Kim Newman on... Frankenstein Conquers the World

The renowned critic begins a new column looking at obscure cinema plucked from the depths of RT's database.

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RT Obscura with Kim Newman

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 kaijū: 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.

RT Obscura with Kim Newman

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.