I once found half of a Criterion Collection boxset at a West Bank thrift store, and it felt like stumbling across gold on the sidewalk. Two of the four titles in Criterion’s “When Horror Came to Shochiku” set were collecting dust on the shelves at Thrift City USA, where I’m used to finding Hangover sequels and Season 3 discs of The O.C. Neither were the title I was most excited to watch from the Shochiku set, but it still felt like winning the schlock bin lottery.
I had only heard of the “When Horror Came to Shochiku” collection thanks to an early episode of the We Love to Watch podcast, which covered the chaotic, “bug-nuts” sci-fi free-for-all Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell with the same adoration Sight & Sound contributors reserve for Vertigo & Citizen Kane. Unfortunately, Goke was not on that thrift store shelf. What I had in my hands were the two lesser-loved titles Genocide & The X from Outer Space, which proved to be just as wonderfully bizarre but not as well-regarded. It wasn’t until I was invited as a guest on We Love To Watch’s current “Summer of Kaiju” series to discuss The X from Outer Space that I realized I had somehow stopped short of watching all four titles from “When Horror Came to Shochiku,” and I had missed the most prestigious of them all.
“When Horror Came to Shochiku” collects four horror films produced by the Japanese studio Shochiku in the late 1960s, when they were best known for producing melodramas by the likes of Kurosawa & Ozu. The Living Skeleton is the only film of the batch that doesn’t feel like a market response to the supernatural disaster template established by Godzilla, so it’s the one that maybe hits closest to the studio’s usual tone. It’s also the one that’s seemed to earn the most critical praise since the set was released a decade ago. The Living Skeleton is a lot more subdued than the other three films on the set, telling an eerie, seaside ghost story in a literary whisper. Personally, I was a lot more excited by the vivid, volatile pleasures of the rest of the set, but I’m generally a more enthusiastic audience for that wildly expressive end of genre filmmaking than the average online film nerd. If you’re more likely to enjoy a respectful, traditional ghost story from a movie studio best suited for respectful, traditional melodramas, of course The Living Skeleton would be your favorite of the batch.
The X from Outer Space has the most adorably dorky monster in the kaiju canon. Genocide & Goke have an unpredictable, chaotic approach to narrative that gets to the heart of the cultural heartbreak of post-War Japan. The Living Skeleton is the only film in the set shot in black & white, which I think is an indicator of the more traditional, subdued version of horror it offers. It’s a very typical ghost-revenge story, with violent rape & murder committed by pirates in the first scene avenged by the arrival of a ghost in the same seaside village years later. Some of the black & white haunted house effects call back to the Poverty Row knockoffs of Universal’s “Famous Monsters” era, including toy bats bobbing on strings against a black background. Others are morbidly gorgeous, including an underwater garden of skeletons anchored to the seafloor and a dreamworld burlesque show worthy of David Lynch. It’s all well-crafted & effectively creepy, but none of it feels as memorably idiosyncratic as the other horror novelties made by Shochiku at the time – apparently to its benefit in the modern discourse.
If I’m only describing The Living Skeleton through its comparisons to the rest of the Shochiku boxset, it’s because I don’t have much to say about it any other context. There’s an antique quality to its visual patina that puts the more recent seaside horror The Lighthouse to shame, but there’s not much about it that you can’t find elsewhere in traditionalist ghost stories of its kind. Maybe I’m shallow for prioritizing novelty in this boxset of effects-heavy horror films, but novelty is exactly what makes the set so great as an overall group. In a time when so many Japanese filmmakers were rushing to replicate the exact zeitgeist-torching formula that made Godzilla so immensely popular, Shochiku took that inspiration into some far-out, unpredictable directions. With The Living Skeleton, they strayed the least far from their home turf, which makes its relative payoffs the most timid & contained. It’s still a solidly eerie ghost story on its own terms, though, and there isn’t one stinker in the entire collection.
Ranking the Criterion “When Horror Came to Shochiku” box set, just for fun:
4. The Living Skeleton