Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Frankenstein vs. Baragon (1965) review


Nick Adams (Dr. James Bowen), Kumi Mizuno (Dr. Sueko Togami), Tadao Takashima (Dr. Kenichiro Kawaji), Yoshio Tsuchiya (Kawai), Koji Furuhata (Frankenstein monster)

Directed by Ishiro Honda

The Short Version: Enormously entertaining and thoroughly bonkers Japanese monster movie starts off as a serious science fiction movie with a fascinating concept before subsiding into "VS." mode when a huge subterranean lizard is introduced. Considering movies with battling beasts were big business at the time, this is logical even if it makes for an illogical movie. Still, Honda's wonderfully batty film is great fun and features one of two endearing performances by Academy Award nominee, Nick Adams.

The Nazis deliver the still beating heart of the Frankenstein monster to a hidden laboratory for study by Japanese scientists in Hiroshima. It's discovered this seemingly undying organ has regenerative properties that can replenish damaged cells and regrow severed limbs. Before the scientists can experiment, the bomb is dropped on Hiroshima and the immortal heart of Frankenstein's creation is presumed destroyed. 15 years later, Dr. James Bowen, a scientist who participated in Japan's destruction, devotes his life to helping rebuild the devastated nation and aid the starving and dying. Reports begin to surface of a strange boy killing small animals for food. Bowen and two associates manage to coerce the wild child into their lab for study.

His mongoloid appearance and rapid growth raise the question that this boy has somehow come into contact with the immortal heart of Frankenstein's monster, long thought dead for the past 15 years. Continuing to grow, the monstrous boy escapes into the wild and is pursued by both the scientists and the military. Meanwhile, reports of earthquakes and other occurrences rock the country and are blamed on the gigantic neolithic boy roaming free among Japan's countryside. It's soon learned that these disasters are being caused by a bizarre subterranean creature freed from its dormancy leading to an inevitable battle with Frankenstein's monster.

After the gargantuan success of KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962), Toho was more than eager to produce another movie with the great ape, but were unable to do so at that time. They also had their hearts set on producing a Frankenstein film as well. Scripts implementing Shelley's creation included FRANKENSTEIN VS. THE HUMAN VAPOR (THE HUMAN VAPOR was a Honda feature from 1960) and FRANKENSTEIN VS. GODZILLA. The former was vastly superior to the latter, but was eventually discarded as was the clunky story of pitting Godzilla against an outsized creature born of the German mad scientist. In 1965, producer Henry G. Saperstein went to Toho with an interest in producing monster movies with the top flight Japanese film studio. The 'Frankenstein vs. Godzilla' script emerged again, but this time, Godzilla was eliminated and a new, lesser beast named Baragon replaced him. Looking nothing like the Big G, Baragon emits a red radioactive flame (in his two other screen appearances, his ability to do this is dropped) and retains the same sound effect of Godzilla's own blue hued beam.

If any Japanese monster film deserves the title of 'nutty' it's FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARAGON (1965). Just the notion of melding Mary Shelley's classic tale with giant monster movie conventions would raise more than a few eyebrows. As a whole, it's vastly different from anything Ishiro Honda had directed up to that time. Takeshi Kimura's script starts out as a seriously themed monster story integrating the horrors of Hiroshima into the mix. The imminent bombing by the Enola Gay, a secret meeting between the Nazis and the Japanese military and the backstory of an immortal heart of a monster makes for a wildly ornate blend. This is further amplified a short time later once the starving orphan boy is discovered and begins to grow--either from consuming the Frankenstein monsters heart, or the regenerative properties of the organ having grown a new body altogether. However, once the subterranean reptile, Baragon makes its appearance, the film abandons whatever pathos and poignancy it has built up to that point turning into a straight up monster mash from there onward.

The film is still an enjoyable, unforgettably silly romp. Honda was particularly fond of creating these pitiable creatures in his movies and succeeds a portion of the time. But as the movie progresses, the Frankenstein Monster becomes increasingly scary looking--growing body hair and sprouting a pronounced grill of fangs. Most, if not all the sympathy built up for him is lost. Still, few people are going to be interested in exposition in monster movies, anyway. They come looking for monster action and FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARAGON doesn't disappoint in that respect.

Considering the size of the title humanoid is far less than the average Kaiju creation, the miniatures from Tsuburaya are some of the best of his career and this includes the surrounding vegetation built to scale. The suit built for Baragon is a lackluster affair that would have fit in better on an episode of ULTRAMAN. It's not horrible, just that the beast is anything but intimidating and rather cute, especially when its ears perk up looking all the world like a radioactive fire breathing lost puppy dog, and a giant one, at that. Baragon put in a cameo appearance in DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (1968) and wasn't seen again till 2001's GODZILLA, MOTHRA, KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTER ALL OUT ATTACK. Incidentally, Toho's competition, Daiei, had a monster with a similar sounding and similarly spelled name, Barugon. This quick freeze monster fought that company's chief Kaiju, Gamera.

