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Monday, February 25, 2013

The Manster

To better understand the two 70s two-headed-man films, it is worth looking at their direct inspiration. In 1962, there was The Manster -- a horror/sci-fi hybrid. This film was the American release of the 1959 japanese-american production entitled, "The Homicidal Maniac with Two Heads". The American version also ran as The Split. George Breakston was the writer, producer and director. Normally, such one-man-shows fail for lack of supervision, but Breakston had done several such one-man productions before, so avoided the usual pitfalls. Peter Dynsley stars as Larry Stanford, the reporter who becomes the two-headed man monster (Man-ster). Dynsley's real wife, Jane Hylton, plays Larry's wife, Linda.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Under the title and credits, a shadowy ape-man attacks and kills some skinny dipping geishas. The beast returns to Dr. Suzuki's lab. He shoots the beast, who had been his brother. In a cage is a deformed woman, Emiko, who had been his wife. Both, experiments gone wrong. Enter journalist Larry Stanford to interview Dr. Suzuki on his work in evolution. The doctor decides to inject Larry with his new-and-improved serum. Back in Tokyo, Larry becomes more irritable and less interested in making up with his estranged wife, Linda. Dr. Suzuki is in town, and shows Larry the delights of geisha houses. Larry becomes rather debauched and a drunkard. He also becomes smitten with Dr. Suzuki's "girlfriend" Tara. Through all of this, Larry feels a pain in his shoulder. Ian, Larry's editor, tries to get Larry some help (psychiatrist, Dr. Jennsen) but Larry just rampages around. Larry's right hand morphs into a wolfman hand. He rampages around Tokyo, killing random people. At one point, he takes his shirt off to investigate the shoulder pain and discovers an eye. He screams and runs to Dr. Jennsen. At Dr. J's office, the second head sprouts up. Dr. J is killed. Ian tells the police that he thinks the killer is Larry. They go to his apartment, just in time to save Linda from two-headed-Larry. Much chase and pursuit footage ensues. Larry gives them all the slip. Dr. Suzuki tells Tara that he thinks he has a drug solution that will correct the earlier serum's error. It should split Larry into two beings. Tara, fed up with the whole mad scientist's girlfriend gig, leaves to call the police. Dr. Suzuki, full of remorse over his tampering, shoots Emiko and is about to commit hari-kari when Larry enters the lab and knocks out Tara. He is, at first, subservient and obedient to Dr. Suzuki, until the doc jabs him with the new drug. Larry kills Dr. J. He grabs up limp Tara and runs up the volcano. The police pursue, with Ian and Linda too. At the rim of the volcano crater, Larry "splits" into two. His left half being morphs back into mild-mannered human Larry. His right half is a hairy snarling ape-man beast. The beast and Larry fight. The beast throws Tara into the volcano. Larry makes his move then, and pushes the beast into the volcano. Linda rushes up "Oh Larry" and gives him a hug. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
The low budget gives Manster an odd, campy quality, akin to so many cheap horror films of the late 50s. Yet, there is an earnestness to the production which tries to shine through. There are the three iconic scenes which, while not great cinema, are nonetheless very memorable.

Cultural Connection
The depths of the human soul have long been the basis of great science fiction. From Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, through to the 50s' Golden Era, the many aspects of the human psyche have made for great stories. Mankind's "dual" nature -- part civilized, part savage -- gets used often, usually with some "science" as the catalyst that makes the two more distinct. Manster is one of these stories.

Neo-Frankenstein -- Dr. Suzuki is the classic Frankenstein model of the "mad" scientist. He has a vague notion of his work being for the betterment of mankind (or at least, Science). Yet, he has no sympathy for the individual. Like Frankenstein, he is recklessly leaping into unknown realms, and then surprised that his results turn out so badly. He feels remorse, even repentance at his misdeeds, but too late. He is killed by his own monster. Also akin to Frankenstein, the monster is the result of medical tampering not radiation, as we so commonly the cause in late 50s Japanese sci-fi.

Three Iconic Scenes -- While they may seem cheesy to modern eyes, three scenes in Manster made a big impression on young viewers. The first was Larry discovering the eye on his shoulder. The second was the growing of the second head while in Dr. Jennsen's office. The third was the splitting scene up on the volcano.

