So this is the one that started it all, so to speak, so long as you consider “it all” to be the first cycle of films based, sometimes extremely loosely, on the works of Edgar Allen Poe, and directed by low-budget legend Roger Corman. Prior to this film, Corman had made a name for himself slapping together drive-in quickies while Price had become a beloved horror film icon working with William Castle. Film production company AIP had specialized primarily in black-and-white genre pictures, made two at a time with ten-day shooting schedules. Everyone came together for this historic meeting of elements that remains, to this day, one of the best examples of American-made gothic horror films. Corman’s Poe films for American International Pictures became to the United States what Hammer films were in England: low budget, wonderfully acted, gorgeously designed horror films dripping with atmosphere and literary tradition. It was Corman’s first picture in scope, and one of AIP’s first color films to be sold as an individual movie rather than as part of a package. It also had an extended shooting schedule – a whopping fifteen days as opposed to ten.
For many, the first official sequel to Hammer’s groundbreaking Horror of Dracula, an oft-neglected film called Brides of Dracula, was little more than a pit stop on the road to this film, the second sequel but first to feature the return of Christopher Lee in the title role of Count Dracula. Hoping to avoid being typecast as Dracula, Lee resisted doing the sequel, and it was another eight years or so before he agreed to don the opera cape once again and reprise the role that made him famous. In that time, he’d built up a pretty solid and diverse career that would ensure he would not become “nothing but Dracula” to the audience. Of course, in the end, he was best known as Dracula, but what can you do? He would, I assume, remain cranky about people calling him Dracula until, some decades later, everyone just started calling him Saruman.
When people talk about the sequence of films that make up Hammer Studio’s “Dracula” series, a good many of them make the eight-year leap from the first film, 1958′s Horror of Dracula to Dracula, Prince of Darkness in 1966. It’s quite a jump, indeed, but one that seems to land you just about where you need to be, with the latter film beginning with a quick recap of the climax from the former. What gets lost in between the two films is the actual first sequel to Horror of Dracula, which is a shame because it’s one of the best in the series, and one of the best vampire films Hammer ever produced.
Anyone claiming that Spirits of the Dead isn’t a good movie is probably only just saying that because Vadim’s contribution to this anthology of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations as conceived by three of Europe’s maverick directors is so sloppy and unengaging. Vadim’s contribution, “Metzengerstein,” is certainly not the way you’d want to start a film. As was par for the man, Vadim casts his current sexy main squeeze in the lead, which just happened at the time to be Jane Fonda. The duo were fresh off Barbarella, and this story was originally envisioned as a feature film follow-up to that piece of sci-fi pop art. How they could have every stretched this thing out to a full running time is beyond me, though it’s not as if Vadim wasn’t a pro at stretching out thin-to-nonexistent plots and pasting them together with eye-popping, mind blowing costume and set design. Fonda plays the Countess Metzengerstein, heir to a vast fortune she squanders by throwing lavish orgies and torturing the underlings. Actually, they’re rather dull and lifeless orgies. You know, orgies always seem like a good idea until you try and hammer out the logistics of the whole thing. As for me, I’d be too worried about people knocking stuff over. Anyway, she delights in hurling barbs over the fence at her more modest cousin, played by none other than Jane’s brother, Peter. Eventually, she becomes sexually obsessed with him — kind of, well, you know, but then this is Roger Vadim we’re talking about, and it was the sixties — until he rebuffs her advances. I mean, heck, Henry was probably already pretty steamed at the both of them for being a coupla hippies. Incest would have really set him off.
As revenge, the mad Ms. Metzengerstein burns down his stables, and he in turn dies in the fire trying to save his horses. Or so it would seem. A big black stallion bursts through the flames and gallops to safety, but there is no record of such a horse in the stable. Metzengerstein becomes convinced that the horse is the reincarnation of her beloved cousin, and her obsession with the horse crosses into madness and, frankly, borders on bestiality. Despite all the weird stuff thrown into the mix, this is a decidedly dull and uninspired way to kick off the film. The costuming, usually one of Vadim’s only strong points, is relatively without shock or beauty. Jane dons some navel-exposing Little Lord Fauntleroy type outfits, but everything else looks like it’s on loan from the local community theater. The cinematography is listless, and Vadim’s usually striking composition of scenes is non-existent. In addition, everything is shot in soft-focus “Playboy-o-vision.” The English speaking actors are dubbed into French in the currently available version, which means the only way we can judge their performances is through body language, most of which consists of them staring half-stoned at the camera.
