I love wordplay, and portmanteaus are my favourite. Come on over and I’ll tell you about The Manster (1959), part man, part monster, all good B movie madness. Two-headed Americans abroad in Japan is a very specific sub-genre, and underappreciated at that.
Originally released in Japan in July but not released stateside until March of ’62, United Artist Japan’s production was filmed there, and they spared every expense by using the same cardboard sets, flimsy, sparse labs and restaged hotel rooms as their American counterparts. (Papier mache volcano included.) But the mix of Japanese, British, and American actors gives The Manster (AKA The Split) a distinct flavor beyond the two pronged noggin. Oh, and the eyeball in the shoulder. Have I mentioned the caged sister with the melting face?
Our film opens on that mountainside by that gurgling volcano at the secret lab of Dr. Robert Suzuki (Tetsu Nakamura – The Last Dinosaur), whose work in evolutionary research is so profound it leads him to kill his follically overabundant brother and cage his now malformed wife. (Give him points for keeping it in the family, folks.) Up that mountain climbs one intrepid reporter, Larry Stanford (Peter Dyneley – Thunderbirds), pencil and paper in hand ready to tell the world about Suzuki’s research. Except the good doctor has tweaked the formula, and wishes to try it out on poor Larry. But first, he culturally seduces him by plying him with sake, whisky, and Geishas. Larry takes a fancy to Suzuki’s assistant Tara (Terri Zimmern) however, so Suzuki injects him with his new and improved formula and has Tara get very close to monitor his “progress”.
Entranced with the Japanese lifestyle, Larry even ignores his wife Stateside, Linda (Jane Hylton – The Wild Geese), to the point that she heads over to see what’s so great about the Far East. Her timing couldn’t be worse however, as Larry has become a changed man – first he grows a little hair on his hand, then that pesky eyeball on his shoulder, then an extra head as he rampages throughout Tokyo’s Ginza Strip. Can Larry be stopped before he kills again? Is he doomed to a fate worse than death? Will Linda bring back some nice souvenirs?
The Manster falls prey to the normal pitfalls of a bottom half double feature; cheap effects, some dicey thesping, a slow middle. But it sets itself apart enough – especially in a genre that was already becoming crowded with monsters – to deserve a look from horror lovers.
The location certainly is a nice change of pace; instead of the usual desert town with a dusty persona, we’re treated to a bit of Asian culture, with much more reverence than a big time Hollywood production would ever exhibit. (Employing actual Asian actors makes a big difference. Go figure.) The black & white cinematography by David Mason (A Touch of the Sun) is crisp and clean, making good use of creeping shadows and darkened alleyways and gives the production a noir-ish feel that elevates already shopworn tropes.
The Manster is Jekyll & Hyde, it’s The Wolf Man, and it’s every Destruction of the Inner Man from every Universal monster mash writ, well small, hampered as it is by the functional co-direction of George Breakston (The Boy Cried Murder) and Kenneth G. Crane (Monster from Green Hell). James Whale they are not and that’s okay; the two headed man was new to the freak show and more than enough to hold one’s interest for 72 minutes, regardless of his rather stiff and unblinking visage.
Dyneley sure needs that extra head though; he doesn’t really develop a personality until he gets it and changes his appearance as well, oversized teeth and bushy eyebrows giving him a modicum of menace that he maybe couldn’t provide on his own. No, all the heavy lifting is done by Nakamura and Zimmern, with the former a particular delight as the jovial scientist who lands just this side of mad with a twinkle in his eye and a monster in his cage. He’s riveting just by his mere presence, which is more than can be said of some of his Western counterparts.
The Manster did cast a shadow down the road for genre buffs, including the shoulder eyeball gag which Sam Raimi lovingly recreated for Army of Darkness (1992), and paved the way for The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant (1971) and The Thing with Two Heads (1972). Your mileage will vary with this very particular sub-genre, but it is nice to know that a bit of ambition (and much less money) could inspire even one filmmaker. Sometimes, two heads are better than one.
The Manster is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.