The mid-sixties were a time of increased experimentation and political outspokenness for filmmakers in Czechoslovakia, thanks to the increasing relaxation of government censorship that peaked in 1967 with the sweeping reforms of the Prague Spring, and which came to a crashing halt with the Russian invasion the following year. Of the films produced during that brief renaissance, Vaclav Vorlicek’s Who Wants to Kill Jessie? is far from the most radical or subversive. But it is just possible that viewing it would have been enough to convince the CCCP standard bearers back in Moscow that the Czechs were having entirely too much fun for their own good.
Reviewing the types of films that I do, I’ve become no stranger to mixed feelings. Korkusuz Kaptan Swing, for example, while leaving me less excited than other of Onar Films’ DVD releases, still feels like it should be a peak experience for me. After all, it’s a Turkish film that’s based on an Italian comic book that’s set in an imaginary America during the Revolutionary War. For someone as obsessed as I am with how the familiar gets refracted, refined and/or re-imagined through the lenses of different filmmaking cultures, you’d be hard pressed to concoct a more tantalizing recipe — unless, of course, you were to concoct a Thai movie that teamed Ultraman with a Hindu monkey god, or another Turkish movie in which Santo and Captain America join forces to fight a caterpillar-browed Spiderman. Neither of those two films, however, hold up a funhouse mirror to a well-tread episode of American history the way that Kaptan Swing does. And it is that strange depiction of my country’s forefathers’ struggle for independence that, more than anything else, makes the film come across to my tired Yankee eyes as being a product of a place oh, so very far from home.
You know in action films when there’s that scene where two dudes get in a fight, and after one dude has kicked the other dude’s ass, he picks the fallen opponent up, buys him a beer, and they become friends? Well, that’s sort of what it’s like to watch Faust: Love of the Damned. This movie will sucker punch you in the face, knee you in the groin, and generally beat the crap out of you, but in the end, somehow, you’re willing to shake hands with it and help it rescue a damsel from some secret society or something. At least that’s how I felt about it, so you better get ready for another one of those reviews where I spend 99% of the time talking about how terrible the film is, only to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it come the final paragraph.
I’d like to start off by telling you that what you’re reading is in every way identical to a normal movie review… except for one thing. It’s bullet-proof. It also contains a tiny transmitter by which we here at Teleport City can track all of your movements. So that would be two things, then. Oh, and it can also act as shark repellent. Of course, if you were to find yourself in the kind of circumstances in which you could put all of those hidden functions to the test, I’d be very impressed. Unfortunately, you’d also be dead. The fact is that I’ve just always wanted to give one of those “except for one thing” spiels like you hear in 1960s spy movies. Exactly, in fact, like the one that the masked hero Superargo receives toward the beginning of Superargo vs. Diabolicus, during which he is presented with all kinds of items — from a dhingy to a cocktail olive — that are in every way identical to what they appear to be on the surface, except for one thing. That doesn’t really apply to the cocktail olive, though, because it is actually a Geiger counter and, as such, completely inedible. So it’s really completely un-identical to a cocktail olive except for one thing — i.e., looking like a cocktail olive.
Ogon Batto (Golden Bat) is in many ways typical of the type of films Sonny Chiba appeared in before he became an international action star with the Street Fighter movies. Under a long term contract with Toei Studios, he racked up an impressive slate of low budget B movies during the sixties, a good number of kiddie-themed science fiction films among them. His turn as Iron Sharp in Uchu Kaisokusen (aka Invasion of the Neptune Men), as well as his starring roles in the Toei TV series Nanairo Kamen and Ala-no Shishai, also made him a veteran of the costumed hero Tokusatsu genre of which Ogon Batto is squarely a part–though in Ogon he was, for once, spared having to be the guy in the silly super hero costume (an honor that went to actor Hirohisa Nakata). This might have provided a nice break for Chiba–as well as an opportunity to enjoy a bit of shadenfreude at Nakata’s expense–but it also results in a rare instance in which the charismatic and energetic Chiba is rendered relatively low-key by all that is going on around him. For, while Ogon Batto may have little in terms of art that distinguishes it from other such films in Chiba’s early filmography, it does have a certain energy to its presentation that clearly sets it apart.
