The 1954 Gojira (Godzilla in the U.S.) ushered in a new age of monster movies, and not just for Japan. But its success, both commercially and artistically, was in part tempered by history, coming less than a decade after Hiroshima. The specter of nuclear annihilation gives Gojira its air of stark hopelessness, in an efficiently horrific package that is enshrined in cinema history. Godzilla’s children are perhaps less lucky, as a recent entry in the Criterion Collection’s Eclipse series indicates. Eclipse Series 37: When Horror Came to Shochiku (The X from Outer Space; Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell; The Living Skeleton; Genocide) looks at a quartet of films produced by a studio that moved from melodrama to monsters, with decidedly mixed results.
The X From Outer Space begins promisingly enough with a swinging soundtrack, and charming shots of astronauts bouncing in zero gravity. But the monster, affectionately known as giant poultry, screams in an unfocussed rage. I realize it sounds silly to criticize a Japanese monster for not having enough motivation, but motivation, suggested and implied, was part of what made Godzilla so frightening. X simply hatches and screams, avoiding the Thanksgiving dinner table.
Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell fares better, but like X it feels longer than its short 84-minute running time, despite the strange vision of what has been called the vaginal wounds that the monster inflicted upon its victims.
The best of the set veers from radiated super-creatures to a tale of straightforward supernatural revenge. The Living Skeleton follows the horrific slaughter of passengers and crew on The Dragon King, a freighter ship that comes back to haunt the murderous pirates that sent it to the bowels of the sea. It’s the only black and white film in the set, and the monochrome cinematography gives it a more elegant look, but however elegant the photography, there’s no way of shooting the flying bat motif that wouldn’t look delightfully cheesy.
The B-movie stock company that populates these films gives one the sense that there are characters doomed to wander different visions of the apocalypse. A victim of Goke becomes a doctor in Genocide, which also brings back a blonde astronaut from the same film to become a mad scientist in a bikini. This film takes the most direct look at Hiroshima, pitting the insect world in battle with humanity as a revenge for the specter of nuclear annihilation. As a picture of a post-nuclear society, When Horror Came to Shochiku is perhaps more interesting as a whole than in its parts. The individual titles have moments of B-movie bliss and/or historical interest, but only The Living Skeleton really satisfies as a movie.
As with other Criterion Eclipse sets, the DVDs do not include extra features or commentary, but the transfers are uniformly excellent.