The Living Skeleton – Japan, 1968

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The Living Skeleton (aka Kyûketsu Dokuro-Sen/Bloodsucking Skeleton Ship/Vampire Skeleton Ship/Vampire Skull Ship/Living Skeleton) is a 1968 Japanese horror feature film directed by Hiroshi Matsuno and produced by Shochiku. It was written by Kyuzo Kobayashi (Goke, Bodysnatcher from Hell) and Kikuma Shimoiizaki; photographed by Masyuki Kato and the scored by Noboru Nishiyama.

Main cast:

Kikko Matsuoka, Masumi Okada, Yasunori Irikawa, Ko Nisihmura, Nobuo Kaneko and Norihiko Yamamoto.

Many horror fans were initially introduced to the film via a still on page 20 of Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies (Hamlyn, London, 1973). However, the image is a publicity montage and not representative of an actual scene in the movie.

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The plot opens with gang of modern-day pirates seizing control of a ship, the Dragon King. The passengers and crew are chained together and machine-gunned to death. Among the fatalities are a young woman named Yoriko and her husband, a doctor. The thieves appropriate the Dragon King’s stash of gold and set the vessel adrift on the ocean.

Three years later, the derelict ship reappears off shore from a small coastal town, preceded by the sound of its ghostly foghorn. The pirates are killed off one by one, with Yoriko’s twin sister apparently acting as an instrument of vengeance.

Eventually, the gang’s two surviving members take a boat out to the Dragon King and discover its grisly secret. Yoriko’s husband actually survived the massacre and has managed to stay alive by eating the flesh of the victims, leaving a large number of skeletons in his wake. He has also preserved his wife’s body with injections of his own blood, and plays recordings of her moans as he makes love to the corpse. The ship is eventually destroyed, but not before we see a woman stabbed in the eye, the unhinged doctor crushed to death and the pirate ringleaders dissolved by acid.

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The Living Skeleton makes striking use of skeletal imagery, but it doesn’t actually feature any bare bones walking around. The English title is probably a reference to Yoriko’s cadaverous, corpse-loving husband.

Despite handsome black and white ‘Scope photography, the film has a claustrophobic quality. It condenses the apocalyptic pessimism of other Shochiku horrors – Goke, Bodysnatcher from Hell and Genocide – into the framework of the Japanese ghost story. Matsuno builds an uncanny, spectral atmosphere that bails out the screenplay’s awkward lapses in logic, and keeps the whole shadowy enterprise afloat until the ghoulish climax.

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In Japan, the film’s production company, Shochiku, handled cinema distribution. They subsequently re-released it on VHS, laserdisc and DVD.

A reference book published by McFarland in the 1980s listed a subtitled American release under the title Living Skeleton – the IMDb dates this as 1969, but if this information is correct, circulation must have been extremely limited. It was apparently released theatrically in Mexico, however.

Criterion included The Living Skeleton – along with The X from Outer Space, plus the aforementioned Goke, Bodysnatcher from Hell and Genocide – in their ‘When Horror Came to Shochiku’ DVD set, released as part of their Eclipse series (#37) in November 2012.

Reviews [click links to read more]:

“… While The Living Skeleton makes no overt comment on the time in which it was made, it certainly reflects the sense of dread and unease that pervaded it.”  Kevin Pyrtle, WTF-Film

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“The look of the film brings to mind the foggy Gothic horrors of the productions Universal and RKO made in the 30s and 40s (there’s a hint of mad science in the end), while the tone and atmosphere is very reminiscent of classic Italian horror films such as Black Sunday and Mill of the Stone Women.” Joseph Howell, Talk of Horrors

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Much of the film seems to be an odd marriage of Japanese sensibilities and Western-style images… The plot doesn’t completely make sense as we are often in a world of dream logic… The effect is not so much a straightforward film, but a cinematic tone poem that gets under your skin. Steve Kopian, Unseen Films

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Posted by Mark Ashworth

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