Ogon Batto begins with Akira (Wataru Yamakawa), a young amateur astronomer, making the shocking discovery that the planet Icarus has gone off course and is heading rapidly toward Earth. No sooner has Akira made his case to the disbelieving staff at a nearby observatory than he is whisked away by a cadre of Men In Black and taken to the headquarters, hidden in the Japanese Alps, of The Pearl Research Institute, a secret, UN-backed organization dedicated to studying strange space phenomena. Here he meets Capt. Yamatone (Chiba), who promptly asks Akira to join the institute–because, despite being a kid, he obviously knows a lot about science and stuff. Akira accepts, and is immediately introduced to Doctor Pearl (Andrew Hughes) and his granddaughter Emily (Emily Paird), a twelve-year-old child who, in classic Japanese sci fi movie fashion, obviously holds a position of some authority at the institute. Doctor Pearl shows Akira the Super Destruction Beam Cannon, a ray gun with the power of “1000 hydrogen bombs” designed to blast Icarus out of the sky before it can hit Earth. Unfortunately, Pearl tells him, the cannon is not yet operational, because a special mineral is needed to create its lens. No sooner has Pearl said this than the team receives word that an expedition searching for that very mineral has run into trouble and is not responding to contact. At this, the entire staff–man, woman and child–pours into the institute’s flying Super Car and takes off over the ocean. Soon the location of the expedition is spotted: It’s the lost continent of Atlantis! The team touches down on Atlantis and finds the entire expedition team dead, at which point a giant tower–looking like a mile high drill bit with a squid’s head on it–rises up from the ocean and starts shooting cartoon laser beams at them.
This tower is the base of Nazo (Koji Sekiyama), the self-proclaimed Ruler of the Universe, who wants to destroy humanity because “No one else should exist except for me, Nazo!” With Nazo’s foot soldiers hot on their heels, the team retreats into a temple, where they find an ornate sarcophagus. On the sarcophagus is an inscription stating that, 10,000 years from the date of that inscription, a crisis would erupt that would necessitate the aid of the Golden Bat, the occupant of the sarcophagus, who could conveniently be resuscitated by just adding water. As the foot soldiers close in, Emily follows those instructions and revives the Golden Bat, a hulking figure in Gold lycra and skull mask, who proceeds to beat the enemy into retreat with his Baton of Justice. With Nazo and his minions gone for the moment, Golden Bat informs Emily that, because it was she who revived him, only she can summon his aid–and with that makes his magic bat mascot affix itself to her uniform in the form of a bat-shaped broach. He also informs the team that, now that he has been revived, Atlantis will once again sink below the ocean. The team makes for the Super Car and manages to take off in the nick of time as Atlantis crashes back beneath the waves.
And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen: The first fifteen minutes of Ogon Batto. And things don’t really slow down much from there. The film may be a pure, hastily made, low budget construction (just how many commercial Japanese features were still being made in black and white in 1966?), but there is one thing of which you can be guaranteed: By the time you reach the end of its seventy-minute running time, you will have seen an awful lot of stuff happen within a very short period of time.
While the Golden Bat is a lesser known Japanese super hero compared to the likes of Ultraman or Kamen Rider, he is no less a venerable one. The creation of one Takeo Nagamatsu, his origin dates back to the early thirties, and is attributed, depending on who you ask, to either pulp magazines or to kami-shibai, a practice of live storytelling with printed illustration cards that was popular with children in that era. Whichever is the case, he would later make the transition to manga, where he would, at one time, be rendered by the capable hands of the master himself, Osamu Tezuka (Tetsuwan Atom, aka Astroboy, and Jungle Emperor Leo, aka Kimba). A year after his feature incarnation in Ogon Batto, he would go on to make his debut in a popular animated television series, making this movie just one stop in his journey toward total Japanese media domination. A live action television series would follow in the early seventies.
