I was strolling across Prague’s Karluv Most, as is the way of a jetsetting international gentleman such as myself, admiring the irreverent and disrespectful birds who insist on perching atop the heads of historical and religious figures of considerable import, when out of the corner of my eye I spied something somewhat more appealing to my temperaments than a procession of earnest and tortured looking popes, saints, and saviors. Nestled into a cozy looking cobblestone cul de sac at the western end of the bridge was a wooly mammoth. “My word!” I exclaimed at this unexpected but not unwelcome sight, “this looks just the sort of thing in needs of a more detailed degree of exploration.” On a stone arch above the gate that opened into the mammoth’s courtyard was a sign: Film Special Effects Museum. And below it the sub-head: Muzeum Karla Zemana.
Since the day Tony Jaa, Prachya Pinkaew, and Panna Rittikrai suddenly popped up on fight film fans’ radars, Thailand has become the go-to place for the hyperactive, bone-jarring, stunt filled, totally ridiculous style of film making that defined the Hong Kong action film industry in the 1980s. The arrival of Thailand on the martial arts movie scene was a breath of fresh air, or if not fresh air, it was at least a second wind that gave us hope in a time when Hong Kong action cinema was basically dead, and the only place cranking out halfway decent action films was, weirdly enough, France. Ong Bak was like a long lost star quarterback showing up to save his team in the final minutes of a big game, and we rejoiced. What was even better was that Jaa’s success spawned a bunch of imitators in his native Thailand and seemed to light a fire under the ass of Hong Kong film makers, inspiring them to maybe think about making fun movies again.
Cirio Santiago’s Future Hunters resembles some ancient horror buried for millions of years at the bottom of a pit beneath some black and unnamed ruin of a city comprised primarily of forms and colors that have no corresponding point of reference in our own universe. In fact, when first I purchased this movie on VHS, I ended up returning it as defective. I bought it used from a video store that was liquidating its stock back in 1995 or so, and a few days later I popped it in the VCR and set about watching it while I did some simple household chores. The film started out as a Road Warrior rip-off, with occasional Hong Kong action film villain Richard Norton tearing around the post-apocalyptic wasteland in a muscle car. Familiar enough territory. Then I got distracted, possibly by the discovery that our refrigerator had been leaking, and the leakage had turned into a putrid yellowish goo underneath the crisper drawers (man, talk about unspeakable Lovecraftian horrors). When I finished toweling up the gelatinous gloop and throwing the towel onto the roof of the credit union across the parking lot (I was young and punk then — take that, society), I returned to the living room and found that someone had recorded a different movie over the one I’d purchased. Because there on my massive ten-inch screen was a Bruce Le kungfu film, with the famous Bruce Lee imitator locked in mortal kicking combat with Hwang Jang Lee wearing a silver wig.
At the risk of sounding even more like a broken record than I usually do, allow me once again reiterate a common theme for much of what we discuss here: exploring the vast world of international cult cinema is as frustrating as it is rewarding. Rewarding because, obviously, it opens a whole world — quite literally — of totally outrageous movies that will completely blow your mind, that the average “man on the street” has no idea even exists, and that are packed to the gills with glorious outlandish beauty. Frustrating because, just as obviously, so many of these films — especially one from outside the United States, Europe, and Japan — are so very hard to find even in their country of origin. Similarly, even finding the most basic information on many of these movies, either in print or online, is often almost impossible.
If I rack my brain, I can come up with an English language corollary by which to describe Fantomas. But that doesn’t change my perception that there is something irreducibly French about the character. Certainly, Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu is similar, in that he is one of those rare examples of a villain serving as the central figure and driving force behind a popular series. But, while Fu Manchu’s representation was that of a monstrous “other”, playing on the racial anxieties of the age in which he was created, Fantomas seems more like a personification of the id unleashed. As such, he engages his audience in fantasies of a life lived without borders or moral constraints, with the traditional heroes and cops-and-robbers aspects of the stories serving to house those fantasies within a socially acceptable context. It’s as if Bataille or De Sade had chosen to couch their transgressive works within the format of a dime detective novel.
There are three Roger Cormans. The first Corman is the director Corman. Working primarily at American International Pictures, young Corman was famous for being able to crank out competent, successful films on time and under budget with a surprising consistency. Although Corman’s name is often associated with drive-in schlock, in my opinion most of what he made was, at the worst, adequate for the intended purpose of entertaining the teenagers. And on occasion, Corman directed some genuine classics of genre cinema. His Poe films with Vincent Price, for example, are some of the best Gothic horror films you’ll find.
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
Shunya Ito’s first entry in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, was essentially a women-in-prison picture that combined the action, violence and titillation typical of that subgenre with a striking number of audacious artistic touches. Ito’s second entry, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, was a whole other animal entirely. Emboldened, perhaps, by the success of the first film and the amount of creative leeway given him by Toei, Ito this time largely dispensed with genre trappings and delivered a film that was even more obviously the product of a singular directorial vision. Relentlessly bleak and harrowing, yet suffused with a desolate, breathtaking beauty and daring sense of visual invention, Jailhouse 41 is like a nightmare you don’t want to wake up from.
