Japanese Sci-Fi Theater: Latitude Zero (1969)

I’ve finally seen the one major Toho film of the 1960’s that had escaped my viewing grasp: LATITUDE ZERO. In my youth, I had been tantalized by two black and white images in FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND — how could you not want to see Joseph Cotton and Cesar Romero in silver suits pointing to a giant flying winged lion? But due to legal hassles, the film was kept out of circulation until the heroes at MEDIA BLASTERS/TOKYO SHOCK released a wonderful two-disc (!) DVD set in 2007 with the International version and the Japanese version. Interestingly, the English version is ten minutes longer. Intended to be a big budget American/Japanese co-production, the English backers dropped off at the last minute and the financial hijinks ensued. The American cast had to be convinced to work without pay until the last day of shooting (they were). This was also special effects maestro Eiji Tsubraya’s last Toho film, and while some of the ship miniatures are spectacular, the monsters are the most unimaginative of the era, rejects from Tsubraya’s ULTRAMAN series.

Still, they fit the funky, wide-screen lounge stylings of the set design and hammy performances from Toho’s biggest “all star cast.” I remember looking at that FM photo of Joseph Cotton in his silver suit pointing to a giant flying winged lion and wondering how the man who worked with Welles and Hitchcock (and was in PETULIA the year before) felt about this strange gig. He was probably happy to be akin to a leading man, the 200 year old ruler of a seaworld utopia where the inhabitants dress in clothes from every period. In his open shirt and scarf, Cotton looks like a new age Mr. Furley but somehow manages to bring a game face to his role. As the villain, Cesar Romero gorges on the scenery, with none of the wicked malevolence of his Joker (he was even more subtle in SKIDOO). But he has a fun partner in crime, Patricia Medina, who plays his Lady Macbeth; let’s put it this way, there’s leopard skin furniture in their space-age headquarters. Linda Haynes makes her debut as the beautiful blonde doctor in white go-go boots and it’s cool to think she’d soon be appearing in ROLLING THUNDER and THE DROWNING POOL. Even more radical, for the only time in kaiju history, the actors are not dubbed, including de rigeur Toho leading man, Akira Takarada and it’s quite cool to hear him speak pretty good English. Richard Jaeckel, fresh from the wacked alien classic MGM/Toho co-production of THE GREEN SLIME (1968), is the crew-cut photographer (shades of Nick Adams) who ends up in a bathysphere with him as they are sucked into the fantastic underwater world of LATITUDE ZERO.

The script was actually co-written by an American, Ted Sherdamen, who also wrote the seminal 1954’s atomic insect classic, THEM! This accounts for the high pulp quotient of the story, a cross between 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA and LOST HORIZON. But with a giant flying winged lion. The story meanders and it’s tough to suss out the plot, and the odd “twist” ending left me confused. Director Ishiro Honda does his usually stolid widescreen work here, hampered as he was by the split budget. Akira Ikufube contributes an unusual score with his familiar Toho kaiju tone, adding a nifty harpsichord riff to the mix.

The Tokyo Shock DVD looks great in 2:35.1 anamorphic, although the Japanese version looks a little sharper. Extras on the disc include around 20 minutes of cool deleted special effects from this and other Toho films. While LATITUDE ZERO doesn’t live up to my childhood projections nor the spectacular poster design, it’s a fun Saturday afternoon sci-fi movie and I was happy to finally cross it off my must-see list. And there’s a giant flying winged lion.

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17 Responses to “Japanese Sci-Fi Theater: Latitude Zero (1969)”

  1. I saw this when it came out on a double bill with Captain Nemo and the Underwater City. I remember thinking how Romero’s monsters looked like costumes from a school play. Later on, Joseph Cotten (love the ascots!) wrote briefly about making Latitude Zero in his autobiography. As I remember, not only weren’t the American actors paid for their last days of work, but I believe the producers stiffed them on the hotel bill as well.

    • Holy shit that’s the perfect double-feature for these two!

      I had read that the actors were eventually paid though they workd the entire shoot for free. I love that Cotton talks about LATITUDE ZERO in his bio. And that’s very dishonorable for Toho to have stiffed them on the hotel. They wouldn’t have done that to Nick Adams (“You rats! You dirty stinkin’ rats!!”)…

  2. Back in the good old days when movie posters REALLY knew how to bullshit potential audiences.

    • No kidding. All sizzle and no steak! Only the recent REIGN OF FIRE brought back memories of these posters, only because there is no scene of dragons battling choppers over England!

