The character of the high-kicking female badass was fairly commonplace in Asian cinema by 1974, especially in films coming out of Hong Kong and Japan. But in Bollywood, not so much. In fact, until recently, the only such character in a seventies Bollywood film I would be able to name off the top of my head would be the one played by Zeenat Aman in the original Don. Still, the 1974 film Geetaa Mera Naam puts just such a character front and center, talking tough, sticking it to the man, and dealing out whoopass to all comers without a thought of depending on male chivalry for her fortunes. Just what would it take to get a film focusing on such a character made in the Bollywood of the early seventies? Well, in the case of Geetaa Mera Naam, it probably didn’t hurt that the film’s director was a woman, and that that woman was also the movie’s star — a star who intended Geetaa Mera Naam to be her farewell to her audience after a short-lived but eventful career as a beloved screen icon.
“Dreams and life — it’s the same thing, or else it’s not worth living.” — Baptiste, Jean Rollin’s Les Enfants du Paradis
From time to time, I notice there are certain directors whose films I undeniably love yet always preface a positive review of with some manner of disclaimer along the lines of “not for everyone” or “you have to be in the right mind.” More times than not, the director to which I’m referring is Jess Franco. However, this largely reflexive defensiveness could just as easily find itself employed in the shielding French director Jean Rollin. But I’m not going to fall back on any of that today, or any other day from here on out until I forget that I’ve just made this proclamation. I’m a big boy, after all, and its time to embrace my love of Jess Franco, Jean Rollin, and any other thoroughly cockeyed Eurocult director without any caveats or attempts to justify my love out of some ill-conceived sense of guilt that, because of some glowing review I might write of Blue Rita or La Vampire Nue, someone is going to go out and watch those movie and then wonder what the hell is going on. But really, that’s not something of which I should be ashamed of or feel guilty over, is it? Because if more people were watching Diamonds of Kilimanjaro or Shivers of the Vampire, then that’s a step in the right direction, isn’t it? Provided you think the right direction is mod Euro starlets constantly taking off their clothes during psychedelic stripteases performed to crazy jazz music in some club decorated with pop art sensibilities on overdrive — and you all know that’s my vision of a perfect world. Also, I would be able to fly and turn invisible, and anything I carry is also invisible if I want it to be. And I am immortal.
I went through a couple decades and then some having never even heard of Jean Rollin. It wasn’t until Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs’ book Immoral Tales that I heard mention of Rollin’s name. While the description of Rollin’s films seemed interesting, it was the smattering of stills that really entranced me, and not just because they were frequently of unclothed women. They were also of unclothed men. Because, you know, the French and all. Unfortunately, my new knowledge of Jean Rollin was not accompanied by an ability to actually see any of the movies about which I was reading. At the time, pretty much the only source for Jean Rollin films was Video Search of Miami, and having once ordered a video from them, I knew to never do it again. But then I noticed whilst browsing the videos at a local establishment that they had a couple Rollin films of dubious legality and questionable reproduction quality, but whatever. It only cost a buck-fifty for the rental, so I picked up a little something called Raisins de la Mort. Raisins of Death? That didn’t sound too scary, even if the California Raisins sort of creeped me out. But it was also a zombie film, and up until very recently, when a long line of horrible shot on video zombie films did me in, I could never pass up a zombie film.
Then came the DVD explosion, and thanks to Redemption Video, a whole slew of Rollin films found their way into my collection and, it goes without saying, into my heart. Because, you know, the French and passion and all that. I learned a few things about Rollin, chief among them that the first of his films that I’d seen was not really typical of his output, which often revolved around vacant-eyed vampire girls in mod mini-dresses, when they had anything on at all. By comparison, Raisins de la Mort was almost an actual film. Most of the time, Rollin shot his films with the intent of achieving a surreal, logic-defying atmosphere. He also tended to shoot with almost no money, only amateur actors, and usually no script. The end results were often…complex…to digest. Rollin’s first film, La Viol du Vampire, was made more or less on a whim by Rollin and a group of enthusiastic horror film fans. It was never meant to be much more than a fan film, and Rollin’s goal was to pack a small theater with friends and friends of friends and have a fun night. As fate would have it, France happened to be in the middle of a slew of crazy demonstrations and riots, meaning that Rollin’s little homemade experimental art-horror film was one of the only new films theater owners could get their hands on. And thus, Rollin found himself with an actual release on his hands — albeit a poorly received release. Parisians may have been looking for a revolution in 1968, but not the one Rollin’s film offered them.
