Godzilla, Zatoichi and the Monkey King: The Best Foreign Genre Films of 1968

30 Dec

I’ve already written about my Hollywood favorites from 1968 in an earlier piece, so I wanted to focus on my favorite foreign genre films from 1968 before the 50th anniversary year was over, a group that has, in my opinion, held up much better critically over the years than their Hollywood counterparts. A lot was happening on the genre front back then, especially in Japan, Hong Kong, Italy and England. In Japan, there were numerous samurai, yakuza, giant monster and blind swordsman movies. Hong Kong’s Shaw Bros. studio gave us a host of swordplay mini-epics, several starring that swordswoman extraordinaire, Cheng Pei-Pei, as well as musicals, crime films and melodramas. Italy was turning out western after western, with all three major Sergios–Leone, Sollima and Corbucci–shining that year. England’s Hammer studio gave us exemplary horror films and France gave us BARBARELLA and THE BRIDE WORE BLACK.

I only got to see three of these films in theaters when they came out in the U.S., Roger Vadim’s BARBARELLA (France), when it played in the Bronx in 1969, Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, when it opened in New York in July 1969, and Sergio Corbucci’s THE MERCENARY (Italy) when it played in the Bronx in 1970. I would have to wait for the others to play on television, as many of them soon did, such as DESTROY ALL MONSTERS and GAMERA VS. VIRAS (aka DESTROY ALL PLANETS) or, decades later, when they arrived on home video, such as the Shaw Bros. releases. There are quite a number that I didn’t see until the 21st century and some only this year. I already covered BARBARELLA in my earlier 1968 piece–it did, after all, open in the U.S. in 1968–and I’m saving Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and Kinji Fukasaku’s THE GREEN SLIME for next year’s list since they both got released in the U.S. in mid-1969.

I’ve picked 15 favorites and they were made by some of the best and most prolific genre directors of world cinema, including Terence Fisher, Sergio Corbucci, Sergio Sollima, Kenji Misumi, Ishiro Honda, Chang Cheh, and Ho Meng-Hua. Here they are, grouped by country:

THE DEVIL’S BRIDE (England) Director: Terence Fisher

A supernatural thriller from Hammer Films and set in the 1920s English countryside, this adaptation of a novel by Dennis Wheatley deals with an occultist, played by Christopher Lee, who uses all his knowledge and skills to break the hold a satanic cult has over a young friend of his. The battle between good and evil is visualized in graphic, dramatic strokes, with demons and apparitions galore and all sorts of occult lore supplied to the production by its star, Lee, who researched it himself. Easily one of the most exciting occult-themed movies I’ve ever seen.

THE LOST CONTINENT (England) Director: Michael Carreras

Also from Hammer Films and also based on a novel by Dennis Wheatley, this unusual thriller follows a cruise ship carrying a deadly cargo that gets trapped in the Sargasso Sea amidst some kind of living land mass populated by descendants of another stranded ship, but one from Spain during the Spanish Inquisition, which is still alive and well in this surreal domain. In order to get around on the seaweed-based surface, characters have to wear balloons on their shoes so as not to sink and get swallowed by tentacled creatures below. It’s a suspenseful adventure film with interesting characters, an excellent cast, gruesome thrills and numerous clever ideas.

THE BRIDE WORE BLACK (France) Director: Francois Truffaut

French New Wave auteur Truffaut places Jeanne Moreau in a Hitchcock-style revenge drama based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich. There’s a seductive quality to Moreau’s sphinx-like expression and the unsettling ease in which she insinuates herself into the lives of the four men whose carelessness with a rifle killed her new husband on the day of their wedding. It’s less of a thriller and more of a dream-like narrative poem thanks to Truffaut’s sweeping camera moves, Moreau’s frequent changes in appearance, and the lush score by Hitchcock’s favorite composer, Bernard Herrmann. It’s also more of an arthouse movie than a genre film, but I include it here because of the Hitchcock/Woolrich/Herrmann connections.

THE MERCENARY (Italy) Director: Sergio Corbucci

Italian western pro Corbucci (DJANGO, NAVAJO JOE) crafts a tale of the Mexican Revolution and a lowlife bandit played by Tony Musante, who is manipulated into becoming a revolutionary hero by a well-armed Polish mercenary (Franco Nero) seeking to make money off the country’s discord while a vicious killer (Jack Palance) working for mining corporations seeks to end the reign of both, culminating in a Leone-style three-way showdown in a bullfight arena, all underscored by some of Ennio Morricone’s best non-Leone compositions. It’s fun watching the ever-shifting relationship between the bandit and the mercenary as each seeks to exploit the other.

