Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell / Body Snatcher from Hell / Goke the Vampire / Kyuketsuki Gokemidoro (1968/1977?) ***½
I find it difficult to imagine a less likely-sounding cultural cross-fertilization than the exhibition of Italian horror movies to Japanese audiences during the 1960’s. It did indeed happen, however, and at least one of Japan’s native filmmakers found the Italian imports so inspiring that he reinvented himself as something like the Mario Bava of the Pacific. Hajime Sato had directed but two films before his brush with Italian horror, one of them a crime drama and the other a complete mystery— by which I mean not that Sato’s debut was a whodunit, but rather that I have been able to uncover no information about it beyond its title (Hachi-nin Me no Teki— something like “The Enemy in the Eyes of Eight People”), its date of release (1961), and an extremely sketchy cast and crew listing. But beginning with House of Terrors in 1965, Sato shifted gears and began aping the likes of Ricardo Freda, Antonio Margheriti, and especially Mario Bava. Nor did he confine himself strictly to Italian-inflected horror, for like his European models, he also tried his hand at deliriously bizarre sci-fi, directing both the kiddie-oriented The Golden Bat and the slightly more ambitious Terror Beneath the Sea. (Descriptions of the former film make it sound almost like a “Starman” serial reinterpreted in the style of Danger: Diabolik.) In fact, so successful was Sato in his career reboot that the Italians themselves paid him the ultimate compliment, importing his small body of work for the home market and reaping a pretty fair profit on the venture. Sato’s movies didn’t get nearly as much exposure in the English-speaking world, however, and even his best-remembered film, Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell, sank to one of the deeper strata of obscurity after a rather troubled theatrical run. Some sources suggest that Goke may have received small-scale American distribution through the Shochiku studio’s own export arm in 1969, but it appears that the movie’s main chance at winning an American audience came in either 1977 or 1979, when it was picked up by Pacemaker, an independent company that mostly trafficked in porn. Interestingly enough, Goke’s co-feature for this belated tour of the nation’s drive-ins was an old Italian horror flick, Masimo Pupillo’s delightfully insipid Bloody Pit of Horror. Perhaps it was thus suck by association that did Goke in at the box office, or maybe a drive-in in the late 70’s simply wasn’t the proper venue; either way, Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell all but vanished off the face of the Earth until very recently.
We begin with Japan Airlines flight 307 en route to Osaka from Haneda Airport in Tokyo. It will be an eventful flight, to say the least. The pilot (Hiroyuki Nishimoto) and First Officer Sugisaka (Teruo Yashida, from The Joy of Torture and Inferno of Torture) are both rather concerned about the weather system their plane is headed into, for neither man can think of any natural atmospheric phenomenon capable of turning the sky that particular shade of vivid, flaming orange— unless you want to count sunset, which is still several hours away. Equally disquieting, in its way, is the odd fact that moderately large birds keep smashing themselves to a pulp against the aircraft’s windows. For one thing, the animals’ behavior is just plain freaky, and for another, what happens if an albatross or a pelican or something else big enough to do damage decides to take a death-dive into the cockpit windscreen? And then there’s the message that comes in on the radio from ground control, reporting that the Tokyo police have received a letter from somebody claiming to have planted a bomb aboard flight 307. Sugisaka and a stewardess by the name of Kuzumi Asakura (Tomomi Sato, of Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons and the second of the three unrelated films called Jigoku) head back into the cabin and ask to look into everybody’s luggage. Their cover story— that a bag belonging to someone not on the flight was brought onboard by mistake— isn’t terribly convincing, but I gather that Japanese air travelers in the late 1960’s were, on average, rather more trusting than their American counterparts today. This is not to say that a few passengers don’t make a fuss, mind you. In particular, Tokuyasu, the sycophantic arms manufacturer who is accompanying Diet Representative Mano (Eizo Kitamura, from Terrifying Girls’ High School: Lynch-Law Classroom and The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge) on some manner of business, takes noisy exception to the idea of a respected politician having his bags searched. The real problems don’t begin, however, until Sugisaka reaches the man at the very back of the plane (Horrors of Malformed Men’s Hideo Ko). This is not because he’s the bomber, although he certainly is a terrorist. In fact, he’s the sniper who just recently shot the British ambassador to Japan, and when Asakura finds his rifle hidden in the compartment just aft of the main cabin, all hell breaks loose. Turns out the sniper has a pistol, too, and he marches Sugisaka and Asakura to the cockpit at gunpoint. Once there, he smashes the radio and orders the pilot to change course for Okinawa. But just then comes the biggest disruption yet— a glowing, orange UFO buzzes the plane at a distance of only a couple hundred feet, the instruments all go dead, and one of the engines flames out. Though the pilot’s skill is such that the aircraft remains mostly intact when it comes to a stop in an arid valley a considerable distance off of its intended route, the shock of the crash kills all but a handful of the passengers and crew members.