But Jean Rollin continued unphased. After all, he never intended for his film to be embraced by a wide audience. Rollin had been raised by artist and, as a child, surrounded by luminaries and lunatics from the fringe of the art world, including a number of Surrealists. Their vision of art obviously informed Rollin’s eventual work, and his repertoire is comprised largely of films that concentrate heavily on dreamy imagery, hallucinatory surrealism, and general weirdness. Sacrificed in the fray were things like logic, scripts, plot — little things like that. European cult film directors have often been criticized for shuffling these things to the back burner, just as they’ve been praised for their ability to create amazing imagery and mood. I’m torn, since on the one hand, I like scripts and plots and feel that film is a medium in which so many aspects of art — imagery, music, writing — must come together. On the other hand, I really like a lot of these relatively plotless movies, and I have a tremendous capacity for extracting meaning from apparent meaningless. That’s what you learn, kids, if you take film classes and work as a journalist who interviews both politicians and movie stars.
But that’s a discussion for a different Rollin film, because we’re here today to discuss one of his more accessible films, though it certainly has its fair share of Rollin’s signature oddity. Compared to most of his work, though, Grapes of Death, as it is known this week, is positively comprehensible and well-planned.
For many of the cult film fans who might be familiar with Jean Rollin without being Jean Rollin fans, it’s probably because of his infamous zombie film, Zombie Lake. The Internet certainly doesn’t lack for coverage of this masterpiece of complete and utter incompetence, and lord knows I’ve done my part. The big difference between Rollin’s usual bizarre output and Zombie Lake is that Zombie Lake is pretty much indefensible. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Zombie Lake. I might even watch it again tonight, but the incompetence on display there is purely born of a complete and total lack of interest in making a good movie, and not from some desire to make a weird, arty film. Given the reputation of Zombie Lake, which in turn has informed the opinion of many people who don’t know Rollin for anything but Zombie Lake, delving once again into the rich, creamy lather of a Jean Rollin directed zombie film would seem…well, about as enticing as doing anything involving rich, creamy lather other than getting a good shave with a straight razor and dollop of heated shaving cream.
And while Grapes of Death may not be quite as satisfying as a good shave delivered by a talented barber who smells of menthol blended with spices and lower woodsy notes, it’s still a heck of a lot better than Zombie Lake, and just as Rollin doesn’t deserve to be judged purely on the “merits” of Zombie Lake, neither does Grapes of Death deserve to be off-handedly dismissed and placed at the same low level as that green-faced Nazi zombie opus.
Grapes of Death is an episodic series of events following Elizabeth (Marie-Georges Pascal), who finds herself on the run after she and her friend are attacked on a train by a young man who seems well on the way to having his face fall off. It turns out, we learn, that an experimental pesticide has contaminated the grapes used to make wine, thus turning much of France into — well, not exactly zombies, but close enough, especially in this post 28 Days Later era when the definition of zombie has been somewhat blurred. Rollin’s zombies showcase certain obvious characteristics of zombies as defined by the George Romero movies that have become more or less the de facto zombie rule handbook. Some of them shamble aimlessly about with their arms in awkward positions. They like to bite people. And their bodies and faces tend to decay and fester with oozing boils. But they also like to stab people with pitchforks, brandish torches, travel at a relaxed jog, and prepare dinner. Depending on the state of the infection, some people seem completely gone into a flesh-hungry zombie state, and some are still able to talk and even feel guilt and remorse over what they are being compelled by the infection to do.
