March 18, 2013

Two Heads are More Bitter than One

Poster - The Manster (aka The Split), 1959
Now Playing: The Manster (aka The Split; 1959)

Pros: Dark and eerie atmosphere; Some neat shock effects and a cool mad scientist's lab; Good, cheesy B movie dialog
Cons: Some stiff, amateurish acting; Love triangle slows things down

It's hard to be just one person these days. With smartphones, tablets, social media and whatnot embedded everywhere in society, and friends, family, co-workers and businesses using them to command our attention every waking moment, one body with one brain is not up to the task of processing it all.  Cloning is problematic, because a.) the technique is still in its infancy; b.) it's illegal; c.) it takes years to raise your clone to adulthood; and d.) just like any child, there's no guarantee that once it matures it will want to have anything to do with you, much less do your bidding.

Another option is growing a new head. How many times have you heard the saying, "two heads are better than one"? Apparently, growing a new head on your shoulders takes a lot less time than raising a clone (source: The Manster). There is the distinct advantage that since the new head shares a body with you, it can't just wander away like a clone could. Again, there's no guarantee that the junior head would be cool with everything you want. But if it was, it would go a long way to solving the 21st century "not-enough-time-in-the-day" dilemma. One head and hand could handle the boss on the phone demanding that overdue report, while the other head takes on the really important work of updating Facebook.

If you could somehow add multiple personalities to each head, then you'd really have something. You could trot out Eve when the situation called for compassionate and caring, Sybil when it called for hard-nosed and plucky, and Norman could emerge frequently to help run that bed and breakfast you've always wanted to own. (Whoa, I'd better be careful, or I'll blow whatever's left of my one and only mind!)

It's hard to tell if The Manster's mad Japanese doctor is deliberately trying to grow a thing with two heads to benefit time-pressed, single-tasking humanity. Besides a defensive throwaway line to his assistant that he's doing it all "for human knowledge," it seems like he's just into creating human mutations, the more grotesque the better.

Even before the title credits, The Manster gets down to serious business. It opens on a rural Japanese village where several young women are bathing in outdoor mineral waters, and another is powdering her face at her dressing table. We see a hairy, ape-like silhouette sneaking up on the woman behind the screens of her bedroom. It attacks, she screams, and suddenly an arc of blood splashes up on the translucent screens as the titles roll.

A shaggy creature waits for Dr. Suzuki in his underground lab
Another of Dr. Suzuki's experiments that didn't work out.
Cut to an establishing shot of Mt. Fuji, then to a man in a business suit working his way up the fog-shrouded mountainside. He enters a nondescript cabin, where an attractive woman sitting at a desk tells the man that "he" has come back, and that she's locked him down in the laboratory. "You better take this with you," she says, handing him a revolver. The man, Dr. Robert Suzuki (Tetsu Nakamura), descends into the laboratory carved out of mountain rock, which, with its huge exotic plants, bizarre-looking lab equipment, and iron-barred cells (one of which holds a grotesquely deformed mad woman), looks like an updated version of Buddhist Hell.

Suzuki yells for "Genji" in the darkened lab. In a very nice shot, the huge shadow of the hairy creature we saw in the pre-title sequence looms over Suzuki as, gun in hand, he apologizes to his brother: "You're an experiment that didn't work out. Sorry Genji…" Suzuki unleashes scalding steam on the thing that used to be his brother, then shoots it dead. Right away we know this isn't your garden variety rubber-suited giant monster flick (nor is this strictly a Japanese production, as we'll see later).

Into this mad science mess walks foreign correspondent Larry Stanford (Peter Dyneley), who's been sent by the World Press to interview Suzuki about his work. For a man who's just shot his mutated brother, Suzuki is remarkably calm and self-possessed. The laconic newspaperman expresses doubts that Suzuki's work in "evolutionary development" will interest his readers very much, but the bemused doctor seemingly takes no offense. Instead, he queries Larry about a number of personal details, including his height, weight, general health and marriage status (Larry's wife is waiting for him back in New York). It's as if Suzuki is sizing up Larry to be the prime subject for his next experiment… uh oh! Larry is confused and a little offended, but the doctor smooths things over by offering him a very special glass of Scotch (complete with a mutation-inducing enzyme).

