After the runaway success of Fall of the House of Usher and Pit and the Pendulum, Corman was growing dissatisfied with his AIP contract. He had proven to be a profitable director, and now he was a critically acclaimed director as well. His two films had more or less single-handedly lifted the reputation of AIP out of the realm of the drive-in circuit and established them as a genuine studio that made genuine movies with genuine class. Corman’s two Poe films also lifted the flagging reputation of horror, which since its heyday at Universal during the 1930s had sunk lower and lower until it was basically considered schlock, then almost replaced entirely by science-fiction and Communist paranoia films. Hammer’s Horror of Dracula and Curse of Frankenstein had gone a long way to revitalizing the horror genre, but Corman’s Poe films undoubtedly contributed a great deal to solidifying the resuscitation, at broad but especially in the United States where theater owners were proud to see that yep, we could make ‘em just as good here as they could over there.
When a creature is so vile, so evil, so much an affront to the nature of the world and of God himself as is the vampire Count Dracula, there is no easy way to destroy him and keep him down. So it is that in every episode of man’s struggle against this infernal prince of darkness, we mortals seem to succeed in wholly destroying this spawn of Satan only to see him find some way to cheat death yet again, as he has for so many centuries now, so that he may once again rise up and cast his long shadow of terror and bloodshed across the countryside. It seems this notorious bloodsucker has any number of ways he can reverse the effects of his apparent destruction, but the most powerful one by far is making certain that his movie provides bushel baskets full of money for the producers.
In 1960, American International Pictures – well-known for being a low-budget film production house possessed of some genuine talent – released The Fall of the House of Usher. It was something entirely new for the company: a color picture, released by itself instead of as part of a black and white double-feature package as was standard operating procedure for AIP. Director Roger Corman, one of the studio’s most valuable assets, had pushed for AIP to extend their usual shooting schedule (from ten days to fifteen!) and shoot the film in color. AIP was wary, but Corman had proven his ability to deliver profitable results for the company over and over, so after hearing his pitch, they were willing to give the benefit of the doubt to his risky venture. With Corman as director, Vincent Price as the star, and Egdar Allan Poe as the source material, it seemed like it would be a decent enough success.
For a long time, yakuza films were the big missing piece of puzzle that is Japanese film in America. In the years before DVD, you could find any number of groovy Japanese monster movies. Sure, they were pan and scan and dubbed, but few people thought to be offended by such things at the time because we were simply happy to be watching Godzilla or Yog or any other creature smashing up the place. Samurai movies were a bit scarcer, but at least they were represented by a smattering of titles. Yakuza films were a vast and largely untapped reservoir just waiting to be unleashed on American fans who had perhaps read about the films, or knew people in Japan who had seen them, but had otherwise been limited to little more than tantalizing photos in magazines and stories about movies in which guys screamed a lot and cut off their pinky fingers.
In the past few years, all that has changed. Well, I reckon it started a little bit before that when someone decided to release a fistful of Seijun Suzuki films on VHS. Then in the past year, HVe and American Cinemathique really opened the floodgates and started pushing yakuza films into the forefront. And while certain notable titles remain MIA (the Abashiri Prison series, and frankly, most of the great old Takakura Ken films that started the craze back in the 50s and 60s), we’re certainly a hell of a lot better off now that we can walk into any old video store and pick up a copy of Blackmail is My Life, Underworld Beauty, or the movie on the chopping block right now, Yasuharu Hasebe’s 1969 yakuza thriller, Bloody Territories.
I first discovered Hasebe when I picked up the film Black Tight Killers, a movie in which sexy female assassins in a vast array of showy mod outfits do things like fling deadly razor-sharp 7-inch records. It was really my kind of movie. Hasebe, I’m told, learned his craft from the master of pop-art yakuza madness, Seijun Suzuki, and the influence of Japan’s number one maverick certainly showed in Black Tight Killers. By 1969, however, much of the eye-catching weirdness seems to have left the work of Hasebe, and while Bloody Territories is not a bad film, it’s also nothing special, certainly not as special, quirky, or weird as you would hope from the man that gave us Black Tight Killers. It is just a yakuza film. Well, no. Maybe it’s not just a yakuza film, but with Kinji Fukasaku just over the horizon, Bloody Territories is simply the kind of movie that gets lost in the shuffle even if it has a few interesting thematic twists.