It is clear that the Bat’s manga incarnation is the inspiration for Ogon Batto, and it’s one of the film’s most admirable qualities that it tries to stay true to the look of that source, even if with mixed results. The Nazo that appears in the comics, for instance, is a distinctly weird creation, sort of an amorphous black shape with bat ears and four-laser firing eyes who has a hovering flying saucer in place of a lower body. There is definitely an attempt to duplicate that look on the part of Ogon‘s art department, but with the resources they had to work with, Nazo just ends up looking like a man in a big floppy flannel sack–and because the effect of him hovering above the ground with no lower body was hopelessly beyond their means, the actor simply keeps his bottom half hidden within a stationary saucer-shaped control console.
Nazo’s tower, on the other hand, really looks like a manga creation given real world dimensions, and it’s one of the movie’s visual treats. The model is put to its best use during the film’s climax, in which the tower suddenly erupts from the bowels of the Earth directly below Tokyo and rises up to loom threateningly over the city’s skyline (a scene closely parodied in the 2004 live-action film version of the 70s anime Cutey Honey). In fact, all of the film’s models–from the tower to the shark-shaped flying submarine that Nazo’s toadies use to travel between it and their various villainous assignations–are imaginative and fun, and none the less so for all the visible wires used to put them in motion.
As for the Golden Bat himself, he seems here to be the kind of super hero whose super powers rely mostly on you being repeatedly told by the other characters in the movie just how super powerful he is. His preferred method of combat is running around and clubbing people one-by-one with his baton while stopping to strike highly stylized dramatic poses, which doesn’t give the appearance of being that much more effective than the ray guns the members of the Pearl Institute are equipped with. Furthermore, he always announces himself with a laugh that is obviously meant to be ghostly and fear-inspiring, but which sounds more like the kind of chattering, forced laughter that just makes people uncomfortable. Whenever he does this, you kind of expect Sonny and company to start uneasily and halfheartedly laughing along while slipping each other nervous sideways glances. And when he flies it just looks ridiculous. All of this, of course, somehow combines to make the guy actually seem kind of lovable, though I don’t think that was the intention.
The practice of striking highly stylized dramatic poses is a popular one in Ogon Batto, and it’s not just limited to our titular hero. In fact, the whole cast gets in on that action at one point or other, most memorably when a whole group of them, reacting en masse to some shocking revelation or bit of off-screen business, will do it all at the same time. It comes across kind of like a cross between silent movie acting and Vogueing. I realize that this film was produced in an era when camp was a dominant aesthetic in popular culture. But, as campy as all of that comes across, I don’t think that the intention of the makers of Ogon Batto was to poke fun at their subject matter, but rather to use that prevailing aesthetic as carte blanche for them to be absolutely as corny as they wanted to be. The result is a film that’s the cinematic distillation of the spirit embodied in the phrase “Gee whiz!”
As I indicated earlier, the remainder of Ogon Batto‘s plot unfolds with much the same breathless pacing as it’s prologue, each frantic set piece practically stumbling over the next in the overall rush to cram everything in before the credits roll. Nazo, rallying after the whole Atlantis debacle, sends three of his evil emissaries to infiltrate the Pearl Institute headquarters. This trio includes Jackal, a wolf-man, Piranha, a woman in a scaly fish outfit, and Keloid (Yoichi Numata), a Grandpa Munster look-alike with oatmeal on his face. After a series of frantic ray gun battles and the Golden Bat showing up to run around and club people with his baton, the villains succeed in making off with the Super Destruction Beam Cannon, only to find that it is missing the crucial lens (which, by the way, has now been successfully fabricated by Doctor Pearl and company, thanks to a gem comprised of the necessary mineral being in the Golden Bat’s hand when he was found in his sarcophagus at the beginning of the movie).
