Among the things I got for Christmas, the one I can say I am happiest with is the "When Horror Came to Shochiku" box set. This is entry #37 in Criterion's ongoing "Eclipse" series, and here focuses on the genre efforts that the well respected Japanese studio Shochiku made from 1967-68. Needless to say, it's something of a treasure trove for fans of offbeat genre films. Without further adieu, let's look at an film in this set.
Many Japanese horror films deal with ghosts in some form or another. This isn't a recent phenomenon either. From Nagisa Oshima's "Empire of Passion", Masaki Kobayashi's "Kwaiden" to Nobuhiko Obayashi's completely insane "House" gave the Japanese public tales of spirits long before "Ringu" and "Ju-on" captured the imaginations of so many horror fans. In a way, it makes sense that Shochiku would follow up the bleak science fiction/horror hybrid "Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell" with a film with a more supernatural bent in "The Living Skeleton." Japan has a rich folklore filled with tales of ghosts, so why not try their own spin?
Years ago, a ship that held gold was taken siege by it's crew, who then proceeded to kill the captain, his passengers, a scientist and a girl named Yoriko (Kikko Matsuoka.) In the present (well, 1968 but whose counting?) Mayumi's sister Saeko (Matsuoka again) is still coping, and has found refuge in a priest (Masumi Okada). When Rumi and her boyfriend (Yasunori Irikawa) decide to go scuba diving, they find the skeletal remains of the murdered passengers. Soon, the vengeful spirits of those killed (including that of Mayumi) begin to return, and they have one thing in mind: revenge.
Out of the four movies included in Criterion's "When Horror Came to Shochiku" box set, "The Living Skeleton" is the most artistic and all around best of the lot. The direction by Hiroshi Matsuno (his sole credit too) is top notch throughout, creating a tone of pure dread and hopelessness. It's also capably acted, with Matsuoka in particular standing out as the tormented Saeko. Oh, and if you like blood, then this is the bloodiest of the films presented as well. Granted, it's hardly a splatter fest, but if the sight of maimed bodies, scarred flesh and a knife punctured eyeball tickle your fancy, then this might be for you. That being said, this is something that fans of Gothic horror will appreciate more than the gore crowd.
Also worthy of mention is how unafraid the film is to take inspiration from horror movies from other countries. The look of the film brings to mind the foggy, Gothic horrors of the productions Universal and RKO made in the 30's and 40's (there's hint of mad science in the end), while the tone and atmosphere is very reminiscent of classic Italian horror films such as "Black Sunday" and "Mill of the Stone Woman." I also find it interesting how this movie's tale of watery vengeance from beyond the grave is somewhat reminiscent of a later movie in John Carpenter's "The Fog", and I can't help but wonder if this movie served as an influence on that one. As for fans of camp, well the skeletons look kinda goofy and the ship looks more like a toy than a model, but other than that this is a sombre outing that sticks with you to the end.
For fans of supernatural horror and old fashioned scares, "The Living Skeleton" is a must, and is a seriously under appreciated gem that's begging for rediscovery. I know it's the movie in the box set I'll revisit the most, and I can't wait to watch it again.