The Manster (1959) ***½

Common knowledge has it that the 1950s were a more innocent, conservative time than our own. Nestled in between the cynicism of the 30s and the 40s, and the revolution of the 60s and 70s, the 50s existed as a kind peaceful island. While a gross oversimplification, there was some truth to this notion. People were cynical in the 1930s and 40s because for the most part, things were awful; between war, famine, and global economic depression there wasn’t much room for optimism. A world at peace (mostly) and a booming economy convinced the newly safe and affluent people of America found that they no longer had much use for their world-weary cynicism. However, the world of Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best was not the only cultural force playing out during the decade; and it became increasingly obvious to those paying attentions to the margins of society. Between the growing popularity of the beatniks, and the rise of counter-culture figures like James Dean to prominence, it didn’t take a prophet to see that rebels (with or without a cause) were going to play an increasingly important role in the future. The more conservative voices that though everything during the 2nd Eisenhower administration was just swell were understandable scared. I imagine that The Manster was part of this reaction; a morality lay about man’s licentious nature masquerading as a cheesy B-movie.

The film’s opening let’s us know exactly what we’re in for, so you should be able to judge whether or not The Manster is your kind of movie before the first five minutes are up. We start with a shot of some beautiful Japanese women bathing in a traditional hot spring. In an adjacent dressing room another woman is exfoliating her skin. Suddenly an ape-like monster appears, closing the flimsy sliding paper door as he enters. We can only see the monster’s silhouette as it attack the woman. She falls to the ground and a splatter of blood splashes across the paper door. The monster is a creature cooked up by Dr. Suzuki, Tokyo’s leading mad scientist, who is fed up with all the negative attentions the creature is getting him from the locals. Worried that it’s only a matter of time before the locals reach for their torches and pitchforks he kills the monster himself and dumps its body into the incinerator.

Americans in the 1950s had a certain veneration of scientists, who had after all helped them win WWII and ushered their nation into an unprecedented age of peace and prosperity. This was evidenced by a general softening of the mad scientist image in cinema, from outright villains to tragic heroes, and occasionally genuine heroes in their own right. The Japanese, having been subjected to the single greatest technological horror of all time, had less desire to humanize their evil scientists. As a result, Dr. Suzuki is not only incredibly evil, but also completely nonsensical in the application of his dastardly deeds (to be fair, he’s no worse morally than his real life counterparts in Unit 731). The fiendish doctor lives in a remote lab, located near the summit of an active volcano. He carries out his sinister experiments, by injecting his friends and family with a dangerous serum that will kick-start the subject’s evolution. The only problem is that after turning both his wife and brother into monstrous abominations (his brother was the monster killed in the film’s opening; his wife a semi-human abomination chained up in his basement), Suzuki is fresh out of willing test subjects. So, he does the only rational thing and drugs a visiting journalist named Larry Standford. Suzuki then injects the unconscious man with his latest batch of monster juice. Suzuki is yet another research who has never heard of animals trials.

Larry is all set to head back to the United States where he’s kept his dutiful wife hanging in limbo while he chases stories in all the shady corners of the globe. Now it’s time for him to settle down and take a city desk back at the home office, and Larry is pretty pleased with the situation. Suzuki can’t have Larry leaving the country just yet though, how will he be able to record the results of his experiment if Larry is back in America? Suzuki decides his best bet is to start a charm offensive, going out drinking and carousing with his American lab rat. However, it soon becomes obvious that Suzuki is too middle aged, too doughy, and too male to convince Larry to leave his wife. Suzuki delegates that task to his comely, female Igor, a woman named Tara. The serum’s effects aid her seduction of Larry; he is already turning into an irate, drunken asshole that picks fights with all his old friends. It isn’t hard for Tara to entice this new Larry into an affair. It’s not entirely clear whether his moral lapses are due to his new choice of friends or his rapidly altering genome, but one thing is for sure: when his left hand turns into a sinister looking claw it’s almost certainly a sign that Suzuki’s experiment is producing another monster. Suzuki doesn’t seem to mind that all that much though; he’s getting good notes out of it. The surprising thing is that Tara, who harps so much on her own ruthlessness is beginning to have second thoughts about the whole thing.

Meanwhile, Larry’s wife Linda has flown in from New York, in a desperate bid to save her marriage. Allied with Larry’s publisher, Ian Mathews, she ambushes Larry at his apartment when he drunkenly staggers back home one night with Tara in tow. The following scene really ratchets up the melodramatic, noir-style dialogue past the point of all reason. “Alright let’s not draw this one out,” Larry barks out to his wife and publisher. “Let’s make it front page top banner line: So you found out, so what?” Linda replies with maudlin pleading in her thick New York accent: “I came here soz I could see you; soz you could see me.” The dialogue here is typical of the rest of the movie, both in terms of how over-dramatic it is and how entertaining it is to watch. Larry storms out of the apartment, heading to Tara’s place with his new girlfriend. Tara pushes him to go back to his wife, and let Linda know once and for all that he’s not interested in her anymore. Larry obliges, but as he’s heading back to his apartment the serum really kicks in, and he can’t help but stop off in a temple along to way to kill the priest. The next day Larry has no recollection of the events, though he does have a set of prayer beads in his pocket that he cannot account for.