Taking on the appearance of Naomi (Hisako Tsukuba), another member of the institute, Piranha kidnaps Emily, and soon both Emily and Doctor Pearl are being held hostage by Nazo, with the lens stated as the price of their safe release. This leads to the final showdown between the Golden Bat and Nazo, held high above the streets of Tokyo (and involving, among other things, a dog fight with that cool shark-shaped flying submarine), as the rogue planet Icarus hurtles perilously ever closer to our seemingly doomed Earth.
And just where is Sonny Chiba in all this, you may ask? Well, he does have his heroic moments, but the top-billed star seems mostly content to blend into the background and let all of the insanity just happen around him. Which is a very sensible attitude to take with Ogon Batto. It’s an easy film to mock, but if you take the time to step back and appreciate just how furiously it’s working to entertain you, you’ll find that it’s equally easy to love. Just don’t expect it to be a showcase for the Street Fighter himself.
Release Year: 1966 | Country: Japan | Starring: Sonny Chiba, Hirohisa Nakata, Andrew Hughes, Wataru Yamagawa, Emily Paird, Hisako Tsukuba, Yoichi Numata, Koji Sekiyama, Kousaku Okano | Writer: Susumu Takahisa, Takeo Nagamatsu | Director: Hajime Sato | Cinematographer: Yoshikazu Yamasawa | Music: Shunsuke Kikuchi | Producer: Kaname Ougisawa | Original Title: Ogon Batto
The Mexico of the lucha libre sci-fi adventure films is just about as close to our version of the Promised Land as you can get. I’d gladly turn in our world of turmoil, suffering, and nouveau French cuisine for a good chimichanga and a world where the biggest news comes when pro wrestlers have to thwart the diabolical scheme of some mummy. Oh sure, no one is going to be crazy about a world full of mummies all walking around with their dusty heads full of diabolical schemes, but once you get over the shock of “Hey, look! A mummy! Is that a midget in a cape next to him?” things really are not so bad. The mummy might kidnap a sexy chica in a flimsy negligee so he can carry her around a bit, and he might injure some old pipe-smoking man by knocking him out with the patented “chop to the shoulders” blow that seems to comprise the mummy’s only real offense, but that’s about it. In the end, you know the mummy poses only a minor threat to the world as a whole, and Santo or Mil Mascaras will be around eventually to bodyslam the mummy and burn down an old castle. Compared to what we have to deal with in the real world, I’d much prefer luchadores duking it out with mummies.
I love fairy tales. Not the happily-ever-after stuff that makes you feel good about yourself. No, I’m talking the black stuff. dark and twisted, meant more to terrify children into sleepless nights than to lull them into a soothing night’s slumber. Tales where the kids don’t outsmart the witch, where they do end up in the oven, and no one lives happily ever after. Given our increasingly crass and cynical society, I would seem, at first, that this sort of twisted tale would be popular, but as they often require some degree of imagination and appreciation of both the subtle and the fantastic, most people would simply rather watch shit blow up. When someone does attempt to carry that sense of the macabre over into a modern day fairy tale, it can happen with mixed results. At their best, they come out looking like Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb or City of Lost Children. More often than not, however, they just come out looking Troll.
Despite being a world away, Japanese horror draws on very similar, almost universal, elements of horror to lay on the scare. In a similar vein, there are creepy fairy tale elements that exist above and beyond culture and geography and become part of globally understood and shared heritage. While in college, I was reading a book simply called Japanese Tales, that was a collection of bizarre Japanese fairy tales, and it struck me that, despite the fact that many of these existed as oral legends at a time long before Japan was in regular contact with the nations of the West, the stories were very similar in tone. Everyone understands a witch luring innocent youths into the woods, or monsters who take the form of humans.
