Friday, February 28, 2014

Worth Mentioning - Frankenstein vs. Not-Godzilla

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Cody sees what Godzilla missed out on.


Although he wasn't involved in any capacity, Frankenstein Conquers the World, a.k.a Frankenstein vs. Baragon, is in a small way the realization of a dream that King Kong stop-motion special effects creator Willis O'Brien had in the early '60s. O'Brien had written a treatment for a film that would see King Kong doing battle with a creation of (the grandson of) Dr. Frankstein's, a creature that stood Kong's height and was made from the bodies of animals from the African continent. Producer John Beck took the project out of O'Brien's hands and got it made at Japan's Toho Studios, except Toho completely retooled it and substituted their own character in for Frankenstein's Monster, resulting in King Kong vs. Godzilla.

Still, Toho did want to work Frankenstein into their stable of monsters and mutants. A project that would've crossed Frankenstein over with their sci-fi crime thriller The Human Vapor was considered but scrapped, and then Takeshi Kimura was hired to write the screenplay that eventually became Frankenstein Conquers the World. But when Kimura wrote the first draft, the script was Frankenstein vs. Godzilla.

Godzilla was eventually written out, but the basics of the story Kimura initially came up with did reach the screen in a film that American company UPA came on board to co-produce with Toho.

The story begins in Germany, 1945. As World War II is coming to an end, Nazi soldiers march into a laboratory and take away a box containing a heart that is still beating. The box makes a treacherous journey to Hiroshima, Japan, where a scientist explains that the heart within belonged to the infamous Frankenstein's Monster. The events we know from Mary Shelley's novel occurred in the 1800s, but the monster's heart still lives. The scientist believes that by the studying the heart and its cellular activity, he may find a way to make it so that soldiers fighting in the war won't die from their wounds.

The scientist doesn't get a chance to start his research, because the day is August 6th, 1945. The day U.S. forces dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

The story then jumps ahead fifteen years, where we meet the film's main characters - American doctor James Bowen and his fellow workers at the International Institute of Radiotherapeutics, Sueko Togami and Ken'ichiro Kawaji.

While the Godzilla series was drifting further and further away from its horrific roots in the nuclear bombing of Japan, here Gojira director Ishirô Honda was again able to meditate on what his country had gone through at the end of World War II and the lingering effects of the radiation and devastation. Fifteen years on, the characters are still somberly dealing with the aftermath of the bombing, helplessly watching patients affected by it wither away. They can only hope that, through their study of radiation and cellular tissue, they will be able to bring something good for mankind out of the tragedy.

Another lingering effect of the bombing are the homeless children in the city, and Sueko keeps crossing paths with one particular peculiar looking feral young boy, who goes around killing and eating any sort of animal he can get his hands on. Rabbits, chickens, dogs, cats... Eventually, the doctors are able to bring this boy into the institute, and in examining him find that he has received a dose of radiation but somehow did not develop radiation poisoning. In fact, his body is resistant to radiation.

The doctors come to realize that the boy is Frankenstein's Monster, having regenerated from the heart that was delivered to Hiroshima soon before the bombing... But due to the radiation, the monster is also growing at an accelerated rate, reaching a size beyond humans. At times, the monster will fly into destructive rages, and the only thing that can calm him down is the presence of Sueko.

Unfortunately, Sueko is not around when an overzealous television news crew is allowed in to see the monster. The bright lights they set up to film him drive him into a rage and he escapes from the institute, heading into the countryside.

Back in the wild, the monster has grown to such Godzilla-esque proportions that he hunts animal prey using full grown trees as a weapon. The authorities believe he must be destroyed, something as large as he is is too dangerous to exist. Bowen, Sueko, and Kawaji do their best to track down and find the monster before he's killed... if he can be killed... Their case for bringing in the monster unharmed isn't helped by the fact that households and businesses begin to get destroyed by a large creature. People are killed. The worst fears the authorities had about the monster seem to have been confirmed.

But Frankenstein's Monster remains a peaceful creature, only interested in eating animals, not in harming humans. There is another monster in Japan.

In Kimura's original draft, the Japanese military was so concerned that Frankenstein's Monster was going to branch out into killing people that they revived Godzilla and sent him after the unstoppable monster. This decision would prove to be a mistake, as Frankenstein's Monster was good at heart while Godzilla was still the villain he was at that point when Kimura wrote the script, before Mothra vs. Godzilla and thus before Godzilla's turn to heroism in that film's sequel, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster.

Godzilla was ultimately replaced in this story by a monster called Baragon, a dinosaur that survived extinction by burrowing deep into the earth. Subterranean, bioluminescent, able to blast energy rays from its mouth, Baragon has been digging up out of the ground all around Japan, causing destruction and human casualties.

Bowen, Sueko, and Kawaji trek into the wilderness to find Frankenstein's Monster, and instead are confronted by Baragon. The mammoth reptile attacks... Sueko is in grave danger... Then the monster arrives on the scene, and the long in the making concept of a large Frankenstein's Monster engaging in battle with a similarly large beast finally reaches the screen as the monster and Baragon fight to the death.

It took a long and winding road to get to the screen, but in its final form Frankenstein Conquers the World is a very good, entertaining film. The aspect of how to bring Frankenstein's Monster into 1960s Japan and why he ends up giant-sized is handled well, and the monster himself is both unnerving and sympathetic. We don't want to see him hurt or destroyed, we root for him in the final battle.