Elizabeth wanders a bleak French countryside, encountering infected people from time to time and screaming in fear. Occasionally, she also meets uninfected people, but she still usually finds reason to scream in fear, since those people often end up on the wrong end of some bladed farm implement wielded by a grinning ghoul. Grapes of Death takes the unique approach of eschewing the standard “hunker down in a house and argue with each other as the living dead amass outside” for a much more freewheeling and wide open approach. Elizabeth spends most of her time outdoors in wide-open spaces. She is, at these times, relatively safe. It is only when she ventures into the closed quarters of homes or walled medieval style farm towns that the trouble begins, and the confined spaces always work against her. She eventually meet two uninfected farmers who avoided the infection because, although it is very un-French of them, they prefer beer over wine. Elizabeth’s fortunes seem to change once she meets up with these blue collar salts of the earth, but a rather large coincidence brings her into contact with her boyfriend (who we’ve never seen until he shows up at the end of the movie), and since things never end well for people in a zombie film…well, you get the picture.
In a crowded field of zombie films that tend to be largely identical to one another, few stand out. Those that do either accomplish this because they invented or are so good at executing the well-worn formula, or they have found some way to provide a unique twist on expectations while still conforming to certain expectations. Grapes of Death falls into the latter category. It is basically a zombie film, but it’s not like other zombie films. It’s open instead of confined; the zombies are cognoscente of their descent into murderous bloodlust, even if they are helpless to stop it; and although the film has plenty of gore (and gratuitous nudity), the scares come not from any sort of visceral punch but rather from the eerie atmosphere Rollin creates. The desolate French countryside Rollin uses as his location is at once familiar and strangely alien. What we expect of idyllic rolling hills and quaint old villages is subverted as soon as the oozy-foreheaded crazies start prowling about. Similarly, Rollin keeps seasoned viewers of zombie films off balance by delivering something other than what you expect, at least some of the time. And where as many zombie films, especially recent ones, rely on pumped up adrenaline and action, Grapes of Death meanders aimlessly across the French countryside at the same pace as its confused protagonist.
Coming out in 1978, Rollin’s pseudo-zombie dream was one of the earliest European attempts to mimic George Romero’s hugely influential Dawn of the Dead, though in tone and approach, Grapes of Dead has more in common with Jorge Grau’s oft short-changed 1974 zombie film Let Sleeping Corpses Lie. Both films share a pastoral rural setting turned sinister with experimental pest control methods being the culprit behind the madness. But Grau’s zombies are most definitely the living dead, where as Rollin’s zombies have more in common with creations from another George Romero film, 1973’s The Crazies. In fact, if I had to pick one film that was the most likely influence on Grapes of Death, it would be The Crazies, which is the tale of a small town that becomes infected with a virus that turns people into murderous nutjobs. Where Grapes of Death differs significantly from Romero’s film is in the mood. Romero, a former director of industrial and instructional films, has always been a largely clinical director, injecting a sense of matter of fact reason into fantastic events through his reserved direction. Rollin, on the other hand, allows the bizarre events of his film to dictate the atmosphere. Thus, while both films take place in somewhat foreboding, winterly rural locations, Rollin’s looks much more like something out of a fevered nightmare. In addition to the ragged countryside, punctuated by strangely shaped rock formations and mist, Rollin makes excellent use of crumbling old walled towns. Everywhere is a palpable sense of decay.
Both The Crazies and Grapes of Death inform the basic premise of more current films, like 28 Days Later, though whether or not those films played much role in influencing 28 Days Later is something I do not know. And of course, that movie takes yet another very different approach to the same basic premise.
Then there’s the trance-like electronic music score, minimalist and reminiscent of Tangerine Dream. Composer Phillipe Sissman only has this and one other work to his credit, and even here he doesn’t contribute much more than one weird synth theme that is used to remarkably good effect. It clashes with the natural setting around it, and with the decrepit, lived-in look of the film’s overgrown villages, but it works perfectly with the hypnotic mood of the film. It helps communicate the idea that something is not quite right.
