Monday, 17 July 2017

Masters of Horror Season 1 - Cigarette Burns (2005)


Director: John Carpenter
Screenplay: Drew McWeeny and Scott Swan
Cast: Norman Reedus (as Kirby); Colin Foo (as Fung); Udo Kier (as Bellinger); Christopher Redman (as Willowy Being); Chris Gauthier (as Timpson); Zara Taylor (as Annie)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Shows) #5

I felt a need to revisit Masters of Horror. Having only seen the first season years ago when it first came out, I remember the initial anticipation and public response of the episodes, a project which immediately stood out. It was a tantalising premise. Mick Garris, of many a Stephen King adaptation, produced an anthology series with no restrictions in content and some of the greatest horror film directors at the helm of individual episodes - John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Stuart Gordon - alongside new talents of that period like Lucky McKee to Takashi Miike. The result was a lot more complicated in result after one other season and an unofficial third called Fear Itself for another channel, but Season 1 of Masters of Horror itself was a curious creation, not just in the episodes themselves but at least one major controversy that questioned its original premise. In the UK, just for our American cousins who may be confused how these reviews will be orders, there was a very different order for the episodes from the initial (ill advised) attempt to release two episodes at a time on 2 disc DVD sets released separately, and then even in the two part season box sets, John Carpenter's Cigarette Burns the first of the episodes.

It itself was likely chosen as the first episode to release as it caught horror fans' interest immediately. The last major production before Cigarette Burns was Ghosts of Mars (2001), a divisive sci-fi horror film which would be his last theatrical film until 2011. Back then, I was watching this episode with a passing interest in Carpenter, growing up with The Thing (1982) and Halloween (1978). Now revisiting the episode, its having grown to admire Carpenter as a working director so good technically at his work he deserved auteur status regardless.

Cigarette Burns is sadly terrible. It follows the notion of a cursed film, Norman Reedus as a cinema owner and private collector of rare prints for wealthy customers searching for a legendary work called La Fin Absolue du Monde for Udo Kier, a film when screened in the seventies in a cinema caused deaths and violence in the audience. With a heap of personal tragedy in his own life, Reedus himself enters a vortex of strange phenomenon just on the hunt for the film before actually finding a print. It's an instantly fascinating idea, meta and potentially pretension with its continuous film references but a premise following Ringu (1998), has a great urban legend within itself of objects having a greater power than mere material of recording, cinema as a medium that can tap into a person's subconscious beyond simplistic surface emotions. Like Ringu, it also suggests the inherently haunted notion that film can resurrect the dead by their repeating images being permanently attached to film as long as it survives, which within a story where the protagonist is haunted by the death of his girlfriend, with her father with a gun at his side hanging outside Reedus' cinema, would be pertinent.

What happens however is that rather than leaving La Fin Absolue du Monde as a mere McGuffin whilst the hero investigates its existence, so many scenes even into the finale constantly repeat of how La Fin Absolue du Monde is an evil creation rather than demonstrate way and let the images or implications mortify the viewer. It's called evil. The people who saw it in the cinema call it evil in their scenes. One as a viewer has no ideas why it's exactly evil but characters keep banging on that its evil. So much so that not only will the images briefly seen won't live up to its build-up, closer to one of those intros Redemption Video would put in front of one of their Jean Rollin DVD releases barring the softcore nudity, but it's a crass implication of a far more powerful premise which wastes dialogue on repeating the exact same dialogue that La Fin Absolue du Monde is evil without depth.

Instead of the film being a haunted entity, the celluloid equivalent of Nigel Kneale's stone tape, it becomes part of an undeveloped pseudo Christian myth about angels and people driven to making snuff films, all of which that trivialises the inherent provocation of cinema as a construct, something which is more than an item to shot footage on but can be manipulated in material (physical or digital) to cause effects on the viewer. The subplot about Reedus' girlfriend cannot sustain itself either, evoking a lesser version of Event Horizon (1997) instead of slow burn psychological horror. In presentation, Carpenter like the other directors follows the strict production schedule of the series, although it's nice to see another Carpenter named Cody score his father's work, but honestly the real issue is the entire tone of Cigarette Burns from the beginning, reducing its premise to a faux evil which leads to a gory ending without any sense of actual dread to it. It's a disappointing way to begin Masters of Horror, surprising for me considering the praise the episode originally got as one of the strongest parts when The Ward (2011) was far more interesting than this. 


Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Ringu 2 (1999)/Ring 0: Birthday (2000)


Director(s): Hideo Nakata (Ringu 2)/ Norio Tsuruta (Ringu 0: Birthday)
Screenplay: Hiroshi Takahashi (Ringu 2/Ring 0)
Based on the work of Koji Suzuki
Ringu 2 Cast: Miki Nakatani (as Mai Takano); Rikiya Otaka as (Yoichi Asakawa); Nanako Matsushima (as Reiko Asakawa); Rie Inō (as Sadako Yamamura)
Ringu 0 Cast: Yukie Nakama (as Sadako Yamamura); Seiichi Tanabe (as Hiroshi Toyama); Kumiko Aso (as Etsuko Tachihara); Takeshi Wakamatsu (as Yusaku Shigemori)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #111 & #112

Ringu (1998) was a perfect horror film. Imagine the short story structure of a horror film, or a radio drama expanded into ninety minutes1, perfectly compassing a theme or concept within its length like the best of its literary and audio cousins. It's premise sounds so like an actual urban legend, a decade or so before Slender Man or Creepy Pastas like the cursed video came to be, already with the advantage of having built such a sound in-world legend that it elicits fears in viewers as if based on a legend that's more timeless. Eliciting fears of the unknown tapping into modern technology, the fear of finding a mysterious blank videotape that could be anything, like the unknown video clip online or other digital/physical object, matched by the hazy obsoleteness of VHS technology in the current day, a vehicle still venerated as much for its failures as it is its virtue in transporting information before the tech improved drastically. The lengthy mystery the protagonists follow to resolve the mystery, even if you know the answers on repeat viewings, is still fascinating, the unravelling of the mystery alongside the slow pace and characterisation still intense to participate in. Ringu was an incredible success leading to sequels, an American remake series, reboots and a crossover with the Ju-Oh series, but I'll stick to the immediate two sequels here2. One is an example (RIngu 2) caught between embracing pure, irrational phantasmagoria but being completely alien to the original film to its detriment. The later (Ringu 0) is a prequel which explains so much in an A-to-A straightforward fashion, resulting in something as alive as an taxidermy display and cingeworthy to watch.

Ringu 2 at least makes a rewarding decision to follow a minor figure from the prequel named Mai (Miki Nakatani), a student investigating the cause of the events in the previous film's finale and trying to track down the first film's heroine, the result of which giving the sequel an immediacy in being set subsequently from the prequel, the horror now as a result of a fallout from the previous narrative. Even if its having to repeat the investigation of before, it now has the advantage of previous visual motifs from the cursed tape and Sadako being known and registering with fear in the sequel of the curse drawing over Mari and those she interacts with. The issue, where is drops the ball, is its indecisiveness in where it wants to go from here. It visibly wants to escape how narrowing the plot potentials of the original film will be to expand the mythology, completely disregarding the cursed videotape set-up with Sakado's curse being spread by peoples' minds and any television equipment in the room, all without fully jettisoning the entirely of the original plot's presentation. Either it needed to write ideas worthy of expanding out what is an already perfect horror lore, or fully remove the lore even if the result was blasphemous and closer to the type of rip-off you'd expect the Italian film industry to have made of American supernatural horror movies. Instead, its stuck in an area where the new ideas - the importance of water particularly as Sadako's weakness in connection to the well as a symbol - don't feel fleshed out and rushed.


If it had fully committed to the vaguer, more ellusive form of horror which tires of a videotape you have to have potential victims see, and decides to spread its influence without such a teather, it could've reached the eerie mystery found in a masterpiece like Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse (2001), the curse growing tired of its limited reach and growing after exposure to victims and previous cases, causing bystanders to the previous film to have their memories and thoughts tainted by the curse like a psychic contagion, spreading out wider and wider. In ways it actually predates what the 2002 version of Ju-On: The Grudge and how it followed a chain of victims as more people crossed incidents of previous curses, fitting as well considering the eventual crossover between the franchises. The film could've become a dreamlike experience if it pushed into this plot point more, managing at least one scene that redeems the film where a single clip of video footage is repeated so much that it transforms into something terrifying, the distortion and degredation of images literally the window for the supernatural to be encountered. Sadly the film stays straddled in the middle of both artistic choices. Where the lack of the cursed videotape feels arbitrary than leaving its confines for more ideas. Where suddenly Sadako wants to possess a young child, given them psychic powers, which makes little sense to her lore and does, in any context, feel like an exceptionally stupid plot idea with little explanation to justify it in-narrative. Where water becomes an important part of overcoming her, already mentioned and fitting her existing lore, but is convoluted in exactly how it works, ending the film inexplicably at a swimming pool like a less successful version of the ending of It Follows (2014).