The battle itself is quite good and exciting, although it does occasionally lend itself to a chuckle or two despite being backed by one of Akira Ifukube's finest scores. The goofiness doesn't hurt the movie at all, but taking it from a more constructive stand point, the devout seriousness of the first half is strikingly at odds with the last half of the film. Once the subterranean Godzilla clone shows up, all bets are off and the stage is set for a titanic tussle on pay per view with Frankenstein's monster and Baragon as the main event. If all the crazy elements thrown into this overstuffed Kaiju stew weren't enough, it gets even crazier, or would have if the original ending (set for the US release) hadn't been scuppered by producer, Henry G. Saperstein.

A shot from the discarded ending of Frankenstein's Monster battling a giant octopus before being pulled into the sea by the slimy 8 legged creature.

Saperstein reportedly adored the octopus footage seen in KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (footage that consisted of a real octopus, a gooey rubber one and brief moments of stop motion tentacles) and requested a sequence with an attacking cephalopod for the American release of the picture.

Originally, after Frankenstein's Monster has killed Baragon, an earthquake sucks both creatures below the earth. This shot is from the alternate ending that was never used.

Another shot from the discarded ending prior to the octopus making its appearance. Here, Frankenstein's Monster tosses the lifeless corpse of Baragon down into a canyon.

Ultimately, this bizarre 'Out of Left Field' ending never made it onto either theatrical release (US or Japan) version. It does make for an interesting bit of branching in regards to the sequel, FRANKENSTEIN MONSTERS: SANDA VS. GAIRA (1966), a film that begins with the evil green Gargantua battling a giant octopus during a storm at sea.

The ending that appears on both Japanese and English theatrical and television versions.

With all the nuttiness throughout the movie, it seems almost like overkill for a last minute cameo by a giant octopus which is seen inexplicably walking on land(!) and even more perplexing that it begins attacking the Frankenstein monster for no apparent reason! The two scuffle for a couple minutes before the eight legged creature drags the giant boy monster to the sea where it presumably drowns (at least until the sequel the following year). This massive octopi was the 'Devilfish' of one of the alternate titles before the American moniker of FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD was settled upon. The ending that exists on all versions is both the Frankenstein's Monster and Baragon are swallowed up in an earthquake amidst the backdrop of a burning forest.

One of the most oft discussed aspects of this movie is the participation of American actor, Nick Adams. This was Academy Award nominee Nick Adams' first of two Japanese giant monster movies he starred in, the other being GREAT MONSTER WAR (aka MONSTER ZERO) in 1965. Having less than encouraging things to say about foreign productions, once his campaign to win 'Best Supporting Actor' for TWILIGHT OF HONOR (1963) failed (reportedly, Adams was so sure he was going to win, he even stood up before the winner was announced), he suddenly found himself in Japan working for Toho Studios. It couldn't have been a better twist of fate as Adams had a wonderful experience at Toho and those he worked with had nothing but great things to say about Nick Adams. One such person was Kumi Mizuno, his co-star in both his Kaiju pictures.

Although it was never officially confirmed, he and Mizuno had a love affair which led to the married Adams proposing to her to which she declined as Mizuno was already engaged to another man. Not long after, Adams and his wife back in America were divorced and Adams would end up dead in what has been labeled as an undetermined suicide. Having appeared in many upscale movies and television series such as two episodes of THE WILD, WILD WEST (one B/W and the other in color), a science fiction western spy show starring his best friend, Robert Conrad, Nick Adams may not have attained the widespread respectability he desired, but he no doubt endeared himself to a legion of cult film fans for his wonderful work in Japanese monster movies.

A major fan favorite, Honda's "Frankenstein" movie got frequent airplay on Saturday morning and late night television at least up to the mid 1990s. It was one of the most frequently requested titles for a legitimate DVD release. The film had already been on Japanese DVD for a time sans English options, and fans did have an option for fan subbed editions till the Media Blasters two disc edition hit store shelves. It ports over all the extras from the Japanese disc, but has additional photos in the gallery, but doesn't something peculiar with the different "versions" of the film.

Regardless of what the packaging says, the "US Version" on the disc is merely the Japanese release, but with AIP's opening credits sequence tacked on and the English dub (sort of) synced up. The actual American release featured alternate scenes that were not in the original Japanese release. These few extra scenes made the ever growing irradiated boy out to be more villainous than the pitiable one of Honda's vision. These bits amounted to Fearless Frank threatening to squash a military man already trapped under a pile of rubble and a scene where he bends some light poles and thoroughly thrashes a police car--picking it up and slamming it into the ground with the cops still inside. In the Japanese original, he inadvertently causes the car to crash while running away. It should also be stated the "International Version" on this 2 disc set is the same as the other two, but substitutes the original earthquake ending for the 'Devilfish' one; which was never used on either release, anyway.

Easily one of the most wild and woolly monster movies to ever erupt from Japan, FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARAGON (1965) is a highly recommended creature feature that could have been a great monster movie had it not abandoned the serious tone of the first half indulging in mindless monster action during the latter half. The plot regarding the Frankenstein experiment melded with the destruction of Hiroshima creating a monster was a unique story arc that unfortunately wasn't given room to stand on its own. Instead, it goes from being a great science fiction tragedy to merely an incredibly fun monster mash that fans of Kaiju cinema should no doubt enjoy.

This review is representative of the Media Blasters 2 disc set

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