Monday, October 13, 2014

HubrisWeen, Day 8: The H-Man (1958)

While radiation was the cinematic boogeyman of the 1950s, anyone familiar with history should understand why the Japanese had an extremely unique view of it. After all, in addition to being the only country to have ever had nuclear weapons used against them during war, they also had the horrifying misfortune of the ironically named Daigo Fukuryu Maru (or "Lucky Dragon No. 5") incident.

The Lucky Dragon served as partial inspiration for the original Godzilla, but today's film--also directed by Ishiro Honda--delves into it even further. You see, in 1954 the Daigo Fukuryu Maru, a fishing vessel, was fishing for tuna outside of the "danger zone" of the American Castle Bravo H-Bomb test. Unfortunately, the Americans had incorrectly calculated the force of the bomb and the radius of the danger zone was woefully underestimated.

So radioactive ash fell upon the crew of the vessel and the all the tuna that they had collected. Underestimating how deadly the fallout was, some of the fish they had caught ended up on the market. The aftermath of the incident--which the US naturally handled with the tact and sensitivity of someone who blames you for not keeping a better eye on your child after they drive up onto your lawn and run over your toddler--was not nearly as catastrophic as it could have been, but it was still horrifying.

With the US breathing down their neck, the Japanese couldn't very well make a movie about the incident to criticize the US, but in the guise of a monster movie they had a radioactive dinosaur destroying ships with names just this side of "Schmucky Dorgan No. 5". Four years later, they addressed the horror of the incident far more explicitly in another monster movie--and, perhaps due to the notorious short attention span of Americans, met no resistance in doing so.

We open on a rainy night in Tokyo. Uchida (Mokoto Sato), member of a local drug cartel, is waiting in his car for Misaki (Hisaya Itou) to sneak out of a grated window well with a package of heroin stolen from the locker of a rival gangmember. Uchida is more than a little on edge after a policeman stops to question him--although the officer assumes Uchida is just waiting on a lady friend--so when Misaki stops in the middle of loading the package into the trunk in order to pull out a handgun and fire it at the ground by his own feet, Uchida's first action is to drive off and leave his frightened compatriot in the street. A truck coming the other way hits Misaki, but to the bewilderment of the driver, the cop, and several onlookers Misaki's body is nowhere to be found. His empty clothes hang from the grill of the truck, but he has completely vanished.

Detective Tominaga (Akihiko Hirata, here not sporting an eye patch) is thus left with a curious case to try and solve. Misaki obviously is still on the loose, and with the gangs and the police both searching for him he'll probably try to lay low somewhere. Yet, Tominaga can't figure out exactly how Misaka could have somehow fled the scene, naked as a jaybird, with none of the witnesses on the scene seeing him do so.

So Tominaga sends Detective Sakata (Yoshihuma Tajima, better known to Godzilla fans as one of the two unscrupulous capitalists in Mothra vs. Godzilla) and two other detectives to Misaki's last known residence, where they wake up Chikako Arai (Yumi Shirakawa), Misaki's girlfriend and a signer at a local night club. A local night club, it turns out, where many of the gang deals go down. So the police are less than convinced when she professes ignorance of both Misaki's whereabouts and is illicit activities--despite their apartment having a television at a point in time in Japan where having a TV was almost equivalent to having a wall-sized flatscreen today. However, they don't have anything to hold her on, so they allow her to go to work--but decide to keep a very close eye on her, indeed.

So when a handsome young man (Kenji Sahara!) signals to Chikako that he wants to talk to her about Misaki, the police nab him outside her dressing room before he actually gets to say word one to Chikako. However, Tominaga is quite shocked to see the suspect when he's brought in,because he recognizes him at once--he's Dr. Masada, an old school friend of Tominaga. Tominaga wats to know why a scientist is suddenly getting involved in the drug business, but Masada explains that he read about Misaki's strange disappearance in the newspapers and needed to know from Chikako if Misaki had been anywhere near nuclear test sites. It's his belief that Misaki is dead, melted way in the rain that night as a result of exposure to radiation. As Tominaga points out, nobody else who was exposed to the rain that night has melted so Masada advises that it must have been something that targeted Misaki individually.