Ring 0: Birthday should just be removed from canon. Sadako is turned from the haunting figure with a tragic past of previous films to a young, quiet woman in an acting troop in the late sixties/early seventies, actress Yukie Nakama less Sadako than a lesser reinterpretation of Sissy Spacek in Carrie (1976). It's a laborious viewing experience, slow but with most of its time spent on a conventional narrative structure with little to intrigue. A story that reaches its expected ending, having to lead to the first film, whilst following utterly unlikable characters - a female reporter with revenge on her mind for Sadako, members of the troop, the girlfriend of one of the members whose sympathetic to Sadako - whose characterisations are hazy in whether one should hate them, experiencing the corruption of Sadako, or we should be on their side as Sadako has an atmosphere around her that's already starting to kill people and haunt the trope. It's the kind of horror prequel that Hollywood would be accused of continually making many years before they ever did, where the central horror figure Sadako is turned into merely a parade of motifs from before without any of the realistic folklore or actual tragedy of the existing version. Symbolism of the original film without context but merely because it's expected to be there as decoration like wallpaper. In fact the only interesting part of the film is the theatrical play within the movie, a weird tale of a scientist bringing his daughter back to life through science with Western period costumes and decor on the stage, more fitting the Japanese's ability to create unconventional, genre shifting horror movies than the film around it, one that should be removed from memory.


1. If you stay with the idea of the short tale, like a campfire story, that chills a listener for a short amount of time and transport it to other mediums, I find the best examples for short written stories is something read aloud that lasts 30 minutes to an hour, a radio story to be thirty minutes, and horror films to be around 90 minutes. Obviously there are exceptions, especially those that want to emphasis details like characterisation or mood, but it's usually apparent which films need that extra time or not depending on their content.

2. Then of course there's Ringu: Kanzenban (1995), the first ever adaptation for television which I reviewed HERE which is an utterly bizarre viewing experience by itself.

Monday, 26 June 2017

The Flying Luna Clipper (1987)


Director: Ikko Ono
A 1000 Anime Crossover

Abstract Spectrum: Psychotronic/Surreal
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Medium

One of the more curious (and obscurest) works I've covered on this blog or on 1000 Anime. A near hour long film made entirely from 8-bit technology of a Japanese videogame console called the MSX, The Flying Luna Clip is an inherently strange creation, the limited animation and vibrant, bit colour in elaborate detail already creating a fascinating tone before you get to the actual content. A trip both in plot and effect - whose passengers include snowmen, and anthropomorphic fruit and plants, flying in a plane boat around the Hawaiian Pacific whilst also experiencing dreams that the viewer also experience. The result is a haze with a tentative narrative, more a series of scenes and incidents, even a musical number with singing volcanoes, but one which for the most part is so innocuous and charming I felt love for it as a creation.

And its definitely strange. The actual existence of the film and how it was made, alongside its obscurity, adds to its weirdness but there's legitimate oddness on display that can only be described as pop surrealism, a kind that is constantly found in Japanese culture but, far from something to trivialise into the crass "weird Japan" term feels so much more sweet on multiple viewings. For the full review, follow the link HERE


Saturday, 24 June 2017

Evil of Dracula (1974)


Director: Michio Yamamoto
Screenplay: Ei Ogawa
Cast: Toshio Kurosawa (as Professor Shiraki); Mariko Mochizuki (as Kumi Saijô); Kunie Tanaka (as Dr. Shimomura); Shin Kishida (as the Principal); Katsuhiko Sasaki (as Professor Yoshi)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #110

How are there Japanese vampires? In the case of Evil of Dracula, as was the case with Nobuo Nakagawa's The Lady Vampire (1959), a screenwriter for a film meant to thrill and tease its youthful audience (as many horror films, like in West, were probably for) had to delve into actual history. In this case the condemnation of foreign Christianity, where it was banned and those who practice it had to live in hiding, explains how a Western folk creature like a vampire can be created on Japanese soil, turning the chaos of those incidents (documented in fictional form in Silence (1971) by Masahiro Shinoda and retold in Silence (2016) by Martin Scorsese) into back story. Ironically, because they are part of European folklore to the point they've been homogenised into popular culture, a lot of British, European and American films never need to explain the folklore of vampirism, not even explain where the vampire comes from even if there's no wish to go into their origins, sometimes to the fault that it can feel like these figures could easily be replaced with another bloodsucking creature and nothing would change, merely figures that are placed into the narrative without a least a paragraph or a sentence in the script to introduce them. In the hands of a country where they are utterly foreign, Evil of Dracula may not do anything traditionally different with them, still the cape wearing dark eyed stranger and the sensual mysterious woman, but is able to flesh them out with having to use cultural background you don't normally get with the Hammer films etc.


