Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Latitude Zero

A couple of months ago, I was trolling the Netflix site looking for movies to add to my queue when I came across a film I'd never heard of but thought for sure I should have known of it. The movie was Latitude Zero, a Toho production from 1969 directed by Ishiro Honda. Honda directed a truckload of Japanese monster movies, most of which I watched on Saturday or Sunday afternoons as a kid, so I was surprised that I had never heard of this one. I put it in my Netflix queue and it arrived last Friday, just in time for my weekend viewing.

The movie starts with a couple of marine biologists and an American photojournalist (Richard Jaekel) exploring the South Pacific ocean in a bathosphere. An eruption from a shaky faultline sends the bathosphere tumbling into an abyss. The men are rescued by scuba divers and taken to a futuristic submarine with jet engines. On board, they meet the mysterious Captain McKenzie, played by the ruggedly macho Joseph Cotton. Now, Mr. Cotton was always a bit effeminate, but here he comes off like a contestant from Project Runway with his open-chested, poofy shirt with gold lame' trim and striking green ascot.

Captain McKenzie explains that he is over 200 years old and that he built his submarine, The Alpha, 164 years ago, making improvements over the years. Before the dazed rescuees can process this information, the Alpha is attacked by a vicious looking sub complete with shark fins. This is the attack sub of McKenzie's arch-rival, Malick (Cesar Romero). Fresh off his turn as the Joker in the Batman TV show, Romero plays the evil Malick with gutteral laughs and an impatient swagger denoting a true sociopath. This guy would run over a box of kittens because he was late for a seal bashing contest.

McKenzie and Malick were once boyhood friends, but Makick had dreams of conquering the world, so he built a small island fortress where he plots evil with a middle-aged floosie named Lucretia, who looks like a cross between Della Street and Mrs. Roper. Also assisting him is an army of extras in furry brown costumes with bat masks and ungainly wings. With a staff like that, I can't imagine why he hasn't conquered the world by now.

Anyway, the Alpha manages to outfox the shark sub and returns to the domed city where McKenzie lives, 15 miles below the surface. The city is populated by scientists from all over the world who were plucked from their ordinary lives on the surface to build a scientific utopia under water. After showing his new friends the World's Fair-type wonders of the city, McKenzie takes them to their new living quarters in an apartment building gaily decorated with spotches of pink and lavender (McKenzie's personal design, I would imagine).

Forty-five minutes in, the story finally gets moving when Malick kidnaps a Japanese scientist who is on his way to the domed city. He apparently has invented an anti-radiation serum, and he is seeking asylum from all the nuclear-powered nations who want the serum so they can unleash atomic war while keeping their own people safe from radiation poisoning. Malick wants that serum for his own purposes, and demonstrates his evilness by subjecting the scientist and his lovely daughter to displays of grotesque organ transplants. Romero really relishes his performance as he takes the brain out of his attack sub commander's head and places it in the body of a lion, then cuts the wings off a huge bird and attaches those to the lion as well. Finally, he grabs a syringe with his blood-soaked hands and injects the beast with a growth serum, creating a do-it-yourself griffin. Yes, the whole sequence is as bizarre as it sounds! And it begs the question, if you can come up with a growth serum, why can't you also invent your own anti-radiation serum? Oh, that's right, then we wouldn't have a story!

Meanwhile, McKenzie gets wind of the kidnapping and prepares a commando crew to rescue the Japanese scientist. Along with his new pals, he enlists for the mission his sub pilot Kroiga and Dr. Anne Barton (Linda Haynes, who's clearly a student of the Ricky Nelson method of acting). After dressing his crew is stylish gold lame' jump suits and matching skullcaps, they voyage to Malick's island hideout where an all-out battle is launched. Boulders tumble, lasers fire, bat wings flutter, and griffin fur flies! I guess you can imagine who wins. Afterward, McKenzie takes his pals on a long ocean voyage to Fire Island (just kidding). Actually, they try to work in a strange "maybe it was a dream, maybe it wasn't" twist that doesn't quite work, IMO.

Still, I love crazy Japanese camp like this and can't believe I've never heard or seen this movie before. According to imdb.com, "When the television syndication contracts had expired this film became unavailable, reportedly due to a dispute over the rights." So I guess it's been hiding for many years and only recently made it to DVD. It's a shame it was off the radar for so long because it is definitely one of the better made movies from the Toho studios. Best of all, even though it's a Japanese production with a half-Japanese/half-American cast, the whole film is in English. No goofy dubbing with bad lip synch. An extremely fun and watchable movie... if you're in to bat people and flying griffins.

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