November 07, 2007

Horrors of Malformed Men: Defying Genre and Sense

I'm a little late to the party writing a review of Teruo Ishii's Horrors of Malformed Men (Japanese title: Edogawa ranpo taizen: Kyofu kikei ningen). After all, the film was made nearly 40 years ago. Ishii himself died several years ago, so I'm a bit late talking about him as well. Still, better late than never and I would hazard a guess that most people who read this blog (I know you're out there; I can hear you breathing) haven't heard of either the director or the film. I found the DVD myself only because I did a random search of the word "horror" on Netflix and this flick sounded interesting.

I was right about that much; Horrors is a very interesting film. Despite its title, I'm not sure that it's really a horror movie at all. Horrific elements are definitely present, but there's also a good dose of fairytale and, from the look of it, maybe a few doses of some other things as well. This is one trippy flick. The story, which is based on one written by popular Japanese mystery writer Edogawa Rampo, twists in such strange ways that the whole narrative breaks down from time to time and I found myself simply letting go and allowing the bizarre imagery to carry me along until I could find the threads I'd lost once again. In the world that Ishii created, however, I didn't find this to be a problem. There's as much or more meaning in those images as one needs. At the end of the film, a detective wraps the whole thing up nicely for us, anyhow, and using that device allows Ishii to point out the inherent absurdity of the plot to good effect. It's clear that the director had a lot of fun weaving this film together and he doesn't want his own amusement with his story and characters ("Only a pervert would hide in a chair!") to be lost on his audience.

The film is set in pre-war Japan, c. 1925. The hero is confined to a mental institution. A former medical student, he has no idea why this fate has befallen him. He escapes and meets a girl who, like him, has no knowledge of her parents or where she was born. They share the dim memory of a lullaby and a seaside setting, however, and so decide to join forces in order to discover the secret of their past. She is murdered in front of his eyes and he, being an escapee from a lunatic asylum, is suspect number one. He flees and ultimately finds his way to a mansion owned by the wealthy and influential Komoda family. The heir has very recently died and, fortunately for the hero, looks so much like him that he is able to assume his identity by digging up the body and donning the decedent's funeral shroud. Much intrigue follows, leading the hero eventually to a weird island in the Sea of Japan which is controlled by a web-fingered, ugly, disheveled man who turns out to be the father of both the hero and the dead Komoda heir. This oddball character is planning vengeance on the entire world for the way that the deformed are treated and, more to the point, against his unfaithful wife and the rest of his family. He's doing this by surgically creating an army of deformed people, having brought "babies and the elderly" to his island and mutilating them in various ways. Before the film is over, we have a story of murder, infidelity, and a bit of incest thrown into the mix.

What we also get is some very strange imagery. Much of it is a bit out of date now; you won't find any CG in a film shot in 1969. Still, what is there holds up pretty well. There are moments, particularly when we are treated to views of the freakish life-forms on the island, when I was reminded of Akira Kurosawa's Dreams in the most perverse ways possible. There's a twitching, gibbering sort of menace here that would have done H.P. Lovecraft proud.The malformed father is particularly effective, capable of combining creepy movement and menacing demeanor with a cruel and giggling psychosis that's so far out it becomes almost believable. Perhaps the most horrific scene in the film is a flashback in which the father recounts how he punished his beautiful and unfaithful wife upon discovering her having sex with her cousin. He imprisons the pair in a deep seaside cave without food or light; when the cousin dies, the pregnant woman is forced to eat the small crabs devouring his body so that she might survive long enough to give birth to her twin sons. The father's insane delight at forcing her into this indirect cannibalism is one of the high points of the film and the sequence itself is the film's most visceral by far. It's too bad that those of us just discovering this strange, strange movie are forced to watch on relatively small screens. It must have been much more compelling on the big screen.

Still, this is a movie that defies a single genre. There are strong elements of farce here, too, particularly at the end of the film. There's comedy as well as tragedy, and much of this comes at the very end when a famous detective appears and recounts the findings of his investigation into both the twisted world of the Komoda family and the conspiracy that has been at work against them. The very ending is simultaneously horrific and comedic. While I don't want to give it away, I will say that one should take the suicide note saying "We want to scatter ourselves..." literally.

This is one of those movies that not everyone is going to appreciate. Fans of more recent Japanese horror will still find this older film a bit alien, but some of the imagery here will also be appealing in terms of a small lesson on the evolution of the genre. Films like Ringu and The Grudge (at least the original versions) owe something here to Ishii. Those who don't like J-horror in general, or who find themselves bored or annoyed by directors like Fellini or Kurosawa, would probably do well not to bother wasting their time on Horrors of Malformed Men. If you've seen and enjoyed Satyricon in particular, though, you'll very likely get a kick out of this trippy nightmare-fairytale of a flick as well.

Remember: only perverts hide in chairs!

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