Whenever someone is promoting a film as either “getting back to the spirit of the original” or “the most faithful adaptation of the novel,” you know you’re going to be in trouble. They never recapture “the spirit of the original” even when the spirit of the original wasn’t that hot to begin with, and the more they crow about how faithful their adaptation is, the less likely it will be to stick to the source material.
Ahh, Sangster and Fisher. If you want my opinion, and you must or else you’d go read a much better website that this, that screenwriter-director team is as integral to the success of the Hammer horror films as the Cushing-Lee acting team. When you make a list of the best films Hammer produced, the Fisher-Sangster duo comes up quite frequently. The whole quartet is at it again with this, Hammer’s third reimagining of a classic Universal Pictures horror icon. By now, there was no real gamble involved in the Hammer formula. Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula had proven the effort, and Hammer’s only challenge now lie in maintaining the high standards set by those two films. With two Universal legends left, those being the mummy and the Wolfman, Hammer decided to go all old Egypt and bring the bandaged avenger of desecrated tombs into the Technicolor world of Hammer horror.
Hammer Studio’s Horror of Dracula is, without a doubt (at least in my mind), the absolute best vampire film ever made, and quite simply one of the finest examples of proper Gothic horror that’s ever been filmed. It was a busy couple of years for Britain’s Hammer Studio. In 1955, their sci-fi/horror thriller based on the popular TV character Quatermass became a smash hit, and the studio soon learned it was because audiences were hungry for shocking, boundary-pushing films of the fantastic and horrible that still handled themselves with a degree of wit, intelligence, and dignity as would befit a rousing British tale of terror. Inspired by that film’s success, execs turned to studio director Terence Fisher to rework Mary Shelley’s classic tale of Gothic horror, Frankenstein. It was a risky move for any number of obvious reasons, not the least of which was the fact that Universal’s Boris Karloff version of the monster was practically a global icon. Hammer had to come up with a completely new approach to the monster’s appearance, since the Universal version was copyrighted, and they figured that while doing so, they might as well ratchet up the sex and violence and see just how much they’d be able to get away with in a horror movie.
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.
Technically, this should have been the first Hammer horror film I reviewed, if for no other reason than the sake of some chronological order running through this ongoing journal. This is the one that started it all. Well, no, technically I guess Quatermass Xperiment started it all, but this is the one that really made “all” all that much more. But in our zeal to watch a good vampire movie, we skipped ahead a bit and went for Horror of Dracula first. A faux pas, perhaps, but thanks to the miracle of hyperlinks and the web, you can always read this one first then skip on back to the other one. Or you can do what most people are probably doing anyway, and just not worry about it.
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.
Our rock and roll albums teach us that Hell is one big party town, but Jack Chick comic tracts would have us believe otherwise. Hell can take the shape of many different places. In one movie, it is an oppressively hot tropical village where b-grade made-for-television movie actors sweat profusely. In other movies, legions of the damned march pointlessly to and fro while a killer red robot stands on a mountain. My personal hell, of course, involves frequent broadcasts of Brat Pack movies and a stereo that only plays adult contemporary hits and that “Our God is an Awesome God” song.
Some people don’t even believe in Hell, and I guess I’d have to be among them since I’m not a religious fellow. But still, Hell is fun to talk about. It’s a lot more interesting than Heaven, even to Christians. Fire and brimstone sermons are a dime a dozen, and each one goes into graphic detail regarding the eternal sufferings one endures in Hell. When Dante wrote his epic Divine Comedy, he spent about five pages on Purgatory, a couple of pages on Heaven, and about a million pages on Hell. Everyone wants to describe Hell, but no one seems all that into Heaven. About the best we get is people wear a lot of robes, and maybe it’s foggy. Other than that, who knows? The problem with Heaven is that it’s a place where everything is basically going all right. While that may not be a bad way to live, it doesn’t make for very dramatic literature.
