Saturday, November 17, 1972 (Noon): Monster Zero (1965) / The Black Room (1935)

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Synopsis: A new planet has been discovered just beyond the orbit of Jupiter. Dubbed Planet X, its dark surface has made it almost invisible to earth-bound telescopes. A spacecraft called the P-1, manned by astronauts Fuji (Akira Takarada) and Glenn (Nick Adams), is on its way to explore the new world.

Fuji is a very serious fellow, and he spends much of the trip worrying about his sister Haruni (Keiko Sawai). She has been dating a goofy inventor named Tetsui (Akira Kubo), and Fuji worries that Tetsui, who fiddles with electronic gadgets but doesn’t seem very practical, won’t be able to provide for his sister.  Over the radio he admonishes Haruni not to get engaged without his permission.

Glenn, more informal and easygoing, seems to think that Fuji worries too much; but he is careful to stay out of his friend’s personal affairs.

Meanwhile on Earth, Tetsui is approached by an educational toy company that wants to purchase one of his inventions – an extremely high-decibel alarm. The company, represented by the mysterious Miss Namikawa, won’t divulge what they want to do with it, but they seem eager to buy it and promise a generous payout as soon as the device is marketed. Tetsui, seeing a way to prove to Fuji that he’s a success, quickly agrees.

Landing on Planet X, Fuji and Glenn quickly discover that while the surface is barren, a race of humanoids survives underground and possesses technology far in advance of our own. The two astronauts find themselves in the alien’s underground city and meet their leader, who is called the Controller.

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No life can survive on the surface, the Controller says, because it is continually ravaged by a giant monster that they are unable to repel, even with their technological prowess. At that moment, the monster appears, which the earth men immediately recognize as King Ghidorah. To the Xians it has another name — Monster Zero. When the attack has ended, the Controller proposes a deal: the Xians are unable to rid themselves of Monster Zero. The only force that can defeat it are the combined strength of Monsters Zero One and Zero Two — known on the Earth as Godzilla and Rodan.  If, the Controller says, they are allowed to bring those monsters to Planet X– by being allowed to operate freely on the Earth — then the Xians will provide Earth with a formula that will cure all disease.

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Fuji and Glenn return to Earth with this message, which is quickly agreed to by Earth’s governments. Meanwhile, Glenn begins dating a mysterious woman named Namikawa — the very same woman who was so eager to buy Tetsui’s invention.

Soon the aliens locate and transport Godzilla and Rodan to Planet X, and as expected, the two monsters drive Monster Zero away. Earth’s part of the bargain fulfilled, the Xians give the Earth people a reel-to-reel tape which, they claim, contains the formula for a cure for all disease. But when the scientists play the tape, it turns out to be a demand for the Earth’s unconditional surrender….

Comments:  The sixth film in the Godzilla franchise was originally titled Great Monster War in Japan when it premiered in 1965. The title was changed to Invasion of Astro-Monster for international release, and turned up on the US armed forces theater circuit as Invasion of the Astros. By the time it arrived in American theaters in the summer of 1970 it got a punchier title — Monster Zero — and occupied a double bill with War of the Gargantuas (interestingly, Monster Zero appears to be the first — and as far as I know the only — Godzilla movie that doesn’t have “Godzilla” anywhere in the title). It remained Monster Zero when it was sold to broadcast TV and since the days of home video has been called Godzilla vs. Monster Zero, though Invasion of Astro-Monster has remained an alternate DVD title. The film falls about midway through the Toho’s Showa era — that is, the studio’s first cycle of kaiju movies, beginning with Gojira in 1954 and ending with The Terror of Mechagodzilla in 1975.

Monster Zero introduced a couple of tropes that would appear regularly in subsequent films. First, alien invasion would become a standard-issue plot device in Godzilla movies. The antagonists here are a homogeneous bunch of arrogant, technologically advanced eccentrics (no, no, not the Japanese; I’m talking about the inhabitants of Planet X). Second, the presence of American actor Nick Adams started a clever trend in which stateside box-office appeal was maximized by adding a washed-up (and therefore inexpensive) American actor to the cast.

The mystery of why Tetsui’s seemingly useless invention has been purchased keeps the earthbound plot moving along smoothly, and while the fact that Tetsui just happens to be dating Fuji’s sister might seem to be too much of a coincidence, it’s a small contrivance compared to the giant monster mayhem and the interplanetary intrigues that are going on all around us. Monster Zero is a phenomenally well-paced movie, and unlike many of the Toho films with this era it isn’t burdened down with a lot of dead-end subplots designed to pad out the running time; everything ties together neatly in the end.

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The aliens are the most memorable of any Showa era film, with their pasty faces, eccentric uniforms and bizarre mannerisms. After all, can you recall the Keelaks from Destroy All Monsters, made just three years later?

The film boasts a number of Toho contract players who appeared again and again in Godzilla films. Akira Takarada was in many of them, starting with Gojira (1954) in which he played the young soldier Ogata. He also appeared in Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster (1966), Mothra vs. Godzilla, King Kong Escapes, Latitude Zero, and others. Akira Kubo (Tetsui) played a lot of minor roles in samurai films and was also one of the leads in Destroy All Monsters.

