Posted by Nathaniel Thompson on February 15, 2017
Now that another Valentine’s Day has passed, it’s time to focus on other emotions out there… like stark terror! Pretty much impossible for American audiences to see until 2012 apart from its very minimal English-language theatrical release in 1969, the terrific spook show The Living Skeleton (1968) is just the kind of thing to watch late at night when you want a few nice shivers with a rich vein of pulp fun.
Shochiku Company Limited might be thought of mostly as the respectable studio behind the critically acclaimed dramas from filmmakers like Yasujirō Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi (not to mention its status as the oldest studio in the country’s history), but man, they could get crazy when they had the urge. And that urge definitely hit with a vengeance in the late 1960s with a blast of monster-oriented gems like The X from Outer Space (1967), the deliriously gruesome Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell (1968), the apparently lost Cruel Ghost Legend (1968), and Genocide (1968). However, unlike those orgiastic explosions of color on celluloid, this one’s shot in beautifully creepy and austere black-and-white scope, the preferred format of classics like The Innocents (1961) and Onibaba (1964).
I first ran into The Living Skeleton a few years ago courtesy of a Japanese DVD release without any subtitles whatsoever. I didn’t have a clue what anyone was saying, but I was still captivated right from the shocking opening in which a boatload of passengers is corralled and mercilessly gunned down by some nasty modern-day pirates led by a grinning psycho with a scarred face. If any of you video hounds out there were bitten by the cult movie bug in the VHS or early DVD era, you know the pleasure and pain of scouring the globe for a copy of elusive films that might not be friendly to your native language, and this is exactly the kind of little surprise that makes treasure hunting worthwhile. Eventually it came out on DVD from Criterion as part of a three-film Shochiku set under its Eclipse banner, and now you lucky devils can watch it right here on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck.
Some eagle-eyed horror fans have noted the similarity of the film to John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980), and yeah, you have to admit it’s a little odd how that film manages to work in a guilt-stricken priest, a ghostly army of dead seafarers and a seaside town afflicted with a years-long curse. However, the odds of Carpenter seeing this film are pretty unlikely, and it’s better if you just watch this as part of the weird but fascinating international strain of supernatural nautical horror cinema. Is that an actual thing, you might ask? Yep! Just consider: The Ghost Galleon (1974), Shock Waves (1977), Death Ship (1980), Below (2002), Triangle (2009), every single one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies (no, really!) and the various movies called Ghost Ship including the ones from 1953 and 2002. (I’m tempted to throw the 1943 Val Lewton film of that name in there too, but there’s nothing supernatural in it at all.)
There’s a definite William Castle vibe going on here with the strange but haunting imagery of submerged skeletons bound by ankle shackles, but the film never really gives you a knowing wink. In its simple and evocative story of a young woman, Saeko (Kikko Matsuoka), runs afoul of some uncanny retribution when she comes to the pirates’ town years after the fact looking for her twin sister. Soon there’s a ghost ship in town with a score to settle, but despite the charmingly lo-fi nature of the visual effects, it doesn’t go for the flamboyant, knowing melodrama route you’d expect (and would most likely find had someone like Roger Corman tackled this instead of Hiroki Matsuno, for whom this would prove to be his most significant narrative fictional feature film among a career filled with short documentaries and TV assignments). Here Matsuno cranks out all the elements necessary to create a movie haunted house experience including rolling mist, a female spirit, ghostly foghorns in the night… well, you get the idea. It’s a skillful spook show that doesn’t care whether you believe in that little model boat bobbing in the water; it’s the commitment and spirit that counts, and fortunately this one delivers buckets of both.
Most movie fans are well aware of the popularity of Japanese ghost stories in recent years (the term “J-horror” almost exclusively refers to films about specters wreaking havoc in the living), but the sheer longevity of that tradition is something that often gets overlooked. Long-haired mystery women coming back from the dead didn’t originate with Ringu (1998) or its Hollywood remake; that trope had been around for decades as you’ll find in films like this and the legendary 1964 ghost omnibus Kwaidan (1964), and it’s clear that everyone involved was having a blast with this simple but evocative tale. Exactly why this film hasn’t really broken through that much out of Japan is anyone’s guess, but it’s great to see how it bobs to the surface of cinematic awareness at regular internals to show viewers who think they’ve seen everything that there’s still plenty out there to explore.
It’s also worth noting that, despite its traditional employment of cinematic ghost story elements, this film is pretty savage at times (that opening is pretty rough stuff without any overly graphic violence) and offers some fascinating tweaks to what was expected from horror films at the time, especially from Western filmmakers. If you watched Hammer Studios horror films pouring out through the 1960s, the formula generally presenting men of the cloth as the upholders of faith and civilization, supernatural intruders as monstrous threats to be obliterated (at least temporarily) by our plucky heroes and the sins of the fathers easily scrubbed away by younger generations who know better. That’s not quite what you get here; Japanese filmmakers weren’t afraid to be more twisted than their Western counterparts, and this one is no exception as it grabs all the story elements you’d expect to follow the usual path and then starts twisting and mushing them around like a big ball of macabre Play-doh. It isn’t always the prettiest process, but I guarantee you’ve never seen anything else quite like it. Whip up some seafood and enjoy.
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