The tone of the film is all wrong too, at least in my opinion. A tale of mystery and the bizarre, as this is meant to be, should have some sense of menace and the macabre, some sort of tension. There is none of that here, and the film instead unfolds like a languid, ethereal, and intensely boring dream. Fairy tales and Cocteau Twins songs conjure up more darkness and dread than this supposed Edgar Allen Poe tale. There are some nice crumbling castles and decaying seaside scenery, but Vadim doesn’t seem to understand how to take thematic advantage of it or relate it to the decaying morality and mental state of his central Nero/Caligula-like figure (though I must say I bet Jane Fonda’s figure is better than Nero or Caligula’s). When you fail to match even someone as hit-or-miss with similar atmosphere as, say, France’s Jean Rollin, you know you’re way off the mark. It’s like Vadim wasn’t even trying here. The hilariously silly ending was repeated in Vadim’s 1973 film Don Juan (Or if Don Juan Were a Woman), which we covered right up there at the very beginning of this journal.
Things pick up, but only just, for the second story in the trilogy. Luis Malle directs “William Wilson.” Malle is probably most infamous for flirting with child pornography when he introduced the world to Brooke Shields in his 1978 film Pretty Baby. Before that, he was a member of the French New Wave, which helped get him this gig. He’s pretty far off his game for this outing, though, turning in an entry that manages to be less ponderous and a little more tense and eerie than Vadim’s meandering hunk of nonsense, but it still just doesn’t play out the way it should, perhaps because the story itself has been done so many times and this one offers nothing new. French heartthrob Alain Delon stars as the titular Wilson, whom we meet as he stumbles into a confessional and claims to have killed a man. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn the history of Wilson, who in every regard is a grade-a prick. As a young boy attending a military school where his classmate was no doubt Damien from The Omen II, he encounters a boy with the same name as he who seems dedicated to countering everything he does. He encounters this double, who even grows to look exactly like him, throughout various points in his life until, ultimately, they face one another in a fencing duel.
There’s very little to surprise here. The man fighting his doppleganger, and by killing it killing himself, is nothing new, and Malle’s approach is so straight-forward and by the books that the story, while decent for a single viewing, has nothing more to offer. Like Vadim, Malle seems to almost be phoning it in just to collect his paycheck. The primary difference is that the performers, native French speakers, are better and the story is, as I said, OK at least for the first go-round. Brigitte Bardot shows up briefly in a gambling scene. All in all, the segment isn’t bad. Direction is nice, acting is good, and it moves at a fair clip. There are also a few effective moments, chiefly the scene of a young Wilson lowering a new student into a barrel full of rats and a later scene in which Wilson, now a medical student, seeks to practice his dissection technique on a living subject. So OK, it’s not bad. It’s just not that interesting.
If you make it through the awful first story and middling second, they pay-off is Federico Fellini’s entry, the final piece in the trilogy and easily one of the most delirious, grotesque, and utterly insane forty minutes of film you’ll ever come across. Fellini was known for a lot of things, not the least of which was his fondness for the absurd. If you’re familiar with the director, and you should at least try to be, then try to imagine everything about him and his style distilled down and concentrated in one forty-minute sequence. Quite frankly, it’s almost too much, and that’s simply divine.
His story is “Toby Dammit,” based loosely on Poe’s “Never Bet the Devil Your Head.” A wild-eyed, completely mad looking Terence Stamp stars as Dammit, a drunken, wild British film actor who seems to be hovering on the brink of a career collapse. He travels to Italy to star in a film in which Jesus is reincarnated as a pioneer in the American West, but nothing about his trip to Rome is the least bit ordinary. Fellini saturates his film in colors, and they’re all the wrong ones for what should be going on. Think of film that has been cross-processed. The world of Toby Dammit is awash in red and yellow, billowing orange clouds and dust, like driving through someone’s hallucination of the end of the world. Given the Biblical nature of the film Dammit is to be starring in, it wouldn’t surprise me if Fellini’s own inspiration for the look of the film came straight from the Book of Revelations.
Dammit’s biggest problem, besides his addiction to and disdain for fame, is that he is haunted by visions of a smiling young blonde girl (shades of Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby, Kill) who he believes to be The Devil himself. We follow Dammit onto a bizarre talk show, an even more bizarre awards show, and finally a manic, out of control car ride as he attempts to escape the increasingly bizarre and artificial landscape around him (people on the street are frozen in mid-motion, and eventually become mannequins).
The difference between the two French directors and the Italian Fellini couldn’t be more obvious. He seizes his story with gusto, indulging every bizarre notion that crosses his mind and throwing it all onto the screen with a madcap zeal totally lacking in Vadim’s entry and an absolute lack of predictability as seen in Malle’s. Nothing is the slightest bit real. It’s all highly stylized and has its grotesque alien factor cranked to the very top. Everyone is grossly overdone. Their make-up is outrageous; their movements are more the movements of stage props and puppets. Lights flash and glitter from every angle, and a non-stop of psychedelic detail and sheer lunacy require that you watch the segment several times just to catch everything that goes on in each scene.
