Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster is of the rare breed of old school shlock that lives up to the promise in its ridiculous title & premise. That’s no small feat. As I noted in my review of the similarly surprising in quality camp fest The Brainiac, “Like with all art forms, it’s difficult to find a great ‘bad movie’. For every transcendently awful Plan 9 or Troll 2 you have to sift through a hundred mind-numbingly dull Hobgoblins”, but on the other hand “When a B movie is firing on all cylinders, enthusiastically exploring every weird idea it has to their full potential, there’s really nothing like it.” Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster, (which is also known by the titles Frankenstein Meets the Space Men, Mars Attacks Puerto Rico, Mars Invades Puerto Rico, and Operation San Juan) is firing on all its batshit crazy cylinders, squeezing a surprising amount of camp value out of its limited premise & budget.
Let’s get the film’s most peculiar detail out of the way: neither Dr. Frankenstein nor his monster appear in the flesh. The “Frankenstein” in the title is instead a government-created bionic astronaut that is horrifically scarred in a botched space launch. As his circuitry goes awry, he turns from ideal soldier to confused monster and haunts the coast of California, murdering its inhabitants indiscreetly. Although the interpretation of “a Frankenstein” is loose here, the practical effects in the gore surrounding the monster are pretty chilling. In an early scene his scalp is peeled back so scientists can tweak his malfunctioning circuitry. Later, the make-up on his disfiguring facial scars are a lot more horrifying than you’d expect based on the precedent of, say, Lobo in Bride of the Atom or the astronaut gorilla in Robot Monster. The other monsters in the film are only slightly less terrifying, including the titular “Space Monster” (who looks like a member of GWAR) and the space alien Dr. Nadir (who looks an awful lot like Bat Boy all growed up). Dr. Nadir may not be as physically threatening as his fellow monsters, but he steals the show with his effete love of his own cruelty, like a dime store Vincent Price.
The film is surprisingly technically proficient considering its circumstances. It boasts a similar premise and overreliance on stock footage as the camp classic Plan 9 from Outer Space, but thoroughly succeeds on both fronts, as opposed to Plan 9’s thorough failures. When the evil space princess that commands Dr. Nadir announces that they are to proceed with “Phase 2 of our Plan: capture of the Earth women” (a.k.a. “bikini babes”) it’s more amusing than embarrassing. You can feel the crew having a fun time making this thing, which is reflected in its music cues, among other things. Almost all of its outer space scenes are accompanied by a spooky theremin score, but its Earth scenes (whether a dance party, a murder, or an alien abduction) are almost all accompanied by a surf rock soundtrack, which gives the film a beach party vibe. The title of the film itself sounds like a ready-made name for a surf rock song and I’m surprised no one’s jumped on that opportunity in the 50 years since the film’s release.
I could go on, but describing what makes the movie work on a technical level is somewhat futile. I doubt I can mount a sales pitch that match the just-the-facts plot summary from the film’s Wikipedia page, so here it is in full: “All of the women on the planet Mars have died in an atomic war, except for Martian Princess Marcuzan. Marcuzan and her right-hand man, Dr. Nadir, decide they will travel to Earth and steal all of the women on the planet in order to continue the Martian race. The Martians shoot down a space capsule manned by the android Colonel Frank Saunders, causing it to crash in Puerto Rico. Frank’s electronic brain and the left half of his face are damaged after encountering a trigger-happy Martian and his ray gun. Frank, now ‘Frankenstein’, described by his creator as an ‘astro-robot without a control system’ proceeds to terrorize the island. A subplot involves the Martians abducting bikini clad women.” If that description alone doesn’t sell you on watching an ancient, goofy sci-fi horror I’m not sure what will. Also we are very different people.