This is why filmmakers, much like Renaissance poets, tend to dwell on Hell while dashing off Heaven scenes with little imagination or consideration. But Hell — now there’s a place worth writing about. It’s miserable, fiery, evil, and full of sin. Actually, I don’t know if it’s full of sin or just full of sinners. Seems like if you were a big time sinner in life, then Hell would be a place where you don’t get to do any more sinnin’. I know I like me a good sin every now and then, and I’d be pretty annoyed if every time I tried to commit a sin, the Devil popped up to make me stop. Likewise, Heaven is a place where, if you didn’t sin in your life, you get to sin like mad for all eternity. I don’t know. This theory is probably why I’m not a preacherman.
Christians don’t have a monopoly on Hell, of course, and lots of other religions serve up their own particular brand of post-mortem eternal suffering. One of the most wild and creative visions of Hell comes from Japan, and more specifically from the gloriously twisted imagination of famed horror director Nobuo Nakagawa. Nakagawa, one of the most respected names in the history of classic Japanese horror cinema, became an instant favorite of mine after I saw his stunning samurai ghost film Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan, a film that combined the more traditional slow build-up with some truly shocking gore scenes the likes of which were unheard of in 1959. A year later, he completely outdid himself with the film Jigoku, also known as Sinners of Hell.
People generally credit HG Lewis’ outrageous 1963 film Blood Feast as the first splatter or gore film, a claim that betrays a lack of knowledge regarding horror and shock cinema on a global scale. Nakagawa not only beat Lewis to the punch, but he did it with a movie that is both far bloodier and far better than Lewis’ ridiculously cheap but enjoyable romp. Jigoku is splatter that also manages to maintain a high production value, outrageous imagination, and a truly warped surrealism that sets it far apart from the legions of splatter films from all over the world that would follow in its wake. Part of the reason the film probably isn’t as widely known as Lewis’ film, apart from it being Japanese, is that while it delivers the grue, it’s all reserved until the final third of the film. Up until that point, the movie is fairly slow in its pace, allowing time for the development of characters, the explanation of situations, and other aspects of basic storytelling that the kids these days seem not to have the patience for.
We begin things with a credit sequence that is positively James Bond in nature, or at least Seijun Suzuki. Scantily clad, curvatious femmes in weird shadows and blue light populate the sequence, which then leads into a montage of hellish images that will be revisited during the film’s finale. Having thus shocked the viewer right out of the gate, Nakagawa continues with the story proper. A college professor is giving the typical movie professor lecture on concepts of hell, the kind of lecture that never actually takes place in real classrooms. One of the students, Shiro (Shigeru Amachi, who also played the wicked samurai lead in Tokaido Yatsuya Kaidan), is especially interested for a couple different reasons. First, he’s about to marry the professor’s daughter, but more influentially, he and a shady acquaintance named Tamura were recently involved in a hit and run murder. As a result, damnation, sin, and guilt have been weighing pretty heavily on Shiro’s mind.
He and Tamura had been out for a drive that night when a drunken petty criminal stumbled out in front of their car. Though it was clearly not their fault and the police would probably write the matter off entirely as an accident, Tamura – who had been at the wheel – convinces Shiro not to report the incident since no one saw it. Though he is uncomfortable with such a course of action, Shiro is eventually persuaded by the darker, somewhat mysterious Tamura. Shiro begins to question why he even hangs out with this thoroughly creepy individual. “Who is this guy Tamura?” Shiro thinks to himself. “I know I don’t like him.” I guess everyone has one of those people in their lives who you really just absolutely do not like, and yet you always seem thrown together with them regardless of how much you strive to avoid them.
The big hole in Tamura’s plot is that the crime did not go unwitnessed. The gangster’s aging mother actually saw the whole thing, but rather than go to the police and settle for a court battle that will probably not end too horribly for Shiro and Tamura, she gives the license number to the recently widowed wife of the gangster, a fiery woman who immediately vows to hunt down the men who killed her man and extract horrible revenge on them. As if having the sexy but murderous widow of a gangster your creepy acquaintance killed after you isn’t enough of a hassle, Shiro is soon involved in another car accident, this one resulting in the death of his fiancee, the professor’s daughter.
