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.
Back when I was in high school, someone gave me a copy of the comic book Faust, which by then had become an underground sensation and darling of all the horror film nerds who were also comic book nerds, which I don’t need to tell you constitutes a pretty significant cross-over population. Although much is said in retrospect about the poetic nature of the comic book and the epic struggle of the main character, the flat out truth is that most teenage boys read it because it was full of explicit gore and nudity. “Porno Spawn” as some called it. Nothing about the comic book really caught my attention. I didn’t like the artwork. I thought the story was dumb and derivative. But most of all, I wasn’t into comic books. Although I read a few titles regularly in middle school, ultimately the medium has never held my attention. It’s simply not a mode of storytelling that speaks to me. And yes, that includes all the independent and offbeat comic books that people always challenge me with by saying “Sure, you may not like superhero comics, but wait until you see this!” And then they make me read page after page of some Adrian Tomine story where two quiet girls sit in the back of a station wagon driven by their emotionally remote father until finally, in the last panel, one of them says “It’s cold outside,” and stares at a dead tree or something. I don’t devalue the medium or consider it innately “childish,” and I have no bad words about people for whom comics do work. I’m just not among them.
I will, however, take a few potshots at the concept of “adult” and “edgy” as defined by many comic books. The whole “comics are edgy and not just for kids” thing started, oh, I don’t know. I think it really started in the late 1980s and came to fruition during the 90s, coinciding largely with the dotcom windfall and the onset of the “fifty year adolescence” that now defines the mental and emotional growth patterns of most Americans, Japanese, and probably a few other populations. Until then, it was pretty common for people in their thirties to be buying houses and cars and sending their kids to middle school. But by the time I hit thirty, my contemporaries were more likely to be interested in things that interest middle schoolers than they were to have middle schoolers of their own. And I was certainly part of it all, working as I did for Toyfare magazine and having, at the time, an abundance of disposable income to waste on 12-inch action figures and Fonzie sleeping bags. Needless to say, comic book buying was a big part of this culture for a lot of people. Only there was this whole batch of comics that had stopped attempting to appeal to kids and set their sites instead on adult age collectors. This meant that these comics in theory could be much more involved, much more complex, much deeper, and much more sophisticated. In reality, however, they were mostly just dumber and cruder. Thus featuring tits and gratuitous cursing was labeled “sophisticated,” “edgy,” or “mature.” I have no problem, as you might guess, with dumb, crude, or gratuitous; just don’t try to sell it to me as something more highbrow than what it is.
It was the sort of edginess that one expects of a sullen teenage boy who thinks saying “fuck” a lot is somehow a bold confrontation of society. It’s the most juvenile interpretation of “adult.” And more times than not, it stinks of desperation. Witness, for example, the number of nerds and goofballs who think wearing a black Wolverine or Punisher t-shirt makes them as bad-ass as the characters they worship. First of all, the comic book characters themselves are often embarrassingly desperate in their bad-assness, though not as much so as, say, you might find in a Steven Seagal film. So it goes double to say that buying and wearing a Punisher t-shirt doesn’t make you tough, even if you also purchased a bo staff and a wooden katana at the state fair.
Keep in mind that I kid because I have walked among you, been one of you. I once owned a three-section staff, even though it takes a super master to use that thing without whacking himself in the face. That thing was displayed prominently in my bedroom like I was going to have to whip it out any minute and deal out some justice to a bunch of gangsters who wanted to knock down the community center to make room for a shopping mall — because subscribing to Inside Kungfu made me an instant 110-pound kungfu master even though I only worked out once every two months for about fifteen minutes.
Anyway, we’re not here to discuss the time my girlfriend was kidnapped by the yakuza and I had to fight my way, armed with nothing but a three-section staff, through their throngs to rescue her. Everyone knows about that anyway, as it was in all the local papers. The comic book Faust represents everything I always thought was wrong with “comics aren’t just for kids.” It’s edgy and adult in the most juvenile of fashions, like something a dork such as I would have written then said, “Take that, society! You can’t handle how controversial this is!” But regardless of my opinion, Faust has its fans still, and I’m sure many of them get some genuine value out of what I saw even at a young age as rather goofy tits, gore, and fanfic level attempts at Shakespearean (or Marlowean, I reckon) tragedy. I’m sure these people, in turn, are just as baffled by my ability to garner some degree of enjoyment and meaning from The Mighty Gorga.