I find that the only downside to this film is that the creature he ended up fighting was the newbie Baragon rather than the established superstar Godzilla, which would have gained it extra recognition. I enjoy the movie a great deal, but I would like it more if Frankenstein's Monster did actually fight a villainous Godzilla in the end... Simply because that would've been so much cooler. Setting aside that kaiju bias, it is a fine film just as it is.


A year after Frankenstein Conquers the World, Toho and UPA reteamed on a follow-up, one that shares many elements and has subtle references back to the previous film that imply it's a sequel, although many viewers seem unaware that the movies are connected. In fact, I myself didn't know that Gargantuas was meant to be a sequel of sorts until my recent viewing as I watch my way through Toho monster movies in this 60th year of Godzilla.

Directed by Ishirô Honda from a screenplay he wrote with Takeshi Kimura, based on a story by American producer Reuben Bercovitch, The War of the Gargantuas begins with a giant octopus attacking a ship at sea off the coast of Japan one dark and stormy night. The situation seems dire until a giant green, hairy, mossy, man-like monster rises from the sea and beats the octopus into submission. It seems the monster has saved the ship! Unfortunately for those aboard, he has only saved it so he can grab it himself and start shaking violently, shoving it under the water. As crew members swim for their lives, the monster - which is called Gaira and is portrayed, as Baragon was, by primary Godzilla performer Haruo Nakajima - plucks them out of the water and devours them.

Five years earlier, the Kyoto Shingara Institute briefly had a baby monster, referred to as a Frankenstein or a Gargantua, in their custody, but the little monster escaped before they could do much research on it. Knowing the institute's history with this creature, the authorities contact the three doctors who worked most closely with it - American doctor Paul Stewart and his Japanese co-workers Akemi Togawa and Yuzo Majida.

The dynamics of these characters have led to some speculation that the script for Gargantuas was once a much more direct sequel to Frankenstein Conquers the World, and the original actors may have been expected to reprise their roles. Instead, the characters were renamed and the male actors recast, but Akemi is played by Kumi Mizuno, the same actress who played Sueko in FCTW, and Akemi had a relationship with the baby Gargantua similar to the one Sueko had with Frankenstein's Monster in the earlier movie; she was the monster's favorite of the group and her presence had a calming effect on it.

The doctors are certain that the monster that attacked the ship, and goes on to attack locations on mainland Japan, couldn't possibly be the same monster that they briefly had at the institute. Their monster wouldn't live in the sea and definitely would not eat people.

As Gaira causes death and destruction around Japan, the military mobilizes to stop the monster. Gunfire, bombs and tanks seem to have no effect on the creature, but when the military brings out the sci-fi Maser Cannon and relentlessly blasts Gaira with powerful beams of plasma energy, it appears that the battle may be won... Until a second Gargantua, a large, furry brown creature called Sanda, shows up to help Gaira escape into the mountains, where he tries to nurse his fellow monster back to health.

The doctors from the Kyoto Shingara Institute have been vindicated. Gaira is not the monster they knew, the gentle Sanda is. They speculate that Gaira must have generated from cells that scraped off of the land-dwelling Sanda while he was in a lake, explaining why Gaira developed to be a sea creature. Further speculation among viewers is that Sanda originally grew from cells that came from the Frankenstein's Monster in Conquers the World.

Sanda may be harmless to people, but that earns him no points with the powers-that-be; the military has orders to destroy both of the Gargantuas... Although they realize that if they blow the monsters up, soon they'll be dealing with many more that would generate from the scattered remains.

While the military hunts the monsters, the doctors do their best to try to find a way to save Sanda's life and convince the authorities to let them keep him in a safe place.

When Gaira wades into Tokyo determined to cause more death and destruction, Sanda makes a valiant effort to deter his violent offspring and to get him to change his evil ways, but when Gaira refuses, the two engage in a battle to the death amongst special effects artist Eiji Tsubaraya's incredible, beautifully crafted miniature city.

Mentioned as one of Walt Flanagan of Tell 'Em Steve-Dave/Comic Book Men's all-time favorite films, credited by Brad Pitt during an Academy Awards ceremony for being the film that made him want to be an actor, The War of the Gargantuas is still a popular, often-referenced film to this day, nearly fifty years later.

It has gained more popularity than its predecessor, partly because of that disappointing decision not to have Godzilla battle Frankenstein's Monster, but also because, at least in my opinion, it's just overall a much more exciting film. It barrels along at a good pace, is action-packed, and there's never too much time between monster moments.

The Gargantuas aren't the coolest big monsters to ever hit the screen, but they provide good entertainment and cause enough structural damage to rival the best of them.

UPA's Henry G. Saperstein also executive produced the 1965 Godzilla movie Invasion of Astro-Monster, and had intentions to make a follow-up to The War of Gargantuas that would take the Frankenstein / Gargantua story full circle, back to its roots in Takeshi Kimura's Frankenstein vs. Godzilla screenplay - Saperstein wanted to make Godzilla vs. the Gargantuas, but unfortunately the project was never developed beyond a treatment written by Reuben Bercovitch. Godzilla and Frankenstein were apparently just not meant to cross paths.

No comments:

Post a Comment