RUN, MAN, RUN (Italy) Director: Sergio Sollima

More politically minded than most Italian western directors, Sollima (THE BIG GUNDOWN) fashions a very different take on revolution with a petty, but honorable thief, known as Cuchillo (knife), played by Tomas Milian, being pressed into duty by several competing factions to locate a cache of gold hidden by a murdered revolutionary poet whom Cuchillo had befriended. Sadistic French government agents, a gringo sheriff-turned-bounty hunter, an opportunistic bandit leader, a zealous American woman working for the Salvation Army, and Cuchillo’s jealous girlfriend all get involved in the hunt for the gold. Also scored, uncredited, by Morricone.

SAMARITAN ZATOICHI (Japan) Director: Kenji Misumi

From the Daiei studio, this is one of the very best Zatoichi films as the blind masseur (Shintaro Katsu) attaches himself to a young woman whose brother had been killed over a gambling debt after a local yakuza chief had provoked a fight with the man and manipulated Zatoichi into delivering the fatal blow. The woman, Osode (Yoshiko Mita), has sold herself into prostitution to pay off her brother’s debt and the blind swordsman endeavors to save her from such a life, even if she seems resigned to it. Various factions want the woman for their own purposes and Zatoichi has to fend them off, while dealing with a mysterious swordsman who sometimes helps him—for ulterior motives. Zatoichi often had relationships of obligation to women he encountered who need his help, but this relationship has more stages and involves a gradual, difficult shift in the woman’s emotions before she can accept his help. Zatoichi feels genuinely aggrieved at killing her brother and is sincere about wanting to make amends. He’s more tortured than usual here and it gives the film an emotional center that Zatoichi movies didn’t always have.

LONE WOLF ISAZO (Japan) Director: Kazuo Ikehiro

Another in the long line of unsung Japanese classics I’ve only discovered in the last two years. In this Daiei historical drama, Raizo Ichikawa plays the title character, a legendary gambler and swordsman who has a sad backstory of thwarted love and rejection by his adoptive family. He goes back to his hometown and finds the woman he had loved, daughter of the nobleman who had adopted him, and the son she had by him and seeks to find some way of making up for the lost years, all while getting caught up in a yakuza clan war. Although there are plenty of brief swordfighting confrontations and a big action finale, I hesitate to call it an action film. It’s more of a drama about how Isazo comes to terms with the decisions he’s made and how he must cope with the shock of seeing Lady Yoshino again and meeting his son. There are plenty of gambling scenes as well, always a pleasure in films like this. It’s all beautifully shot in color and widescreen on a mixture of locations and atmospheric studio sets. Please check out my IMDB review.

WICKED PRIEST (Japan) Dir.: Kiyoshi Saeki

Although set in the 1920s, this Toei production looks more like a historical yakuza movie in the manner of LONE WOLF ISAZO. Tomisaburo Wakayama (Lone Wolf and Cub), brother of Shintaro Katsu (Zatoichi), plays the “wicked priest” of the title who indulges in drink, gambling, fighting and womanizing, but helps the poor and downtrodden and combats the rampant corruption in his Buddhist sect. Shinkai, the priest, may break a lot of rules, but he’s an honorable man and doesn’t hurt or exploit people. He saves multiple women from prostitution and takes a young yakuza wannabe under his wing to set him on the straight and narrow.

OUTLAW: GANGSTER VIP (Japan) Director: Toshio Masuda

From Nikkatsu Studios, this is one of the best Yakuza movies I’ve seen. It looks forward to Kinji Fukasaku’s yakuza films in the way the rival gangs and their milieu are depicted and in the messy, violent fight scenes, the major difference being the way the good guys here are more idealized as are the women—four of them—who are all too good to be true, but remain layered, interesting characters. Nothing comes easy for anyone. The star, Tetsuya Watari, is a handsomer, more polished version of Fukasaku’s regular star, the rough-hewn Bunta Sugawara. Great widescreen compositions throughout. Set in 1956 in a low-rise Tokyo that I thought had been demolished for the 1964 Olympics. A streetcar runs through the protagonists’ neighborhood. We see it several times and it’s quite beautiful.

DESTROY ALL MONSTERS (Japan) Director: Ishiro Honda

An all-star monster romp and the first film in Toho’s kaiju series to establish Monster Island, a distant outpost where all the studio’s monsters, Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, Minya (son of Godzilla), etc., have been deposited in order to keep them out of trouble. When aliens descend and gain control of the monsters’ brains and bring Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster, with them, there is mass destruction on a global scale as all the monsters rampage until the crew of Rocketship X-2 can come up with a way to enter the aliens’ ship and break their  hold on the “good” monsters and divert them all into fighting Ghidrah.  The human cast is less interesting than usual, but it’s the nonstop monster action that makes this a masterpiece of its genre.