The beautiful Kumi Mizuno starred opposite Russ Tamblyn in War of the Gargantuas (1966) (putting her on both ends of the American double-bill). She also appeared in the equally eccentric Matango (1963) and Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster (1966).

Nick Adams’ story is an interesting one on its own; he was a keenly ambitious actor whose small roles in Mister Roberts and Rebel Without a Cause allowed him to cultivate friendships with A-listers like James Dean and Natalie Wood, which yielded a fair amount of attention from the Hollywood press. Despite a best-supporting Oscar nomination and a short-lived TV series called The Rebel his career quickly stalled, and he was often accused of being unusually needy and publicity-hungry, even by Hollywood standards. In the mid-1960s he did three films for Toho, including the deeply weird Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965), and by all accounts everyone involved was happy with the arrangement. He got along well with his Japanese colleagues, had no trouble supplying the over-the-top acting style that was expected by Japanese directors (something the laconic Russ Tamblyn struggled with) and his height, which had been an obstacle to garnering leading roles in the states, wasn’t as much an issue in Japan (though to be sure, he was barely tall enough to be a leading man there either). He also appears to add lots of hep-cat ad libs (“Maybe Controller speaks with forked tongue, huh?”, etc) and appears to be having a good time in the role of Glenn.

All in all, this is an extremely fun and colorful Toho offering, one that balances the human and monster subplots so well that it became a template for later movies. Many kaiju films have struggled to achieve the narrative drive that this one achieved so easily. While it’s widely considered a minor Godzilla entry, I would argue that Monster Zero is more than underrated; it is, in fact, the Citizen Kane of giant monster movies.

The Black Room


Synopsis: In a Tyrolean fiefdom, a baron anxiously awaits the birth of an heir. But he is greatly distressed to learn that his wife has given birth to twins. An old family prophecy holds that one day twins will be born to the family, and that the younger twin will murder the older in the onyx-lined “black room” of the castle. Fearful of the prophecy, the baron orders that the entrance to the room be bricked up.

Some forty years later, we find the older twin Gregor ruling as baron. He is a cruel and dissolute tyrant, hated by his subjects, and he is suspected in the disappearances of several young women. But the local authorities turn a blind eye to his activities.

The younger twin Anton (Boris Karloff) is a nice but somewhat ineffectual fellow, and has been away since his brother’s rule began. At Gregor’s invitation, Anton returns home.

At first Anton refuses to believe the rumors about Gregor, but it soon becomes clear to him that his older brother is every bit as cruel and despotic as the locals allege.


When Gregor is implicated in the disappearance of Mashka, a gypsy serving girl, the townspeople rise up. They storm the castle and demand Gregor be handed over to them.

To everyone’s surprise, Gregor tells the townspeople that he will relinquish his authority immediately and turn it over to his younger brother Anton. This mollifies the crowd and Anton becomes the new baron.

While acquainting Anton with his new duties, Gregor shows him an interesting trick: inside the huge fireplace in the main hall there is a secret passage that leads into the Black Room. Gregor reveals that he has been there many times, and that there is a pit beneath the room. When Anton looks down into the pit, he sees a number of bodies that have been thrown down there — including the body of the missing girl Mashka. Gregor strikes Anton and tosses him down into the pit as well.

As Anton dies, Gregor taunts him. He reminds him that, according to the prophecy, Anton was supposed to kill Gregor in that room. “The prophesy will be fulfilled!” Anton insists. “From the grave?” Gregor asks sarcastically. “Yes,” Anton says as he dies. “From the grave!” Emerging from the Black Room, Gregor now assumes the identity of Anton, able to rule again while being absolved of all his past crimes. Yet Anton’s dying words keep coming back to him…

Comments: The Black Room is the kind of picture that does best late at night, so it’s a bit jarring to see it turn up on the schedule in the middle of the day. But that’s how movies worked in the heydey of broadcast TV — anything could turn up at any time, and if you didn’t catch it when it was scheduled, you might wait a year or more for it to turn up again.

This meller was made back when Karloff was still a phenom and studios were gauging how versatile an actor he really was (as it turned out, not versatile enough, and it wasn’t long before he was permanently relegated to mad scientist roles). It’s clear that Karloff is greatly enjoying the showiness of this relatively sumptuous costume drama, in which he actually plays three roles: Gregor, Anton, and then Gregor pretending to be Anton. It’s a fun movie that actually works pretty well.

And it’s helped considerably by the presence of the lovely Marian Marsh, who like Fay Wray reached the zenith of her career in the early 1930s. Marsh also starred opposite John Barrymore in Svengali (1931) and Edward G. Robinson in the great newspaper drama Five Star Final (1931), and was as luminous in those movies as she is here.

 

 

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One comment

  1. MONSTER ZERO showed up 5 times in Pittsburgh (always liked Nick Adams), and THE BLACK ROOM was included in 1958’s SON OF SHOCK TV package, along with other Columbia titles featuring Karloff, Lugosi, and Peter Lorre.

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