The Living Skeleton (1968) review

This early example of a Japanese kaidan (ghost story) with a contemporary setting begins strong but gradually devolves into stupidity, as the scenario figuratively rips itself to shreds with a series of increasingly ridiculous plot twists. In a way, THE LIVING SKELETON (Kyuketsu Dokuro-Sen) prefigures the worst aspects of Italian thrillers from subsequent decades, in which gratuitous shocks and surprises overruled logic. The result is too big a mess to be considered good, but it is interesting and occasionally effective. Curiously, the film hailed from Shochiku Eiga, a company more known for respectable dramas than exploitation horror.

Do not expect to see this scene in the movie!
Do not expect to see this scene in the movie!

The first thing you need to know about the story of THE LIVING SKELETON is that it contains no living skeleton (despite a publicity shot of said skeleton menacing a screaming damsel). Call me pedantic, but things like this matter – especially when this glaring omissions serves as a synecdoche for the entire film, which promises much that is never delivered.
THE LIVING SKELETON begins with a prologue in which pirates (including, apparently, members of the crew) kill everyone on board a freighter ship named Dragon King, including a screaming woman begging for mercy from the visibly scarred Tanuma. Three years later, we find Saeko (Kikko Matsuoka) living with a Father Akashi (Masumi Okada). Why is a young, attractive, unmarried woman living alone with a Catholic priest? There is some vague lip-service dialogue about this, but it explains nothing – our first hint that something is seriously wrong with the screenplay.
Saeko is the twin sister of Yoriko (also Matsuoka), who was the woman we saw in the prologue – now presumed dead, since no one knows what happened to the freighter. Saeko, however, gets a premonition that her sister is alive; during a storm, she takes a small boat out to see, accompanied by her boyfriend Mochizuki (Yasunori Irikawa); when the boat overturns, Mcohizuki heads back to shore while Saeko ends up aboard the Dragon King, which has returned like a ghost ship in the fog. (And yes, you read that right: Mochizuki leaves his girlfriend in the ocean, not knowing whether she drowned; he remains pretty much this useless for the rest of the film.)
Saeko sees her dead sister in a cabin, then later shows up on shore, before disappearing again. While Mochizuki and the priest look for her, the former pirates begin dying mysteriously, after glimpsing an apparition of the dead Yoriko – or is it in fact Saeko, possessed by her dead sister?
To savor the full flavorful range of silliness that is THE LIVING SKELETON, you really need to have the ending spoiled for you. Here goes…
How has Doctor Nishizato survived three years?
How has Doctor Nishizato survived three years aboard a ghost ship?

Eventually, Saeko confesses to Father Akashi, who tosses off a Biblical quotation suggesting she should be merciful. That night, in a genuinely shocking scene, Tanuma strangles Saeko, disrobes her, and hides her body in a suit of armor. It turns out that Father Akashi is actually Tanuma, his scarred face hidden beneath makeup. Tanuma and the remaining members of his gang head out to the Dragon King, where they encounter Doctor Nishizato (Ko Nishimura), Yoriko’s husband, who – despite having been apparently shot ead in the prologue – has been living aboard the Dragon King for the ensuing three years, during which time he has invented very potent acid, which he uses on one of the pirates, melting him down to a soggy mess. Tanuma escapes the doctor but finds Noriko’s corpse holding fast to his ankle.
Saeko shows up (a ghost, presumably, though the script is vague here) and tells Tanuma that Doctor Nishizato had been injecting his own blood into Yorkio’s corpse in an attempt to bring her back to life. (How she knows this is a mystery.) Tanuma tries to escape, but he too falls into a puddle of Nishizato’s acid, which melts him and the floor, eventually eating through the hull of the ship, which starts to sink. Mochizuki arrives to rescue Saeko (one supposes he never noticed her body in the suit of armor), but she apologetically knocks him overboard and goes down with the ship.
Well, that was fun…
The Living Skeleton Underwater SkeletonsTHE LIVING SKELETON is loaded with fascinating supernatural elements that are gradually squelched by the narrative nonsense. Saeko’s psychic connection with her murdered sister and the reappearance of the Dragon King set up wonderful anticipation of encroaching revenge from beyond the grave, and the subsequent deaths are cleverly handled in an ambiguous fashion, leaving us to wonder whether it is Yoriko or Saeko who is responsible. However, when Saeko confesses, the story starts to fall apart: she claims to be responsible for murdering four people, but one jumped to his death after seeing her, and another drowned when he became entangled in chains binding several skeletons (presumably of the pirates’ dead victims) under the ocean.
How Saeko is supposed to have affected that death, we are left to determine for ourselves, which renders the “rational” explanation unsatisfactory. Moreover, the murders are generally presaged by omens of the supernatural: bats (of the rubbery flapping genus indigenous to cinema, first encountered on the Dragon King) flap ominously on screen, as if accompanying Saeko/Noriko; and the ghost ship (rendered in moody miniatures not that are not necessarily convincing but are usually somewhat effective) is frequently seen floating through the fog, a harbinger of doom. If Saeko is committing the murders without assistance from her sister’s spirit, these visual motives must be completely coincidental.
Narrative problems multiply with the revelation of Tanuma’s identity. Is this the way a murderous pirate enjoys his ill-gotten gains – three years of celibacy under the same roof with an attractive single woman? The scenario passes up potentially interesting material by playing the deception as a ruse with no clear motivation, instead of suggesting that perhaps Tanuma really was trying to atone for his sins. Also, the possible spiritual conflict between a traditional, vengeful Japanese ghost, and a religion that preaches forgiveness of one’s enemies, is short-circuited when the representative of said religion turns out to be a crook in disguise.
Ghost girl or living corpse? You decide.
Ghost girl or living corpse? You decide.