One of the most obvious changes that this second entry makes to the Scorpion template is in the presentation of its heroine. The fact that the first film had dealt with the pedestrian niceties of back-story allowed Ito — aided by another astonishing performance from his star, Meiko Kaji — to free Matsu/aka Scorpion from the moorings of earthbound considerations of character and move her completely into the realm of archetype. As such, Kaji portrays her as an extra-human engine of vengeance with a nuclear core of rage forged from the countless injustices done her by men and the corrupt, male-driven society that they represent: In short, the terrible price of all her nation’s sins given human form.
While Female Prisoner #701 sought to provide Matsu with a narrative that gave her recognizably human motivations, Jailhouse 41 renders all of that irrelevant by telling us everything we need to know about her character in a brief, opening credits sequence of startling power and economy. It is this increased sure-handedness that relegates the first film — although an impressive and unique work in its own right — to being clearly the least of the three Scorpion films that Ito directed, and marks Jailhouse 41 as the film in which the series came decisively into its own.
In Jailhouse 41, Ito builds a lot upon those elements of his creative arsenal that he put to use in the first film — his visual references to traditional Japanese theater and the use of hallucinatory sequences involving horror movie-like imagery among them — but he also introduces many new ones. One of those is his practice here of having the actors freeze in tableau during certain scenes — something that comes off looking a lot weirder than a simple freeze frame would. Creative sound design also plays a much bigger part in this film, and even extends to abruptly cutting the sound completely at some points in order to better portray — as many of these effects are intended to — Matsu’s interior reality. It is this expressive use of sound that serves so well to make our introduction to Matsu in Jailhouse 41 such a memorable one.
The film begins with an echoing, disembodied female voice repeatedly calling the name “Sasori” (Scorpion), as if in incantation, as the camera snakes through the dark, cavern-like hallways leading down into the bowels of the prison. Finally we reach the door to Matsu’s subterranean cell, and the haunting call gives way to a steady and methodically persistent scraping sound. As the sound continues, we see Matsu, lying with her hands chained behind her back on the damp floor of the dungeon-like cell, her back to us, much as she was at the beginning of the last film — though this time, we will learn, she has been chained alone in that cell for a full year’s time. We are unable to make out the source of the sound until the camera moves around to face Matsu, at which point we see that she has clenched tightly between her teeth a metal spoon, which she is tirelessly working to sharpen by scraping it repeatedly against a very well-worn groove in the concrete floor — her face all the while frozen in a look of cauldron-eyed fury that is almost terrifying beyond description. As the credits roll, she is shown over the course of time (Days? …Months?), her position changing very little as she ceaselessly sharpens away, the piece of metal clasped in her jaws gradually transforming from a spoon into a blade. By the time this sequence is over, we have seen more than enough to convince us of Matsu’s preternatural singularity of purpose, and wouldn’t doubt for a minute that she could spend the entirety of a year in sleepless pursuit of fashioning an implement of vengeance.
As the credits end, Matsu’s labor are interrupted by a visit from the warden (Fumio Watanabe). Since losing his eye to Matsu in the first installment, the warden has clearly become as obsessively dedicated to Matsu’s unhappiness as she is to his, and he informs her in no uncertain terms that he intends for her to be locked in her underground tomb forever — with the exception of today, when she will be briefly trotted out in order to keep up appearances for a visiting prison official. The warden further informs her, with some regret, that he has accepted a promotion that will place him outside the prison, and, as a result, he will no longer be able to personally supervise her constant brutalization. Matsu responds to this news with a subtle amplification of what I referred to in my review of the first film as THE LOOK, letting us know that she sees this as her last chance for payback.
That look, now honed to a lacerating acuity, will get a serious workout over the course of Jailhouse 41. Because, while Kaji’s performance in the first Scorpion film wasn’t a particularly verbal one, her turn here renders it positively chatty by comparison. Matsu speaks a mere two lines over the entire course of the film, both of which occur within the final fifteen minutes and are comprised of less than four words (and one of which, “You sold me”, is, fittingly, a testament of betrayal). This makes Kaji’s performance here even more of a wonder to behold. Certainly, there are moments in which Matsu speaks through action, but it is those moments of stillness — of watching, of waiting — that most indelibly define her character. Given this, Kaji’s take on Scorpion comes across as nothing less than an iron-willed assertion of sheer presence — and goes a long way toward justifying her cult icon status today.
When Matsu is herded into the prison’s exercise yard — manacled and, by all appearances, barely able to walk thanks to her months spent in chains — we see that her long absence from the general population has made her something of a legend among the other inmates, and her presence is greeted by them with hushed awe. Propped up by two guards, she is forced into formation with the other prisoners as the visiting official walks among them, spouting stultifying rehabilitory bromides. Matsu is less hobbled than she seems, however, and, when the first opportunity arises, she make a lunge for the warden. She fails narrowly in her intended goal of taking out the warden’s remaining good eye, but succeeds spectacularly in putting the fear of God into the visiting official, who promptly drops to his knees and shits in his pants. Inspired by Scorpion’s example, the other prisoners run riot through the yard.
