For this week’s post, I dug into my personal collection. Throughout the years, I’ve bought DVDs and blurays that looked interesting for whatever reason, but then never got around to watching them. This blog has been a great outlet for me to catch up on all these films, because in general I’m terrible about it. This week I grabbed a box set of Japanese horror films I’ve had for years from the Eclipse line, which is an offshoot of the Criterion Collection. The set is called “When Horror Came to Shochiku”, and this week’s films are:
Kazui Nihonmatsu – The X From Outer Space (1967)
Hajime Sato – Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell (1968)
These films are the early horror films from a Japanese production company named Shochiku. We’ve covered one of their films before, The Ballad of Narayama, but these films were their first attempt to do horror films.
So today we’ll find out if these films hold up, or if we might be seeing them on Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the future.
Let’s get into it.
The X From Outer Space (1967)
An organization called the FAFC is trying another mission to Mars, after several failures. They send Captain Sano, Dr. Shioda, engineer Miyamoto, and biologist Lisa on their latest mission. After a series of mishaps, the group gives up, but not before collecting a small glowing orb from their ship that was placed there by a floating blob shaped creature in space. When they return, the orb hatches into a monster, Guilala which proceeds to terrorize the country. The team must figure out a way to stop Guilala before it destroys the entire country.
The film is in the style of the Kaiju film in the tradition of Godzilla, and Gamera, both of which had already debuted before this film arrived. These sorts of films were hugely popular in Japan at the time, so it made a lot of sense for a production company to try to develop their own giant monster franchise. Unfortunately for Shochiku, this did not develop into a big franchise. From what I can tell, this only produced one sequel, and not until 40 years later in 2008, with The Monster X Strikes Back: Attack the G8 Summit. But from today’s perspective, it doesn’t feel that different from one of it’s contemporary films.
But from the outset, this film appears to have nothing to do with giant monsters. We begin at the FAFC where they’re preparing for a mission to Mars. We meet the four participants in the mission, and also hear about their specialties and responsibilities on the mission. Captain Sano, Lisa the biologist, Miyamoto the engineer, and Shioda the doctor. Interestingly, one of the main actors is American, with dubbed over Japanese dialogue. There are several Caucasian actors in the film, which isn’t something I’m used to when watching Japanese films, but it’s an interesting direction.
The film sort of meanders around as the crew blasts off into space. The crew flies around, and we get a little bit of business where a clipboard floats around before the crew flips a switch to ‘turn on the gravity’. They fly through space for a bit, until a glowing orange blob starts chasing them, interrupting their radio contact. Rather than continue on their flight path, the captain decides to chase the blob through space for some reason. As they do, the doctor gets sick, and the blob speeds ahead. When they get radio contact back, they are directed to the base on the moon to get the doctor medical attention. The film adds a little drama here as they contact the moonbase and are met with Michiko, who is very friendly until she sees the Captain and Lisa on the monitor, and then she suddenly turns cold.
We then get an extended sequence on the moonbase. The moonbase appears to be a really nice place to live. They have endless supplies of water, giant vegetables, and even a nightlife. We also get some really silly “fun on the moon” scenes, with characters jumping up and down on the surface.
Essentially, the first half hour of the film are a continual series of nothing happening. They chase the blob, nothing happens. They go to the moonbase, and hang around there for awhile, and nothing really happens. They pick up a new doctor, and then go off for the rest of their mission.
The film does one thing really well though, it’s miniature work. The film revels in it’s miniatures and for good reason, they’re really good at it. The minis are detailed, and they have their own moving parts. They don’t look real, they look like miniatures, but the quality of the miniatures and the puppetry used is very good for a film of this era.
But just about every other part of the film is pretty bland. After we spend the first half hour seeing nothing happen, the create continues their flight to Mars with a new doctor, who does not want to be on the mission. They encounter the blob again, and this time, it sprays them with something. They realize that it has left something on their engines. They take a sample and clean the rest off. We get a brief subplot where their fuel is running out, the new doctor loses his mind and tries to take over the ship, and then a rescue ship with Michiko comes by to give them more fuel.