The deconstruction of the yakuza genre that had been built up in the films of Takakura Ken began with Seijun Suzuki’s gleefully cracked subversion of the genre, but he was just so out there that a lot of people didn’t even realize exactly what was happening. In 1967, Junya Sato made what many consider to be the first “modern” yakuza film, that is to say, a film in which the noble notions of honor and righteousness that characterized the Takakura Ken films were completely trashed, and the yakuza were depicted mainly as a bunch of ruthless, opportunistic thugs with no sense of honor and no flare for the romantic. Hasebe’s Bloody Territories falls somewhere short of Sato’s Organized Violence when it comes to its depiction of the yakuza. The core characters still cling to the old values and traditions of loyalty and honor, but it’s obvious they live in a world that has abandoned such ideals. The twist Bloody Territories brings to the table isn’t that the other yakuza have become dishonorable and sleazy; it’s that the yakuza are bested at their own game by businessmen, who are every bit as ruthless and far more effective, it turns out, at running things.
The action revolves around the number two and number three man in the Onogi Clan, a renegade yakuza gang that refuses to dissolve their organization during a big pow wow where everyone else agrees to disband. The Onogi Clan, it seems, spends as much time cleaning up the streets and serving as a sort of neighborhood watch as they spend engaging in the usual activities that occupy the average yakuza’s day. In fact, as the credits roll we are treated to a montage of Onogi gangsters prowling the streets, protecting young ladies who are getting harassed, taking care of drunks who mess stuff up, and other small-time disturbances they don’t want going on in their turf. The Onogis are never the less disturbed by the fact that these random acts are even occurring. It never used to be like that. Turns out another big gang from out of town is attempting to muscle in on Onogi turf now that they know the Onogis have no larger organization supporting them.
Proud though they may be, the Onogis know their small neighborhood group can’t take on the entire Kansai region syndicate. They seek the help of old friends who have now entered into legitimate business to mediate a truce, though the price of mediation bankrupts the clan since they’d never measured their success in terms of money, but rather through their acquisition of turf, order, and respect. This newfangled obsession with money instead of “face” is simply outside the realm in which the Onogi operate. Before too long, they realize that they’ve been had, and while they were worrying about rival yakuza, what they should have been watching out for was the big corporation – a gang in its own right, but one with loyalties not to any single boss but instead simply to the practice of making a profit.
The central characters are Onogi’s number two (Seichi) and number three (Yuji, played by Akira Kobayashi, who starred in Suzuki’s Kanto Wanderer, Hasebe’s Black Tight Killers, and later a couple of Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity films). Seichi is the cool one, collected and smart and basically the man who will take control of the gang when the current boss retires. Yuiji is smart as well, but a bit more of a hothead who is quicker to call for retribution even when he knows it’ll be certain death. Seichi is confident that they can figure a way out of the predicament without all having to die in a valiant last stand in the name of old school honor. Yuiji figures they’re stuck in a no-win situation and might as well go out in defense of their out-of-date principles and notions of honor. Their opposite, at least for a while, is the underboss of the Kansai gang, a man who first sets out to destroy the Onogis and take over their territory until he himself finds out that even his larger gang is simply a pawn of big business. Although at war with the Onogis, he finds himself standing alongside Yuiji and Seichi in defense of the old ways.
