With it being October and all, I was in the mood for a decent horror video game that fulfills my basic requirements for a game — that it be old enough so everyone else has lost interest in it, thus driving the price down to an affordable ten bucks or so. Of the many recommendations I got, I decided to go with F.E.A.R.: First Encounter Assault Recon, because I thought the blend of supernatural horror with a SWAT type first person shooter would be interesting. Plus, I’d been told the game was genuinely scary in many places. Seemed like the perfect late-night indulgence. And for portions of the game, it was. It’s a fast paced shooter that does indeed boast some incredibly effective spooky material. But it’s also too repetitive, and the horror often gets forgotten in favor of room after room of shooting it out with basically identical opponents gussied up in the same sort of assault team gear your own character is wearing.
There was nothing about the old VHS box for Shaolin Invincibles that made us think we were renting anything other than a standard “kungfu orphans get revenge on villains who murdered their parents” story. We plucked it from the shelves because, well, why not? We were up for renting anything that wasn’t Unique Lama. By the time Ocean Shores video splashed that bright red “The End” graphic onto the television screen, we’d seen tongue-waggling ghosts, bug-eyed zombies, and that most treasured of kungfu film appearances — the kungfu gorilla. I won’t say that the impact of Shaolin Invincibles on our mental faculties was as pronounced as it was after watching Young Taoism Fighter for the first time, but that’s a pretty high bar to set.
It’s not that Event Horizon isn’t the kind of movie I would write about. Haunted spaceships and Sam Neill ripping out his own eyeballs is right up my alley. No, the reason isn’t the content, but rather, that fact that this is one of those movies that already has a lot of words spent on it from a variety of sources both in the mainstream and in the realm of cult film fandom. Under such circumstances, it’s hard to imagine what i might have to add that is new. In some cases, I can come up with something — some tiny, meaningless tidbit that is a throwaway line in a movie that then allows me to write endlessly on some idiotic and obscure point. But upon watching Event Horizon, I was left with a distinct lack of ideas when it came to thinking about how I might approach writing about this film with some degree of originality. And now that I’ve finished the first paragraph, I still have no idea, so with any luck, something will pop up as I stumble along.
I didn’t see Event Horizon when it was released. I’m not sure why. I mean, it’s a gory film about a spooky spaceship. I think, however, in 1997, I saw maybe three film the entire year, and that was when I went out on dates with a lovely Southern belle. Somehow we ended up at a screening of Mortal Kombat II: Annihilation. So shamed was I that I just packed up and left North Carolina for New York, hoping to lose myself in the throng and hide my shameful secret. But Teleport City has, in a way, become a curious place for dragging my own horrible secrets into the light for all to see, and on the scale of shameful secrets, “took a date to see Mortal Kombat II: Annihilation” is much worse than “burning passion for Catalina Larranaga” or even “took a date to see Wicked City.” It’s probably not worse than, “invited a girl over, cooked her a crappy dinner, then made her watch Black Devil Doll from Hell,” but it’s pretty close.
I was also pretty much broke in 1997. Hell, I was pretty much broke in 2007, but I’d learned to stretch a dollar in those ten years. Whatever the reason, I didn’t see many movies that year, and Event Horizon was among the ones I didn’t see. Heck, I don’t think I knew a thing about it back then, because I didn’t even have a TV at the time where I could see important commercials informing of the virtues of films like Event Horizon, B*A*P*S, Kull the Conqueror, or any of the other fine films released that year. In the many years that followed, Event Horizon was off my radar and forgotten about, even though from time to time someone would tell me I should see it. That almost always encourages me not to see a film, as very few people seem to understand the complexities of my taste, and so they assume that I will want to be watching Troma films or other intentionally and ironically crappy movies. People just can’t grasp my earnestness. But lately, I’ve been going back and catching up on a lot of the science fiction I missed in the past ten years or so, and after Screamers, Event Horizon was the next film on the list — though calling it science fiction is sort of like calling Halloween a “coming of age drama.”
Despite the starships, hibernation chambers, spacesuits, and other superficial trappings of science fiction, Event Horizon is most definitely a horror film through and through, hewing closely to the classic set-up of a group of people in an isolated location, being preyed upon by a mysterious and murderous force. It just so happens that outer space is a slightly more isolated location than usual. In this regard, Event Horizon draws upon a history of science fiction horror that includes films like Alien and Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires and can be traced back even further to the era of pulp fiction and writers like H.P. Lovecraft. In fact, it’s Lovecraft’s name that is most often invoked when people attempt to describe this film, even though at no point does Sam Neill yell “Yog Sothoth!” Unfortunately for a lot of people, Lovecraft and horror films were not invoked by the advertising for the film when it was released, which marketed it for the most part as a space adventure with some minor overtones of spookiness. People who went in expecting sci-fi space adventure found themselves confronted by hallucinatory images of demon rape, maggots, people being flayed alive, other people vomiting up their own innards or possibly someone else’s arm — at times, the atrocity exhibition is hard to decipher, but the fact remains that it was not what the average sci-fi fan was expecting. I’ve never quite understood this type of bait and switch marketing, as it only makes people mad. But I suspect that it has less to do with some sinister attempt to trick sci-fi fans into seeing a horror film and more to do with an ad agency that never bothered to watch the movie they were marketing and just assumed that, since it featured a spaceship, it was a science fiction film.
By the time I saw this movie, of course, the cat was out of the bag, so I knew exactly what I was getting into. Even if I hadn’t, it would not have mattered much, since I can roll with horror just as easily as I can science fiction. So that’s not what bugs me about this movie. What bugs me is that Event Horizon is this close to being a great movie, and that it comes so close but ultimately fails is, fair or not, much worse than if it had just been a crummy movie from beginning to end. At least then, I could have abandoned any care and gone along with things. That’s what gets me through The Chronicles of Riddick, Aeon Flux, and the many other two-star science fiction films for which I seem to have an incredible weakness. But Event Horizon was almost so much more, and while I ultimately like the movie quite a lot, I do so well aware of the bitter taste left by great ideas left poorly explored and a resolution that sees the movie collapse in on itself — which I guess is fitting in a way for a movie that features the a black hole propulsion system.
The set-up is not unlike that of a couple other “investigating the mysterious ship” movies. I’m thinking specifically of The Black Hole and 2010. In the year 2047, a group of search and rescue astronauts lead by Lawrence Fishburne when he was allowed to show emotion instead of being an emotionless monotonal Matrix guy, are en route to a secret location known only to aerospace scientist Sam Neill. It is soon revealed that they are on their way to rendezvous with the space ship Event Horizon, an experimental craft with the ability to use a black hole generator to warp space and travel massive distances in the blink of an eye. But the ship went missing seven years ago, and there’s been no successful contact with the crew since it suddenly re-appeared near the planet Neptune. Captain Miller (Fishburne), Dr. Weir (Neill), and the crew of the rescue ship Lewis and Clark are to make contact with the crew of the Event Horizon and see what the heck is going on. A rough approach through the stormy space surrounding Neptune results in damage to the Lewis and Clark, meaning that whatever happens on board the Event Horizon, they’re going to have to stick around a spell to fix their own ship.
Things are hardly soothing on the nerves once the team boards the massive experimental space ship. The crew is gone, and the only trace of them is a garbled transmission full of screaming — though eventually Miller and company also discover some hideously mutilated remains splayed across the walls. Although the ship’s black hole drive is presumably shut down, it still finds time to activate itself and suck a member of Miller’s crew into its vortex, returning him in a coma that is only broken long enough for him to babble hysterically about “the darkness inside him” and the nightmarish things he saw on the other side. On top of that, the rest of Miller’s crew starts seeing things — specifically, hallucinations of their dead loved ones. And because horror on top of horror isn’t enough, scans of the Event Horizon begin returning reports of widespread bio signals, inferring that something else is on the ship with them. When one of Miller’s officers decodes the Event Horizon log, they are met with perverse images of the crew being ripped apart, raped by hideous beasts (or possibly by other members of the crew), and suffering untold and unspeakable horrors. Miller decides that the ship can go to hell, and they’re leaving it behind. But Weir seems to feel that the ship has already been to hell, and that somewhere along it’s universe-warping journey, the Event Horizon passed into another dimension, one of absolute chaos and evil, and in doing so became a sentient and highly malevolent living organism. The scans are picking up life forms; they’re picking up the ship itself, and the hallucinations and other problems are a result of the ship’s immune system defending itself from invading organisms.
Or the ship could just be a big ol’ hunk of Hell-infused evil. Whatever the case, Miller is as keen on leaving as Weir is on keeping everybody there.
As a concept, I think Event Horizon is tremendous. The idea of a ship’s experimental drive warping space tot he point where it rips the fabric of the universe and winds up in another dimension humans could best comprehend as Hell is wonderful, and that sort of “horror among the stars” is right out of the old pulp writings of H.P. Lovecraft, who often tinged his horror with elements of science fiction. The universe into which the Event Horizon passed is glimpsed, but only in tiny, tiny portions, and the film relies again on the old Lovecraft trope of a place so completely evil, so thoroughly perverse and malign, that to merely gaze upon it would drive a man insane. Further, the idea that the ship, once returning in some way or another from that universe, would have become a sentient creature as evil as the universe through which it passed is a concept rife with potential. It’s also a set of ideas so vast, so complex, that attempting to tackle them in two hours in a sci-fi horror film is almost certainly doomed to failure.
And that’s what happens to poor Event Horizon; it is filled with too many good ideas that are too complex, and there’s no hope of the film ever being able to satisfactorily unravel it’s science, meta-science, philosophy, and religion. In a way, this isn’t a bad thing. To present human characters with a situation far beyond their comprehension and thus leave many questions necessarily half-answered or completely unresolved is fine. There is a way to do that. I just don’t think Event Horizon hits the mark. It aims. It makes a valiant effort. But int he end, it just can’t get it’s head around its own central concepts, and the whole thing devolves into an ending that lets the film down.
But make no mistake about it — I like this movie. I like it a lot. I think the things it does right make it more than worth the time it takes to watch. My frustration stems purely from the fact that it was well within the grasp of this film to be even better, and it didn’t quite make it. It’s like one of those break-aways in basketball where one guy has the ball,sprints the length of the court alone, has everyone cheering and going nuts, but then when he goes up for the slam dunk, he somehow screws it up and misses. You know, if he’d just dribbled down and missed a jumper, no worries. But because there was tremendous emotion and pageantry around the idea of a breakaway and dunk, when the guy blows the dunk, it makes the missed basket way more painful — especially if it comes near the very end and costs them the game. Event Horizon spends most of its running time building up the freak-out and scares (sometimes with cheap jump scares, but usually through the use of genuine atmosphere), but as Roger Ebert said of the movie, “it’s all foreboding and never gets to the actual boding.”