Masada might not be as silly as Tominaga believes. That night, when Chikako returns home, she is accosted by a gangster looking for Misaki. After he thoroughly intimidates her with a gun and physical violence--but keeping careful not to alert the cops outside her apartment to his presence--the crook heads out the window into the rain. Chikako watches in horror as the man fires off multiple shots and the screams in agony, just like Misaki. When the cops rush into the apartment after Chikako stumbles into the hallway and faints, the only evidence of the intruder are his empty clothes in the street outside.

Chikako can't tell the police anything that they want to know. She went to the window after she saw a shadow that didn't belong to the man attacking her, but she won't say more because they won't believe her. Tominaga begrudgingly lets Masada talk to her, and when she mentions that she saw the man melt away it rings all kinds of alarms for Masada. Quickly he urges Tominaga to come with him to a local hospital, where he knows of someone else who reported seeing a human being melt before their very eyes.

At the hospital, Masada introduces Tominaga to two sailors who are being treated for radiation sickness. The two sailors tell of how they served aboard a vessel that encountered another ship, the Ryujin Maru II, adrift in the open ocean. The two sailors and four others from their crew went aboard the vessel, intending to see if anyone aboard needed assistance. They found the ship deserted, no sign of the crew beyond empty clothes scattered about. Most disconcerting was the discovery that the log book ends in the middle of a word, as though the captain were attacked while writing it. This is enough to convince the others it's time to go, so they grab the log book and begin to leave--but one of them decides to play around with some of the empty clothes. He doesn't see the strange slime oozing towards him until it's too late.

"It creeps and leaps, and slides across the floor..."
The slim creeps up his leg and the sailor screams in pain and horror as he dissolves before the terrified eyes of his companions. The slime then rises up to take the spectral form of something that might once have been human, and when the ghostly humanoid touches another sailor, he dissolves just like his companion.
"Ooga Booga!"
The sailors flee, but when one of them pauses by the hatch to call for another sailor who was still inside the vessel, another slime creature falls onto him from above. The two survivors make it back to their boat and while the other crewmembers first ask where the other four are, seeing the six spectral humanoid shapes take form on the deck of the ghost ship convinces them it is time to leave.

Tominaga is not especially convinced, despite Masada's reasonable assertion that if the sailors were lying they'd have made up a less ridiculous story. At any rate, according to the log book the ghost ship had wandered too close to an H-Bomb test and the six men on deck simply vanished. It's Masada's belief that the radiation altered those six men's DNA and turned them into a completely different form of life. All well and good, but Tominaga points out that the ghost ship was encountered drfting in the open ocean so the creatures aboard would be no threat in Japan--Masada counters with the claim that the Ryuijn Maru II had been sighted in coastal waters recently. If that's true, its liquid occupants could have come ashore and Misaki may have been one of their victims.

Masada tries to further convince Tominsaga by showing him an experiment. Exposing a bullfrog to radiation in his lab results in the creature erupting in bubbles and melting into goop. (Ang Lee's Hulk totally ripped this sequence off) The goop, under a microscope, is shown to be alive. And when the liquid frog is placed next to a normal frog, it moves towards the frog under its own power and melts it, too.

Tominaga still fails to see what he is supposed to do about it and at any rate, he's got a big bust brewing at Chikako's night club that evening that takes precedence.

No, not that kind of bust!
Uchida, the big fish that Tominaga really wants, is there that evening as well. And with the help of Sakata and the other detectives they begin rounding up the other gangmembers as they leave. However, one gangmember attempts to pull a gun on the officers and it goes off as he is being restrained. The waiter, who aids in the illicit activities, hears the gunshot over the wicked drum solo of the house band and alerts Uchida so the two can escape out a window in the dressing rooms. One of the showgirls is not horribly pleased with having the window opened to let the rain in--but she's even less thrilled when a liquid humanoid oozes in through the window.

It makes quick work of the waiter, Uchida's bullets failing to affect it, and Uchida uses that as an opportunity to escape. The showgirl is not so lucky. In the US version her fate is mostly implied after we see the liquid creature crawling up her legs. In the Japanese version, we see her death--and later the empty bikini that is the aftermath.

Her death was probably cut because it's a very strange effect. All the other deaths involve a physical prop human basically deflating as foaming bubbles pour out of them. It sounds goofy, but it works and is actually fairly disturbing. Perhaps because the showgirl is wearing too little clothing for that effect to work, she is enveloped by a psychedelic animation effect.

It's a bit weird.

