July 27, 2006

LIVING SKELETON (1968) Japanese ghost ship madness

LIVING SKELETON (1968, Japan, originally titled Kyuketsu Dokuro Sen)
Region 2 NTSC Japanese DVD (Shochiku)

Delirious horror film from the writer of Goke Bodysnatcher from Hell

In the early seventies, there were only a few books about horror films. Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies didn’t analyse the genre, it simply tried to list the films. I studied and re-read the plot descriptions and memorised the many publicity photos. Subsequently, I’ve tried to see all the films. 30 years later, I’m still tracking them down.

A tip-off from the Classic Horror Film Board (full of guys who write today’s books about horror films) led me to this recent Japanese DVD release. A sixties horror that I read about in the seventies. But wouldn’t you just know it – the photo that made me want to see it (above) isn’t anywhere in the film – and it looked like it was really grabbing her too (grumble).

IMDB lists Living Skeleton (the US release title) as director Hiroshi Matsuno's only film! Tellingly, screenwriter Kyuzo Kobayashi also wrote Goke Bodysnatcher from Hell – another mix of social critique and shock value. From my armchair, I’d put my money on the writer for being the driving force behind the mad mix of genres.

It’s an occupational hazard for horror film reviewers to endure the repetition of sub-genres – this is a ghost ship movie. Most films in this genre are usually called Ghost Ship, or Death Ship. Living Skeleton avoided this trap rather cheekily, seeing as there isn’t a living skeleton in the film! We must blame the US for the misleading misnomer. The actual translation isn’t as catchy – something like Bloodsucking Skeleton Ship or Bloodsucking Pirates.

Most ghost ship movies stick boringly to the concept dictated by the title and have people trapped on a ship, with ghosts. Even the recent US Ghost Ship (2002) did that. Living Skeleton pre-empts that film by starting off with a massacre onboard, but chooses instead to take the story into unpredictable directions.

Obviously I won’t spoil it for you but, for instance, the ship manages to haunt people on the land – quite an achievement. There’s also a double dose of necrophilia, echoes of Psycho in one of the film’s best shock moments, dodgy model ship FX way before Horror of the Zombies (from the Blind Dead films) came up with an even less convincing model ship. There’s even a scene straight out of Alien! This film has everything! Did I mention it has a female ghost with long black hair? The soundtrack emulates doleful harmonicas from Sergio Leone westerns, and fuzzbox guitars out of Barbarella.

Oh, and we’re in the sixties, when mechanical bats on wires were still state-of-the-art. There’s lots of those. But they’re far better than Kiss of the Vampire.

The beautiful Kikko Matsuoka plays a dual role as Saiko and her murdered sister (and her ghost, I think). According to IMDB she played one of the pearl divers in You Only Live Twice!

If I spoiled the plot I could start listing similarities with the best ‘ghost ship’ story of them all, the original The Fog. I previously thought that John Carpenter's film was a rip of Horror of the Zombies, now I’m not so sure.

Anyhow, there’s also some spooky underwater scenes with skeletons, all quite surreal, and these show off the 2.35 black and white photography the best. Elsewhere, many of the camera compositions look so cramped, I’d swear they were framing it to look good on TV. But, even in black and white, the film manages to be pretty gory.

A brisk pace, shocks, gore, nudity, mechanical bats and a plot you’ll never guess. This ghost ship outruns many of its successors in entertainment value. Now if only there were English subtitles…

This recent DVD release uses misleading cover art (pictured) that looks like a modern ghost story – if they slapped some original publicity stills on the cover, I’m sure they’d shift more copies. It looks and sounds very good - a 2.35 widescreen anamorphic picture, optional mono or 5.1 audio. The film has obviously been lovingly restored, gore and all. Pity there’s no trailer. There is an interview with actor Okada Masumi (who plays the priest). Filmed in 2003, I’m sorry to say that he recently passed away after a long career in film and TV, Takeshi Kitano’s Izo being one of his last appearances.

The back catalogue of Japanese horror fantasy has barely been plundered in the west – and it looks like we’re missing out. Matango Fungus of Terror and Goke Bodysnatcher from Hell are a very good start, but let’s not forget monochome movies. I’d happily trade this B/W gem for the entire Lake of Dracula trilogy, for instance.


  1. It made me very happy to find your review of this.

    I have had a Japanese VHS for years, and I like the film very much.

    That aerial shot of the model ship has a "Thunderbirds"/Gerry Anderson vibe about it.

    The shot of the skeletons bobbing underwater is a keeper.

    The scarred villain is terrific, too.

    A great shame about the lack of subs... and lack of Western interest.

    I must snap up the widescreen DVD.

    I agree completely with your "Lake of Dracula" comment.

    I urge you to take a look at "Mermaid Legend".

  2. Your enthusiasm makes me want to watch it again!

    I'm seeking out MERMAID LEGEND as we speak...

  3. I too was suckered in by that awesome still! What a gyp! Great film though!

    The film is now avaliable subtitled from Criterion's Eclipse label!

  4. Yeah, I can't wait to see the film again with subtitles. Never honestly thought I'd ever get the chance!

  5. Just watched it and agree it was great, much better than I expected! FYI if you want a copy with English subtitles, try Video Daikaiju out if NJ (will come up in a Google search) - they just added it to their catalog and has subtitles (crystal clear print as well). Nice to see a forgotten gem like The Living Skeleton!

  6. Chrusher - I'd suggest you instead get a legitimate DVD from Criterion, where they've recently released LIVING SKELETON along with three other classics from the same Japanese Studio - GOKE BODYSNATCHER FROM HELL, GENOCIDE: WAR OF THE INSECTS and THE X FROM OUTER SPACE.