The conflict’s shift from rival yakuza gangs to the entire concept of what it was to be a yakuza versus the amoral profit-motivated aggressiveness of big business provides Bloody Territories with the twist that keeps it from being dismissible as “just another yakuza film” and situates it as a nice bridge between the Takakura Ken films, which celebrate the morals and ideals upheld by Onogi gangsters, and the Kinji Fukasaku films in which we see the erosion and breakdown of the yakuza code. But remember, these are still knife wielding killer businessmen, not just guys who throw around a lot of business buzzwords. However, I doubt the yakuza would fare any better if pitted against an adversary who, instead of simply meeting them in the back alley for a fight, insisted instead on setting up a meeting to discuss enterprise-wide paradigm shifts in how the yakuza implement robust solutions for end user clients. And oh yeah, they intend to tear down your quaint neighborhood tea house and gang headquarters and replace it with a TGI Friday’s. Try being a tough yakuza hitman when you’re forced to have meetings in the rumpus room of a TGI Fridays while a peppy suspenders-wearing guy named Stevie brings you jalapeno poppers. You can’t kill people while eating jalapeno poppers!
Although the film takes a while to get going, once it does the twists are entertaining and the action is appropriately bloody. As if to underscore the position of the Onogi boys as die-hard old schoolers, they eschew the use of guns and favor the good ol’ tanto knives – probably more realistic than showing a bunch of gangsters sporting heavy duty firepower since firearms are harder to come by (not to mention get away with using) than blades.
Hasebe’s direction lacks the flare one would expect from him. This must have been his “normal” movie on the road from Black Tight Killers to Spectreman. Bloody Territories is still vividly colorful, especially when yakuza thugs get to have knife fights amid flowing white sheets of laundry, but there’s a certain something missing that keeps the film from being as visually innovative as it should be. I am thankful for the fact that they’re still using tripods and dollies for the shots. The 1970s would usher in the era of wildly shaking “heat of the action” shots that can really make an old man’s head hurt. And oh yeah — this being a Nikkatsu production (the studio who would later become to pinky violent and softcore porn films what Britain’s Hammer was to horror), there are a couple gratuitous boob shots and weirdly out-of-place and completely frivolous “sweat-dripping lesbians” scene. As always, we welcome such utterly throw-away and inexcusable forays into cheap and tawdry titillation. If only every movie ever made would cut away to a minute or two of wet, dripping, naked lesbians naking out for no reason!
The script also lacks flare as it dutifully covers all the yakuza film points from the loving wife whose man is killed, to the guy who has to chop off a pinky as atonement for some offense. And of course there is gambling and lots of sitting around in a teahouse engaging in boisterous talk. Aside from our three central yakuza, there are very few characters worth remembering. A former yakuza torn between his respect for the old ways and his position as a top employee at the corporation and the mistress of the head of the Kansai gang show promise as two more interesting characters, but their stories are either too spottily covered or simply seem to get lost and remain undeveloped amid the sundry plot threads that have to be tied up by the film’s rain-and-blood soaked finale. No one is as cool as Takakura Ken from the old films or Bunta Sugawara from the Fukasaku films that would follow. Akira Kobayashi is a good central character, but even the central characters lack anything that really makes them stand out. Although the movie’s plot pitting old-fashioned yakuza against corporate greed and corruption is a unique take on the genre, none of the characters are anything out of the ordinary for such a film. There’s cool and reserved guy, medium hothead, guy in floppy hat, so on and so forth. It simply doesn’t give us enough that’s new and different from what we’d seen beforehand, resulting in a film that isn’t a must-see but is instead one of those, “See it if you get the chance” films that don’t really demand any sense or urgency.
Even with so-so characters and a script that could use some tightening in places, Bloody Territories remains a good film. Just not a great one. It’s an interesting transition piece, but with Hasebe directing, one tends to expect more. Still, I’m just thankful to have so many yakuza films from which to chose now, and even a rather average one like this is still a treat.
Release Year: 1969 | Country: Japan | Starring: Akira Kobayashi, Ryoji Hayama, Tadao Nakamaru, Hiroshi Nawa, Tatsuya Fuji, Yuriko Hime, Jiro Okazaki, Yoshi Kato, Fujio Suga, Bontaro Miyak, Kichijiro Ueda, Takamaru Sasaki, Kyoko Mine | Writer: Kazuo Aoki, Yasuharu Hasebe | Director: Yasuharu Hasebe | Music: Hajime Kaburagi | Cinematographer: Muneo Ueda | Producer: Tetsuro Nakagawa
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.
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.