Punishment comes for the inmates in the form of hard labor in the rock quarry, though Matsu is relegated to simply walking among them with a heavy cross-shaped tree stump lashed to her back. Observing this, the warden lets the guards know that, if their intention was to break Scorpion’s influence over the prisoners, their semiotics are a little off. He instead proposes to humiliate Matsu in front of her peers once and for all by having her gang raped by a group of guards in monks robes and stocking masks. This brutal act is perpetrated by the guards with all of the nightmarishly caricatured grotesquerie that we’ve come to count on from the Pinky Violence genre’s depictions of male rapacity, and accomplished with Matsu, glaring molten daggers all the while, still spread-eagled upon the makeshift cross, proving that Norifumi Suzuki was not the only Japanese exploitation director who delighted in flailing away at Christian iconography.
Sadly, this defilement seems to achieve its intended purpose, and, with the exception of a sensitive young inmate named Rose, Matsu is promptly turned upon by her deliriously stir-crazy fellow convicts. On the meatwagon ride back to the prison, she is beaten mercilessly by a gang lead by Oba (Kayoko Shiraishi), a vicious older inmate with a face frozen in the stylized grimace of a Kabuki demon. With this beating, however, Oba has unwittingly aided Matsu in effecting the gang’s escape, for when the guards, believing her dead, come to check on her condition, Matsu manages to overpower and strangle one of them with her chains. After taking out the remaining guard, Matsu, Oba, Rose and four other prisoners escape into the surrounding wilderness. When the warden and his lieutenants later arrive upon the scene, they find the van trashed and both guards dead — one of them, a participant in Matsu’s rape at the quarry, gorily castrated with a tree stump (one of those sights that is all the more horrible for how it sets you to imagining just how on Earth the act was accomplished).
A couple weeks back I reviewed Cecil B. DeMille’s silent film The Godless Girl, an early example of the youth-in-prison genre that took a different, but equally allegorical, approach to its depiction of prison life vs. life on the “outside” as Jailhouse 41. In that film, the young protagonists make a break for it and are able to escape momentarily into the countryside beyond the prison’s walls. This is presented as a brief, idyllic episode, with the lush natural surroundings representing an Eden-like paradise that stands in stark contrast to the Hell on Earth represented by the prison. In Jailhouse there is no such contrast, as the women, once “free”, find the outside world to be every bit as harsh and filled with cruelty as their former confines. To underscore this, the landscape they travel through after their escape is shown as a blasted, volcanic wasteland, and their first shelter a desolate ghost town half buried in black ash. The message is clearly that, being that these are women whose lives and actions have placed them outside the narrow roles defined for them by society, theirs is a world that has no place for them, and offers no true freedom.
Of course, under these circumstances the women prove to be just as much of a threat to each other as anything else in their environment, as their time in prison seems to have left most of them too addled to take any kind of effective or concerted action. It is Matsu alone who maintains a composed — albeit hyper-vigilant — facade, and the volatility and caterwauling that surrounds her serves even more to underscore her unnatural stillness. This eerie calm — and the way that Matsu watches Oba as if in deep recognition of something Oba herself seems desperate to avoid understanding — leads Oba to see Matsu as a threat, and to tirelessly seek to engage her in a power struggle that Matsu invariably wins by virtue of abstaining from it. Despite this adversarial relationship, the two are repeatedly framed as being inextricably linked, and it is predictably Oba’s resistance to seeing her and Matsu’s fates as being bound together that leads to her end.
It is hard to single out one moment in Jailhouse 41 as being the film’s most haunting, because there are many such moments. From the outset of the women’s dash to freedom through this nightmarish terrain, Ito creates an atmosphere that makes even those moments that, on paper, read like simple convicts-on-the-run boilerplate fraught with a creeping sense of horror and unease. But the moment that takes the most decisive turn toward the supernatural occurs during the women’s brief hideaway in the ash-blasted ghost town. The night brings a violent storm, during which the women are drawn to a small hut whose walls suddenly collapse to reveal a mad-eyed old woman, cowering in a blanket with a knife tightly gripped in both hands. Later, as the women gather around a fire, the old woman, still clutching the knife, sings an eerie song, lamenting — in an echo of the Scorpion series’ theme song, sung over the credits of each film by Kaji herself — that “women commit crimes because of men”. Over a series of surreal tableaus staged in the formal, stylized manner of Kabuki theater, she goes on to sing of each woman’s crimes, and we learn that Oba, in a fit of rage against a philandering husband, murdered her own children, one of them an unborn whom she killed by stabbing herself in the womb.
Later, when the warden and his men are closing in on them, the prisoners escape with the old woman into a forest of maple trees that Ito has bathed in a disconcertingly artificial looking autumnal glow. The old woman collapses and, before dying, relinquishes the knife to Matsu while mumbling something about a curse. A ghostly wind whips through the trees and partially buries the body of the woman in fallen leaves, after which it vanishes into thin air. We then see Matsu, now holding the knife, as her hair whips wildly in the wind, a sudden unearthly glow rising upon her face. For anyone who might have stumbled upon Jailhouse 41 with the expectation of seeing a run-of-the-mill women’s prison picture, this has to be the movie’s most resounding WTF moment.