And standing above this gaudy, gorgeous horror show, this gleeful dissection of fame and the film industry (or rather, the industries that affix themselves to the film industry) is Terence Stamp, white-faced and genuinely looking like he’s just come of a weeklong binge. He’s haggard and sweaty and pasty and looks utterly spent, while at the same time seeming completely and utterly hysterical. Although in the currently available version all his dialog has been dubbed into French, unlike the Fondas in the first segment, he gives you plenty more by which to judge his frenzied performance. He’s a whirlwind of agitated energy, and it’s one of the best performances in the career of one of England’s best actors. It’s impossible not to compare him here to Malcolm McDowell’s equally cracked performance in 1971′s A Clockwork Orange. I’m no expert on the film, but I’m willing to bet Stamp’s turn as Dammit (right down to the wild driving scene) was a major influence on both Kubrick as director and McDowell as actor. Spirits of the Dead is owned by Fellini’s segment, and Stamp owns that segment. It is sublime, and a must-see.
Where Vadim and Malle try, or we assume they try, to invoke dreamlike and Gothic horror atmospheres respectively, grounding themselves in historical settings and costumes, Fellini sets his film in a warped and twisted version of the present, a fever dream where the mood he goes for is more one of psychosis and hysteria than creeping dread (or oozing boredom, in Vadim’s case). “Toby Dammit” is as funny as it is warped. It is a celebration, in it’s own way, and by dispensing entirely with the “typical” Poe setting, Fellini seems to have achieved the only truly eerie Poe feeling in the entire anthology, though it might be Poe on one of his famous drug binges. Every scene drips with the promise of menace, albeit a completely absurd one, and his ending is as comical as it is spooky. And those images of the maniacally grinning little girl/Satan? Positively brilliant. The whole thing is an orgy of a psychotic, surreal Hell on Earth populated by annoying comedians and glittering women in gigantic false eyelashes.
So skip the first segment. Sit through Malle’s middle segment, but for the devil’s ball-bouncing sake, don’t miss Fellini’s finale. It’s the sort of lunatic filmmaking that makes you happy to be watching a movie. It’s a five-star segment trapped in an otherwise two-star film, but more than justifies the effort of getting through the film.
I’m no Christian. This is probably pretty obvious to anyone who’s been with us for a while. I don’t believe in God. Not any of them. Well, maybe God of Gamblers, but that’s about it. However, while this would place me firmly in the camp of the atheists, I’m much happier not camping with anyone based on religious beliefs or lack thereof. Where I confuse people is that I like to discuss religion and religious evens, the sociology and history of religion, religious and Biblical archaeology, but I have absolutely zero interest in debating the existence of God. It bores me to tears utterly and completely. I don’t want to be argued at by people trying to convert me any more or less than I want to hear atheists hurling their arguments at believers. I’m a laid-back kind of non-believer who doesn’t care what you dig, at least not up until the point where you start executing people for religious reasons.
My interests in religion are not theological. They are, as a said, historical, archaeological, social, and literary. I was simply interested in the story as a story, in the metaphors and meanings behind the action, in the humanism of the New Testament and the guts and gore action and warfare in the Old and how those who would use The Bible to justify their hatred of another so often selectively forget the teachings of that bearded dude they claim to love. I read the Bhagavad-Gita for the same reasons. I bear no religion a grudge, though most organized churches and sects I could do without. That said, I should also confess another fact some of you might already know: I love me a big overblown epic. Especially big overblown ancient-world epics. Give me a cast of thousands in tunics stabbing each other and careening about in chariots, and I’ll probably be a happy viewer. So obviously, throw all these tastes together, and you can guess that I really love big, lavish Biblical productions. Charlton Heston standing in front of special effects and throwing stone tablets down at people, things like that.
As a fan of these films, I’ve always been struck by how few of them are about Jesus. He does, after all, play something of a large role in the whole Christianity thing. And yet, few and far between are the films about the man. You’d think there would be hundreds. Perhaps it’s simply too daunting a task. After all, it’s a long and complex story possessed of much depth that might be difficult to translate to screen, especially in a way that would be intelligible to the so-called uninitiated (actually, I don’t know if they’re called that at all). Plus, the man is a gigantic, larger-than-life character who must radiate charisma, compassion, emotion, and majesty on a grand scale. That’s a tall order for an actor other than Nicolas Cage to fill, to be told “try and act just like the son of God.” So it is that most directors stuck to other stories from The Bible, and John Huston tried to do the entire thing with disastrous results. Jesus would stroll in from time to time, but he was never the central figure.
And curiously, he’s not exactly the central figure in King of Kings, one of the first grand-scale retellings of the life of Christ.
