'I've got to get it out of me!': THE MANSTER (1959)
Dripping with eerie atmosphere, the U.S.-Japanese co-production THE MANSTER is one of those horror films of the late 1950s and early '60s that lingers in the memory long after its initial viewing. It not only contains one champion of a shock scene -- so effective it's been copied in at least one later movie -- but an overall sense of unease while watching that can't easily be lost as the closing reel ends.
THE MANSTER is upfront with its horrors, as were such other models of mounting dread from the period as THE MONSTER FROM PIEDRAS BLANCAS (1961), THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN'T DIE (1962) and the Japanese product MATANGO/ATTACK OF THE MUSHROOM PEOPLE (1963). Once the stage has been set for something terrifying to make its appearance, THE MANSTER delivers, and while its titular creature of terror may appear hokey today, its revelation is a nicely orchestrated moment of fright for its unsuspecting audience.
THE MANSTER was co-directed by George Breakston, a former Hollywood child actor better known for adventure features and documentaries based in Africa, and Kenneth G. Crane, an ace film editor with a somewhat more extensive background in science fiction-horror flicks, but not a specialist in the field as his meager directing resume reveals. Yet both managed to make THE MANSTER a convincing exercise in terror, transforming the peaceful Japanese countryside and streets of a strangely sleepy Tokyo into an unnerving landscape for the story's exploration of scientific obsession gone wrong.
A pre-credits sequence establishes the nighmarish feel of THE MANSTER, as some young women bathe happily in a misty warm spring. Inside a nearby house, a woman primps before a mirror. The camera then shifts to a sliding panel upon which is seen the shadow of an apelike being, which attacks the woman. A spatter of blood stains the panel, and following the credits, we find the women in the spring have met the same grim fate.
We are then introduced to Dr. Robert Suzuki (Tetsuo Nakamura, billed here as Satoshi Nakamura) as he walks up to his mountainside home and laboratory, which happens to be in full view of a nearby smoldering volcano. He informs his sultry assistant Tara (Terri Zimmern) of the murders in the village below, fully knowing the killer's identity. It is his own brother Genji (Kenzo Koroki), who volunteered as the subject of Suzuki's strange experiments in evolution, which transformed Genji into a hairy, homicidal monster. Genji returns to his brother's strange workshop, powered by heat and energy from the volcano, and is shot down by Suzuki in full view of the scientist's wife Emiko (Toyoko Tekechi), a misshapen being kept behind bars who was Suzuki's first attempt to prove his theories.
Now convinced a new enzyme will produce desired results, Suzuki gets his chance to try it out on a new guinea pig when unsuspecting wire service reporter Larry Stanford (Peter Dyneley) drops by for an interview. Drugging the drink he offers to Larry, Suzuki injects the new enzyme into Larry's right shoulder after the journalist conks out. When he reawakens, Larry feels no immediate effects, and on Suzuki's suggestion, joins the scientist on a round of partying in Tokyo.
A regular kind of guy who's been been working too hard and too long separated from his wife Linda (Jane Hylton), Larry soon develops a taste for Nippon night life, ignores his job and spouse (who soon comes to Tokyo to find out what's going on), and finds himself falling for Tara, whom Suzuki urges on to Larry in an apparent attempt to gauge how quickly his test subject will lose all traces of civilized behavior. The first indication comes when his right hand turns hairy, the shock sending him into the night for some kind of answer. Stumbling into a Buddhist temple and finding a priest at his prayers, Larry seeks understanding, and rebuffed, murders the priest.
Larry's boss, Ian Matthews (Norman Van Hawley, billed here as Van Hawley), engages a psychiatrist (Alan Tarlton) to help his star reporter, but the increasingly bestial Larry kills him. Returning to his apartment and suffering extreme pain, Larry removes his shirt before a mirror to find an eye staring back at him in the shoulder area in which he was injected by Suzuki.
As strange murders grip the city and police Superintendent Aida (Jerry Ito) ponders the dishonor of being unable to solve the crimes, Linda decides to confront Larry about their domestic situation. As she opens a door, she is confronted by her trenchcoated husband, his face distorted, snaggle-toothed and sharing space with the ghastly head of Suzuki's new species of man. The two-headed abomination is stopped from adding Linda to the roster of victims by the intervention of Ian and Aida, who have concluded that Larry is the murderer.
Larry flees the city for Suzuki's mountaintop lair, killing him with a ceremonial sword Suzuki considered using on himself given the failure of his experiment. Larry and his unwanted body partner carry off Tara toward the volcano, which has conveniently begun erupting. At war with each other, Larry and the creature cling to a tree and split into two, Larry back to himself and the creature another alien being who promptly puts Tara out of her misery by tossing her into the volcano. Regaining consciousness, but too late to save Tara, Larry pushes the creature into the inferno. He is rescued by Linda, Ian and the police, who have been in hot pursuit.
