They Came From Beyond Space

directed by Freddie Francis
1967 | Amicus | 85′ 

A number of meteors crashes onto a field belonging to a farm in Cornwall. It’s the most curious thing though – usually, meteors don’t fly in a V-formation. The UK government thinks the phenomenon requires investigation and decides to send a group of scientists lead by an astronomer with special interest in the discovery of extraterrestrial life, Dr. Curtis Temple (Robert Hutton), to Cornwall.

There is a tiny problem, though: Temple’s love for vintage cars (slightly prefiguring the Third Doctor, like some of the film’s tone, if you ask me) has resulted in an accident some months ago that left the astronomer with a silver plate in his head, and – at least that’s the opinion of his doctor – still too sick to work away from home, even though he’ll act as fit as James Bond throughout the movie. We all know about the dangerous wilds of Cornwall, far away from civilization, after all.

So there’s nothing to it than to send Temple’s colleague and girlfriend, Lee Mason (Jennifer Jayne) to lead the expedition and send all pertinent data up to Temple.

Alas, things at the crash site fastly become problematic. The meteorites contain alien consciousnesses that take over the scientists, break off all contact with the outside world and slowly begin to infiltrate a close-by village too (starting with the local banker, of course, as if that were necessary). Then, the aliens begin to requisition large amounts of building materials and weapons through government channels.

After a time without news, Temple, as well as someone in government, realizes that something’s not right at all (an attempt by the aliens to take the astronomer over too but fails thanks to that practical silver plate helps Temple’s thought processes there). Temple’s investigations in the village and around the crash site turn up curious developments: it’s not just that the scientists and the dozens of people they have taken on are obviously not themselves anymore, they have built an underground lair all the better to be able to shoot rockets to the moon. Fortunately, Temple is one of those two-fisted scientists from the 50s, and his astonishing abilities (yeah, I know, he must have survived World War II, but how many astronomers really were astonishing commandos and still were when they hit middle-age?) at fistfighting, shooting, and escaping from cells will be very helpful in thwarting the plans of the aliens and their leader – the Master of the Moon (Michael Gough). Not even a strange alien illness part of the aliens’ overcomplicated plan can touch Temple; I suspect the illness is afraid to be infected by Hutton’s well-known right-wing real life opinions about everything.

  
  
  

Now this, ladies and gentlemen, is how you make a 50s alien invasion movie in 1967. This time around, much-kicked Hammer rivals Amicus are throwing their shoestring budget at that old stalwart of British cinema, the alien invasion movie with the American no-name actor in the lead role. One suspects Quatermass and the Pit might have had something to do with that decision, though They Came counters the complexity and intelligence of the Quatermass approach to SF with a tale of a properly dumb alien invasion with a badly delivered 60s peace and love twist at the end that wants me to believe that the two-fisted American scientist whose adventures we have witnessed up to the point is willing to shake hands with aliens who wanted to kill him or make him their slave because they say they now think better of it – twice. Let’s not even talk about these aliens’ idea of secrecy (or the idea of the film’s UK government about how a quarantine works; hint: generally, letting people come and go as they please isn’t a part of it).

This may sound as if I were rather dissatisfied with They Came, but nothing could be further from the truth. The alien invasion plot may be dumb, it is however dumb in the most delightful manner, easily convincing me that I may not live in a world where this sort of plan would sound logical, but I really rather would. Not only are the aliens’ plans and the film’s hero – who reminds me of a more conservative version of one of these non-professional Eurospy movie protagonists – a delightfully groovy age version of 50s traditions (a total improvement on the model, obviously), the way to thwart them is just as beautifully insane, seeing as it consists of knocking one’s possessed girlfriend out, kidnapping her, and using her as a test object while working on a (of course very silly looking) anti-alien-possession helmet, even sillier alien detection goggles and alien re-possession methods with a friendly scientist (Zia Mohyeddin) who just happens to live somewhere in the country close-by, owns many silver trophies and utilities to melt metal. In an especially pleasant development that helpful man is a Pakistani Englishman, not a joke, doesn’t have to die to prove how evil the bad guys are, and will turn out to be save-the-day-competent. Given his role, and how competent Lee is allowed to be once she’s not under alien control anymore, it’s pretty obvious this is a film that may love to indulge in silliness for silliness’ sake but that also has a clear idea of which parts of his 50s models just don’t cut it anymore in 1967.

When people – though too few of them do – talk about They Came‘s special effects, they unfailingly mention their quality to be comparable to contemporary Doctor Who (this was the time of the Second Doctor Patrick Troughton, if you’re not quite up on important historical dates). That’s an old chestnut when talking about British SF cinema, yet in this case it is indeed true. Consequently, the effects’ execution has more than just a whiff of cardboard and spit, but it also shares the other, more important part of the Doctor’s legacy, a decidedly British visual imagination that makes up for the unavoidable cheapness and threadbareness. My favourite set piece is the yellow and black striped elevator that sits right inside a typical British country home, exemplifying at once the loving absurdity and the Britishness (for wont of a better word) of the film’s production design. It’s the mix of the local and the strange that gets me every time.