The women’s further adventures on the lamb yield no less amount of strangeness or misfortune. Once they have taken shelter on the outskirts of a small village, it’s demonstrated how straying from the group leads to tragic consequences. One women is lured by the warden, using her small child and elderly parents as bait, and coerced into betraying the others, which leads to a bloody confrontation that leaves two guards and one of the women dead. Later, young Rose wanders off and encounters a group of drunken salarymen on holiday, one of whom has just been regaling his companions with tales of raping Chinese civilians during the war. The world that Jailhouse 41 has sketched for us decrees only one possible outcome for this meeting, and so Rose is brutally raped and murdered, her body tossed like a rag doll from a cliff into the rapids of a nearby river. In just one of many of the film’s instances of surreal visual poetry, the waterfall runs deep crimson as a result, and the women, seeing this, intuit exactly what has happened. Matsu and the others trail the men to the tour bus from which they came and hijack it, taking all of the passengers onboard hostage.
During the siege that follows, the escapees terrorize their captives in a vindictive frenzy, while Matsu, still clutching the old woman’s knife, watches in her usual impenetrable silence from the front of the bus. She entertains a hallucination of the bus suddenly converting into a minimalistically-rendered courtroom with the passengers as a hectoring jury and the women kneeling in chains before them. This morphs into an even stranger fantasy scenario in which the women are each shown being trapped in fishing nets and prodded at by a jeering crowd of villagers, until Matsu manages to cut through the net with the old woman’s blade and stand triumphantly before her stunned persecutors. You think for a moment that Matsu might intervene on behalf of those hostages who appear to be innocent, but these visions seem to advise her otherwise.
Jailhouse 41 ends similarly to the first Scorpion film, with Matsu, the sole survivor out of the original gang of seven, back on the streets after having successfully avoided capture by a variety of single-mindedly ruthless means. Now clad in the same black pimping ensemble she wore at the end of Female Prisoner #701, she is now intent on enacting the vengeance that she has been thirsting for since the outset. Unlike the first time, however, her target is the warden, and she dispatches him in much the same protracted manner she did her betraying boyfriend the first time around, stalking him relentlessly through the streets and slashing him to ribbons with the blade bestowed upon her by the old woman. Once this is accomplished, we see Matsu reflected in the Warden’s glass eye, laughing hysterically — after which she is seen reunited with her fellow escapees, all back in their prison uniforms and running through the streets of the apparently deserted city, handing the knife one off to the other as they go.
As jarring as it is to see a smile on Meiko Kaji’s face after all that has gone before, this fanciful coda was the only such sequences in Jailhouse 41 that fell a little flat for me. For one thing, that Scorpion’s killing of the warden would appear to so effectively lift her burden seems to contradict the tone of the entire film, as it would more likely be a hollow victory, and leave no fewer insurmountable battles in its wake. Furthermore, the image of the women passing the knife between them, while fashionably militant, represents an offering up of a somewhat glib and depressingly limited concept of girl power. Of a piece, it seems like a pat, conciliatory gesture tacked onto the end of a film that has to this point been uncompromising in its vision. Of course, that vision may be unrelentingly bleak, but there is enough redemption to be found in the beauty and inspired ingenuity of its unveiling to render any tacked-on upbeat ending unnecessary. After all, one of the things that carved out a special place for this film in my heart is how it manages to be so oppressively nihilistic in its content while being so transcendent in its presentation.
So what is Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, you might ask. Is it a women-in-prison film? A horror film? An exploitation film? An art film? The answer — as it is when anyone poses those kind of rhetorical questions in the context of a film review — is that it’s all of those in fairly equal measure. It is also a film that is filled with more ideas than its somewhat loosely structured screenplay at times seems capable of holding, and as a result it can come across to some as little more than a series of dazzling but only tangentially connected set pieces. This is an impression that will, I feel, be allayed by repeat viewings. Because — other than those that I singled out above — each of those set pieces ultimately reveals itself to be true to the film’s emotional and moral core. As I said, this film is like a nightmare, and, in taking the form of a dream, it gains cohesion from the beating heart of emotional truth that hides within it, rather than from anything approaching a tidy narrative structure. Also like a nightmare, it has a way of sticking with you long after it has come and gone.
While Jailhouse 41‘s final sequence feels like it wants to be the end of the story, the truth, as most of you know, is that that was far from the case. Shunya Ito had one more Scorpion film in him — and while it’s arguable that, with Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable, the director topped Jailhouse 41, it is certain that he contributed yet another bold addition to the series.
Release Year: 1972 | Country: Japan | Starring: Meiko Kaji, Fumio Watanabe, Kayoko Shiraishi, Hiroko Isayama, Yukie Kagawa | Writers: Hiro Matsuda, Tooru Shinohara | Director: Shunya Ito | Music: Shunsuke Kikuchi | Also known as: Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, Scorpion: Female Prisoner Cage #41, Joshuu Sasori: Dai-41 Zakkyo-bo
You might think that the women-in-prison genre is so rigid in its conventions that it wouldn’t allow room for much experimentation, but leave it to the Japanese to prove that assumption wrong. The first three films in the Female Prisoner Scorpion series, all of which were directed by Shunya Ito, stand out for me as the pinnacle of artistically-rendered 1970s Japanese exploitation. Each film is stuffed full of surrealist imagery, imaginative compositions and breathtaking visual lyricism. Of course, being that they are women-in-prison films, they are also stuffed full of shower scenes, lesbianism and graphic violence. But, unlike the previously discussed Norifumi Suzuki, who was content to just let the sleazier elements of his movies sit uneasily alongside his occasional moments of cinematic inspiration, Ito somehow managed to make all of those elements blend together into a more or less cohesive whole.