My favorite was about a woman who struggled much of her life with a tape worm. She managed to survive the parasite and eventually give birth to a young son who grew up to become a tremendously powerful general and leader of men. Great were his deeds, and he soon ruled the land. A neighboring warlord invited the great warrior to his court one day for a celebration of their new alliance. At the feast, the neighboring warlord offered up bushels of walnuts (or was it chestnuts?) for all to eat — it was, after all, the commerce crop that kept his province prosperous. The great warrior, however, refused to eat the walnuts. When the host warlord grew angry and felt insulted, the great warrior threw off his helmet and exclaimed “I can’t digest nuts! I’m my mother’s tapeworm!” He then promptly turned into a tapeworm and slithered off. The best part of the whole weird story, however, was the final line, which went something like “Back in his homeland, his family was devastated and his province plunged into chaos. Everyone else agreed it had all been a good laugh.”
I bring this up because I feel the Japanese surrealist horror film Uzumaki draws heavily upon the tradition of the creepy fairy tale. There is something fantastic and mesmerizing about it all, and something unsettling and distressing lurking just under the surface. I forgot where I read it, perhaps in an interview with Clive Barker, but someone said that the most effective way of creating a sense of dread is to take something familiar and slowly transform it into something alien and threatening. The best example I can think of is the closet monster. How many times have you opened your closet to get something out? Your shoes, perhaps, or an elf you’ve been holding prisoner? If you have a closet, chances are you open it at least once a day, maybe more. It’s a familiar place. But let it get dark out, let it be pitch black and three in the morning when you wearily gaze over from the comfort of your bed and realize the closet door is open.
Suddenly it’s not so familiar. It’s a gaping black maw, noticeably dark even in the dead of night. Suddenly what was once familiar to you begins to take on a sense of dread. What if something comes out of there? A monster, or a killer, or that damn elf? And what’s that shadow? I think it’s just my shirt thrown over the vacuum cleaner, but it sure looks like an ax wielding homicidal maniac. I once spent an entire night scared witless as a youth, covers tight around my neck as I stared in horror at what was most definitely the shadow of Weird Harold from Fat Albert come to kill me. Okay, so maybe not everyone gets freaked out in the middle of the night by shadows that bear a vague resemblance to Weird Harold, but you get my meaning. Nothing makes a person panic quite like suddenly finding yourself in a strange situation when you thought you had everything under control.
Uzumaki is set in a sleepy working class town somewhere in the Japanese countryside. There’s nothing particularly weird about the place. Hell, even though it’s in Japan it’s not that much different than a small blue-collar town in America. It’s downright idyllic, right up until the opening narration that tells us of the unspeakable nightmares the town contains. Director Higuchinsky has nothing on his resume before this film, but he proves right out of the gate that he is a master of subversion, taking a beautiful small town and immediately making you anxious about it. We then meet cute high school student Kirie, our narrator. She’s a pretty average schoolgirl — a few friends, a few enemies, a nerdy goofball who keeps trying to make her fall in love with him by employing such tactics as jumping out and trying to scare her at every possible opportunity. Her dad is an accomplished pottery artisan, and her boyfriend is a moody teen who will one day join an emo band. The two of them are hassled by a Barney Fife-esque local cop who has nothing better to do than bluster at teens who ride two to a single bike.
En route to meet her beau, Shuichi, she spots his father crouching in an alley. Attempts to get his attention fail, as he is intently videotaping a snail slithering up the wall. Already things are weird. Shuichi is acting weird as well, though not so weird as to be taping hours worth of snail shenanigans in extreme close-up. But he seems afraid, and he talks of running away, fleeing the town, which he feels has a rotten core. Kirie is confused but also a bit excited by the idea of dropping everything and running off with her childhood sweetheart. At this point, the film is shaping up to be just another schoolgirl horror film, the sort of watered down, one step above Goosebumps stuff that has been big business in Japan for the last couple years. You know, whenever anyone has the brains to make a movie for adolescent girls, it’s always a huge hit (remember Titanic), and yet people only seem to remember to do it like once every ten years or so. You’d think by now they’d understand that the girls are bored shitless and want a little something thrown their direction.