As frustrating as these problems are, THE LIVING SKELETON truly falls apart with the appearance of Dr. Nishizato, who has somehow survived alone for three years on an unmanned ship that has never been sighted by ghost guard. As if that were not enough, his shipboard office serves quite nicely as a mad scientist’s lab, with enough facilities to create a new acid and make at least some headway toward resurrecting the dead. We also have to assume he propped up Yoriko’s corpse so that Saeko could see it standing in a cabin when she boarded the ship earlier in the film. Why? To inspired Saeko to seek revenge? Who knows?
As if realizing the disappointing nature of this “rational” explanation, THE LIVING SKELETON finally gives us what must be a ghost, when Saeko reappears after her death. Even here, the film stumbles, as Tanuma does not seem particularly perturbed over being confronted by the woman he strangled to death. At least Saeko’s revenge gives the audience some small sense of satisfaction in an otherwise frustrating film.
Visually, THE LIVING SKELETON is impressive. The black-and-white photography captures the seaside atmosphere, creating a cinematic world in which we accept the (apparent) machinations of the supernatural. The first few deaths are handled with nice ambiguity, and the underwater skeletons are reasonably spooky, even if their design (which includes various facial expressions etched into bony skulls) is more bizarre and whimsical than genuinely frightening. The score uses plucked instruments, recorded with lots of reverb, to interesting effect, adding a modern tone to the old-fashioned spook scenes.
Don't expect to find mercy in these eyes.
Don't expect to find mercy in these eyes.

There are occasionally impressive visual flourishes, such as the pleading Yorko’s face reflected in Tanuma’s sunglasses (which has the added benefit of disguising his face, so that we do not recognize him as Father Akashi later). When Yoriko’s corpse grasps Tanuma’s leg, the gesture recaptures a similar moment when she begged for her husband’s life, emphasized by a brief flashback-cut – letting us know his karma has come back to haunt him, literally.
One must give THE LIVING SKELETON some credit for audacity if not good judgment, taking what initially looks like a traditional ghost story and transforming it into horrific exploitation sleaze. Not only do we get a gratuitous night club scene, in which female dancers jiggle, and jiggle, and then jiggle some more; we also get two gruesome acid deaths! The first stage of disintegration is laughably bad (a matte to superimpose the spreading decay on top of the actor’s face), but once the physical effects take over, the visceral impact is surprisingly effective within the context of what initially seemed to be an atmospheric ghost story. Who needs the subtle scares of a vengeful spirit, when you can melt a body down into a big gloppy mess? (Perhaps the film’s title refers to the victims not being quite dead as their flesh starts to melt from their bones?)
Kikko Matsuoka
Kikko Matsuoka