Barring this, in the midst of seventies plaid trousers and floppy hair, the third of the Toho trilogy of vampire films is b-movie chique that even on a dreadful early 2000s DVD has elegance in spite of the story being seen so many times before. A new teacher is brought to an isolated local community and, like the best of most horror stories, cut off by train within a strange new environment where car accidents are abandoned on desolate roads, murky forests exist from dark fantasy, and he's assigned to an all girls school trapped outside of reality. One, as the girls openly flirt with his during one of his psychology lessons with giant Rorschach tests on the projector, that's all gothic shadows and European decor. Were it not for the back-story set in period Japan, this would be set within a mukokuseki environment. At times, with many women surrounding our protagonist and having screen time themselves, it also feels like it's the prologue of Hausu (1977) before everything went insane.

The vampires feel antiquated even next to the period flashbacks, figures out of time and tone from the reality shown. Even if this is a mukokuseki film in most of its presentation, vampires clearly don't gel as well as yakuza in western suits and jazz by themselves. It's the details around them which makes the result work as has been the case with (almost) every Japanese film/anime/series about vampires. A morbid elegance, some of which is openly borrowed from other countries - the negligees of the female students, the Charles Baudelaire quotations from the Renfield stand-in, a French literature teacher with a pale skin, and gothic tropes of coffins and dark cellars. The rest is the tone between the erotic and grotesque that's arguable from Japanese art. Its tame next to other Japanese films that were made in the sixties and at same time as Evil of Dracula, but there's still the brief glimpses of bared breast with blood staining them, of a white rose turning bloody crimson, that has far more perverse sensuality to them than the more brazen and (frankly) embarrassing attempts I've seen from Hammer from the same period. Then there's the suddenness of two scenes which make what's a pretty standard J-horror film stand out in memory. One, a naked female corpse on a table, the face severed off, the body gasping one last time in agony, as a crow is silhouette in shadow nearby and the face becomes a new appearance for another figure. The other the final shot, practical effects both gruesomely oozing and melting but almost beautiful in fast forward decay, capping off Evil of Dracula on a high note. What would be a generic, average film shows moments of real visceral power that help it for the better.


Saturday, 17 June 2017

Microwave Massacre (1983)


Director: Wayne Berwick
Screenplay: Thomas Singer
Cast: Jackie Vernon (as Donald); Claire Ginsberg (as May); Loren Schein (as Roosevelt); Al Troupe (as Philip); Karen Marshall (as the Neighbour)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #109

Synopsis: After his tolerance for his wife May (Ginsberg) and her failed attempts at elaborate cuisine snaps, Donald (Vernon) in a drunken rage ends up killing her. When he accidentally eats one of her chopped up body parts, he develops a taste for cannibalism which twists into his redeveloping libido when he discovers he can still woo the opposite sex.

Microwave Massacre is not a popular film. When the American exploitation oddity was recently re-released for a modern cult audience, many of the viewers I've read have given it scathing reviews for the most part. Offensive or as funny as a napalm enema, amateurish or just crass, dated junk. Yet it says something peculiar within the film that, even if it's an inexplicable and tiny cult, it still gets a lavish Blu-Ray restoration from Arrow Video and you have former Coil member and film scholar (of American exploitation cinema especially) Stephen Thrower defending it in spite of its immense flaws. Microwave Massacre is a film, as documented, where after living within the culture of cinema for his whole life, director Wayne Berwick finally took the chance to make his own movie, only on the first day of production to realise that the script for their serious horror film was full of awful puns in the dialogue. In a moment where a production has a gun directly pointed to its head, as other independent exploitation films from this era of American cinema have had to face before them, the creators of Microwave Massacre decided to make as intentionally as dumb and ridiculous a film as they could.

