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DVD SAVANT
Savant Pal Region 2 Guest Reviews:

Goke:
Bodysnatcher from Hell
&
St. John's Wort

Separate releases reviewed by Lee Broughton

Artsmagic are back with a pair of Japanese fantasy films that in turn represent two distinct generations of Japanese filmmakers. The vintage genre features imprint Shadow Warrior presents Goke: Bodysnatcher from Hell, a classic slice of typically Sixties' Sci Fi whose rediscovery has been long overdue. Not to be outdone, the Eastern Cult Cinema imprint offers St. John's Wort, a digital-age melding of the haunted house and thriller genres that should also interest the horror-survival video game crowd.


Goke: Bodysnatcher from Hell
Shadow Warrior
1968 / Colour / 2.35 anamorphic 16:9 / 84 m. / Kyuketsuki Gokemidoro, Goke the Vampire
Starring Teruo Yoshida, Tomomi Sato, Hideo Ko, Kathy Horan, Masaya Takahashi, Nobu Kaneko, Eizo Kitamura, Kazuo Kato, Yuko Kusunoki, Hiroyuki Nishimoto, Nirihiko Yamamoto
Cinematography Shizuo Hirase
Production Designer Tadataka Yoshino
Art Direction Masataka Kayano
Film Editor Akimitsu Terada
Original Music Toshiwa Kikuchi
Written by Susumu Takahisa and Kyuzo Kobayashi
Produced by Takashi Inomata
Directed by Hajime Sato

Synopsis:

A search for a would-be terrorist aboard a Japanese passenger plane misses its target but inadvertently exposes a post-hit political assassin, Hirafumi Teraoka (Hideo Ko). He takes control of the plane but a subsequent close encounter with a UFO results in the plane crash-landing in a barren countryside location. The assassin takes off on foot and runs straight into a UFO full of blob-like extra-terrestrials who call themselves the Gokemidoro people. A vertical gash is cut into his forehead and one of the aliens slithers inside, taking control of his body and turning him into a kind of space vampire. With the other passengers now squabbling amongst themselves, the space vampire returns to the downed plane and starts picking them off one by one.

Goke: Bodysnatcher from Hell is a fairly low budget feature that should really be classed as a B-movie. Indeed its opening couple of chapters play a little like a pilot episode for a typical Irwin Allen TV series, with our generic motley group of plane passengers suddenly finding themselves thrown together and dependent on each other for survival after being unexpectedly stranded in an unfamiliar location. However, once this scene has been set Susumu Takahisa and Kyuzo Kobayashi's intriguing script slowly begins revealing its quite political, anti-war and ultimately apocalyptic themes while director Hajime Sato sets about successfully transcending most of the limitations set by his small budget.

Initial conversations between the plane's passengers reveal that the world is in chaos, seemingly poised on the edge of destruction. Mr Tokuyasu, a weapons manufacturer, laments the recent assassination of the British ambassador who was engaged in bringing peace to Southeast Asia until Gozo Mano (Eizo Kitamura), a high-ranking politician, bluntly reminds him that peace would adversely affect his company's profits. When the assassin is subsequently discovered aboard the plane, Sato cuts to a montage of monochrome stills which show the horror of the ambassador's assassination.

An American passenger, Mrs Neal (Kath Horan), reveals that she lost her husband in Vietnam: her back-story prompts a similar montage which shows the utter carnage of war. And herein lies the reason for the alien invasion: it was ongoing acts of mass destruction on Earth, most notably the bombing of Hiroshima, that first attracted the Gokemidoro people's attention and convinced them that mankind must be destroyed. After observing the Earth from deep space they have come to the conclusion that their invasion will succeed simply because the nations of the world are already divided and distracted by a multitude of ongoing wars. And since these wars will inevitably result in the destruction of mankind, the Gokemidoro people see nothing wrong with simply speeding up the process.

There's a touch of Jeepers Creepers 2 about the initial situation which finds the terrified passengers cowering within the downed plane while the space vampire slowly stalks about outside. A psychiatrist, Dr Momotake (Kazuo Kato), gleefully warns his fellow passengers that they will soon be fighting amongst themselves and he is proved right by a series of hastily forged, desperate and aggressive partnerships and alliances. Kuzumi Asakura (Tomomi Sato) and Ei Sugisake (Teruo Yoshida), two level-headed members of the flight crew, are the only individuals who manage to retain a shred of dignity and humanity.