Truly, the best reason to see THE LIVING SKELETON is Kikko Matsuoka in her dual role as Saeko and Yoriko. She conveys an inner sense of tragedy from the beginning that does more than the script to make her eventual doom seem like an integral part of the story; her lovely face invites sympathy even while it is capable of registering in a more sinister light in her Yoriko persona. Unfortunately, the narrative shoves her aside too much, first when the focus shifts to the deaths of the former pirates, and then when Saeko is killed and Nishzato takes over as the film’s locus of horror. Nevertheless, her two deaths scenes (first at the hands of Tanuma, then on the sinking ship) engage our emotions – quite an achievement in a film that otherwise subordinates drama to shock effects.
Click to purchase in the CFQ Online Store.
Click to purchase in the CFQ Online Store.

Ultimately, THE LIVING SKELETON is a frustration experience that promises something much finer than it delivers. There is some camp entertainment in watching the filmmakers carelessly toss their ghost story overboard to make room for a mad doctor movie, but you wish they had finished the film they started, and saved the acid bath for another production
THE LIVING SKELETON is one of four horror and/or science fiction films made by Shochiku in 1967 and 1968, along with THE X FROM OUTER SPACE; GOKE, BODY SNATCHER FROM HELL; and GENOCIDE. All four are available in the Criterion box set Eclipse Series 37: When Horror Came to Shochiku. They can also be streamed on Hulu Plus, which has a deal with Criterion for these and several other Japanese ghost stories, such as YOTSUYA KAIDAN (1959).
Ghostly goodness marred by medical malpractice.
The Living Skeleton poster
THE LIVING SKELETON (Kyuketsu Dokuro-Sen, 1968). Shochiku Eiga. 81 mins. Unrated. Directed by Hiroshi Matsuno. Written by Kyuzo Kobayashi, Kikuma Shimoizaka. Cast: Kikko Matsuoka, Yasunori Irikawa, masumi Okada, Asao Uchida, Asao Koike.

Kuroneko: CFQ Post-Mortem Podcast 1:41.1

Kuroneko cat cu
Having taken the world’s most depressing world tour in HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART 1, the Cinefantastique Podcast crew – along with guest Andrea Lipinski of The Chronic Rift – set their sights on numerous other subjects during the Post-Mortem, including writer-director Kaneto Shindo’s black-and-white classic KURONEKO (1968), currently receiving art house playdates from Janus Films. Also on the chopping block: Boris Karloff’s THRILLER, THE OUTER LIMITS’ episode “The Form of Things Unknown,” and bad films we love – or love to hate.
NOTE: Because of the Thanksgiving holiday, there is no new Cinefantastique Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Podcast this week.


Kuroneko ("The Black Cat") on screen

Specialty distributor Janus Films has struck new 35mm prints of Kaneto Shindo’s legendary film, KURONEKO (“The Black Cat,” 1968), a follow-up to the writer-director’s  wonderfully creepy ONIBABA (“Demon Woman,” 1964). KURONEKO has long been one of the most hard-to-find Japanese horror classics; it is known stateside mostly by reputation, but that reputation is a strong one: by all accounts this is one of the great incarnations of a popular trope in Japanese horror: the ghost cat (i.e., female spirits of murder victims who return in feline form to extract revenge).
KURONEKO has never been available on Region 1 DVD, so this will be the first opportunity that many US. viewers have had to see the film. The fact that it is being screened in a new 35mm print suggests that a home video release is in the works, but why wait? See it on the big screen!
KuronekoFrom the official website:

In war-torn medieval Japan, a demon haunts the Rajomon Gate, ripping out the throats of samurai in the grove beyond. The governor sends a war hero to confront the spirit, but what the man finds are two beautiful women who look just like his lost mother and wife. Both a chilling ghost story and a meditation on the nature of war and social hypocrisy, Kuroneko is the second horror triumph from director Kaneto Shindo (Naked Island, Onibaba), who mixes stunning visuals, an evocative score, and influences from traditional Japanese theater to create an atmospheric, haunting, and emotionally devastating masterpiece.