Rollin’s film depends largely on young Marie-Georges Pascal, who like many of Rollin’s actors, was minimally experienced at the time. She appeared in a number of erotic films with titles like I Am Frigid…Why? and Hot and Naked. Although Grapes of Death is a great leap forward for her, nothing really ever came of it. In 1985, with her film career having gone nowhere, she committed suicide. Her eventual fate lends an additional level of melancholy to the film, especially given the downhearted ending. It’s obvious she has some talent, though, as she manages to create an interesting character even though she (like everyone else) has minimal dialog and spends an inordinate amount of time screaming as she witnesses one horror or another. It’s the simple everyman (or everywoman) quality that endears her to the viewer. Plus, she rarely does things that are completely and incomprehensibly stupid just so she can move the plot along. I guess that’s one of the benefits of not having much of a plot.
Supporting her are a cast largely unrecognizable to me, as like most Americans, if it isn’t Gerard Depardieu being flustered or Jean Reno punching someone, I don’t know many French actors. Some of them, like the two beer-loving guys who come to Elizabeth’s rescue, are experienced actors. But the only real familiar face to me is Brigitte Lahaie, the French porn star turned Jean Rollin muse. She appeared in many of his films and acted as sort of a muse, in much the same way Soledad Miranda (and later Lina Romay) did for Jess Franco. She has a small part here, as a woman who befriends Elizabeth (or so it would seem) and gives her protection from a town full of crazies. Of course, I’d always like to see more of her, but that’s what films like Fascination are for. She did star in one more of Rollin’s variations on the zombie theme, 1980’s strange Night of the Hunted, in which France is afflicted with mass memory loss and hysteria, causing Brigitte to have to wander around nude a lot for some reason I’ve never fully comprehended but am never the less happy to accept.
Grapes of Death may not be exactly what people expect from a zombie film, and even if it is Rollin’s most accessible and straightforward narrative, that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t rely heavily on weirdness and surrealism. I personally find it thoroughly hypnotic and imaginative. Especially after watching so many poorly-made carbon copy zombie films of late, it’s refreshing to return to something this unique. A year later, Lucio Fulci’s Zombie would come out and pretty much define the European (by then, almost exclusively Italian) zombie film for the next…well, to this very day. Fulci works in much the same way as Rollin and considers many of the same things important — the creepy atmosphere; the construction of striking, haunting imagery; the sense of decay generated by moody locations; and of course the disregard for strong scriptwriting. But Rollin is much more lyrical in his approach, and even though Grapes of Death has plenty of goo and gore (it was one of the very first — possibly the very first — French gore film), there is something decidedly different about it. If Lucio Fulci is the Chang Cheh of zombie films — all visceral punches and testosterone — then Jean Rollin’s Grapes of Death is like something from Chu Yuan. Poetic, dreamy, perhaps feminine in a way, even when naked women are being beheaded or run through with pitchforks.
It’s a shame that Zombie Lake, the movie that was too crappy even for Jess Franco, remains the best known Jean Rollin film. Most of his movies remained unseen for years, and even their initial releases played to scarcely more than a smattering of people. Grapes of Death is one of my favorite zombie films, or whatever those sort-of zombie, crazy bleeding people are called. I can, and often do, watch this and many other Rollin films over and over. Sometimes I may only half pay attention to them, like albums playing in the background, but keeping them in the corner of your eye or at the periphery of your consciousness suits them well. Of course, I also like sitting down and paying attention to them, as I think many (but not all) of his films are quite rewarding. If you are as tired as I am of movies where a group of strangers board up the windows and yell at each other for 75 minutes until the zombies bust in and eat everyone, Grapes of Death might be the remedy you’re looking for. I recommend you view it with a nice, fruity Cabernet Sauvignon.