What the Doctor generally didn’t have at the time (though the show did have some good ones) were directors quite like They Came‘s Freddie Francis. Francis, veteran that he was, was someone seemingly unable to not put real effort even into his cheapest and silliest films, and he works his magic here too, milking every possibility to turn the cheap yet creative sets and the landscape of the locations into a cheap pop art dream that feels saturated with colours even when the surroundings are rather brown more often than not, and that builds visual interest even from the smallest thing.

The movie’s pop art feel is even further strengthened by James Stevens’s score that belongs to the jazzy swinging kind you often find in Eurospy movies, though it has a peculiar habit to just fall into an unending series of drum rolls when Hutton punches people in the face.

The cheap pop art feel of, well, everything about They Came From Beyond Space is sign of a film made to treat the old-fashioned tropes of the 50s alien invasion movie with the sensibilities that produced the Eurospy movie. In a wonderful turn of event, Francis’s movie actually succeeds at that mission, for words like “groovy” and “awesome” come to my mind quite naturally when I think about it.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

Agon: Atomic Dragon

a.k.a. Maboroshi no Daikaiju Agon /
Giant Phantom Monster Agon
directed by
 Norio Mine & Fuminori Ohashi
1964 | Fuji TV | 24′ (4 episodes) 

Agon is a series consisting of four twenty-five minute episodes that make up two storylines that are distinctive enough in tone and substance to not treat the short series as a traditional four part mini series, but rather as an aborted attempt at a kaiju show.

In the series’ first half, atom bomb explosions awaken and mutate a prehistoric monster and hobby Godzilla impersonator soon to be dubbed Agon (that’s a Japanese English short form for “Atomic Dragon”). Agon has the munchies, so it soon attacks an important nuclear research facility that comes complete with its own nuclear reactor to get at all that tasty, tasty uranium. While its at it, Agon also causes a nuclear explosion, but thanks to this being the 60s, there are no repercussions to that at all.

Anyhoo, Professor of SCIENCE(!) Ukyo (Nobuhiko Shima), shaving-impaired cop Yamato (Asao Matsumoto), roving reporter Goro (Shinji Hirota) and professional professorial assistant Satsuki (Akemi Sawa) are taking on the case of the hungry kaiju. Well, actually, after an unsuccessful fight between Agon and library footage of the JDF, they just lure Agon back into the sea with more tasty morsels of uranium. The End.

Of course, Agon returns in the second storyline to walk into a plotline about two yakuza and a suitcase full of drugs that soon finds the still hungry monster walking around with a small fishing boat and a little boy in its mouth, while vaguely stomping on a small industrial town. Fortunately, our heroes contrive to poison Agon with the suitcase full of drugs, a fantastic plan that at least drives the monster back into the sea. The End again.

  
  

Agon surely is not one of the high points of kaiju film making, but at least the show has an interesting story behind it. I have to admit to certain doubts about that official story that explains why the Fuji TV series was only broadcast in 1968, four years after it was made. Officially, Toho complained that the film’s monster was resembling their very own Godzilla too closely, seemingly not knowing that the monster was designed by an apprentice of their very own Godzilla-creator Eiji Tsuburaya and the much superior first two episodes were written by the frequent Toho kaiju writer Shinichi Sekizawa. Supposedly, when Toho learned of that fact four years later, they suddenly had a change of heart and allowed Fuji TV to go ahead with the broadcasting.

I can’t say that story makes much sense to me, especially when we have the much easier explanation of the utter crapness of its last two episodes for Agon‘s absence from the screen. The Sekizawa episodes, both directed by Norio Mine (says Wikipedia), are actually pretty decent stuff as far as ultra-generic kaiju romps go. There’s nothing about it anyone hadn’t seen in the genre by 1968, but it’s decently enough paced, and rather cleverly written around the problems of a TV budget.

It also helps the series’ beginning’s case that Mine does some quite decent work, too, using clever editing and well-chosen camera angles to let the few extras he has look as much as panicking crowds as possible, and using shots of modernist buildings and models of modernist buildings to get the proper pop art city-smashing mood going even though he doesn’t actually have a city for his monster to smash. The slightly pop art-y mood is further enhanced by the strange sepia-toned black and white stock the series is shot on, which, I assume, is the best way to colour-code things when you can’t afford to actually colour-code your sets. Then there’s Wataru Saito’s strange little score that consists of some jazzy beats and a lot of weird synthesizer warbling that suggest a Japanese version of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop and really help to pull the first two episodes into the realm of the cheap yet formally interesting.

  
  

The special effects themselves are all over the place; there are some very fine model shots, but there are also horrible moments like the one where a very bad Agon doll just stands in a pool of water standing in for the monster appearing out of the sea: The Agon suit itself does look good enough from a certain angle, but there’s a lack of detail in its face and an immobility about its whole head – especially the eyes – that’s never convincing, but is survivable as long as Mine shoots around it.