Spurned by her relatives and obviously not getting a passing grade in the professor’s theology class, Shiro seeks solace in the embrace of a young hussy named Yoko, who we immediately recognized as the vengeful widow. Before she can stick an ice pick in the back of his skull, however, he gets word that his mother is dying and so decides to pack up and leave town, his destination being to visit his ailing mother out in the countryside.
Upon reaching the Tenjoen Senior Citizens Facility where his mother lies dying, things hardly improve for the troubled young man. His mom, of course, is at death’s door. His father is an unrepentant asshole who ignores his dying wife in the next room in favor of getting it on with a young harlot from the city. He also runs into the friendly and proper young Sachiko, who happens to look like his recently deceased fiancée. Oh, and there’s the insane artist who spends all day working on paintings of Hell, a corrupt cop, a criminally negligent doctor, a seedy reporter, and a couple other rakehells and ne’er-do-well. Put it all together and you have one hell of those “gathering of lost souls” type things. Suffice it to say that this motley gang of sweaty sinners is hardly the pick-me-up Shiro was needing.
Shiro is at least happy hanging out with his dead fiancee’s doppleganger, but the determined advances of his father’s mistress are unwelcome. Equally unwelcome is Tamura, who shows up to taunt everyone and expose their secret shameful pasts. Slightly more welcome is the old professor, who is ready to reconcile his differences with Shiro, at least until Tamura starts talking about how the old man was a jackass during World War II and stole his wounded buddy’s canteen, then left said buddy to die. It’s really one of those parties that involves too much alcohol and “truth or dare.”
Not one to have a moment of good luck, Shiro’s life is further complicated when both Yoko shows up. She reveals her background then attempts to shoot Shiro. A struggle on a bridge results in Yoko accidentally plunging to her death. Maybe Shiro should just stay home. When Tamura shows up to taunt Shiro and generally act like an asshole, the two get into a fight and Tamura falls off the bridge, too! All this is witnessed by Yoko’s crazy old mother-in-law, who also witnessed the hit and run and apparently spends entire weeks hiding in the bushes around various towns hoping to catch a glimpse of some knavery.
During a party to celebrate the center’s tenth anniversary, everyone gets drunk and belligerent and generally behaves like those old guys you see trying to punch each other out in Japanese parliamentary meetings. When the dad’s young harlot puts the moves on an exhausted Shiro, the father catches them and tries to kill her. The only reason she doesn’t succeed is because she falls down the stairs while running away and breaks her neck. Lesson learned: don’t be friends with Shiro. His dad immediately conspires to cover it up, and they both head back to the main hall where people are passed out, fooling around, or generally behaving like the scum of the earth. Not one to stay dead for long, a pale and deathly looking Tamura shows up to hurl barbs and taunts yet again, and as the clock strikes nine, Shiro finally loses it and tries to choke Tamura to death, his actions slightly hampered by the fact that while trying to choke Tamura to death, he himself is being choked to death by Yoko’s crazy mother-in-law. About that time, the clock freezes, and the fiery pits of hell open up to consume the various lost souls bickering with one another in the living room! That will kill a party even faster than breaking a lamp or getting caught staring at the hostess’ cleavage.
Shiro finds himself on the misty, barren banks of the river of death, and it is here that the movie kicks its eerie surrealism into high gear. I’d be slightly surprised if future surreal horror auteurs like Lucio Fulci didn’t see this movie. There are parts of the landscape of Hell that look very much like the hellish landscapes from The Beyond. The king of hell shows up to bellow about damnation. On the banks of the river, he is met by his inescapable load, Tamura, who tells him they are destined to burn in hell together. Not one to accept the word of a psychopath who recently returned from the dead only to quickly return back to being dead, Shiro wanders off through the various levels of hell just like the protagonist in Dante’s Inferno (as opposed to Dario’s Inferno).
He first encounters his recently departed fiancée, who is spending her time in hell stacking rocks along the riverbank. Her sin: dying before her parents, which seems like a pretty lame thing to get sent to hell for, though not as lame as being damned for driving a Volkswagen backwards into the bay, if you know what I mean (and I bet at least three of you do). She informs Shiro that she was seconds away from joyfully telling him she was pregnant, but got sidetracked by the whole being killed in a car wreck thing. As if Shiro didn’t have enough to deal with, he now understands that their baby, too, is condemned to Hell. This is pretty harsh, really.
