Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Manster (1959)

Pablo Picasso once said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”  If that is true, then one must assume Sam Raimi saw The Manster, as the final act contains sequences that feel lifted for Army of Darkness.  I’m not saying that‘s a bad thing.  But astute horror fans will watch this film and  not have to wonder where Raimi’s inspiration came from.

A US/Japan co-production, The Manster follows American news correspondent Larry Stanford (Peter Dyneley), stationed in Japan, as he follows a lead about research that could hold the answer to the cause of evolution on Earth.

Too bad Larry doesn’t know that Dr. Robert Suzuki (Tetsu Nakamura) isn’t the most ethical scientist around.  Having subjected two family members to his enzyme treatment, with disastrous results, Dr. Suzuki decides Larry is the subject needed to prove his theory.  Doping the poor sap, Dr. Suzuki injects Larry with his serum, than proceeds to show Larry a good time around Japan, in order to monitor the results. 

Of course, the experiment will succeed with an American male as a subject.  
That doesn't sound too outdated, does it?

Which, of course, involves lots of sake, visits to geisha houses and a mineral bath with Suzuki’s lovely assistant Tara (Terri Zimmern).  But Larry’s wife, Linda (Jane Hylton, Dyneley’s real wife), isn’t happy with his sudden behavior change and flies to Japan to save their relationship. 

However, Larry has bigger problems.  He’s blacking out and committing murders, all while doing his best to kill off his liver and, oh yeah, growing an extra eye out of the injection site on his shoulder.
Soon, Larry’s grown an extra head, and yes, mayhem ensues.

Nope, never seen this before.  Especially not in a Sam Raimi movie!  

The funny thing about The Manster is it sounds like a horrible movie.  Just the title alone might turn some people away from this film.  But, I figure the title came from the same place that lead Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman’s character in Matinee) to title his movie Mant.  “Half man!  Half ant!  MANT!!”  The Manster feels more fitting than other titles for the film, including The Spilt (the UK title) and The Two-Headed Monster.

Seriously, that last one loses to The Manster by a wide margin.

Getting back to the film, it’s strangely watchable, even though the audience is left with no one to become invested in.  Suzuki isn’t portrayed as an evil scientist, just misguided, but his ethical lapses are quite villainous.  Tara claims to be emotionally scarred, unable to care for another person, which makes her the perfect choice as Suzuki’s assistant.  Yet she falls for Larry, despite his loutish behavior. 

Yeah, Larry is her only chance a love.  Right.....

As for Larry, it’s hard to feel sorry for the guy.  Not that he deserves to be experimented upon, but the character’s behavior is hard to dismiss.  He proclaims his love to his wife (in an overlong, saccharine-filled phone conversation that feels hollow), yet he’s off enjoying all the decadent pleasures of Japan just a few days later, ignoring his job and his spouse.  One could say it’s the enzyme treatment causing this change, but the script offers no hint that Larry wouldn’t have behaved any different had Suzuki exposed him to sake, geishas and Tara without the injection.   

Making it harder for a modern audience to empathize with Larry is the moment when he sexually assaults Tara at the bathhouse.  Sure, the scene fades to black as Larry is racing up to Tara from behind as she is getting into a bathrobe, but the implication is quite clear.  As fading to black often implied sex (just ask Jeff Daniels in The Purple Rose of Cairo), one is left with the uncomfortable fact that Larry rapes Tara.

Yep, just looking at my toes and paying no attention to the naked woman on the other side of the screen.
Nothing of interest back there.  Nope. 

Of course, the following scene is a montage of the pair enjoying all the nightlife Tokyo has to offer.  Again, a modern audience will strain to understand why Tara becomes infatuated with this doltish, sexually aggressive ass.  She claims she was traumatized as a child, implying her emotions were shaped by the events of World War II.  But these scars are healing, thanks to the behavior of an American taking in the exotic pleasures her country has to offer, yet showing no respect for her culture and history.

But the true subtext in the script becomes clear when Linda arrives in Japan.  She knows Larry is having an affair with Tara (again, never shown, but implied), yet she is going to fight for her man and the sanctity of their marriage.  And, aside from never allowing one’s self to be drugged and used as a guinea pig for a crazy scientist, I think The Manster is trying to be a warning to Americans about the dangers of exotic, overseas countries.    

Despite what the history books (and Happy Day reruns) imply, the 50’s were probably the start of the sexual revolution.  Playboy was outselling Esquire magazine, the Beatniks were doing drugs and calling for an end to sexual repression.  American soldiers returning from overseas during WW II were exposed to forms of art and literature that was not as suppressed as in the homeland.

And Americans were more likely to “seize the day” than previously suspected.  In a paper that reveled an increase in unwed pregnancies during the 40s and 50s.  In his paper, UF History Professor Alan Petigny suggests, “After 15 years of depression and war, there was also a desire on the part of Americans to live in the moment and enjoy life, and they were acting accordingly less likely to defer to traditional restraints on their behavior (see link for more 

Given such a backdrop, The Manster can be viewed as a belated cautionary tale, attempting to guide Americans back to the morals of “good old days.”  Women, who were the backbone of the industrial machine in World War II a decade earlier, are now implored to be good, glamorous housewives (just look at Hylton’s poses during her first scene) and help their husbands resist the temptations of the more erotic influences from overseas.  As for men, well, the exotic countries are enticing, but beware, lest your other head takes control.

Yep, this is what it was like to be a woman back in the 50s.  
Please insert sarcastic tone at any time....

Okay, I was waiting to use that pun, but it feels appropriate, given Larry’s personality change once he’s immersed in a more hedonistic lifestyle by Suzuki .  Whether the filmmakers created a morality play or not. it’s hard not to see the film as anything other than a backlash against changing American values. 

And, on that front, the film fails.  Larry and Linda talk about their love over the phone, despite being separated for years, but it never rings true.  I’m not making a commentary on the relationship between the actors (as I mentioned, they were married at the time), but more on the script, which gives no sense of a believable relationship.  And, as Larry becomes such a drunken lout early in the film, the script doesn’t deliver a character the audience can sympathize with in any manner.  Larry is less the upstanding, moral American corrupted by foreign influences, but more a sexist jerk looking for the nearest outlet for his libido.  Again, this is more a modern viewer’s outlook, but it can make the moral tale within the script hard to swallow. 

And no, I have not forgotten my Sam Raimi reference.  But here lie SPOILERS!

Larry gains a third eye on his shoulder, the site of this unknowing injection, echoing Ash’s third eye after swallowing one of the mirror Deadite versions of himself.  And, though the special effects are understandably better in Army of Darkness, both protagonists separate into two beings, one good and the other evil, in scenes that are eerily similar.

Good, bad, I'm the one with....
Oh damn, wrong movie, no shotgun.

Again, I’m not saying this was a bad movie to rip off.  The Manster is a solid watch for B-movie fans, with some nice effects and some very creepy moments.  You just have to get past the idea that Caucasian women are virtuous and only concerned for a man’s well being, while foreign women will bring a man to ruin.  An outdated message, to be sure, but it's a nice little film as long as you don’t think too hard about the stereotypes and moral overtones.