It’s not really important, at least to me, whether or not Jesus was the Son of God. Personally, not believing in God, I find it difficult to believe he had a son. So that’s a pretty easy one, as far as I’m concerned. Whether or not he was a true historical figure is a thornier issue, but I figure yeah, there probably was a Jesus or someone very much like him, and some the events of his life are more or less based on fact. Regardless of whether or not he’s your homeboy, there’s little point in arguing against the notion that, at the very least, he’s a compelling historic and/or literary character, not to mention being one of the most influential men of all time, regardless of who or what he was or was not. So a movie about him is a pretty big undertaking, and King of Kings goes about this Herculean task primarily by not focusing on Jesus.
We do get to see his greatest hits and usual highlights reel: the three wisemen and the manger, the meeting of John the Baptist, the pilgrimage into the desert, Sermon on the Mount, and needless to say, the Last Supper, crucifixion, and resurrection (but he doesn’t get to show off his watar-to-wine or water walking bits). But these are exactly how I describe them: highlights. With the exception of the Sermon on the Mount, they don’t take up much screen time and aren’t delved into too deeply. It’s almost as if the movie doesn’t know exactly what to do with Christ, like he’s too big and too intimidating a character to tackle. So we skip around with only a cursory touching on the big moments. Heck, other than being born, Jesus hardly even shows up for the full first third of the film, which deals more with King Herod, Roman governor of Judea Pontius Pilate, and the Roman general (I think he was a general) Lucius.
When Jesus shows up to do some preaching or work some miracles, it’s rarely shown in much detail. More often than not, narrator Orson Welles comes on and something more or less along the lines of, “And then Jesus did show up and perform some miracles and preach a spell.” On the other hand, we get long looks at the court of King Herod, at Brigit Bazlan as Salome doing her seductive dance (thank you Satan, or whoever was responsible for that sequence), and at Judeaic freedom fighter and political agitator Barabbas (Harry Guardino) making plots and launching guerrilla attacks on the Roman legions. Barabbas, in fact, becomes one of the two most interesting characters in the whole film, the other being the compassionate Roman soldier Lucius (Ron Randell). See the problem there? Yeah, in a movie about Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ really should be your most interesting character.
Instead, Jesus Christ is Jeffery Hunter, the very spitting image of the blue-eyed, blond-haired messiah that dominated the West for much of the 20th century. Hunter was definitely the hottest Jesus in film history until Mel Gibson made his Jesus torture-porn movie, but hot doesn’t make for interesting. It looks like poor Hunter was simply overwhelmed by the role. Rather than trying to conjure up any of the fire or charisma or passion (not that passion) that made Jesus the sort of man who could move thousands, Hunter simply glides glassy-eyed from one big set to the next. He’s not so much playing Jesus as he is wearing a robe and showing up on set to read passages from The Bible in a dull monotone. If you didn’t know who the character was already, you’d be utterly baffled as to why anyone would follow him. He’s non-dimension, completely devoid of charm or spark or anything that might make you think this Jesus guy, he’s something special all right. The only reason anyone would follow this king of kings is because the story demands it of them or they thought he was the Burger King.
I think another part of the problem is the movie is simply too scared to play it straight with Jesus. They err on the side of reverence to the point of dullness. He speaks without emotion. He seems to have nothing inside, because the script seems to think it’s safer to portray him in this otherworldly fashion than to deal with his humanity and passion (not that passion). Or maybe they’re of that group that considers Christ entirely divine and not human. What were they called? It caused a lot of problems for Justinian and Theodora in Byzantium. Remember? Unfortunately, my history falters at the name, and my book on Byzantine history is all the way across the room. Oh what the heck? There, are you happy? I got up and walked all the way across the room to look the term up, only to find out that that was my book on The Crusades. I don’t know where my Byzantium books are right now. The place is a bit of a jumble.
Anyway, you had the Orthodox Byzantine church that maintained Christ was human then divine, which makes sense to me and makes his story more compelling. The other faction believed he was entirely divine, which again in my opinion, makes his story less moving. A divine being on the cross almost seems like he’s only pretending to be in pain, while a human up there speaks more to my human side, especially when that side is getting poked by a spear that will eventually be used by Robert Patrick to defeat neo-Nazis. I don’t know, though. I’ve never tried to crucify a god, and I’m not looking to have the experience any time soon. So the people who made King of Kings either believed Christ was entirely divine and thus should show no human charisma and emotion, that the mere fact of his divinity is what sways people, or they simply believed that divinity was dull.