Unfortunately, Fuminori Ohashi, the director of the final two episodes does not keep up with these minor aesthetic achievements at all. The director instead opts for a bland point and shoot style that seems ready-made to show off all the worst sides of the series’ effects work, with Agon walking around with a boat model crammed into its mouth for about twenty minutes being one of the most embarrassing – though of course really pretty funny – things I’ve ever seen in a kaiju picture; and I’ve watched all of the original Gamera movies by now. For some reason, Saito’s music isn’t put to any decent use at all anymore, either, warbling around ineffectively and utterly divorced from what’s going on on screen. It’s difficult to watch these final two episodes and not think nobody involved in the production actually gave a damn about what they were doing.

Apart from Agon’s boating trip, the so crap it’s funny part of the later episodes also includes long shots of the monster standing around not moving a muscle (one suspects the suit actor was on holiday), and one of the more undignified methods of getting rid of a kaiju I’ve ever had the dubious luck to witness. Don’t do drugs, giant monsters, okay?

The rapid decrease in quality is a bit sad, really, for while the script of the show’s first storyline doesn’t have an original bone in its body, its execution speaks of enthusiasm and creativity behind the camera, and it’s not difficult to imagine the show the first two episodes promise to be a lot of fun to watch.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

Hundra

directed by Matt Cimber
1983 | Continental Movie Productions | 109′ 

One day, while their best warrior Hundra (Laurene Landon) is away hunting, a generally peaceful village of amazons is attacked and eradicated by a band of ugly, hairy man riding under the sign of the bull. When all is over, a returning Hundra dispatches a horde of the aggressors in a drawn-out fight, but that still leaves her people quite dead.

Our heroine then makes her way to the only remaining elder of her kind, who for some inexplicable reason dwells among a horde of really rude little people. Though after hearing the sage’s glorious plan for the revivification of her people, I’m not surprised by anything about her, for she declares Hundra to now be solely responsible for the survival of the tribe. Our poor, bedraggled heroine shall go down to the land of the men praying to the bull, and get herself pregnant stat.

But Hundra’s first attempt at getting pregnant only teaches her one thing: she still has certain standards, and won’t tolerate the attentions of hairy, unwashed guys who’ll even turn consensual sex into rape. So, after showing off her wrestling skills and sneering at less feminist women (she’d get along well with certain Internet feminists), off she rides to what goes under the term of “city” in sword and sorcery land.

There she will get into trouble with the ruling cabal of religious male chauvinist pigs whose religion is orgies, meet a man who doesn’t stink and isn’t a jerk, learn the womanly arts, teach the warrior arts to her teacher of womanly arts, and be somewhat responsible for a death by sitting on a face.

  
  
  

Among the many, many films jumping on the bandwagon created by John Milius’s Conan the BarbarianHundra is one of the most unique in that it isn’t slavishly copying all of its predecessor’s story beats and aping its philosophy, but actually having a head of its own. Admittedly, Hundra‘s head just might be as much full of nonsense as it is of clever ideas, but I find it difficult to disagree with a film that is clearly having so much fun.

Still, having fun or not, Hundra is at times a film sending very mixed messages. Tonally, it’s just very inconsistent, with scenes of really unpleasant slow-motion violence like the destruction of Hundra’s village (ending – especially tasteful – with the rape of Hundra’s teenage-at-best sister) and sequences of Hundra romping through the city and kicking guards in the balls (one of her favourite fighting moves) standing in strange contrast to each other, quite as if half of the film were made by a low-rent Sam Peckinpah and the other half by the director of one of the later Terence Hill and Bud Spencer movies. I suspect part of this curious mixture is just director Matt Cimber (a man with a career so curious someone should write a book about him, he did Hundra and Pia-Zadorasploitation, after all) fulfilling his quota of exploitational values, just that in this film, violence towards women after the big village destruction usually leads to Hundra giving the respective prick a kick in the respective balls. It’s a bit like a woman in prison film where all the male bad guys are dispatched before the grand climax, and therefore don’t have enough time to get really sadistic.

At times, when it’s not spending its time having strange plot holes (so, the main bad guys are all about seeing Hundra tamed, but they somehow don’t realize when she’s pregnant?) or making jokes about Hundra’s cowardly male dog, Hundra actually becomes a somewhat clever inversion of the classic sword and sorcery tale, where the storyteller suddenly realizes that treating women like objects isn’t alright at all, and sends out a female version of Conan to sort things out with men. The film plays with a lot of traditional sword and sorcery elements this way, turning what begins like the usual tale of vengeance into the story of a woman who learns that a lot of men are indeed shits, but not all of them, and that consensual sex is a-okay if both partners want to have it. And in a really surprising turn of events, this does not lead to our heroine giving up on her curious destiny and only ever living for her man from then on, but just sees her psychologically better prepared for it. Of course, her male love interest here is just as bland as the female love interest in sword and sorcery movies with a male hero often is, so it’s not too much of a surprise she can leave him (at least for a time – the film actually is all about choice on that level).

