To connoisseurs of world cinema, the Criterion Collection has long been a treasure trove. The high-quality line of DVDs includes titles from Ingmar Bergman, Louis Malle, Roman Polanski, Charlie Chaplin, Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch and other legendary directors — and, of course, "Goke: Body Snatcher From Hell."
No, that's not a misprint. Criterion added director Hajime Sato's 1968 shocker to its Hulu Plus lineup last week, alongside Alfred Hitchcock's "Foreign Correspondent" and John Ford's "The Long Voyage Home." Anyone expecting a typically campy Japanese scarefest is in for a surprise: "Goke" is no joke.
The movie was released at a time when Edwin Starr was asking the musical question, "War — what is it good for?" Kyuzo Kobayashi and Susumu Takaku's screenplay provides an unsettling answer: Our conflicts here on Earth present a perfect opportunity for highly intelligent aliens to ambush and annihilate us while we're preoccupied with annihilating each other.
Photographed in screamingly bold colors, "Goke" foreshadows J.J. Abrams' "Lost" in its scenario of a plane crash that leads to a confrontation with otherworldly elements. As the film opens, an Air Japan flight is sailing through blood-colored skies (an effect director Quentin Tarantino would later appropriate for "Kill Bill, Vol. One") as a radio message warns of the approach of an unidentified flying object. Suddenly, suicidal birds begin smashing into the windows of the plane while nearly everyone onboard quickly loses his or her composure.
They'll soon have much more to worry about after the airliner goes down on a seemingly deserted stretch of land where rock slides happen with alarming regularity and there seems to be nothing to eat or drink. An assassin (Hideo Ko), whose plan to hijack the plane was foiled by the chaos in the skies, makes the mistake of wandering off from the group of survivors; he's soon hypnotized by a luminous spacecraft that hides a hideous secret: a Gokemidoro, a neon-blue gelatinous glob of pure evil that seeps into his brain and turns him into a sort of zombie-vampire. (The title, by the way, is semi-inaccurate since the Gokemidoro rather proudly identifies itself as being extraterrestrial, a statement validated by the movie's eerie final sequence.)
Taken at face value, the movie sounds ridiculous — and some of the overwrought acting is hard to watch with a straight face — but its subtext is deadly serious. Sato turns out to be less interested in monsters and mind-control than he is in detailing the rapid breakdown of the social order and how it reflects the unrest of the late 1960s.
One of the passengers is an American war widow (Kathy Horan) who is on her way to retrieve the body of her husband, killed in Vietnam. There's also a surly senator (Eizo Kitamura) who takes a sadistic delight in tormenting his fellow passengers; a smarmy weapons manufacturer (Nobuo Kaneko) who's so eager to make a deal with the senator that he forces his own wife (Yuko Kusunoki) to prostitute herself to the politician; and a psychiatrist (Kazuo Kato) who keeps trying to analyze everyone's motivations.
Instead of working together to stave off disaster, they quarrel, bully each other and make pointless power plays, effectively proving the theory of the Gokemidoro race, which suspected that mankind would be too busy fighting each other to fight off an invasion. To further underscore his ideas, Sato drops in scarlet-tinted images of Vietnam casualties and snapshots of victims of napalm bombings. Certainly, these are far more startling than the sight of Gokemidoro splitting open people's foreheads and slithering into their skulls.
Although plenty of Japanese horror movies were retitled, dubbed and dumped into the American marketplace in the late 1960s, "Goke" must have been more than domestic film distributors could deal with at the time; the movie didn't play in the U.S. until the late 1970s, when it was shipped directly to drive-ins. It's easy to imagine this bizarre mix of psychological drama, anti-war statement and grim sci-fi must have made a lot of moviegoers choke on their popcorn.