  • October 22 – 28: New York, NY – Film Forum
  • October 29 – November 4: Boston, MA – Landmark Kendall Square
  • November 5 – 11: Portland, OR – Cinema 21
  • November 19 – 25: Los Angeles, CA – Landmark Nuart
  • November 26: San Francisco, CA – The Castro Theatre
  • December 3: Rochester, NY – George Eastman House
  • December 24 – 30: Denver, CO – Denver Film Society
  • January 13-16 Cleveland Cinematheque in Cleveland, Ohio
  • January 21-27 SJFF Cinema in Seattl,e Washington
  • February 3 The Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, MA (double bill with HOUSE/HAUSU)
  • Feburary 3-6 Pacific Cinematheque in Vancouver, B.C.
  • February 11-17 Bloor Cinema in Toronto, ON
  • February 25 – March 3: Minneapolis, MN – Landmark Theatres
  • March 11-17 Landmark E-Street in Washington, D.C.
  • March 23 The Castro Theatre in San Francisco, CA (double bill with HOUSE/HAUSU, formerly announced for March 9)
  • March 30 The Cinema Arts Center in Hungtington, NY
  • April 1-7 Keene State College, Keane, New Hampshire
  • April 8-10, 15-17 in Detroit Institute of the Arts in Detroit, Michigan
  • NO LONGER LISTED, APPARENTLY CANCELED: April 22-28 Tivoli Cinemas in Kansas City, MO
  • April 29 BAMcinematek in Brooklyn, NY
  • May 6-10 Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in Grand Rapids, Michigan
  • July 14 Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio (formerly listed as July 8-9)
  • July 30 & August 1: Gene Siskel Film Center (w/retrospective) – Chicago, IL
  • August 4-5: The Paramount Theatre – Austin, TX
  • October 29: The CInematheque (w/ retrospective) – Madison, WI
  • March 17, 2012: International House (with retrospective) – Philadelphia, PA

Note: This list may not be complete. To see new dates as they are confirmed, click here.

House (Hausu, 1977) in theatres

Art House distributor Janus Films is sending this bizarre 1977 Japanese artifact to several theatres around the country. HOUSE (or Hausu in its native Japan) never saw North American theatrical release back when it was made, but it recently arrived on U.S. home video, prompting CFQ reviewer Peter McGarvey to remark: “Combining elements of the horror genre, an experimental film, and advertising commercials, it channels a unique dreamlike quality. Perhaps the strangest thing about HAUSU is that it was a big commercial hit in Japan when it was first released. Hated by the critics but loved by teenagers, it has attained legendary status over the years.”
Note: HAUSU has nothing to do with HOUSE (1986), the horror film directed by Steve Miner and starring William Katt.


  • November 5: Atlanta, GA – High Museum of Art
  • November 12: Los Angeles, CA – Landmark Nuart
  • November 19 – November 21: St. Petersburg, FL – Eckerd College
  • December 3 – December 9: Iowa CIty, IA – Bijou Theater
  • December 4 & 7: Pleasantville, NY – Jacob Burns Film Center
  • January 27: Sacramento, CA – The Crocker Art Museum (Digital)
  • January 29 Baxter Avenue Filmworks in Louisville, Kentucky
  • February 3 The Brattle Theatr in Cambridge, MA (double bill with KURONEKO)
  • February 4 Landmark Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles, California
  • February 19 William & Mary Global Film Festival in Williamsburg, Virginia
  • March 23 The Castro Theatre in San Francisco, CA (double bill with KURONEKO – formerly announced for March 9)

Check here for additional screenings.