But let’s detach ourselves from disappointment and spend some time talking about what this movie does right. First and foremost is the atmosphere. Although the science fiction setting misled a lot of viewers, it works wonderfully for this type of film. It’s basically a slightly more fantastic version of the “old dark house,” the remote cabin, or any of the many other locations horror films use to isolate their cast from the outside world — only more so. Millions of miles from home, on a tiny man-made island, surrounded by an environment that will kill you almost instantly if you set foot outside. That’s even more claustrophobic and nerve-wracking than being at some rich weirdo’s country manor. And Event Horizon never lets you forget how vulnerable these people are. Their air is running out. One guy ends up outside the ship without a spacesuit. You never lose sight of how fragile humans are in this setting — something I think could only be replicated by setting your movie in the middle of the ocean. Much of Event Horizon has to do with the concept of tampering in domains man was not meant to see, but while the specific domain may be the Hell Universe, in general it’s obvious that even save travel through space in incredibly dangerous, and a tiny mistake or bit of damage can have colossally negative repercussions.
Adding to the ominous air is the Event Horizon itself, which was apparently designed by someone who thought H.R. Giger’s stuff was just too cuddly. I’m not sure how practical it is to have a spaceship with such features as a rotating tunnel of spikes and a room full of crawlspaces that are accessed through thorn-covered black panels, but I suspect that few aerospace engineers, even in Russia, are looking to design anything quite this terrifying. Remember when the interiors of spaceships were all white and well-lit? I wonder when the point will come that we decide to move away from that color scheme, and away from various pads and cushions covering stuff, and finally embrace the style that calls for dim, flickering lighting, exposed ductwork and wires, and lots and lots of razor blades and thorns. Practicality issues aside, though, and taken purely as art design, the Event Horizon is magnificent. Production designer Joseph Bennett and visual effects supervisor Richard Yuricich bring an immense amount of experience to the game. Yurichich cut his teeth on films like 2001: A Space Odyssey before moving on to supervise visual effects for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Blade Runner, and of course, Ghost Dad. Bennett did design for the cyberpunk cult hit Hardware, and one can see the evidence of all their past work (as well as the ever-present influence of old German expressionism and Giger’s work on Alien) in the design of Event Horizon. This isn’t a terribly big-budget film, but they do a lot with what they have, giving the entire movie the feel of some twisted, horrific opera.
Another feather in the cap of this film is the cast. None of them inhabit especially well-developed characters. They operate on the level of recognizable stock — Fishburne is the tough but fair captain; Neill is the scientist consumed by his obsessions; Richard Jones is the wise-cracking black guy. But even when the characters are thin, the performers still give it their all. You feel like they believe what’s happening around them, and while they sometimes make dumb decisions, they rarely make decisions that aren’t understandable given the circumstances. The exception, perhaps, would be that after Miller spends a long time explaining that the ship will pick you brain and create hallucinations of suffering loved ones, and after everyone in the crew understands this is what the ship is doing, Kathleen Quinlan’s Peters still falls for the trick. I’ve mentioned it in other reviews, but it always annoys me enough that I feel like mentioning it again anytime it happens (and it happens a lot). The hoary old “evil entity transforms into a loved one” shtick grates on my nerves. I mean, you’re in outer space, for crying out loud. Obviously, when you’ve been told that the evil spaceship ghoul thing will make you see visions of your loved ones and use them to lure you to your doom, and then all of a sudden your son appears out of nowhere in a location he absolutely could not be in, well why the hell would you fall for that? Why would your son be running around on a haunted space ship that just returned from Dante’s Inferno? I guess you could dismiss it as some sort of hypnotic effect, or the result of mental breakdown making a character unable to reason, but mostly it just always strikes me as lazy writing.
Still, no one turns in a bad performance, even though they’re sometimes given very little to do. The bulk of the good stuff goes to Sam Neill, since he gets to play the characters who goes completely bonkers. If anyone had seen Neill in In the Mouth of Madness, they wouldn’t have followed him into space, because they would know that spooky H.P. Lovecraft entities tend to follow him around and drive people mad. If Event Horizon succeeds with any one character, it’s Neill’s Dr. Weir, who starts off sympathetic enough before he is consumed by the horrible mysteries contained within the walls of the Event Horizon. However, one gets the feeling that his character never becomes omniscient, never actually knows what these mysteries are despite his enthusiasm about them. No matter the speeches he may give about boundless evil, other dimensions, and forbidden knowledge, his Faust of a doctor is ultimately as clueless about what’s going on and what’s going to happen as everyone else’s. Although this is likely the product of the screenwriter not knowing himself exactly what was going to happen, the end result is effective. Neill becomes the acolyte of an unseen “holy man,” one who speaks only in riddles and fools his followers into thinking they possess some profound understanding or insight when, in fact, they have been fed nothing but meaningless phrases and garbled imagery. There’s a tragedy surrounding Dr. Weir, who far from becoming one with the ship and grasping the universe from which it has returned, instead becomes nothing more than a pitiable dupe.
Whether or not screenwriter Phil Eisner meant that to be the case, he should take it. Because the rest of his script is where the concept of Event Horizon starts to unravel. Poking fun at the science is ultimately meaningless — this is hardly the sort of film you go to for hard facts, and such an exercise would be as futile as poking holes in the space science of Star Wars. Still, it’s kind of fun, so why not, provided we remember that stressing fiction over science never kills a movie for me. Heck, one of my favorite science fiction films is Adieu, Galaxy Express 999, and that’s about a steam locomotive traveling through the galaxy while a little kid hangs his head out the window. The science of Event Horizon plays out as if it was conceived by someone who was told about Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time by someone else who hadn’t actually read the book, but had been around other people discussing it. A Brief History of Time was, of course, one of those great books that everyone bought and no one read, putting it in the rarefied air occupied by other such books: that gigantic Bill Clinton memoir, the 9/11 Commission Report, Ulysses by James Joyce, and The Bible.
Part of what Hawking’s book dealt with in its attempt to bring high physics down to a populist level was the topic of black holes. Now I actually read the book, because I’m a nerd like that, and because I had to as part of one of the classes I was taking. It was one of those science classes set up specifically for people who aren’t very good with equations, which meant it was mostly full of journalism students and members of the University of Florida football team who would groan anytime the professor tried to relate a fundamental understanding of physics to the act of making a solid pass. Yeah, sure, physics is involved, but it was highly suspect to suggest that Danny Wuerffel spent his time in the huddle scrawling geometry and physics equations into the dirt to figure out how best to get the ball into the hands of wide receiver Reidel Anthony.
Anyway, I think that class gave me about as sound an understanding as would be needed to be the guy that Eisner’s friend talked to about black holes. Meaning that I could remember that Hawking made allusions to Dante’s Inferno when speaking of the event horizon of a black hole — that gravitational point of no return from which light itself cannot escape. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” Hawking said, paraphrasing Dante and the sign that hung outside the gates of Hell. He meant, of course, that the pull of a black hole is so great, that if you cross the event horizon, you’re not coming back, so you best make peace with the fact that you’re dead meat. Now pass that sentiment through me passing it on to someone else, who then tells Phil Eisner that he was drunk at a party the other night, talking about some deep shit like black holes. All of a sudden, that simple quote applied to explain how hopeless it is to escape the pull of a black hole is twisted to mean that a black hole actually could be the gateway to Hell. And poof! Event Horizon‘s concept is born. It’s really not a bad concept, regardless of how misconstrued it may be. Black holes are weird, after all, and the idea that they lead somewhere other than to a horrible death in which you are crushed down to microscopic size by the unbelievable gravitational pressure is hardly new to Event Horizon. And even the best minds are still feeble when up against cosmic phenomena of this scale. So why not? And anyway, the use of the term “event horizon” works in a couple different ways, and it refers as much to a black hole as it does to the Event Horizon itself, which proves to be a flashpoint which, once entered, will not allow the humans to escape.
What’s more important to the quality of the screenplay is what Eisner does with the concept, and while he starts off strong, he seems to get lost, allowing the movie at times to devolve into a blood and guts horror film (not bad) and a pastiche of other other movies (slightly less forgivable). I’ve already mentioned some of the films from which Event Horizon draws, but there are plenty of others. In fact, it lifts wholesale the scene of a river of blood gushing forth from an elevator from The Shining. In fact, you could really view this movie as little more than The Shining meets The Black Hole. Sam Neill’s character bears a close resemblance to Jack Nicholson’s character from The Shining, and the concept of a haunted house (or spaceship) that causes hallucinations and may itself be alive is an idea shared by both films. Many other elements are lifted from the Russian sci-fi film Solaris, yet another “man battles hallucinations” sci-fi tale.
One could also invoke the specter of the old Roger Corman Poe films, especially The Fall of the House of Usher, as it too is about a house infused with evil to the point of becoming a malignant being itself, ending in a fiery collapse much the same as we see at the end of Event Horizon. And the idea of the black hole as a portal to Hell was explored — with equal awkwardness — by The Black Hole, a film which sends one of its robotic villains through a black hole and lands him standing on a pillar surrounded by a lake of fire and the souls of the damned. n fact, Event Horizon reflects The Black Hole in many ways — an exploratory crew finds a long lost ship; that ship’ screw has vanished or mostly vanished; things are spooky; and then it all falls apart at the end when the movies both realize that they have ten minutes to explain things that the top scientific minds of the word have been grappling with for decades.
In the case of Event Horizon, all the talk of physics versus metaphysics, of a ship powered by pure evil, of a rip in the fabric of space that leads to a Hellraiser universe, lead to an anti-climatic and predictable fist fight between Miller and Weir. Though it is similar to The Fall of the House of Usher, and though it’s a suitably horrific and downbeat ending for the decent guy Miller, it seems ultimately to be a resolution that fails the film’s attempts at something more complex. I don’t need the questions to be answered. In fact, I prefer that they try and fail, discovering that comprehension of what awaits them is simply beyond the boundaries of the human brain. But a fist fight and an explosion seemed somehow to be less than what should have been delivered. It may not be entirely Eisner’s fault, though. Apparently some forty minutes was cut from the movie in order to achieve a manageable running time (1997 was a few years too early for genre films to run three hours or more and still get a wide release) and an R-rating (the 90s represented MPAA judges in a reactionary phase as an answer to the gore and nudity soaked anarchy of the 70s and 80s). Fans hoped that the footage would be restored at some point, and that such restoration would smooth out many of the wrinkles that prevent Event Horizon from achieving its ambitions, but so far such wishes have gone unsatisfied. Even when released to DVD, the film was still the theatrical cut. Whether or not it will ever be fully restored is up in the air, but given that we live in an era when almost everything, no matter how obscure or trashy, is getting lovingly reconstructed by some madman, there’s still the possibility that a more complete version will emerge and we can re-assess the film based on that.
