“When Horror Came to Shochiku”: A-schlock-alyptic Horrors
Published on December 15th, 2012 | by Will Dodson0
The Kyoto-based Shochiku studio, best known to cinephiles as the home of Yasujiro Ozu, briefly entered the monster movie boom of the late 1960s. After the success of 1954’s “Gojira” (released in the US as “Godzilla, King of the Monsters”) spawned a series of successful sequels for the Tohei studio, others donned rubber suits for fun and profit. Shochiku, which primarily produced melodramas, was one of the last studios on the bandwagon, and released four strange low-budget horror films in the two-year span of 1967-1968. These films receive fantastic new transfers in The Criterion Collection’s latest Eclipse Series release, “When Horror Came to Shochiku.” But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Expect none of the dramatic heft of Ozu, nor of other Shochiku alums like Kenji Mizoguchi, or Mikio Naruse. These films for the most part may appeal to hardcore schlockaholics. For others, they are historical footnotes for devotees of Japanese cinema, who will enjoy Chuck Stephens’s informative and gleefully hyperbolic essays on each film as much as, if not more than, the films themselves.
“The X from Outer Space” (Kazui Nihonmatsu, 1967)
This rubber suit monster movie opens with a jaunty theme song expressing hippie sentiments about a twinkling world and how we must embrace the future and take care of the universe. The monster, called “Guilala,” grows from a Martian spore unwittingly brought back to earth by some astronauts. Guilala is destructive for a little while, but ends up rather easily dispatched by what appears to be liquid insulation. Most of the film is a maddeningly slow buildup to Guilala’s tepid fury. Astronauts go to a moonbase in search of some extraterrestrial thing or other, but the main thing they seem to do is jump on trampolines, eat, and take baths on Moon Base MSC. I was most fascinated by what appeared to be popcorn makers on the astronauts’ spaceship. Once on the base, an American (blonde, of course) and Japanese woman passive-aggressively fight over a man, and lob snippy comments and stern glances at each other. The ladies take a shower together (in separate stalls) and say more passive-aggressive things to each other. The blonde American astronaut has to do all her astronaut science but also serve the food to the male astronauts. You’ve come a long way, baby! Stephens’s essay claims this to be one of the “silliest…and most beloved” monster movies in history. On the contrary, to me, the film is stultifyingly boring. When the monster finally appears, at the 47-minute mark, the film immediately kills any momentum it was starting to build by cutting to a scientist giving a proto-PowerPoint on the creature. And the love triangle of the first 40 minutes is completely irrelevant to the second. Maybe the love triangle is a MacGuffin, like the stolen money in “Psycho.” The only problem is, this movie forgot to kill anyone. Perhaps if Guilala wore a dress…
“Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell” (Hajime Sato, 1968)
Apropos of nothing, “Goke” is best known among contemporary audiences who heard that Quentin Tarantino copied the opening airplane shot for “Kill Bill.” It’s not the best endorsement. In the first dialogue scene, one pilot says to the other, “What’s happening?” It’s as good as any review I could write. Stephens claims that “Goke”’s fans think of it as the greatest movie ever made about a “vagina-faced monster.” This may well be true, assuming that none of them have seen “Predator.” Otherwise “Goke”‘s plot is not dissimilar to that of Robert Aldrich’s “The Flight of the Phoenix” (1965), if the latter had had a soul-sucking vampire with a vagina on his forehead that occasionally released a discharge of silver alien snot creature. After that description, one might think the film is entertaining or interesting in some sort of outsider-art kind of way. Perhaps it is for some, and no doubt the film’s ending is a fun bit of apocalyptic camp. As for the rest of it, well, this vagina has no teeth.
“The Living Skeleton” (Hiroshi Matsuno, 1968)
The gem of the set, “The Living Skeleton” is a b-movie revelation. Its compositions are striking, its black and white cinematography gorgeous. If you took out the inexplicable (and unnecessary) shots of toy skeletons and rubber bats, you’d have a nearly great film. To say “The Living Skeleton” influenced John Carpenter’s “The Fog” puts it mildly; “The Fog” is a near remake. This is no put-down of either film, and in fact, I’d say both films would be served well paired as a double feature. “The Living Skeleton” is evocative, creepy, and atmospheric, everything one could hope for in a low-budget horror film. I’ll say nothing more except that it’s almost worth the price of the set alone.
“Genocide” (Kazui Nihonmatsu, 1968)
This must be the first time the company has shared a release with alumni of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” The schlock-mockers’ latest incarnation, Cinematic Titanic, toured the country in early 2012 with the film “War of the Insects,” the American-dubbed release of “Genocide.” I saw one of the performances, and the movie was every bit as painful as the most legendary of the bad movies MST3K lampooned. I told myself going into the set that perhaps the original Japanese cut with accurate subtitles would make a difference. Indeed, it was different. Now I had to read subtitles. Let me save you the trouble: Insects take revenge on humans for polluting the environment and making nuclear weapons. Vietnam vets have psychedelic flashbacks. Sleazy guys drink. Women get degraded. Insectageddon. The end. Actually, that sounds pretty entertaining, doesn’t it? And yet, it’s not. A philosopher must consider this paradox.
Ultimately, of course, the question is, are these films worth watching? Criterion’s release indicates their endorsement that they are, and I suppose that’s true, with some qualifications. The transfers and sound are great, as one expects from Criterion. On the one hand, the rubber suits and models seem even dinkier, though that should not deter campy monster movie fans. On the other, the cinematography—particularly in “The Living Skeleton”—reveals the great talent at work on the cheap, and it’s impressive. With the exception of “The Living Skeleton,” the films are pretty boring, the worst thing exploitation films can be. And their themes and politics are unsubtle and simple-minded: Fighting over a man seems so unimportant when there’s a rampaging monster from Mars. We are so busy fighting wars that we give aliens ample opportunities to invade. We should take care of the planet. Well and good, but other than “The Living Skeleton,” if given a choice between “Gojira” and Shochiku’s schlock, I’ll stick with the lizard.