They give up on the mission to Mars, and return home with no further incident.
The film is very very bad at helping the audience understand the passage of time. From my perspective, the film seemed to take place over the course of a day or two. This includes multiple trips to the moon and back. The film makes it seem like traveling to the moon and back could be accomplished in an afternoon. In the last half hour of the film, it basically feels like we’re on fast forward. Plot points come quick and are discarded just as quickly.
The film also has pretty terrible gender politics, which isn’t super surprising, but it sticks out. For example, Lisa is introduced as a biologist, an important member of the team. But on the ship, one of her main jobs seems to be serving drinks and meals to the male members of the crew. In addition, her other main subplot involves her crushing on Captain Sano who also has the eye of Michiko, which starts a rivalry between the two women. The film seems to be designed specifically to fail the Bechdel test. The first time the two women are alone, they spend the entire time talking about Captain Sano and how great he is. To be fair, later in the film, Lisa makes the breakthrough that defeats the monster, but earlier in the film, it’s hard to take her seriously.
Finally, after about 45 minutes, we get the first hint that this might be a giant monster movie. While studying the glowing blob they brought back, it burns it’s way out of the container and escapes the lab, leaving a giant footprint.
From here, we’re introduced to Guilala, the kaiju who to me looks kind of like a giant chicken. It proceeds to attack everything in it’s path, in search of energy. We hit all the kaiju beats, Guilala tears through a city, people run away looking back at him, the army gets involved, and everyone tries to figure out how to kill it. Eventually they decide that the material in the monster’s egg is the key, which they call “Guilalalnium”. They put all their eggs in that basket, and it works, reverting Guilala back to an egg form, which they shoot back into space.
One thing I do want to mention about the monster is that they often shoot it from a high angle. Normally in these films, the monster is shot from below, to impress upon the audience that the monster is big and intimidating. But in this case, they often shoot him from above, which I think is an interesting choice.
Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell (1968)
A group of passengers on a plane are buzzed by a UFO, and then crash in a remote area. One of the passengers encounters the UFO, and is taken over by a blob alien that turns him into a vampire. The other passengers now have to deal with suspicions among each other, and the alien stalking them outside. Will anyone survive?
The film starts out on the plane, with the stewardess passing out drinks. The film jumps into the next gear pretty quickly, with the plane getting a warning that someone has made a bomb threat to the plane. This leads to the co-pilot checking everyone’s bags. Here we learn a little bit about each character. We have the American woman who’s bag contains a giant crucifix and a picture of a serviceman, the politician who’s reading about assassinations in the paper, the defense contractor who’s trying to and his wife, the professor, the psychiatrist and so on. I’m not going to bother using the character names in this post because this film has a lot of death, and the film doesn’t use the character names that much.
When the crew gets to the back, they find a mysterious man in sunglasses who claims he doesn’t have a bag. The stewardess finds a bag in a back room, and they find a sniper rifle hidden inside. The mysterious man comes back and pulls a gun on them. It turns out he’s an assassin. He takes over the plane, but as he’s giving orders, the plane is buzzed by a UFO and crashes.
Only one of the pilots dies, and he starts covering up people he thinks are dead, including the assassin. But then for some reason, after he’s already decided a couple people are dead, he starts shaking people awake. It seems very strange, because of course the assassin wakes up later and threatens the remaining passengers. He kidnaps the stewardess and then runs off into the rocky desert the plane has landed in. The pilot admits he has no idea where they are because he was in the middle of turning and re-plotting the course when the plane went down. Even so, it seems like something that could be pretty easy to figure out for a competent pilot.
