The story behind the creation of the Japanese produced Frankenstein vs. Baragon (called Frankenstein Conquers the World in its American release) is far more entertaining than the film itself. Released in 1965, the story dates back to the original King Kong. It's a shame the film's rather lackadaisical pacing doesn't follow the behind-the-scenes story.
After King Kong's success, special effects master Willis O'Brien (the man who animated the great ape) had the idea to resurrect the creature for a new sequel sometime in the 1960's. It was to be called King Kong vs. Prometheus, the new creature being a spin-off Frankenstein's monster. After Jon Beck, a Universal studios employee, got a hold of the script (which was rejected by numerous other studios), he took it to Japan.
O'Brien passed on in late 1962, but only after learning the Japanese turned the script into King Kong vs. Godzilla, released the same year as his death. Ever crafty, Toho Studios still had the original script and idea. In 1965, it became Frankenstein vs. Baragon.
The concept was radically altered, turning it into one of the oddest Toho giant monster films, and given their general premises, that's saying something. Frankenstein's "immortal" heart (from what film is never known) is transported to Japan for study during World War II. Exposed to the Hiroshima bomb, it turns into a deformed human with some of the more familiar Frankenstein trademarks (scars, flat head) 15 years later.
Brought in for study, the human/monster hybrid grows upon the radiation rapidly, though why he stayed around six feet tall for 15 years prior is never given an explanation. This also leads to the appearance of Baragon, a four-legged subterranean monster with glowing horned nose. In standard Toho logic, the monster appears only as Frankenstein grows large enough to fight it.
Incomprehensible as all of that is, there's still some fine work here from a recognizable crew. Ishiro Honda directs as he would most of the Toho monster output of the period. Eiji Tsuburaya provides the overly large miniatures (necessary because of Frankenstein's smaller than typical height), some of the best of his career. The final piece, aside from the standard acting staple (in addition to The Rebel's Nick Adams), Akira Ifukube provides a rousing soundtrack, though some of the pieces were culled from 1962's flop Varan The Unbelievable.
The film relies largely on the human drama to carry itself, including a relationship between the giant and lovely Kumi Mizuno. The film drags along through generic research where the scientists deal with the monsters regenerating powers, the moral consequence of killing him, and the media's appetite for whatever information they have. Excessive stretches of film are wasted on meaningless conversations that have little bearing on the overall plot.
Near the end of the film, it becomes apparent that Frankenstein isn't the only worry they have, as Baragon hops on screen for no other reason than to set up a campy fight between the beasts. There was potential for a minor mystery as Frankenstein reportedly causes devastation, even though it occurred miles away from his previous positions. That's also wasted since Baragon's reveal comes early, and of course the film's title doesn't leave much to the imagination.
Baragon's suit is only one of the special effects that fail, with a friendly face and fat cheeks that leads to unintentional comedy. As Frankenstein searches for food, he comes upon a wild boar that couldn't possibly look worse than it does. A horse trampled by Baragon receives worse treatment.
The only interesting aspect of the film is the inclusion of the bomb dropping on Hiroshima, created in eerie silence with only the plane and beating heart of Frankenstein heard before the explosion. When it hits, the immense fire showcases devastation on a grand scale. It's also note worthy since the Honda's goal with the original Godzilla film was to show the horrors of nuclear weapons though the monster, and here, the bomb itself is given a full focus.
As a film itself however, it's a routine Toho production that fans have been through before, only without a lot of the imagination or charm these films generally bring with them. Frankenstein is a lackluster monster, Baragon even less so, and the meandering plot could have been condensed by a half hour or more. A few special effects highlights are the only reasons to watch. (**)
The video treatment given to the film is likewise sloppy. Whereas other Toho DVD efforts look better than they originally did, Frankenstein suffers from a soft, faded, and all around murky print. While damage to the source material is minimal, and the transfer seems fine, there's a definite lack of finer detail here. The color is particularly disappointing. (**)
Remixed into 5.1, there's little in the audio department worth mentioning too. None of the audio finds its way into the rear speakers, the subwoofer remains silent. Aside from slightly richer sound, it's better to stick with the 2.0 mono mix. It has a crisper, more natural edge to it. Also, there's a music only audio track to appreciate Ifukube's grand score. (**)
Features here are varied, including the alternate ending that was originally part of the title. After the fight with Baragon, a giant squid appears to finally put an end to Frankenstein. It's actually a stronger battle and aside from the abrupt appearance of the squid, is a more effective finale. When it was cut, so was the title that was originally Frankenstein vs. The Giant Devil Fish (and other variations on that same theme). Oddly, the ending is included in its entirety. It's a 14-minute feature for only around four minutes of new content.
A nice touch is addition of a comparison from the Japanese version to the eventual US translation. Though the US clips are all presented in a cropped 4:3 frame, there's significant new footage/alternate angles in the two scenes shown. Outtakes are extended footage of miniature tanks rolling down a hill, and two failed shots (one of which has the tanks cannon falling off the model). A photo gallery and trailers with unused footage rounds the disc off. (***)
To ensure things stayed confusing as possible, the film would get a sequel. Released as War of the Gargantuas in the US, the producers of the American version rejected every line that tried to link the two together. They had a reason for it too. Unexplainably, the Frankenstein morphed into some furry green giant (no, not that one), and also had an evil brother. While a lively film, one of Toho's best non-Godzilla romps, the plot was unacceptable for stateside fans.