Next thing you know, people are being dangled upside down with spikes jammed through their blood-gushing necks. They are being forced to drink from a river filled with pus and bile and other tasty treats (pus and bile custard is only slightly more disgusting than your average British fare, though). Others are forced to simply run around in a big confused circle forever, sort of like being stuck in a never-ending Limp Bizkit concert. One may provide the film’s most shocking and gruesome atrocity as his skin is ripped away, leaving a bloody skeleton covered with pulsating, dripping organs.
As Shiro searches desperately for his child, he is still tormented by Shiro, who is revealed to be a demon and eventually tortured just to shut him the hell up. Shiro finally finds his child on a giant flaming wheel of life and struggles in vain to rescue the child and possibly achieve some sort of salvation from the horrors of hell. Needless to say, he appears to fail miserably.
What Nakagawa accomplishes in the final thirty minutes of this film is truly mind-blowing. His sets are not lavish, but instead make ingenious use of smoke, multi-colored lighting, superimposition, fire, and animation to create an otherworldly and terrifying nightmare landscape. It’s the sort of thing Fulci spent his entire life trying to achieve (and did, to some degree, in The Beyond): an overwhelmingly eerie, alien world that feels like you’ve stepped right into a Salvador Dali painting. Cinematically, it seems to forecast the out-of-control artistic style of maverick film makers like Seijun Suzuki, who would apply similar color-saturated hallucinations to his yakuza films. As grisly as the effects to come are, they are overshadowed by the sheer wild imagination put into the set pieces they inhabit.
Simply put, the gore is good. The scene of the man being flayed alive, lying there screaming as his organs pulsate and spew blood, is really something else. I can only imagine how audiences must have reacted in 1960, because it’s still a very successful and bloody effect, far more shocking than anything HG Lewis would attempt a few years later with his better known but far worse Blood Feast. Part of what makes the splatter content of Jigoku so powerful is that the movie itself is a very well crafted work of art. While some of the editing during the final journey through Hell is confusing, the movie as a whole is technically sound, not to mention full of great writing, pacing, and acting. Lewis’ splatterfest is, of course, amazingly bad in all departments (though not at all unfun to watch).
Pioneering though it was, Jigoku was not necessarily alone in its move toward a more shocking, more surreal, or just plain bloodier presentation. While it was blowing the minds of unsuspecting patrons in Japan, the West was getting assaulted by Alfred Hitchcock’s ground-breaking Psycho, which while not sharing the same artistic style as Nakagawa’s film, certainly shares the same desire to shock, amuse, confuse, and break new ground in what was a very tired and overly safe genre. Though not nearly as well-known today, even in Japan, Jigoku is every bit as much responsible for throwing open the doors to a new type of horror as was Hitchcock’s film. From the seeds planted by these films came glorious monstrosities like Blood Feast and the various Hammer horror films that continued to push the envelope of gore and sexuality throughout the 1960s.
Jigoku snares and disarms you with its very slow-paced, conventional first hour, leaving you completely unprepared for the moment when the clock stops and everyone is plunged into the depths of the underworld. Nakagawa once again proves himself a master of the classic horror film while, at the same time, defiantly showing that he is not bound by the conventions and can move the genre into bold new territory. It is a cautionary tale about the wages of sin and indulgence, yet it communicates its message without seeming preachy and its gore without seeming exploitive. Jigoku is a classic of the horror genre, and self-respecting fan with interest in horror owes it to themselves to track this horrible beauty of a film down.
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.
I love fairy tales. Not the happily-ever-after stuff that makes you feel good about yourself. No, I’m talking the black stuff. dark and twisted, meant more to terrify children into sleepless nights than to lull them into a soothing night’s slumber. Tales where the kids don’t outsmart the witch, where they do end up in the oven, and no one lives happily ever after. Given our increasingly crass and cynical society, I would seem, at first, that this sort of twisted tale would be popular, but as they often require some degree of imagination and appreciation of both the subtle and the fantastic, most people would simply rather watch shit blow up. When someone does attempt to carry that sense of the macabre over into a modern day fairy tale, it can happen with mixed results. At their best, they come out looking like Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb or City of Lost Children. More often than not, however, they just come out looking Troll.
