Thursday, November 29, 2012

New from Criterion: Eclipse Series 37: WHEN HORROR CAME TO SHOCHIKU

Criterion's Eclipse Series has been a great way for the company to release its various acquisitions in bulk/themed sets without all the extra features, as not everything under the Janus Films banner is worthy of its own super-deluxe edition.  Eclipse sets have made it possible to see long-buried treasures by the likes of Samuel Fuller and Roberto Rossellini, and the early works of Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa, to name a few.  The latest Eclipse package is devoted to four sci-fi/horror films from the prestigious Shochiku Films, the highbrow Japanese production company that was home to the venerable likes of Kenji Mizoguchi (THE 47 RONIN) and Yasujiro Ozu (LATE SPRING).   While other major Japanese studios like Toho, Daiei, and Nikkatsu had their genre specialties, Shochiku waited for quite some time before belatedly going for commercial genre fare and abandoning it quite quickly.  Their sojourn into the world of sci-fi/horror lasted just four films over a two-year period, and they're all included in this new set, from gothic-tinged ghost stories to laughably cheap kaiju, almost as if they dabbled in a little of everything to see what worked.  As it turns out, none of them inspired the studio to continue, but at least a couple of these films have attained major cult status and are, for the first time ever, widely available on legit DVD.

(Japan - 1967)

Shochiku's attempt at a kaiju resulted in one of the cheesiest of the post-GODZILLA giant monster flicks.  A space mission to Mars led by Capt. Sano (Shunya Wazaki) encounters a UFO that comic relief crew member Miyamoto (Shinichi Yanagisawa) describes as "looking like a half-cooked omelet."  Sano and the rest of the crew--Dr. Shioda (Keisuke Sonoi) and biologist Lisa (Peggy Neal)--also inadvertantly bring back with them a radioactive alien life form that soon mutates and turns into a giant beaked monster called Guilala and commences the mandatory rampage across Japan.   Made at a time when Toho's kaiju were getting their budgets slashed as the films were in the process of becoming total kiddie fare, THE X FROM OUTER SPACE probably fits more in line with the cheapies of the 1970s rather than the relatively serious examples from the 1960s, even if it lacks an annoying kiddie protagonist (though the endlessly clowning Miyamoto comes close to sufficing).  Director/co-writer Kazui Nihonmatsu, a longtime Shochiku journeyman, clearly isn't interested in this assignment and the film is rather sloppily assembled:  he cuts away from Guilala's first rampage and goes immediately to the day after.  And unlike the detail-oriented suits crafted for Toho productions (at least until apathy and penny-pinching soon kicked in), Shochiku's rubber suited monster is clearly an extremely rubbery suit (watch the way Guilala's feet bounce whenever they hit the pavement).  But that's part of the whole package when it comes to most of these, even though they did begin as (and would occasionally return to being) largely serious films. Guilala is ultimately sent back into space but returned decades later as the star of the 2008 kaiju spoof MONSTER STRIKES BACK: ATTACK THE G8 SUMMIT.  One scene dealing with the early-stage Guilala bleeding through a table and the floor beneath it seems awfully close to a scene in Ridley Scott's ALIEN 12 years later.  Also featuring HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR star Eiji Okada, clearly slumming as the scientist in charge at mission control, plus an awesomely catchy theme song, THE X FROM OUTER SPACE was given an English dub but skipped US theaters and ended up as part of an AIP-TV syndication package, where it went into regular rotation on Saturday afternoon Creature Features and late-night TV. The Criterion Eclipse version is presented in Japanese with English subtitles, with a rarely-seen 2.24:1 aspect ratio. (Unrated, 88 mins)

(Japan - 1968)

The completely bonkers GOKE, BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL has become a major Japanese cult title over the decades since its release.  The insane yet coherent story has the survivors of a plane crash dealing with a crazed hijacker (Hideo Ko) possessed by aliens and transformed into a vampire, killing them off one by one.  An alien race calling itself Gokemidoro has come to the conclusion that the people of Earth don't really deserve to live, what with all the death and destruction going back to the atomic bomb in 1945.  The Gokemidoro have pretty much had enough of our warmongering ways (there's a lot of timely yet heavy-handed references to Vietnam as well the alarming number of assassinations, presumably referring to JFK, Bobby Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr).  GOKE gets a little too snotty with its preaching at times, but it's an ambitious and furiously misanthropic piece of work with no shortage of startling, arresting imagery:  a gash splitting open Ko's forehead and the bridge of his nose, through with the gelatinous, blob-like Gokemidoro ooze into his body and take control; the hellish red sky of the opening scenes that conveys a clear Mario Bava influence; the glowing UFO; the Gokemidoro victims immediately turning to dust in the wind as they die; the reveal of one corpse that's an obvious nod to a famous shot near the end of Hitchcock's PSYCHO; and birds splattering against the plane's windows before the crash.  Unreleased in the US until 1979, when it was dubbed, had the "GOKE" dropped from its title, and was paired up with the 1965 Italian horror film BLOODY PIT OF HORROR for a grindhouse double bill.  The Criterion Eclipse version features the original Japanese dialogue with English subtitles, presented in its 2.35:1 aspect ratio.  (Unrated, 84 mins)