HOUSE/HAUSU: Blu-ray Review

click to purchase
click to purchase

HOUSE (or Hausu in its native Japan) is one film that truly defies description. Combining elements of the horror genre, an experimental film, and advertising commercials, it channels a unique dreamlike quality. Perhaps the strangest thing about HAUSU is that it was a big commercial hit in Japan when it was first released. Hated by the critics but loved by teenagers, it has attained legendary status over the years. Unfortunately, it never saw North American theatrical release until 2009, when it appeared at a handful of specialty theatres.
Director Nobuhiko Obayashi moved from experimental films to a successful career directing commercials. After the success of JAWS in 1975, the search began for a young Japanese director who could match Spielberg’s success. When Obayashi was selected, the producers had something more conventional in mind. However, Obayashi delivered something decidedly non-conventional. Combining his twin influences in experimental and commercial production, he created something that resembled Scooby Doo on acid or an episode of THE MONKEYS directed by Fellini.
Inspired by his young daughter’s dreams, Obayashi fills HOUSE/HAUSU with images so strange they bear repeated viewings. I have seen the film four times and each new viewing brings fresh revelations. On the surface, HAUSU concerns the adventures of a group of Japanese schoolgirls spending their summer vacation in a spooky old house, owned by one of the girls’ aunt. The house is filled with evil spirits determined to possess and consume them one by one, which it does both literally and spiritually.
hausu copyVisually, HOUSE/HAUSU is stunning. Set in a background of dreamscape matte paintings, the house takes on a character all of its own. Obayashi uses a mixture of pixilation, animation, and intentionally cheap special effects – including a demonic cat, a carnivorous piano and killer futons. Severed heads dance in the air; the piano chews up its victim; and a wall clock grinds another into a bloody pulp.
HAUSU forces you to make your own conclusions: my wife thought it was juvenile and consciously pandering, while my teenaged daughter loved its imagery and absurdity. I gave up trying to make sense of it and just enjoyed the experience.
Criterion’s package is superb, as always with a crisp high definition transfer and uncompressed soundtrack on its Blu-ray edition. The disc lacks an audio commentary track, which I think is a good thing in this particular case – an audio commentary would only distract from the weirdness.
There is an excellent short documentary featuring the director, the screenwriter, and Obayashi’s daughter, who provide an excellent background for the film, including why a studio like Toho would agree to make it in the first place. The disc also features EMOTION, a short experimental film that Obayashi did in the mid 1960s. Other features include an appreciation by director Ti West (HOUSE OF THE DEVIL), the original theatrical trailer, and an essay by Chuck Stephens.
housuThanks to Criterion, HAUSU finally gets the treatment it deserves. Now North American fans have an opportunity to see where the recent J-Horror boom draw much of its inspiration.
HOUSE (Hausu, Japan 1977; Criterion Collection Blu-ray release, October 26, 2010) Directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi. Screenplay by Chiho Katsura, from an original story by Chigumi Obayashi. Cast: Kimiko Ikegami, Kumiko Ohba, Yoko Minamada, Ai Matsubara, Miki Jinbo, Masayo Miyako, Mieko Satoh, Eriko Tanaka.


Snake Woman's Curse (1968) – Film & DVD Review

This 1968 effort is the last in a series of kaidan eiga (ghost story movies) filmed by director Nobuo Nakagawa during a classic period that began in 1956 with THE VAMPIRE MOSTH (Kyuketsuki-ga). SNAKE WOMAN’S CURSE (Kaidan Hebi-Onna, literally, “Ghost Story of the Snake Woman”) is frankly not quite up to the standard of his earlier work, which includes the classics THE GHOST STORY OF YOTSUYA (Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan – i.e., “The Ghost Story of Yotsuya in Tokaido,” 1959) and JIGOKU (“Hell,” 1960); however, the film does include many of the stylist elements that established Nakagawa as Japan’s premier director of horror films. Fans of Japanese cinema, particularly Japanese horror cinema, should find it interesting; others will be put off by the slow pacing and occasional cornball moments.
The story is set during a period when Japan was undergoing a period of “Westernization” – a process that does not extend to the small coastal village where the action takes place. After the death of a poor farmer (who vowed he would work all his life and “even eat dirt” to retain his land), an indifferent overlord repossesses the farm and puts the dead man’s family to work in his house as servants. The widow (who previously nursed a wounded pigeon back to health) objects to the killing of a snake, is kicked down by the lord, and dies from a crack on the head. The daughter is raped by the lord’s son, then commits suicide. The daughter’s lover seeks revenge but falls off a cliff when hounded by the lord’s men. The lord, his wife, and their son are haunted by visions of ghosts, which drive all of them to their deaths. Have achieved retribution, the ghosts of the dead peasants are seen walking across a foggy plain toward the sun, apparently heading toward the afterlife. Continue reading “Snake Woman's Curse (1968) – Film & DVD Review”