Two Wild Rides From 1960s Japanese Horror
This week’s horror movies were quite an experience -- one a bizarre B-movie type film, and one absolutely unhinged trip through....something.
Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell (1968), directed by Hajime Sato, is a sci-fi horror film that crams a lot into its runtime. It’s about a plane that goes off-course and crashes during a very strange storm (involving a crimson sky and birds that keep spontaneously hitting the windows and exploding into what appears to be raspberry jam), landing in a rural location that may as well be the surface of the moon for how alien and barren it is, and then encountering a space ship full of a sapient ooze that can take over something’s body and turn it into a vampire-like creature. Oh also there’s a bomb threat, a government assassination, and a lot of anti-war commentary squeezed in (with interludes of real stock/news footage overlaid with a red filter) for....some reason.
Anyway this film is a trip. I found it honestly kind of delightful in the way that B movies with a lot of heart often are. It takes itself very seriously and that earnestness is charming even though the whole film is kind of ridiculous. I do think it’s interesting that this movie came out the same year as Night of the Living Dead was released in America, and both movies kind of tap into the same anxieties and draw similar conclusions (if anything, Goke’s ending is even more bleak). But it is quite often very silly and just. Unintentionally hilarious. I especially liked the part where instead of using a stunt double to film a character falling, they just kind of pitched a mannequin over the side of a cliff. A+ heartily recommended to anyone who enjoys B movies. If that’s not your thing, I don’t think you’ll enjoy this.
Horrors of Malformed Men (1969), directed and co-written by Teruo Ishii, is...huh. It’s a lot. I’m not sure that I liked it, necessarily, and I’m not even entirely sure of what it was, but I did say “what the fuck?!” a lot while watching it, and have been thinking about it a lot since, so I can’t say it didn’t affect me.
The story, which is adapted from some novels written by Edogawa Ranpo, begins with a medical student falsely imprisoned in a mental institution. He has no memory of his past or how he came to be in his current predicament, but he does know that he’s totally sane. He escapes the asylum, has a confusing-but-plot-relevant tragic interaction with a circus performer, hops a train and decides to steal the identity of a rich guy who recently died and who looks identical to him.
Feigning his way into the rich family, the student tries to figure out what’s going on with his doppleganger and this whole weird family he’s now supposed to be part of, including the father -- an eccentric genius type with deformed webbed fingers who has a private island where he does experiments? The student’s like, “yeah, let’s go check that out!” despite several warnings that he should not go to the island.
The island, spoiler alert, is basically The Island of Dr. Moreau, except weirder. The first half of this movie was kind of a somewhat uneasy crime thriller type film, but this second half is a psychotropic drug trip rendered onto film. There’s a really convoluted revenge plot, a deus ex machina detective who shows up out of nowhere to explain what’s going on, some torture, some deviant sex, and a finale involving....fireworks and disembodied mannequin parts that I genuinely am not sure whether it’s meant to be literal or figurative. That’s kind of an ongoing theme with this movie, honestly -- what of what’s happening here is actually happening, what is an illusion, and what is a limitation of the technology and effects budget.
I have no idea!
But the basic upshot of the film is that the eccentric genius decides to make a private “paradise” full of other malformed men, by taking otherwise normal/healthy people and turning them into grotesque experiments, because he’s much more artist than scientist. The storyline is, obviously, ableist and troubling as fuck, but also kind of a window into a nation grappling with post-war reconstruction, the horrors of radiation, and the human experimentation in Unit 731. A couple decades away from the war gives this film enough distance to explore this stuff without necessarily calling on any of it directly, but I have to assume filmgoers at the time would have those things called to mind while watching and contemplating the complex, evil psyche of a man turning people into monsters.
(you can see a lot of the extent of the monstrosity in the trailer I embedded above, just for a taste. I think my favorite wtf moment of the film is the guy whose body is apparently made of/covered in sheet cake, who is eating himself.)
I don’t know to what extent any other films were aware of or inspired by Horrors of Malformed Men, but watching it I could draw parallels to The Wicker Man, The Human Centipede, Tusk and even Old Boy. The film is credited with helping to launch the Japanese “Pinky Violence” genre (kind of their version of exploitation films, but not quite) and my understanding is Ranpo’s novels were/continue to be(?) very popular in Japan. I’m honestly kind of curious to read them now!
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