Kaiju Kingdom’s Chris Eaton reviews Frankenstein Conquers the World, one of the few non-Godzilla kaiju films produced by Toho.
During World War II, Nazi soldiers storm the laboratory of scientist performing experiments on a disembodied but still beating heart. Transporting the heart by U-Boat, the Nazi’s trade off the cargo with Japanese soldiers in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The heart arrives in Japan, more notably in Hiroshima. As Japanese scientist begin to work on the specimen, the United States drops the first nuclear bomb on the city. Smash cut to 15 years later. Hiroshima is still heavily underpopulated due to the radiation fallout. But people on the outskirts of the town have been sighting a boy living in the quarantine zone, who has taken to killing small animals for sustenance. News of the child travels to a trio of scientist led by Dr. James Bowen, who are working on treating the radiated victims of the bombings and the fallout they caused.
A year goes by before Bowen and his crew finally find the boy, who has been cornered in a cave by the locals after he killed some of their livestock. Bowen takes the boy back to his research hospital where his assistant Sueko Togami is tasked with taking care of him. The trio run a battery of tests to find out how the child could have survived the deadly amount of radiation he was exposed to for so long. Findings come back with strange results. Not only has the boy built a resistance to radiation, but what’s even stranger is that he’s not even of Japanese decent. He’s Caucasian.
Meanwhile across the country. An oil refinery and drilling station are hit by an earthquake. As the crew flee for safety from the collapsing structures they witness the ground open up. To their surprise, something gigantic is moving in the shadows of the crevasse. The only thing they can make out is the faint luminosity of what appears to be a horn and some teeth. Before they can get a better look at the thing, rubble falls into the fissure and seals it off.
Back at the hospital, the boy is starting to grow at a tremendous rate. Reaching 7 foot, Bowen and his crew are given new information from one of the Japanese soldiers that transported the heart to Hiroshima. This leads the team to Germany, where they learn from the scientist who was working with the heart that the boy could be Frankenstein’s Monster. Given the properties of the near immortal heart, as long as it takes in protein, it’ll keep growing. The only way to be sure is to sever a limb, if the grows back then its truly the monster. Back in Japan, now standing some 18 foot, the boy escapes, but not before severing his own hand, which starts to crawl on its own. With the proof they need, the team knows they are dealing with Frankenstein.
As Frankenstein flees to the country side, the mysterious beast that attacked the oil refinery surfaces. Dubbed Baragon, he attacks a ski resort, killing and eating many of the residents. Frankenstein, who is now some 60 ft, is blamed for the attacks. Military action is called to take him down. Bowen and his team try to find Frankenstein first, not believing him to be behind the attacks. They inadvertently run into Baragon, who tries to attack them. Saved by an interjecting Frankenstein, the trio warns the military and Frankenstein and Baragon duel to the death.
Perhaps one of the wildest kaiju films that Toho ever produced, Frankenstein Conquers the World is also easily one of their best. Toho for a few years had wanted to do something with the Frankenstein Monster. The first opportunity that came their way was with John Beck delivering to them Willis O’Brien’s proposed King Kong meets Frankenstein. That film went on to become King Kong vs Godzilla. But Toho sought a project to put arguably the most famous monster of all time on screen. Studio brass conjured up the monster as a proposed opponent for Godzilla next. A full script for Frankenstein vs Godzilla was commissioned. It featured most of the same story that Conquers the World had with the notable exception that Godzilla would be the opponent. Failing to see how such a film would work, Godzilla was pulled from the story and put against Mothra instead. But that script was deemed usable, so after a few touch ups, including replacing Godzilla with a brand new kaiju named Baragon, the studio began work on Frankenstein Conquers the World.
The dream team of Ishiro Honda, Eji Tsuburaya and Akira Ikifube were reunited to bring the tale of a kaiju sized Frankenstein to life. Honda, in charge of the human story and overall film, would work with Nick Adams for the first time. Adams, an American actor best known for roles in Rebel without a Cause and the TV show The Rebel, was in a bit of a career slump at the time. He had famously stated he would never work on a film outside of America to the press. Adams ended up making 4 films for Toho, including a starring role in Invasion of the Astro Monsters (aka Godzilla vs Monster Zero).
Special effects side, Tsuburaya took a unique twist with the hero monster. Frankenstein is played completely by a guy in makeup. If this where any other Frankenstein adaptation, that wouldn’t sound weird, but considering that the monster grows to kaiju proportions, it’s completely unique to the genre. No masks or suits. Actor Koji Furuhata would play the titular monster in both his human-sized form and kaiju size. Tsuburaya gave his take on the legendary creature in the same way he did to King Kong. There’s a subtle homage to the original Boris Karloff version, with the flat top hair cut and gnarled teeth. But this monster is far more lean and agile. When he grows, he dons the skins of the animals he’s killed for food as clothing. Another is that he doesn’t talk, but lets out a high pitched wail A truly one of a kind take on a classic.
Then there’s the rival monster, Baragon. An underground dinosaur that looks to be a cross between a dog and a mole. With two big floppy ears, a stout face and a glowing horn. Huge claws like a mole used for digging. Both a quadruped and bipedal, and has a heat ray akin to Godzilla. Though not as powerful. The carnivorous monster would be quite the challenge for Frankenstein, as the two’s class is one of the most dynamic and violent in the series. So durable was the suit that Tsuburaya reused it several times in his TV show Ultraman the following year. Baragon was converted into the monsters: Pagos, Neronga, Magular, and Gabora. By the time the suit was returned to Toho, it was in shambles and only briefly used in a wide shot for Destroy All Monsters. A cult favorite though, Shusuke Kaneko would bring him back for his only Godzilla outing in Godzilla Mothra King Ghidora Giant Monsters All Out Attack.
Frankenstein Conquers the World is a wild and fast film. It’s one of the few Toho kaiju films to fully focus on the effects of radiation fall out, especially the Hiroshima bomb. But the solemn vibe quickly turns into a crazy carnival ride the second Frankenstein escapes captivity and eventually meets up with Baragon. The only other time that Toho came close to this vibe is with its sequel: War of the Garganuas. And they defiantly don’t make them like this anymore. It’s easily one of the finest non-Godzilla entries in the Toho catalog which is saying a lot considering that the concept is very far fetched. But it works and stands as a shining example of the golden age of Kaiju films.