Great Moments in Body Horror Cinema: The H-Man (1958)
Growing up as I did during the heyday of VHS rentals, I noticed one recurring idea among gory, low-budget horror movies: melting people. Quite a few exploitation horror films from the 70s, 80s and early 90s, films such as The Incredible Melting Man (1977), Street Trash (1987) and Body Melt (1993), featured shocking scenes where monsters and/or victims would melt into messy puddles of blood, bones and liquefied flesh. Of course, such a plot device allowed for huge amounts of stomach-churning gore. Yet what's remarkable is that the grandfather of these films isn't that gory at all and is actually much more disturbing for it: The H-Man, which was directed by Ishirô Honda and produced by Toho Studios.
The H-Man is an Atomic Age horror movie from Japan, although it's much different than the Atomic Age kaiju movies for which Japan is largely known. Even though it's often compared to The Blob (which was released in the U.S. later during the same year), The H-Man is actually an early "body horror" movie; it was released the same year as another Atomic Age body horror movie, The Fly, and it predates David Cronenberg's first body horror film Shivers (1975) by over a decade. Director Honda did two other Atomic Age body horror films in addition to The H-Man: The Human Vapor (1960) and Matango (1963).
Not only was The H-Man ahead of its time in the body horror subgenre, it was also ahead of its time in terms of melting people effects. Read on for more details about this strange and haunting Japanese horror classic.
The H-Man takes place in the streets of Tokyo during a police investigation into a drug smuggling ring that operates out of a seedy nightclub. The detectives are baffled when one their key suspects disappears in front of a group of eye witnesses, leaving only his clothes behind. As more suspects disappear and the case reaches a dead end, the police get some answers from Dr. Masada (Kenji Sahara). Masada believes that the suspects are victims of "H-Men", people whose intense exposure to atomic radiation has turned them into gelatinous, amorphous creatures that feed on other human beings by melting their flesh. After a close encounter with the H-Men at the nightclub, the police accept Masada's theory and work with local authorities to stop the monsters before they spread further into Japan.
The H-Man is a creative mix of pulp detective fiction and Atomic Age horror. Honda composes many memorable scenes in this film, from the ominous opening shots of the abandoned and irradiated Dragon King II freight ship (the H-Men's place of origin) to the closing shots of Tokyo's gasoline-imbued waterways going up in flames to kill the H-Men. Before the end credits roll, one of the characters provides a voice-over line that accentuates the endless waves of apocalyptic fire that dwarf the Tokyo skyline:"If man perishes from the face of the Earth, due to the effects of hydrogen bombing, it is possible that the next ruler of our planet may be The H-Man." Interestingly, The H-Man is the title that the American distributors gave to this film; the original Japanese title translates to the much more poetic Beauty and the Liquid Man.
Of course, what steals the show are the H-Men themselves, which appear in two different forms: a thick, green liquid that moves itself up walls and across floors, and a glowing green humanoid shape that lacks distinct features. The humanoid shape usually appears when an H-Man is faced by more than one person, as if to suggest that the sight of other people prompts the liquid creature to fleetingly 'remember' its original shape. Having the formerly human monsters' assume a glowing humanoid shape gives the movie a ghostly feel, of a past that can't be recalled completely but nevertheless refuses to go away and threatens to destroy the present.
Yet of all the elements in this film, the one that really stood out for me (and ergo prompted me to write this post) were the effects used to depict the victims as they are being dissolved by the H-Men. Most melting people effects I've seen over the years were done by a combination of detailed makeup work, fake entrails and stand-in puppets, with the end result being extremely gory. In contrast, the effects in The H-Man are much less gory than its cinematic successors yet just as effective. How can that be?
The answer is very simple: Honda's special effects team created human-shaped latex balloons that were dressed like the actors who played the victims, and then he deflated the balloons while filming them in fast-motion for later playback in the film at normal speed. Such a simple idea is expertly exercised under Honda's eerie lighting and skilled editing; it's hard not to shutter when it looks like an actor's head is collapsing into his torso, followed by his torso and legs collapsing on to the ground in a puddle of ooze. Furthermore, unlike the Blob, a monster that has to cover its victims in order to dissolve and digest them, the H-Men seem lethal simply to touch. The way the attack scenes are shot implies that the victims absorb the H-Men through the skin and thus begin to dissolve from the inside out almost instantaneously--a very disturbing concept to watch.
What’s even more shocking about The H-Man outside of its ideas and effects is the fact that it’s loosely based on a real event. The liquefied fate of the Dragon King II’s crew was inspired by what happened to the crew of the real-life Japanese fishing vessel, the Lucky Dragon No. 5, after it was exposed to and contaminated by nuclear fallout from the Bikini Atoll thermonuclear device test in March 1954. According to Mykal Banta on his the Radiation Cinema site, "All 23 crew members suffered from acute radiation syndrome, the symptoms of which include, headaches, nausea, bleeding from gums, burns, etc. Within 6 months, the chief radio operator, Aikichi Kubouama, 40, was dead from injures. At the time of the test, the ship was operating well outside the danger zone, as given in US Government warnings, but the test was twice as powerful as expected."
The special effect techniques that Honda used to bring the H-Men to life have their limitations. There aren't any direct confrontations between the H-Men and the film's heroes, since such techniques largely preclude the H-Men and live actors appearing closely together within the same frame and thus dampen the film’s tension during its finale. There’s also a scene where one of the scantily clad showgirls at the nightclub is dissolved by an H-Man that doesn't work as well as the other attack scenes. Since the showgirl isn't wearing enough clothing to hide a human-shaped balloon, animation and frozen frames are used instead to much lesser effect. Nevertheless, most of the balloon effects successfully depict the gruesome, horrific idea of physical dissolution by an inconceivable force--an idea that perfectly complements the many fears that were stirred by the rise of nuclear warfare.
For more thoughts concerning The H-Man and its place within Ishirô Honda filmography and Atomic Age pop culture, visit the Radiation Cinema link I posted above and the H-Man articles posted on the Musings of a Sci-Fi Fanatic and the Film Quarterly sites.