The issues with this are with the humour that's of its time, including the terrible puns constantly in the dialogue and puerile jokes about sex or stereotypes. One or two of them are actually offensive for a modern viewer like me, but it feels within context of the film of it being merely dumb as a movie and of its time. I've only been offended by a couple of films morally for their attitudes - The Birth of a Nation (1915) for obvious reasons, and Brother 2 (2000), an already middling sequel to an interesting cult Russian crime film which, after a sincere monologue about African Americans, becomes morally toxic in how offensive the scene with that dialogue is. A film like Microwave Massacre in contrast is a film so desperate to pull laughs that its stuck having to punch low below the belt. Most of the time its instead a weird tone that works in its favour rather than anything truly morally problematic, as most of the jokes are so poor they give the tone of anti-humour by accident.

The result is closer, if it was made in Britain, to a 70s British sex comedy of the era with a little bit more gore, more sleaze, but the same disjointed view on good taste separated from the modern day. It's an apt comparison with comedian Jackie Vernon in the lead. A figure who'll make the film more shocking for American viewers due to having voiced Frosty the Snowman in beloved Christmas animated specials in the US, he's at times almost in slow motion alongside other performances, making it impossible for the jokes to work regardless of the quality of the writing itself. If the original choice for the lead was affordable, Rodney Dangerfield, then even the tired "nagging wife" jokes would've had more spark in them, and even added some credibility to an older, larger man being about attract nubile, younger women due to his natural charisma. Other times however Vernon is perfect as long as a viewer reads the film with Donald not being a sympathetic character. A lot of time he's a bumbling dolt, but the only really likable moment in the whole film is one scene, when he's stuck to eating dog food sandwiches because of his wife's cooking, where he befriends a stray on the construction site he works for. For the rest of the film however he's a useless chauvinist male from an era whose wife, barring the terrible decision to try to cook elaborate food without enough skill and with a stupidly large microwave, is completely innocent and his midlife crisis becomes cannibalism by way of sex ritual.


Technical Detail:
Helping the film is having been made available on Blu-Ray with a pristine image, revealing in the current day that, whilst the director's previous career as a documentary and public information short director has a significant influence on the film, technical competent but not attempting any risks on such a low budget in terms of elaborate camera moments or editing, the production design gives the film a colourful, garish kitsch that adds to the perversity of its tone. Having art and production designer Robert A. Burns, famous for his incredible and terrifying work on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), helps so much in Microwave Massacre's favour. Donald's home feels like it's from a sixties sexploitation movie rather than the late seventies when the film was shot, and the general sense of colour the whole film has gives it a cartoonish tone appropriate for such broad stereotypes and broad, dumb humour, giving the failure of most of humour a more interesting tone of being alien, a suburban environment where everyone acts with a disconnect of sitcom characters in a deeply inappropriate and adult narrative.

Then there's the titular microwave, a comically giant monstrosity where Donald can put multiple fake arms and prosthetics in it at once (courtesy of Burns' effects, some of which he had no shame in recycling from previous gigs). I originally found this, even for a horror comedy, utter absurd until I heard a late seventies radio ad advertising a Sears microwave, suggesting the public could cook a whole lavish dinner (pork chops, mashed potatoes, vegetables) within one to save time for busy families. In the modern day, unless a microwave is all a household can afford or fit in a very small apartment, the notion of a microwave replacing an oven as the main tool of a kitchen is absurd, only seen now to defrost ingredients to cook in an oven late or to heat up microwave food and leftovers, but at one time there was a serious suggestion (at least from companies) suggesting they were important new innovations. (This at least lasted into the late eighties, as my parents still own a second print version a Hitachi Microwave Cookbook from 1988). Even Vernon's own stab at a meaning to the film, documented in retrospective materials, that it's a warning about modern technology corrupting people fits in how, for all Microwave Massacre's failings, it's a gleefully perverse tale of a suburban white slob whose sex cannibalism murders, including giving his co-workers the spare meat to eat, is helped by the ease of using such a stupidly elaborate microwave. Even the subplot of the machine effecting his pacemaker is an exaggeration of an actual fear with the machines even if it seems ridiculous now.


Abstract Spectrum: Grotesque/Psychotronic/Weird
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
Unintentionally Microwave Massacre redeems itself for me. Even with the fact, baring slashers, 'I'm fascinated with this period of independent American horror cinema, Massacre feels like with one nudge, and significantly better jokes, it would've been in a kitsch, perverse view of middle or upper working class life, pissing on suburbia as Donald does into the fireplace at one point out of frustration. While its far from the weirdest films of this era, it's still a peculiar experience where even the absolute pits stand out, stumbling through a deliberate lame world such as Donald picking out a woman with an unknown foreign accent dressed in the worst chicken costume you could ever see just for terrible poultry puns.