When Tokuyasu and Mano fall out it is revealed that the politician had been accepting huge bribes, and the attentions of Mrs Tokuyasu in exchange for exclusive arms contracts. Mano subsequently teams up with Mr Saga, a space biologist: pre-dating the actions and attitudes of Ash and "the Company" in Alien, Mano and Saga insist that they must be allowed to observe the destructive power of the space vampire at close quarters. To this end, the (now discovered and incarcerated) would-be terrorist is forcibly ejected from the plane: Saga excuses their experiment with the observation that "science and governments make progress at the cost of many lives." The fear-factor steps up a gear for all concerned when circumstances dictate that the rest of the passengers must leave the safety of the plane.

For a low budget feature, there are some really great special effects on display here. The false heads that are used to show the Gokemidori entering and leaving their hosts' bodies via their foreheads are particularly effective. When the host body is eventually vacated it crumbles to dust in much the same way that 'regular' vampires rapidly decay when they are dispatched on screen. The Gokemidori UFOs are pretty neat too: they look very similar to the flying saucers seen in the Roy Thinnes TV show, The Invaders. Hirafumi Teraoka, the assassin, comes on like an amoral Sixties' super spy in his snazzy white suit and matching gloves. He's a tough cookie but he's no match for the Gokemidori. He subsequently takes on a sinister air as the space vampire, slyly sliding into frame from unusual angles in order to surprise his victims. Director Hajime Sato was reportedly a Mario Bava admirer and he does indeed employ some interesting Bava-esque lighting effects during the vampire attacks.

The film's cinematography is for the most part pretty good though the quality dips to near TV movie standard during a couple of fairly static dialogue driven sequences: the conversation gets a little soap opera-like in these parts too. But these scenes and an extended chase around a quarry-like location that plays like padding are all that stop this film from getting a straight 'excellent' rating. The film's music works really well, too. Goke: Bodysnatcher from Hell has recently found a new niche for itself within the public consciousness thanks to Quentin Tarantino including the film on his "influences for Kill Bill" shopping list. That's all very nice, but if Goke: Bodysnatcher from Hell is to be remembered for anything, it should be its quite amazing final ten minutes: ten minutes which represent what is possibly the most shocking and truly frightening finale ever featured in a Science Fiction film.


Securing new anamorphic masters of vintage Japanese genre films during the early days of DVD wasn't always easy. Several DVD issues of older Japanese films prompted concerns about 'soft' picture quality and overly dark night-time scenes. Indeed, the Michio Yamamoto vampire films (Legacy of Dracula, Lake of Dracula and Evil of Dracula) issued by Shadow Warrior were bedevilled by such problems. That being the case, Goke: Bodysnatcher from Hell represents a real breakthrough for both Shadow Warrior and genre fans in general. Picture quality here is pretty much excellent. There's hardly any print damage present, the picture is sharp and the show's vibrant colour scheme is nicely reproduced. The disc's sound is clear too though a number of sections do suffer from a touch of background hiss and crackle. Goke: Bodysnatcher from Hell is presented with its original Japanese soundtrack supported by optional English subtitles.


St. John's Wort
Eastern Cult Cinema
2001 / Colour & B&W / 1.85:1 anamorphic 16:9 / 85 m. / Otogiriso
Starring Megumi Okina, Yoichiro Saito, Koji Okura, Reiko Matsuo, Minoru
Cinematography Kazuhiko Ogura
Production Designer Toshihiro Isomi
Art Direction Toshiyuki Kimura
Film Editor Shogo Hirasawa
Original Music Asako Yoshida
Written by Goro Nakajima and Takenori Sento from the novel by Shukei Nagasaka
Produced by Shinji Ogawa, Takenori Sento
Directed by Shimoyama Ten

Synopsis:

Khohei (Yoichiro Saito), Shinichi (Koji Okura) and Toko (Reiko Matsuo) are busy designing and programming a new horror-survival video game. When the project's conceptual artist Nami (Megumi Okina) inherits a spooky country mansion from her estranged father, she decides to seek inspiration by exploring the dilapidated property. Khohei accompanies her and he uses a digital video camera to relay footage of their exploration back to Shinichi and Toko via an Internet link. Khohei and Nami soon discover that Nami's father was one Kaizawa Soichi, a cult artist who was famed for his ultra-disturbing paintings. They also find evidence which suggests that Nami once had a twin sister. When they become stranded at the house during a raging thunder storm, the pair are alarmed to discover that they are not the mansion's only occupants.

