Frankenstein Conquers the World is one of Ishiro Honda’s more underrated kaiju flicks from Toho’s Showa era, if you ask me. By creating a more human-like opponent in Frankenstein and reducing the scale considerably, the film ends up with a completely different vibe from Honda’s other kaiju productions, affording audiences a better opportunity to savor the model work of special effects guru Eiji Tsubaraya and his staff. The fight sequences between Frankenstein and villain-monster Baragon, too, are fast and furious rather than lumbering and titanic, really setting the film apart from its contemporaries.
Frankenstein Conquers the World
Nazi scientists have seized the still-beating heart of the Frankenstein monster! Unfortunately, they decided to send the heart for study to their Axis comrades in Hiroshima, Japan. The radiation from the A-bomb dropped by the Allied forces has mutated the heart of the monster, causing the creature dubbed “Frankenstein” (Koji Furuhata) to regenerate and grow to mammoth size. Scientists Dr. Bowen (Nick Adams), Dr. Kawaji (Tadao Takashima) and Dr. Togami (Kumi Mizuno) are on the hunt for Frankenstein, though they’re undecided on whether they want to save the pitiful behemoth’s life or just save a portion of its corpse for scientific study. Meanwhile, the subterranean dinosaur called Baragon (Haruo Nakajima) has surfaced in the hills of Japan, causing destruction that is unfairly blamed on the frightened and reclusive Frankenstein. Eighty minutes later and they fight.
Frankenstein Conquers the World definitely has one of the craziest and most complicated origins for any of Toho’s monsters I’ve ever seen, which is just one of the many factors working in its favor. But while the origin of the title monster may be zany as all Hell, the film never downplays its grim Hiroshima setting; with the still-lingering effects of the A-bomb causing numerous tragedies (the introduction of the radiation researchers is rather somber, as they bid goodbye to a young girl dying from radiation poisoning). In that regard, Frankenstein Conquers the World has easily the strongest focus on the evils of nuclear warfare since the original Godzilla (though it isn’t quite as melancholy in its presentation).
But what really sets Frankenstein Conquers the World apart from Toho’s other monster films is that the action is scaled down in size. Whereas Godzilla could pick his toes with a redwood, Frankenstein and Baragon are about the size of a large tree and not a skyscraper. This allows for some more detailed model and set design on part of Eiji Tsubaraya and you really get to stop and enjoy the quality of the man’s work. Ishiro Honda also gets to create some more exciting cinematography than the larger scaled monster mayhem would afford him. The climax of the film featuring Frankenstein and Baragon duking it out in the middle of a forest fire is certainly a stunning sight.
The battle between Frankenstein and Baragon stands out, too, as the speed isn’t reduced to make the monsters look like slow-moving sumo wrestlers. Frankenstein’s quickness when facing Baragon gives the fight an extra boost of energy and is a nice alternative to the usual stuff. Frankenstein starts the film as a child and quickly grows into a giant, allowing him to interact more closely with the human cast and develop stronger bonds with them. He ends up becoming less of a special effect and more of a character, so you actually feel like you have some sort of investment in him when he’s put in danger.
Baragon, on the other hand, doesn’t really come into play until nearly an hour into the film and he’s hardly given any origin to speak of (there are some musings about dinosaurs that have burrowed underground and stayed there for millennia, but it’s half-baked at best). He exists as a means to give Frankenstein something to fight and nothing more.
Despite the shallow introduction, from what I understand, Baragon is a very popular kaiju in Japan, (though he only appeared in two of Toho’s Showa era films). Supposedly, his popularity stems from Tsubaraya Production’s “recycling” of the Baragon costume for numerous TV shows, such as Ultraman, giving Baragon a “Robbie the Robot” quality.
There are two endings to this film: the International ending and the Theatrical ending. I’d warn you to avoid the International one, as it is absolute nonsense that was never meant to be the actual conclusion to the film. You see, the Theatrical ending sees Frankenstein kill Baragon, but the tunnels made from all of Baragon’s digging cave-in, burying Frankenstein alive. An abrupt conclusion, to be sure, but far more satisfying than the alternative. In the International version, after defeating Baragon, a giant octopus (Odako from King Kong vs. Godzilla) randomly waltzes through the forest, grabs Frankenstein in its tentacles and then drags him over to the sea and drowns him. It makes positively no sense. The Tokyo Shock R1 DVD includes the International ending as a bonus, which is certainly nice as apocrypha, but do yourself a favor and stick with the Theatrical version.
Frankenstein Conquers the World doesn’t get a lot of play or mention, but I find it to be superior to many of Ishiro Honda’s other kaiju flicks from later in his Showa era career. It’s a fine showcase for Eiji Tsubaraya’s eye for detail, too. Frankenstein Conquers the World would quickly spawn a sequel, War of the Gargantuas, which is actually even better. With it being available in R1 on a comprehensive two-disk set, I’d highly recommend checking it out.