And some of the jokes do work. Everything with the bartender at a strip joint, who hates people crying about their terrible existences and talks about his haemorrhoids to get rid of patrons is funny, as is Donald's female neighbour who is sexually liberated and has many sex parties. Some of the later is the writing trying too hard, such as her digging holes into her lawn to plant seeds with a vibrator, but the introductory moment is perfect to try to find a tone to appreciate Microwave Massacre, where a male patron of an orgy at the home, a cameo by one of the film's producers in women's underwear, closes the curtains but still looks through at Donald with a disgusted look as if he's the real deviant, proved by everything he commits no long afterwards.


Personal Opinion:
Microwave Massacre has to be approached with caution. Many have rightly dismissed it as junk for its awful jokes, some that rightly you couldn't get away with today, but like a lot of these films you can still gain a lot from it even if its unintentional. For me, like many American exploitation films, there's entertainment even in their failures and manage to still show a picture of when they were made. It's a film many would understandably feel embarrassed about seeing, but with its combination of "take my wife" era jokes, crass eighties sex comedy (but with a middle aged stand-up in the lead rather than a hunky, brainless male lead), and moments of gore in the Herschel Gordon Lewis mould are already a curious combination alongside strange, unexplained moments such as a nude woman being smeared with mayonnaise than covered with a giant piece of bread. It's a queer taste in terms of a movie, but one that's appealing as much as it is scrapping the barrel for that reason.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Clownhouse (1989)


Director: Victor Salva
Screenplay: Victor Salva
Cast: Nathan Forrest Winters ( as Casey); Brian McHugh (as Geoffrey); Sam Rockwell (as Randy); Michael Jerome West (as Lunatic Cheezo); Byron Weible          (as Lunatic Bippo); David C. Reinecker (as Lunatic Dippo)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #108

Trying to separate the creator from their work can become an ethical issue when their reputations are tarnished by the events outside cinema. Political beliefs, problematic behaviour or in the worst cases, actual crimes. As a fan of Roman Polanski's films, I have to constantly ask this question. With Victor Salva and Clownhouse, there's are even severe questions to be asked as the crime he was convicted for was mid-production of the film, sexual molestation of the child star Nathan Forrest Winters, which causes both incredible discomfort in watching the film but a lingering history afterwards, where the film's nigh on impossible to acquire on physical release and Salva under constant scrutiny whenever he makes another film, even re-releases of his older movies from the likes of Scream Factory leading people to boycott anything involving him. Salva's career afterwards is as conflicting morally for me to consider, juggling between complete obscurity but also moments of mainstream attention that led to  more controversy, from helming a Disney produced film (Powder (1995)) to sustaining himself in the popular consciousness with the Jeepers Creepers series.

Clownhouse, even if there wasn't the troubling stigma built within the project, wouldn't be with an worth for me anyway. If the film was the same regardless of Salva's crime, it's still a turgid late eighties shocker, one which emphasises my growing disdain for stalk and scare scenes, those post the slasher boom which presume that a sudden jump scare is enough to sustain a film, not that they're only affective when set up well or that even some fun beyond them is required for a film to actually be entertaining or an actual horror film. A large part of the film is sadly following three unlikable male protagonists (Winters¸ Brian McHugh and Sam Rockwell), three brothers who spend most of the narrative teasing and insulting each other, without any sense of bond between them, as mental asylum patients dressed as clowns occasionally appear in the shadows constantly hinting at suspense that only takes place in the finale.

It's only when this is all set up at the circus that the film seems vaguely interesting. Inherently like Tobe Hooper's The Funhouse (1981), the carnival as a film setting is inherently fascinating as seeing the central character's fear of clowns being visibly tested, showing both how fascinating clowns are as a centuries old concept but also why they would be scary with their grease painted faces, their exaggeration of mannerism and the harlequin like costumes. Three quarters of Clownhouse before and after this however are the three leads arguing whilst various fake scares and near shocks by the killer clowns, all of which become tedious quickly. The trite moral of protagonist Casey having to overcome his fears is made disturbing knowing actor WIlliams was the victim of Salva's off-camera acts, making it an uncomfortable position for him to have to speak dialogue written by Salva about escaping his fears. On the other side of the spectrum, it's amazing that whilst Sam Rockwell is a great actor as an adult, it also amazing how atrocious he is here, so wooden that it's a case that when people started to notice him from Galaxy Quest (1999) onwards he improved in his acting skills immensely over ten years.