These clever bits are surrounded by an Ennio-Morricone-scored shot in Spain series of fights, brawls and slow-motion attacks (with a bit of nudity), bad jokes, good jokes, male characters so vile I’m sure they don’t wash, and Spanish actors speaking English with heavy accents. It’s a bit of mess, really, but so much of the film is riding on a wave of fun, with a lead actress who may not be all that great at, well, acting, but sure seems to have as much of a blast in her slightly awkward action scenes as her character has. That sort of thing always goes a long way in turning awkward action scenes into loveable awkward action scenes. And once a film is like Hundra and mixes its loveable awkward action scenes with kinda sorta feminism that would make John Milius (and Robert E. Howard, for that matter) cry, there isn’t really anything anyone could do to remove it from the warm place it has found in my heart.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

Zemlya Sannikova

a.k.a. The Sannikov Land
directed by
 Albert S. Mkrtchyan and Leonid Popov
1973 | Mosfilm | 90′ 

During the later stages of the existence of tsarist Russia his – most probably revolutionary – politics have brought geographer Ilyin (Vladislav Dvorzhetsky) into exile in a town near the polar circle. Ilyin dreams of being the first man to set foot onto Sannikov Land, an area north of the polar ice that is green and fecund instead of icy and barren. Some pretty talk about gold that might be found there with the local evil (as he does of course not actually intend to share the gold with the geographer) capitalist earns Ilyin, who is clearly much less interested in gold than exploration as a goal in itself, the funding for an expedition into the white north.

The expedition isn’t exactly large: Ilyin, the local manly man/drunk/singer of horrible pop songs and fan of the Tsar Evgeniy Krestovskiy (Oleg Dal), and the capitalist’s beleaguered right-hand man and odious comic relief Ignatiy (Georgi Vitsin) – who also seems to stand in for the oppressed working classes from time to time – make up the whole of the expedition, until revolutionary and doctor Gubin (Yuri Nazarov) sneaks on board the ship carrying the trio northwards. Gubin has escaped from prison, and is initially planning to hijack the ship to sail to America, but since he and Ilyin just happen to be old friends, and Ilyin really is quite convincing in his ardour to reach Sannikov Land, he becomes part of the expedition and the trio turns into a quartet.

Once they have set foot on icy land, the expedition doesn’t go too well at first. The corpses of an earlier expedition also looking for Sannikov Land are something of a bad omen, and the Inuit our expedition has hired as guides while the camera wasn’t looking turn back halfway, taking the dog sleds of the expedition with them (note to self: if you ever go on a polar expedition, bring your own dogs and sleds).

Just when all seems lost and our heroes start with the infighting and the dying, they reach Sannikov Land. It turns out the place is a valley kept warm by volcanic activity (uh oh), and really as green and pleasant as Ilyin had hoped. It’s also populated by a tribe of phenotypically very diverse natives (from Caucasians in slight brown-face to a lot of Asians with blond and red wigs) called the Onkilon. While the Onkilon aren’t as threatening as their demeanour initially suggests, their chief does not want anyone in the outside world to learn of the existence of their home. He’s not a bad guy, though, for he is perfectly willing to provide the strangers with places among his tribe and (how romantic!) women of their own – as long as they never leave again.

This could be the beginning of a somewhat wonderful friendship (if one doesn’t mind the imprisonment and shotgun wedding aspect), but alas, the tribe’s shaman (Makhmud Esambayev in a performance somewhere between Iggy Pop and the worst Hollywood Indian you can imagine) has a different opinion. He sees that the strangers are threatening his power over the tribe and decides that he needs to get rid of them; and while he’s at it, he might get rid of that darn liberal chief for good measure.

  
  
  
  

Zemlya Sannikova is based on a novel in the Lost World mold by early Russian SF writer and man with a highly interesting life (just look at his Wikipedia page!) Vladimir Obruchev, and – as far as I can tell – is still something of a classic in the former Soviet Union. This is another indication (as if we needed more) that people at their core really are the same all over the world, political and cultural differences notwithstanding, for Zemlya Sannikova is exactly the sometimes cheesy, sometimes silly, sometimes awe-inspiringly beautiful kind of adventure movie people all over the world would love, featuring manly, bearded and morally upright heroes (except for the Tsarist, who just happens to be a bit of a prick), an insane shaman, various daring deeds, beautiful women in horrible clothing, and a basic idea that should make everyone’s inner twelve year old gleefully happy. Naturally, there are a few differences in the movie’s stereotypes when compared to western movies – the capitalist is evil in a slightly different way than capitalists in western movies are, for example. The film’s ideology too – the film ends on the heroes planning a rescue expedition for the threatened tribe instead of killing them all and taking their stuff, for Marx’s sake! – is a bit different than one is used to from other adventure movies, though I think this internationalist streak is rather refreshing. Still, below these surface differences waits the archetype of the adventure story.

Often, the film is very good at what it does: Zemlya Sannikova‘s early stages not only convey the romance and pathos the kind of expedition our heroes go on has, but also a subtle sense of melancholia that will return in the film’s final scenes; there’s something desperate and beautiful in the history of human exploration of the world, and the early parts of Zemlya Sannikova really want to make that clear. Of course, that feeling of melancholia (already broken by two really quite horrible pop songs early on) soon enough makes room for one of slight insanity once the focus shifts from the exploration to the natives. For while the film tries its hardest to talk about some serious themes when it comes to the Onkilon, its treatment of everything surrounding the tribe is deeply cheesy and silly. It’s not just the fact that these “natives” are dressed up in ridiculous wigs and costumes no actual human being would ever have worn in any kind of wilderness, nor just that their culture – as far as we see it – does not make the slightest bit of sense (we’re in full grown “they are big children, Jean-Jacques” territory here), nor is it the combination of these factors alone. Rather it’s that their treatment as being the ultimate naïfs seems even more naive than they themselves are supposed to be, as if the film’s only idea of how hunter and collector societies work came from Rousseau and Marx.

