Sunday, November 20, 2005

My God’s Bigger: Frankenstein vs. Baragon (1965)

Growing up as a die-hard monster kid, I obsessively watched any creature-feature that came on television. King Kong, Frankenstein’s Monster, big, small, whatever. If it had a monster in it, I was there. And my favorite kinds of monsters were the ones that came from the mighty Toho Studios in Japan. Godzilla, of course, was my favorite, though Rodan was a close runner-up even though he lacked personality. Monster Zero was also high on my list, as was the gentle Mothra. Luckily, it seemed that there was always some kind of kaiju eiga (monster movie) on every Saturday or Sunday afternoon, so I managed to see plenty of ‘em. But for some reason—probably due to the fact that it simply never played on KATU, the channel that aired most of these wonderfully surreal fantasies—I never got a chance to see Frankenstein Conquers the World (its American release title). Now, thankfully, my prospects have changed due to DVD. Though still unavailable in the U.S., Frankenstein vs. Baragon is easily obtainable in its native country of Japan, and because the worldwide web has made it a lot more accessible for cineastes of all stripes—as long as they have a multi-region DVD player—to get pretty much anything their obsessive little hearts desire.

Directed by the legendary Ishiro Honda, with special effects from the equally impressive and important Eiji Tsuburaya, Frankenstein vs. Baragon is one of the landmark kaiju eiga battle royales from the 1960s. After the Nazis deliver via submarine Frankenstein’s heart (not the infamous doctor’s beating muscle but the monster’s) to Hiroshima, Japan, so that doctors can implement their own twisted experiments upon it, the American forces drop the atom bomb and the rest, as they say, is history. Flash forward fifteen years, and a group of doctors—inexplicably led by Dr James Bowen, played to inert perfection by the troubled Nick Adams—discover a strange, feral teenager wandering the streets of Hiroshima, who survives by preying on stray dogs and eating God knows what else. Bowen and his fellow doctors, played by kaiju eiga regulars Tadao Takashima and Kumi Mizuno, attempt to nurse the boy back to health and gently civilize him. But the teenager, experiencing a growth spurt to end them all, starts to metamorphose into a giant and eventually becomes a danger to everyone around him. Dr Kawaji (Takashima) wants to kill Frankenstein and perform experiments upon his body, but Dr Togami (Mizuno) demands that to exterminate him would be against their medical ethics. She’s got a point, but how in the Hell do they expect to tame a 30 foot tall teenager with hormones rampaging violently through him like a fourteen-year old attention-starved boy at a nude rodeo? Of course, this ethical dilemma is not why we enjoy the best of the Toho monster mashes. We want destruction. Big, bad, city in flames trouble in mind is what we desire. And the weirder the better. It takes almost an hour or so for the mayhem to really get going here, but when it does . . . oh, man, you can practically taste the hate. Baragon (a dinosaur-like creature with a spike sticking out of its forehead), who was never a Toho or a fan favorite, is ultimately no match for our square-headed friend. But their showdown in the Japanese countryside is nothing short of awesome. And the finale, with our two adversaries surrounded by a raging forest fire, is one the best endings Honda and Tsuburaya ever devised, as well as one of the most apocalyptic. The Japanese DVD also contains the legendary, and seldom seen, “alternate” ending which has Frankenstein battling it out with a cosmically huge devil fish (really an octopus) that would have given H.P. Lovecraft nightmares for eternity. Or, he’d simply laugh. Probably the latter, I guess. Anyway . . . the showdown is fantastic, and after reading about it for years, it certainly lived up to my expectations.

Honda and company followed up this mini-classic with the even better War of the Gargantuas the next year, staring yet another slumming, sleep-walking American actor (Russ Tamblyn) to play off of the lovely Ms. Mizuno and the rubber-suit mayhem. And if that doesn’t get your pulse racing, I seriously doubt you’re among the living.

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