Until then, though, we have to work with what we get to watch, and as presented, Event Horizon is an almost great movie that loses its way and relies on too many scenes from other movies and too many cheap jolts. I do wish horror films would retire that bit where someone is scared, and then someone comes up behind them and grabs them on the shoulder, refusing to speak until the other person and the audience have gotten a cheap scare. Really — have you ever approached a person in complete silence, from behind, and grabbed them by the shoulder? Yes, you have, but that’s because you were intentionally trying to scare that person. In all other instances, no one does this, and yet horror films feature it like every other scene. What makes it frustrating here is that Event Horizon doesn’t need to rely on these weak scares. It has plenty of legitimate scares and an over-arching feeling of doom and eeriness. Falling back on juvenile tactics like the shoulder grab is just gratuitous and sloppy. At least they didn’t have a scene where a cat jumped out of a box or something.
And really, perhaps I am being like this movie: searching for something that isn’t attained, being more serious than I should. Taken as nothing more than a horror film with sci-fi dressing, I really think Event Horizon is a success. It definitely has the feel of an old pulp — right down to losing track of itself over the course of its running time. Director Paul W.S. Anderson is no stranger to fans of pulpy movies, having directed Mortal Kombat before this (but not Mortal Kombat II), and Resident Evil after, among other things. I have a curious love-hate relationship with Anderson’s films in that I love some, hate others, but rarely find myself somewhere in between. Flaws aside, I love Event Horizon. And even more flaws aside, I love the Resident Evil movies, and Mortal Kombat, even (though not Mortal Kombat II). I guess I’m lukewarm on Soldier, so there’s one middle ground movie.
But I hate with a passion the Alien vs. Predator films, even more than I hate Mortal Kombat II. Still that’s a lot of hits any only one real miss for me (granted, I’m not a discriminating viewer), so I guess I like Anderson as a director, and I think Event Horizon is probably the best film he’s made and will likely make. At its worst, it is grade-A horror hokum, full of mumbo jumbo and ideas that don’t really pan out. And I can deal with that just fine. Heck, like I said, I probably would have preferred if the film was that way from beginning to end instead of flirting with brilliance in spots, only to fold at the last second. But regardless, this is good, gruesome pulp fiction, full of the creeping unknown and vague talk about dimensions of madness and torture that only Cthulhu, Pinhead, and the makers of the Ilsa films can imagine. Anderson’s direction is sure-handed, and he and cinematographer Adrian Biddle make wonderful use of the warped madhouse the production team has created for them.
So, huh. I guess I did have a lot to say about Event Horizon. Funny the things you learn about yourself when faced with writing about a movie where Sam Neill digs out his own eyeballs. I was pleasantly surprised by it. I didn’t expect it to be as good as it was, and even though it’s a shame it wasn’t as good as it could have been, at the end of the day, I’m happy enough. I’m also happy I didn’t see it in 1997, because even though I would have liked it then, perhaps even more than I do now, the fact of the matter is that Southern belle was actually willing to still enter into a relationship with me even after I made her see things like Mortal Kombat II: Annihilation, City of Darkness, and Alien 4. I don’t know if that tenuous, early romance could have survived Event Horizon as well, especially considering the fact that she never made me go see Titanic, like every other girlfriend did in 1997. I guess I could have sold Event Horizon with no more or less deception than the original marketing team if I positioned it as “kind of like Titanic, in that it is about people on a doomed ship.”
Release Year: 1997 | Country: United States | Starring: Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill, Kathleen Quinlan, Joely Richardson, Richard T. Jones, Jack Noseworthy, Jason Isaacs, Sean Pertwee | Writer: Phil Eisner | Director: Paul W.S. Anderson | Cinematographer: Adrian Biddle | Music: Michael Kamen | Producer: Jeremy Bolt, Lawrence Gordon, Lloyd Levin
I once read a review on some site that contained the statement “Slaughtered Vomit Dolls is not for everyone”, which is my favorite line ever from an online review of a cult movie. Not only is it admirable for being refreshingly direct, but also for how it so clearly provides the guidance that we depend on from such reviews. It makes you truly grateful that the internet exists, especially if you’re one of those people who might otherwise have considered purchasing Slaughtered Vomit Dolls as a Mothers Day gift.
In the spirit of those words, then, I would like to begin this review by stating that Hausu, the 1977 debut feature from Japanese director Nobuhiko Obayashi, is not for everyone. However, if you are one of those people whom Hausu is for (or for whom Hausu is?), I think that you will find it not only fascinating, but addictive. I myself have seen it five times now, and it’s a testament to its uniqueness that each time I watch it I find myself surprised anew at just how strange it is. It’s as if it contains too much that’s beyond the normal frame of reference for the brain to adequately retain it all. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it is one of the most unique horror films that I have ever seen.
Obayashi came to Hausu from a background in television advertising, and, in making it, he not only employs all of the tricks of that trade, but also turns many of them on their head. This is a film in which no fraction of any one frame escapes being stylized to within an inch of its life. In addition to working with a woozy pallet of saturated and uniformly unnatural colors (not to mention a chaotic sound design), Obayashi uses every special effect technique available at the time, in concert with a large repertoire of “naive” optical effects not typically seen since the early talkies, to create layers of visual and aural signals that constantly bombard the viewer at every level. While this can at times come off like a first-time director simply showing off, the film is far from an empty exercise in style. Hausu is simply energized by too much passion (and perhaps rage) for there not to be a vision–and heart–behind its madness.
Obayashi, at least in his early directing years, seemed to be drawn to fantastic stories that centered on school-aged protagonists, especially those that played on themes of teenage angst (his other films include Exchange Students, The Little Girl Who Conquered Time and the manga adaptation Drifting Classroom), and Hausu is no exception, following the fate of a close knit group of seven teenaged schoolgirls. Of these seven, only the ethereally beautiful Oshare (Kimiko Ikegami) is provided with any kind of back-story–or character, for that matter. The remaining six are simply an assortment of types, each paired down to a descriptive nickname and one corresponding signature behavior: Mack (for “stomach”) overeats; Fanta (Kumiko Ohba) is prone to romantic daydreams; Melody (Eriko Tanaka) plays piano; Kung Fu (Miki Jinbo) practices Kung Fu and has her own action theme music, etc.
Collectively these girls inhabit a world straight out of a seventies Saturday morning cereal commercial, one in which people rise to greet the day with arms outstretched to the sun as cartoon rainbows play across the horizon to the strains of treacly soft rock. As Obayashi presents it, you wouldn’t be at all surprised if one of those freaky psychedelic football mascots from Syd and Marty Kroft’s PuffnStuff or Lidsville were to bound into frame at any moment. Oshare’s life outside of the group, however, is presented a little differently, though in no less cavity-promoting terms. Hers is a world of movie-fuelled romanticism with the kitsch level pushed to belligerent extremes (think Douglas Sirk on eleven): Beyond the balcony of her father’s high-rise flat, a permanent artificial sunset stretches across the sky like a glorious, lurid bruise, and, as we watch Oshare, all of the camera’s means of idealizing dewy young womanhood–gauzy soft focus, halo lighting, fan-blown hair captured in dreamy slow motion–are amped to the level of the grotesque. Taken together, the world that’s presented in the first section of Hausu is one in which a malignant, over-ripe greeting card sentimentality has poisoned the very atmosphere. And, given that, it should come as no surprise that rottenness lurks just around the corner–or, at least, just a short train ride away.
Things start to turn when Oshare, heartbroken over the prospect of her widowed father marrying a creepily serene younger woman named Ryoko (Haruko Wanibuchi), reaches out to her beloved dead mother’s sister, an aunt (Yoko Minamida) whom she hasn’t seen for many years. That aunt has remained in the family home, alone, honoring a decades old promise to wait for the man to whom she was engaged, even though, as we have seen, he was long ago killed in the war that took him away in the first place. (In keeping with the psychotically chipper tone of Hausu‘s first act, the flashback of the aunt’s tragic story is played out as a silent era film while, on the soundtrack, the girls coo inanely over how cute and quaint it all looks.) The aunt in return invites Oshare and her friends to come stay at the remote family house for the holiday.
Quickly after the group of girls arrives at the house it becomes apparent that, not just something, but everything isn’t right. The aunt, they eventually learn, has long ago died and become a ghost whose vengeful spirit has infected the very house itself. Furthermore, in order to maintain itself, the house must literally devour any virgin girl who steps within it. It is at this point that Hausu resoundingly turns against its first half, and the opening scenes’ creepy yet chaste fetishizing of the young girls gives way to an explosive sexuality so uncontainable that it literally permeates and animates the physical environment that they inhabit.
It is also at this point that Hausu takes on the structure of a conventional modern horror film, with the girls being picked off one by one by a variety of gory means. But the nature of those means, given that it’s the house itself that is implementing them–combined with the delirious, candy colored nightmare of their presentation–makes those sequences anything but conventional. The scene in which we watch Melody getting eaten, and then digested, by a grand piano is probably the most memorable, but there are a number of others that equal it in terms of their combined horror and absurdity. Obayashi here performs a neat (and, to my mind, never repeated) trick by drawing on the queasy, hallucinatory imagery of Italian horror directors like Argento, while replacing their languid, dreamy pacing with the sugar rush velocity of a particularly demented Saturday morning cartoon. The result is as intoxicating as it is overwhelming.
Hausu, perhaps surprisingly, dates very well. Despite its surface appearance, it manages to escape itself being 1970s kitsch by presciently recognizing that kitsch for what it was in its own time. From that vantage point, it can treat those treacly feel good excesses, not with nostalgic affection or condescending dismissal, but as a telling symptom of something malignant underneath. It may just be wishful thinking, but I like to believe that it’s no coincidence that Hausu came out in the year commonly associated with the birth of punk–that, though not apparent on the surface, hidden within it is a mischievous punk sensibility. After all, what better symbol of everything that punk rose up against than the smiley face? If Obayashi did not officially count himself among punk’s practitioners, he at least attacked that symbol and everything it stood for with a bile and passion equal to theirs.