As Larry’s condition progresses, more dead bodies start to popup all over Tokyo and the surrounding environs, with no clear motive or pattern behind the killings. If anything, they look like the work of a wild animal rather than a serial killer. Larry’s form continues to mutate as well; most noticeably when an eye appears in his shoulder. Ian continues to try to get Larry some help, even offering to pay for the services of the foremost therapist in Japan, one Dr. Jennsen, to help. Dr. Jennsen, by the way, looks so much like a caricature of Sigmund Freud that I confess I was disappointed that he did not sport a thick Austrian accent when he began to talk. Larry isn’t interested, in fact he’s so insulted by Ian’s offer that later that night he goes back to Jennsen’s office and murders the man. It’s at this point that the eye growing out his shoulder blossoms into a full-sized head, which looks like a cross between an ape and a demon.

A serial killer can prowl the streets, unbeknownst to his victims; but a two-headed monster is another matter altogether. There’s no way that Larry can hide such an obvious disfigurement, so as soon as he sets foot outside of the house he is pursued by the police every step of the way. His destination is Dr. Suzuki’s lab, which seems to be the beacon to which all the doctor’s monsters flock. Larry evades the police, killing quite a few of the patrolmen in the process and arrives at the doctor’s mountain hideaway. Suzuki has suffered an inexplicable change of heart, he has decided to destroy the formula for his serum, put his poor mutant wife out of her misery, and give Larry an injection that will separate the monster gestating inside of him from his original self. Why Suzuki is doing any of this is just as confusing as what he was hoping to accomplish by his experiment in the first place. Rather than waste time trying to come up with a thematic, I’ll just say Suzuki went suddenly sane (imagine the reverse of a mental breakdown) and leave it at that.

The formula that Suzuki has made works, causing Larry to split into two distinct entities: the old Larry from the film’s opening, and some bloke in an albino gorilla suit intent on murdering everyone around him. The only chance for Larry to survive is to fight the monster that he previously shared a body with, in hand to hand combat; naturally the volcano near Suzuki’s laboratory has spontaneously erupted to give the showdown its necessary dramatic tension. Larry emerges triumphant, and is immediately taken into police custody. The cops were still looking for him, and as far as they know he’s the one who committed all the murders that have been plaguing the city. In a startling display of truth in cinema they are going to take Larry in and try him as a serial killer, despite the fact that he’s the victorious protagonist. Well, at least in some versions of this film; in other versions it end with Larry triumphant on the volcano, not even bothering to tell us how he plans to get back home with all that lava around. Both endings have their appeals, I can’t really say which one I like best; though the longer version of the film does have the advantage of ending with a heavy handed monologue delivered by Ian Mathews of all people.

There’s a lot to like about The Manster, starting with its title. Larry is half man, half monster, so naturally he’s a Manster. The sheer goofiness of the portmanteau is enough to win points from me. Then there is Peter Dyneley wonderfully hammy performance as the titular man with a monster growing out of his neck. Such a role does not call for subtly, and Dyneley certainly understands that. His turn as an angry drunk slowly losing his mind to the demons implanted in him by a lunatic scientist is exactly as exaggerated and fun as such a role needs to be. A script that tries to merge the era melodramas with the artistic sensibilities of Raymond Chandler makes his performance even more enjoyable. The practical effects, the claw, the eye and the head that appear of Larry’s body are all of excellent quality, and I believe that they could even manage to scare a sheltered child from this more cynical epoch. All this is set to a soundtrack that makes ample use of the cliché creepy saw sound that so many associate with the era and the genre. Plus it’s short; at an hour and change you don’t have that much to loose.

The film’s politics are decidedly reactionary. Any deviation from the conventional morality is treated as the product of a festering cancer that will eventually consume its host completely. Larry’s sins while the monster is growing inside him aren’t just the traditional Mr. Hyde and Wolf-man murder sprees either; he also commits more mundane transgressions of drinking, arguing, adultery and general unpleasantness. Such commonplace corruption invites us to place Larry’s depravity in a more realistic light. Of course, there’s a distinct chance that I’m giving The Manster far too much credit, as it is an impossibly scatterbrained film. Such is to be expected given the film’s origin, as a joint venture between American and Japanese filmmakers. There’s plenty of wackiness that can only be explained by the glaring cultural differences among the creators, yet I don’t think that the film’s international origin affected the central theme. After all, America’s arch from booming post-war era giving way to widespread youthful discontent was practically duplicated in Japan. I would imagine that the old fogies in both countries would find plenty in The Manster to nod their head approvingly at.

 

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