Despite being a world away, Japanese horror draws on very similar, almost universal, elements of horror to lay on the scare. In a similar vein, there are creepy fairy tale elements that exist above and beyond culture and geography and become part of globally understood and shared heritage. While in college, I was reading a book simply called Japanese Tales, that was a collection of bizarre Japanese fairy tales, and it struck me that, despite the fact that many of these existed as oral legends at a time long before Japan was in regular contact with the nations of the West, the stories were very similar in tone. Everyone understands a witch luring innocent youths into the woods, or monsters who take the form of humans.
My favorite was about a woman who struggled much of her life with a tape worm. She managed to survive the parasite and eventually give birth to a young son who grew up to become a tremendously powerful general and leader of men. Great were his deeds, and he soon ruled the land. A neighboring warlord invited the great warrior to his court one day for a celebration of their new alliance. At the feast, the neighboring warlord offered up bushels of walnuts (or was it chestnuts?) for all to eat — it was, after all, the commerce crop that kept his province prosperous. The great warrior, however, refused to eat the walnuts. When the host warlord grew angry and felt insulted, the great warrior threw off his helmet and exclaimed “I can’t digest nuts! I’m my mother’s tapeworm!” He then promptly turned into a tapeworm and slithered off. The best part of the whole weird story, however, was the final line, which went something like “Back in his homeland, his family was devastated and his province plunged into chaos. Everyone else agreed it had all been a good laugh.”
I bring this up because I feel the Japanese surrealist horror film Uzumaki draws heavily upon the tradition of the creepy fairy tale. There is something fantastic and mesmerizing about it all, and something unsettling and distressing lurking just under the surface. I forgot where I read it, perhaps in an interview with Clive Barker, but someone said that the most effective way of creating a sense of dread is to take something familiar and slowly transform it into something alien and threatening. The best example I can think of is the closet monster. How many times have you opened your closet to get something out? Your shoes, perhaps, or an elf you’ve been holding prisoner? If you have a closet, chances are you open it at least once a day, maybe more. It’s a familiar place. But let it get dark out, let it be pitch black and three in the morning when you wearily gaze over from the comfort of your bed and realize the closet door is open.
Suddenly it’s not so familiar. It’s a gaping black maw, noticeably dark even in the dead of night. Suddenly what was once familiar to you begins to take on a sense of dread. What if something comes out of there? A monster, or a killer, or that damn elf? And what’s that shadow? I think it’s just my shirt thrown over the vacuum cleaner, but it sure looks like an ax wielding homicidal maniac. I once spent an entire night scared witless as a youth, covers tight around my neck as I stared in horror at what was most definitely the shadow of Weird Harold from Fat Albert come to kill me. Okay, so maybe not everyone gets freaked out in the middle of the night by shadows that bear a vague resemblance to Weird Harold, but you get my meaning. Nothing makes a person panic quite like suddenly finding yourself in a strange situation when you thought you had everything under control.
Uzumaki is set in a sleepy working class town somewhere in the Japanese countryside. There’s nothing particularly weird about the place. Hell, even though it’s in Japan it’s not that much different than a small blue-collar town in America. It’s downright idyllic, right up until the opening narration that tells us of the unspeakable nightmares the town contains. Director Higuchinsky has nothing on his resume before this film, but he proves right out of the gate that he is a master of subversion, taking a beautiful small town and immediately making you anxious about it. We then meet cute high school student Kirie, our narrator. She’s a pretty average schoolgirl — a few friends, a few enemies, a nerdy goofball who keeps trying to make her fall in love with him by employing such tactics as jumping out and trying to scare her at every possible opportunity. Her dad is an accomplished pottery artisan, and her boyfriend is a moody teen who will one day join an emo band. The two of them are hassled by a Barney Fife-esque local cop who has nothing better to do than bluster at teens who ride two to a single bike.