Hausu also benefits greatly by comparison to contemporary Japanese horror movies, which typically suffer from their makers’ grim determination to make every moment pregnant with ominousness and foreboding–with the end result being films that are pretty much uniformly tedious and annoying. In contrast, Hausu, a film that is rich with humor and a subversive sense of play, not only delivers a number of effective scares, but also manages to be profoundly disturbing as a whole. At a time when it is becoming distressingly apparent that the Japanese have forgotten how to make horror movies that are actually scary, it might just be that their film industry could take a lesson from Hausu. Perhaps they could learn from it that their taking the horror genre too seriously could be the very thing that is leeching it of all of its horror, and that it’s time to bring a sense of fun and mischief back into the process. The American film industry, on the other hand, should continue in their benevolent ignorance of Hausu, because no one wants to see a remake of it starring cast members of Gossip Girl.
So, if you think that Hausu is for you, that’s the good news. The bad news is that, though long a soft and grainy staple of the grey market, Hausu is, as of this writing, only legitimately available as a German PAL region DVD without English subtitles. That shouldn’t be too much of a deterrent, however, because its simple story and emphasis on visuals make it a perfect example of the type of film that’s easy to enjoy without understanding the spoken language. Still, given the ready availability of so many old Japanese genre titles on the market, it’s somewhat astonishing that no one has seen fit to give a film as ripe for cult appreciation as Hausu a proper American release. Mind you, it’s no Slaughtered Vomit Dolls, but it still deserves to be seen.
Release Year: 1977 | Country: Japan | Starring: Kimiko Ikegami, Yoko Minamida, Kumiko Ohba, Saho Sasazawa, Haruko Wanibuchi, Eriko Tanaka, Miki Jinbo, Masayo Miyako, Mitsutoshi Ishigami | Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi | Writers: Chiho Katsura, Nobuhiko Obayashi | Cinematographer: Yoshitaka Sakamoto | Music: Asei Kobayashi, Micky Yoshino | Producer: Nobuhiko Obayashi
Among the many things that puzzle me in life is the question of why there aren’t more horror films set amidst military conflicts and wars. Not that aren’t any, but there aren’t nearly as many as one might think, giving how easily wartime settings should lend themselves as backdrops to horror films, to say nothing of the fact that it was the landscape of World War I that informed the art and set design on many of the old Universal and German horror classics. That conflict in particular, with one foot in the horror of modern warfare and the other in…well, the horror of 19th century warfare, seems particularly well suited for horror films. The strange combination of Industrial Revolution weapons and vehicles with ornate imperial uniforms, peasants, kingdoms, horse-drawn artillery, and of course, No Man’s Land, trench warfare, bombed out old European buildings and castles — horror films set amongst this carnage seem to practically write themselves, and yet wartime horror films are all but non-existent.
Certainly, some exist, and perhaps I’m the only one who look sat the battlefields of past wars and sees potential for horror-themed entertainment. Chalk it up to my childhood obsession with Weird War Tales comic books, those oft-mentioned on this website stories about skeletal Nazis drifting across war-ravaged, mist-enshrouded landscapes while a terrified GI crouches in a trench. Or my personal favorite, the one with a cover where a centaur is attacking a Panzer. What the hell was going on with that one? I guess if I had my millions, I’d blow a lot of it on the usual stuff people blow easy millions — top hats, monocles, stuff like that — and the rest I’d devote to remastering and releasing on DVD obscure Eurospy films mostly for myself, and to producing a long series of horror films set during the two World Wars and featuring green fog and skeletal specters clad in tattered military uniforms. Heck, it’s better than losing it all to some shyster investment banker.
Anyway, like I said, there aren’t many horror films set amidst wars. There was one about two guys stuck in a trench in WWI, I think. And I’m not sure I count Manticore, even though I seem to have watched that movie like a dozen times. There are thousands of films in my “to watch” pile, including many incredible classics, and I never get around to viewing them. How is it, I ask myself, I continue to fail to watch these films but have seen Manticore and Zoolander like ten thousand times? But other than a precious few, and discounting movies that feature soldiers but are not set in actual wars, this weird little subgenre with which I’m obsessed remains curiously unpopulated. Maybe it’s because most horror films are incredibly low budget affairs, and they simply can’t afford the costuming, props, locations, and scenes of battle that would be required to properly set the stage. Maybe horror film screenwriters are just young, and they don’t know enough about such conflicts to use them as a backdrop for a film — not that not knowing much has ever stopped a screenwriter, especially a horror film screenwriter. Their offenses against even the most basic of police procedures are long-running and often astounding.
Perhaps war is simply a horrible subject in itself, and lending a supernatural air to it is seen as tasteless. Ha ha ha! Yeah, I know. The genre that gave us sub-genres like torture porn, slashers, and Rob Zombie is worried about offending the sensibilities of the world’s remaining Great War veterans. Perhaps, then the problem is that the people who have ideas for World War horror films (One or Two, either would be effective), like me, are lazy, like me, and the scripts remain as little more than half-finished ideas inside their heads. I also tend to wonder why there are so few movies about the American Revolution, what with it being kind of a big deal not just in American history, but in shaping the course of the world as a whole. I suppose the rest of the world isn’t as excited about watching a cast of thousands in powdered wigs run at each other with matchlock rifles and bayonets. Maybe I’ll do an American Revolution horror film.
Among the few battlefield horror films we find the Korean production R-Point, set during the Vietnam War and involving, among other things, spooky ghosts, cemeteries, swamps full of corpses, and a spooky old French Plantation mansion. Unknown to many of my generation and later — and probably earlier than that — South Korea had the second largest contingent of non-Vietnamese troops in the conflict, after the United States. For them, the conflict in Vietnam played out much like an extension of the Korean War, with the North Koreans playing a role on the side of the North Vietnamese. Over the course of the war, and starting in 1964, South Korea sent over 300,000 troops into Vietnam, where they developed a reputation for being highly skilled and effective combatants — so much so that the Americans looked to Korean theaters for guaranteed safety while the North Vietnamese warned their troops to avoid engaging Korean battalions if at all possible.
Sadly, very little of that effectiveness seems to be on display in the troops that make up the special squadron of this film, unless we are measuring their effectiveness at screaming, flailing, falling down, and blubbering like little babies at even the slightest of inconveniences. R-Point centers around a group of soldiers who are assigned the task of traveling to a remote station — Romeo Point — to investigate the disappearance of a previous platoon of Korean soldiers. The previous group was presumed dead as a result of some sort of guerrilla attack until a distorted, bizarre distress message was radioed in by an unidentified member of the platoon.
The assembled task force includes pretty much all the war movie stereotypes: the stoic CO, the world weary veteran, the nerdy radio operator, the blowhard, so on and so forth. I don’t know the Korean equivalent of a guy from Brooklyn who wears a New York Yankees baseball cap and is probably nicknamed Brooklyn, but I’m sure whatever it is, this movie had one. Stoic Lieutenant Choi (Kam Woo Sung) leads the bunch and is one of the only guys with any sort of stand-out personality — that personality being “stoic guy.” Things start of predictably enough, with the task force traveling up river to R-Point, only to be ambushed by a Vietcong commando. After an intense firefight, they discover the commando is a woman. Badly wounded, Choi orders her shot to finish the job, but no one can bring themselves to do it, instead leaving her to die a slow death — which seems considerably worse, if you ask me.
Upon arrival at R-Point, they discover it to be a vast lakebed, now largely drained and overgrown, not to mention prone to severe bouts of ominous fog. After holing up in a decaying French mansion, they set about searching for some trace of their comrades. It isn’t long, however, before things start to get really weird. Soldiers start catching glimpses of other people disappearing into the shadows or running through the treeline. A group of Americans chopper in one night and deliver further ominous warnings about R-Point, detailing the location’s long history of slaughter and mass graves. And then one by one, members of Choi’s detachment start vanishing, turning up dead, or going insane.
There is much that R-Point does incredibly well, and several things it does poorly. So as to end on a high note — because I really did like this movie — we’ll tackle the negative first. And nothing stands out as a bigger negative than the behavior of the soldiers. They quickly degenerate into a state of shrieking and crying and falling over, becoming largely indistinguishable from one another, as well as becoming keenly irritating. I don’t expect people not to be scared when they are being hunted by ghosts and staying in a creepy old bombed out mansion, but one expects at least some degree of discipline and training to be on display at some point. But almost from the very beginning, with the exception of Choi and grizzled vet, Sergeant Jin (Byung-ho Son), the entire group is crying, cowardly, and incompetent. A better balance between soldiers trying to get their heads around their increasingly macabre circumstances and soldiers who are overwhelmed by it would have made for a much better movie, and one that deals with the complexity of entering a warzone and coming face to face with literal ghosts in a much more intelligent fashion. Instead, the movie becomes a long succession of crying, scares staged around dudes squatting over the latrine, and guys going, “Wait! Where did Corporeal So-And-So go???”
The film also falls back on the now-tired old Asian horror film chestnut of a spooky girl with long hair, which is a shame after the film goes through so much trouble to set itself up as something wholly different from the usual piles of Ring-inspired spooky girl horror films from Japan and Korea (among others). What really makes this a crime is that she is so blatant and obvious a presence in a film that otherwise relies very heavily on the effective exploitation of half-seen shapes in the shadows and momentary glances of something that was maybe there, maybe not. Shoehorning the female ghost into things not only undercuts the basic mystery, but seems wildly out of place, as if a producer somewhere along the way panicked and insisted that they put a female ghost with long hair into the film at some point. Her scenes are weak not just because she is photographed with such solidity, but also because the film doesn’t seem that committed to her presence, as if it is shrugging and saying to us, “Look, I didn’t want her in, either, but that producer insisted. Stick with me, and we’ll get to more scenes of creepy caves and ghostly soldiers pretty soon.”
So those are the negatives — provided one takes the appearance early in the film of an anachronistic DHL deliveryman in modern, bright yellow uniform to be amusing but ultimately harmless — and each negative is acutely noticeable and undermines the film in a way that can’t really be ignored. Because of these, I can understand people dismissing this film as an interesting failure. But it can be made up for if the movie exhibits strengths in other categories, and in that regard, R-Point succeeds admirably. First and foremost, this movie is creepy. Really creepy. The initial reveal of the French mansion that will become Choi’s base of operations is incredibly effective, fading into view as the sun rises on a gray and foggy day, and looming over the soldiers like the embodiment of all the death and decay perpetrated by the war. As far as the “old dark house” trope of ghost films go, this place is one of the best.