The assassin and the stewardess don’t get very far before they run into a glowing UFO. The assassin seems entranced, he walks slowly in and we get our first look at the alien. It’s essentially a crawling puddle of goo. That might sound silly, but it’s actually really effective. The puppetry on this thing is incredibly creepy. It’s a completely amorphous blob that shuffles slowly towards the assassin. To add to the creepiness, the blob doesn’t enter through one of the existing openings in the human body, but instead, the assassins forehead splits open in the center and the goo climbs up his face and into the orifice, whereupon the orifice closes, leaving a harsh vertical headwound behind. I don’t think I’ve seen a monster attack like this in a movie before, and it might be the best part of the film.
Things really get rolling once the assassin comes back now as Goke. I initially thought that this would be similar to The Thing, where each character was attacked by the slime monster. But in fact, the attack is much more akin to a vampire. The first victim comes when one of the passengers (who’s been revealed to be the would-be bomber) gets in a fight with the psychiatrist, who falls down a cliff. Everyone assumes he’s dead. But in fact he’s fine, until Goke catches up to him and sucks the blood out of his body via the neck.
We get a lot of subplots between the various characters, but it all comes back to a single topic. This film is deeply, unabashedly, didactically anti-war. It continually comes back to this topic. We first learn that the American woman on the plane was flying to Japan to retrieve her husband’s body who’s been killed in Vietnam. The politician was on his way to the defense contractor’s home base in order to accept a bribe to support a new military contract. The professor constantly lectures everyone about how humans are more interested in war than solving humanities problems.
In addition, the aliens, calling themselves the Gokemidoro, eventually take over the body of one of the passengers and says they are there to exterminate humanity. The professor opines that humanity basically deserves it for being so warlike.
Tensions continue to rise as Goke picks off the remaining passengers one by one. The defense contractor has done the unthinkable, essentially selling his wife to the politician to curry his favor, and the politician takes full advantage. The defense contractor proceeds to torture the politician by giving him a bottle of whiskey, which makes him even thirstier, then teases him with a canteen.
Eventually, the pilot and stewardess manage to kill the original Goke, but then the goo puddle takes over the professor. He chases the pilot and stewardess who run him past a rockslide that we’ve seen at least two times before, which knocks him down, and they get away. For the first time in the film, the characters decide trying to find a city or some kind of civilization might be a good idea, and they go into town.
The ending is fairly predictable, but still effective. The Gokemidoro have already completed their mission, having killed every human. It doesn’t seem like they have used the vampire method as people are dead in whatever positions they happened to be standing in.
The last shot, we see dozens of the Gokemidoro ships flying towards Earth, either to finish the job on other continents, or to take over the planet for themselves.
The Double Feature
There are some major bright spots in these films. The X From Outer Space has wonderful miniature work, but the plot is just one long slog to get to the point where the monster shows up. This literally could have been a 50 minute long TV show episode. The characters just go in circles accomplishing nothing for thirty minutes. It also completely fails at allow the audience any hope of keeping track of time passing.
Goke on the other hand is at times an effectively creepy movie. The monster effects are really well done. Unfortunately for this one, the plot is just a strange mish-mash of stuff thrown together. And I normally really like when films have something to say about something real in the world, but the entire anti-war stance is really ham-fisted and it doesn’t really work with the plot of the film. The aliens showing up to exterminate humans is never really connected to war except by the speculation of characters in the film who have no convincing arguments to make that case.
So neither film is particularly good, but both have something that made them worthwhile to watch. In fact, I have to say, I did find the films enjoyable to watch, even though I recognize that they both have significant flaws.
I’m so close to meeting my goal for the end of July to have all my transcription done. I’d be thrilled if I could manage that. That’s pretty much my entire focus for this week.
But what about next week’s films? I saw a nifty set of time travel films on FilmStruck, and I gotta go for it. So next week’s films are:
George Pal – The Time Machine (1960)
Nicholas Meyer – Time After Time (1979)
I’ve seen The Time Machine before, but it’s been decades, and Time After Time is a film I’ve been curious about for awhile. They did a TV version of this in 2017 as well, but it didn’t last very long. I’m a fan of Nicholas Meyer for various projects as well. but we’ll talk about that next week.
See you then.