NYAFF Review: Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell


[For the month of July, we will be covering the New York Asian Film Festival and the (also New York-based) Japan Cuts Film Festival, which together form one of the largest showcases of Asian cinema in the world. For our NYAFF coverage, head over here. For Japan Cuts, here.]

While I found it hard to score Boxer’s Omen because it’s a cult movie that confounds normal evaluation, Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell is a different sort of animal: a legitimately good movie with a much deserved cult following.

It was described as a cross between Lost and Hausu (House), which is only partly accurate. It’s like Lost in that it’s about survivors of a mysterious plane crash, but it’s not as obtuse; it’s like Hausu in that it’s a psychedelic Japanese film, but it’s far less madcap. Goke feels more like the sensibilities of Lost and Hausu channeled through Matango (an earlier, similarly themed Japanese horror film by Ishiro Honda) and The Prisoner.

Whatever odd beast it is, Goke is mainly a surreal anti-war film, straying into moments of high camp, but always an intriguing watch.

Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell (1968) - Trailer

Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell (Kyuketsuki Gokemidoro | 吸血鬼ゴケミドロ)
Director: Hajime Sato
Rating: NR
Country: Japan

The set-up to Goke is like the set-up to a bad joke: a psychiatrist, a madman, an international fugitive, a politician, a weapons manufacturer, the weapons manufacturer’s wife, and a blonde are on a plane. Yet there’s something sinister right from the outset. The skies are an angry red-orange, like molten lava or heated steel. There are reports about political assassinations and unidentified flying objects. Even the birds are upset by something — they commit suicide by ramming themselves into the plane. It a series of bad scenarios stacked on top of each other, and then the pilots get word of a potential bomb threat.

The flight eventually crashes on an eerie, craggy stretch of land. There are no signs of life out among the rocks, and without food or water, tensions mount and rivalries form. The situation gets even more complicated when one of the passengers leaves the plane with a hostage. They find a spaceship. From here on out, it’s all nicely controlled genre-bending paranoia, propelled by the mystery of what is really going on.

While Goke is a Japanese movie, I think the sentiment of the old Chinese curse applies: may you live in interesting times. Those were interesting times to be alive. Vietnam gets mentioned quite a bit (one of the characters lost a loved on in the war), as does the nuclear bomb, as do images of genocide, as does the idea of upheaval caused by assassination. (Partial list of political assassinations in the years leading up to Goke‘s release: JFK, Martin Luther King Jr., Ngo Dihn Diem, Malcom X, Robert Kennedy, Hendrik Verowerd.)

This sense of impending doom is found in multiple movies during the Cold War, from B-movies to Japanese kaiju films to higher-minded western science fiction (e.g., Planet of the Apes, Children of the Damned). Goke is a movie afraid of the idea of total annihilation, and afraid that it’s even a possibility.

Goke gets far on its stylishness and composition. Hajime Sato makes the most of his ultra-wide aspect ratio, and the set of the spaceship interior is so coolly sixties. It’s the sort of setting where women in Mondrian dresses would be doing the Watusi in go-go boots. There’s a healthy helping of vampirism in the movie (just go with it), and the exsanguinations are often depicted with cold lightning rather than pale makeup. This highly stylized approach helps balance the campier, cheesier moments, like the rockslides of foam boulders or the obvious mannequins taking headers off cliffsides. Even one character’s histrionic comic relief doesn’t undermine the intrigue of the film. Visually and tonally the movie just seems with-it, hip to its own devices; authoritative.

Goke shares a similar feel to the original Night of the Living Dead, Matango, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It’s about people dealing with the world going to hell around them, and they really can’t do much about it. Night of the Living Dead and Matango seem especially appropriate since both movies involve people who can’t get along forced to get along. If they could just keep their heads together, they might be able to deal with the threat outside. (And of course, no one can keep their head for long.)

Which all gets at the heart of Goke: it’s a movie about how great we are at killing each other and very little else. The politician is supposed to be doing what’s best, be he has his own concerns. The psychiatrist is able to identify problems, but he’s unable to do anything about them. And the heroes of the film, the co-pilot and the stewardess (the common man and common woman; everyman, everywoman), try as they might, may not have it in them to save the day. It’s blunt with its allegory, but it makes sense why — this is 1968, and it feels like the end of the world.

Goke seems to have left lots of visual fingerprints since its release. Quentin Tarantino stated that he paid homage to the ominous, artificial skies that open the film in some plane shots on Kill Bill. The vaginal slit in the forehead seems like something David Cronenberg would have glommed onto back in his fleshy heyday; or even the odd, Calderesque psychic forehead bubble in Mike Allred’s Madman. There are even moments of disintegration and static that feel like they could have helped Ken Russell concoct some trips for Altered States.

But Goke should be more more than just a visual reference or a footnote to another movie. It’s a nice breed of a strange animal, born out of fear and paranoia, earnest with its message, hokey (and probably aware of it), and ultimately downbeat with its view of humanity. It’s an interesting film made during interesting times, and one of those rare instances where the word “interesting” isn’t just a polite way of saying, “It was okay, I guess.”

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.