Wait, wait, wait. I don’t need to go over the full literary history of Faust, aka Doctor Faustus, do I? The man who sold his soul in order to attain unlimited knowledge, only to discover that making a deal with Mephistopheles (who holds power of attorney for Satan) usually means you get shafted? You know that one, right? If not, you should read it, or at least watch the hilariously overblown Richard Burton vanity project, Doctor Faustus. It’s my favorite of the many, many cinematic adaptations of the play, mostly because it’s so insanely pompous and absurd, but also because it features an in-her-prime Elizabeth Taylor naked and painted green. Say what you want to about the misguided over-indulgence of the rest of the project; at least Burton gave us a nude, green Liz Taylor.
Anyway, round about the same time teenage gorehounds were latching onto the Faust comic book, they were also massing behind the banner of filmmakers Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna. Gordon and Yuzna were the duo responsible for the black-hearted horror-comedy Re-Animator, which to this day remains one of the defining films of modern horror cinema. Now, while Faust the comic book may have never kept my attention, I was more than happy to throw my lot in with Re-Animator. The movie blew me out of the water when first I saw it, and over twenty years later, it’s still one of my favorites. At a time when horror franchises ruled the roost and horror directors were largely unknown even by many fans (everyone can name horror franchises of the 80s, but only places like And You Call Yourself a Scientist can you find people who will be able to name the director on every Friday the 13th film), Stuart Gordon became a name people knew and looked forward to seeing attached to another project.
Similarly, producer Brian Yuzna generated a tremendous amount of goodwill thanks to his involvement with Re-Animator, and when he decided to try his hand at directing, fans were eager to see the results. Well, looking back, it’s safe to say that Yuzna was a better producer than he was director, as his directorial efforts remain a shockingly uneven batch. Although the first film he directed was called Society, the first film he directed that anyone remembers was Bride of Re-Animator, the sequel to his and Gordon’s cult mega-hit. Bride of Re-Animator is a film that divides many people. I haven’t seen it since probably 1991 or so, and at the time, I didn’t like it at all. I should probably give it another go and see if my opinion of it has changed in the same way it has for From Beyond, another Gordon-Yuzna collaboration based on an H.P. Lovecraft short story.
Similarly, Yuzna’s Return of the Living Dead III divides critics and fans alike, with some heralding it as a dramatic recovery after the idiotic Return of the Living Dead II, while others consider it a clumsy, poorly written piece of junk (I happen to be in the camp of the latter). Still, when it came out that Yuzna was slated to direct a film version of Faust, fans were hopeful. At the very least, there was little chance that the man who gave us Barbara Crampton getting eaten out by a disembodied head was going to pull any punches when it came to bringing Faust‘s sex and gore to the screen.
Whether this timidly positive outlook was justified has divided fans just as it has on pretty much everything Yuzna has done without Stuart Gordon. However, I’m willing to bet that most fans of the comic book did not want to see Faust turned into a wisecracking Freddy Krueger in a ridiculous looking Power Rangers villain outfit. Well, that’s what they got. In retrospect, you really should have seen it coming.
Bland actor Mark Frost is John Jaspers, a painter (not to be confused with real life painter Jasper Johns) who we first meet after he has, for some reason no one ever bothers to try and figure out, just massacred everyone inside a Chinese consulate building. While the SWAT team is keen to kill the guy, the fact that he lapses into a docile, near catatonic state means they have no choice but to simply arrest him instead. He then becomes the burden of idiotic psychiatrist Jade De Camp (Isabel Brook). She’s the kind of doctor who walks into the padded cell of a man who has just slaughtered an entire building full of people and then covered his cell with esoteric scratching and runes using his own blood, and proceeds to hand him a pointy pen, a stack of CDs in pointy plastic jewel cases, and a CD player. Just once, I wish someone writing one of these movies would do some basic research into what is and is not done when walking into the cell of a guy who just murdered a hundred people.
Doc Jade eventually makes a breakthrough with Jaspers, and via flashback he relates to her the bizarre tale that never really explains why he had to go slaughter everyone in the Chinese Embassy. It turns out that Jaspers has made a deal with the devil, or at least with the devil’s duly appointed representative on earth, M (Andrew Divoff, with the requisite black overcoat and long fingernails everyone assumes these guys always have — what if the devil showed up and was expertly manicured and showcased some basic sartorial taste? Or what if he showed up and instead of being some goth guy, he was just a hideous monster?), after being driven to suicide because of the murder of his beloved Blue (Jennifer Rope). Jaspers was granted the strength, skill, and requisite tools (in this case, big ol’ Wolverine razor claws) to extract revenge. In exchange, he would have to serve M after the task of revenge was complete. Exactly why M needed to take out the Chinese embassy is a detail I don’t think we ever quite have delivered to us, though one can assume it is part of some nefarious scheme for world domination, or possibly retaliation for there being so many Chinese who don’t believe in Satan.
