I figured that I’d subjected my wife to quite enough of Eiji Tsubaraya’s low-budget television special effects on Ultraman and should show off what the genius would do given more money for the big screen, and the collaboration of a brilliantly talented director like Ishiro Honda. One of the best options to accomplish this, and thrill our favorite five year-old critic, is 1969’s Latitude Zero. It is a weird and strange movie.
Toho had been finding it easier in the 1960s to find good distribution deals in the United States by hiring American actors like Nick Adams and Russ Tamblyn, but this is a rare sixties example of the studio creating a film with a cast who spoke entirely in English. The acting, overall, isn’t too much better than what you’d get from one of their dubbed offerings, as several of the Japanese actors are speaking English phonetically and one of the American actors, Linda Haynes, was new to the business and was clearly hired because she’s cute in go-go boots. But it’s also got Joseph Cotten in the unlikely role of a 204 year-old action hero, Richard Jaeckel as a fists-first photojournalist, and Cesar Romero as the villain.
Latitude Zero is based on an obscure radio serial that had been popular in 1941. It seems like it must have been pretty close to second-hand Jules Verne at the time – a scientist “drops out” of warlike society in a submarine and starts an underwater utopia based on scientific discovery – but it was updated by Toho to give it a Cold War edge and a platform for Tsubaraya’s special effects. Honda and Tsubaraya had actually made an unrelated “flying submarine” movie called Atragon six years previously, and I recall that it’s a better movie than this and one that I should buy again, but Atragon didn’t have hordes of bat-men, giant rats, and a gigantic winged lion.
The movie is certainly flawed, but it’s a triumph of design and it never stops getting weirder and weirder, with one strange surprise after another. I don’t think that it was a good idea to introduce us to the conflict between the scientists by means of a lengthy cat-and-mouse submarine chase before telling us who these people are. This did keep our son excited, but the comedown is too lengthy. Explanations at the undersea utopia of Latitude Zero go on forever, and a romance between Linda Haynes’ character and a scientist played by Masumi Okada (the dad from The Space Giants) comes from nowhere.
There’s a much more interesting romance between Cesar Romero’s villainous Malic and his femme fatale, played by Patricia Medina, but it all goes south because the black-clad woman who captains Malic’s submarine also has a thing for him. The femme fatale wants her out of the way, so Malic uses her as the subject of his latest grisly experiment.
I hadn’t actually watched this film in about twenty years. I forgot that the operating room sequence, apart from Tsubaraya making a liar out of my claims to his greatness with an absolutely pathetic pantomime lion costume (Monty Python fought a more realistic one in the “Scott of the Antarctic” sketch), might just be too scary for our son. The camera never actually shows the brain transplants, but we certainly hear the sound of the saw. Can’t blame the kid for hiding during that bit.
Aside from that deeply awful costume, this is a film that just looks great, with miniature work far better than what the team had done on a TV budget for Ultraman, and some terrific explosions. It honestly never quite rises above the silliness of its concept and execution, and seeing the 64 year-old Cotten charging into battle in a gold fetish suit is a special kind of ridiculous. But it’s fun and unpredictable and the silliness is rarely stupid. Our son loved the fight scenes and the winged lion – it’s markedly more successful when the camera pretends that it’s a giant monster than a real lion – though I’m pretty sure he docked it a few points for being talky and scary. But he also says that he’s glad that he watched it.
I’m not immediately planning to watch any other Toho movies for the blog, but you never know. My interest in Godzilla is as low as it can possibly be these days, although I do fondly remember Atragon and The Mysterians, and I think that The War in Space might be fun to find as we look at Star Wars cash-ins later this year. Honestly, it may be that any film with a musical score by Akira Ifukube is worth watching at least once, but Toho’s not a priority this year.
(Extra special thanks to Dave from Let’s Anime for sharing his copy of this for us to watch. Okay, technically I did break the rule about using a legitimately-purchased DVD for this blog, but I did buy a copy about a decade ago. It went walkabout along with my Terror of Mechagodzilla [another Ishiro Honda film] in 2011, but I did spend money on it!)