Saturday, July 6, 2013

Latitiude Zero

More than once James and I have remarked upon the magnanimous generosity of our mutual friend, Al. Particularly with his gifts of DVD burns. I don’t believe it to be exaggerating when I state that I must have over a hundred hours of new-to-me entertainment waiting for exploration. Because these films are so specialized, I find that timing is the key. You see I’m not always in the mood to catch a low-budget 70’s horror flick or a 60’s Mexican wrestler epic. But when I’m of that disposition, Al has got me covered. 

The other day, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was of a mind to catch. Looking through the unviewed titles, I found a disc titled “Latitude Zero”. Hmmm, I thought… maybe a sci-fi epic or perhaps a Spyploitation piece? I figured that either genre might suit my tastes that day. I popped it in the player and found it was the former, a science fiction adventure. But it turned out to be far more than that. The movie touched upon numerous subjects I find interesting and tickled me no end. 

The gist of the film is this. A pair of Japanese scientists are conducting undersea research in a bathysphere and an American reporter is invited along to document it. Unforeseen weather causes the craft to become untethered from the surface ship and rescue is impossible. The 3-man crew is counted as dead. However a mysterious submarine finds the helpless vessel and the trio of unconscious men is taken aboard to safety. Two awaken unscathed while the third requires more vigorous medical attention. The craft is called the Alpha and though enormous, is piloted by only a crew of three. The guests learn that both the sub and it’s leader, Capt. McKenzie, made their initial voyage in the year 1805. Yet the vessel looks ultra modern and the Captain looks to be in his 50’s. The Alpha was in the area to observe some undersea volcanic activity and finding the wounded bathysphere was a lucky accident. Their compatriot requires more aid than available onboard and so they head to the sub’s home port, an underwater location called Latitude Zero. It’s inhabitants live in an artificially created environment, with a pseudo-sun, an international citizenry and technology far in advance of the surface world. Latitude Zero remains both hidden and neutral in the affairs of the surface but is in conflict with an evil cadre of people that share advances similar to Latitude Zero’s. The balance of the film depicts this struggle. 

As bizarre as it seems, the film was based upon an obscure American adventure radio series from 1942 of the same name. I managed to find a d/l of the opening broadcast and was transfixed. Lately I’ve been listening to several Old Time Radio broadcasts, but this short half hour is one of the most riveting I’ve experienced. 

I find it even stranger that the movie was made in 1969 at Toho Studios in Japan. The director and screen writer was Inshiro Honda, the company’s Daikaiju and sci-fi specialist. How the fuck he ever even heard of the radio show is beyond me. The Japanese studio’s golden age was pretty well over but there was still a large worldwide audience for such fare. However this epic was made differently from the previous films of Honda. The biggest change was that the cast contained a significant roster of non-Japanese actors. In fact within the key roles the nationality ratio was tilted towards American. Because of this Latitude Zero was shot in English and not Japanese. The native actors were made to learn their lines phonetically, with some doing this better than others. In an odd way it reminds me more of George Pal’s sci-film movies than Toho product.

While based upon the radio show, Honda’s product is a mash-up of several ideas. Some concepts stem from the classic sci-fi works of Jules Verne and HG Wells. Specifically things from Verne’s Nemo stories and Well’s “The Island of Dr. Moreau”. It’s use of a “super submarine” was present in the original but it also harkens back to a feature Honda made just a few years prior, titled “Atragon”. The wackiest influence comes during the ending where it borrows from (I-shit-you-not) the 1939 film version of “The Wizard of Oz” 

In the 60’s you started seeing one-time Hollywood superstars getting older. As a result the prestige of their new projects got diminished. Exploitation productions were happy to wrangle in down-on their-luck icons and extort whatever charisma they could squeeze out. In Latitude Zero this extends to it’s leads, Joseph Cotton and Caesar Romero. Cotton who was a giant in the 1940’s plays Captain McKenzie. A come down for sure, but Cotton makes the best of the material. For Romero, this was one of the first jobs that he took after his TV stardom in Batman. The one time latin-lover really chews the scenery up in his role as McKenzie’s adversary. 

In the end, Latitude Zero is a helluva lotta fun. I can wholeheartedly recommend this should you be in the mood for something light. Dammit though, I wish there were more of the radio episodes surviving.


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