The special effects pioneer Willis H. O’Brien spent much of his post-King Kong career frustrated by Hollywood’s refusal to back his ambitious projects. One of his doomed ventures was an outline for King Kong vs. Frankenstein, which wound up being sold overseas to Japan’s Toho Studios and made in 1962 (without O’Brien’s participation, naturally) as King Kong vs Godzilla.
Toho didn’t just throw away O’Brien’s ‘giant Frankenstein Monster’ concept, but recycled it three years later in this odd, quite lavish creature feature from the Godzilla (Gojira) team of director Ishiro Honda and effects specialist Eiji Tusburaya. I’ve seen the memorable title listed in Frankenstein filmographies since the first list-type books on horror movies appeared in the 1970s, but have only recently caught up with Frankenstein Conquers the World (in three variant versions) on an impressive DVD release; I’ve still not caught up with the immediate sequel, War of the Gargantuas (Furankenshutain no kaijû: Sanda tai Gaira) (I gather the English language version of that dissociates itself from the first film).
The set-up is elaborate and contrived, but admirably weird: in 1945, with the Nazis nearly defeated, the still-beating heart of the Frankenstein monster is requisitioned from a laboratory in Germany and sent via submarine to the Military Hospital in Hiroshima, where scientists intend to use it to breed a race of soldiers who can’t be killed by bullets.
Takashi Shimura, frog-faced star of several Kurosawa classics – Living (Ikiru), Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai) – and the first Godzilla, has a tiny cameo as the head of this project, which is terminated when the A-Bomb is dropped on the city. It’s a truism that the whole Japanese kaiju-cycle is profoundly influenced by the country’s first-hand experience of nuclear war, but this is almost unique in using Godzilla-style effects to depict the actual atomic strike — with a wall of flame filling the screen and a vivid crimson mushroom cloud rising into the sky.
Then, ‘fifteen years later’, we pick up in reconstructed Hiroshima and find guilt-ridden American scientist Dr James Bowen (Nick Adams) working with local sweetie Dr Sueko Togami (Kumi Mizuno) and ambitious colleague Dr Yuzo Kawaji (Tadao Takashima) studying the long-term effects of radiation, at once coping with the still-ailing victims (a perky young girl who finishes embroidering a cushion for Bowen before expiring offscreen) and searching out positive uses of the atom. The film hurries through this section, skipping a year from characters feeling sad about the doomed girl to visiting her grave on the anniversary of her death, to get to the monster stuff, which is unique in both Frankenstein films and the Japanese kaiju pantheon.
A feral boy (Koji Furuhata), referred to as ‘Frankenstein’ throughout, lives near the ruins of the hospital — we assume that the monster heart has generated this new body (one theory is that a starving local orphan ate the heart, though the script — if not the make-up — insists he’s Caucasian). Frankenstein forms a bond with the kindly Sueko, but is savage enough to eat animals raw. In a sequence only Japanese filmmakers would include in a kiddie matinee picture, schoolchildren rush into their classroom to find the explicitly ripped-apart and gore-spatted remains of pet rabbits on the floor.
Frankenstein, presumably as a result of irradiation, has a growth spurt and becomes twenty feet tall. He wears caveman-style skins and has crooked teeth (one ineptly blacked-out), a Karloffian brow ridge and a shaggy, greenish wig. In another leftover from O’Brien, he has a King Kong-type relationship with the heroine: he tries to protect her, and she speaks up for him even when her boss wants to write off the monster and harvest that unkillable heart.
Like the Frankenstein-esque composite human in the later Scream and Scream Again, Frankenstein escapes captivity by wrenching off his own hand (offscreen) to get out of a shackle. The hand has independent life before it crawls out of the picture (in the sequel, it generates into another creature entirely).
The actual plot, when we finally get to it, is simple, yet blissfully loopy: Frankenstein hides in the woods, and is blamed when another monster, armadillo/dinosaur/bulldog Baragon, pops up from beneath the earth to wreck various structures. There’s no explanation of where Baragon comes from; the burrowing beast is a typical Japanese giant monster, with glowing horn (evoking The Dong with the Luminous Nose) and Godzilla-like fire-breath. Not exactly the biggest star in the Toho firmament, Baragon returned for a cameo in Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (Gojira, Mosura, Kingu Gidorâ: Daikaijû sôkôgeki) in 2001. I wonder why Toho didn’t go the obvious route and make Godzilla vs Frankenstein.
The army, an angry mob and even one out of the three hero scientists take against Frankenstein, and pursue him into the woods to kill him — but when Baragon comes out into the open, only the more human monster can take on the other creature in a lengthy wrestling match. Pitting a humanoid giant against a man-in-a-suit monster tends to blow the illusion of meticulous miniature sets, and also show up how awkward the staged battles can be — but the climactic bout, set against a forest fire which visually echoes the holocaust of his creation, is fun in a silly sort of way.
The ‘international version’ of the film has a very strange end as Frankenstein triumphs over Baragon only to be pounced on and dragged into a lake by a floppy giant octopus which has been barely glimpsed earlier. Not is the last-minute introduction of a new threat dramatically peculiar, but the reaction of the human characters to this turn of events (‘he saved us … he’s dead … ho hum … never mind … I’m sure he’ll be back’) is ridiculous (the dubbed cut wisely omits the octopus completely).
Like a lot of Toho monster films before they turned into child-friendly free-for-alls in the 1970s, this mixes surprisingly serious themes (a vague parallel between Dr Frankenstein’s experiments and the unleashing of the Bomb) with outrageous hokum.