As much as the film falters in the story of Christ, if succeeds in many other areas, and is quite more effective if you think of it not as the story of the life of Christ, but the story of the times of the life of Christ. The movie is not without its wonderful moments and engrossing characters, chief among them as I said Lucius and Barabbas. Herod is there only to cower and simper, while Pontius Pilate is there only to be smug and condescending. Lucius, however, is a more complex character. A soldier in the service of Caesar, charged with maintaining the peace in volatile Judea, Lucius still shows interest in and compassion for the locals. His belief, and indeed that of Rome in general, is that Judea should be administrated without interfering with the local religions. Frankly, as long as they’re paying their taxes, the Jews can believe whatever they want to about Jehovah and Jupiter. As Lucius’ position brings him into contact with John the Baptist, and later with Jesus himself, he grows to admire Christ and the message of peace and understanding. He never betrays Rome, never takes up arms against the emperor, but he does eventually defend Christ with vigor at the sham of a trial before the crucifixion. He’s not a Christian, but he believes in the rights of others to be Christians.
On the other side of the conflict is Barabbas, who eventually got himself his own movie starring Anthony Quinn. Barabbas is a freedom fighter, a Jewish rebel who thinks Christ’s sermons are eloquent, but that freedom from oppression at the hands of the Romans will come only through armed insurrection. He is Bose Chandra to Jesus’ Gandhi (or rather, I suppose, Bose Chandra is Barabbas to Gandhi’s Jesus. Or something. You know what I mean). He sees Christ as a man with the same goal but different methods, and ultimately, as a convenient distraction to the Romans that will allow Barabbas and his men to launch a really pathetic little rebellion. Scenes with Barabbas lend the film a political tone, but just as it never seems to trust Jeffery Hunter with the role of Christ, neither does it trust itself to deeply explore the political struggles in Judea that serve as the backdrop to Christ’s story. It is perhaps Ray’s most daring move to cast Barabbas not as a thief and criminal as is so often done, but as a rebel and warrior. To me, as one interested more in history than theology, I would have been happy to see it dig more in this direction.
Other characters fare well also. Rip Torn plays Judas, who here I think gets a fare shake. It’s common among people who don’t sit around thinking about this stuff to simply see Judas as the great villain of Christ’s life, when the way I see it, he was actually the great facilitator who allowed Christ to become the messiah and martyr that changed the world. Certain groups of theologians even feel that Christ himself instructed Judas to betray him so that he may fulfill his destiny. In King of Kings, we see a Judas who believes that the key to Judea’s freedom lies somewhere in between the gung-ho war-waging of Barabbas and the peace and compassion of Jesus. He believes totally and without doubt in the power of Jesus, and thinks that if he can orchestrate a situation in which Jesus “feels the blade of a Roman sword against his neck,” then the Savior will finally break down and use his powers to free Judea from the yoke of Roman rule. As we all know, it doesn’t quite work out that way.
Other incidental cast members leave a little to be desired, and some are downright awful. But that happens. In particular, the portrayal of Mary (with her lilting Irish accent, no less) is puzzling. Like Hunter, she plays her part with a lack of emotion that borders on tedium. We get it, Mary. You’re holy. You think you could at least show a little emotion while your son is being nailed to a cross?
Production-wise, King of Kings manages to be an epic without an epic budget. Sets are big and opulent, the cast is large, and the scenery is sweeping, though it’s certainly more American West than it is Middle East. Miklos Rosza’s score is suitably bombastic and epic and moving. Rosza was the final word on epic soundtracks, and he’s in fine form here, though not quite top form. The writing is, as you can ascertain, uneven, and it takes liberties with The Bible when it has to, or when it departs from the source material and includes bits and pieces taken from other, later Biblical dramas. But all in all, it stitches together a story that is perhaps too big for the big screen, and does a decent job if you’re less interested in Biblical accuracy than you are in just getting a halfway decent epic. Even if you discount this whole Jesus thing, Nicholas Ray has assembled a thoughtful film that manages, I think, to pay proper if slightly boring respects to the source material while also giving the increasingly socially and politically aware audiences a little something more contemplative to chew on. Not subversive, by any means, but also not rote repetition of existing ideals.
Costumes are so-so, and another problem pestering this movie is that everything is so spotless and clean. Jesus’ robes look like they just came back from the dry cleaners, even after he comes in from his pilgrimage to the wilderness. A lot of other costumes have a stiffness to them that makes them look like, well, costumes, and not actual clothes. And while I don’t have the lust for blood and misery in the torture and crucifixion of Jesus that Mel Gibson seems to have, I’d still have to say this is the cleanest, least painful scene of a guy getting nailed to a cross that I’ve ever witnessed. Once again, chalk it up to the ratings code, Hunter’s weakness as an actor, or the film’s own timidness about really sinking its teeth into the meat of the story. In the end though, this is less a movie about his death than his life, and less about his life than the times, if you know what I mean.
Problems abound, but in the end, I still found this a plenty pleasing epic tale where the best parts are in the least epic moments and within not the story of Jesus, but in the many subplots and schemers anchored by director Ray’s cunning but not obvious look at power and the quest for direction in life. King of Kings, despite the weak portrayal of the actual king of kings, is still big, impressive, and possessed of enough multi-dimensional supporting characters to keep me both interested and entertained. And as far as cinematic Christs have gone, not many — if indeed any of them — have gotten it right, so we can forgive King of Kings its rather naive, outdated, and somewhat dull approach to the man. If you dig a good overblown Biblical epic, King of Kings isn’t the best, but it’s not a bad way to spend some time.
