Directors: Kazui Nihonmatsu, Hajime Sato, Hiroshi Matsuno
Criterion Eclipse Series 37

For science fiction/horror fans, Japan’s Shochiku Company Limited always ran a distant third to Toho and Daiei, producers of the Godzilla and Gamera monster franchises, respectively, despite a long history of film production and distribution dating back to 1920. Over the decades, Shochiku produced hundreds of shomin-geki, arthouse, ghost, and anime films, including many by such respected directors as Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Nagisa Oshima, Akira Kurosawa and Takashi Miike. In the late 1960s, Shochiku produced a quartet of science fiction and horror films, all of which make their official U.S. DVD debuts in the When Horror Came to Shochiku collection, number 37 in Criterion’s Eclipse “no-frills” DVD series. Despite the title of the set, only LIVING SKELETON is a true horror film, the others more properly categorized as science fiction. Other than THE X FROM OUTER SPACE, all the discs are bare bones, with no extras, as is the case with most of Criterion’s Eclipse collections. While none of the transfers are especially stunning, all are quite serviceable and markedly superior to the mostly bootleg editions previously available in the States.

Uchu Daikaiju Guirara [The X from Outer Space] (1967)

Likely the main attraction for many DVD Drive-In readers, THE X FROM OUTER SPACE, directed by former assistant director Kazui Nohonmatsu, is a legendarily goofy, campy giant monster movie (kaiju eiga), fondly remembered from airings of the AIP-TV direct-to-television release back in the 1970s and 1980s. Originally titled UCHU DAIKAIJU GUIRARA (SPACE MONSTER GUILALA), THE X FROM OUTER SPACE is easily as bad if not worse than — and just as much kitschy fun as — any kaiju eiga ever exported from the Land of the Rising Sun. Peggy Neal, a not unattractive if not exactly stunning blonde American actress stars as female astronaut Lisa, along with Toshiya Wazaki (SHOGUN ASSASSIN series) as spaceship captain Sanno. Neal also co-starred with Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba (STREETFIGHTER, EXECUTIONER) in KAIJU DAISENSO, known internationally as WATER CYBORGS and on U.S. TV as TERROR BENEATH THE SEA, and two of her castmates, Mike Daneen and bug-eyed Franz Gruber, also appear here as Dr. Stein and Dr. Berman, respectively.

The movie opens with a maddengly catchy Japanese-language lounge/pop number under the credits, which is repeated sans vocals throughout the first half of the movie. After a briefing by Dr. Stein and a stopover at a futuristic moon base, the crew of the spaceship A-A-B-Gamma leave on a mission to Mars to determine why previous expeditions never returned, meet up with a UFO, and find an alien spore attached to their ship, which of course they unwisely bring back to Earth. (The ship’s and base station’s call letters are repeated so frequently during these scenes that you’ll probably wake up in a cold sweat some night with “A-A-B-Gamma” and “FAFC,” not to mention the cheesy opening theme, stuck in your brain.) Complicating matters, and adding to the fun, is an on-again, off-again love triangle between Lisa, Captain Sanno, and his girlfriend Michiko. The first 50 minutes or so of the movie is a bit slowly paced, but once the spore mutates into the odd-looking giant reptilian creature Guilala (vaguely resembling an oversized chicken), nonstop hilarity ensues. The chicken-monster exhales deadly fireballs, absorbs energy sources (a la KRONOS or THE MAGNETIC MONSTER), can transform itself into a glowing, flying red orb, and bleeds whipped cream–like goop when wounded. The creature stomps around Tokyo, flattening cardboard sets and looking like nothing so much as a cranky 10-year-old throwing a tantrum, until it meets its ultimate demise.

Special effects are on the level of a FLASH GORDON serial, a Japanese Starman movie, or one of those crappy Italian Antonio Margheriti–directed space operas like WILD, WILD PLANET and WAR OF THE PLANETS, with unconvincing miniatures on strings wobbling in front of painted starfield backdrops. The moon base looks like a Mattel Major Matt Mason play set, and the lower gravity of the moon is depicted by astronauts obviously jumping on trampolines hidden behind an outcropping of rocks, but of course this is all part of the fun. THE X FROM OUTER SPACE developed such a cult following over the years that a deliberately satirical sequel, MONSTER X STRIKES BACK, was actually produced in Japan in 2008.

Though previously available in a full frame Orion VHS of the AIP-TV version, and a superior DVD-R bootleg from the now essentially defunct Showa Video featuring both widescreen Japanese-language and pan-and-scan English-dubbed versions, this is the first legitimate DVD release for this title, long sought after by fans of Japanese science fiction monster epics. The transfer is presented in 2.24:1 aspect ratio, but probably should have been formatted to at least 2.35:1 or even 2.40:1 as it still has an ever-so-slightly “squeezed” look. Colors are well balanced and adequately if not deeply saturated, sharpness and detail are acceptable, grain is tight and unobtrusive, and there is little to no speckling or blemishing to speak of. It looks virtually identical to the anamorphic widescreen transfer on the Showa disc (more than likely a port from a Japanese or German DVD release), but with finer detail and superior sharpness, and more accurate if slightly less saturated color.