Don’t be fooled. Uzumaki is just getting started.
Kirie learns that Shuichi’s father has become obsessed with spiral designs, surrounding himself with them, dedicating his life to staring at them and ranting about it all when he isn’t bust videotaping the spiral design on snail shells. His madness has reached the point where it is starting to tear the household apart, and Shuichi suspects there is a force behind it all that threatens the whole town. At school, in the meantime, things aren’t much more normal. When Kirie isn’t being accosted in the bathroom by the leader of the resident girl gang, who sings the praises of being the center of attention, of being the focus of the spiral, she’s sitting in a science class attended by a kid who only shows up to school on rainy days and is covered by a thick, dripping goo. Why they let him only come into school on rainy days is less puzzling then why they would let a kid covered in gallons of effluvia just take his seat. Hell, we didn’t even tolerate the kid who always had the gooey, unnaturally green ball of mucous clinging to the very edge of his nostril. I know if I had showed up for chemistry glass all dripping with goo, there would have been a good chance they would have made me hit the showers, or at least that emergency eye wash fountain for the kids too clumsy to not get iodine in their eyes.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though, as Shuichi’s father is eventually overcome by his mania and commits suicide — by cramming himself into a washing machine and twisting his body into a taffy-like spiral. This upsets Shuichi’s mother, and the matter is made worse during the funeral when the clouds from the crematorium spiral up into a massive, misty whirlpool that also has a tendency to form a likeness of the deceased’s anguished face. Shuichi’s mother breaks down, and soon she too is obsessed with spirals, but with their elimination rather than their collection. She begins by slicing off her own fingertips, and then after a later midnight visit from a friendly neighborhood centipede, realizes there is a part of her inner ear that is also a spiral. The jagged shard of a broken vase can dig that out, though.
As Shuichi helplessly watches his parents self-destruct, Kirie begins to notice her father too is becoming a nutcase, and the girl gang leader at school has started styling her hair into massive swirls. A local Poindexter teams up with Kirie and Shuichi to crack the sinister mystery, but of course, just as he makes a huge discovery, he’s killed in a grisly car wreck. If the overall freakish atmosphere of the movie thus far hasn’t convinced you this is something more than schoolgirl horror, the graphic gore might bring you around. While we’re not talking Dawn of the Dead here, the movie refuses to pull punches with the gore, and when someone dies, they die horribly. The bizarre events in the town eventually attract the attention of the outside media, and a news van arrives to do a “can you believe this shit” type of story that is made even meatier by the fact that the gooey kid and his friendly neighborhood tormentor have just gone and transformed into giant half-slug half-human creatures and spend the day squirming up and down the side of the high school. The film crew meets with an equally unsavory fate as they attempt to leave town, resulting in some decapitation and a cute, perky newscaster left with her eyeballs dangling by the optic nerves.
Kirie and Shuichi want desperate to either fight against or escape from the growing hurricane of spiral-related madness, but they don’t even know what to fight against or where to start. There is no creepy old wizard living at the edge of town, or secret government lab, or anything at all to give them the first clue as to what the hell is happening. As she struggles desperately to make some sense of the chaos, Kirie’s life is completely shattered when Shuichi himself begins to exhibit rather strange spiral qualities.
The end is a disturbing jolt to the system, to say the least. At first, it will leave you sort of pissed off and thinking “what the hell?” kind of like Blair Witch Project. Unlike the end of that film, however, which gets stupider as time goes by, the final burst of gory insanity in Uzumaki grows increasingly unnerving the more it sits in your mind. Ultimately, the film ends with the same close-up and snippet of narration with which it began, turning the film itself into one giant spiral. It’s a feeling not unlike the one you might get from a particularly good episode of Twin Peaks, like the one where they finally reveal Laura Palmer’s murderer. It will confound and anger some, while others will simply sit back and think, “Holy cow!” to themselves as they realize the disturbing power of what they’ve just seen.
