American journalist Larry Stanford (Peter Dyneley), on assignment in Tokyo, is given an experimental injection by obsessed, amoral scientist Dr. Robert Suzuki (Tetsu Nakamura). The drug brings out Standford’s baser instincts, and he abandons his wife (Jane Hylton) and takes to excessive drinking and sleeping with local prostitutes that Suzuki supplies. Suzuki sends his mistress (Terri Zimmern) to Stanford as a new plaything, in order to keep tabs on him and control him. Eventually, Standford starts to change physically, growing a second head.
I first saw The Manster (with the title of The Two-Headed Monster) around 30 years ago and found it a strange, edgy, enjoyable film. Now, with my childhood a distant memory, I’ve had a chance to see it again, and find it a strange, edgy, enjoyable film.
It’s an American-Japanese co-production that has a lot of Caucasians hanging out in Tokyo. If I used this as a guide to the Far East, I’d have to assume that the population is split equally between English-speaking white guys, and Asians, most of whom speak English most of the time. But it is best not to read any grand social or political messages into The Manster as it will only cause confusion. Critics have claimed it is racist because the good guys are Caucasian, as are most of those in power, while the Japanese are either subservient or an evil scientist. That reading requires the viewer to like the Americans, which is beyond me. Stanford is unpleasant before he starts to change into a monster, and his wife gives new meaning to the term “doormat.” She also has the proper mix of shrill and empty ’50s house frau to drive any man to drink. The only sympathetic character is Tara, Suzuki’s mistress/assistant. Her life has been horrible and she stays with Suzuki only to keep out of some kind of brothel slavery. If there is a racial message here, it’s “avoid annoying occidentals and run away with a hot, pleasant, oriental girl before it’s too late.”
Japan is used less as an actual place, and more as a faraway land of mystery, much as Pacific islands were used in ’40s adventure films. It is filled with beautiful landscapes (there’s a volcano within sight of Toyko), lovely women in exotic costumes, and strange men with unknowable motivations.
The Manster starts with a scene no twelve-year-old boy will ever forget: beautiful Japanese girls moving slowly in a misty never-never land of communal baths. The only skin shown is on backs and arms, but it’s still quite sexy. Unfortunately, they all get slaughtered by an ape-like monster, but this is a monster movie, so what did you expect? Dr. Suzuki quickly kills off that failed experiment, and as a man who never learns from his mistakes, injects newspaperman Larry Stanford to see what will happen. I was betting it would turn him into an ape-like monster; I have no idea what Suzuki was expecting. Stanford, who should have given his body to science years ago as his brain is of little use, is a wretched reporter. He visits the mad scientist because he’s looking for a story, but he has no idea what kind of story. I suspect he’d already gone door-to-door asking people if they happen to have a story he could borrow before he found the not-so-good doctor.
Once that first monster exits the mortal coil, it takes a while for this monster movie to get back to a monster, but what we get instead is as interesting. Standford starts off having a wild time and quickly ends up as Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend (the comparison is hard to ignore as Milland was one half of a two-headed creature ten years later in The Thing with Two Heads).
There are a lot of questions that a viewer shouldn’t ask while watching The Manster. Most involve character motivation, but others include: If your body were to split apart, why would your clothing stay in one piece? Why does a second head look like a coconut? What kind of training does the Tokyo police have and does it involve learning to run around on the sides of mountains with no plan or thought?
While the makeup artists aren’t up to the task of making a convincing two headed monster, the obvious fake nature of the creature is less of a problem then the horrible acting from some of the supporting players, particularly Jane Hylton, who appears to be reading her lines from cue cards.
The Manster is a dark, erotic film with some memorable moments. It is jam-packed with despair and corruption. With a few extra dollars, a bit of recasting, and a changed ending, it could be a great monster movie. Luckily, this is a film where the good stays with you and the mistakes are easily forgotten.