When one thinks of the myriad espionage exploitation films that flickered across movie screens in the wake of James Bond’s unprecedented success as a film franchise, one generally thinks of the countless cheap though often entertaining Eurospy entries into the genre. After all, there were scores of them, and a lot of them weren’t half bad. The ones that were half bad were at least halfway enjoyable. The ones that weren’t even halfway enjoyable were called Agent for H.A.R.M. The desire to mimic James Bond and, in doing so, perhaps mimic a little of the success, was hardly the sole property of America and Europe, however. Bond was as big in Asia as he was everywhere else in the world, and Asian film industries were just as quick to cash in on the trend with their own particular twist on the superspy genre.
There’s a lot of things I love in life. Good food, good friends, travel, a fine kungfu film, a crappy kungfu film — the list goes on, but few things can make me all warm inside quite like a ghost story. Growing up in the rural South, ghost stories and folklore about haints, beasts, and certain death lurking in the woods were a given, and like many Southerners, I developed a healthy dark streak and affinity for the more macabre side of life — or death. Whichever. I think it probably comes from the fact that the South is a very bloody, death-filled part of America. From the Revolutionary War to the War Between the States, on to the struggle for civil rights, the soil of The South is as rich with the blood of countless Americans as it is with the history of America itself. You have to learn to deal with the dark stuff, and it’s a lot better to deal with it as “a spooky but familiar friend” than some sort of antagonist.
I can recount endless nights spent camped out in the back yard or propped up on the front porch swing swapping yarns with friends about local hook-hand killers, cave dwelling goatmen, and chanting devil worshipers. The spectre of evil was all around us, threatening our every moment of life, and it certainly made things a lot more interesting during slumber parties, though things went too far when our friend Roman’s mom decided to give us a good one by dressing up as an ax murderer and scraping on the basement window while we were all downstairs holding a seance to try to summon the spirit of the recently departed John Belushi.
A ghost story is a universal. The appearance may change, the clothing may be different, but the spirit, if you will, remains a constant. They reflect fears and fascinations that transcend race and geography. You won’t find a single culture on the planet that doesn’t have it’s fair share of spooky stories and tales of the dead come back to haunt the living. Whether you are squatting down by the fire conversing with some remote Amazonian tribe or sprawled on the front porch in the rural south, whether you are sitting cross-legged on the tatami mat of a Japanese living room or sitting at a table on the sidewalk of some narrow, winding Italian street, if talk turns to ghosts, we’re all speaking the same language.
For those not well-versed in the ways of Japan and Japanese films, the trappings of Nobuo Nakagawa’s classic Tokaido Yatsuya Kaidan may seem strange and exotic. Set in medieval Japan, the film is full of samurai and demure kimono-clad ladies, gruff fishermen and haughty nobles. Even in today’s supposedly well-connected global community, it’s a history about which very few Americans know much beyond the most basic and stereotypical of facts. However, even those with a complete and total lack of knowledge regarding the formative years of Japan (you really should brush up on your history though), will instantly recognize the language underlying the Japanese being spoken — and I’m not talking about the English language subtitles.
Tokaido Yatsuya Kaidan is one of the most famous of all horrific Japanese legends. It’s been told and retold countless times via literature, word of mouth, kabuki theater, and of course film. The 1959 version directed by acclaimed master of Japanese horror Nakagawa Nobuo is generally regarded as the best of the movie versions, and with plenty of good reasons. The story itself is simple enough, something that any fan of ghost stories will recognize regardless of the number of samurai with which one may be acquainted. The story opens with a group of jovial nobles out for a late night stroll around town. They are accosted by a young wannabe samurai named Iyemon. Iyemon wants to marry one of the samurai’s daughter, but since our man Iyemon is known as something of a screw-up and all-around crummy bastard, the samurai is less than enthusiastic about welcoming the ne’r-do-well into the family. In a fit of rage, Iyemon attacks the samurai from behind, killing him and his friends.