The music is dreadful, the worst case of generic synthesizer music you can hear. Also knowing what was taking place mid-production with Salva, the obsession with the three young leads being constantly shirtless, half dressed or nearly naked is a pertinent example of the camera gaze and how it objectifies individuals of any gender in such an extreme and problematic way. My viewing of Clownhouse was a morbid experience, somewhat thankful in knowing there's no reason ever to watch it again. Tragically however it also exists as an actual crime having been committed whilst it was being made, which makes the experience worse to consider. 


Sunday, 28 May 2017

Gozu (2003)


Director: Takashi Miike
Screenplay: Sakichi Satô
Cast: Yûta Sone (as Minami); Shô Aikawa (as Ozaki); Kimika Yoshino (as Ozaki); Shôhei Hino (as Nose); Keiko Tomita (as the Innkeeper); Harumi Sone (as the Innkeeper's Brother); Renji Ishibashi (as Minami's Boss)

Synopsis: When his mentor and senior yakuza Ozaki (Shô Aikawa) is deemed to have lost his competency and sanity, requiring "disposal", the younger gangster Minami (Yûta Sone) is the one forced to take him away by his seniors only for Ozaki to both die accidentally and for the body to vanish in broad daylight from his car. Stuck in a small town trying to find his mentor, Minami's investigation leads to a mounting series of bizarre people and events, stuck in an inn where the owners are strange and more than happy to provide twice a person's worth of food, stuck in a small town where he's seen as a foreign body and going around in circles in spite of the assistance of the partially white faced Nose (Shôhei Hino) to find Ozaki. Then there's a beautiful woman (Kimika Yoshino) claiming to be Ozaki and can manage to actually prove who she is.

Gozu is an episodic odyssey with a nod to Alice in Wonderland, not in presentation but the idea of a person finding themselves wandering in a strange place with bafflement at everything they witness.  Admittedly the film does start strangely already. Miike's almost interpreting what a David Lynch film is like with Minami watching a television is a cafe with his gang which is entirely distorted and about someone wanting to lactate but isn't being allowed to, a stiltedness to the initial performances and scored, as throughout the film when it isn't completely silent, but ominous strings by perfectly implemented by Kôji Endô. Ozaki, played by Shô Aikawa, immediately sets the bar by randomly killing a small dog outside in front of two terrified women, having claimed its a yakuza attack animal and proving he's lost his marbles, setting up the black humour immediately off the bat. However this is sane for Miike, his usual balance between seriousness, that has a surprising amount of cinema verité in the grungy environments and minimal use of music, and bizarre punctures into transgression and slapstick. Gozu actually has a visible shift for protagonist Minami where he'll enter his Wonderland, reaching a road in his car that's completely swallowed up ahead by a river, a sudden glitch in the image and distortion in the soundtrack, his mentor inadvertedly dead before Minami finally developed the courage to kill someone he had platonic and friendly love for. Than Ozaki's body vanishes when trying to phone his seniors in a cafe and has to puke up an egg custard he's didn't order in the bathroom.


Technical Detail:
Yet Gozu, from this initial premise, emphasises one of Miike's best virtues especially from all the films up to this one of the slow, deliberate tone. Miike even in some of his most notorious films usually paces his work with a greatly leisured tone; ironically its now as a much older veteran, making more mainstream films and adapting manga more so than before in his early career, that he's making faster pace films rather than the presumption older directors become more sedate. This slower pace helped him in even the stranger genre works of his to always emphasis characterisation, here of immense importance as its entirely down to the fresh faced Yûta Sone to anchor the film, playing a virginal adult yakuza lost in a realm of sexual obsessions and various distractions he's forced to go through which exasperation like a labyrinth of nonsense. The cast helps greatly, full of regulars from Miike's career in large and minor roles who, throughout all the films Miike made, are all talented actors able to bring an air of seriousness even to the most ridiculous material. For example Renji Ishibashi, as the yakuza boss who can only get an erection from an intricately inserted ladle, manages to give this absurd character some gravitas so the character can be taken serious but, helping this black comedy to succeed, is visibly having fun with the material, as with everyone else in the cast recognisable or new to Miike's world here.

