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.