Aware of the fact that multiple homicides will not do too much to improve the town’s opinion of him, not to mention the fact that it won’t really help him get in good with the woman whose father he just sliced down, Iyemon and his partner in crime, Naosuke, make up a story about being attacked by a well-known local ruffian. Naturally, they valiantly defended everyone, but the gang that set upon them was just too many. His “bravery” ingratiates Iyemon to the slain samurai’s daughter, Oiwa. Iyemon vows to avenge the murder, which wins him even more bonus points and eventually Oiwa’s hand in marriage, which also gives him the social status he so desperately desired.
You can’t keep a slimy samurai clean, of course, and it isn’t long before Iyemon and Naosuke are up to their old treachery again. On a pilgrimage to visit a famous waterfall and pray for justice, Naosuke is endlessly annoyed by the brother of Oiwa and her sister, Osode, to whom Naosuke has taken a shine. Using not-so-subtle threats about exposing Iyemon’s guilt, Naosuke pressures his old “friend” into helping him kill off the brother. Being a despicable couple of guys, they stab him in the back and push him off a cliff while he is kneeling in meditation. Then, of course, they go running back with yet another story about how they were jumped by the same bandits, who were looking to kill them before they could seek out their righteous revenge. The two couples then split up to search for the non-existent bandits, and they wind up not seeing each other for a long time.
Time passes and Oiwa gives birth to Iyemon’s child. Contrary to what you might expect from a murderous, lying samurai, Iyemon proves to be a less than stellar husband, though he remains with Oiwa despite her failing health in order to continue sponging off her status in society, or what little of it remains after she loses most of what her father once possessed. Naosuke, meanwhile, lives life as a hustler, constantly promising Osode that he is spending his days seeking the villains who murdered her father. Until he has avenged that death, she refuses to marry or sleep with him, even when he does that thing where he grabs her and makes ugly kisses faces as she fights him off.
When Iyemon goes out for a stroll one night after gambling much of his wife’s money away, his presence foils some attempted thuggery. Even though Iyemon really didn’t do anything but take his hat off, the criminals bolt and the victims, who turn out to be some local nobles, lavish him with thanks. When he catches sight of the noble’s lovely daughter, he instantly falls for her in the most base and shallow ways. When the noble offers him a reward, Iyemon magnanimously refuses, reciting a speech about honor that Oiwa’s own father lectured him with seconds before getting stabbed in the back. Duly impressed by Iyemon’s spirit, he becomes a welcome guest in the home, while at the same time plotting a way to get out of his life with Oiwa.
A chance meeting with his ol’ murderin’ pal Naosuke results in Iyemon getting the bright idea to murder his wife. He immediately chickens out though, realizing that the ol’ “some bandits jumped us” shtick probably wouldn’t work for him a third time. Naosuke is just bored, however, and if that means he has to come up with something new in order to relieve the monotony of not murdering people all the time then blaming it on bandits who never materialize, well then he’s man enough to devise new schemes for bloodletting.
Naosuke drums up a plan in which he will hook Iyemon up with a special poison that will cause Oiwa to die a horrible death. Since the rumor around town is that Oiwa and her doctor, a portly gent named Takuestu, have been seeing one another on the sly (an untrue rumor, even though Takuetsu is fond of Oiwa), Iyemon can either claim he caught them in the affair and thus exercised his right as a wronged husband to kill his wife, or even better, he can just pin the crime on a jealous Takuetsu and be completely free from involvement. At first, he’s hesitant, but then he thinks about things for a while and realize that yep, murder is the way to go.
Iyemon plays nice for his suffering wife, talking to her like a decent gentleman for once and vowing to her that he will make amends for his less that spotless treatment of her in the past. In a touching display to cap off his tenderness, he then replaces her medicine with the poison that will cause her face to melt and result in an excruciatingly agonizing death. Being the sporting sort of man that he is, he then even arranges for a special visit from Takuetsu so he can be blamed for everything.