In addition to the original Japanese dub and optional English subtitles — though product descriptions on retail websites and even the case cover fail to mention it — I was very pleasantly surprised to find that the disc includes an English dub option, since, for me, having to read subtitles during a popcorn movie like this takes a bit of the edge off the fun factor. It’s apparently an “international” dub recorded in Japan, not the (for my money, superior) Titra studios dub featured in the AIP-TV version (the Showa DVD’s English dub sounds like it’s probably the Titra track, but unfortunately I no longer have my taped-from-TV VHS copy to verify this). Voices and some dialogue differ between the Showa and Criterion English dubs, and the international dub holds a few of its own sidesplitting surprises, such as Lisa’s over-exaggerated animalistic caterwauling when trapped under some fallen wreckage. All in all, this is as close to a definitive release as you’re ever likely to see, though it would have been nice if Criterion could have thrown in the AIP-TV version as an extra, if just for nostalgia’s sake.

Kyuketsuki Gokemidoro [Goke, Bodysnatcher from Hell] (1968)

A commercial airliner cruising through an otherworldly, blood-red sky (a sequence “borrowed” by Quentin Tarantino for KILL BILL) receives a message that there may be a bomb aboard, then encounters a flock of birds that splatter themselves against the plane’s windshield. A mysterious passenger hijacks the plane, then a UFO shows up and buzzes the aircraft. The pilot crash-lands the plane, and due to the bickering and shifting alliances of the passengers, the hijacker, who may have assassinated a British ambassador, takes control of the situation. The hijacker then takes a stewardess hostage, and is drawn to the grounded UFO, where he’s taken over by the silvery, gelatinous, blob-like aliens (the Gokemidoro), who enter his body by opening a crack in his forehead. The passengers — including a space biologist, a Vietnam war widow (sultry Kathy Horan, who had a bit as a nurse in THE GREEN SLIME), a psychologist, and a politician and arms dealer who have some scandalous secrets to hide — continue to argue and fight, oblivious to the possessed, vampiric hijacker, who begins to pick them off one by one as a prelude to the aliens’ invasion of Earth and extermination of mankind. Finally, the pilot manages to douse the hijacker with jet fuel and set him aflame, forcing the alien presence out of his body, but it may be too late to stop a full-fledged alien invasion.

Not at all a juvenile schlock-fest, “GOKE,” directed by Hajime Sato, who earlier helmed the cartoonish TERROR BENEATH THE SEA, mixes a serious political and antiwar critique with compelling and eerie science fiction elements. Optical effects are imaginative and colorful, and the spaceships are nicely realized, though they’re negated a bit by the frankly unconvincing makeup effects of the alien blobs entering and exiting the obvious prop heads of their victims. But if you can get past the cheesy prop heads and dummies, the film remains an interesting and unique Eastern take on the “alien possession” theme previously essayed in such classics as IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE and I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE, as well as cheapies like INVISIBLE INVADERS and THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS.

KYUKETSUKI GOKEMIDORO was theatrically released in the United States as BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL in 1979 by Pacemaker Pictures on an oddly-paired double-bill with BLOODY PIT OF HORROR. Though released Stateside on VHS in the 1980s (as Body Snatchers from Hell) and more recently in Europe in several PAL format DVD editions, GOKE has only been previously available on disc in the States in inferior bootleg editions apparently ported from either a Japanese or PAL release or the long out-of-print VHS. Probably the best-looking transfer of the three color films in the Shochiku collection, GOKE is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen in Japanese with optional English subtitles. Picture quality is very good, with deep black levels, satisfactory contrast, brightness, color saturation and balance, and acceptable sharpness and detail. There is some very light, sporadic speckling, but virtually no other damage or debris, and grain is tight and barely noticeable.

Kyuketsu Dokuro-Sen [Living Skeleton] (1968)

Receiving only a minimal U.S. release in 1969 by Shochiku of America, and never legitimately available on home video in the United States, LIVING SKELETON is the real surprise of the set, and the most somber and artistic of the four titles.

The crew of a ship carrying a load of gold bullion mutinies, chains together then killing the captain and passengers, including the ship’s doctor and his wife Mayumi. The crew makes off with the valuable cargo, and the ship is presumed lost at sea. Three years later, Mayumi’s sister Rumi is living at the rectory of a priest, who provided her refuge after her sister’s traumatizing murder. She and her boyfriend encounter the eerie chained skeletons of the victims of the shipboard massacre while scuba diving, and clouds of bats are seen at the windows of the parsonage. One night, the ship mysteriously glides into the local harbor in a shroud of fog, and one by one the surviving thieves are murdered as the ghosts of their victims exact their horrible revenge. To reveal any more details would spoil the story, but suffice it to say that there are a number of surprising plot twists, and several of the characters turn out to be not at all what they seem.

