Nestled firmly in-between its better-known siblings in the Eclipse Collection When Horror Came to Shinchoku, The Living Skeleton at first seems a fairly typical ghost story. It begins with enough blood and thunder: the crew of a freighter shackled together at the ankles, threatened by a gang of machine-gun wielding thugs. The sole woman on board begs for the life of her new husband, the ship’s doctor. They are all gunned down in cold blood.
Switch to three years later. Saeko (Kikko Matsuoka), who we will find is the identical twin of the woman in the first scene, lives at a Catholic church under the care of Father Akashi (Masumi Okada), and is dating a young man, Mochizuki (Yasunori Irakawa). All seems well, until Saeko and Mochizuki go scuba diving and are confronted by a horde of anatomically risible skeletons, all chained together at the legs.
Mochizuki jokes later that they were seeing things, but that night a storm rolls in, and on the horizon: a seemingly derelict freighter, blowing its foghorn. Saeko is irresistibly drawn to it, and nearly drowns boating to it. It is the Dragon King, the freighter from the first scene, thought lost at sea. She finds the ship’s log, which tells of suspicious people aboard, and a secret cargo of gold bullion. Then she sees her sister and faints.
Saeko vanishes from the church, much to the Father and Mochizuki’s dismay. Meantime, the members of the gang that slaughtered the crew is either enjoying the fruits of their crime or the dregs of their wasting same; they start seeing that chick they know they killed three years ago, and they start dying one by one.
So it’s pretty obvious that Saeko has been possessed by the spirit of her dead sister – they always seemed to have a psychic bond, she tells the Father – and she’s avenging herself, right?
Not so fast.
It looks like The Living Skeleton is going to give us that tooth-grinding device, the rational explanation that explains away all the supernatural happenings, which it does, but the rational explanation is ten times weirder than a vengeful ghost seeking retribution. The last half hour is so berserk, one mind-croggling revelation stacked upon another, that I’m not even going to try to relate it here. It’s so insane it has to be seen, and I’m not handing out any spoilers.
The Living Skeleton pretty much makes sure it stands apart from its brethren at Shochiku Studios by being shot in black and white, increasingly uncommon in 1968, so much so that it is definitely an artistic choice. There are at least two user reviews on the IMDb pointing to this as “the obvious inspiration for The Fog”, to which I have to ask – which version of The Fog did they see? Or which version of The Living Skeleton? Both have ghost ships and avenging spirits, but this like saying Citizen Kane is the inspiration for Cool Runnings because both feature sleds. Come on.
Living Skeleton also led me to ponder if bats actually would nest in derelict freighters. I suppose they could, but then it was made obvious that these are ghoooOOOooost bats, so, you know, educational.
I like when movies can surprise the living hell out of me. That doesn’t happen near often enough.