Lighting plays a key role in establishing the look of THE MANSTER and its ominous nature. Suzuki's laboratory is suitably strange, appearing to have been hewn out of the mountain, with the twisted branches of a tree and two thin shafts of light, perhaps representing the energy Suzuki draws from the volcano, running up and down, providing an alien air to the setting. Dimly illuminated, it contains that old standby of every mad scientist movie, a cell in which the mistakes of Suzuki's experimentation are stowed, such as the pathetic Emiko, whom Suzuki dispatches with a bullet just prior to his own demise.
The dark and misty look of the mountain settings are contrasted with the more harshly-lit interiors of the Tokyo locations, such as the geisha house where Larry and Suzuki cavort, and Ian's office. Cinematographer David Mason offers a more somber feel with Aida's base at police headquarters, reflecting the urgency of his predicament in stopping the murders and keeping a sensation-hungry news media at bay. The reveal of the two-headed thing Larry has become is handled nicely for shock effect, and while the heads themselves may look more Halloween mask than scary to contemporary audiences, the scene still works and packs a wallop in shock content.
The scene in which Larry discovers the eye on his shoulder is a classic by itself, and must have impressed Sam Raimi at some point in his youth. So much so, he utilized it, more for laughs, in his third EVIL DEAD entry, 1993's ARMY OF DARKNESS, when hero Bruce Campbell finds an orb on his shoulder, signaling the rapid production of another, sinister version of his character.
Additional scenes of The Manster, such as his escape from the police in the shipyard, are handled in low light and with no additional closeups. And while the separation of the beings at the climax is done cheap and easy with both heads on either side of the tree to better allow for The Split (an alternative title for the film), it works quite well with only a modicum of gore to suggest the rending of the body. (Hollywood schlockmeisters, possibly influenced by THE MANSTER, launched a short-lived fad in twin-noggin monster flicks during 1971-1972 with THE INCREDIBLE TWO-HEADED TRANSPLANT and THE THING WITH TWO HEADS).
All of this is complimented by Hiroki Ogawa's grim musical score, which would do credit in any of the giant monster flicks of the time, but is so effective here in building anticipation of something horrible about to erupt on the screen. Occasional use of a theremin, overdone in so many thrillers, actually adds to the discordant nature of the film.
Released July 1959 in Japan as SOTO NO SATSUJINKI and in America as THE MANSTER on March 28, 1962, audiences found directors Breakston and Crane made Larry's plight the focus of sympathy, much like Lon Chaney Jr.'s Lawrence Talbot/Wolf Man at Universal in the '40s. While he seems to go to hell with himself all too quickly under Suzuki's gleeful guidance, Larry is still clinging to some vestiges of humanity before he commits his first killing. The scene in the temple is moodily handled as Larry tries to communicate with the priest. "I've got to get this out of me!" he declares, the line carrying a terrible significance later in the proceedings. At the end, despite the death toll he's caused, our concern remains with Larry, and with Linda and Ian as they consider what they can do to help clear him of the charges that will follow.
Barely a second of the film's 72 minutes is wasted, a tribute to Breakston and Crane's own experiences in low-budget filmmaking. Breakston (1921-1973) was initially an actor, starting in radio in 1930 and making his screen debut in IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934). He played Mickey Rooney's high school buddy Francis Bacon "Beezy" Anderson in several Andy Hardy entries at M-G-M before joining the U.S. Army Signal Corps in World War II as a photographer.
He remained in Japan following the end of the war, establishing himself as a filmmaker with the documentaries URUBU: THE VULTURE PEOPLE (1948) and AFRICAN STAMPEDE (1950). He returned to Tokyo to helm three features, ORIENTAL EVIL (1950), TOKYO FILE 212 (1951) and GEISHA GIRL (1952). Despite the pull Japan had on him, Breakston relocated to Kenya to make several jungle features as well as two television series, ADVENTURES OF A JUNGLE BOY (1957) and AFRICA PATROL (1958-1959). He returned to Japan to initiate THE MANSTER from his own story, the screenplay by executive producer William J. Sheldon (as Walt Sheldon). In this film and the three earlier features he shot there, Breakston's attraction to and appreciation of Japan's culture and customs is undeniable, as seen in the temple sequence.
Crane (1907-1995) was brought in as THE MANSTER's editor, but shared directorial duties with Breakston, who was also the film's producer. After racking up an impressive number of credits cutting movies and TV shows in Hollywood, Crane made his debut in the director's chair with the little-seen MONSTER FROM GREEN HELL (1957), and shot the U.S. sequences for the re-edit of the 1955 Japanese monster feature JUJIN YUKI OTOKO released as HALF HUMAN (1958).