Pretty obviously the inspiration for John Carpenter’s THE FOG, sharing a number of plot elements, LIVING SKELETON plays like a cross between an EC horror comic and an austere arthouse film. A metaphysical/supernatural meditation on murder and revenge, LIVING SKELETON is dark, shadowy, claustrophobic, and intensely atmospheric, punctuated with moments of shocking, grisly violence. In lesser hands, this could have been a tongue-in-cheek schlocker, but director Hiroshi Matsuno manages to sustain a grim, brooding tone throughout—with imagery occasionally reminiscent of TETSUO THE IRON MAN and David Lynch’s ERASERHEAD—with minimal use of music, which actually heightens the suspense and tension. If you’re waiting for the happy ending, you’re definitely watching the wrong movie.

LIVING SKELETON is presented in 2.50:1 anamorphic widescreen and moody black-and-white, in Japanese with optional English subtitles. There is a brief flurry of small scratches near the beginning and during the final minute or so, and black level could be a bit deeper (a minor quibble), but otherwise the transfer is clean, reasonably sharp and detailed, with acceptable brightness and contrast, and tight, virtually invisible grain.


Konchu Daisenso [Genocide/War of the Insects] (1968)

While on a routine flight over Kojima island, a U.S. Air Force B-52 carrying a hydrogen bomb is enveloped by a massive cloud of insects, bursts into flames, and crashes, the flight crew escaping by parachute. Joji and his blonde lover Annabelle (Kathy Horan again), with whom he’s been cheating on his pregnant wife Yukari, witness the crash, and later, Joji, who has been capturing insects and selling them to biologist Dr. Nagumo, finds and tries to sell one of the airmen’s watches and is arrested for murder after all but one of them are found dead in a cave on the island. The USAF initiates Operation Broken Arrow to recover the missing nuclear weapon before it is found by undercover Eastern Bloc agents stationed in the area.

Dr. Nagumo, who has found that the insects provided by Joji are capable of causing madness and death in humans, is called in to investigate the deaths of the airmen. It turns out that Annabelle, an embittered World War II concentration camp survivor, has been breeding poisonous, mutant insects — sponsored by the Eastern Bloc agents — with the ultimate intention of selling her creations to the highest-bidding government in order to exact her revenge on mankind. Dr. Nagumo infects himself with the insects’ venom and becomes aware that the insects themselves are angry with the human race for our environmentally destructive ways, and are actively assisting Annabelle in her vendetta. Finally, the Air Force brass decide that dropping a nuclear weapon on the island may be the only way the stop the spread of the lethal insects, and Joji urges Yukari to abandon the island to save their unborn child.

Given the title, one might be expecting a typical Asian giant monster flick, with huge insects crushing buildings and gobbling up fleeing crowds of people, but GENOCIDE is actually a deadly serious drama with science fiction elements, and openly pro-environmental, antinuclear, and anti-militaristic sentiments. The insects, mostly resembling normal honeybees, are very life-sized, and seem almost secondary at times to the predominantly antiwar/revenge storyline. Accused by some of having an overly complex, if not ridiculous, storyline, I actually found GENOCIDE to be quite intriguing and absorbing throughout its 84-minute running time. This is especially surprising given that it was directed by Kazui Nihonmatsu, who had previously helmed the patently ludicrous X FROM OUTER SPACE.

Also released by Shochiku of America in 1969 in an English-dubbed version, GENOCIDE has previously been available in the United States on bootleg DVD-R through Sinister Cinema, and was also recently released on disc by Cinematic Titanic (a project of MST3K creator Joel Hodgson) as part of their DVD line of live “riffing” performances. Since the movie plays out rather somberly, it seems like an unusual choice for the CT crew, although it probably better lends itself to their satirical antics when viewed with a dubbed English audio track (not included here). As with the other three titles in this set, GENOCIDE is presented in a nice 2.47:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer in Japanese with optional English subtitles. There is some very light grain evident, and a few stray speckles and sporadic debris, but otherwise the print is in good shape, with acceptable color saturation and balance, contrast, brightness and sharpness/detail. Again, black levels could be slightly deeper, but do not cause the overall picture quality to suffer.

All four titles are packaged in individual clear slim cases inside a thin cardboard outer sleeve and include brief liner notes on the back of the cover inserts, except for X FROM OUTER SPACE, which has its own separate four-page booklet tucked into a literature clip. There are no other extras, as is standard with most of Criterion’s Eclipse series releases, but at roughly $10 per title retail (I got my copy from DVD Empire for about $42.00, well below the $59.95 list price), you can’t argue much, especially considering the rarity and difficulty of obtaining decent copies of these movies in the past. (Paul Tabili)