But it’s not left up to the mansion to shoulder all the creep factor. Drawing perhaps on the influence of Apocalypse Now in making the jungle seem surreal and eerie, R-Point works wonders with its surroundings, bringing out not just the fear of wartime attack in the jungle, but a very palpable sense of supernatural dread lurking behind every banana leaf and twisted root. The endless swaying fields and swamps of R-Point itself are equally as spooky, allowing any number of half-seen bugaboos to come and go in the corner of your eye. Among the most effective of these is a scene in which one of Choi’s men becomes separated from his search team, only to catch up with what he thinks is them, silently moving forward through the weeds and ignoring his attempts to catch their attention. Slowly, each soldier crouches down to take cover, fading into the brush around them and disappearing. It’s a damn good scene and really plays to this film’s strengths far more than the gratuitous female ghost nonsense.
Other effective scenes include the discovery of a downed helicopter, a swamp full of decaying bodies, and Jin’s exploration of a cave. In each of these scenes, as with the one above, the film draws its strength from the feeling that something might be there. The juxtaposing of very familiar wartime iconography — the HUEY helicopter, the fact that the soldiers moving through the weeds look almost exactly like the statues in Washington DC’s Korean War Memorial — with things that are otherworldly and not quite right. It infuses the entire film with a sense of creeping unease, that odd feeling one gets when one realizes that something they thought was familiar has been transformed into something recognizable buy also wholly alien in nature. Had R-Point stuck to that, instead of falling back onto the now unwelcome female ghost cliche, it would have been a great movie. Even with these missteps, though, it manages to be a good movie, if somewhat disappointing because it’s obvious how much better it almost was. If nothing else, it proves that the combination of war with supernatural horror makes for some striking, effective imagery.
Director-screenwriter Su-Chang Kong, who also wrote the thriller Tell Me Something, wasn’t terribly experienced when he penned this script, and that perhaps goes a long way to explain the failure of the film to avoid the ghostly girl cliche and do something more with the soldiers than make them cry and complain and whine about going home because they are scared. Man, the more I think about that, the more it irks me. Still, when his script is strong, it’s really strong, and for the most part, he keeps the horror oblique and never fully explained. At times, it seems like Choi, and then Jin, might know more than they are letting on. At no time is the exact nature of what is haunting, possessing, and killing them fully explained. This makes the horror much scarier. Attempts to lend some explanation through the appearance of the female ghost collapse, and R-Point would have been better off never offering any clear explanation at all.
As a director, Kong fares much better, even though this was his first film. Working with cinematographer Hyeong-jing Seok (Kilimanjaro), Kong creates a thoroughly eerie atmosphere without resorting to lots of CGI. He allows the camera to linger just as often as he employs fast editing to imply ghostly appearances. Kong is also successful at turning everything into something spooky looking, including the jungle, the decrepit mansion, an old cobweb-covered radio unit, and a crumbling temple choked by vines. He also keeps the film well-paced for the most part — though even solid direction and art design has a hard time interesting me in yet another scene of two guys getting scared while squatting over the latrine. For the most part, though, R-Point moves at a slow pace punctuated by moments of surprising wartime violence or chilling horror film imagery. It’s too bad that Kong the screenwriter lets down Kong the director from time to time.
There’s little point in analyzing the acting, as most of it is comprised of guys crying, falling down, and begging to go home. I mean, you certainly believe these guys are scared, but it gets annoying. It also makes it hard to tell who is who — which actually works to the film’s advantage when the soldiers have their revelation about the first soldier to die. The non-blubbering, non-hysterical acting is largely left up to Woo-seong Kam as Choi and Byung-ho Son as Jin. I’d never seen Kam in anything before, or since for that matter, and he has few films to his credit despite being quite good in his role here as a man attempting to hold onto his sanity and decipher the weirdness occurring around him. Byung-ho Son I’d seen once before, in 1999’s Yuryeong (aka Phantom Submarine). He’s also quite good here as the older, more experienced soldier trying to hold the force together while they all go to pieces and Choi becomes obsessed with figuring out what the hell is going on.
R-Point is a decent entry in the war-horror film, creating many incredibly effective scenes but ultimately proving to be a bit of a disappointment because it’s almost a great film, which is often worse than just being a bad film. This is one of those movies that just needed one more revision of the script to really make it something special. Still, if you can get over how great the film could have been, you can still enjoy how good it is. Not without noticeably flaws, many of which are large enough to make not liking the film perfectly understandable, R-Point still manages to be creepy as hell in many places and an interesting film to think about. It also seems to know when it’s doing something right, and when it’s doing something wrong. Less female ghost with long hair, more war-horror would have been a vast improvement. R-Point still succeeds at being scary, and at having a little more going on upstairs than the usual horror film — especially when it comes to transposing supernatural horror on top of real world war horror, and letting the decay and spookiness of one frequently stand in for the other. It’s just too bad that, like the soldiers in the film, it couldn’t prevent itself from taking those missteps it so obviously recognizes as such.
Anyone claiming that Spirits of the Dead isn’t a good movie is probably only just saying that because Vadim’s contribution to this anthology of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations as conceived by three of Europe’s maverick directors is so sloppy and unengaging. Vadim’s contribution, “Metzengerstein,” is certainly not the way you’d want to start a film. As was par for the man, Vadim casts his current sexy main squeeze in the lead, which just happened at the time to be Jane Fonda. The duo were fresh off Barbarella, and this story was originally envisioned as a feature film follow-up to that piece of sci-fi pop art. How they could have every stretched this thing out to a full running time is beyond me, though it’s not as if Vadim wasn’t a pro at stretching out thin-to-nonexistent plots and pasting them together with eye-popping, mind blowing costume and set design. Fonda plays the Countess Metzengerstein, heir to a vast fortune she squanders by throwing lavish orgies and torturing the underlings. Actually, they’re rather dull and lifeless orgies. You know, orgies always seem like a good idea until you try and hammer out the logistics of the whole thing. As for me, I’d be too worried about people knocking stuff over. Anyway, she delights in hurling barbs over the fence at her more modest cousin, played by none other than Jane’s brother, Peter. Eventually, she becomes sexually obsessed with him — kind of, well, you know, but then this is Roger Vadim we’re talking about, and it was the sixties — until he rebuffs her advances. I mean, heck, Henry was probably already pretty steamed at the both of them for being a coupla hippies. Incest would have really set him off.
As revenge, the mad Ms. Metzengerstein burns down his stables, and he in turn dies in the fire trying to save his horses. Or so it would seem. A big black stallion bursts through the flames and gallops to safety, but there is no record of such a horse in the stable. Metzengerstein becomes convinced that the horse is the reincarnation of her beloved cousin, and her obsession with the horse crosses into madness and, frankly, borders on bestiality. Despite all the weird stuff thrown into the mix, this is a decidedly dull and uninspired way to kick off the film. The costuming, usually one of Vadim’s only strong points, is relatively without shock or beauty. Jane dons some navel-exposing Little Lord Fauntleroy type outfits, but everything else looks like it’s on loan from the local community theater. The cinematography is listless, and Vadim’s usually striking composition of scenes is non-existent. In addition, everything is shot in soft-focus “Playboy-o-vision.” The English speaking actors are dubbed into French in the currently available version, which means the only way we can judge their performances is through body language, most of which consists of them staring half-stoned at the camera.
The tone of the film is all wrong too, at least in my opinion. A tale of mystery and the bizarre, as this is meant to be, should have some sense of menace and the macabre, some sort of tension. There is none of that here, and the film instead unfolds like a languid, ethereal, and intensely boring dream. Fairy tales and Cocteau Twins songs conjure up more darkness and dread than this supposed Edgar Allen Poe tale. There are some nice crumbling castles and decaying seaside scenery, but Vadim doesn’t seem to understand how to take thematic advantage of it or relate it to the decaying morality and mental state of his central Nero/Caligula-like figure (though I must say I bet Jane Fonda’s figure is better than Nero or Caligula’s). When you fail to match even someone as hit-or-miss with similar atmosphere as, say, France’s Jean Rollin, you know you’re way off the mark. It’s like Vadim wasn’t even trying here. The hilariously silly ending was repeated in Vadim’s 1973 film Don Juan (Or if Don Juan Were a Woman), which we covered right up there at the very beginning of this journal.
Things pick up, but only just, for the second story in the trilogy. Luis Malle directs “William Wilson.” Malle is probably most infamous for flirting with child pornography when he introduced the world to Brooke Shields in his 1978 film Pretty Baby. Before that, he was a member of the French New Wave, which helped get him this gig. He’s pretty far off his game for this outing, though, turning in an entry that manages to be less ponderous and a little more tense and eerie than Vadim’s meandering hunk of nonsense, but it still just doesn’t play out the way it should, perhaps because the story itself has been done so many times and this one offers nothing new. French heartthrob Alain Delon stars as the titular Wilson, whom we meet as he stumbles into a confessional and claims to have killed a man. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn the history of Wilson, who in every regard is a grade-a prick. As a young boy attending a military school where his classmate was no doubt Damien from The Omen II, he encounters a boy with the same name as he who seems dedicated to countering everything he does. He encounters this double, who even grows to look exactly like him, throughout various points in his life until, ultimately, they face one another in a fencing duel.
There’s very little to surprise here. The man fighting his doppleganger, and by killing it killing himself, is nothing new, and Malle’s approach is so straight-forward and by the books that the story, while decent for a single viewing, has nothing more to offer. Like Vadim, Malle seems to almost be phoning it in just to collect his paycheck. The primary difference is that the performers, native French speakers, are better and the story is, as I said, OK at least for the first go-round. Brigitte Bardot shows up briefly in a gambling scene. All in all, the segment isn’t bad. Direction is nice, acting is good, and it moves at a fair clip. There are also a few effective moments, chiefly the scene of a young Wilson lowering a new student into a barrel full of rats and a later scene in which Wilson, now a medical student, seeks to practice his dissection technique on a living subject. So OK, it’s not bad. It’s just not that interesting.
If you make it through the awful first story and middling second, they pay-off is Federico Fellini’s entry, the final piece in the trilogy and easily one of the most delirious, grotesque, and utterly insane forty minutes of film you’ll ever come across. Fellini was known for a lot of things, not the least of which was his fondness for the absurd. If you’re familiar with the director, and you should at least try to be, then try to imagine everything about him and his style distilled down and concentrated in one forty-minute sequence. Quite frankly, it’s almost too much, and that’s simply divine.
