Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Hell, hell! What we have here in Hajime Sato's lividly apocalyptic fantasy is an invasion from another planet. This is more of a sci-fi movie than the horror show the English language title suggests, though the original Japanese title translates to the equally horrific Gokemidoro Vampire. Now that I think of it, the translator probably opted for "Body Snatcher" because that suggested science fiction more than "Vampire" does. The "Hell" part I still don't get, though I suppose it could be argued that the characters of the film suffer in a hell at least partially of their own making.

Goke opens disaster-movie style, introducing us to the crew and passengers of a doomed jetliner. They are a range of types, including a politician, an industrialist, a psychiatrist, a "space biologist," a young punk and an American woman -- a new widow traveling to claim the body of her husband, a Vietnam casualty. The news reports the assassination of the British ambassador to Japan, inspiring the comment that Japan is becoming more like America. It must be dangerous to be a politician, but Mano (Eizo Kitamura) shrugs off the danger, saying that you could never get anything done if you're always afraid to die. Little does he know the danger he faces. In short order, the pilot receives word of a bomb threat, and an investigation reveals a rifle in one passenger's luggage. The rifle's owner seizes control of the plane just as a UFO buzzes past and disrupts the power. The pilot manages a crash-landing that kills him and most of the passengers, leaving his co-pilot Sugisaka (Teruo Yoshida) and flight attendant Kuzumi (Tomomi Sato) our protagonists, and often the victims of the surviving passengers, for the rest of the picture.


If the unreal red skies didn't tip people off to something being seriously wrong, the sight of the hijacker rising from the dead probably does it. He grabs Kuzumi and heads into the interior, where they discover a flying saucer. The hijacker is drawn inside while Kuzumi watches. Inside -- in an abstract set bearing no resemblance to anyone's idea of a spacecraft interior -- the bad guy is subjected to some sort of torture that opens a gaping wound on his forehead, through which an alien blob enters his body. For all intents and purposes, this blob is Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell, and it transforms the hapless hijacker into, I suppose, a Gokemidoro Vampire. Gokemidoro vampires are more like Transylvanian vampires than any Japanese concept. They bite people in the neck, despite lacking fangs, and drain their blood, albeit in a very clean, no-spill fashion. This, we will learn, is part of a Gokemidoro offensive against the planet, the goal being the complete extermination of human life. Bullets and bombs won't hurt these vampires, but fire will. I want to say, "I hope they've got more than that," but I would probably sound treasonous to my species if I did so.

With rumors of UFOs and Kuzumi's wild reports of a flying saucer, the question of alien life is a vital one for our survivors. Dr. Sagai the space biologist (Masaya Takahashi) believes not only in alien life, but also in its malevolence. Noting that flying saucer sightings took off after the atomic bombing of Japan, Sagai speculates that malevolent aliens are poised to take advantage of humanity's divisions and constant warfare and mop us up. The rest of the cast strives to prove his point in microcosm. The American, Mrs. Neal (Kathy Horan) is a hysterical wild card, careening from pacifist tirades ("War makes everybody miserable!") to grabbing that rifle and shooting poor Sugisaka in the arm when she suspects that the Japs may want to sacrifice her to the vampire lurking outside the plane. Worst of all, by far, is Mano, the politician, who belies his pre-crisis tough talk by becoming a craven, viciously selfish coward, ever ready to sacrifice someone else for his own survival.  Sagai himself briefly becomes a bad guy when he buys into Mano's hare-brained scheme to sacrifice another passenger to the aliens in the hope of communicating with them. Besides crowding into the hijacker's forehead, the Gokemidoro also possess a woman passenger to inform the survivors of their identity and their genocidal intentions. The point being made, they make the woman jump off a cliff. She lands as a lifeless husk. Later, Sagai's repentance doesn't prevent him from getting the forehead treatment and becoming the final menace to Sugisaka and Kuzumi, after Mano has run out of people to throw into harm's way and thankfully expired himself. The possessed Sagai manages to walk into a rockslide, and our final couple soon discover that they were closer to civilization than they thought -- for all the good it will do them....

Bullets are useless against a Gokemidoru Vampire, but falling rocks just might work.

Goke rivals Beneath the Planet of the Apes in its pop-art pessimism, reminding us that end-of-the-world fears remained pervasive material for cinematic exploitation well after the brink moment of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. It was always just a few minues to midnight during the Cold War, and if Goke suggests that aliens will do us in, rather than us doing in ourselves, it still manages to say that we'll only have ourselves to blame for failing to come together. It's even bleaker for suggesting that individual foibles could be just as fatal for humanity as nationalist rivalries. It also earns automatic subversion points by making a politician its most despicable character. But for all its messages Goke is still exploitation cinema pandering to a uneasy urge to see the end of the world. It's arty in a trashy way, passionately committed to the color red. Cinematographer Shizuo Hirase reddens the artificial skies as well as news footage illustrating the world's violence. He uses red as punctuation when, after Mrs. Neal shoots Sugisaka, his blood drips onto a photo of the late Mr. Neal. It's also a riot of special effects, from the surprisingly plausible saucer shots to the rather unconvincing model heads through whose wounds the Gokemidoro ooze in and out. There's something perversely giddy rather than cautionary about Goke's doomsday scenario, as if director Sato and his writers had just said: drop the bomb, exterminate them all! Maybe that's the attitude you have to take if you want to convince people that they deserve it.

Apparently, Goke was an exceptional product from the prestigious Shochiku studio, once home to such arthouse titans as Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu. Science fiction and horror were so unusual for the studio that Goke and three other genre films have been collected in a new Criterion Eclipse box set, on the premise that a company unaccustomed to the material could only come up with something interesting. Goke, for one, suggests that Criterion is right.


venoms5 said...

I ordered this set, Sam. Intrigued by two films in that set I've not seen before. But regarding GOKE, it's quite a splendid little movie, particularly in its visuals. Also, I was not expecting the film to end the way it did. I was blown away by the final minutes.

Samuel Wilson said...

venom, the time was definitely right for When Horror Came to Shochiku to appear this month. Between the Barnes & Noble 50% sale on things Criterion a coupon and a member discount, I paid around $19 for a $60 set -- and Goke is practically worth that itself.

For those unfamiliar with this collection, the remaining films are the 1967 kaiju feature The X From Outer Space, the black&white horror The Living Skeleton and a promising item entitled Genocide. Look for reviews here in the near future.

venoms5 said...

I paid $35 through amazon, so you definitely got a great deal there, Sam. I'm hoping mine arrives tomorrow as I am anticipating THE LIVING SKELETON. There are still so many great Japanese horror movies (especially of the period sort) that are unavailable legally on these shores.