In 1954, Toho released Godzilla, the one Japanese movie seen globally by more people than any other Japanese movie and set in motion an iconic image known by all. Considering how often Godzilla has been on TV and brought back for revivals at movie theaters, it is most people’s first exposure to Japanese movies, even eclipsing the great Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. A few years later, Daiei released Gamera in 1965 and another iconic monster would delight children worldwide on last night Horror shows. Not to be out done by both Toho and Daiei, Shochiku, the company that released Tokyo Story (1953,) by Ozu Yasujiro, decided to create unique horror movies such as The Living Skeleton in 1968. Both Godzilla and Gamera were large mystical creatures that fit in neatly with the 50’s big bug movies and therefore contained science fiction elements, The Living Skeleton is straight up horror from the William Castle tradition that recalls House on Haunted Hill and Ghost Ship.
Director Matsuno Hiroshi careful crafts a creepy atmospheric tale of dread and vice and all on a low budget. Yet, the beautiful cinematography, the eerie surf guitar music, and a polished script prove that with the right creative crew a quality movie can be made despite limitations.
As soon as, The Living Skeleton starts, you know you are in for a good time. Pirates have taken over a ship called the Dragon King and the hostages are savagely gunned down, one of the victims has a twin sister named Saeko, who has a special bond with her sister that only twins seem to have. Saeko is staying at a seaside Catholic church with a priest.
One sunny afternoon, Saeko is out on a boat snuggling with her boyfriend. The two decided to go scuba diving and during their underwater adventure, suddenly skeletons appear, chained at the ankles, as they float ghostly through the water towards the divers. This is an effective scene that sets up the supernatural events that follow.
Saeko is tormented by her sister’s death at the hands of evil men and she feels a connection with her dead sister. So overcome with this obsession that takes over her mind, she leaves the church, leaving the priest and her bewildered boyfriend behind.
One of the men who gunned down the hostages is an alcoholic who has spent all the money he helped to steal on booze as he wastes away at the bar inside a night club. He believes that the woman he murdered is appearing to him as a ghost. He tries to explain this intense feeling of persecution to his boss, another one of the pirates, that the girl’s spirit is seeking revenge, to which the boss violently yells at him to go away and to not return. In a great moment you see the wretched look on his face and the insanity in his eyes, her ghost is working on him. Soon she will appear to get her revenge. Japanese ghosts usually have a vengeful spirit that seeks out to hurt those who caused the spirit pain in life. The criminals will have to account for their sins.
One of my favorite moments in The Living Skeleton is seeing the ghost ship appear in the mist. On board, bats fly through the corridors, as wooden doors creak as they open and close. It truly is a haunted ship that unnerves the characters who walk around. The ghostly ship becomes a character much like the fog in John Carpenter’s The Fog.
The Living Skeleton is definitely worth your time. It has all the great scare tactics that make William Castle movies so much fun. Although light on the blood and gore, it has a similar eerie atmospheric touch al la Mario Bava in Black Sunday. There is nothing complicated to understand relating to Japanese culture and at times it didn’t feel so much like watching a Japanese movie as just watching your favorite horror flick. So the next time you are in the mood for some late night classic horror, put in The Living Skeleton and turn out the lights, you’ll soon see that terror is the international language.
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