The slower, deliberate tone is needed as its one of Miike's films which is not inherently propelled by plot but a lot of character building, Minami's search through the small town making up most of the film's length and deliberately filled with pointless tangents, searching for clues which go in circles and arbitrary goals to complete, even having to complete a riddle to get help from Nose (Shôhei Hino) in the first place, the assistant of a local yakuza who's ability to be stroppy if angered is tantamount and just as liable to delay Minami's quest. The lengthy running time in hindsight of this isn't indulgent but a necessary, Gozu very much in the area of cinema and storytelling I love the most of either dream logic or a journey which is not based on a quest, but a small goal where like a sightseer the viewer and the protagonist(s) witness things entirely new to them and have to respond to them. That this journey becomes increasingly weird for Minami, who reacts with more and more shock and alarm at everything he see, adds to the film and the slow burn pace allows for each scene to be even more shocking for the viewer and hilarious. It helps in being in Minami's place trying to rationalise the events around him, not only the transgressive aspects like excessive lactation or a cow headed man in only underpants appearing in his dreams, but the unexpected egg custard forced onto him when he only orders coffee or how his outsider position to even his own yakuza group makes him useless in convincing many he encounters into talking to his straight about what he needs.


Abstract Spectrum: Mindbender/Surreal/Weird
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): High
Undeniably, this is one of Miike's strangest films, a film where character moments take up most of the time rather than a plot until the third act where Kimika Yoshino comes in, rejecting a rational beginning, middle and end for bookmarks side-by-side of increasingly oddball events. It's known for its notorious sequences which stand out in the director's career (the full adult birthing, Renji Ishibashi's collection of ladles, the skin suits of yakuza tattoos preserved in a freezer from all the disposed of yakuza) but the weirdness is more palpable for how the film is grounded in tone in spite of its odd moments.

One of the biggest aspects to this strangeness, in a career that's full of sexual issues and kink, is the subplot of Minami's sexual yearnings, visibly in the plot to have feelings for his mentor Ozaki. This is not the first relationship between gangsters that's either yearning or explicit homosexuality shown in Miike's cinema, neither is it the first time this narrative plot has taken place in a Miike film, Full Metal Yakuza (1997) leading to the gangster who looks up to his stronger, wiser senior becoming stronger himself from having his senior's body parts (including genitals) attached to his rebuilt body. Here, it's a visible confusion in Minami's relationship with Ozaki, and it's not through literal envelopment that this relationship is consecrated but with a desire that's built up through flashbacks that suggest more is going on for Minami, literalised when a beautiful woman appears who knows intimate secrets about Minami that only his senior knew, claiming to be Ozaki herself and breaking the wall Minami has had for his mentor. That this film is rife with various forms of sexual kink brings to mind Gozu being entirely from the perspective of Minami's confused sexuality manifesting itself in various forms.

But Gozu's success is truly found in how the normalcy is as much strange as the more extreme content, maybe even stranger on subsequent viewings when the initial shock of the more infamous scenes had faden. You're initially struck by the odd sight of an older man in a gold tracksuit talking to a similar one in a silver jumpsuit, only to find that their conversation about the weather is one you'd hear in real life in an actual cafe and actually strange in itself to realise. Sakichi Sato, the screenwriter, also adapted Miike's notorious Ichi the Killer (2001), and alongside that film's deliberate complexity in its various transgressive sexualities, it also had a huge emphasis even against other Miike films on puncturing the extremity with bafflingly normal scenes and quiet gestures, normal behaviour that feel alien in context of what happens around them even in the same scenes. How the characters act or even one-off figures who don't necessarily come off as wacky figures but people you might actually bump into in a small Japanese town, like the American wife of a store owner who needs detailed placards on the walls of their shop to help her speak fluent Japanese or the yakuza disposal site employees who are completely casual about their career in crushing human bodies into pulp and retaining their skins.

What helped me to fall in love with Gozu is that it's a film where an everyman is placed within a world that's both very mundane and utterly bizarre, and both sides are as strange as each other, where even the doubling size of his meals at a hotel gains a reaction from him and us as a viewer of surprise. Little details pull as much humour as the more twisted moments, giving Gozu a greater effect.

Personal Opinion:
Gozu is one of Takashi Miike's underrated and best films. Not because it's weird for the sake of weird, but because it makes both normalcy as weird as the bizarre, transgressive material and the sides meet together to create something as perplexing to follow as its ghoulishly funny, ending on a happy ending that's surprisingly sweet despite the yucks that taken place beforehand.