GAMERA VS. SPACE MONSTER VIRAS (Japan) Director: Noriaki Yuasa.

This was the fourth film from Daiei to highlight giant turtle Gamera and the first to feature a team of proactive child heroes who work with Gamera to save Earth from alien invasion. The boy heroes are both Boy Scouts, one Japanese and one Japanese-speaking American, and they get teleported to an alien space ship that has taken control of Gamera’s brain and sends him to destroy Tokyo, as seen in b&w footage from the very first Gamera film. The boys eventually figure out how to crack the aliens’ hold on Gamera who then has to fight the tentacled alien monster Viras, whose head sections form a point on which he can impale Gamera. There may not be a lot of logic, but it’s highly imaginative and lots of fun and kind of a novelty to see an American hero, albeit adolescent, in one of these films. (The actor, Carl Craig Jr., appears to be half-American and half-Japanese and fluent in both English and Japanese, since he’s heard speaking both throughout the film.)

HORUS, PRINCE OF THE SUN (Japan) Director: Isao Takahata

This Toei Animation production was the first animated feature directed by Takahata, who would later team up with Hayao Miyazaki to form Studio Ghibli and direct GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES, ONLY YESTERDAY and POM POKO, among several other films, and who died earlier this year at the age of 82. This one plays like a Norse folk tale, set in a seacoast village hounded by Grunwald, a local demon ruler and his minions. Only the boy warrior Horus keeps the evil forces at bay, until Hilda, a mysterious girl who won’t say where she’s from, shows up out of the blue and wins Horus’s heart with a series of beautiful, haunting songs. Little does he know that she’s serving a sinister purpose. Despite being aimed at children, the film is very dark, tragic, and melodramatic, in the manner of the Soviet animated feature, THE SNOW QUEEN (1957), but mixed with super-cute little kids, talking animals (a bear cub and a squirrel) and evil, non-talking wolves. Despite pressure from the village elders (and a spy for Grunwald trying to turn the village against Horus), Horus, Chiro (the squirrel) and the village kids believe in Hilda’s humanity and keep rooting for her despite her mounting evil deeds.

GOLDEN SWALLOW (Hong Kong) Director: Chang Cheh

Cheng Pei Pei plays the same character she played in King Hu’s COME DRINK WITH ME (1966), also for Shaw Bros., and here is on the trail of Silver Roc, a swordsman she loved in her youth, played by Jimmy Wang Yu (ONE ARMED SWORDSMAN), who is killing scores of notorious bandits and leaving Golden Swallow’s trademark darts amidst the carnage so that she will be blamed and feel compelled to come looking for him. She’s accompanied by Golden Whip (Lo Lieh), another fighter, who loves Golden Swallow and wants to challenge Silver Roc. This is more of a love story than an action film, despite the high body count, and it is directed by Chang Cheh in a much more stylized and romantic manner than we’d see in his subsequent swordplay and kung fu films. It’s quite beautiful and graceful and the fight scenes are more like dances than massacres. Cheng Pei Pei did two other Shaw Bros. swordplay films in 1968, THE JADE RAKSHA and THAT FIERY GIRL, both of which are also quite good. Surprisingly, this was director Chang’s only 1968 release. He normally did multiple films every year he was active and actually directed six films that were released in 1969.

THE LAND OF MANY PERFUMES (Hong Kong) Director: Ho Meng-Hua

This is the fourth film in the Shaw Bros. studio’s series of live-action films showcasing the mythological Monkey King from the Chinese epic, “Journey to the West.” In this one, the Monkey King and his party—Pigsy, Sandy, and the Tang Monk—must confront two competing sets of female demons as well as the denizens of the Land of Many Perfumes, an all-female kingdom anxious to meet men. The Empress of the kingdom and her daughter, the Princess, wind up tussling over who will get to marry the Tang Monk. It’s delightful, action-packed, and often quite funny. There are frequent special effects sequences done with imagination and low-budget ingenuity. I only wish I had this on a better format than VCD (video compact disc).

MIST OVER DREAM LAKE  (Hong Kong) Director: Yen Chun

Florid family soap opera from Shaw Bros. set in Taiwan and based on a book by popular Taiwanese novelist Chiung Yao. A city girl from Taipei (Fang Ying) has to stay on a farm with rural relatives while her parents are going through a divorce. She meets three possible suitors, two of whom are her cousins and each of whom brings his own romantic complications. She likes the raw beauty of this mountain region of Taiwan and finds farm life fascinating, but the human relationships get to be too much for her. There’s a wild “mountain girl” from a local indigenous people who gets pregnant and all three men are suspected of being the father. This is a turbulent melodrama, packed with incident and boasting an attractive cast and breathtaking location cinematography in Taiwan’s most picturesque regions. For me, it recalls a series of teen-themed Hollywood dramas from 1959-63 directed by Delmer Daves: A SUMMER PLACE, SUSAN SLADE, PARRISH, SPENCER’S MOUNTAIN.