En route to meet her beau, Shuichi, she spots his father crouching in an alley. Attempts to get his attention fail, as he is intently videotaping a snail slithering up the wall. Already things are weird. Shuichi is acting weird as well, though not so weird as to be taping hours worth of snail shenanigans in extreme close-up. But he seems afraid, and he talks of running away, fleeing the town, which he feels has a rotten core. Kirie is confused but also a bit excited by the idea of dropping everything and running off with her childhood sweetheart. At this point, the film is shaping up to be just another schoolgirl horror film, the sort of watered down, one step above Goosebumps stuff that has been big business in Japan for the last couple years. You know, whenever anyone has the brains to make a movie for adolescent girls, it’s always a huge hit (remember Titanic), and yet people only seem to remember to do it like once every ten years or so. You’d think by now they’d understand that the girls are bored shitless and want a little something thrown their direction.
Don’t be fooled. Uzumaki is just getting started.
Kirie learns that Shuichi’s father has become obsessed with spiral designs, surrounding himself with them, dedicating his life to staring at them and ranting about it all when he isn’t bust videotaping the spiral design on snail shells. His madness has reached the point where it is starting to tear the household apart, and Shuichi suspects there is a force behind it all that threatens the whole town. At school, in the meantime, things aren’t much more normal. When Kirie isn’t being accosted in the bathroom by the leader of the resident girl gang, who sings the praises of being the center of attention, of being the focus of the spiral, she’s sitting in a science class attended by a kid who only shows up to school on rainy days and is covered by a thick, dripping goo. Why they let him only come into school on rainy days is less puzzling then why they would let a kid covered in gallons of effluvia just take his seat. Hell, we didn’t even tolerate the kid who always had the gooey, unnaturally green ball of mucous clinging to the very edge of his nostril. I know if I had showed up for chemistry glass all dripping with goo, there would have been a good chance they would have made me hit the showers, or at least that emergency eye wash fountain for the kids too clumsy to not get iodine in their eyes.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though, as Shuichi’s father is eventually overcome by his mania and commits suicide — by cramming himself into a washing machine and twisting his body into a taffy-like spiral. This upsets Shuichi’s mother, and the matter is made worse during the funeral when the clouds from the crematorium spiral up into a massive, misty whirlpool that also has a tendency to form a likeness of the deceased’s anguished face. Shuichi’s mother breaks down, and soon she too is obsessed with spirals, but with their elimination rather than their collection. She begins by slicing off her own fingertips, and then after a later midnight visit from a friendly neighborhood centipede, realizes there is a part of her inner ear that is also a spiral. The jagged shard of a broken vase can dig that out, though.
As Shuichi helplessly watches his parents self-destruct, Kirie begins to notice her father too is becoming a nutcase, and the girl gang leader at school has started styling her hair into massive swirls. A local Poindexter teams up with Kirie and Shuichi to crack the sinister mystery, but of course, just as he makes a huge discovery, he’s killed in a grisly car wreck. If the overall freakish atmosphere of the movie thus far hasn’t convinced you this is something more than schoolgirl horror, the graphic gore might bring you around. While we’re not talking Dawn of the Dead here, the movie refuses to pull punches with the gore, and when someone dies, they die horribly. The bizarre events in the town eventually attract the attention of the outside media, and a news van arrives to do a “can you believe this shit” type of story that is made even meatier by the fact that the gooey kid and his friendly neighborhood tormentor have just gone and transformed into giant half-slug half-human creatures and spend the day squirming up and down the side of the high school. The film crew meets with an equally unsavory fate as they attempt to leave town, resulting in some decapitation and a cute, perky newscaster left with her eyeballs dangling by the optic nerves.
Kirie and Shuichi want desperate to either fight against or escape from the growing hurricane of spiral-related madness, but they don’t even know what to fight against or where to start. There is no creepy old wizard living at the edge of town, or secret government lab, or anything at all to give them the first clue as to what the hell is happening. As she struggles desperately to make some sense of the chaos, Kirie’s life is completely shattered when Shuichi himself begins to exhibit rather strange spiral qualities.