Perhaps the most striking thing about St. John's Wort is the quite disparate range of interesting shooting styles and colouring techniques that director Shimoyama Ten comfortably mixes and matches during the telling of the film's larger narrative. Shot entirely on digital video, the show boasts a scene or two where its protagonists are placed within computer generated landscapes. These sequences are simple but quite impressive, somehow appearing to have more in common with the spirit of Mario Bava-style glass matte or in-camera effects than run-of-the-mill CGI work. Interestingly, some of the lighting effects seen within Nami's gothic mansion do actually play like crude, digital-age approximations of the rich and expressive lighting used by the likes of Bava and Giorgio Ferroni (Mill of the Stone Women). By contrast, other filters and effects are used to give the game producers' workplace an unnaturally gaudy and kitschy 'day-glo' colour scheme. At other times the monochromatic (blue-black, red-black, etc), tinted film stock effects achieved by Gerardo de Leon in The Blood Drinkers are brought to mind. And actual computer game imagery and communication techniques are periodically employed to briefly impart some sections of the film's story-line.

In terms of actual camera work, much of the film's first half is seen from Khohei's personal point-of-view via his ever present, hand-held digital video camera. This evokes the Blair Witch Project somewhat but works well enough for the most part. It also turns out that most of the rooms in the mansion are fitted with CCTV cameras and various static, high-angled shots from these black and white cameras are intermittently presented, bringing to mind the similar approach seen in Halloween: Resurrection. While it might have initially been influenced by the ongoing reality TV craze for shows like Big Brother, St. John's Wort thankfully refuses any temptation to pursue the reality TV theme favoured by the Halloween entry, choosing instead to make the most of its quite novel first-person computer game/virtual reality adventure premise.

Patching the CCTV console into Khohei's Internet connected lap-top computer does allow Shinichi and Toko to keep an eye on their friends while simultaneously constructing a three dimensional computerized map of the mansion, which comes in handy towards the end of the film. There's a fairly spooky moment to be had when the CCTV monitors briefly detect a third person flitting around the house's dark corridors. All manner of film speed tricks are employed to beef things up and while some of these tricks were already looking tired by 2001, some of them actually work: a disturbing flashback sequence which shows a young Nami stumbling across her father going about his work in a fairly demented manner is really enhanced by their use.

The film's narrative unfolds in a manner which is very similar to the experience of actually playing a generic horror-survival computer game. So much so that there are several moments throughout the film which prompt the uncomfortable feeling that the show's characters might somehow be trapped inside their embryonic video game, a little like the characters in Existenz. Nami and Khohei literally go from room to room, picking up clues and keys that open locked doors or reveal hidden rooms and the like. It's fairly atmospheric stuff, with good sets and old genre staples like eerie music box chimes, a room full of spooky Victorian dolls and what sound like strange distant voices enhancing the show's basic ingredients of troubled teens trapped in an old dark house. Things take a very disturbing turn when the pair discover how Kaizawa Soichi found inspiration for his horrific paintings. Add to this a bit of bickering that leads to Nami and Khohei separating for a while and the appearance of a character with a psyche so twisted and delusional that it wouldn't be out of place in an outlandish Italian thriller and the film is just about complete.

St. John's Wort draws upon and references a whole gamut of well known horror genre and video game clichés so western audiences should have no trouble understanding and engaging with its content. In fact, the uncomplicated plot and the presence of predominantly young, cool, good-looking and independently wealthy characters who just happen to be hi-tech hardware experts might well help the film find a niche for itself within more mainstream home video markets. However, while many of Japan's new wave of horror films have been rightly applauded for presenting new and thought-provoking ideas and scenarios, St. John's Wort doesn't really offer up anything startlingly original beyond its fairly novel computer game angle and a couple of decent surprises that pop up near the film's denouement. But don't be put off by that mild criticism: the film remains a decent little genre feature that has been put together with some thought and attention to detail and full marks go to the production crew for manufacturing such an impressive and stylish look from what was obviously a relatively small budget.


Eastern Cult Cinema's anamorphic rendering of St. John's Wort is excellent. There's no evidence of print wear or damage and the picture is sharp. The variety of colouring and lighting techniques employed here means that the quality of the film's colours fluctuates and changes by design: some shots are over-saturated, etc, on purpose resulting in blacks and shadowy areas sometimes looking grey or kind of solarized, etc. The sound is also excellent with the film's mix of electronic and classical/choral music coming through fine. St. John's Wort is presented with its original Japanese soundtrack supported by optional English subtitles.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Goke: Bodysnatcher from Hell rates:
Movie: Very Good +
Video: Excellent -
Sound: Very Good --
Supplements: Trailer and biographies/filmographies for Hajime Sato, Eizo Kitamura, Hideo Ko, Kath Horan, Kazuo Kato, Teruo Yoshida & Tomomi Sato
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 14, 2004

St. John's Wort rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Biographies and filmographies for Shimoyama Ten, Megumi Okina, Yoichiro Saito, Koji Okura and Reiko Matsuo
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 14, 2004


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Text © Copyright 2007 Lee Broughton
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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