Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell (1968)

Whenever I’m overwhelmed by a flood of apocalyptic news on the old doomscroll machine, I like to remind myself that every generation thinks they’re going to be the last.  It’s been the “end of times” for centuries, if not forever.  Eventually, one generation will be right; humanity’s time on Earth will end and, who knows, maybe we’ll be the lucky ones to win that guessing game.  The comfort in that continuum is not in scoffing at previous generations for being wrong about “living” through the apocalypse; the comfort is in knowing that our exact cultural anxieties have been expressed before, often through persistently relatable art.  I was thinking a lot about that doomsday continuum during the low-budget horror whatsit Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell as characters pulled at their own hair, complaining that “The world’s a mess” and “People have gone insane” as global chaos escalates just outside their periphery.  It’s an exasperation that’s tied to a very specific era of cultural horror & grief—post-nuclear Japan—but the world has continued to be “a mess” in the decades since in a way that keeps the film relevant to current global-political turmoil, in both disturbing & comforting ways.

Goke, Body Snatcher form Hell is not unique in the way it processes Japan’s national grief over the US dropping atomic bombs in Hiroshima & Nagasaki through outlandish fantasy metaphors.  The 1954 film Godzilla is obviously the largest-looming behemoth in that genre, but there are plenty of other examples that followed in the King of Monsters’ wake: Genocide, Twilight of the Cockroaches, Atomic Rulers of the World, etc.  What distinguishes Goke is that its anti-nuclear-war political metaphor is not illustrated by a single monstrous threat but rather a series of baffling, discordant events that mirror the chaos of the world outside the cinema in the chaos of its narrative.  Goke is presented as a straightforward alien-invasion creature feature, but it’s really more of an anything-goes descent into supernatural mayhem.  Long before its space-vampire alien invaders are introduced onscreen, the film has already jolted its audience with bomb threats, international espionage, birds suicidally crashing into airplane windows, and a daytime sky that has turned inexplicably blood-red.  Even the aliens themselves are difficult to pin down to a single, understandable form.  They arrive as a metallic goo that creates a vaginal opening in their human victims’ foreheads, so they can physically hijack their brains and turn them into vampiric drones.  When I first heard the film reviewed on the We Love to Watch podcast a few years ago, they labeled it as “bug-nuts”, and I still can’t conjure a more apt descriptor.

Goke is one of those constantly surprising low-budget novelties where it feels like absolutely anything can happen at any time, while most of the actual imagery between the special effects shots is just a handful of characters debating a plan of action in a single room.  While its bug-nuts vampire plot recalls the absurdly expensive special effects showcase of Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce, it’s executed in the style of retro British horrors like The Earth Dies Screaming.  The space vampires’ victims huddle in the cabin of a crashed airplane, relying on newspaper & radio broadcast reports of the world outside to afford the film’s supernatural chaos a sense of global scale.  A Freudian academic character presents their imprisonment on the airplane as a intriguing sociological experiment, coldly declaring it “a fascinating scenario for a psychiatrist to ponder” like a total sociopath.  In truth, there’s nothing especially complex about the individual characters or their interpersonal relationships that’s worth pondering.  They’re mostly buying time between the film’s jabs of horrific special effects, which are fascinating scenarios to ponder: aliens baiting humanity into nuclear war, aliens luring humans onto liminal sound-stage UFO sets, aliens oozing into human brains, etc.  It’s ultimately okay that the movie treads water between these go-for-broke genre payoffs, since they’re all incredibly cool & surprising whenever they do pop up.   It’s money wisely spent.

While Goke may not take its interpersonal human drama all that seriously, I do think it’s sincere in the way it expresses abject horror at the doomsday scenario of nuclear war.  The film often devolves into a slide show of still photos documenting real-life war atrocities, often citing the early stirrings of The Vietnam War as the conflict weighing heaviest on its mind.  I can’t think of many contemporary genre films that match the go-for-broke, bug-nuts energy of this film’s constantly evolving alien threat.  That’s not too surprising if you consider modern movie studios’ addiction to “safe bet” investments in pre-existing IP, let alone modern audiences’ obsession with boring metrics of quality like “plot holes” and “logic”.  It’s a shame, though, since the chaos of modern global politics feels outright apocalyptic in a way only this bug-nuts, constantly shifting plot “structure” can accurately illustrate.  Even if we never see our nightmare world reflected in these kinds of free-wheeling genre pictures again, at least we have relics of a wilder genre cinema past to look to for comfort.  The world has been explosively volatile for a long time, so there’s a long history of art to draw from.

-Brandon Ledet