After Takuetsu unsuccessfully puts the moves on Oiwa — something Iyemon himself said she would like — Oiwa’s death begins. Her face begins to burn from the inside, as does much of the rest her body. Freaked out by the whole melting face thing, Takuetsu confesses to Oiwa that her husband enlisted him to seduce her, though now he’s not so into it. She surmises that she has been the victim of a horrible plot concocted by her rotten husband, but before she can extract any revenge, the poison runs its course and she dies. Iyemon reappears just in time to accuse Takuetsu, who he then kills. Just as the plan seems to be going perfectly, however, something in Iyemon’s already warped brain seems to snap. He nails the corpses to two wood panels and sets them adrift in a nearby river, expecting the current to carry them far away.
While all this is going on, ol’ Naosuke doesn’t want to not be performing some heinous deed as well, so he finally tracks down the villain he and Iyemon blamed for the murders that started this whole sordid chain of events, and in classic form, stabs him in the back. Her father’s murder now avenged, Osode will consent to marry Naosuke.
So things seem to be going pretty well. Naosuke has Osode, even though she is not wild about the marriage, and Iyemon is now free to chase his latest skirt. Nothing could be finer, at least until the ghost starts showing up. Seems like every time Iyemon tries to lie and relax after a long, hard day of being a jerkwad, there’s the gory disfigured apparition of his slain wife floating around and taunting him.
Naosuke, on the other hand, is out fishing for eels one day when he hooks the hair comb and kimono that had once been worn by Oiwa. Not realizing their nature, he decides to take them home, clean them up, and give them to his wife since nothing will impress a lady quite like giving her a wad of stinky stuff you fished out of the local swamp. Osode immediately recognizes the two items, however, both of which were family heirlooms. Just has her suspicions are being piqued, Oiwa shows up. It’s funny how people never seem to notice the deceased state of a loved one and just go about their business as if their friend isn’t all pale with a green supernatural light shining on them. Oiwa’s arrival is a little much for Naosuke to handle, what with him knowing she’s been murdered and all. He breaks down and confesses everything to Osode, right down to the fateful night Iyemon and he murdered her father. Needless to say, this is even less healthy for their relationship than trying to give her the swamp water-soaked rags of her murdered sister.
Iyemon isn’t faring much better. Now both Oiwa and Takuetsu’s bloody corpses are harassing him. In a fit of hysteria, he slashes out at the ghosts with his sword, which only results in him accidentally killing two innocent people. As if having the horrible decaying remains of your murder victims plaguing you wasn’t enough, Osode soon finds that her brother, previously left for dead, actually survived the attempt on his life. He confirms Naosuke’s confession by saying, “Yeah, they tried to kill me too.” Brother and sister then set off to seek revenge against Iyemon. By this time, of course, Iyemon’s madness is complete. The ghosts refuse to leave him alone. It could be that they are all in his head, and that his latest round of murders just pushed his already fragile mental state over the cliff, but that doesn’t really matter when you’re trying to deal with ghosts causing rooms to fill with bloody water and things like that.
As he stumbles insanely about the courtyard of the temple where he was seeking refuge, he comes face to face with Osode and her brother, both wielding swords and looking to get some justice for their father, Oiwa, and everyone else Iyemon stuck a sword into. Aiding them in their battle are the ghosts, of course, and Iyemon’s treachery is ultimately no match for them.
There is nothing that isn’t predictable about the story. After all, it’s a timeless classic with which everyone is familiar. We know Iyemon is going to murder his wife, and we know her ghost is going to come back for revenge. What makes a film a timeless classic, however, is that you can know every single plot point and still find yourself riveted to the screen. Tokaido Yatsuya Kaidan manages to do just that. It doesn’t matter that you know what’s going to happen, just like it doesn’t matter if you already know some local legend about ghosts. It still sends a chill up your spine every time you hear it. Tokaido Yatsuya Kaidan draws its power from its highly stylish look, deliberate and increasingly frantic pacing, and overwhelmingly eerie atmosphere.