Monophysites! Those were the cats in Byzantium who didn’t believe Christ had a human portion, that he was entirely divine. There. That was going to bug me all night. Now I’m just going to worry that I got the entire thing wrong.
Our rock and roll albums teach us that Hell is one big party town, but Jack Chick comic tracts would have us believe otherwise. Hell can take the shape of many different places. In one movie, it is an oppressively hot tropical village where b-grade made-for-television movie actors sweat profusely. In other movies, legions of the damned march pointlessly to and fro while a killer red robot stands on a mountain. My personal hell, of course, involves frequent broadcasts of Brat Pack movies and a stereo that only plays adult contemporary hits and that “Our God is an Awesome God” song.
Some people don’t even believe in Hell, and I guess I’d have to be among them since I’m not a religious fellow. But still, Hell is fun to talk about. It’s a lot more interesting than Heaven, even to Christians. Fire and brimstone sermons are a dime a dozen, and each one goes into graphic detail regarding the eternal sufferings one endures in Hell. When Dante wrote his epic Divine Comedy, he spent about five pages on Purgatory, a couple of pages on Heaven, and about a million pages on Hell. Everyone wants to describe Hell, but no one seems all that into Heaven. About the best we get is people wear a lot of robes, and maybe it’s foggy. Other than that, who knows? The problem with Heaven is that it’s a place where everything is basically going all right. While that may not be a bad way to live, it doesn’t make for very dramatic literature.
This is why filmmakers, much like Renaissance poets, tend to dwell on Hell while dashing off Heaven scenes with little imagination or consideration. But Hell — now there’s a place worth writing about. It’s miserable, fiery, evil, and full of sin. Actually, I don’t know if it’s full of sin or just full of sinners. Seems like if you were a big time sinner in life, then Hell would be a place where you don’t get to do any more sinnin’. I know I like me a good sin every now and then, and I’d be pretty annoyed if every time I tried to commit a sin, the Devil popped up to make me stop. Likewise, Heaven is a place where, if you didn’t sin in your life, you get to sin like mad for all eternity. I don’t know. This theory is probably why I’m not a preacherman.
Christians don’t have a monopoly on Hell, of course, and lots of other religions serve up their own particular brand of post-mortem eternal suffering. One of the most wild and creative visions of Hell comes from Japan, and more specifically from the gloriously twisted imagination of famed horror director Nobuo Nakagawa. Nakagawa, one of the most respected names in the history of classic Japanese horror cinema, became an instant favorite of mine after I saw his stunning samurai ghost film Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan, a film that combined the more traditional slow build-up with some truly shocking gore scenes the likes of which were unheard of in 1959. A year later, he completely outdid himself with the film Jigoku, also known as Sinners of Hell.
People generally credit HG Lewis’ outrageous 1963 film Blood Feast as the first splatter or gore film, a claim that betrays a lack of knowledge regarding horror and shock cinema on a global scale. Nakagawa not only beat Lewis to the punch, but he did it with a movie that is both far bloodier and far better than Lewis’ ridiculously cheap but enjoyable romp. Jigoku is splatter that also manages to maintain a high production value, outrageous imagination, and a truly warped surrealism that sets it far apart from the legions of splatter films from all over the world that would follow in its wake. Part of the reason the film probably isn’t as widely known as Lewis’ film, apart from it being Japanese, is that while it delivers the grue, it’s all reserved until the final third of the film. Up until that point, the movie is fairly slow in its pace, allowing time for the development of characters, the explanation of situations, and other aspects of basic storytelling that the kids these days seem not to have the patience for.
We begin things with a credit sequence that is positively James Bond in nature, or at least Seijun Suzuki. Scantily clad, curvatious femmes in weird shadows and blue light populate the sequence, which then leads into a montage of hellish images that will be revisited during the film’s finale. Having thus shocked the viewer right out of the gate, Nakagawa continues with the story proper. A college professor is giving the typical movie professor lecture on concepts of hell, the kind of lecture that never actually takes place in real classrooms. One of the students, Shiro (Shigeru Amachi, who also played the wicked samurai lead in Tokaido Yatsuya Kaidan), is especially interested for a couple different reasons. First, he’s about to marry the professor’s daughter, but more influentially, he and a shady acquaintance named Tamura were recently involved in a hit and run murder. As a result, damnation, sin, and guilt have been weighing pretty heavily on Shiro’s mind.
