It's no secret round these parts that I frankly dislike the month of August. Yes indeed, the fiendishly hot yearly counterpoint to February reeks of high temps, too much, sun, bugs, and a complete and total lack of a decent holiday. It's that final barrier before the outstanding final third of the year. Of course it doesn't help that as usual, I'm suffering from seasonal allergies as well though they are significantly lighter than usual. My point is I start going stir crazy, waiting for back-to-school stock to disappear in favor of Halloween goodies. At times like this, it's a miracle if you can find just the right item to scratch that oncoming Autumnal itch, without fully jumping the gun and pulling out foam jack-o-lanterns in summertime heat. Luckily I found a perfect item to sooth that itch, it's a delightful piece of entertainment I'd like to share with you all.
The Living Skeleton is a black and white late 60's offering from Japanese studio Shochiku, a production company that supposedly focused more on dramas but was experimenting with genre fare at this point in time. The cast is made up of, well, not anyone crazy notable but they're all game and put on some solid performances. Plus lead actress, Kikko Matsuoka is quite fetching. Strangest of all the crew may be the director, Hiroki Matsuno who has no other credits on IMDB. Not even something so small as a boom man or craft services. It's a shame too as he shows some major potential here and a real eye quality shots.
On to the story. It all starts with a bloody incident on a large Freighter. Most of the crew is chained together and shot by a band of traitors who then murder a young woman named Yoriko. Years later we catch up with her identical twin sister, Saeko who lives in a seaside church and who's only social life beyond the priest is a dog called Johnny and a fisherman boyfriend named Mochizuki. One night Saeko believes her sister is calling to her from a freighter passing in the night, Sailing out into a violent storm, Saeko finds the old ship along with a ledger containing the names of the murderers along with something more sinister.
The next portion of the film revolves around a possibly possessed Saeko traveling Japan in order to seek vengeance on her sisters killers. Meanwhile the priest and boyfriend attempt to track her down. Think of this section as something of a supernatural Charles Bronson flick, only this time Charlie's a pretty lady.
Lesser films would likely stretch that series of revenge killings out long enough to fill the 80 minute run time but here it cuts off a little after the halfway point. Thus allows the movie tp pull off some wacky twists and a return to the spooky ghost ship setting. The twists are actually a little hard to see coming too, not because they're well-hidden so much as the film didn't need them to stay entertaining. Still; can't argue with anything that makes the movie crazier while adding to the body count.
Speaking of body count, it should be noted that this is a surprisingly violent film given it's time and subject matter. Certainly it's no gory masterpiece by any means but when I'm watching these old B&W spook stories at most I expect to see someone get shot or fall into a vat of pretend acid. Here, people are drowned, gassed, melted, crushed between gears. Nothing especially graphic but boy does it ever add to the fun.
What really makes this movie stand out is its combination of style and atmosphere. Japanese horror flicks have had their own set of cliches for quite some time. It gives them their own unique feel but it's generally something you have to be in the mood for. With The Living Skeleton, it feels as if someone took that storytelling style and tossed it into a blender with art house sensibilities, and classic Universal Monster movies.
Honest to god, the mix of styles on display makes this film such an easy pick for a night when you need something spooky. There's old fashioned Gothic imagery such as bats, fog, and cobwebs along with classic J-Horror elements like freaky girls with long hair. Add to that a storyline which features crime, mad science experiments, catholic faith, and an interesting coastal setting and the movie's just a perfect storm of comfy horror viewing. It's like an old cozy blanket of terror.
Of course it isn't all sunshine and rainbows. Some of the editing leaves some scenes a bit vague. For instance I thought one of the villains had died only to see him playing mahjong a few scenes later. Elements like this can be jarring though I suppose it's a fair trade for a breezy run time. Beyond that are some underdeveloped plot points along with some major unanswered questions regarding Saeko's knowledge of the bigger picture.
Even with those issues, I can't stress enough how nice of a find this movie is. The whole production is just such a nice fit for any mood. It's old fashioned without being boring, violent but not grotesque, dramatic yet not overbearing. Think of it as chicken soup for any horror fans soul and seek it out when you need that boost of creepy spirit.
If you take my advice and seek out this neat little picture, it's available through Criterion's Eclipse series in a box set titled When Horror Came to Shochiku along with other offerings like Goke: Body Snatcher From Hell and The X From Outer Space. I've yet to view the entire set though I feel confident that Living Skeleton is worth a good chunk of the asking price.
All that being said, let's mark this roughly as the start of this years Halloween coverage. I know it's early but considering this place averages four posts a month it's better to get ahead of the curve. I'm expecting some major activity this year as a long time local inspiration/rival in the Halloween game is in the midst of moving this fall, giving me an opportunity to spread my fame, or infamy that much further. Don't be surprised to see some posts on diy decorations and some more movie recommendations. Stay tuned, kiddies. I'll be back before the week us up cause we've got a lot of fun to take care of.