Column: The Vault of Secrets: The Living Skeleton (1968)

The Living Skeleton (1968). Directed by: Hiroshi Matsuno. Starring: Kikko Matsuoka, Yasunori Irikawa, Masumi Okada.

Welcome back to the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. Tonight’s film is part of Criterion’s When Horror Came to Shochiku set, which also includes titles like Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell and The X from Outer Space, but I was instantly drawn to The Living Skeleton, for reasons that are probably fairly obvious. Before putting it into my player, I had never so much as heard of it and had really no idea what to expect, which was maybe the ideal way to go into this outrĂ© gem.

It’s sort of become old hat to say that movies from Japan are bizarre, but there are a lot of different kinds of bizarre. The Living Skeleton is not strange in the same way as some of the other movies in this very set, certainly not in the same way as a film like, say, Hausu.

The weirdness of The Living Skeleton comes mostly from its seeming refusal to stay within the lines of any one genre or tradition for very long. Ostensibly, it’s a supernatural revenge thriller of a pretty familiar type, one that has echoes in John Carpenter’s The Fog 12 years later. In an oddly-shot opening sequence, a scarred pirate and his henchmen gun down the passengers of a freighter, including a doctor and his newlywed wife. Three years later, the story picks up with the twin sister of the dead bride and the various henchmen now mostly reintegrated into polite society, as they are haunted by what appears to be the vengeful ghost of their victim.

Though quiet and restrained in style and pacing, the film has moments of just about everything. Half the time, it feels like a Hitchcockian suspense film; the other half, it feels like a Gothic horror straight out of Hammer or Mario Bava. Lightning flashes in the sky, the lighting is moody and expressionistic, rubber bats presage the visits of the vengeful specter. (Or is the specter a vampire? Or a purely human killer?) By the end, it dips unexpectedly into mad scientist territory that would have been right at home in a pulp horror feature from the 1930s, although here the results are a good deal more gruesome.

By the end, everything is wrapped up in a relatively comprehensible package, but the road to get there is a veering and weaving one, and the implications of what has happened remain much more interesting than any overt plot elements. Seeing a ghostly revenge story that turns out to be about human rather than supernatural agency is fairly common, as is the reverse, but the strange intertwining of human and spectral – with more than a dash of implied vampirism – is something a lot more fascinating.

The oddness of The Living Skeleton doesn’t end with its plot, either. While it’s shot fairly beautifully in black-and-white, and while the directorial techniques and gore effects are pretty good, the other special effects are fake and theatrical in a way that seems like it almost has to be intentional. The rubber bats are a good example, but the best example comes from the chained skeletons of the victims, who show up time and again, almost like a Greek chorus. While fake skeletons were a staple of horror movies by 1968, these don’t even look like fake skeletons, but rather like strangely stylized skeleton puppets, a decision that adds to the dreamlike surreality of the picture.

It’s also shot and paced in such an old-fashioned way that the gore and sex (which are very current for the time) seem pretty jarring when they show up and more-than-usually shocking for their strange incongruity. Finally, the movie builds bigger and bigger as it goes along, ending pretty epically for a film that started off so quiet and personal. It’s a fascinating movie that’s maybe more interesting than it is strictly good, but it’s definitely unusual, and well worth a look, especially in the handsome Criterion edition that’s currently available.

That’s it for tonight’s program, but be sure to join us next time when we scare up a seldom-seen classic ghost story, just in time for Halloween!

Orrin Grey

About Orrin Grey

Orrin Grey is a skeleton who likes monsters. His stories of ghosts, monsters, and sometimes the ghosts of monsters have appeared in dozens of anthologies and been collected in Never Bet the Devil & Other Warnings and Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts. He can be found online at orringrey.com.

Orrin GreyColumn: The Vault of Secrets: The Living Skeleton (1968)