First and foremost, Uzumaki is a visual film, but unlike a lot of current films that rely on slick visuals as nothing more than eye candy, the surreal atmosphere of Uzumaki is a central tool with which to weave the tale. It’s not just thrown on for the hell of it. There is an actual purpose, and Higuchinsky knows how to use the visual aspect of the film with the deftness of a scalpel-wielding surgeon, and I don’t mean Dr. Giggles. Every shot, every set, every quirky pice of music, is perfectly exploited to create a sense of lurking dread. Like a seedy circus sideshow or run-down midway, Uzumaki is undeniably gorgeous and frighteningly grotesque and disorienting. It is, as I discussed earlier, a disorienting warping of the familiar, mundane world into something threatening and dangerous. For his first time out as a director, Higuchinsky is astoundingly successful. WHile Lucio Fulci always talked about creating the feel of a surreal nightmare in his films, he was only ever able to accomplish it in tiny bits and pieces. A moment here, a moment there, then back to the tedium of watching Ian McCulloch intone, “But that’s crazy!” Higuchinsky manages to capture that same nightmarish mood, but he sustains it throughout the whole movie and never exhibits any of the slapdash qualities that undermined Fulci’s own attempts at such a mood.
Some of the scenes don’t even strike you as bizarre until they are over and you’re going, “Wait, what the hell?” In a casual, offhand manner, the film will just randomly throw in background characters who are walking in reverse, or in a particular eerie scene that doesn’t even hit you as eerie at first, Kirie and her friend are walking down a hallway having a typical schoolgirl conversation while, on either side of the hallway, students stand at attention, still as statues, gazing off into nothing. There is never any acknowledgment of these things, making them even more intriguing, sort of like that weird hippie you can catch sitting in the background of various episodes of The Young Ones. I didn’t even notice him until years later, but now that I know that he’s sometimes there, squatting in the corner, it’s equally amusing and disturbing. Watch the very first episode, Demolition, and you’ll see him during a scene around the television set. It’s kinda creepy.
As far as the plot goes, it is simple but effective. The movie is based on a series of horror comics by writer Ito Junji, a proclaimed H.P. Lovecraft fan, and the influence of Lovecraft is obvious. Like his inspiration, Ito’s stories are difficult to translate onto film. They are simply too far out there. This problem has plagued countless would-be screenwriters and directors who took on the unenviable task of turning brilliant H.P. Lovecraft stories into incredibly lame movies. Consider that a number of Lovecraft’s stories revolve around creatures who are so intensely terrifying that merely glancing at one is enough to drive someone mad. If you make a movie about such a beast, you either have to show it — which will inevitably be a big disappointment — or not not show it — which would also be a big disappointment. Lovecraft created a fear that simply could not be lifted off the page or out of your own mind.
Likewise, Ito’s stories often defied easy adaptation. Despite the difficult source material, this is a damn effective film that manages to communicate an intangible yet overwhelming horror without ever having to show it. Lovecraft would have been proud, I think. Sure there are kids who turn into creepy slugs, people with weird eyes and hair that spirals up forty feet and continuously swirls around. Sure heads are crushed, people are gutted, and bodies rot before horrified onlookers, but these are all symptoms of what is happening. In the hands of a lesser storyteller or director, the fact that the film never reveals the nature of the seemingly supernatural madness would be a big let-down, but scriptwriter Nitta Takao, armed with Ito Junji’s story and Higuchinsky’s inspired direction, uses the ambiguity to augment the film’s nightmarish tone. It’s truly a stunning feat to have pulled off.