His story is “Toby Dammit,” based loosely on Poe’s “Never Bet the Devil Your Head.” A wild-eyed, completely mad looking Terence Stamp stars as Dammit, a drunken, wild British film actor who seems to be hovering on the brink of a career collapse. He travels to Italy to star in a film in which Jesus is reincarnated as a pioneer in the American West, but nothing about his trip to Rome is the least bit ordinary. Fellini saturates his film in colors, and they’re all the wrong ones for what should be going on. Think of film that has been cross-processed. The world of Toby Dammit is awash in red and yellow, billowing orange clouds and dust, like driving through someone’s hallucination of the end of the world. Given the Biblical nature of the film Dammit is to be starring in, it wouldn’t surprise me if Fellini’s own inspiration for the look of the film came straight from the Book of Revelations.
Dammit’s biggest problem, besides his addiction to and disdain for fame, is that he is haunted by visions of a smiling young blonde girl (shades of Mario Bava’s Kill, Baby, Kill) who he believes to be The Devil himself. We follow Dammit onto a bizarre talk show, an even more bizarre awards show, and finally a manic, out of control car ride as he attempts to escape the increasingly bizarre and artificial landscape around him (people on the street are frozen in mid-motion, and eventually become mannequins).
The difference between the two French directors and the Italian Fellini couldn’t be more obvious. He seizes his story with gusto, indulging every bizarre notion that crosses his mind and throwing it all onto the screen with a madcap zeal totally lacking in Vadim’s entry and an absolute lack of predictability as seen in Malle’s. Nothing is the slightest bit real. It’s all highly stylized and has its grotesque alien factor cranked to the very top. Everyone is grossly overdone. Their make-up is outrageous; their movements are more the movements of stage props and puppets. Lights flash and glitter from every angle, and a non-stop of psychedelic detail and sheer lunacy require that you watch the segment several times just to catch everything that goes on in each scene.
And standing above this gaudy, gorgeous horror show, this gleeful dissection of fame and the film industry (or rather, the industries that affix themselves to the film industry) is Terence Stamp, white-faced and genuinely looking like he’s just come of a weeklong binge. He’s haggard and sweaty and pasty and looks utterly spent, while at the same time seeming completely and utterly hysterical. Although in the currently available version all his dialog has been dubbed into French, unlike the Fondas in the first segment, he gives you plenty more by which to judge his frenzied performance. He’s a whirlwind of agitated energy, and it’s one of the best performances in the career of one of England’s best actors. It’s impossible not to compare him here to Malcolm McDowell’s equally cracked performance in 1971’s A Clockwork Orange. I’m no expert on the film, but I’m willing to bet Stamp’s turn as Dammit (right down to the wild driving scene) was a major influence on both Kubrick as director and McDowell as actor. Spirits of the Dead is owned by Fellini’s segment, and Stamp owns that segment. It is sublime, and a must-see.
Where Vadim and Malle try, or we assume they try, to invoke dreamlike and Gothic horror atmospheres respectively, grounding themselves in historical settings and costumes, Fellini sets his film in a warped and twisted version of the present, a fever dream where the mood he goes for is more one of psychosis and hysteria than creeping dread (or oozing boredom, in Vadim’s case). “Toby Dammit” is as funny as it is warped. It is a celebration, in it’s own way, and by dispensing entirely with the “typical” Poe setting, Fellini seems to have achieved the only truly eerie Poe feeling in the entire anthology, though it might be Poe on one of his famous drug binges. Every scene drips with the promise of menace, albeit a completely absurd one, and his ending is as comical as it is spooky. And those images of the maniacally grinning little girl/Satan? Positively brilliant. The whole thing is an orgy of a psychotic, surreal Hell on Earth populated by annoying comedians and glittering women in gigantic false eyelashes.
So skip the first segment. Sit through Malle’s middle segment, but for the devil’s ball-bouncing sake, don’t miss Fellini’s finale. It’s the sort of lunatic filmmaking that makes you happy to be watching a movie. It’s a five-star segment trapped in an otherwise two-star film, but more than justifies the effort of getting through the film.
The horror boom in Japan didn’t have any one cause, but it did have one big ingredient that made it a success: young girls. Under normal circumstances, saying that young girls were a key to the success of anything horror related would mean that young girls, possibly in wet white shirts, were prominently featured in the film and probably died gruesome deaths. In this case, however, the young girls weren’t the ones doing the dying; they were the ones doing the buying. Someone somewhere had the bright idea to start running horror comics as a regular part of some very popular manga magazines (big, thick comic books the size of telephone books) aimed at teenage girls. What they found was that teenage girls love horror stories. It goes against conventional wisdom. In the West, horror has always been marketed to males roughly between the ages of thirteen and thirty. It was never seen as a genre for girls, most likely because the woman-hating misanthropes behind the films delighted in tormenting and degrading women every chance they got as a way of getting some weird little sort of revenge for having been snubbed at some point in their lives. Even when women were featured prominently as a story’s protagonist (as was often the case), most films were peppered with plenty of other female characters to shoulder the brunt of the film’s viciousness.
Horror in Japan was really no different, unless you see something positive in teenage girls getting raped by demons with forty-foot long multi-headed penises. It wasn’t exactly the kind of stuff that had young girls flocking to the theaters going, “Yeah, this really inspires me.” But where as the West continued to rake the ladies over the coals in horror, writers in Japan started trying something a little different. Chief among them was Junji Ito, who wrote horror comics in which teenage girls were the central characters but were not treated like or written as idiots and victims. Nor were they unbelievable super-women. They were regular girls, a bit on the smart side, and very believable. He placed these characters in the middle of wonderfully conceived and plotted tales inspired by the likes of HP Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe rather than the RL Stine tripe Americans were getting. In short, he target audience and his main characters were girls, and he didn’t treat either one like they were simpletons.
Added to the rise in horror manga popularity was the popularity of X-Files, which at its peak at least attempted to be smart and well-written. It inspired a legion of imitation shows in Japan, and all these ingredients combined in 1999 to form the horror classic Ring. It was a smash hit, and a new Golden Age of horror was born in Japan. Many of the films took their cue from Ito’s work (and many were in fact adaptations of his stories), featuring strong and believable female leads that would give girls in the audience someone for whom to root. Titanic proved that young girls are starved for movies that cater to them without belittling them, but that was a lesson completely lost on American movie makers, who went right on ahead making movies as if young, intelligent girls did not exist, or at least did not buy tickets to movies. Well, someone made Titanic one of the most successful films of all time, and it sure wasn’t me.
What really sets these Japanese horror films apart from the pack is that, while many are aimed at teenage girls, very few of them suffer as a result. A girl can watch Uzumaki and appreciate the young heroine, but it’s just as easy for a guy and for hardened horror veterans to appreciate the movie as well. Why? Because it’s simply a good movie, as are many of the films that came out in Ring’s wake. Although targeted at girls, that’s not their exclusive audience, and there’s nothing girlie about the movies. All they did in Japan is learn that if you make a good horror film that doesn’t degrade women, then girls will be interested in it, and girls have a lot of money to spend. It’s not so difficult a concept to grasp. Boy and girl slumber parties are exactly alike in that they always boil down to two things: talking about which member of the opposite sex you like, and swapping ghost stories or doing those “Bloody Mary” type party games. Boys have had their horrorlust indulged for decades. Now, at least in Japan, girls are finally getting the same chance.
Since Ring really started the boom, it was a given that there would be a sequel, not to mention plenty of rip-offs. Hot on the heels of the original’s stellar success, production began on a sequel called Rasen, aka The Spiral (not to be confused with Uzumaki, which is often given the English title Spiral). The film continues the ghost Sadako’s story as a friend of Ryuji’s (again played by Hiroyuki Sanada. Miki Nakatani reprises her role as his assistant from the first film as well) discovers her attempts to be reborn into the human world. Hideo Nakata, director of the first Ring movie, didn’t care for the development of the story in this direction. As a way of protesting this offshoot film, he set about making his own official sequel. Not too long after that, Ring 2 was born and Rasen lapsed into relative obscurity, never enjoying the overseas popularity of the two “official” Ring films, partly because no subtitled DVD, VCD, or VHS has yet to be released.
Ring 2 sustains the same clinical, George Romero style direction, but takes the story into fairly wild new ground as Mai Takano (a role reprised by Miki Nakatani) investigates the bizarre death of her teacher and possible love interest, Ryuji (played again by Hiroyuki Sanada). Aware that Ryuji was working on a strange problem with his ex-wife, and also having seen the expression on his corpse’s face, Mai’s curiosity is further piqued when Reiko, Ryuji’s ex-wife, disappears with their young child. Matters get even stranger when Mai learns that shortly after the disappearance, Reiko’s elderly father died under mysterious circumstances similar to those surrounding Ryuji.
An attempt to track down the whereabouts of Reiko leads Mai to the newspaper where Reiko used to work, though Reiko’s assistant Okazaki (Masahiko Ono) confesses that they have no idea where’s she’s gone to, either. Together, Mai and Okazaki follow a trail of clues and psychic visions (like Reiko and Ryuji, Mai seems possessed of some rudimentary form of ESP) that lead them to the sanitarium where one of the only surviving witnesses to one of these strange deaths is currently residing – the girl from the opening sequence of the first film, who saw her best friend attacked and killed by the ghost of Sadako. They also meet a crackpot scientist and friend of Ryuji who shares his former colleague’s interest in the supernatural, and using the young girl in his care, he’s devised a way to draw the supernatural energy, or curse, of Sadako out and hopefully put an end to the curse that has been propagating itself through a videocassette containing the psychic imagery of Sadako’s mind.
The trail also leads Mai and the doctor back to the island where Sadako was born, and finally to the hiding place of Reiko and her young son, Yoichi, who is soon revealed to have psychic potential that dwarfs that of his mother and father. He’s also well on the way to becoming a new generation Sadako, as a rage that has been building inside him since the events of the first film threaten to warp his development in the same way the tragic childhood of Sadako was warped by her incredible powers. Mai assumes responsibility for finding a way to save Yoichi from the same fate as befell Sadako, while she, the doctor, and Okazaki, struggle to find a scientific explanation and way of dealing with something that defies science.
Ring 2 does a lot right, but it also has some flaws that keep from ever achieving the overwhelming feeling of creepiness and desperation that made the original movie such a spectacular piece of horror filmmaking. Chief among its flaws is that it throws too much at the wall and fails to develop most of its ideas in a satisfying fashion. With all the pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo being hurled about, the movie soon starts to feel like an episode of The X-Files, with too many theories being offered and not enough exploration of any single idea. Where as the first film was focused with an intensity rivaling the rage of Sadako, the sequel meanders from one idea to the other with no clear idea of exactly where it’s going at any particular moment. While it does help create an air of mystery and urgency, it’s not so successful that it makes up for the feeling that too much half-baked hypothesizing is going on. At times, the movie feels as much like a police procedural as it does a horror film, not unlike Exorcist III.
