Now why, I hear you ask, would someone who's already in pain subject themselves to that cheap, Made in Japan sushi roll combo of film noir and creature feature? Because I believe in Tradition, with a capital "T", and last year I reviewed The Thing With Two Heads for Hank's birthday, thus the theme of Dual Overhead Heads has already been established. Also, I was on opioids, so if this movie was ever gonna make sense, now was the time.
The Manster (1959)
Directed by George Breakston, Kenneth G. Crane
Written by George Breakston (story), Walt Sheldon
We’re in Japan. You can tell because the doors are made of paper, three ladies are bathing in a frog pond, and a geisha is powdering her neck. Suddenly, the silhouette of Moon-Watcher, the bone-tossing hominid from 2001: A Space Odyssey arrives and hits the Geisha so hard she’s reduced to a Rorschach Blot on the rice paper (Hm...I see my Mother, who told me I’d never amount to anything if I sat inside all weekend watching crappy movies. So as blots go, it’s kind of a smug one).
Cut to the credits (just so you know, all the characters are fictional, and no Geishas were harmed in the making of this movie). Cut back to the Frog Pond, where all three ladies are dead, freeing up an ecological niche for the frogs to fill, and leading to their eventual attempt to conquer the world in Frogs (1972). Spoiler alert: it doesn’t go every well, but they do manage to conquer Ray Milland, which is more than I’ve ever done with my life. Dammit, Mother you were right! You were always right! Why must you torment me?!
A Japanese man, Dr. Suzuki, scales a matte painting of Mount Fuji, until he reaches a remote cabin. Dr. Suzuki’s pencil mustache and mountain-climbing business suit makes him seem untrustworthy, an impression reinforced when his slinky Eurasian secretary, Tara, hands him a pistol and says his ten-thirty is waiting. He goes down to the basement and finds another employee, a half-mad woman with half a face. He apologizes for deforming her on the job, but reminds her there’s a risk with any new technology, and she did sign the Apple Terms of Service. He finds Moon-Watcher, who was once the doctor’s brother but is now just a “failed experiment,” and shoots him. Then Suzuki bathes the body in a jet of steam, presumably to get the wrinkles out, since they’ve got to have the gorilla suit back to Crash Corrigan by five.
A Caucasian man climbs the same mountain, moving in a stiff, awkward manner that is later explained when he opens his mouth and we realize he’s Jeff Tracy, the Dad from THUNDERBIRDS.
Jeff is a reporter who’s come to interview Dr. Suzuki, but he’s terrible at his job because he spends the whole time talking about himself, and his wife back in New York, and how he’s so great because he’s caught so little V.D. in Japan. The Doctor roofies Jeff to shut him up, then sticks him with a needle full of Manster-making juice.
Jeff awakes and says he has to return to Tokyo, but Suzuki insists that he drink a lot of Scotch first, because while legally intoxicated may not be the safest way to descend a steep mountain, it’s potentially the fastest.
Back at the office, Jeff gets a call from his wife, Linda, a breathy bottle blonde in a filmy peignoir who talks to him while staring at three separate reflections of herself in a tri-fold mirror. It’s a needlessly weird, arty shot, but it did give me insight into what it would have been like if The Prisoner had starred Eva Gabor.
Jeff professes his undying love to Linda, then goes to a geisha house with Dr. Suzuki where he gets plowed on sake, loudly forces his opinions on everyone, and bangs a hostess. I was a little peeved at the Japanese filmmakers for trafficking in this crude stereotype of the ugly American, but then I remembered this movie was a Japanese-American co-production, so maybe it’s only half racism and half self-loathing. Besides, the Ugly American is actually an Englishman only pretending to be American, so I guess my beef is actually with the U.K., but if I punched out the first Brit I saw and shouted, “That's for Manster!”, it might be hard to explain at the police station.
Instead of flying home to his whispery, three-faced wife, Jeff goes on a weeklong bender with Suzuki and gets progressively more unshaven and surly. It all climaxes at a hot springs hotel where Jeff shares a mineral bath with Tara, the doctor’s secretary, and has an implied climax.
Things are going great for Jeff, what with all the boozing and the man-slutting, but every time someone touches his shoulder it triggers a Theramin, so it’s not all gravy. Then he and Tara waltz into his apartment and find Linda waiting there, and we settle in for a big juicy dramatic scene about love and honor and fidelity. Except Jeff just grabs Tara and announces, “Well I’ll just go bang her somewhere else, then!”, and waltzes back out, leaving Linda feeling deeply betrayed that she memorized all those lines for nothing.
Before we can get to the extramarital loving, however, Jeff develops a touch of arthritis and his shoulder starts playing the score from Forbidden Planet, so he goes back home to have it out with Linda.
