Sunday, May 19, 2013

Random Movie Report: The Living Skeleton

Living Skeleton cover and link to box set on Amazon

Japanese horror films were still finding their way in the late Sixties, not having fully formed all of the conventions that we now associate with the geographical subgenre. The Living Skeleton is a unique chiller which benefits from this uncertainty. It has elements of American horror cinema combined with those of Japanese ghost stories, with some pulpy crime and horror trash thrown in for good measure. The results are somewhat inconsistent but benefit from a great atmosphere and a genuine sense of unpredictability.  There's something wonderfully vivid and organic to how the story develops, like a living thing.

The film opens with a brutal act of piracy and murder, as several of the crew of a shipping vessel not only mutiny to steal its cargo of gold bullion, but murder everyone else on board, notably the ship's doctor and his new bride Yoriko (Kikko Matsuoka). Back in Japan, the woman's twin sister Saeko is living with a Christian priest (Masumi Okada) whom she treats as an adoptive father, and going out with a young bartender named Mochizuki (Yasunori Irikawa). She's aware of her sister's death at sea, but when diving she and Mochizuki come across a graveyard of floating skeletons, and discover a floating derelict which seems to be the lost ship in question. Soon after Saeko starts having visions of the murder and its perpetrators, and starts to disappear for weeks on end. The murderers, meanwhile, begin seeing visions of the woman they killed, and are killed one by one in bizarre ways.

You may think you know where the story is going at this point, but rest assured there are plenty of surprises, some of which are completely out of left field in a way that normally violates several rules of storytelling. This sort of thing is normally kind of insulting, but there's a mad logic and conviction underlying where the story goes. We're pulled along by a desire to see the murderers pay for their crime, but at the same time there's something horrifying about the vengeance itself.

The film has a rich atmosphere accentuated by great black-and-white widescreen cinematography. The choice to have Saeko living with a Christian priest- Christianity still being a minority in Japan- seems like a nod to the iconography of American horror, but also ties in to some of the more unusual twisty elements of the story. At times it seems to be satirizing the religion, but it's hard to say for sure what the major subtext is. In any case, it adds to a deep bench of spooky imagery, as do various unexplained bats flying everywhere. Granted, the bats look rather fake, as do some of the shots of the floating skeletons, but there's still something horrific in the sight even if it's not entirely convincing.

The Living Skeleton is an inconsistent experience, but a notable one nonetheless. I'd be tempted to dismiss its many plot twists and random cool shots as cheap tricks and the sign of a cynical production, but it never feels like that. Its weirdness is instead sincere, and the themes of revenge and justice, however simple, provide a beating heart for the story. There may not be a literal living skeleton in this movie, but in a spiritual sense it delivers on the promise of its title.

Written by Kyuzo Kobayashi and Kikuma Shimoiizaka
Directed by Hiroshi Matsuno

Grade: B+

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