B Feature -- The film was titled Manster for some of its American run. In 1962, it ran as the second feature in drive-ins, to Eye's Without A Face, retitled as The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus. Both films dealt with medical doctors dabbling beyond ethics and disfigurement.

The Dark Side -- Breakston's story is a reframing of Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll tale with a 50s spin. Instead of a single man alternating between his good and evil self, Breakston has his character descend from the "good" (civilized, moral, clean-cut, sober) to the "bad" (brutal, licentious, grubby, drunken), and then grow a second head to symbolize the dual nature of man. Note too, that the dark side of man is pictured as an ape. This is an old trope. This is dramatized more clearly by the split near the end. One half is Larry's "good" side (he even returns to being clean cut), while his dark half is savage and hairy. This pairing of good and bad heads would become the foundation for the 70s two-headed-monster films. The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant ('71) would repeat the good-and-evil theme. The Thing With Two Heads ('72) would opt for racism, one black, one white. Note too, that Breakston employed the good-girl / bad-girl trope from Dr. Jekyll. Linda is the virtuous woman (Muriel from 1931) and Tara is the manipulative prostitute (Ivy from 1931).

Metaphor? -- While it can be dicey to read too much into B sci-fi screenplays, it does seem as if Breakston is painting a metaphor about the loss of conservative (50s) values. Larry, the hard working man who wants to lead a proper married life, is enticed (by Dr. Suzuki) into a life of hedonistic abandon (the same as Mr. Hyde sought). There is much drinking and drunkenness, but note the frequent sexual references. There are many geishas, several bathing naked. Tara alludes to having come from the life of a "bad girl." She seduces Larry. And, as such bad girls are apparently unredeemable (too broken to ever be a good girl again), she is killed by the beast. Indeed, one could almost see the film as a metaphor for infidelity. In playing up the sexuality, Breakston seems to be keying off of Paramount's 1931 Jekyll film which was chock full of sexual themes. When the temptress is dead, Larry can be the married man again.

Bottom line? Manster is a peculiar B-grade sci-fi/horror hybrid. A bigger budget and more careful special effects might have lifted it to a minor A film, but the story can be appreciated nonetheless. The film has a cult following and even had "legs" enough to spawn a couple of variations on the theme in the early 70s. Manster made a bigger impression than it might seem.


Randall Landers said...

The same theme is also repeated in Star Trek's "The Enemy Within" wherein Captain Kirk is split by the transporter into two entities, one good and one bad. Unlike this film (and "Manster" is one of my favorites), Richard Matheson's story surmises that one has to have BOTH good AND evil parts, and that that duality makes us stronger. Kirk's "evil twin" is an attempted rapist, while his "good twin" is a total, forgive me, pussy.

I never realized until your review that the vile temptress (Tara) was probably killed off to allow Larry and Linda to reconnect. She is clearly Infidelity and Carnality embodied, and she has to go for Larry and Linda's sake. Always had thought her death was meaningless -- much as the Shinto priest's. Thanks for something to think about!

Nightowl said...

Glad you liked the review. Yes, I think Tara's death was partially a morality tale subthread. Bad girls are eventually destroyed by the bad life.

I always thought there was something a bit "off" with the premise behind "The Enemy Within." I think you've hit upon it. Kirk's "good" side was almost a waste of oxygen. Indecisive, cowardly and weak. I don't know if it was Matheson, personally, or "the times" that imagined that "goodness" could only be soft and passive -- Walter Mitty as buddhist monk.
What happened to Christ clearing the temple with whips? John Wayne defending the fort? Superman rescuing Lois Lane? When did "good" exclude strength? Was it some crazy 60s thing?

Randall Landers said...

I don't know if it's a 60's thing or not, but certainly the good guys in comics, westerns and sci fi had a tendency to be total wusses at times. Ellison's early draft of "City on the Edge of Forever" originally had a mirror universe with bad guys running the big E while the good guys return to the Guardians (people not sculpture) to change time back. Jerome Bixby had a good universe and a bad universe in "Mirror Mirror." Interestingly enough, it's the "evil twin" thing that makes the "good twin" very ineffectual until he chooses to be stern.