Though the first Female Prisoner Scorpion (or Joshuu Sasori) film, Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion, was Ito’s debut as a director, he had already served an apprenticeship in trangressive genre filmmaking as a frequent assistant director to Teruo Ishii during his early years at Toei Studio. Ishii, who directed the popular Abashiri Prison films, is probably best known outside of Japan for controversial mindbenders such as Horrors of Malformed Men and the Joy of Torture series, as well as for the Super Giant serials that were repackaged for US television as the Starman films (and which were, despite being aimed squarely at the kids, some of the most disconcertingly dark examples of Japanese superheroism committed to film). It’s hard not to assume that some of Ishii’s hallucinatory sense of invention rubbed off on Ito, especially given the aversion to the ordinary that’s apparent in his filmmaking style.
The source material for the Scorpion films was the popular manga series Sasori, which was created by artist Tooru Shinohara and began its run in Japan’s monthly Big Comics magazine in 1970. This inspiration explains a lot of Ito’s more striking visual constructions, which were clearly an attempt to emulate the violent expressiveness of manga’s graphic style. While he was successful in this regard, Ito would have a tougher time preserving Shinohara’s conception of his heroine in translating her to the screen. As presented in the manga, Sasori was a foul-mouthed street brawler, an earthy characterization that lead to some objections on the part of the star who was assigned to play her — a star who clearly had very definite ideas about how she did and did not want to be represented on screen.
That star, of course, was Meiko Kaji, who has gone on to achieve cult icon status worldwide due to her role in Toho’s Lady Snowblood films, as well as for her turn as Scorpion. Kaji had recently come over to Toei from Nikkatsu, fleeing her former studio when it made the turn from action movies to the almost exclusive production of kinky soft-core films. Before that time, she had attained stardom with her lead role in Nikkatsu’s Stray Cat Rock series of films, which were somewhat milder early forays into the Pinky Violence genre. Now being groomed as an action star at Toei, Kaji was likely a natural choice for the role of Sasori. However, the actress didn’t take kindly to the comic character’s expletive-spouting demeanor, which resulted in Ito taking Sasori’s screen incarnation in a markedly different direction.
As resonant as it is, Shunya Ito’s style is anything but subtle, and the director wasn’t averse to presenting his characters as boldly drawn archetypes. As such, Sasori was reimagined as something far more elemental than in her manga depiction, as a wraith-like embodiment of feminine rage. The Scorpion films are essentially Pinky Violence movies, after all, and are even more explicit and mantra-like than other films in that genre in presenting the state of balance between the sexes as being a literal war, with men as an oppressive force representing all of society’s ills. As the series’ theme song — a mournful enka ballad sung by Kaji herself — makes abundantly clear, all that women can expect from these men is betrayal — or, as Kaji’s character says at one point, “To be deceived is a woman’s crime”.
Female Prisoner #701 even goes on to extend culpability for that betrayal to the nation itself. Ironically framed images of the Japanese flag abound. And, early in the film, when Matsu — aka Scorpion — loses her virginity to the man who will ultimately sell her out, we’re shown a red spot of blood on a white sheet that spreads in mimicry of the flag’s design. (I’ve got to say that, in their desperate attempts to lure audience members of both sexes with seemingly very opposite types of catharsis, the makers of Pinky Violence movies really came up with a unique combination, seemingly drawing in part from the Hollywood “Women’s Pictures” of the forties: Think Mildred Pierce with lots of tits and gore.)
So clearly Matsu has a lot to be angry about. And, indeed, her rage goes so deep that it seems to render her almost superhuman, burning within her like an empowering nuclear core. She is capable of dying, you imagine, but is just too pissed off to ever let it happen. Given that this is the character’s one essential trait, Kaji’s portrayal of her basically boils down to one facial expression. Which is not meant in the least as a criticism of Kaji’s performance — because, you see, it’s a really good facial expression. In fact, during those moments in Female Prisoner #701 when Kaji is not making that expression, the audience is left in a tense holding pattern, waiting for that expression to make its appearance. Because, when it does, it means that some deserving soul is about to do some serious suffering.
While not conventional on its own merits, Female Prisoner #701 is definitely the most conventional of the three Scorpion films that Ito directed. This is partly because it’s saddled with the responsibility of telling its protagonist’s back-story, a seeming necessity that, once you’ve seen the other films, doesn’t end up seeming all that necessary at all. As portrayed by Kaji, Matsu is such a force of nature that it doesn’t really matter why she became who she is. She just is. Still, that this element is included in Female Prisoner #701 certainly doesn’t take away from the film. And being that it shows our heroine’s transformation from a naive and vulnerable young woman into the dagger-eyed vengeance engine that she becomes, it affords Kaji the opportunity to show a bit more range, as well as say a few more scattered lines of dialog than she does in the subsequent films, in which she’s practically mute.