The latter gentleman truly comes in once we take a look at the film’s main bad guy, the shaman, who is clearly supposed to be an example of the destructive power of religion (opium of the people, etc) – more evil than capitalism! – as a way to control the minds of a people. Of course, I can’t say I disagree all that much with the film’s views of organized religion, it’s just that Zemlya Sannikova is simplifying a complex web of human wishes and desires until it turns into a ridiculous farce. That matter sure isn’t helped by Esambayev’s – a professional dancer who shows his talent in here in adorably ridiculous ways – hilarious performance. Even if one ignores the ideological aspect, it’s pretty difficult to take a villain seriously who spends as much time shimmying, wobbling, shaking, hip-swinging and doing the funky chicken while chewing scenery as Esambayev does. On the other hand, while the man’s performance might destroy any semblance of seriousness the film had until he appeared, he sure as hell is perfectly entertaining to watch.

Add to that elements like a soundtrack by Aleksandr Zatsepin that reaches from the (still horrible) pop songs to weird, moody synth noodling to Peter Thomas like psychedelic lounge electronica, or ideas like the marriage rites of the Onkilon (basically, they’re playing catch), and you have a film as strange as one could hope for. All the silliness (and the sad, scientifically correct absence of dinosaurs and monstrous animals every lost world is supposed to contain) and the many scenes that are just as cheesy as those in a comparable Hollywood adventure movie would be come together into something highly diverting, if not exactly the film I had expected going in.

Directors Albert S. Mkrtchyan (last seen here directing the excellent Priskosnoveniye) and Leonid Popov manage this strange mixture of the earnest, the bizarre, the dogmatic and the plain fun with aplomb, using – often impressively beautiful – nature shots as the best special effect of them all, and treat every aspect of the film with dignity, never mind if the aspect at hand actually deserves any dignity. It might be a cliché, but there’s just never a dull moment on screen in Zemlya Sannikova.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

POV – A Cursed Film

a.k.a. POV – norowareta firimu
directed by
 Norio Tsuruta

2012 / Toho Visual Entertainment / 92′
written by Norio Tsuruta
starring Haruna Kawaguchi, Mirai Shida

During the shoot of the low rent idol show of Mirai Shida (playing herself) with special guest Haruna Kawaguchi (playing herself too), something disturbing happens. The show’s gimmick of the week is to have the two teenagers watch ghost videos, but the videos that appear on screen aren’t the ones the director and the girl’s manager have vetted beforehand.

In fact, these videos contain much better footage than this sort of video usually does, and they all seem to be shot at Haruna’s former junior high school, which must be the most haunted school in Japan. Oh, and the videos continue playing when the DVD they are on isn’t actually in its laptop anymore. Haruna, who spent some time at her junior high hunting but never finding exactly the ghostly apparitions she now sees on screen, is convinced she is cursed, an idea that does not become weaker once the crew films the reflection of a female ghost in one of the studio windows.

Clearly, this situation affords a fine possibility for the show to hire the world’s most matter of fact psychic (who, we will learn, is psychic, not a mind reader) to help Haruna and finally get some really exciting footage. Alas, the psychic is sure that Haruna’s little ghost problem can only be solved inside of the junior high. Of course, once the film crew is inside the place, they’ll get to see more of ghosts than they asked for.

It looks like the found footage/POV horror sub-genre is suddenly somewhat hot again in Japan. This does not come as much of a surprise seeing as how ideally the genre is suited to low budgets, with footage that is generally supposed to look cheap, no need for complicated camera set-ups or sets, scripts that tend to the simple, and hordes of idols willing to act in everything being churned out by the Japanese entertainment machine. Somewhat surprisingly going by the standard of the POV genre in the USA and Europe, a lot of the newer Japanese POV films I have seen are actually decent or even better, with Koji Shiraishi’s Occult and this one being particular stand-outs that manage to fulfil all genre expectations yet also give the clichés they are working with small, effective twists.

POV and Occult invite some comparisons in other aspects than their respective quality, too. Both films are directed by men who have done good, sometimes great, work in the second row of Japanese horror directors. POV‘s Norio Tsuruta does not have anything quite as brilliant as Shiraishi’s Noroi or A Slit-Mouthed Woman in his filmography, but his films clearly show him to be someone who understands the horror genre and is intelligent enough to know that the point of making genre movies isn’t just giving people what they want from them but also surprising the audience with slight twists on and tweaks to a given formula.

POV is a perfect example of the latter. In its basic set-up, the film seems as generic as possible, with the usual non-characters going about their horror movie days, and the expected ghosts (though a lot more of them than you usually see in a film like this) doing the expected ghostly things. And what ‘s more generic than a middle part that mostly consists of people shaking their cameras, screaming, and running through a dark building? The film’s plot, however, is decidedly more clever than it at first appears, using the comfortably familiar spook show elements in service of something more sinister and more creepy, going into a semi-apocalyptic post-ending titles climax that is surprising and highly effective in its nature.