Suddenly, he comes down with the heartbreak of Hairy Hand, and it looks like we’re finally about to get a monstrous transformation. (And none too soon. It’s 30 minutes into the movie, and aside from that pre-credit geishacide, there’s been very little monster in this monster movie. So far the experience has consisted entirely of me watching an unpleasant British guy enjoy massive amounts of sex, drugs, and alcohol, and if that’s what I was into I’d turn this off and go watch that HBO documentary on the Rolling Stones.)
But when Jeff starts choking her with his hideously mutated hand, Linda decides she’d really rather not, and goes into the other room. It’s a brilliant strategy for not getting killed, and I don’t know why more potential monster victims don’t do it, although if you flee into the bathroom, take a magazine.
Jeff goes to confession with a Shinto priest, but winds up killing him because the priest’s bald cap is wrinkly and badly applied. Then he seems to fall into a pattern: By night he wanders the streets, while his mutant hand strangles every women he runs into. But by day he must confine his murderous appendage to an oven mitt, which makes him sulky and alcoholic.
Jeff’s editor Ian brings over a psychiatrist to see why his star reporter has been turning into a Supermarionation Mr. Hyde, but Jeff doesn’t want to talk because he’s busy growing an eyeball on his shoulder, and to hear him cry and fuss it must hurt like an ingrown pimple.
Later, Jeff squeezes a little Visine onto his trapezius and goes to visit the psychiatrist. But apparently mutations are like menstruation – there’s never a good time for it to happen – and while leafing through the old Highlights magazines in the waiting room, Jeff grows fangs and a spare head.
He kills the shrink, then runs around Tokyo and tosses empty cardboard boxes at police officers, because apparently the new head is in charge and it’s an idiot. To be fair, however, this sequence leads to the one cool shot in the movie: two cops hear a bell tolling, and run around a corner to find the body of a third police officer draped over the wooden striker as it gently swings against a temple bell.
Not that this one image makes up for the preceding 54 minutes, but credit where credit is due. Now back to the stupid monster.
Linda goes to Jeff’s apartment, and finds him hiding behind a curtain.
He begins killing her, but once again Linda decides that she’d simply rather not die, and he respects her choice and instead jumps out the window and resumes killing cops. I know Jeff and Linda are going through a bad patch, but when you factor out his infidelities, homicidal rage, and extra head, they do seem to have a mutually respectful relationship that really works.
Tara and Dr. Suzuki, on the other hand, are having a tougher time of it. She gives him a knife so he can commit suicide, then rats him out to the cops, while he goes down to the basement and shoots the deformed lady, who we learn used to be his wife. Meanwhile, two-headed Jeff scrambles up Mt. Fuji, which causes it to suddenly erupt, I guess because his monster make-up isn’t very convincing and that’s how mountains do spit-takes.
Jeff coldcocks Tara, then interrupts Dr. Suzuki’s suicide. Suzuki stabs Jeff with a syringe containing the antidote, while Jeff stabs Suzuki with a knife containing death.
Jeff carries Tara outside so she won’t miss the climax, then splits into two separate beings: himself, and his Evil Self, which looks like Sid and Marty Krofft started designing a character, then got bored and went to lunch.
Jeff wrestles with his Evil Self just long enough to allow the director to legitimately claim that he made a film about Cartesian Dualism, then Evil Jeff pushes Tara off a cliff, so Jeff shoves Evil Jeff, sending his alibi plummeting into the abyss. I guess we know which head wound up with custody of the brain.
The cops carry Jeff off on a stretcher, while his editor looks into the camera and delivers an Ed Woodian speech about the evil and good in all Jeffs, everywhere. The end.
So there we go. Unlike kaiju movies from this era, which were metaphors for the devastation suffered by Japan during World War II, The Manster -- although filmed in Japan with a local crew -- was made from the perspective of the occupying power, so this appears to be an allegory about V.D. Go to a geisha house for a little head, come back to your wife with another head -- and a big headache. But if you part with your evil ways, the hairier half of you will push your mistress off a cliff, and you'll get a restorative shot of penicillin and a boring lecture from your boss.
Or maybe the producers realized that if you put a Don Post werewolf mask on a styrofoam wig-stand and spirit-gummed it to a stunt man's shoulder, you'd could make a really cheap monster. In the end, I suppose the question of how deeply one should delve into the themes and symbolic imagery of The Manster depends on how much this paper counts toward our final grade.
But Hank is not a monster -- nor a Manster -- as anyone who's read his work can clearly tell (and if you haven't dipped into his writings, click on the "Hank Parmer" label to the right, and enjoy). He's also a kind pet owner, a loving husband, and as far as I know, free of most major social diseases. So if you're trapped underground in a huge experimental mining machine, menaced by lava, and tempted to call International Rescue, I'd suggest calling Hank instead. At least he's not distracted by periodic discharge.
Please join me in wishing Hank a very happy and slightly belated birthday. And of course...
Sexy Birthday Lizard(s)!