This movie also lacks the nail-biting, increasingly frantic race against time that kept the first film feeling like a thrill-a-minute ride even when it was moving very slowly. The “race against the clock” cliché is one of the most overused plot devices in film history, but the first film really made it work well. With that deadline removed from this film, and with the impetus for action being curiosity and Yoichi’s eventual development into a vengeful spirit, the threat is more vague and less pressing. It does share a common thread with the forgotten Rasen in that both movies are, in a way, about Sadako seeking a new physical manifestation. In the case of Ring 2, it’s by transferring her hatred to Yoichi. It’s just not as compelling an emergency, but I guess if I was Yoichi, I’d probably feel differently about that.
The thing that irked me most, however, was the off-handed way in which Reiko was handled. I like the fact that Ring 2 takes two fairly unimportant supporting characters from the first film (Mai and Okazaki) and turns them into the main figures this time around, but given that Reiko was the central character in the first film, she deserved much more consideration than she was given here. They either should have put more thought into her fate, or they should have left her out entirely. As it is, what eventually happens to her is poorly thought-out and executed in a way that fails to illicit any of the emotion that should have been generated by such a strong character. Again, I like her as a background character while the story moves forward with new characters, but I really just don’t like the somewhat feeble stuff they came up with for her.
Foibles aside, there’s still enough in this movie to keep it solidly on the “very good” side of the fence. Mai and Okazaki are excellent leads, and they perform superbly in the very difficult position of having to take over for two characters as solid as Reiko and Ryuji. The rest of the cast performs admirably, with little Rikiya Otaka once again proving that not all little kids in movies have to be precocious and annoying brats. He’s quiet and surprising subtle for someone his age, and the reason you can tell it’s subtlety rather than lack of talent Is because when he’s called upon to express rage, he does so in a disturbingly convincing manner that consists of some hate-filled looks and silence rather than the more predictable shouting and screaming.
There are also quite a few genuinely spooky moments even if the film as a whole fails to sustain the feeling for the entire running time. The movie begins with the revelation that Sadako lived for many, many years trapped in her well rather than dying. Anything that plays on our innate fear of being buried alive works well. Other effective moments include Mai finding herself trapped in said well with the ghoulish Sadako ascending the walls after her, and a few great second-long flashes of something appearing, like Sadako’s face while a picture is being taken of a clay reconstruction of her head. Probably the most effective scene in the movie besides Mai’s ordeal in the well is the scene in which she visits the inn from the first movie that serves as sort of the keystone for solving the tragic mystery of Sadako, and she witnesses the entire “mirror and hair combing” scene that was shown in flashes in Sadako’s cursed video. Mai’s stunned inability to even scream speaks volumes without saying a word.
It’s also impressive that they manage to drum up some new revelations about Sadako to further develop her as something more than just a hateful ghost out for revenge against anyone and everyone who happens to see her videotape. She continues to develop as a tragic main character, not just as a plot device. For the third film in the series, a prequel called Ring 0: Birthday, the series would rely on Sadako entirely, as the film focuses on her childhood and the events that lead to her transformation into a rage-filled spectre. None of the revelations about her are contrived or absurd, either. We’re doing much better than all that crap about Michael Meyers being the spawn of a druidic cross-breeding experiment, or Jason Vorhees being a little screaming worm parasite thing.
The revelations continue as supporting characters return for another dose of truth and uncovering of dark secrets. Once again, the old man at the inn plays an important part in the finale of the film, as the doctor attempts to use Yoichi’s rage to draw out Sadako (who sort of becomes imprinted on the minds of those so closely affected by her, like Yoichi and the girl from the beginning of the first film). As with Sadako, none of these further revelations are goofy and all make sense within the plot.
Although there is a lot of crackpot science being thrown about in the grand tradition of supernatural films, most of it, underdeveloped though it may be, is fairly believable within the context of the film and the fantastic. There have certainly been worse offenses committed under the banner of scientific explanation in horror films. Some of the ideas are fascinating to consider, chief among them how strong emotion can be transmitted through a variety of means, making even something as coldly technological as a videotape serve as a conduit for supernatural rage. A similar theory was also presented in the Hong Kong Ring rip-off A Wicked Ghost, and it’s something worth thinking about. Leave it to Japan to take spiritless technological things like a video cassette or a website (as in the incredible Kiyoshi Kurosawa film Kairo), and turn them into some of the scariest, most effective supernatural tools in film history.
Technically speaking, Ring 2 remains stylistically consistent with the first film. Hideo Nakata prefers to let the story do the work for him, adopting a minimalist style with long, static shots and very little in the way of camera movement and no wild flare. In that sense, I keep comparing him to George Romero. Both directors take a documentary-style approach to their direction, and with a less talented director, that could be mistaken for lack of talent. Nakata, like Romero, knows exactly what he is doing, however, and uses the plainness of his direction to establish a very real and believable world in which the incursion of horrific and fantastic elements becomes all the more disconcerting. Had he filled his film with flashy editing, special effects, and camera tricks, it would have been sapped of all its power. As with the first film, Nakata continues to prove that sometimes, less is more when it comes to allowing direction to intrude on the power of the story.
While Ring 2 fails to attain the level of the first film, which was a true classic, it’s still a damn good film, and once again it’s just refreshing to sit down and watch a movie that treats the subject matter and the viewer with intelligence. It gives us believable characters, normal people in extraordinary circumstance, who actually behave similar to how real people might actually behave. It’s mercifully free of any moment where the character does something so stupid it causes you clutch your head and groan in pain. It also doesn’t rely on cheap tricks, special effects, or gore, opting instead for that old school sense of dread achieved through the strength of the script and characters. You can’t watch this film without having seen the first one, but after you have seen the first one, Ring 2 exists as a worthy but not equal follow-up to one of the greatest films in horror history.
Scary movies are hard to come by. Gory? No problem. Sorta cool and creepy? Sure, we got those in spades. But genuinely scary movies are rare as diamonds and, to be, infinitely more valuable. There is something wonderfully affirming about watching a movie that keeps you awake at night, that gives you eerie nightmares. There’s something wonderful about a film that makes you afraid to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, or that makes you nervous about the fact that the closet door is open just a crack. It’s a delightful rush of adrenaline and apprehension, but scary movies have almost become a thing of the past. Too often, people are simply interested in delivering (and having delivered to them) flashy special effects and “style.” Thus a scary movie like the classic The Haunting gets turned into another “dazzling feast for the eyes” that leaves the soul and the brain still hungry for more. Bring on the scare, man! I can watch any hundred films for cool special effects, but the well from which to draw truly frightening films is well nigh dried up.
And then along came Japan. Ah, Japan, my salvation! Just as Hong Kong swooped in to save me from the doldrums of 1980s American action excess (and just as Korea later swept in to save me from the same thing in Hong Kong), Japan came to my rescue in the late 1990s by staging a horror revolution. While they cranked out plenty of atrocity exhibits that got by on gore and tastelessness alone, Japanese filmmakers were also rediscovering the age-old pleasures of simply scaring people, or at least creeping them out with eerie rather than gross imagery. Thanks in part to a boom in horror related manga, but thanks primarily to the discovery of the fact that Japanese girls were really into chilling horror movies, the scare revolution began with films like Birth of the Wizard and a movie that will go down in history as one of the most effective horror films of all time, The Ring.
On the surface, there is nothing especially fancy about the movie. The plot is familiar territory that has been explored countless times by other films. The direction is, for the most part, top notch but straight-forward, showcasing none of the wild innovation or surrealism of other Japanese horror films, like Uzumaki. In fact, the direction is almost clinical, documentary fashion stuff that reminds me of George Romero’s scientific approach in many ways. The dialogue, the acting, and everything else is very good but not anything that sets new standards for quality.
So what is it, you may then be wondering, that makes The Ring so damn good? For starters, it uses its simplicity to great advantage. While some writers pile half-baked subplots and digressions on top of each others like the angry and sullen clambering over one another in the muck of the fifth ring of Hell, in an attempt to give their stories some false sense of depth or importance, Takahashi Hiroshi’s screenplay (based on the novel by Koji Suzuki) keeps the story fairly straight-forward, which ultimately makes the twists and shocks that much more startling. Sometimes, as I’ve maintained before, the simplest things are the best things, and there’s no need to mask yourself with dishonest complexities when the straight-forward, honest core is so powerful.
Director Hideo Nakata also understands the concept of dramatic tension, the ability to build up an overwhelming sense of dread rather than go for the three-second shock of a spring-loaded cat popping up at the characters or the “sneaking up behind my friend to grab their shoulder” scare employed by every lesser horror film known to man. As always, it reminds me of the famous story told by Alfred Hitchcock when trying to explain the basic concept of tension, which was relayed back in the review of Tokaido Yatsuya Kaidan. Sadly, it is a skill that seems completely lost on the vast bulk of horror filmmakers today, not to mention going unappreciated by fans whose only real desire is to see a head or Jennifer Love’ Hewitt’s button-down top explode. I know I sound like the old horror fogy that I am when I bemoan such events, but so it goes. It’s not like I’m opposed to sex ‘n’ gore, to which many of the reviews here will attest, but liking one doesn’t mean you can’t mourn the passing of another. The other night, I was sitting around watching Bride of Frankenstein, thinking about how no horror movie that emotionally engaging or developed would ever be made today. There’s room for all types of horror, but no one seems interested in anything that relies of character or plot development.
Well, no one but the Japanese. Nakata handles the progression of the story with superb mastery, always favoring restraint over the cheap shock, allowing the sense of weirdness and dread to build throughout the entire film until, by the end, it is very nearly unbearable, and you find yourself white-knuckled and clutching the chair in anticipation of what’s coming next. That, in my opinion, is effective horror. Any buffoon can make a teenager jump by having one of those lame “shocks” like the cat or the sneaking friend, and big deal. You can make someone jump by just sitting next to them and suddenly yelling “boo!” for no reason. The Ring isn’t as base in its approach, opting instead to go the route blazed by classic horror films like The Haunting and Psycho or even Dawn of the Dead. It’s the type of scare that stays with you for days, even weeks, after the movie is over.