POV also one of the few films of its sub-genre that seems interested in using the discomfort the basics of Japanese idol culture can produce in a viewer who isn’t a total idiot, presenting the low rent entertainment biz in a subtly bad light, possibly even suggesting this sort of entertainment and its unspoken greed would be the perfect in-road for actual evil (or, ironically, that certain ghosts would see idol culture as a nice way to finally become famous).POV does not explore this aspect all that deeply (which is not coming as much of a surprise from a film that by necessity is itself a part of perhaps dubious, always looked down upon, circles of pop culture), but that does also mean it’s not getting preachy – and therefore annoyingly hypocritical – about it. It’s just an element that’s there to add more cultural resonance to the film.

Of course, all of POV‘s interesting subtext would be quite wasted if it did not also succeed at the bread and butter parts of a horror movie, the shocks, the moments of discomfort, and the all-purpose creepiness. Many of the film’s fright scenes are based on sometimes imaginative variations of pretty traditional Japanese ghosts and traditional POV horror shocks. About half of them tend to the more carnivalesque jump scare mode, and the grating on audience nerves by having the characters screech and shake their cameras, but there are also some exceedingly creepy scenes based on clever sound design, shadows, and my eternal favourite (that also turns a ghost story into something Weirder for me), scenes of time and space losing their usual consistence to threaten the characters. That last element is especially finely realized in the film’s first major climax, a scene I find too delightful/disturbing/effectively tense to spoil by describing it. Let’s just say it involves a disappearance, a camera, and a ghost moving towards the characters making rather disturbing noises (as Japanese ghosts are wont to, of course), and that it actually got to me.

Tsuruta – who also wrote the film – shows itself as a director very capable of using the more subtle parts of horror craft even in a context like POV horror that often doesn’t seem all that interested in them, with a real gift for pacing the suspense scenes beyond the usual running and screaming.

Thanks to him, POV is a surprisingly excellent piece of filmmaking.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

Wu Xia

a.k.a. Swordsman / The Dragon
directed by
 Peter Chan Hoh-San

2011 / We Pictures / 116′
written by Aubrey Lam Oi-Wa and Joyce Chan Ka-Yi
cinematography by Lai Yiu-Fai, Jake Pollock, and Yeung Jan-Yu
music by Comfort Chan Kwong-Wing, Peter Kam Pau-Tat, and Chatchai Pongprapaphan
starring Donnie Yen Ji-Dan, Kaneshiro Takeshi, Tang Wei, Zheng Wei, Li Jia-Min, Jimmy Wang Yu, Kara Hui Ying-Hung

China, 1917. Liu Jin-Xi (Donnie Yen) lives a peaceful life with his wife Ah Yu (Tang Wei), her son from a first marriage Liu Fang-Zheng (Zheng Wei) and their son Liu Xiao-Tian (Li Jia-Min) in a country town, working in a paper mill. Shadows of a different man Liu Jin-Xi once was begin to emerge when the two martial artist villains try to rob the mill.

Liu Xiao-Tian kills the men in what on first look seems like a series of exceedingly lucky accidents, making him the hero of the village. But Xu Bai-Jiu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), the detective investigating the villains’ death, has his doubts regarding Xiao-Tian. How, after all, should one hapless butcher’s son be able to “accidentally” kill two of the meanest martial artists around? Some of the physical evidence Xu Bai-Jiu finds tells a different story, too, and the detective is soon convinced Xiao-Tian must be a masterful martial artist and experienced killer who is just using this identity to hide himself from the law.

Even though Xiao-Tian must be a changed man from whoever he was before, Xu Bai-Jiu can’t help himself but go after him, sniffing and asking questions and even accommodating himself at Xiao-Tian’s place. Xu Bai-Jiu’s own past has him convinced that his natural tendency to compassion is a weakness before the spirit of the law that must be purged, so he treats his sense of empathy like the illness that keeps him unable to practice the martial arts; not surprisingly, he also doesn’t believe a man can ever truly change, so Xiao-Tian becomes an obsession and a riddle for him to solve.

Xu Bai-Jiu’s investigation has other consequences than those he intends, too, for once it has reached a certain point, the people that made Xiao-Tian the man he once was (Jimmy Wang Yu! Kara Hui!) learn where their old friend now is, and they very much want him back, not realizing that some men do in fact change.

 
 
 
 
 
 

Peter Chan Hoh-San’s Wu Xia is one those films from Hong Kong that makes me doubt the truth of the old-fartish refrain of “things in Hong Kong cinema are just so bad now” I and many other long-time fans of the city’s cinematic output have been singing for about a decade now, for how bad can a regional cinema truly be if it still can produce fantastic movies like this?

In time-honoured fashion, Wu Xia mixes elements of the mystery genre with elements of the wuxia (a real surprise given its title, surely), to form a meditation about the possibility of change in people, the usefulness of suppressing impulses, and even the old question about nature and nurture that may remind some of Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, just with the difference that Chan’s film – unlike that of the Canadian – is not a comedy. (To digress for a parenthesis, yes, I am that weird guy who really thinks Cronenberg’s film is not just a black comedy, but is also meant as one rather than as the bloody drama most viewers seem to see when watching it; I’ll only point at the nature of the sexual role-play between Mortensen and Bello as an obvious hint at that film’s true nature.)

