L: The Living Skeleton (1968)


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The-living-skeleton-posterNestled firmly in-between its better-known siblings in the Eclipse Collection When Horror Came to ShinchokuThe 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.

3LS 11Mochizuki 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.

duo lsIt 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.

saekoLiving 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.

When Horror Came to Shochiku on Amazon

Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell (1968)

I just reviewed my schedule for next week, and it is one of those weeks that is going to attempt to kill me. Days and evenings are spoken for, except for Wednesday, when I shuffled one commitment to another day to give myself an actual day off. The other day off is tomorrow, Sunday, but my son has been begging me to take him to see Riddick. I will do so, even though the last time he begged me to take him to see a movie, it was Priest.

No, I still haven’t managed to hit a theater to see the movies I actually want to see, The Conjuring and You’re Next. Such is adult life.

So if I’m gonna do this, I better do this now.

Last November, Criterion’s Eclipse label, which issues bargain (for Criterion, anyway) box sets concentrating on a single filmmaker or era, issued When Horror Came to Shochiku. It gathers together the four films made when the struggling Japanese studio, seeing others make plentiful coin on horror movies and daikaiju monster romps, decided to get in on the action. Shochiku’s mainstay prior to this had been melodrama, and those extreme emotions bled into their genre offerings.

gokeI’ve already written about their daikaijuThe X From Outer Space, on another site (and back when I was a different person). What I really wanted to see was a movie mentioned in Famous Monsters of Filmland oh so long ago, and which I had never managed to see: Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell, which has to be one of the greatest low-rent titles EVER.

Goke has a reputation as a gaudy, almost psychedelic movie, and the opening scenes certainly bear that out, as a jet airliner flies through red clouds “like a sea of blood”. Birds keep smashing themselves into bloody pulp against the plane; one passenger says they’re committing suicide, trying to get away from something. Then a flying saucer appears and the plane crashes on a mountainous plateau.

Oh, yeah, there is also an assassin on board and a guy carrying a bomb. This flight is so unlucky I kept expecting Karen Black to crop up as a stewardess.

The luck continues to get worse as the assassin, attempting to escape, runs afoul of the saucer and gets his head split open so alien goo can run in and drive his body around. This also makes him a vampire, for some reason, and the only source of blood is the survivors in the plane.

goke (1)The circumstances cause the trademark Shochiku high emotions to get pegged to 11 and stay there. Each of the passengers is certifiably insane, though each in a different way. The politician who turns from bully into a sniveling coward at the slightest provocation, the arms dealer who whored out his wife to the politician for a lucrative contract, the scientist who forms an unlikely alliance with the politician just so he can see a vampire in action. As in X From Outer Space, there is a gaijin white woman gumming up the works. In X, it was Dr. Lisa, who brought back the spores to Earth that developed into a giant chicken with deelyboppers. Here it’s Mrs. Neal, who was flying to a military base to claim her husband’s remains, recently killed in Vietnam. This causes many red-tinted images of war horrors to flash by when required.

Eventually, the arms dealer’s wife gets possessed by the saucer (though without getting her head split open) and she informs our plucky band of whiners and shouters that this is indeed the forefront of an alien invasion, and the plan is to exterminate mankind. Then she turns into a rotting corpse.

One thing you cannot accuse Goke of is being boring; the story rarely lets up, and if the histrionics of the characters venture often into the realm of the cartoonish – well, hell, you’re watching a movie where goop turns a nattily-dressed assassin into a vampire. You were expecting subtlety and realism?

maxresdefaultThe FX are uniformly good (past the model of the airplane crashing, which is still pretty dang good for 1968). The crumbling of a couple of walking corpses once the goop is finished with them makes me wonder if Ken Russell might have seen this at one point and filed the effect away for Altered States. The downbeat ending is so 1968, I probably could have accurately guessed the production year plus or minus.



Now, the fact that I never saw the half-decayed face that was ballyhooed in that long-ago issue of Famous Monsters is a little annoying, but par for the course for exploitation films, really. Goke was a fun little distraction, a lean horror movie with a unique monster, a collection of horrible people one didn’t mind watching pay the price for their bad decisions, and an oddly endearing bit of social conscience.