Providing Matsu with a story of how she came to be in prison — one that, while not presenting her as innocent, clearly shows her as a victim, and hence worthy of audience sympathy — is also one of the aspects that makes Female Prisoner #701 hew more closely than the other films to the conventions of the typical WIP film. Another is that it is the only of the original Scorpion films whose action — beyond flashbacks — takes place almost entirely within the prison’s walls. The two succeeding films would increasingly stretch their creative and locational legs, gradually doing away with their dependence on the prison setting as they set out to explore more and more bizarre thematic territory (culminating in Ito’s farewell to the series, the sublime, hauntingly beautiful Female Prisoner Scorpion: Beast Stable, which tops the previous two both in terms of depravity and genuine emotional impact).
Female Prisoner #701 begins with an escape attempt by Matsu and her partner Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe), which is foiled when Yuki is injured and Matsu refuses to leave her side. (Matsu’s relationship to Yuki is never spelled out, but the younger prisoner is the only other character in the movie toward whom Matsu shows any amount of tenderness or concern.) It’s clear that this escape is not the first act of defiance on Matsu’s part, and it further strengthens the resolve of the dictatorial warden (Fumio Watanabe) to break her will once and for all — a project he pursues variably on his own or by proxy through the efforts of his cretinous guards and the cackling group of hags who have been granted trustee privileges by him. Resolve is something that Matsu is no stranger to, of course, and she matches the warden’s every attempt at suppression, not only with increasing deployments of THE LOOK, but also with increasingly creative acts of payback against his minions. It’s a cycle of perpetually regenerating enmity between Matsu and the warden that we will see continue into the next film in the series, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41.
In the aftermath of the scuttled breakout, as Matsu lies hog-tied in a dungeon-like solitary cell, we’re given a dream-like flashback of the events that lead to her ending up in the nick. It seems that on the outside Matsu fell hard for a narcotics cop named Sugimi (Isao Natsuyagi) — so hard, in fact, that when Sugimi asked her to take part in an undercover sting operation he was involved in, she readily agreed. It is only after we’ve seen Matsu’s cover blown, and her viciously raped by the members of the gang she’s infiltrated, that we find that Sugimi is actually working in league with a rival Yakuza gang, and is about as crooked as they come. His true nature revealed, the evilly chuckling Sugimi callously tosses a few crumpled bills in the ravaged girl’s direction and summarily casts her aside. As might be expected, this occasions the first appearance of THE LOOK, and, not soon thereafter, Matsu is accosting Sugimi in a freaky, topless, street corner knife attack. This attack, sadly, is nowhere near as effective as it is picturesque, and soon our scorned heroine is in custody.
Now I realize that the above related plot details are women’s prison picture rote to the point of being generic. But you have to keep in mind that, as they are playing out, director Ito deploys all the tools available in his visual arsenal to keep the viewer as disoriented as possible. The camera pivots restlessly so that you can never know, when a person enters a room, whether he or she will appear to be walking on the wall, the ceiling, or the floor. Self-conscious use of live theater-style movable sets is made to shift background locations as the foreground action remains the same. Bold comic book-style visual signifiers are used to express intense emotion, as when Matsu’s hair arranges itself into the shape of flames as she lies atop a red back-lit glass floor. There’s a haunting, horror movie feel to many of these visuals, made most explicit in a scene where a fellow inmate who is attacking Matsu transforms into a leering kabuki demon — at which point the lighting abruptly switches from naturalistic to that patented Mario Bava green, and the remainder of the scene plays out as a surreal, slow motion nightmare. All of this serves to underscore the fact that the ritualistic predictability of the movie’s plot is not beside the point, but rather the point itself, since Ito is far more interested in presenting archetypal conflicts than he is in exploring the peculiarities of character, or presenting us with novel situations.
The aforementioned kabuki demon attack has the unfortunate side effect for the warden of him ending up with a shard of glass embedded in his eye socket, an injury which understandably further stokes his desire to crush Matsu’s spirit. (I won’t get all Women’s Studies and touch upon the whole “male gaze” thing here, but the wound is definitely significant, foreshadowed as it is by a shot earlier in the film in which the image of Matsu is framed within the watching eye of one of the guards.) This leads to him really turning the screws, subjecting not just Matsu to all kinds of humiliations and forced labor, but the other prisoners, as well, in the hope that they will turn against Matsu as a result. Meanwhile, Sugimi and his boss begin to worry that Matsu will tell the authorities what she knows about Sugimi’s crooked dealings, and decide to have her eliminated. Of course, what Sugimi doesn’t realize is that Matsu’s overwhelming desire to carve him up like a Christmas turkey is pretty much the only thing that is keeping her going, and she would lose all hope of making that dream a reality if he were to be locked safely away in prison. On the contrary, the corrupt cop is so deluded by arrogance and self-regard that he entertains the notion that Matsu still has feelings for him. And so, just to be on the safe side, he recruits Katagiri (Rie Yokoyama), a sociopathic fellow inmate of Matsu’s, to do his dirty work.