Unlike Mortensen’s Tom Stall, though, Xiao-Tian isn’t only truly alive when he is a monster, and his family life with Ah Yu and the children never has the feeling of somebody going through trained motions without any actual emotions; Xiao-Tian may have only locked away the monstrous parts of himself, but what’s left is not an automaton, but an actual human being.

The movie’s first two thirds are in large parts about exploring its two male main characters (with Tang Wei getting a handful of scenes that flesh her out as a character more than I would have expected from a film with this set-up and structure – it sure helps how much the actress is able to express with just a few looks) as mirror images of each other: Xiao-Tian as a man who has locked away everything destructive and monstrous about himself to become a human being, and Xu Bai-Jiu who has locked away his most human traits – compassion and empathy – to become a better agent of the Law. The former is a man who will not use his martial arts abilities because they are so closely connected to his worst nature, the latter unable to use his because his best nature cost him his abilities. I can’t imagine what the Chinese censor thought about the film’s treatment of compassion and the Law, especially since the film treats Xu Bai-Jiu as being in the wrong with his priorities; it’s nice to still find Hong Kong films that dare to argue for humanist values being more important than the jackboot. Interestingly, the film also seems to express that it’s easier to suppress one’s worst impulses than one’s best. Of course, both of Wu Xia‘s main characters will have to accept parts of what they’ve kept closed up to become fully functional human beings, possibly even heroes.

I was a bit surprised by how well Donnie Yen is able to sell his character’s complexities. I do of course love the man and his generally motionless or scowling face, but he always has been a better martial arts actor than an actor, and this is a film that needs him to express himself outside of fight scenes quite a bit. Yen is still using more body language and posture than facial expression (though he has developed a surprisingly pleasant ability to smile over the years), but he is doing that very well, selling the inner changes his character goes through without having to talk about them.

The well handled philosophical discourse alone would be more than enough to recommendWu Xia, but there is so much more to love here: there are the fantastic fight scenes – of course choreographed by Yen – that dominate the film’s final third; Chan’s curious yet effective decision to treat Chinese village life of the early 20th century as a peculiar mixture of naturalism and bucolic idyll and still have martial arts be more than a little magical instead of “realistic”; the relatively small but important roles of Jimmy Wang Yu and Kara Hui who feature in the film’s two most intense fight scenes; the way the film uses Kaneshiro’s traditional Chinese science and medicine as the base for some CSI-inspired scenes and makes that work too without things becoming ridiculous; how Chan’s direction handles action, near-mythical dramatic family conflicts, human-level emotions and moments of peace with the same assured sense of rhythm and pacing as well as a deep understanding of their importance. In Wu Xia, it’s all good.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

Der Schwarze Abt

a.k.a. The Black Abbot
directed by
 Franz Josef Gottlieb

1963 / Rialto Film85′
written by Johannes Kai and Franz Josef Gottlieb
cinematography by Richard Angst and Rudolf Sandtner
music by Martin Böttcher
starring Joachim Fuchsberger, Grit Boettcher, Dieter Borsche, Charles Regnier, Eddi Arent, Klaus Kinski, Eva Ingeborg Scholz, Werner Peters

The new owner of the hunting cabin (whose inside looks more like that of a bungalow to me, but what do I know about hunting cabins) on the estate of Lord Chelford (Dieter Borsche) is knifed in the back by a man dressed up as the legendary Black Abbot. Said Abbot is supposed to protect a mythical gold treasure hidden in the ruins of an abbey on Chelford’s estate.

Scotland Yard sends Detective Puddler (Charles Regnier) and his comic relief assistant Horatio (Eddi Arent, of course) to deal with the problem by living in Chelford’s estate for a time, which seems eminently reasonable once you’ve gotten to know Chelford’s surroundings.

The Lord himself is clearly on the verge of some sort of breakdown, obsessing over finding the legendary treasure and charming his fiancée Leslie Gine (Grit Boettcher) with talk about “owning her”. Leslie, you see, is the sister of Chelford’s lawyer Arthur (Harry Wüstenhagen), who – as we will learn – is in the habit of selling his sister, a woman so pliable it’s difficult to imagine a better argument for feminism, off to the highest bidder to help with his betting debts. Early in the movie, the bookmakers Arthur is indebted to will all turn out to be one single person, Arthur’s office manager Fabian Gilder (Werner Peters). That villain will then proceed to blackmail the lawyer into selling his precious sister to him instead of Chelford. Gilder also would very much like to get his hands on the gold treasure and has planted a crook going under the delightful and totally believable nom de plum of Thomas Fortuna (Klaus “KINSKI!” Kinski) as a Butler with Chelford. Gilder also cooperates with Chelford’s former secretary Mary Wenner (Eva Ingeborg Schulz). Wenner promises to lead Gilder to the treasure if he only somehow manages to stop the engagement between Chelford and Leslie so that she can have the Lord – and especially his title – for herself.