He and Tamura had been out for a drive that night when a drunken petty criminal stumbled out in front of their car. Though it was clearly not their fault and the police would probably write the matter off entirely as an accident, Tamura – who had been at the wheel – convinces Shiro not to report the incident since no one saw it. Though he is uncomfortable with such a course of action, Shiro is eventually persuaded by the darker, somewhat mysterious Tamura. Shiro begins to question why he even hangs out with this thoroughly creepy individual. “Who is this guy Tamura?” Shiro thinks to himself. “I know I don’t like him.” I guess everyone has one of those people in their lives who you really just absolutely do not like, and yet you always seem thrown together with them regardless of how much you strive to avoid them.
The big hole in Tamura’s plot is that the crime did not go unwitnessed. The gangster’s aging mother actually saw the whole thing, but rather than go to the police and settle for a court battle that will probably not end too horribly for Shiro and Tamura, she gives the license number to the recently widowed wife of the gangster, a fiery woman who immediately vows to hunt down the men who killed her man and extract horrible revenge on them. As if having the sexy but murderous widow of a gangster your creepy acquaintance killed after you isn’t enough of a hassle, Shiro is soon involved in another car accident, this one resulting in the death of his fiancee, the professor’s daughter.
Spurned by her relatives and obviously not getting a passing grade in the professor’s theology class, Shiro seeks solace in the embrace of a young hussy named Yoko, who we immediately recognized as the vengeful widow. Before she can stick an ice pick in the back of his skull, however, he gets word that his mother is dying and so decides to pack up and leave town, his destination being to visit his ailing mother out in the countryside.
Upon reaching the Tenjoen Senior Citizens Facility where his mother lies dying, things hardly improve for the troubled young man. His mom, of course, is at death’s door. His father is an unrepentant asshole who ignores his dying wife in the next room in favor of getting it on with a young harlot from the city. He also runs into the friendly and proper young Sachiko, who happens to look like his recently deceased fiancée. Oh, and there’s the insane artist who spends all day working on paintings of Hell, a corrupt cop, a criminally negligent doctor, a seedy reporter, and a couple other rakehells and ne’er-do-well. Put it all together and you have one hell of those “gathering of lost souls” type things. Suffice it to say that this motley gang of sweaty sinners is hardly the pick-me-up Shiro was needing.
Shiro is at least happy hanging out with his dead fiancee’s doppleganger, but the determined advances of his father’s mistress are unwelcome. Equally unwelcome is Tamura, who shows up to taunt everyone and expose their secret shameful pasts. Slightly more welcome is the old professor, who is ready to reconcile his differences with Shiro, at least until Tamura starts talking about how the old man was a jackass during World War II and stole his wounded buddy’s canteen, then left said buddy to die. It’s really one of those parties that involves too much alcohol and “truth or dare.”
Not one to have a moment of good luck, Shiro’s life is further complicated when both Yoko shows up. She reveals her background then attempts to shoot Shiro. A struggle on a bridge results in Yoko accidentally plunging to her death. Maybe Shiro should just stay home. When Tamura shows up to taunt Shiro and generally act like an asshole, the two get into a fight and Tamura falls off the bridge, too! All this is witnessed by Yoko’s crazy old mother-in-law, who also witnessed the hit and run and apparently spends entire weeks hiding in the bushes around various towns hoping to catch a glimpse of some knavery.
During a party to celebrate the center’s tenth anniversary, everyone gets drunk and belligerent and generally behaves like those old guys you see trying to punch each other out in Japanese parliamentary meetings. When the dad’s young harlot puts the moves on an exhausted Shiro, the father catches them and tries to kill her. The only reason she doesn’t succeed is because she falls down the stairs while running away and breaks her neck. Lesson learned: don’t be friends with Shiro. His dad immediately conspires to cover it up, and they both head back to the main hall where people are passed out, fooling around, or generally behaving like the scum of the earth. Not one to stay dead for long, a pale and deathly looking Tamura shows up to hurl barbs and taunts yet again, and as the clock strikes nine, Shiro finally loses it and tries to choke Tamura to death, his actions slightly hampered by the fact that while trying to choke Tamura to death, he himself is being choked to death by Yoko’s crazy mother-in-law. About that time, the clock freezes, and the fiery pits of hell open up to consume the various lost souls bickering with one another in the living room! That will kill a party even faster than breaking a lamp or getting caught staring at the hostess’ cleavage.
Shiro finds himself on the misty, barren banks of the river of death, and it is here that the movie kicks its eerie surrealism into high gear. I’d be slightly surprised if future surreal horror auteurs like Lucio Fulci didn’t see this movie. There are parts of the landscape of Hell that look very much like the hellish landscapes from The Beyond. The king of hell shows up to bellow about damnation. On the banks of the river, he is met by his inescapable load, Tamura, who tells him they are destined to burn in hell together. Not one to accept the word of a psychopath who recently returned from the dead only to quickly return back to being dead, Shiro wanders off through the various levels of hell just like the protagonist in Dante’s Inferno (as opposed to Dario’s Inferno).
