Thursday, June 20, 2024

‘The Manster’ Shows Two Heads Aren’t Better Than One

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It’s no secret to any longtime reader that I am a sucker for cheesy, cheap, bad movies. What can I say? I am helplessly charmed by them.

So how could I not check out George Breakston and Kenneth C. Crane’s The Manster? Especially after learning that the low-budget 1959 body horror flick was the inspiration for the iconic birth of the Evil-Ash scene in Sam Rami’s classic Army of Darkness. A piece of movie trivia whose provenance I have been trying to solve for the last week or so to no avail. 

Nonetheless, my curiosity was piqued, and the title alone is the kind that acts like a siren call that I am incapable of resisting. Breakston and Crane’s The Manster is a Japanese-American production with a primarily Japanese cast and crew done on the cheap. Unfortunately, Walter J. Sheldon’s screenplay doesn’t have enough material to fill its seventy-two-minute run time, but Breakston and Crane do their damnedest.

Little things throughout The Manster lend the film a strangeness that the film’s low budget only enhances, the film’s almost impressionistic style. For example, the mad scientist Dr. Robert Suzuki (Testu Nakamura) keeps his lab in a cabin nestled in the barren Japanese mountainside next to an active volcano. Flourishes like these lend The Manster an intriguing quality to what is otherwise an all too languid creature feature.

The not-so-good doctor is studying, what else, the effects of cosmic rays on human evolution. Thank goodness foreign correspondent Larry Stanford (Peter Dyneley) has been assigned by his paper to look in to see the doctor’s experiments. A flimsy excuse to set up the premise, but who amongst us doesn’t remember the good old days when papers would send their foreign correspondents to remote locations to interview scientists studying cosmic rays and their effects on human biology?

Sadly, what Larry doesn’t know is that minutes before arriving, a strange Yeti-like beast, Dr. Suzuki’s brother, showed up and tried to destroy the lab. Thankfully the doctor was able to kill him and dispose of the body, all before Larry arrived. However, Dr. Suzuki is no slouch; he needs a new experiment and offers Larry his experimental formula disguised as a bottle of scotch.

All this is fine, but The Manster stumbles as it wastes so much time between Larry drinking the potion and everything else. The transformation is an agonizingly slow process that proceeds one stage at a time. Sheldon’s script wants to be a Jekyll and Mr. Hyde riff but doesn’t flesh out Larry enough for the change in his demeanor to be all that engaging.

Instead, Breakston and Crane are forced to take narrative shortcuts, showing us Larry lashing out at his friends and fiance Linda (Jane Hylton). Then there’s the seduction subplot, where Dr. Suzuki has his secretary Tara (Lisa Zimmern) observe Larry’s transformation. Poor Larry, meanwhile, is experiencing blackouts just as a string of murders are throwing Tokyo into an uproar.

Larry (Peter Dyneley) and Tara (Terri Zimmern)

All this climaxes as Larry discovers an eye growing out of his shoulder. An eye that soon develops into a head, and Larry finds himself battling with himself. But not really, because neither the script nor the movie seems interested in Larry.

Amazingly, David Mason’s camera deals with Sheldon’s ambling story and Breakston and Crane’s lack of direction. However, despite these hurdles, it somehow manages to make The Manster more memorable than it might have otherwise been. 

Manson, in one instance, captures Linda on the phone with Larry. The camera shows her sitting at her dresser, looking into a mirror with her reflection at all angles. Again, a shot meant to show a person’s many different sides, except Linda isn’t our protagonist. It’s a great shot used on the wrong character. The Manster is filled with moments like these ideas and executions that almost hit the mark.

Combine all this with Sheldon’s stab at poetic prose, and The Manster is a movie you can feel striving to be a little bit better. “Look into the sky at night, and you will see a star maybe one billion lights years away. The light you see started from that star, even before this world existed. That’s my work. The principles of existence.” Unfortunately, Breakston and Crane have no sense of pacing, which does no favor for Sheldon’s script and spends far too much time on the human elements. Ordinarily, this is preferred, but only if the characters involved resemble people.

The Manster is a movie that zigs when it should zag and vice versa. Still, I couldn’t help but grin once the two-headed Larry appeared. I can see how such a movie would stay with a child. It is easy to imagine a young Sam Rami catching The Manster on his little black and white television one night and having it seared into his memory. 

Whatever flaws The Manster may have, I was impressed by how Breakston and Crane created an eerie, dreamlike atmosphere. It’s not a mood they can capture consistently, but The Manster works best when the film gives itself over to being a strange-out-time-out-of-place nightmare.

Images courtesy of United Artists

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