Sugisaka and Asakura are among the survivors. So are Mano, Tokuyasu, Tokuyasu’s wife (Yuko Kusunoki, from House of Terrors), a scientist named Sagai (Masaya Takahashi), a psychiatrist named Momotake (The Last Days of Planet Earth’s Kazuo Kato), an American woman called Mrs. Neal (Kathy Horan, of Genocide and The Green Slime), and a rather weird young man whose name I never did catch. That last survivor, as it happens, is the guy with the bomb, and his first thought upon discovering that he’s alive after all is to hide his homemade explosive device in the rubble outside. Sugisaka is naturally curious as to what the kid is up to, and it doesn’t take him long to surmise that he was behind the bomb threat— although it does take long enough for the would-be terrorist to dispose of the weapon itself; when Sugisaka confronts him, the bomber is in a plausible position to claim that the letter he sent to the police was merely a hugely misguided prank. And while that much is clearly a lie, his explanation that he committed his crime out of sheer boredom rings perversely true. Nor is Bomber Boy the only reason why I wouldn’t choose this bunch to be my companions in the event that I had to be stranded in the desert for an indefinite period with neither food nor water on hand. Mano’s imperiousness and Tokuyasu’s toadying would rapidly become insufferable no matter what the circumstances, but just imagine the potential headaches that come when Mano begins openly cuckolding the other man! Mrs. Neal is extremely high-strung, all of her various neuroses having been pushed very close to the surface when she became a war widow a few days previously. (She was on her way to collect the body of her husband, who had gotten his face scorched off by napalm in Vietnam.) And Dr. Monotake is just a creepy bastard, gleefully viewing the situation as an opportunity to observe the mechanics of the human psyche in disintegration.
Oh— and the sniper is still alive, too. Sugisaka took him for dead during his initial sweep of the wrecked plane, but he comes around just as the other survivors’ argument over what to do about their predicament really heats up. Taking Asakura hostage, the sniper charges off into the wilderness, and while I can see how that might have seemed like a good enough idea at the time, it really, really isn’t. In the next valley over from the crash site, the sniper and his captive stumble across the flying saucer that brought their plane down (and presumably caused the weather anomaly and the weird rash of bird suicides) in the first place. It’ll be a while before all the details come out, but this spacecraft belongs to a species of blob-like aliens called the Gokemidoro, who have long coveted the Earth; evidently, its crew is on some manner of scouting mission for a full-scale invasion. The space blobs hypnotize the sniper in order to bring him aboard their ship, at which point one of them splits open the front of his skull and sets up shop inside his braincase. This has the effect of transforming the sniper into a vampire-like creature, who almost immediately sets about putting the capper on the day’s status as Worst Vacation Ever for the other crash survivors.
Bloody Pit of Horror really was a terrible choice as a co-feature for Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell. Honestly, the best possible presentation for this movie would probably be as part of a triple feature with two other movies from 1968, Night of the Living Dead and Planet of the Apes. Like those better known films, Goke is at some level a deceptively serious and incredibly pessimistic meditation on the inability of human beings to rise above their limitations, and it has a nasty sucker-punch in the final act. After the aliens put in their appearance, Professor Sagai posits that the reason the Gokemidoro are invading now is that our species is so preoccupied with the Cold War and the hotter proxy wars associated with it that we will have no energy or attention leftover with which to face a powerful outside threat. And throughout the film, the plane-crash survivors consistently demonstrate a microcosm of exactly that form of suicidally counterproductive behavior. They’re stranded without food or water an unknown distance from who knows where, and there’s a vampire from outer space on the loose, but only Sugisaka, Asakura, and to some extent Sagai seem to be capable of focusing on anything other than their own personal worries and hang-ups. The Gokemidoro-possessed sniper has only a relatively small advantage over any one human (which is to say that although he’s impervious to just about anything short of massive bodily destruction, his strength, speed, and agility are no greater than that of an ordinary man), and he’s initially outnumbered nine to one. By staying calm, keeping their wits, and— most importantly— presenting a united front, his prey should be able to overcome him fairly easily. But instead they waste their strength on internecine strife, and the space vampire is able to eliminate them one by one. It bodes decidedly ill for what’s going to happen whenever the real invasion force gets here.
Those who come to Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell expecting something along the lines of Shochiku’s earlier The X from Outer Space will be taken aback by more than this movie’s grim tone, too. 60’s Italian horror is an influence from which it would be very easy to learn exactly the wrong lessons, but that doesn’t seem to have been a problem for Hajime Sato, at least this final time around. Goke is often wonderfully creepy, with a visual aesthetic that is just stylized enough to undermine the edges of the film’s sense of reality. I was hoping to avoid the common comparison to Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires, but that really is the Western film that most closely approaches the look of this one. Everything within the cabin of the wrecked airliner feels impressively authentic, but outside the mangled fuselage, things get weirder and faker as a function of proximity to the Gokemidoro scout ship; it may have been a complete accident, but it works greatly to the movie’s advantage. The sparingly employed miniature effects range from capable to amazing (Eiji Tsuburaya himself only rarely equaled the plane crash scene at the end of the first act), and the way the bodies abandoned by the Gokemidoro crumble slowly into ferrous-looking dust is extremely unnerving to behold. Some of Professor Sagai’s expository dialogue is a little on the wacky side (and the very notion of a man holding a doctorate in “space biology” is worth a few chuckles all by itself), but otherwise, the only real resemblance Goke bears to the stereotypical image of Japanese sci-fi from the 60’s lies in Kathy Horan’s performance as the token gaijin. Holy living fuck, is she awful! Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell is still nowhere near as readily available as it deserves to be, but the release of a high-quality Region-2 DVD and a recent airing on Turner Classic Movies combine to give me hope for a wider release in the not-too-distant future.