Based on these titles, it would appear Crane had a preference for horror and sci-fi, but his only other directorial credit was an impoverished yet not-bad war drama starring Charles Bronson, WHEN HELL BROKE LOOSE (1958). These three features were released by Hal Roach's Distributors Corporation of America (DCA). Following THE MANSTER, Crane returned to the cutting rooms, and his last feature as an editor was SLAUGHTER'S BIG RIP-OFF (1973).
Performances were universally good, and while Dyneley overdoes the grouch act at times as Larry undergoes the transformation into the title being, he carries his leading man role well. Born in England and raised in Canada, Dyneley (1921-1977) returned to the UK to pursue an acting career on the stage until making his film debut in the Alan Ladd adventure HELL BELOW ZERO (1954). Appearing in such big-budget features as BEAU BRUMMELL (1954), SINK THE BISMARCK (1960) and THE ROMAN SPRING OF MRS. STONE (1961), Dyneley worked more in TV, his Canadian accent helping him land roles as Americans, such as Larry in THE MANSTER and as labor racketeer Nat Grendel in a first season episode of THE SAINT, "The Careful Terrorist."
Breakston probably chose Dyneley for THE MANSTER because the actor had recently guest-starred on three episodes of AFRICA PATROL. Dyneley became better known as a voice artist on the cult children's adventure series THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO! in the mid-'60s and remained busy until the time of his death from cancer.
Co-star Jane Hylton makes Linda a sympathetic heroine, unwilling to give up on her errant husband and supportive even when he's become a fiend. She's particularly effective when asking Aida to try and take Larry alive despite his rampage. Hylton had been a Rank Organization contractee in the late '40s, appearing in such fare as IT RAINS EVERY SUNDAY (1947) and PASSPORT TO PIMLICO (1949). Prior to THE MANSTER, she became known to TV audiences as Queen Guinevere in the THE ADVENTURES OF SIR LANCELOT (1956-1957).
Both single at the time of THE MANSTER's production, Hylton and Dyneley married, returned to London and co-starred in two second features, DEADLY RECORD (1959) and HOUSE OF MYSTERY (1961), the latter a creepy little ghost story about a house with a bad reputation, with Dyneley and Hylton playing the couple who gave it to the place. Diagnosed with a heart condition in her late 30s, Hylton, who like her husband worked more extensively on the small screen, died in 1979 at 54.
Although Nakamura, as Suzuki, disappears from most of the film following the beginning, returning for the overheated climax, he makes the most of his nutty scientist role, injecting moments of melancholy over the cost to himself and his loved ones in pursuit of his mad evolutionary theory, which seems to focus on how much more primitive man once was. (And, begging the question, why?) To his credit, Nakamura makes Suzuki even more chilling with his seemingly rational explanation of his goals.
Born in Canada, Nakamura (1908-1992) had an easy time with English, and was known for aiding his fellow Japanese actors in learning the language. Breakston had utilized him in his three Tokyo-shot features, while he became a fixture in several of the domestic sci-fi films of the time, such as THE MYSTERIANS (1957), THE H-MAN (1958), THE HUMAN VAPOR (1960) and ATRAGON (1963).
Unsurprisingly, New York-born Ito comes off more western than Japanese as the dour cop on the case, but gives a good account of himself. Ito had relocated to Tokyo and specialized in playing western types in movies; his best-known role was the villainous Clark Nelson of MOTHRA (1961), with Tetsuo Nakamura playing his assistant. A fixture at U.S. monster movie conventions in his later years, Ito died five days short of his 80th birthday in 2007.
Also effective are Zimmern as Tara and Van Hawley as Larry's friend and co-worker Ian. Frustratingly little information is available on Zimmern, THE MANSTER being her only known movie role, in which she shines as Suzuki's disillusioned assistant and sometime lover. Ditto Van Hawley, who apparently made no further movies and died in Las Vegas in 2004 at 86.
A true globetrotter working with financing from British sources and other investors, Breakston wrapped up his producer-director career with three films shot in Yugoslavia, among them THE BOY WHO CRIED MURDER (1966), a remake of the 1949 suspense thriller THE WINDOW. Ironically, at the time he died, he was in Paris, the city of his birth. THE MANSTER remained his sole venture in horror-sci/fi filmmaking.
For those who had not caught THE MANSTER on television or home video in the decades since its release, its issuance to DVD a decade ago brought it to the attention of a new generation of film fans. While it doesn't fit in with the giant monster flicks that helped earn the Japanese film industry an international audience, it is an outstanding standalone example of the facility for horror and shock that lurked behind such nominally science fictional entries. Even with its mixed parentage of American, British and Japanese talents, THE MANSTER more than exceeds its goal of leaving its viewers with a chill they won't soon forget.