The end is a disturbing jolt to the system, to say the least. At first, it will leave you sort of pissed off and thinking “what the hell?” kind of like Blair Witch Project. Unlike the end of that film, however, which gets stupider as time goes by, the final burst of gory insanity in Uzumaki grows increasingly unnerving the more it sits in your mind. Ultimately, the film ends with the same close-up and snippet of narration with which it began, turning the film itself into one giant spiral. It’s a feeling not unlike the one you might get from a particularly good episode of Twin Peaks, like the one where they finally reveal Laura Palmer’s murderer. It will confound and anger some, while others will simply sit back and think, “Holy cow!” to themselves as they realize the disturbing power of what they’ve just seen.
First and foremost, Uzumaki is a visual film, but unlike a lot of current films that rely on slick visuals as nothing more than eye candy, the surreal atmosphere of Uzumaki is a central tool with which to weave the tale. It’s not just thrown on for the hell of it. There is an actual purpose, and Higuchinsky knows how to use the visual aspect of the film with the deftness of a scalpel-wielding surgeon, and I don’t mean Dr. Giggles. Every shot, every set, every quirky pice of music, is perfectly exploited to create a sense of lurking dread. Like a seedy circus sideshow or run-down midway, Uzumaki is undeniably gorgeous and frighteningly grotesque and disorienting. It is, as I discussed earlier, a disorienting warping of the familiar, mundane world into something threatening and dangerous. For his first time out as a director, Higuchinsky is astoundingly successful. WHile Lucio Fulci always talked about creating the feel of a surreal nightmare in his films, he was only ever able to accomplish it in tiny bits and pieces. A moment here, a moment there, then back to the tedium of watching Ian McCulloch intone, “But that’s crazy!” Higuchinsky manages to capture that same nightmarish mood, but he sustains it throughout the whole movie and never exhibits any of the slapdash qualities that undermined Fulci’s own attempts at such a mood.
Some of the scenes don’t even strike you as bizarre until they are over and you’re going, “Wait, what the hell?” In a casual, offhand manner, the film will just randomly throw in background characters who are walking in reverse, or in a particular eerie scene that doesn’t even hit you as eerie at first, Kirie and her friend are walking down a hallway having a typical schoolgirl conversation while, on either side of the hallway, students stand at attention, still as statues, gazing off into nothing. There is never any acknowledgment of these things, making them even more intriguing, sort of like that weird hippie you can catch sitting in the background of various episodes of The Young Ones. I didn’t even notice him until years later, but now that I know that he’s sometimes there, squatting in the corner, it’s equally amusing and disturbing. Watch the very first episode, Demolition, and you’ll see him during a scene around the television set. It’s kinda creepy.
As far as the plot goes, it is simple but effective. The movie is based on a series of horror comics by writer Ito Junji, a proclaimed H.P. Lovecraft fan, and the influence of Lovecraft is obvious. Like his inspiration, Ito’s stories are difficult to translate onto film. They are simply too far out there. This problem has plagued countless would-be screenwriters and directors who took on the unenviable task of turning brilliant H.P. Lovecraft stories into incredibly lame movies. Consider that a number of Lovecraft’s stories revolve around creatures who are so intensely terrifying that merely glancing at one is enough to drive someone mad. If you make a movie about such a beast, you either have to show it — which will inevitably be a big disappointment — or not not show it — which would also be a big disappointment. Lovecraft created a fear that simply could not be lifted off the page or out of your own mind.
Likewise, Ito’s stories often defied easy adaptation. Despite the difficult source material, this is a damn effective film that manages to communicate an intangible yet overwhelming horror without ever having to show it. Lovecraft would have been proud, I think. Sure there are kids who turn into creepy slugs, people with weird eyes and hair that spirals up forty feet and continuously swirls around. Sure heads are crushed, people are gutted, and bodies rot before horrified onlookers, but these are all symptoms of what is happening. In the hands of a lesser storyteller or director, the fact that the film never reveals the nature of the seemingly supernatural madness would be a big let-down, but scriptwriter Nitta Takao, armed with Ito Junji’s story and Higuchinsky’s inspired direction, uses the ambiguity to augment the film’s nightmarish tone. It’s truly a stunning feat to have pulled off.
