Folks, a good doctor knows that valuable insights and knowledge may be gained from consulting with one’s colleagues. That’s why, over the past four days, yours truly has been deeply immersed in the ’50s Monster Mash Blogathon hosted by Nathanael Hood over at Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear (click here for a list of participating sites and films), where such vintage creature features as The Alligator People, Plan 9 from Outer Space, Robot Monster and Tarantula are getting their Internet due. Now, I’m not a big believer in numerology, but as this marks case file number 22, it seems more than a little appropriate that my own humble contribution to Nathanael’s horror hoe-down should be linked to the number two. For example, what happens when two directors, working for studios representing two countries, put their heads together (hint, hint) to create a monster movie? The answer is that twice-weird U.S./Japanese wonder, 1959′s The Manster.
That’s “Manster,” of course, as in “half man, half monster,” and the manstrous goings-on in this “science gone wild” fright flick get started before the opening credits even have a chance to roll, as some Japanese bathing beauties in a waterfall-fed pool are slaughtered by a shadowy, but apparently hirsute, beast (note the blood on the sliding shoji screen behind the title card). Once he’s done setting up the film’s premise, the furry fiend obligingly returns home to the mountainside home/workplace of God-playing scientist Dr. Robert Suzuki (Satoshi Nakamura), whose basement laboratory also houses–à la The Black Sleep and The Curse of the Fly–the mutated test subjects from his research into “cosmic rays and evolution” or some such. Worried about his charge’s nocturnal excursions (“He visited a house in the village last night. It’s not easy to keep a thing like that from attracting too much attention,” notes the doctor), Suzuki is forced to kill the creature and toss its carcass into a conveniently-located volcanic pit.
Poor Doc Suzuki is now down to one human guinea pig–a deformed woman he calls Eimko–but don’t worry, because lumbering up the mountain to interview the mad medico is the film’s soon-to-be title character, American foreign news correspondent Larry Stanford (British-born actor Peter Dyneley). After a few questions, Suzuki realizes he’s got a perfect candidate for his experiments and slips the oblivious Stanford a spiked drink, then injects the unconscious oaf with a little “Manster” enzyme that will eventually turn him into, as the doc puts it, “actually a new species of man.” “Actually,” it seems to turn him into the same old species of man, because Larry is soon enjoying a sake-fueled binge of drinking, geishas and bathhouses with Suzuki–and nights out on the town with the doctor’s comely assistant, Tara–all while neglecting his job and a planned return to the states and his wife, Linda (Jane Hylton, Dyneley’s real-life spouse). He’s also becoming a belligerent loudmouth, and when Linda arrives in Tokyo and joins with Larry’s boss Ian to confront him (“I came here so’s I could see you, so’s you could see me,” she says to her husband, proving that Larry didn’t marry Linda for her grammatical skills), he yells at them both and leaves with Tara on his slightly-twitching arm.
At this point one could be excused for thinking that the film really should have been entitled “The Masshole,” but Suzuki’s serum is at last beginning to kick in, turning Larry’s right hand into a fur-covered claw and sending him into murderous attacks on a Buddhist priest and several women that he cannot remember. Oh, and his right shoulder keeps itching (remember this point). Another visit from Ian–this time with a psychiatrist–does nothing to improve Larry’s mood and he kicks them out of his apartment while bellowing “LET ME ALOOOOOONE!” Which, it turns out, is kind of ironic, because alone is the last thing Larry will be after he looks in the mirror and sees his new BFF peeking up at him…
Come on, admit it; An eye is a lot creepier than an ear or a chin would have been. The now tri-ocular Larry heads out into the streets of Tokyo and makes his way to the office of the aforementioned psychiatrist (wouldn’t an ophthalmologist have made more sense?), who watches as Larry’s Cyclopean sidekick begins to grow and take shape like an inflating balloon (and I’m willing to bet that’s what they used in the scene) and turns him–finally!–into the savage, bloodthirsty Manster!
Okay, maybe an opthamologist or a dentist would have been a better choice. Good thing there’s room enough in that trenchcoat for two necks.
Needless to say, that psychiatrist was not long for this world after that. Larry-and-Larry, Jr.’s double-domed reign of terror sends him on the run from the Tokyo police (“When you find him,” Linda tells the police inspector, “will you remember that something’s happened to him?” Gee, Linda, you mean your husband didn’t always have two heads!?) and back into the hills towards Dr. Suzuki’s lab (“At the risk of being overpoetic,” the doc muses, “let me put it this way; He was created in the mountain, he’ll return to the mountain.”). A remorseful Suzuki has already shot and killed the hideous Emiko, who turns out to have been–spolier alert!–his wife. And thanks to some urging from Tara, who’s smitten with (one-headed) Larry, the doc has developed another serum to separate the Manster into two beings. He manages to inject his dual-craniumed creation before the Larrys kill him and carry off an unconscious Tara further up the volcano. Those of you who have seen this movie under one of its other names know what happens next. In fact, you knew what happens beforehand, thanks to this blabbermouth poster…
That’s right, it’s mitosis on a grand scale, all done from behind a handy tree. The now-back-to-human Larry (who, fortunately for the audience, somehow managed to keep his pants and most of his shirt in the break-up) gets to confront his erstwhile other half in a battle to the death near yet another fiery pit. And what is the aftermath of their Jekyll-vs.-Hyde smackdown? Well, I’m not going to say. But, as Larry’s pal Ian–perhaps recalling our earlier case file Chained for Life–says, “It’s going to pose quite a legal problem. Who really did all these things?”
As ’50s monster movies go, The Manster’s (fittingly) dichotomous nature puts it readily into the middle of the genre pack. The movie is nearly two-thirds over before the title creature even shows up, and while its look is certainly at times goofy (It is impressive when “Little Larry’s” mouth snarls), there are some genuine shock moments, and the transformations have a fun, low-tech feel to them. One must give props to directors George Breakston and Kenneth G. Crane (I’m assuming they’re two different people and not two heads on a single director’s body). As for the acting, star Dyneley’s bellicose demeanor and over-the-top line delivery make it hard to take his plight seriously. Nakamura, on the other hand, manages to give Dr. Suzuki’s scenes with his ill-fated wife Emiko a degree of sympathy. As Suzuki says, “Some of us aren’t meant to know love, not as ordinary people do. I haven’t had very good luck myself in that respect.” I hear you, Doc.
So, what can one ultimately take away from this horror double header? As Ian says to Larry’s wife, in some of the worst potential pick-up dialogue ever, “I’m a reporter, not a mystic, Linda. But there are things beyond us perhaps we’re not meant to understand. If what’s happened has made this all clear, well then, perhaps it makes sense after all.” To be perfectly honest, Ian, it really doesn’t. But it obviously made sense to director Sam Raimi, who three decades later crafted a wonderfully skewed send-up, from eyeball-on-the-shoulder to final split, in his “Good Ash vs. Evil Ash” showdown in Army of Darkness.