Suzuki's attractive assistant Tara (Teri Zimmern) knows exactly what the doctor is up to, and although she feigns indifference, it's clear her conscience is tugging at her. When she challenges him, Suzuki's answer is the perfect distillation of The Mad Scientist Ethic:
Tara: Are you sure what you're doing is absolutely right?
Dr. Suzuki: This is for science, for human knowledge! What happens to one man doesn't make any difference!
Although Larry had originally planned to fly home to New York to be with his wife, Suzuki convinces him to stay a while longer ostensibly so that he can show him a side of Tokyo he's never seen before (but really so that the doctor and his assistant can keep an eye on their new experimental subject). Days turn into weeks as the doctor, Tara and Larry live it up at geisha parties and bathing suit-optional bath houses. Larry is intermittently bothered by a pain in his right shoulder and a right hand that seems to have a mind of its own, but the more drastic change is in his personality-- the formerly upright, faithful reporter has become sullen, lascivious and generally a drunken wreck. When his Tokyo station chief Ian Matthews (Norman Van Hawley) asks him what's going on and why he hasn't gone back to New York to see his wife, Larry grumpily tells him to mind his own business.

Jane Hylton as Linda Stanford
Linda's in for a real surprise when she
flies out to Tokyo to see her husband.
Things get really complicated for Larry when he returns from a night out with Tara to find his wife Linda (Jane Hylton) waiting for him in his apartment. When she gives him an ultimatum -- "the girlfriend or me!" -- he storms out with Tara on his arm. Tara in turn informs the bewildered man that he's got to go back and tell his wife in no uncertain terms that they're finished for good. So what's a formerly straight-laced, happily married man turned drunken-lout and philanderer to do? It seems like he needs two heads to deal with it all-- one to come to terms with his wife, and the other to carry on with his new exotic girlfriend. It's just around this time when Dr. Suzuki's slow-acting, mutating enzyme starts to kick in -- with terrifying results.

Many reviewers have noted The Manster's surreal shock imagery. For example, the first graphic manifestation of Stanford's mutation (beyond an itchy neck and a hairy, claw-like right hand) is a real eye-opener (pun intended). The Manster is also very dark, with most of the action taking place in the dead of night. The mutated Stanford, clad in a trenchcoat, attacks his victims on dark, foggy streets and in dimly-lit rooms. (The thing also leads the ineffectual Tokyo police on a chase through a darkened cemetery; the aftermath, and the fate of an unlucky officer, is another one of the film's shock images that stays with you.) It's as if Suzuki's formula had been applied to a film-noir, and it had mutated into a surreal, noirish, sci-fi/horror thriller (the cinematic equivalent of a thing with three heads).

In addition to the dark atmosphere and surrealistic imagery, The Manster is peppered with interesting bits of business and dialog that elevate it above the run-of-the-mill B sci-fi movie. There's a mildly raunchy scene early on in which the beautiful Tara takes Stanford to a communal bathhouse, where, per Japanese custom, men and women bathe together au naturel. "Well now I've seen everything… or I'm about to!" Larry quips as the two prepare to strip.

Larry (Peter Dyneley) confronts a temple priest (Shinpei Takagi)
In anguish, Larry seeks solace in a spooky Buddhist temple (but finds none).
Later, as the enzyme really gets down to work on poor Larry's body and his right hand turns into a beast's claw, there is a very nicely done scene in which Stanford, disconsolate and wandering aimlessly, stumbles into a darkened Buddhist temple. Surrounded by bizarre statuary of saints and demons half-hidden in the shadows, the tormented man, his transformed hand stuck in his coat pocket, approaches the temple priest who is praying out loud. "I just wanted to talk," he pleads with the uncomprehending priest. "I've got to get it out of me!" (Obviously in more ways than one!) When the priest turns away and goes back to his prayers, the enraged man falls on him off camera, and the prayers turn to screams. (Stanford's existential angst and tortured face, especially in this scene, remind me of The Wolf Man's Larry Talbot, played by Lon Chaney Jr. Both are turned into monsters through no fault of their own, and both are named Larry. Coincidence?)