The movie also never tips us off as to what actually happens to our heroine, Kirie. When last we see her, she is in what is, at best, a dire situation, but the closing repetition of the opening narration would imply that she somehow cheated fate. If so, how? We never know, and while that would be a weakness in some films, it’s the reverse here, like never finding out why the birds were attacking people in The Birds. Is it possible that Kirie, who was teased about never being the center of attention, was somehow the focal point of the spiral madness? Was she the eye of the hurricane? Or was she simply insane, dreaming up this whole bizarre scenario in her head? The film is constructed in such a way than any explanation would fail to be as effective as no explanation, leaving the viewer with a lingering feeling of chill and glorious discomfort.
Higuchinsky also uses music brilliantly. The soundtrack is a combination of sappy toy piano sounding “young kids in love” music and off-kilter horror/carnival music. It works further to subvert the feel of the film when you have this quaint and innocent scene of a young girl clinging to the boy she’s loved her whole life while dippy lovey dovey music plays in the background as they ride the bike in slow motion. It’s sweet tot he point of being goofy, but it becomes heart-breaking in a way since you know any second the creepy carnival music is going to start up and no one is going to be very happy.
The cast is up to the task of fleshing out this bizarre world. Hatsune Eriko is great and sympathetic as Kirie, while Fhi Fan as Shuichi is moody, dreary, and detached. At first it almost seems like it’s bad acting, but then you start to think about how many of these self-absorbed mopey guys you knew in high school, and you suddenly realize the kid has nailed it. Unlike the mopey kids in high school, at least this guy lives in a town that is cursed with a madness involving lots of spirals and bloody deaths. Everyone else is basically there to die horribly and go insane, and they all do it well.
The effects are great as well. Actually, the effects are somewhat archaic looking in spots, but once again the director makes it work marvelously for him, turning what should be a drawback into another strength. Competently done but somewhat awkward computer effects serve to embellish an increasingly alien and surreal landscape. The gore effects are bang on, grisly and realistic, and the make-up effects to create the slug people is also great. Unlike those twits who made the updated version of The Haunting, Higuchinsky knows better than to make a movie where there are effects for effect’s sake, and they are the central point to the movie being made. Higuchinsky wants to creep you out, and he is smart enough to know that special effects are just one of many means to that end and not the end themselves. Just like the stylish direction, the special effects are not there just as eye candy. They have a job to do, and they execute it wonderfully.
Uzumaki is a surprising film, and that makes me happy. Like a fairy tale of old, it seizes you from the outset and pulls you deeper and deeper into a world that is too weird to look at but too enticing to turn away from. Even during the quiet moments and build-up scenes, there is enough tension and uneasiness to keep the movie sailing along. When the end hits, it hits hard, and I guarantee the whole thing will stick in your mind a long time after you’ve finished watching. Of course, my guarantee means nothing. It’s not like I’m going to give you an oven mitt if you find yourself dissatisfied. I only have two oven mitts, and I need them both because one is always dirty.
The most refreshing thing about this movie is that it’s not quite like anything else I’ve ever seen. While you can place in the company or H.P. Lovecraft and Twin Peaks, it’s still quite different in many ways. It’s a movie that knows how to lull you into a sense of security, then spring untold amounts of indescribably freakiness ‘pon you. I love a movie that keeps me guessing and thinking, and Uzumaki delivers on a cerebral level, at least for a dolt like me. Uzumaki is a film for people who like to be messed with, who like to be unnerved, who like to get depressed and disturbed by a film out of nowhere, days or weeks after they’ve seen it. You’re sitting there, thinking happy thoughts, and all of a sudden you start thinking about the gruesome “slide show of death” that helps close the movie, and all of a sudden you just feel creeped out. It’s the sort of movie that will be appreciated by people who also appreciate sinister carnival midways and those ringmasters who speak of black things and always seem to have midget henchmen dressed as Aladdin walking behind them playing the squeezebox. It’s a movie for people who just simply delight in the torment of sheer weirdness and surrealistic horror.