Low-budget Japanese science fiction/horror films of the 1950s and 60s shared a popular anti-war theme in post-WWII Japan and were dominated by the rubber suited monster threatening Tokyo with destruction; or in some cases, protecting Tokyo. They are amazing for revolutionizing the art of Special Effects, especially in regard to miniatures; but one that really stands out is Kyuketsuki Gokemidoro (1968), which translates to “The Gokemidoro Vampire” but was shown to English-speaking audiences as Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell.
A Japan Air flight takes off from Tokyo into a blood red sky. The passengers include Senator Mano (Eizo Kitamura); arms dealer Tokiyasu (Nobuo Kaneko) and his wife Noriko (Yuko Kusunoki); Mrs. Neal (Kathy Horan), an American going to bring the body of her husband home; Momotake (Kazuo Kato), a psychiatrist; Professor Sagai (Masaya Takahashi), who is a space biologist; and an apparent hijacker (Hideo Ko). Not long after takeoff, the pilot (Hiroyuki Nishimoto) receives a message that there is a bomb on board and he is instructed to return the plane to the Tokyo airport. The co-pilot Sugisaka (Teruo Yoshida) informs the passengers that some classified documents were loaded onto the plane by mistake and he must check their baggage. Fearing being caught, the hijacker points a gun at Sugisaka and orders the pilot to fly the plane to Okinawa. He then shoots the radio just as it was announcing the presence of a UFO over Japan. The plane is hit by a flock of bloody birds and then fired on by the UFO and crash lands in a desolate area.
Sugisaka and flight attendant Kuzumi (Tomomi Sato) survey the damage and discover that the pilot and the hijacker are dead. When they discover that there isn’t much food or water, the survivors get rowdy. But wait, the hijacker isn’t dead! He grabs Kuzumi and runs off with her, but he eventually comes upon the mysterious alien spacecraft. Hypnotized, the hijacker leaves Kuzumi and enters the craft. There we meet the evil alien entity—a mercury-like blob of a vampire called Gokemidoro—which enters the head of its victims to take control of their bodies. Kuzumi is found, unconscious, by Sugisaka who brings her back to the downed plane. The psychiatrist Momotake hypnotizes Kuzumi so she can tell the survivors what happened. The alien in its new form makes his way to the crash site where it plans to feed. The survivors are still at each other’s throats, making Gokemidoro’s job that much easier.
The first thing you’ll notice about Goke is that it is most definitely low budget. But then you’ll notice all the stuff that makes this flick so cool. While in the air, the plane flies into a bright, blood-red sky—a background that was later recreated by Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill Volume 1 (2003) when the Bride is on the plane flying to Japan. Goke is saturated in bright primary colors which ultimately become garish as the film moves along. When the vampire feeds, its victim’s body turns a bright shade of blue; there are other scenes that are bathed in bright yellows and oranges—something ominous on the horizon, perhaps?
The characters are a cross-section of some of the worst personalities found in humanity. They are greedy, arrogant, and self-centered; completely unwilling to help their fellow man in light of their unlucky circumstances. The young hijacker brings a bomb on board the plane for no apparent reason. Momotake, the psychiatrist, seems to revel in the other passengers’ selfish behavior as they spiral out of control. Senator Mano and the arms dealer Tokiyasu have had illegal dealings in which Tokiyasu promised to fund Mano’s campaign in exchange for Mano getting the committee to accept Tokiyasu’s weapons bid. True to scumbag form, Mano has no intention of keeping his end of the bargain. At one point in the film, Mano suggests using Mrs. Neal as bait to see if the alien is truly a vampire and the others are perfectly willing to go along with the idea! He feels that using a foreigner will cause fewer problems later on, if they survive the alien encounter. Most of the passengers use others to protect themselves from the alien vampire, as opposed to trying to kill it. It’s a disgusting display of the worst traits found in humanity. The only characters we can sympathize with are the co-pilot Sugisaka and flight attendant Kuzumi; they are the only ones who not only attempt to help the crash survivors, but they are the only ones to show any sort of compassion or faith in humanity (although that faith seems to be sorely misplaced).
The anti-war theme of Goke is glaringly evident. The survivors who turn on each other immediately reflect the Cold War era of countries turning on each other and posturing with nuclear weapons threatening the end of civilization as we know it. The final scenes of the film only serve to emphasize the anti-war sentiment. And as with the other sci-fi movies coming from Japan at the time, Goke’s final scenes call to mind the destruction suffered by a country that actually had nuclear warheads used against it, with devastating results. The American passenger, Mrs. Neal is another nod to anti-war sentiment. She is on her way to retrieve her husband’s body. Mr. Neal was a soldier killed in the Vietnam War, which was exploding in living rooms all over the world due to television news broadcasts with graphic images of death and destruction—something which had never been seen on a nightly basis before.
The end of Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell holds quite a twist, which to me is shocking when you consider the other genre films of the time. Writers Kyuzo Kobayashi and Susumu Takaku and director Hajime Sato leave no doubt as to the hopelessness of the situation their characters find themselves in. This is one of the bleakest films I’ve ever seen, which is something I happen to like in horror films. As much as I love the kaiju films of the same era, they always seemed to end on a positive note….stressing faith in humanity’s compassion and ability to survive. Goke doesn’t even hint at redemption for the human race and that is why it is so disturbing. Sato was not afraid to bring the savagery of the human race to the big screen barely hidden in an alien invasion/vampire metaphor. It is beautifully filmed and the video and audio effects are stunning, as is the movie’s soundtrack which only adds to the very cool apocalyptic vibe.
Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell is easily in my top ten Asian horror films of all time. It is haunting, somber and considerably gruesome. It will be screening at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival and we will be giving away tickets to the festival’s sole screening, so come back to this blog tomorrow if you want to win them.
For an audio review of Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell, check out editor-in-chief Coffin Jon’s guest appearance on the Podcast Without Honor and Humanity.