Here are some other memorable foreign genre films from 1968, including six more Shaw Bros. productions. Where applicable, I have linked my IMDB reviews:

DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (England) Director: Freddie Francis. The 3rd Hammer Dracula film with Christopher Lee in the role, made ten years after the first (HORROR OF DRACULA).

DANGER: DIABOLIK (Italy) Director: Mario Bava. A stylish, comic book-based caper film about a master thief in a leather outfit, with music by Ennio Morricone.

THE GREAT SILENCE (Italy) Director: Sergio Corbucci. An Italian western shot in the snow with French, German and American stars. Music by Morricone. Released this year on Blu-ray.

IF YOU MEET SARTANA, PRAY FOR YOUR DEATH (Italy) Director: Gianfranco Parolini (aka Frank Kramer). The quintessential Sartana movie, with Gianni Garko, who created the role, and Klaus Kinski.

TODAY WE KILL, TOMORROW WE DIE (Italy) Director: Tonino Cervi. Two American stars, one German, one Italian and one Japanese–Tatsuya Nakadai!

GENOCIDE (Japan) Director: Kazui Nihonmatsu. Grim, creepy, insect-themed sci-fi drama, and highly charged with lingering war tensions between the U.S., Japan, and Germany.

YOKAI MONSTERS: SPOOK WARFARE (Japan) Director: Yoshiyuki Kuroda. A lively parade of every imaginable Japanese yokai (demon).

BLACKMAIL IS MY LIFE (Japan) Director: Kinji Fukasaku. An early drama of petty criminals from the master of Japanese crime movies.

RED PEONY GAMBLER (Japan) Director: Kosaku Yamashita. First in a series of films featuring Junko Fuji as an avenging yakuza angel with a sword and a gun. Co-stars Ken Takakura.

KILL! (Japan) Director: Kihachi Okamoto. Samurai comedy starring Tatsuya Nakadai as an unemployed swordsman looking for work and getting caught up in a regional dispute. Based on the same novel as Kurosawa’s SANJURO.

KURONEKO (Japan) Director: Kaneto Shindo. One of the great Japanese ghost stories. I previously covered it here.

ZATOICHI AND THE FUGITIVES (Japan) Director: Kimiyoshi Yasuda. Another excellent Zatoichi film from 1968. The great Takashi Shimura co-stars.

THE FASTEST SWORD (Hong Kong) Director: Pan Lei. A re-working of the American western, THE FASTEST GUN ALIVE (1956).

HONG KONG RHAPSODY (Hong Kong) Director: Inoue Umetsugu. Lively Shaw Bros. musical comedy starring the ever-effervescent Li Ching.

KILLER DARTS (Hong Kong) Director: Ho Meng-Hua. Serious swordplay movie starring the great Chin Ping as a female fighter.

THAT FIERY GIRL (Hong Kong) Director: Yen Chun. Another action showcase for Cheng Pei Pei.

THE JADE RAKSHA (Hong Kong) Director: Ho Meng-Hua. Cheng Pei Pei on a bloody revenge mission.

TEMPTRESS OF A THOUSAND FACES  (Hong Kong) Director: Cheng Chang-Ho. Female cop vs. female thief (with a thousand disguises) in a contemporary caper thriller.

Some hints of what we’ll see on my 1969 list:

 

2 Responses to “Godzilla, Zatoichi and the Monkey King: The Best Foreign Genre Films of 1968”

  1. John Turnbull September 1, 2019 at 12:20 PM #

    Thanks for the extraordinary effort in putting together this post and blog. I am interested in this 1960s period, having had my first TV memories (growing up in Hawai’i) shaped by the wave of Japanese children’s programs reflecting the post-apocalyptic mentality. My most enduring recollection is the Ultraman program, but there was another program I have been trying to find again for 50 years. It featured a group of kids, as all these shows inevitably did, and some shadow government or international group that had access to a range of monster and other threat responses. Their weapons curiously were all numbered: number 1, I think, was an ICBM-type rocket; number 2 might have been a submarine; and so on. Any idea of the name of this latter program? Or is there a published reference I might consult?

    • briandanacamp September 1, 2019 at 3:39 PM #

      Offhand, it doesn’t ring a bell, but it sounds similar to the manga series, “Cyborg 009,” which was adapted into 2 movies and a TV show, all animated, from 1966-69.

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