Eventually the warden’s quest to get under the scorpion’s shell leads him to send a young female guard into Matsu’s cell posing as an inmate. The hyper-vigilant Matsu is quickly clued in by her new roommate’s inquisitiveness, however, and, being a true Pinky Violence heroine, proves that she is not above using her body to turn the tables. Apparently those bottomless reserves of white hot rage of hers provide Matsu not only with the power to endure all manner of physical hardships, but superhuman lovemaking skills as well. Because, after only a few moments of Matsu’s ministrations, the guard, Kitoh, is reduced to being little more than a pleading love slave. Later, when the warden relieves the young rookie of her spying duties, she has a melt-down that is one of the film’s most hilariously over-the-top moments, hysterically begging her superiors to send her back into the cell with Matsu to continue her mission. As depicted by Ito, Matsu’s seduction of Kitoh provides an example of another distinction between the director and his aforementioned fellow in artsy grindhouse excess, Norifumi Suzuki. While Suzuki wasn’t shy about piling on scenes of nudity and soft-core sex, he frequently neglected to make those scenes the least bit erotic, perhaps because he was more preoccupied with being shocking than arousing. (Some moments in Convent of the Holy Beast are exceptions to this… Either that, or I just have a thing for nuns.) Shunya, on the other hand, shows here that he is capable of delivering an erotic scene that packs some serious heat.
By the way, the actress playing Kitoh is Yumiko Katayama, who might be recognizable to those of you who grew up with Johnny Socko and his Flying Robot as the lone female member of that Tokusatsu series’ heroic Unicorn organization. Not too long after that, Katayama changed her focus a bit by becoming the Pinky Violence genre’s go-to girl for extensive nudity. I’d like to think that this change in direction was the result of generosity, rather than desperation, on her part. But, whatever the case, I have to say that it escapes me as to why she never made it beyond playing supporting roles in these films, because she is not only striking, but possessed of an intense presence, and has delivered solid and memorable performances in every film I’ve seen her in — the final Delinquent Girl Boss film, in particular.
Female Prisoner #701, beneath it’s hallucinatory exterior, pretty much follows the narrative rules of the prison picture through to its conclusion, which means that the warden’s draconian policies ultimately lead to a prison revolt — though one played out on a wildly expressionistic set complete with a painted backdrop of a sky consumed by a blazing red vortex. The prisoners take several guards — who are subsequently gang raped — hostage and hold up in one of the prison’s supply warehouses, where the hired killer Katagiri sets about trying to turn her keyed-up fellow inmates against Matsu.
This leads to Matsu being hung in chains from the rafters and mercilessly beaten, a predicament which she endures with predictably Christ-like stoicism. Finally, a raid by the guards and a fire in the warehouse provide the cover Matsu needs to escape, in turn giving her the opportunity to hit the streets of Tokyo and prove the deservedness of her nickname. It is in these final scenes where Meiko Kaji really puts the weight of action behind THE LOOK, methodically dealing out retribution to Sugimi and his gang like a silent angel of vengeance — albeit a particularly pimped-out angel of vengeance in a wide-brimmed hat and dramatic ankle-length coat.
Female Prisoner #701 is a thrilling piece of exploitation cinema, as well as a challenging work of visual artistry. But, as great as it is, it merely set the stage for what was to come. With its follow-up film, Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, director Ito would give much freer reign to his experimental tendencies, and the result would haunt and intoxicate in equal measure.
The German-made animated feature Felidae has, at least at first glance, the slick commercial look of the type of Hollywood productions we’re used to seeing from the likes of Disney and Don Bluth. If you’re anything like me, that might prove to be a bit of a stumbling block, because, being that I’m no big fan of mainstream animation, that’s not the type of cinematic experience I tend to seek out. And indeed, during its first few minutes I had some serious doubts about whether I was going to enjoy Felidae. Then came the moment when the film’s protagonist, a feline detective by the name of Francis, stumbles across his first horribly mutilated kitty corpse, and I quickly realized that there were quite a few shades of difference between Felidae and Fievel Goes West.
Based on the first of a series of novels by author Akif Pirincci, Felidae starts out like an especially grue-spattered boys’ adventure (but with cats) and quickly turns into a bleak apocalyptic noir along the lines of Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (again, but with cats). In the service of this dark vision, the filmmakers pile on the extreme gore and nightmarish imagery, still managing all the while to deliver a complex and compelling mystery. Needless to say, this isn’t one to show the kids, and I would hesitate to recommend it to the more sensitive cat lovers out there. However, feline enthusiasts of a bit more two-fisted nature might find much to like, especially in the obvious respect and care that the filmmakers bring to the task of representing their titular creatures (“Felidae” being the name for the biological family to which cats belong).