(Japan - 1968)
The vividly atmospheric THE LIVING SKELETON is, according to IMDb, not just the only film directed by Hiroshi Matsuno (credited here as "Koki Matsuno"), but his only movie credit at all, though critic Chuck Stephens' accompanying essay mentions Matsuno being a veteran assistant director who went on to a lot of TV work in subsequent years.  Shot in black & white in a very widescreen 2.50:1 aspect ratio, THE LIVING SKELETON is the most distinctly "horror" of this Eclipse set, owing a bit to old-fashioned ghost stories and gothic Italian horror of the 1960s, but with some modern amenities like fleeting profanity and brief topless nudity.  In a sparsely-populated fishing town, troubled Saeko (Kikko Matsuoka) is still coping with the death of her newlywed twin sister Yoriko (also Matsuoka) and her husband Nishizato (Ko Nishimura) on the ship Dragon King at the hands of modern-day pirates three years earlier.  Saeko was taken in by the kindly local priest (Masumi Okada) and does odd jobs around the church.  While out scuba diving with her fisherman boyfriend Mochizuki (Yasunori Irikawa), Saeko encounters the sunken ruins of the Dragon King surrounded by the chained-together skeletal remains of the other victims.  When the ship actually appears in the fog-shrouded harbor, she boards it and encounters what appears to be the ghost of Yoriko, who promptly possesses Saeko to carry out her vengeance on those responsible for her death.  THE LIVING SKELETON bogs down a bit in its second half after an improbable plot twist is revealed, coupled with further batshittery thrown about in the home stretch, but when it sticks to the eerie simplicity of a vengeful ghost story, it's often quite brilliant and certainly an obscure gem worthy of rediscovery.  Briefly released in US theaters in 1969 in its original Japanese with English subtitles, which is how Criterion Eclipse presents it here.  (Unrated, 80 mins)
(Japan - 1968)
For most of its duration, GENOCIDE is a pretty tepid, endlessly talky affair that focuses too much on the relationship of ne'er-do-well islander Joji (Yusuke Kawazu) who neglects his devoted, pregnant wife Yukari (Emi Shindo) while carrying on a clandestine affair with leggy American entomologist Annabelle (Kathy Horan, an expat American actress who was also in GOKE, BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL).  The needlessly convoluted story involves Annabelle masterminding a plot to wipe out humanity via poisoned insects, and her efforts dovetail with some local buffoons involved in germ warfare.  When some American soldiers are killed after their plane, carrying a hydrogen bomb, was brought down by a swarm of insects, Dr. Nagumo (Keisuke Sonoi, from THE X FROM OUTER SPACE, also directed by this film's Kazui Nihonmatsu) and Dr. Komura (Reiko Hitomi) are the only ones who believe the account given by the crazed lone survivor Charly (Chico Roland).  This goes on and the pace drags badly, but tough it out because GENOCIDE gets a lot better once the atomically-enhanced bugs launch their attack, leading to one of the most astonishingly nihilistic finales you'll ever see in the disaster genre.  The post-Hiroshima/Nagasaki rage that propelled GODZILLA in its original, pre-Raymond Burr GOJIRA form and was a major element of GOKE, BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL is absolutely off the charts here (likely the contribution of Susumu Takaku, who co-scripted both films).  America is represented by the bitchy femme fatale Annabelle, whose reasons for her misanthropy are handled rather heavy-handedly and tastelessly by Nihonmatsu, and the arrogant Colonel Gordon (Ralph Jesser), who has no problem nuking Japan again if need be.  But everybody's pretty much an asshole here except for Yukari and the two doctors:  despite his eventual redemption, Joji is a shameless, selfish philanderer, Yukari's sleazy boss tries to have his way with her on multiple occasions, and that same boss is a casual racist who refers to the black Charly as a "savage."  Given what transpires in the end, most of these characters have it coming.  The last 20 or so minutes of GENOCIDE are so great that it almost makes you think you saw a better film than you did.  Presented in Japanese with English subtitles (very distracting in the scenes with just American characters), at an unusual 2.47:1 aspect ratio.  A dubbed version was released in the US in 1969 as WAR OF THE INSECTS, which was the version skewered by Cinematic Titanic, the live mockery touring unit featuring MST3K vets Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, and Mary Jo Pehl.  (Unrated, 84 mins)

Typical of the Eclipse sets, there's little in the way of bonus features:  nothing on the discs themselves, but each film, packaged in its own slim case, contains an informative essay written by film critic and Japanese cinema expert Chuck Stephens, who has contributed to previous Criterion releases like Masahiro Shinoda's PALE FLOWER (1964) and Nobuhiko Obayashi's insane HOUSE (1977), as well as the earlier Eclipse Series 28: THE WARPED WORLD OF KOREYOSHI KURAHARA.  Particularly with THE X FROM OUTER SPACE, Stephens doesn't sugarcoat it when the films aren't particularly "good," but he does his usual solid job of exploring the underlying themes of the more serious entries and where they fit into the big picture of Japanese cinema.  None of these films are perfect and a couple aren't even very good, but they all have their immense charms, making WHEN HORROR CAME TO SHOCHIKU a must-have for fans of Japanese cinema and cult movies in general.

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