The Living Skeleton (1968)
Directed by: Hiroshi Matsuno
Written by: Kikuma Shimoiizaka, Kyuzo Kobayashi
Starring: Kikko Matsuoka, Yasunori Irikawa, Masumi Okada, Nobuo Kaneko, Ko Nishimura
Once again, in my search for something new and unpredictable to watch, I have turned to the unexplored boxed sets that grace my DVD collection. This time, it was the Eclipse collection “When Horror Came to Shochiku,” which contains a quartet of late-60s Japanese horror flicks. I originally bought the set for the outré kaiju movie The X from Outer Space (1967), and had already checked out the nihilistic Goke, Bodysnatcher from Hell (1968), so this time I decided to crack open The Living Skeleton (1968), a movie I knew pretty much nothing about going in.
The stylish, atmospheric tale opens with a brief, brutal pre-credits sequence set at sea. Aboard the cruise ship Dragon King, a half dozen pirates slaughter the crew and passengers. Particularly striking are shots of the victims reflected in the killers’ dark sunglasses.
The story then advances to three years later, where it picks up with Saeko (Kikko Matsuoka), whose twin sister Yoriko (also Matsuoka) was among those aboard the Dragon King. The ship, we learn, was assumed lost in a typhoon; nobody knows about the murders. One day, while Saeko and her boyfriend Mochizuki (Yasunori Irikawa) are out diving, they encounter a collection of chained skeletons floating underwater, almost engaged in a kind of eerie dance. Subsequently, Saeko insists that she can hear her sister’s thoughts, which she takes as certain proof that Yoriko is still alive. That night, a ship appears off the shore, and Saeko is beckoned aboard; there, she encounters the ghostly visage of her sister, and learns of the piracy.
The narrative then shifts its focus to the killers, as they begin dying one by one, each time visited by a woman… is it Saeko, or is it the ghost of Yoriko?
The noir-ish black and white photography, striking compositions, theatrical performances, off-kilter music and liberal use of fog machines all help to create an unnerving atmosphere. The combined effect is of a surreal, otherworldly setting, in which the supernatural feels right at home. This is further heightened by a fixation on the iconography of the Catholic church, and repeated examination of the theme of spiritual forgiveness – or torment – for one’s Earthly sins.
Mid-way through, the plot takes a twist that completely changes the direction of the story. The second half of the movie is a whirlwind of revelations, involving not just ghosts and gangsters, but also an obsessed mad scientist working to preserve and re-animate the dead. The tone becomes less subtle and ghostly and more deranged and Grand Guignol, full of corpses, deformities and bodies graphically eaten away by acid.
The whole thing is reminiscent of the works of Edgar Allen Poe, focused on the connection between the living and the dead, and the blurring of the line between the two, and on psychological torment of guilty parties before they suffer revenge from beyond the grave.
As the story plays out, it is at times hard to follow, but everything – well, nearly everything – ties together cleanly at the end. However, many of the story beats of the second half are too rushed; not enough time is given to exploring the implications of each new revelation. Characters are introduced and then thrown away hurriedly, leaving others to explain what their import was.
The imagery is chilling, the overall tone and style effective, and the themes are the stuff of classic Gothic nightmares, but The Living Skeleton never quite puts it all together into a satisfactory package.
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