During the 1970s, Japan’s Nikkatsu Studio became famous, and yes most likely infamous, as the number one home for sleazy sexploitation, violent pink films, and just softcore porn in general. Although hardly the stuff of highbrow cocktail party conversations, the thoroughly exploitive nature of the Nikkatsu films doesn’t mean there wasn’t a lot of boldness and innovation thrown into the mix, resulting in more than a few highly enjoyable and daring films. Yeah, there was a lot of crap, but there’s always a lot of crap, and usually even the crap had something about it that was so bonkers and just not right that you couldn’t help but nod your head in its direction. In other words, where as Europe during the 1970s was constantly making ponderous, over-inflated films that begged the question, “Is it art or is it porn?” Nikkatsu was more concerned with generating the answer, “I don’t know if it’s art, but it sure is cool.”
When we reviewed 3 Seconds Before the Explosion, we stated that it was one of two Nikkatsu Studio espionage films released onto the home video market in the United States, both starring studio mainstay Akira Kobayashi. We also said that 3 Seconds Before the Explosion, daft though it might have been, was the more conservative and conventional of the two. That’s because the second espionage film, Black Tight Killers, was constructed out of some mad fever dream by director Yasuharu Hasebe and production designer Teruyoshi Satani after they stayed up all night at a psychedelic go-go cabaret, drunk on Suntory whisky and overdosing on a steady stream of pop art and spy movies. When they awoke the next morning, two things had happened. One, their clothes had vanished; and two, they had apparently made a movie about a photojournalist who gets tangled up with a gang of black leather clad go-go girl assassins who fling razor sharp 45rpm records and are armed with ninja chewing gum, among other things.
When Nikkatsu Studio began to gain steam once again in the 1950s, thanks to the success first of their “Sun Tribe” films and then their “borderless action” style, their marketing department struck upon the clever idea of selling the studio’s top young stars as a brand name — the Diamond Line, as they would be dubbed in 1960. The original Diamond Line consisted of Yujiro Ishihara (upon whom almost all of the studio’s early success was dependent), Koji Wada, Keiichiro Akagi, and Akira Kobayashi. “Membership” was fluid, though, especially among a group of suddenly very famous young men who found every vice and indulgence now available to them. Ishihara for example, who built his early career in the studio’s popular “Sun Tribe” films was perceived as the real-life embodiment of his on-screen characters: brash, amoral, decadent, disrespectful — an affront to everything that was good and decent in polite Japanese society. Needless to say, restless young boys and girls, especially those in their late teens and twenties, flocked to support him.
In 1948, French artist Jean Dubuffet coined the term art brut, a phrase which became “outsider art” in 1972 when critic Roger Cardinal imported it into the English language. It referred to works of art created outside the boundaries of general culture. Specifically, it was art created by someone like an inmate in an insane asylum. Over time, the term was applied to a broader audience, but the key element remains that the art is a reflection of a mental state beyond that of even the average crazy guy. This is not the same as an established art movement that is consciously seeking to do something “outside the mainstream.” An artist can’t rationally decide to make art brut. As Dubuffet himself describes it, art brut can’t be created by anyone who functions as part of regular society, even regular art society, and so this form of fierce and feverish creativity remains the sole purview of madmen and terrifying backwoods hillbillies who make sculpture out of cat skins, metal drums, and human skulls.
It is logical, and it seemed easy enough, to begin a discussion of The Cat and the Canary with a discussion of the history of “old dark house” mysteries — those movies where a disparate and largely shifty group of people convene upon a mysterious old mansion and find themselves embroiled in — and probably accused of — either a murder or a theft. Lots of skulking, staring, and clutching hands appearing from behind curtains or the doors of hidden passages ensues. From the silent era to the end of the 1930s, there was a dizzying number of “old dark house” films produced. They were cheap to make, easy to write, and demanded little from the production company or the audience. At their worst, old dark house mysteries were harmlessly entertaining. Often they were much better than that. The formula was so adaptable that it could be grafted onto pretty much any type of movie. Even established series like the Bulldog Drummond and Charlie Chan movies fell back from time to time on the old dark house motif. From horror to comedy to crime to thriller, it was easy to crank out an old dark house version of the genre and keep everyone at least moderately satisfied.