The movie also never tips us off as to what actually happens to our heroine, Kirie. When last we see her, she is in what is, at best, a dire situation, but the closing repetition of the opening narration would imply that she somehow cheated fate. If so, how? We never know, and while that would be a weakness in some films, it’s the reverse here, like never finding out why the birds were attacking people in The Birds. Is it possible that Kirie, who was teased about never being the center of attention, was somehow the focal point of the spiral madness? Was she the eye of the hurricane? Or was she simply insane, dreaming up this whole bizarre scenario in her head? The film is constructed in such a way than any explanation would fail to be as effective as no explanation, leaving the viewer with a lingering feeling of chill and glorious discomfort.
Higuchinsky also uses music brilliantly. The soundtrack is a combination of sappy toy piano sounding “young kids in love” music and off-kilter horror/carnival music. It works further to subvert the feel of the film when you have this quaint and innocent scene of a young girl clinging to the boy she’s loved her whole life while dippy lovey dovey music plays in the background as they ride the bike in slow motion. It’s sweet tot he point of being goofy, but it becomes heart-breaking in a way since you know any second the creepy carnival music is going to start up and no one is going to be very happy.
The cast is up to the task of fleshing out this bizarre world. Hatsune Eriko is great and sympathetic as Kirie, while Fhi Fan as Shuichi is moody, dreary, and detached. At first it almost seems like it’s bad acting, but then you start to think about how many of these self-absorbed mopey guys you knew in high school, and you suddenly realize the kid has nailed it. Unlike the mopey kids in high school, at least this guy lives in a town that is cursed with a madness involving lots of spirals and bloody deaths. Everyone else is basically there to die horribly and go insane, and they all do it well.
The effects are great as well. Actually, the effects are somewhat archaic looking in spots, but once again the director makes it work marvelously for him, turning what should be a drawback into another strength. Competently done but somewhat awkward computer effects serve to embellish an increasingly alien and surreal landscape. The gore effects are bang on, grisly and realistic, and the make-up effects to create the slug people is also great. Unlike those twits who made the updated version of The Haunting, Higuchinsky knows better than to make a movie where there are effects for effect’s sake, and they are the central point to the movie being made. Higuchinsky wants to creep you out, and he is smart enough to know that special effects are just one of many means to that end and not the end themselves. Just like the stylish direction, the special effects are not there just as eye candy. They have a job to do, and they execute it wonderfully.
Uzumaki is a surprising film, and that makes me happy. Like a fairy tale of old, it seizes you from the outset and pulls you deeper and deeper into a world that is too weird to look at but too enticing to turn away from. Even during the quiet moments and build-up scenes, there is enough tension and uneasiness to keep the movie sailing along. When the end hits, it hits hard, and I guarantee the whole thing will stick in your mind a long time after you’ve finished watching. Of course, my guarantee means nothing. It’s not like I’m going to give you an oven mitt if you find yourself dissatisfied. I only have two oven mitts, and I need them both because one is always dirty.
The most refreshing thing about this movie is that it’s not quite like anything else I’ve ever seen. While you can place in the company or H.P. Lovecraft and Twin Peaks, it’s still quite different in many ways. It’s a movie that knows how to lull you into a sense of security, then spring untold amounts of indescribably freakiness ‘pon you. I love a movie that keeps me guessing and thinking, and Uzumaki delivers on a cerebral level, at least for a dolt like me. Uzumaki is a film for people who like to be messed with, who like to be unnerved, who like to get depressed and disturbed by a film out of nowhere, days or weeks after they’ve seen it. You’re sitting there, thinking happy thoughts, and all of a sudden you start thinking about the gruesome “slide show of death” that helps close the movie, and all of a sudden you just feel creeped out. It’s the sort of movie that will be appreciated by people who also appreciate sinister carnival midways and those ringmasters who speak of black things and always seem to have midget henchmen dressed as Aladdin walking behind them playing the squeezebox. It’s a movie for people who just simply delight in the torment of sheer weirdness and surrealistic horror.