October 31, 2011

The Manster (1959)

Ever since first published 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson's popular novel "Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde" has served as inspiration for numerous works dealing with the concept of "split personality". Beginning with the 1887 stage play (by Thomas Russell Sullivan), the classic novel has been adapted dozens of times, all with different degrees of faithfulness to the source story. However, perhaps the most interesting versions are those that are not exactly typical adaptations of Stevenson's novel, and instead opt for a different angle that often carries only the splitting of the personality. Examples of this are 1963's screwball comedy "The Nutty Professor" and the comic book "The Hulk". Amongst this kind of versions is a Japanese American co-production realized in 1959 titled "The Manster", a tale of horror and science fiction which has earned a reputation as a schlocky camp classic due to its tacky special effects. However, it also has some pretty interesting elements that elevate it from being the typical monster on the loose story.

In "The Manster", Peter Dynley plays Larry Stanford, an American foreign news correspondent who has spent the last few years working in Japan. Tired of being far from home, there's nothing that Larry would want more than to return to his wife Linda (Jane Hylton), so he is eager to finish what will be his last assignment: an interview with the reclusive scientist Dr. Robert Suzuki (Tetsu Nakamura). Larry travels to the volcano where Suzuki has his laboratory, and soon becomes friends with him. However, what he doesn't know is that Suzuki has found him to be the perfect candidate for his ultimate experiment in evolutionary change. Dr. Suzuki drugs Larry and injects him with his new formula. When the reporter awakes, he doesn't remember anything, and eagerly accepts Suzuki's invitation to spend a week of vacation with him and his beautiful assistant Tara (Terri Zimmern). Vacationing with Suzuki, Larry soon forgets about his wife, and enjoys a life of alcohol and women. However, he is also changing physically, and something horrible is growing in his shoulder.

Written collaboratively by director George P. Breakston and William J. Sheldon, "The Manster" is by all accounts, a pretty much typical horror story of the 1950s. There's the general distrust of science that was common in Atomic Age horror, reflected in the science fiction origin of the monster, and in the person of Dr. Suzuki, who fills the "mad scientist" role. However, there are also certain elements that make it quite atypical for its time. For starters, the frank depiction of sex and violence the story has which, while by no means graphic (at least not for modern standards), it's certainly there: an uncontrolled sexual libido is the first thing that awakes in Larry as his transformation begins. Larry has been, in his words, "a good boy" all the years he has been in Japan, but after meeting Suzuki, he becomes a frequent visitor in brothels, and begins an affair with Tara. And this is related to the other element that sets the film apart from the rest: its "Jekyll and Hyde" theme makes it work as a thinly-veiled allegory of alcoholism.

Directed by George P. Breakston and Kenneth G. Crane, at first sight "The Manster" looks also typical in its execution, which is certainly quite simplistic; however, the directors also make some really good choices. To begin with, there's a real care in its portrayal of the Japanese culture. In "The Manster", it's more than just an exotic location, it adds up to the feeling of isolation and loneliness that the lead character begins to experience (the scene at a Buddhist temple is specially haunting). The sombre black and white photography by cinematographer David Mason is actually pretty good, and actually closer in spirit to film noir; something that's particularly appropriate, as the film deals with themes a bit more lurid than the usual fare. The degeneration of Larry is well-handed, for the most part, and the personality change the character undergoes isn't that far fetched. It's only when the remarkably poor special effects appear on the film when "The Manster" shows why it earned its camp classic reputation.

The acting is just slightly above the average, though for the most part the performances are good. As the lead character, Peter Dyneley makes an acceptable job in his portrayal of Larry Standford. Initially a somewhat stereotypical All-American husband, as Larry descends into his life of debauchery there's a good chance for Dyneley to showcase his talents, and often he does. Certainly he is not a great actor, though within his limitations Dyneley doesn't make a bad job. As Dr. Suzuki, Tetsu Nakamura is pretty mediocre, though his role is certainly the most clichéd in the film. Now, as his assistant Tara, the alluring Terry Zimmern is perhaps the film's highlight. Strangely, Zimmern never did any other film and vanished from the spotlight, so "The Manster" remains a testament of what could had been. The rest of the cast is pretty average, though Jerry Ito shows some passion at playing the typical detective a film like "The Manster" must have. Unfortunately, he receives the worst lines in the film.

And bad lines of dialog is a common flaw in "The Manster", which despite having a particularly original angle to its storyline, can't avoid resorting to common places and clichés in its screenplay. And this includes its ending, which is of a moralist nature, though this is hardly a surprise, considering the overall theme the film has. This double face, on one side a lurid tale full of eroticism, and on the other a moralistic story of the Atomic Age, is certainly fitting for a horror tale about a split personality, though one wonders how much would had helped a better constructed climax. Because the ending does feel unfortunately rushed and somewhat incoherent, a huge contrast to the first half, which chronicles Larry's degeneration with such a great care. It feels so different in tone and pacing that is as if the directors had been forced to do it just to meet the deadline. And of course, the film's great bane: it's incompetent special effects. It's true, "The Manster" can't help but looking awfully schlocky with those cheap make-up effects.

Certainly, it's difficult to talk about "The Manster" without discussing the camp value of its silly effects. It's certainly one of the most notorious aspects of the film, and one of the most unintentionally funny as well. Nevertheless, beyond its trashy visuals, "The Manster" is still a sombre tale. As a metaphor for the destructive effects of alcoholism (or any drug in general) the film makes pretty good points; and as a sci-fi tragedy, the movies does work nicely if one gets past its cheap visual look. More ambitious than its budget allowed it to be, "The Manster" is by no means a great film; however, despite its many obvious flaws, this offbeat "Jekyll and Hyde" tale is certainly worth a watch.


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