He first encounters his recently departed fiancée, who is spending her time in hell stacking rocks along the riverbank. Her sin: dying before her parents, which seems like a pretty lame thing to get sent to hell for, though not as lame as being damned for driving a Volkswagen backwards into the bay, if you know what I mean (and I bet at least three of you do). She informs Shiro that she was seconds away from joyfully telling him she was pregnant, but got sidetracked by the whole being killed in a car wreck thing. As if Shiro didn’t have enough to deal with, he now understands that their baby, too, is condemned to Hell. This is pretty harsh, really.
Next thing you know, people are being dangled upside down with spikes jammed through their blood-gushing necks. They are being forced to drink from a river filled with pus and bile and other tasty treats (pus and bile custard is only slightly more disgusting than your average British fare, though). Others are forced to simply run around in a big confused circle forever, sort of like being stuck in a never-ending Limp Bizkit concert. One may provide the film’s most shocking and gruesome atrocity as his skin is ripped away, leaving a bloody skeleton covered with pulsating, dripping organs.
As Shiro searches desperately for his child, he is still tormented by Shiro, who is revealed to be a demon and eventually tortured just to shut him the hell up. Shiro finally finds his child on a giant flaming wheel of life and struggles in vain to rescue the child and possibly achieve some sort of salvation from the horrors of hell. Needless to say, he appears to fail miserably.
What Nakagawa accomplishes in the final thirty minutes of this film is truly mind-blowing. His sets are not lavish, but instead make ingenious use of smoke, multi-colored lighting, superimposition, fire, and animation to create an otherworldly and terrifying nightmare landscape. It’s the sort of thing Fulci spent his entire life trying to achieve (and did, to some degree, in The Beyond): an overwhelmingly eerie, alien world that feels like you’ve stepped right into a Salvador Dali painting. Cinematically, it seems to forecast the out-of-control artistic style of maverick film makers like Seijun Suzuki, who would apply similar color-saturated hallucinations to his yakuza films. As grisly as the effects to come are, they are overshadowed by the sheer wild imagination put into the set pieces they inhabit.
Simply put, the gore is good. The scene of the man being flayed alive, lying there screaming as his organs pulsate and spew blood, is really something else. I can only imagine how audiences must have reacted in 1960, because it’s still a very successful and bloody effect, far more shocking than anything HG Lewis would attempt a few years later with his better known but far worse Blood Feast. Part of what makes the splatter content of Jigoku so powerful is that the movie itself is a very well crafted work of art. While some of the editing during the final journey through Hell is confusing, the movie as a whole is technically sound, not to mention full of great writing, pacing, and acting. Lewis’ splatterfest is, of course, amazingly bad in all departments (though not at all unfun to watch).
Pioneering though it was, Jigoku was not necessarily alone in its move toward a more shocking, more surreal, or just plain bloodier presentation. While it was blowing the minds of unsuspecting patrons in Japan, the West was getting assaulted by Alfred Hitchcock’s ground-breaking Psycho, which while not sharing the same artistic style as Nakagawa’s film, certainly shares the same desire to shock, amuse, confuse, and break new ground in what was a very tired and overly safe genre. Though not nearly as well-known today, even in Japan, Jigoku is every bit as much responsible for throwing open the doors to a new type of horror as was Hitchcock’s film. From the seeds planted by these films came glorious monstrosities like Blood Feast and the various Hammer horror films that continued to push the envelope of gore and sexuality throughout the 1960s.
Jigoku snares and disarms you with its very slow-paced, conventional first hour, leaving you completely unprepared for the moment when the clock stops and everyone is plunged into the depths of the underworld. Nakagawa once again proves himself a master of the classic horror film while, at the same time, defiantly showing that he is not bound by the conventions and can move the genre into bold new territory. It is a cautionary tale about the wages of sin and indulgence, yet it communicates its message without seeming preachy and its gore without seeming exploitive. Jigoku is a classic of the horror genre, and self-respecting fan with interest in horror owes it to themselves to track this horrible beauty of a film down.
When one thinks of the myriad espionage exploitation films that flickered across movie screens in the wake of James Bond’s unprecedented success as a film franchise, one generally thinks of the countless cheap though often entertaining Eurospy entries into the genre. After all, there were scores of them, and a lot of them weren’t half bad. The ones that were half bad were at least halfway enjoyable. The ones that weren’t even halfway enjoyable were called Agent for H.A.R.M. The desire to mimic James Bond and, in doing so, perhaps mimic a little of the success, was hardly the sole property of America and Europe, however. Bond was as big in Asia as he was everywhere else in the world, and Asian film industries were just as quick to cash in on the trend with their own particular twist on the superspy genre.