Both Pirincci (who scripted) and the animators charged with bringing his words to life do a pretty good job of providing their furry cast with feelings and motivations recognizable to humans without simply turning them into humans in cat drag. While these cats speak to each other in complete sentences and have an awareness of human doings far beyond what one might expect, there is no doubt that theirs is a world entirely “other” from the one that their oblivious owners inhabit. There’s also been an effort not to sentimentalize the beasts; these tabbies, for all their anthropomorphic antics, are just as likely to casually display their buttholes, gulp down a passing fly, eat garbage and piss wherever they please as your own little Whiskers or Tigger. Oh, and they also screw — and, as in life, it’s no candlelight-and-Barry-White-on-the-stereo affair, but rather the same brutal spectacle of hissing, biting and forced penetration that plays out every day in suburban backyards from here to Munich and beyond.
Felidae begins with Francis, who is gifted with an inquisitive temperament beyond that of the typical house cat, moving into a new neighborhood where a feline serial killer appears to be on the loose. While his newfound friend, a battle-scarred and foul-mouthed tom by the name of Bluebeard, shares the belief of the other cats in the neighborhood that the bloody murders are the work of a human, Francis thinks that the evidence points to another cat, and sets out to sniff out the culprit. His search brings him in contact with a messianic cat cult who worship a perhaps mythical super-feline martyred at the hands of a sadistic human scientist (and who express their worship through a ritual of mass self-electrocution); and later leads him to discover that the very house he and his owner have moved into may have been the site of the fabled atrocities — which in reality go way beyond what anyone could previously have imagined.
Francis is guided in his search by a series of vivid dreams which make up some of Felidae‘s most memorable — and horrifying — moments. I challenge anyone who has seen this film to forget the mentally scarring spectacle of a gigantic Gregor Mendel rising up from a vast feline killing field to wield hundreds of mangled cat corpses as marionettes. Another indelibly disturbing image occurs when Francis and Bluebeard stumble upon an underground catacomb filled with decomposing and skeletal cat remains — at which point they realize that, contrary to what they thought, the killer they’ve been tracking is responsible for the murder of, not just several, but hundreds of their brothers and sisters.
Images of mass graves and genocide abound in Felidae, as do references to eugenics and racial purity, and it is one of its flaws that its approach to allegory is just a bit too on-the-nose. (And, seriously, all you Germans who are far too young to have had any direct involvement in the Holocaust? We forgive you. Honestly.) Another for me is that, for a noir protagonist, Francis comes off as just a bit too bland and innocent — bushy-tailed, if you will. An over-dependence on catnip might have been a nice touch in this regard, and in lieu of that, we might have at least got a better sense of the effect that Francis’ descent into darkness has had on him. He appears to be less cynical about humans than the other cats in his new neighborhood (he is at first unfamiliar with the local term “can opener”, which refers to humans in terms of what the cats see as their only useful function), and while he appears troubled by the human cruelty he witnesses, we don’t really get much of a sense of him wrestling with any dissonance between his old and new perceptions.
Still, these are all minor complaints in light of what Felidae accomplishes. Given both its concept and execution, its novelty value is guaranteed. But that it goes beyond that to deliver such a solid and involving mystery, rife with powerful moments and some nasty shocks, is something to be celebrated. One might think that having cartoon kitty-cats prancing across the screen would work against the consistent atmosphere of oppressive dread this story calls for (even if those kitty-cats are doing some pretty awful things), but the finished product proves otherwise. Furthermore, on a technical level, Felidae is — if a little slick at times for my taste — gorgeous. A glance at the various credits of the large, international crew of animators who worked on the film indicates that they were among the most accomplished professionals in the business at the time. In addition to the solid character design and studied believability of the movements, the backgrounds are beautiful without exception — rich with color and lush detail to an extent that they sometimes threaten to upstage the foreground action.
Given that high level of technical artistry, I’m glad that Felidae was made in 1994 — rather than today, when it would undoubtedly have been done with CGI. CGI is to me intrinsically post-modern, always seeming to be about nothing so much as itself — constantly, by way of its very resemblance to live action, calling attention to the trick that it’s pulling on the audience as it’s doing it. As such, it might be fine for films that are just an episodic series of gags, but in service of a sustained narrative — especially one that requires the attention to detail that Felidae‘s does — it’s just a distraction. Drawn animation is definitely the ideal medium for creating the kind of enclosed reality that’s needed for us to invest ourselves in a vision as quirky as Felidae‘s. Given that, this film should stand as a testament to the viability of that medium in the face of the increasingly indistinguishable CGI features that hog our theater screens each holiday season.
Felidae, though in German (the original voice cast includes a number of noted German actors, including Klaus Maria Brandauer), oddly features an English language theme song sung by Boy George. There also exists a perfectly acceptable English language dub, which can be found on the German DVD release (which, sadly, doesn’t include English subtitles for the German language version). All of this indicates that it was made with an eye toward an overseas release, which is not surprising given the obviously high financial investment that went into it. Yet chances are that you have never even heard of it, much less seen it.
That it never received a theatrical release in America is a no-brainer; distributors would undoubtedly have hit a mental logjam trying to market a movie that looks on the surface like a family film but plays out like an angst-ridden version of The Aristocats as imagined by Eli Roth. But surely there are enough people here in the states who would love this orphaned little cinematic tabby — who would take it into their homes, let it curl up in front on the fire, and then rip their throats out — to merit it’s release on domestic DVD.