Cult: Horror, 'Shochiku' style
The strangest, silliest, most surreal sci-fi horrors of the sixties from Japan
"When Horror Came To Shochiku (Eclipse Series 37)" (Criterion) collects a quartet of late 1960s sci-fi/horror oddities from the Japanese film studio Shochiku, which jumped into the genre late and produced insane movies on threadbare budgets and incoherent scripts seemingly tossed together on the fly.
The bright, bizarre pulp fictions begin with the alien giant monster mash "The X from Outer Space" (1967), which opens on a Mars mission beset by a glowing UFO (that incredibly doesn't even phase the crew) and a meteor shower that punctures the ship and (after awkward narrative complications and half-hearted romantic yearnings) ends with the goofiest suitmation monster I've ever seen in a serious Japanese movie. Waddling through sun-Goddzilla miniatures like a toddler on a sugar high, this beaky thing (arbitrarily named Guilala by the scientists) looks more like a Mystery Science Theater 3000 robot in a Halloween costume than an extraterrestrial, at least before it evolves into a floating blob of energy.
This is directed by Kazui Nihonmatsu, who also helmed the last film in the set, "Genocide" (1968), an equally awkward science fiction thriller involving killer insects, a downed American bomber with a loose nuclear missile, and an arrogant American military trying to muscle their way into taking charge. The special effects are as cheap as they come and too infrequent -- the film definitely calls for more insect attacks -- but the film creates a disturbingly grim atmosphere of gloom and doom. The film's use of Nazi concentration camps as motive for a mad supervillain is quite possibly the most tasteless evocation of the Holocaust ever in a feature film, which is in part what makes this film so fascinating. It's confused, sloppy, silly, and hopelessly bleak.
But not as bleak as "Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell" (1968), a psychedelic horror about the survivors of a plan crash in a surreal, blood-red wasteland hunted by a bloodsucking alien creature. It's hard to say who is more dangerous, the ravenous alien or the heartless passengers, a rogues gallery of gun merchants, corrupt politicians, crooks, and amoral schemers who are ready to sacrifice anyone and everyone on board to the deadly landscape or the hungry beast. Montages of Vietnam War footage are interspersed with the drama (in the same blood-red hues as this otherworldly sky) just to remind us what a vicious world they inhabit. This is truly something that has to be seen to be believed. What a trip!
The black and white ghost story "The Living Skeleton" (1968) completes the quartet. Four discs in four thinpak cases, DVD only with no supplements apart from detailed notes on each film by film critic Chuck Stephens. You can read his essays at Criterion here.