I suppose that there is a certain aptness in the fact that I happen to be writing this little mini-introduction on August 30th. This, of course, was the date in 1797 when Mary Shelley, author of the novel Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus, was born, all of 226 years ago. Since that time, her famous novel has never been out of print, and it has spawned any number of cinematic entertainments, hardly any of them scrupulously faithful to her original vision. Ohio-born actor Charles Ogle was the first to portray the Frankenstein Monster in the initial screen adaptation in 1910, and since that year the films based on the classic undead creature have proliferated to the point where today there are virtually a countless number of them; Wikipedia lists well over 150, and there are doubtless many that it has not included. In today’s Shocktober column, I would like to focus on two films that are so very loosely based on Shelley’s vision as to be practically unrecognizable from her source material. Still, taken separately or as a wild double feature, they might make for perfect fare one dark and lightning-streaked October night….
What fan of Grade Z sci-fi shlock could possibly resist a film called Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster … especially after learning of its alternate title, Mars Invades Puerto Rico? Well, I guess it’s true that you can’t judge a film by its title, because I was actually fairly impressed with how interesting this little cheapie turned out to be. In it, America’s first humanoid robotic astronaut, Col. Frank Saunders (and the “Frank” in his name is the closest we ever get to the Frankenstein legend!), is shot down by Martians whilst en route to that very planet. Frank jettisons his capsule and parachutes down to Puerto Rico, where the invading Martians manage to blast half his face away, zapping his circuits and turning him into a mangled, shambling, homicidal beachcomber. Good thing his creator, James Karen (most famous, perhaps, for those old annoying Pathmark commercials), is able to do some touch-up work on him, so he can battle the Martians (who are busy stealing our bikini-clad women for their breeding purposes) and their mutant creature, Mull. It must be said that these Mars types – led by their regal-looking Princess Marcuzan and a dorky guy named Dr. Nadir (!), who looks like a cross between Uncle Fester and Dr. Sevrin, the leader of Star Trek‘s space hippies – are a lot less discreet than those in 1966’s Mars Needs Women, blasting up teenage pool parties and just hauling their hotties away! Shlocky as the whole thing is, this film, directed by Robert Gaffney, also features some very nice B&W photography, nicely captured on the Dark Sky DVD that I recently watched in a stunning-looking print; cool rock ‘n’ roll music by The Distant Cousins and The Poets (non sequitur though it usually is!); some artful FX; and a compact storyline. I can’t imagine anyone not being entertained or at least flabbergasted on some level by this truly mind-boggling film. You won’t soon forget this one, I promise you! The folks at Dark Sky are to be thanked for a very nice package of a true sci-fi oddball.
Well, he may not exactly conquer the world in this picture, but at least he gets off his usual home turf! In the very imaginative opening of Frankenstein Conquers the World, you see, the living heart of the Frankenstein monster is taken from Germany at the end of World War II and transported by submarine to Japan, where it is promptly exposed to A-bomb radiation at Hiroshima and eventually grows, to become a giant, gap-toothed male waif. This lumbering doofus (who ultimately reveals himself to be the nimblest, most energetic Frankenstein ever shown on film) soon has a dukeout royale with Baragon, a sort of giant, spiny-backed, (heat?) ray-spewing, burrowing armadillo dinosaur, with no holds barred and no quarter given. Anyway, this picture strikes me as being several cuts above the usual kaiju eiga fare. It has been fairly handsomely produced, features very adequate FX (despite the Maltin book’s claim to the contrary; well, that bucking horse excepted), and makes excellent use of its CinemaScope frame. Director Ishiro Honda, composer Akira Ifukube and the great actor Takashi Shimura, who all contributed so much to the original Gojira film in 1954, here bring their talents together again, with highly entertaining results, and American actor Nick Adams does his best playing Dr. James Bowen, a scientist working at the Hiroshima International Institute of Radiotherapentics (sic). The picture offers several striking visuals, none perhaps as impressive as the awesome spectacle of Franky and Baragon going at it with a flaming forest as a backdrop. The pristine-looking DVD from Media Blasters that I recently watched offers both the “international” and the “theatrical” versions of the film, which differ only in the final five minutes. I much prefer the “international,” if only because we get to see Franky (ridiculously) battle yet another monster in it. Either version, however, should provide an evening’s worth of good mindless fun.
Well, folks, as you might have been able to tell, these two films are a far, far cry from Boris Karloff subtly underplaying the role of the Monster in what is most likely the finest of these many pictures, Bride of Frankenstein (1935), but should still provide you and yours with an evening of good scary fun. I will leave you now with this old joke: What does Dr. Frankenstein call the graveyard? Human Resources! Bwah hah hah hah!