The film is, for starters, stunning to look at. The art direction, use of sets, eerie lighting, and surreal atmosphere were obviously heavy influences on the better known but not necessarily better Kaidan from 1964. Director Nobuo Nakagawa was a big fan of European horror films, and you can sense a lot of what would become the Hammer Studios aesthetic in his film despite the decidedly Japanese trappings. Much like the later Kaidan, you could turn the sound off and simply look at this film, and it would be a wonder to behold.
The seemingly “normal” first half of the film is deceptive. You have your murderous samurai, but that’s nothing out of the ordinary. Well, unless you’re talking modern-day South Bend, Indiana. The minute Oiwa ingests the poison, however, the film spirals off into completely bizarre and chilling territory. Nobuo Nakagawa made a name for himself directing horror films that were, even by today’s standards, shockingly gory. Though this movie is not nearly as bloody and violent as his 1960 masterpiece Jigoku (which featured folks in hell getting sawed in half, nailed in the face with spikes, and other fun hellish past times), it’s definitely an eye-opener for the time. The disfigurement of Oiwa is wonderfully pulled off and genuinely nasty to look at. Likewise, a number of the surreal appearances of her ghost will drop the jaw of even a jaded movie-goer. Nakagawa’s imagination is as genius as it is warped, and I’d put many of the ghost scenes from this movie on par with my favorite ghost story of all time, The Haunting (not the remake, of course).
Everything else about the film is top-notch. The music is effective. The acting is accomplished. There’s a reason this is considered a hallmark in the history of Japanese horror films and why Nobuo Nakagawa is considered one of the great masters, if not the greatest master, of the genre.
Of course, this sort of film isn’t for everyone. Those who get kicks out of visceral gut-punch gore films and have no appreciation for the building of characters and suspense will no doubt be lost during the films lengthy build-up to the frenzy of the final half-hour. Myself, I happen to be a fan of horror films that take time to build suspense, and this one does so wonderfully. You know horrible things are going to happen. It’s just a question of when, and the waiting keeps you on the edge of your seat and, at least if you’re like me, far more enchanted and entertained than a rapid series of fifteen second gore effects.
I’m reminded of a story once told by Alfred Hitchcock when describing his philosophy on telling a good story. Imagine, he said, you have a scene where two men are sitting in a cafe discussing trivial matters. The scene goes on like this for a few minutes, and then suddenly, BOOM! A bomb goes off. The audience is startled, and you get that ten seconds of fright and giddy recovery time. Then it’s over. Now imagine the same scene, only this time the first thing you establish is that there is a bomb underneath one of the men’s seats, and that it will go off in three minutes. Then you continue with the scene same as before, with the men sitting there talking about pointless things. Now, the audience spends the entire three minutes on the edge of their seats, screaming at the screen that there is a bomb under one of the seats! What was a ten-second long shock suddenly becomes three minutes of nail-biting suspense and tension that will drive people crazy.
Tokaido Yatsuya Kaidan, like the classic horror films that inspired it, operates on this level of tension and anticipation of grisly acts to come, and it pays off for your investment of time. It also helps that the minutes leading up to the final acts of retribution are well paced and often exciting. As Iyemon’s nasty deeds pile up, we keep waiting and waiting for the big payoff when the ghosts of the murder victims get their revenge, and when it finally comes, the revenge is sweet. So if you like build-up and tension, if you like horror tales that handle themselves as well-crafted stories rather than a succession of effects and cheap scares, then this is your kind of movie. If you dig the classic horror of the 1930s or the bloodier yet still artfully constructed horror of Hammer Films, then this is your type of movie.
It was definitely my type of movie. I was enraptured through the whole thing, marveling at the surrealistic and highly stylized set pieces, gleefully allowing the anticipation of horror mount until the final big pay-off, which was both eerie, shocking, and worth the wait. Tokaido Yatsuya Kaidan is undeniably a classic of horror, regardless of which side of the ocean it comes from. It’s an ageless, multi-cultural tale of revenge from beyond the grave that can speak to and chill the bones of everyone, regardless of your standing within the ranks of the samurai.