Whatever the case, that’s how Jaspers ends up in the insane asylum, or so he says. Jade isn’t sure how much of the goofy madness to believe, but she seems to believe pretty quickly that something strange is up and that M and his secret society really exist, even if he doesn’t actually possess the devil powers that might justify his ill-clipped fingernails. She is warned off the case by a number of people, and before she has much time to think about it, Jaspers is spirited away by unknown abducters. Her only trustworthy ally is a cop named Margolies (the always welcome Jeffery Combs), who becomes obsessed with M’s cult and does one of those web searches where the first thing to come up is a website that details every single thing you need to know about the cult.
Exactly why a secret society bent on unleashing darkness unto this world and headed up by a demon, needs a webpage is a bit of a mystery, but then, 90% of the sites that offer a “social network” have no real need for it, either. I guess even Mephistopheles can get swept up in dotcom exuberance. I imagine that M was really excited about websites (this film being made in 2001 means that we were at the tail end of the dotcom boom), so on his own time, he made a site, complete with lots of animated gifs of dancing devils, that Java applet that made watery wavy text and crashed everyone’s browser, and an embedded autoplaying midi file of “Danse Macabre.” He got all excited about it and showed it to Satan, but being old school, Satan didn’t really get the whole idea, though he did like the animated gifs of dancing devils. Still, it seemed to mean a lot to M, so Satan let him put it up on Geocities (because although he was willing to humor M, Satan wasn’t willing to pay for hosting).
I guess the alternative explanation is that the site was started by one of those conspiracy freaks who tracks such things as secret societies, but then all that does is beg the question of what kind of security this secret society has if a conspiracy theorist outsider can make a webpage about them and get every single detail correct. Either way, at the end of the business day, Satan grabs his temple with his thumb and index finger and just shakes his head, muttering, “M, I swear, if you weren’t Beelzebub’s nephew…”
As we discover through the exposition of M’s right-hand woman who can’t keep her clothes on (Monica Van Campen), Jaspers was supposed to die after completing the mission. With that bit of the plan having gone awry, they decide to bury Jaspers alive. Unfortunately, the damage to their secrecy is done, as Jade and Margolies are already on their trail. Plus, rather than dying, Jaspers is sent to hell, where he has to watch a 1980s Judas Priest video, complete with a poorly realized yet strangely cool skeleton crawling around. As a result of being straddled by this skeleton from the “Turbo Lover” video, Jaspers returns to earth with all new super demon powers, which include the ability to swish around a cape made of his own skin, the ability to wear black lipstick, the ability to have absolutely perfect white movie star teeth, and the ability to bug out his eyes and make wisecracks.
He gets to use his new demon powers to save Jade when she is being attacked by some of M’s goons. It’s at this point that you realize just how far off the rails this movie is going to go. I don’t know why movies feel the need to have everyone make wisecracks, but they do, and we’re all worse off for it. Jaspers, now Faust, spews one-liners with the rapid speed and stomach-turning insipidness of the Crypt Keeper, and he does it while wearing what is supposed to be his new demon body. It actually looks like a goofy Power Rangers/Guyver rubber monster outfit, complete with monster-foot-shaped shoes. Any chance that this film had of pleasing fans of the comic probably went out the window as soon as floppy-foot Power Rangers Faust comes backflipping into the scene with his Freddy Krueger wisecracks and tendency to make “Oh mammy, how I love ya!” Al Jolson faces.
So the game is on. M wants to kidnap Jade to get to Faust. M’s henchwoman Claire wants to usurp M’s power, possibly because he made her endure the movie’s most hilariously stupid scene, where he turns her into a tits-and-ass monster so ludicrous that it’ll make you think more fondly of the Faust costume. Margolies is continually tempted to sell his soul for more knowledge about whatever the hell it is M is supposed to know. The whole thing ends with a showdown during M’s “summon the giant demon” ritualistic orgy.
Man, this movie is goofy. Really goofy. It explores the darker regions explored by the comic book, topics such as corruption of the innocent, abuse, selling your soul, S&M, so on and so forth, but it’s done within a movie that is so silly, so juvenile, and starring a wisecracking demon in a rubber monster suit, that any attempt to be twisted, sinister, dark, or otherwise anything other than absurd is completely undercut by the schizophrenic tone. Yuzna, as we know, has an addiction to cornball comedy and wisecracks, but without the steady hand of Stuart Gordon or screenwriter Dennis Paoli to reel in the more ludicrous ideas, Yuzna is left to wallow in his own one-liners and baser comic tendencies. There is some attempt here to mine the same balance of comedy, terror, and sex as Gordon and Yuzna achieved in Re-Animator and From Beyond, but it fails miserably. Hilariously and miserably.