The Ring opens in classic horror film form, with two young girls home alone. One of them is telling a story about a cursed videotape. Once you are finished watching it, you get a mysterious phone call predicting your death in exactly one week, and then of course, one week later, you wind up dead. The second girl, Tomoko, isn’t as amused by this story as her friend, what with her and a group of friends having watched what may very well have been the cursed tape of growing urban legend fame one week ago. Tomoko tries to pass it off as nothing, but when the phone starts ringing, fear starts to rise. The entire scene, though hardly original or unpredictable, is beautifully paced. Even if you figure you know what’s going to happen, it still keeps you on pins and needles.
Enter then a sharp female reporter named Reiko, who works for what seems to be some sort of paranormal newspaper, or just a crappy sensationalist newspaper, possibly the New York Daily News. Reiko’s curiosity regarding the cursed video is piqued when one of her own relatives’ death is attributed to having seen the tape. Unfortunately, none of the other schoolgirls around can give any straight or concrete information regarding the tape. In classic urban legend form, it’s always a friend of a friend, or a friend who heard from this guy. A little investigative journalism uncovers the fact that a group of high schoolers from a nearby school have indeed all been dying off in strange, unexplained fashion, and they were all down in a rented cabin in the province of Izu.
Reiko makes the drive down to Izu to snoop around the cabin and eventually runs across a videocassette left behind by the kids. Although hesitant at first, Reiko soon pops the tape in a VCR and watches the bizarre, nonsensical few minutes of footage it contains, realizing immediately that this is the tape. Upon its conclusion, the phone in the cabin rings. What is said, if anything, is unclear, but it’s enough to freak out Reiko.
Back in the world, Reiko is increasingly upset by the video and the subsequent phone call. She enlists the aid of her ex-husband, Ryuji, a college professor who seems to have some sort of psychic ability. Ryuji is played by none other than Hiroyuki Sanada, one of the crown jewels (along with Sonny Chiba and Etsuko Shiomi) of the Japan Action Club during the 1970s and 1980s, not to mention being Michelle Yeoh’s co-star in the classic Hong Kong action film Royal Warriors. Although well versed in the paranormal, Ryuji is a natural skeptic and figures the tape to be nothing more than urban legend. He not only watches it, but has Reiko make him a copy so he can watch it over and over in an attempt to study and decipher the content. I guess he figures if you’re going to die after watching it once, you might as well annoy whatever malevolent force is behind it by watching it as many times as possible. Alleviating Reiko’s own fear somewhat is the fact that Ryuji receives no phone call after watching the video.
I wish I could say the same for me, however. In a lovely and more than a little unsettling coincidence, mere seconds after watching the scene in which Reiko views the cursed video for the first time, I got a call on the phone. Strange enough that I get a call, having as I do very few friends who use the phone. It was made more suspicious by the fact that it was around three in the morning, and even my friends aren’t rude enough to call that late without warning me ahead of time. Needless to say, I was as amused as I was scared to pick up the phone, and that’s a positive sign that the movie really managed to succeed in delivering the creepiness. Turns out it was some strung out dude calling the wrong number. Suffice it to say that The Ring will make you regard both your television and your phone with a little more suspicion.
As the week drags on, however, her fears begin to rise again, especially after her young son finds the tape and watches it himself. Determined to unravel the mystery, just in case something sinister is happening, Ryuji and Reiko follow a trail of clues to a small fishing island that was once the home of a woman with soothsaying powers. After being humiliated during a press conference meant to celebrate her powers, she and the professor who had “discovered” her went into hiding. A revelation on the island leads the duo back to Izu and the old cabin, where the final answer to what is happening lies deep underground. Or so it would seem. When doing a final bit of research to close the bizarre turn of events entirely, Ryuji discovers one more piece of the macabre puzzle that only Reiko can solve.
It’s an old story, one you’ve probably heard before, but The Ring pulls it off with such subtlety and effectiveness that it completely disarms you and keeps you guessing. Sure, you know what is supposed to happen in these sorts of ghost stories, but you’re never quite sure if the movie is going to go that route or forge off into some completely unexpected territory. It never allows you the comfort of familiarity even within a familiar type of story, and the end result is one of constant, growing fear. It truly is a beautiful experience to get this scared by such a seemingly simple movie.
It’s smart enough not only to avoid tipping its hand too early in the game and relying on horror film clichés to carry it through, but it also knows to avoid other obvious plot devices. In an American film, a story of two divorced people thrust together again by unusual circumstances would invariably become a story about them getting back together. That piece of crap Tri-Star Godzilla movie was basically a giant monster wrapping on a tired old “reconcile our past” romance with absolutely no imagination. While the characters of Reiko and Ryuji in The Ring are placed in similar circumstances, the plot never allows them to spoil things by turning into a shallow mockery of soul-searching with one of those “Why did we break up?” scenes with the predictable “Maybe we just loved each other too much” answers. There is no romance in The Ring, although it’s hinted that Ryuji may have been involved with one of his students. It keeps the movie focused on what it is supposed to be doing, which is scaring us.
The handling of psychic phenomenon is also well done. Ryuji’s “powers” are not as ludicrously illustrated as having him stand in a room and shoot wavy special effects out of his forehead or anything like that. Instead, his psychic ability is depicted realistically, or as realistically as you’d like to thing psychic abilities could be depicted. It’s nothing especially magical. Instead, he simply seems to be very adept at reading people rather than reading their minds, interpreting body language, reactions, and reading between the lines of statements to extrapolate some hidden truth. It’s nothing outside the realm of believability in the real world, and keeping the story grounded in very down-to-earth trappings is what helps elevate the horror of the truly fantastic elements when they come. Once again, subtlety and restraint prove to be two of the film’s greatest tools for constructing genuine, lasting horror.
On top of the expertly constructed plot is some fine acting. Sanada is, of course, a veteran, though here he gets to prove to genre fans that he can act as well as he can kick and shoot lasers. Actress Nanako Matsushimi, who plays Reiko, had very little experience before this film, acting in only a couple television movies. She is superb, wonderfully pulling off a character who is smart, determined, believable, and also not afraid to be afraid. And when she is afraid, you can feel it, and the palpable nature of her fright only helps augment your own fear. Despite what you may think, pulling off a strong, believable female character (or male, for that matter) is not an easy task. Sure, any hack director can plop a woman down in a scene and have her unload clip after clip into advancing bad guys without showing the slightest hint of fear, but that’s not exactly the sort of strength to which one can relate. Nor does it show very much character. And finally, it doesn’t help that this supposed bad-ass is almost always played by a model turned actress who maybe weighs ninety pounds and has all the muscle definition of David Spade.
The character of Reiko, on the other hand, demonstrates a much more believable type of strength. She’s not perfect, maybe even needs to ask for help, but she is smart, determined, and willing to forge ahead even when she’s wracked by fear. Nothing about her is overblown or of such preposterous proportions that she becomes unbelievable as an actual person. A weakly written script would have her seem like a superwoman who can solve any and everything thrown her way. Instead, we get a woman who perseveres and moves ahead regardless of her inability to answer every single question on her own. There’s a reason that this movie helped open the door for what has become known as “schoolgirl horror” in Japan, that is horror movies featuring strong but not cartoonishly infallible lead heroines. Par of The Ring’s success can doubtlessly be attributed to the fact that it doesn’t pander to not insult women, refusing to treat them as politically correct uber-women or as stumbling helpless bimbos. Instead, it gives us a very noble, believable, and imperfect heroine, and that character resonated deeply with lots of girls who saw the movie.
Reiko’s young son is also well played. Little kids in films, especially in horror films, are always an iffy proposition. More times than not, they drag the movie down with them into a kicking, screaming, whining mess. The children are often insufferably irksome, or they are in a plot where they save the day and exhibit skill and intelligence far beyond what is believable even for one of those genius super-babies. Additionally, most films with children in them never really want to upset potential parental audience members by putting the kid in any real danger, so you know that ultimately nothing is going to happen. The Ring suffers from none of these fatal flaws. The young Yoichi is rarely the center of attention, and when he is, child actor Rikiya Otaka is somber, soft-spoken, and completely devoid of the annoying traits most children in movies (and in real life, for that matter) tend to exhibit. Because of this, when his fate is called into question by his viewing the videotape, you actually don’t want to see him die a horrible and mysterious death. Funny how much more effective a film can be when you don’t want bad things to happen to the characters. I wish more horror writers and directors would realize this.
The icing on the cake is the music, which by itself is enough to illicit nightmares. Composed by Kenji Kawai, who also did the phenomenal soundtrack for Ghost in the Shell, it is perfectly suited for the film, sounding as it does like a cross between wailing souls, scraping metal, and something that Coil might have concocted on that unused Hellraiser soundtrack they did. It’s just one more difference between successful horror like The Ring, and the other crap we have out there that eschews using music to set the mood and instead uses an unrelated parade of pop hits to sell soundtrack CDs.
It’s an amazing film in every aspect, and for my money, it will remain one of the greatest and scariest horror films of all time, easily ranking among the past classics. Intelligent writing and masterful filmmaking elevate the proceedings far above the herd, and what is in one sense little more than a very good popcorn movie takes on much deeper qualities. The struggle of modern Japan and the modern Japanese against a very ancient, and traditional terror, not to mention the use of a relatively modern technology as the manifestation of this terror, speaks volumes without hitting us over the head with clumsily and heavy-handedly handled messages. There’s also a well-crafted message in the film about a generation of parents who allow the television to do the child rearing without any real regard for what it is the kids are watching, even if it’s violent pro wrestling shows or cursed video tapes. Again, the message is there but not at the forefront of the movie, never overshadowing the simple, visceral delight of being scared out of your wits by a movie. The Ring is a testament to quality horror filmmaking and should be required viewing for any fan of the genre.
The popularity of the film spawned all sorts of mildly confusing offspring. Both The Ring 2 and The Spiral are sequels, though made by different people and following different paths. Ring 2 is generally considered to be the official sequel, with The Spiral being a somewhat official sequel, but not really. Both films are quite good. Another rarity in the horror genre, I suppose: sequels that, while not quite as good as the original, are still very good. A television show was also made, and a third film, Ring 0, followed part two. Rather than continuing the story, however, part three is a prequel (thus the zero in the title), and by the time it was made, the magic (not to mention the director) had left the series, resulting in a movie that is at best a pale and distant echo of the original. On top of all that, a Korean film called Ring Virus based on the same original novel was made. That movie is also quite good.
Far and away the best thing about The Ring, and the real proof of just how solid a chiller it is, is that a week after watching it and thus watching the cursed video in the film, you’ll start to get fidgety and start thinking about how maybe you should be making copies for your friends and enemies and inviting them over for a viewing.
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.