From time to time we accidentally wander into the realm of the nearly comprehensible, that no man’s land where the movies almost make sense. Our journeys sometimes bring us to these uncharted waters, and when cast adrift in them, we do the best we can in such a strange sea. But always what guides us, our great hope on the horizon that forever propels us forward even when things are at their most sane and logical, is the knowledge that we shall one day, like Ulysses returning home to Ithaca, return to a familiar port and once again watch the sun set slowly and with fiery bombast over an ocean littered with films that are completely and unequivocally batshit insane.
There was a period, brief but never the less real, when we paid to see television shows in the theater instead of watching them for free on, you know, television. This started back when some crafty producer would take a couple episodes of a TV show and splice them into a single movie — even if the plots of the two episodes had almost nothing to do with one another. And in 1979, producer Glen A. Larson managed to get not one, but two pilot episodes released as feature films. Granted, these were substantially expensive and ambitious (in their way) pilots, but still. He was asking people to pay money to see something they’d see for free at home. He was able to do that because of Star Wars. And we did it. I did it. The first of them was Battlestar Galactica. The second was Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. When I saw them both in the theater I remember liking Battlestar Galactica, but Buck Rogers? Buck Rogers I loved. And years later I still love it. This movie/television pilot is also the reason I discovered Santa Claus doesn’t exist.
Amazing, isn’t it, the kinds of ridiculous crap they used to play on broadcast television back in the days before cable? I saw Jess Franco’s lurid, sleazy, wholly indescribable The Girl from Rio on afternoon TV under its alternate title, Future Women. It was on WDRB-TV 41 in Louisville, a scrappy independent station that was, for at least part of its lifespan, actually run out of someone’s garage studio. At a time when there were only three broadcast channels plus PBS (which, back then, was actually watchable thanks to their affection for 60s and 70s British spy and science fiction shows), having WDRB pop up was a real treat, especially for a kid like me. WDRB was more than willing to broadcast all sorts of weird stuff the majors wouldn’t touch, and it was thanks to them that I first saw Godzilla, kungfu movies, and a whole pile of Eurosleaze horror cinema.
Tsui Hark’s one modest ambition in life was to forever change the way movies were made in Hong Kong. Just that. A small order, right? The amazing thing is that he managed to pull it off. His work in the early 1980s served as one of the foundations of what would become known as the Hong Kong New Wave — that heady period of filmmaking from the 1980s through to the middle of the 1990s when new filmmakers and new styles of filmmaking were running rampant and turning Hong Kong into the most interesting movie making mecca in the world. It’s no accident that Hark found himself in the middle of this cinematic upheaval, just as it’s no accident that what happened in Hong Kong then so closely mirrored what had happened with American filmmaking in the 1970s. The old guard was puttering along, making movies that were out of touch with what young filmgoers wanted. The hungry new generation was waiting to bust out from under the thumb of their mentors and flood the market with bold new approaches and ideas. And finally it got to the point that the next generation could not be contained. They took control, and nothing was the same again.
If I rack my brain, I can come up with an English language corollary by which to describe Fantomas. But that doesn’t change my perception that there is something irreducibly French about the character. Certainly, Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu is similar, in that he is one of those rare examples of a villain serving as the central figure and driving force behind a popular series. But, while Fu Manchu’s representation was that of a monstrous “other”, playing on the racial anxieties of the age in which he was created, Fantomas seems more like a personification of the id unleashed. As such, he engages his audience in fantasies of a life lived without borders or moral constraints, with the traditional heroes and cops-and-robbers aspects of the stories serving to house those fantasies within a socially acceptable context. It’s as if Bataille or De Sade had chosen to couch their transgressive works within the format of a dime detective novel.