There’s not any single reason the film fails, though the script is obviously one of the bigger reasons out of the sundry. Mark Frost hasn’t starred in many movies, and his performance here is a pretty good example of why. He overacts and chews scenery with ravenous abandon. When he has to express pain and despair in human form, he does so by making a bug-eyed sad face that would embarrass most middle school actors. When he is in Faust form, it’s all tongue waggling and that thing where you sort of exhale, sort of exclaim, “Yeah!” If you hear, it, you’ll know it. It’s impossible for anything that happens to possess any degree of gravitas, and it’s impossible to feel anything we’re supposed to feel for Jaspers when his performance is so ridiculous.
I would say he could have looked to Jeffery Combs (Re-Animator, From Beyond, and too many others to list) for guidance on how to play a character that is equal parts pathetic, admirable, insane, and doomed, but for this trip out, Combs has to dial his usual quirk and weirdness down to a more mundane level. The film would have been better severed by having Frost play it straight while Combs’ Margolies shoulders the silliness, as he has a remarkable talent at taking something absurd and still making it have an air of menace. Combs’ performance here is not bad, mind you, and I know he can’t be crazy ol’ Jeffery Combs every time, but in this case, I think it would have been good. Actually, I wish he’d been playing here the twitchy freakish FBI agent character he plays in The Frighteners.
The rest of the cast is actually pretty good. Monica Van Campen makes a perfect succubus, and Andrew Divoff plays M with predictable but confident “furrowing my brow” style. Still, even though he was perfectly acceptable in the role of M, all I could think of during the film was “Imagine if this was Richard Lynch! No, no, no! Wait! Imagine if it was Billy Drago!” He does fall back on the “standing with outstretched arms” pose a little too frequently. Isabel Brook can’t help her character being written so stupidly, but she’s still pretty good within the confines of a poorly written psychiatrist. When Claire transforms her into “Harlot Jade,” she gets a chance to compete with Frost for hammiest overactor, but where as his is all grinning and tongue waggling, hers is all writhing about and feeling her own boobs while hissing, so by my standards, she’s the winner.
Yuzna’s direction is decent enough. The movie has that fakey setbound look that so many similar direct-to-video films of the time possess. He pulls off some nice shots without ever really letting his direction intrude on the story. Although maybe it should have intruded on the story, because the script is the film’s biggest weakness. It’s not the story itself, which is pretty run of the mill with some sex stuff thrown in; it’s the vision of the characters. The script comes to us courtesy of David Quinn, one of the creators of the original comic book, so I guess I can’t blame Yuzna for all the comedy and wisecrackin’. These guys must share responsibility. My assumption is that the comedy is there to take the edge off the sex and violence and deflect any potential criticism of the blending of such things — as if it hadn’t been done before, more explicitly, and better. It’ feels like this movie preemptively neutered itself in anticipation of moral outrage that never came and never really does come for obscure direct to video cult items.
So if you are looking to be scared or wowed, or if you were hoping the film would somehow be gritty or grim or edgy, you’re going to be disappointed. However, if you can roll with the goofiness of a demon anti-hero who seems to be taking acting queues from Jimmy Walker, this movie is fun enough, stupid enough, and warped enough to be a pretty entertaining, dumb time. It is crammed full of weird stuff, from a demon in a rubber suit to a hot Eastern European chick who gets turned into a fakey looking boobs-and-butt blob. The entire thing is a mess, but it’s a pretty glorious mess and one that, as I said in the beginning, felt like a friend after it finally finished pummeling my sense with how bad it was. It may not be the movie Faust fans wanted, but Faust fans read Faust, so you can’t really trust their taste any more than you can trust mine.
Release Year: 2001 | Country: United States, Spain | Starring: Mark Frost, Isabel Brook, Jennifer Rope, Jeffrey Combs, Monica Van Campen, Leslie Charles, Fermi Reixach, Junix Inocian, Robert Paterson, Marc Martinez, Andrew Divoff | Writer: David Quinn | Director: Brian Yuzna | Cinematographer: Jacques Haitkin | Music: Xavier Capellas | Producer: Julio Fernandez, Brian Yuzna
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.