At the climax, as Doc Suzuki's transgressions are finally catching up with him, he uncharacteristically waxes philosophical (and reveals a self-deprecating sense of humor): "Maybe I've offended the gods. Funny, I didn't used to believe in gods…"

On the other hand, there's quite a bit of smarmy dialog that should've ended up on the cutting room floor, especially when Stanford's boss Ian counsels Larry's wife to fight to keep her man, or at the very end when he clumsily sums up the moral of the story. A lot less of Ian and the desultory love triangle between Larry, Linda and Tara would have made the film leaner, meaner and more mutated (in a good way). (I guess Ian had an excuse for being wooden-- Norman Van Hawley's one and only acting credit is The Manster).

In his monumental work Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties (McFarland, 1986), Bill Warren touches on the interesting, varied and peripatetic career of The Manster's producer, co-director and original story writer George P. Breakston:
Born in Paris in 1920, by the age of 6 he was in the United States. He soon became a well-known child actor, appearing on radio, in the theatre and films. His most prominent role in the early 1930s was as the boy Pip in Great Expectations (1934)… By the late 1940s, however, Breakston seems to have wearied of Hollywood, and left for Africa. There he began producing and directing pictures, sometimes also writing and starring in them. Among these films were Urubu (1948) and Golden Ivory (1955). … In the late 1950s, Breakston started wandering again; he made The Manster in Japan, Shadow of Treason (1963) and Blood River (1968) in other parts of the world, and The Boy Cried Murder (1966) in Montenegro.
Peter Dyneley as Larry Stanford; Lon Chaney Jr. as Larry Talbot
Two tormented Larrys: Peter Dyneley (left) and Lon Chaney Jr.
Warren also relates that for The Manster, Breakston relied heavily on visiting/expatriate Americans who spoke Japanese and Japanese who spoke English, so there are more amateurs in the cast than usual. The film, a co-production of United Artists of Japan and Shaw-Breakston Enterprises, was first released in Japan in 1959, but didn't make it over to the States until 1962 (thus accounting for the different dates that you find in various sources).

While The Manster itself is more ludicrous than frightening (the second head looks somewhat like a coconut with a scary face carved into it), the overall dark, surreal atmosphere and some very effective shock scenes make this one well worth a look (or even a second look).

Where to find it:
Available on DVD

Available online

Amazon Instant Video

Available online

Netflix Instant Watch

The Manster
was released in the U.S. on a double-bill with The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus (aka Eyes without a Face):


  1. This is one that I don't recall and I am certain I have never seen it.

    1. It's waiting for you on Amazon Instant Video, if you dare! :)

  2. Great review, Brian. I like your page, I'm subscribing!

    1. Back at ya Dax! You're doing a great job of keeping the "Killer B's" alive on Facebook and the web!

  3. Hi, Brian!
    I haven't seen this film either so I enjoyed your review of it. What an interesting title then there's Chaney Jr. (Doesn't get the accolades he deserves.)

    I'm not the biggest B list Sci-Fi fan but during Nate's Roger Corman Blogathon and his reviews in this genre, I've grown to appreciate the creativity and early special effects that paved the way for what we see today. (Often not near as good!)


    1. Hi Page!
      I'm looking forward to participating in your April Terrorthon (thanks for extending the deadline a bit and letting me participate). As soon as I get done here I'm going to put up a Terrorthon banner.

  4. Brian, your MANSTER review is magnificently nuts, and I assure you I mean that as a compliment! I enjoyed the details of your review, especially your wry wit, and the trailers take me back to drive-in days, with great screen-grabs. Great post!

    1. How could I take "magnificently nuts" as anything other than a compliment? (You are no slouch in the wry humor department either!) :)