Chikako barely escapes the liquid creature once it enters her dressing room and she calls Masada to tell him it's at the club. But then she finds herself trapped in thephone booth by the creature. Luckily, Sakata--who naturally had been even more skeptical than Tominaga--finds her and his decision to shoot the creature distracts it from its intended prey. His decision to pistol whip the creature after it assumes its humanoid shape also distracts it. I mean, it can only eat one person at a time.

Remember kids, don't doubt the scientist and especially don't try to grapple with a creature whose very touch will instantly kill you!
Sakata's death sends the club into a panic and Uchida, having seen how the creature operates, uses this as a way to escape by leaving his clothes behind and escaping naked--just as Misaki was thought to have done. Tominaga is forced to acknowledge that Masada is right, seeing as how the liquid creature has killed a police detective and all. So now the question becomes, how can the Japanese government stop this "H-Man", as the papers call it? And what will Uchida try to do, while the police are distracted by a more urgent threat to the public?

The H-Man is certainly not what anybody familiar with Toho Studios, and Ishiro Honda's, more famous output might expect. There are monsters in this film, but none of them are giant and the radioactive slime monster plot takes largely a backseat to the drug gang plot for the grand majority of the film. It's also a straight up horror movie, something that Ishiro Honda rarely attempted in the same sense as this film. (But we'll be seeng another example soon enough)

The film's focus on gangmembers and nightclub singers also puts it rather at odds with the expected structure of most 50s sci-fi horror films. Yes, there's the scientist that everybody doubts crusading for the truth, but once he convinces the police that the H-Men are real there's no expected series of scenes where he has to try and find a way to defeat the creatures. Rather, the authorities just somehow know how to defeat them with zero explanation.

As a horror film, this exceeds marvelously. The sequence aboard the ghost ship is a masterfully eerie set piece, equal to anything that Mario Bava would offer in the following decade. (And features Godzilla suit actor Haruo Nakajima playing both the humanoid form of the H-Man and the sailor it eats) The very nature of the H-Man and how it feeds is viscerally horrifying. There's something truly chilling about being broken down so completely by a monster. The effects for the creatures are also marvelous, even if they show some obvious limitations--most particularly with the creatures' transformations from ambulatory slime to upright humanoid, which makes them seem like some ethereal spirits than shape-shifting slime. Though a long shot of the creatures assuming humanoid form aboard the deck of the Ryujin Maru II is accomplished via miniatures instead of animation and super-imposed suit actors, and is much more effective at portraying the creatures as they were intended. It's also magnificently creepy.

It also must be noted that the film's score by Masaru Sato is wonderfully atmospheric, wth a particular ambient seemingly electronic "ping" sound (a theremin, maybe?) that is weirdly unnerving. The score also features something more typical of Sato's work: an incredibly jaunty title theme that, I swear, sounds like it could have inspired John Williams when he was creating the iconic Indiana Jones theme. It is marvelous.

Where the film stumbles ultimately is that, as stated previously, the crime melodrama part of the film takes up entirely too much of the screentime without adding much of any substance. The drug pushers are in no way connected to the liquid humanoids, other than always managing to end up in the creatures' paths when they're looking for a human to dissolve. Worse, Uchida is our human villain but we never get a sense of his personality beyond "ruthless gangster." Hell, I've seen the film many times over the years in both versions and I still have no idea why Uchida--after leading everyone but Masada to think he was eaten by the H-Man at the club--decides to kidnap Chikako and take her along with him into the Tokyo sewers to retrieve a brick of heroin.

Plotwise it's a way to ensure that Chikako is in danger because the sewers are the creatures' lair and the military is pumping them full of gasoline withy the intent to set the city's water system ablaze in order to kill the H-Men. Characterwise it makes no sense, however, because taking a hostage just means that everyone knows Uchida isn't dead and Uchida even makes Chikako strip down to her slip (pretty racy stuff in 1958, even for a film with night club dancers that wear skimpy bikinis), so that the police will find her clothes and think the H-Man got her--thereby removing her usefulness as a hostage!

Apart from the misstep of focusing more on its less interesting crime plot than its chilling radioactive blob monsters plot, this is a fantastic film. It really makes you wish Ishiro Honda had done more horror films.

Though we shall soon see he did one even better than this a few years later.

This concludes day 8 of HubrisWeen! Check out what the other maniacs chose for their H movie by clicking the banner above.

No comments:

Post a Comment