Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Frankenstein Conquers the World

Frankenstein Conquers the World roars to life with a prologue set during the last days of the Second World War. This brief, exposition orientated sequence offers director Ishiro Honda and special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya the opportunity to present that globe-spanning conflict as a series of intricately detailed, scratch-built dioramas. The European theatre is glimpsed as a static stretch of chewed up earth, stained grey and clouded with sparks and explosions. An absurd wunderwaffe laboratory, the cradle of Dr Frankenstein's unkillable heart, is depicted as a fantastical, swirling snow globe. Most impressive of all though is Honda and Tsuburaya's portrayal of the Hiroshima bombing.

Honda and Tsuburaya avoid the typical, some might say triumphant, sight of a mushroom cloud to focus instead on a human scaled destruction. Blazing atomic fire cascades down onto squashed, pathetic miniatures. Flames as tall as skyscrapers utterly overwhelm the fragile, wooden city. The effect is total. In terms of pure imagery, that's as good as the film gets. After this barnstorming opener, Frankenstein Conquers relaxes almost completely, exchanging expertly curated models for dull lab work. We catapult forward into the 1960s where Nazi Germany's miracle organ has since grown into a lurching primitive who has been captured then displayed like a Junior Kong. While Koji Furuhata's Frankenstein may have the same towering forehead as Boris Karloff's monster his dull, mottled skin and warped features evoke the regressive gaze of radioactive mutation.

While not in the same league as the calcified horrors of Toho's later, frequently truncated Prophecies of Nostradamus, Honda's monster is a uniquely disturbing take on the transformative powers of the atomic age. Conceptually he's the explicitly Caucasian product of Nazi super science, a curdled Ubermensch rendered as a sloping, diseased child. His brutish looks and grasping obsession with Kumi Mizuno's Dr Sueko Togami can't help but recall the engorged, cannibalistic threat of the Western powers, as depicted in Japanese wartime propaganda. Frankenstein may be foreign and misunderstood but he is also, ultimately, an innocent. The blame for the people gobbling that has rural Japan in uproar lies with the film's B-creature, an indigenous, tunneling lizard with the face of a slow-witted Pug dog.

Baragon is basically an aside, glimpsed in bracketed blips apparently shuffled into the feature at random. Both monster's small-for-the-genre size and Furuhata's light, make-up focused costuming change how the film's (infrequent) fight scenes are structured too. The overcranked histrionics of the Godzilla series are replaced with a spry, scrappy combat focused around the rough-and-tumble interactions between a human actor and his bulging, suited up opponent. This exciting, disorganised approach to Kaiju grappling, as well as Frankenstein's racist, occult science background, stand out in a film mostly content to meander around Nick Adams' perplexing domestic set-up.

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