      • we have a great european tradition of VHS new posters for horror movies, where you can actually see things that are not in the film not even remotely (reign of fire HAZ dragons). turkish are masters of them all.

        on the other side, there are posters who pinpoint content gracefully – even if the content is crap. remember the poster for caravan of courage, an ewok adventure ? it actually shows the movie’s content, but manage to paint it in a star wars light (because drew drew it), therefore careening people in the right frame of mind to consume this piece of shit.

        on another point, the “poster” artist issue in the recent the mist tells a lot about how hollywood came to consider poster making after the coming of digital consumption.

        sigh.

        i also miss lobby cards.

        old. age. coming.

  3. that brings to mind the original ‘jaws’ one-sheet. the shark rising to the surface under the swimming lady is just so disproportionately humongous, like a sixty-foot megalodon rather than a 25 ft white like bruce — huge but not like “holy shit prehistoric!” huge

    (slightly askew from the topic but when i watched ‘jaws’ with the boy he just laughed at the mechanical shark in the final act, how fake it looked. it’s fascinating how the threshold for the suspension of disbelief has changed; when i saw ‘jaws’ as a kid bruce was pretty scary even tho it didn’t look totally real, but now my own child just laughs at bruce’s “cheesiness” and reels off a long list of what’s wrong with it. jaded little shits these days!)

    • I think the shark size is more metaphoric and it works on that level. There’s one early hardback editon where the shark looks like a gray penis with teeth. Weird.

      And I’m sad your boy laughed at the shark. I still think it’s great and scary. CG sharks are worse and less scary. But hey, even Spielberg made fun of the shark:

  4. that bruce was a handful!

    two things they dropped the ball on for the ‘jaws’ shark design: the bulging eye sockets and the torpedo-like straight-ahead swimming motion, both quite unrealistic and non-shark-like.

    i can see how the natural side-to-side curving motion of a swimming shark would be a nightmare to duplicate in large-scale animatronics/models esp. back in the day, but bruce’s bulging eye-sockets are rather inexplicable, sharks are nothing if not sleek, sleek, and sleeker.

    i personally love bruce the way he is and think his weirdness actually enhances his ‘more-vengeful-monster-than-realistic-shark-esque’ quality, but kids these days are too savvy about real sharks thanks to the discovery channel and such to ‘buy’ bruce, so i can understand the consternation. my wee lad can point out the footage of the real 18-footer cut in from ‘blue water white death’ from the shots of bruce, he’s that great white savvy. in a way i think it was a bit of a weird call for spielberg to edit in the footage of the real shark cruising in and caught up in the shark cage cable with that of the animatronic beast, because it highlights the ungainliness of bruce, but i can see his rationale for having shots of the real giant white thrashing against the cage and such in there to lend authenticity, tho i think it backfires to a degree — certainly for my 10yr old smarty alec (weirdly, he still totally digs ‘jaws’ in a big way, so ‘cheesy bruce’ isn’t at all a deal-breaker for him, more of an oddity/curiosity really, and probably a real testament to the commitment and chemistry of scheider, dreyfuss and shaw, and those awesome barrel buoys)

    i think if one could travel back in time to the 70’s and do just the shark over, a composit in a similar vein to the brilliant t-rex in ‘J park’ — such a seamless blend of badass winston animatronics and CGI — would be the ticket. not that i would, mind

    (sorry, jaws gobbledegook)

    • Yeah, what you said. I like the thrashing shark in cage from JAWS and think it’s as well integrated as it could be. But why CG doesn’t work for me in this context is that physical connectedness you get from the shark and actors.

  5. Suspension of disbelief IS a funny thing. To our grandparents, Kong looked real, jerky motion, ruffling fur and all.

    Bruce looks just fine to me, but it’s probably because he scared me when I was a lad and my memory fills in the rest. He still looks better than those awful digital fish in DEEP BLUE SEA. (The animatronic ones were pretty good, as I recall.)

    Just think of the dandy sharks they could do nowadays, with post-LOTR effects — if they only had a solid premise. The totally frustrating thing is I’ve actually GOT a well thought-out idea for a sharktastic summer blockbuster. If I could get five minutes with Roland Emmerich….damn.

    Anybody know anybody? I’ll give you an agent’s 15%.

  6. THE FUTURIST! wants to buy LATITUDE ZERO.

    Christian, you make THE FUTURIST! want to spend his hard earned cash.

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