully amusing and attractive, it's such a shame this kind of film isn't made nowadays with that same childlike wonder present in so much of their product from that time period.

The script by Shinichi Sekizawa (and Ted Sherdeman, creator of the original 40's radio version of the story) bears several similarities to the earlier Honda fantasy opus, ATRAGON (1963) as well as the Japanese sci fi show, MIGHTY JACK (1968) and its follow up program. Both productions dealt with super mecha, flamboyant villains with plans for world domination, or lost civilizations. There's also a handful of creatures here, the product of Malic's experiments. With so many cool ideas and potential for Tsuburaya to run wild with his miniatures and imaginative creativity, this ambitious production was set to be Honda's biggest fantasy adventure.

Sadly, the picture would be the victim of major problems including unscrupulous producers, a slashed budget (reportedly to have originally been a million dollars), a deathly ill star and the ever present language barrier. Once the American cast arrived in Japan, they were informed that the producers from the States had apparently reneged on their deal resulting in a number of bounced checks. The Japanese Executives eventually took control of the movie promising to fulfill contractual obligations six months after the film was completed. The movie was later tied up in litigation resulting in Toho shelving the film and leaving a bitter taste in their mouths that lingers to this day.

It was released on VHS at least once, but only recently received a long overdue box set special edition in Japan. Not long after, Media Blasters released a two disc edition of the film in 2007 in America.

With so much chaos reigning over the films schedule, certain aspects of the making of the film are almost as disastrous as Malic's intentions. The monster costumes are beneath Tsuburaya's usual level of expertise, but the miniature work is quite good, especially the submarines. Tsuburaya's work here is some of his best creations and were seemingly built larger than normal. The destruction scenes are also well handled. Only the monsters are a letdown, but even then, the movies imposing silliness and refusal to abide by any sort of logic offsets the goofy monsters.

There are also a few plot holes that rear there ugly head towards the end of the movie. Somewhat boggling, the last few minutes plays tricks with the audience that seem beyond the realm of McKenzie's fantastic world of Latitude Zero. With Perry Lawton (Richard Jaeckel who also co-starred in THE GREEN SLIME) being found adrift alone, we're left with the conclusion that everything we have just seen may have been a dream, or maybe not. Still, there's a lot to like about the picture. There's countless Bondian style weaponry and Malic himself is the embodiment of a Bond villain, Captain Nemo and Dr. Moreau all rolled up into one.

Truly a fantasy movie if there ever was one, the script is full of outlandishly bizarre ideas and implausible weaponry. There's the two super subs, Alpha and the Black Shark and the entire civilization of Latitude Zero, a world with its own sun and encased in a gigantic bubble. There's an 'Immunity Bath', which renders those who bathe in it invulnerable to weapons for 24 hours. McKenzie and company utilize flashy gold suits whose gloved fingers have weapons that consist of a laser beam, a toxic spray and a flamethrower. They also have jet packs that enable them to fly. Likewise, the Alpha has the ability to fly, a device borrowed from ATRAGON (1963) and reused again (as well as other movies) for Toho's last sci fi movie of the 1970's, the STAR WARS rip off, THE WAR IN SPACE (1977).

Cesar Romero and Patricia Medina

Cesar Romero (the Joker on BATMAN) dives right into his role as Malic, the evil ruler of Blood Rock who threatens to take over the Earth. Patricia Medina (wife of Joseph Cotten) plays his equally villainous lover, Lucretia. Cotten, noticeably sick, hangs in there as the fanciful Captain McKenzie. With its predominantly English cast, Toho decided to shoot the entire film in English including the Japanese cast members. The only American role that fails to deliver is Dr. Anne Barton played by Linda Haynes who would later shine in such movies as COFFY (1973) and the seminal ROLLING THUNDER (1977). Uncomfortable and nervous shooting overseas, it's noticeable in her performance.

LATITUDE ZERO (1969) is an out of this world, flamboyantly over the top fantasy that delivers lots of popcorn entertainment value and loads of childish fun. Possibly the most bizarre Japanese science fiction movie, it can never be accused of being boring and anyone who attempts to take this thing seriously needs their head examined. Regardless of all the headaches and trouble it had making it to the screen, this braindead, but hugely enjoyable movie is a must see movie for fans of Ishiro Honda and Toho science fiction movies in general.

This review is representative of the R1 Media Blasters 2 disc set. A third disc containing trailers is also inside in a separate sleeve


Skeme Richards said...

Ok, now you've got me in the mood for a marathon of all those old Toho flix! There's just something about those movies that I really miss today.

dfordoom said...

I love that submarine thing!

Samuel Wilson said...

With that cast, and after those screen shots, I want to see this thing. I'm surprised that I never have, as I assume this must have been on TV a lot once. I agree about the attitude of the best Tohos that's missing but maybe needed now.

dfordoom said...

I agree about the attitude of the best Tohos that's missing but maybe needed now.

Samuel, I think the difference is that modern attempts at silly science fiction fun take themselves too seriously. And their fans take them too seriously. They've forgotten the joy of just being silly and going with the fun.

venoms5 said...

I hear ya', Skeme. I been thinking bout a Japanese sci fi marathon myself. Here's a good lineup I been toying with...


venoms5 said...

@ d: I agree. Movies nowadays have little passion in regards to the fun factor. Back then, there were no computers and everything had to be hand made and created with limited means and a good imagination. That is something that seems lost in movies today.

@ Sam: Check it out, Sam! I think it's up both you and dfordoom's alley most definitely. I never saw it on TV, but did hear of playing on the tube before.

Skeme Richards said...

@Venom, thats a good lineup right there. That would definitely be perfect for waking up early on a saturday and lounging on the couch for the duration of the day.

venoms5 said...

Oh, yeah. With chips, dip, soda, pizza, etc...Definitely a high fat calorie day.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Wow, that first pic of Cotten in a silk scarf would have sold me alone! And the rest is just icing. Excellent review!

venoms5 said...

Thanks so much, Vicar! I hope you enjoy the movie.

Carl (ILHM) said...

Once I hit up Atragon (if it ever arrives) I will definitely have to check this one out V, sounds like a complete blast even if it is filled with monster silliness!

venoms5 said...

This one is the absolute polar opposite from ATRAGON. That movie is straight up serious, but does have a monster. The first appearance of Manda, the giant snake. LATITUDE ZERO is much, much more fun. I'm not taking anything away from the former, mind you, it's just both are very different in terms of tone.

Kaijinu said...

Gotengo is THE BEAST!

venoms5 said...

Haha! They got a refurbished version of it in Toho's crappy WAR IN SPACE from 1977.

ASTRON3100 said...

I loved this film when I first saw was released by national general films...i had a Technicolor mint 16mm print that I later sold to my pal, the late actor Steve James...that print was shown at the new Beverly theatre earlier this year..

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