Having a headache already? Then you won’t be pleased to hear of the existence of Dick Alford (Joachim Fuchsberger), Chelford’s cousin and financial administrator. Dick is doing his best to protect Chelford from any suspicion the police may have against him, but his loyalties are torn between Chelford and the fact that he is also romantically interested in Leslie – and his interest, Leslie actually reciprocates. But Dick has other secrets too, secrets that may not be quite as innocent; or are they?

Clearly, this volatile mix of interests and shady people can only lead to violence, madness, and KINSKI! skulking through abbey ruins.

  
  
  
  

Der Schwarze Abt is another one of the half dozen krimis (all adaptations of either Edgar – like this one – or Bryan Edgar Wallace) director Franz Josef Gottlieb made in 1963 and 1964 which suggest a talent that doesn’t show in anything the man directed before or after. If you told me these six films were made by Gottlieb’s secret twin, or a mysterious masked director using his name for equally mysterious reasons, I’d believe you at once. It’s a more satisfying, and obviously less boring, explanation than “he had a talent for this sort of film he never used before or after”.

In the film at hand, Gottlieb’s visual imagination doesn’t get quite as bizarre as in the later Das Phantom von Soho, but that’s mostly because he seems to have made the surprising choice of mirroring the slow increase of the plot’s derangement and complexity (or is it mere complicatedness?) in his visuals. So the film starts off slowly, with a lot of scenes of nasty people being nasty to each other that are shot flatly, staged simply, and are lit too brightly for my tastes in black and white films. But the more the plot increases in bizarrery and density, the stranger Gottlieb’s approach to the framing and staging of scenes becomes; the brightness is becoming less and less bright, the fog more artificial and the ruins ever more gothic and picturesque. Dialogue scenes that would have been filmed in a very standard manner in the film’s early parts are now filmed from behind the swinging pendulum of a clock, and Richard Angst’s camera becomes increasingly mobile. Despite their general visual superiority over other German post-war films (seeing as most German post-war films were absolutely allergic to anything that smelled of visual interest or elegance), this sort of ambitious set-up is uncommon even for the Wallace films, rather pointing towards the giallo, so I wouldn’t be surprised at all to hear it were explicitly Gottlieb’s films rather than those of Reinl or Vohrer that influenced that genre visually.

Der Schwarze Abt is very proto-gialloesque in other aspects too, with its concentration on nasty people being nasty to each other, a plot that’s even more complicated than usual for the krimi, and its relegating of the titular masked evil-doer to more of a normal murderer than the masked pulp super-villain of many of the other Wallace krimis. Often, the less pulpy Wallace adaptations are the less interesting to me too, but that’s only because many of the lesser films of the cycle seem to relegate the villains to the side lines only because they seem ashamed of those villains’ lurid pulpiness, exactly the part I find most enjoyable about them. Der Schwarze Abt just knows other places where it can also find that pulp feeling, namely in headache-inducing plot convolutions and some very well done melodramatics, and so decides to provide all the luridness and excitement its audience could ever wish for through them.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

The Black Door

directed by Kit Wong
2001 / NGK Film Production93′
written by Laurent Courtiaud and Julien Carbon
cinematography by Francois Reumont
music by Shane Koss and Christopher Rosa
starring Sergio Gallinaro, Staci Tara Moore, Kevin Blatch, John Hainsworth, Teri O’Sulivan and John Prowse

Steven (Sergio Gallinaro) is found covered with deep, peculiar lacerations all over his body after a nightly visit to an abandoned house. Following his wishes, his girlfriend Meg (Staci Tara Moore) calls in a friendly documentary crew to film what is happening to him. The doctors can find neither the cause of Steven’s wounds nor can they prevent his health from further deteriorating (might have something to do with seemingly no attempts being made to close or dress those wounds but hey, what do I understand of medicine?).

While Steven is on what is fastly becoming his death bed, the documentary crew and Meg are retracing the steps that led him into the old dark house. During his research into completely harmless economical history, Steven became fascinated by a man named Fuentes-Balsameda (Carlos Parra) who disappeared in 1932. His investigations finally led Steven to an old film reel that shows Balsameda’s death (and short-time resurrection) during a satanic ritual. That’s probably the point where most people would have stopped and dropped the film reel off at the next police station for them to sort it out, but Steven continued his investigation (and contacted the Vatican, of all things). He managed to get into contact with the only person connected to that ritual who did not die a violent death, a (as he will later turn out to be) creepy old man named Morgen (John Hainsworth). Morgen then lured Steven to the house where the young man was attacked by something.

Parallel to the documentary crew finding out about these occurrences, a perpetually pissed-off priest (Kevin Blatch) appears and tries to help Steven come through his paranormal encounter alive. Too bad he’s as ineffectual as a puppy.

The Black Door (a HK/Canadian co-production – I think – with a director from Hong Kong, screenwriters from France who predominantly worked in Hong Kong, and filmed in British Columbia) belongs to the post-Blair Witch era of POV horror, before the film law mandating all POV horror to be about people running through the woods went into effect.

The film’s construction as a documentary generally makes sense, and – as the filmmakers seemingly are supposed to be professionals – allows director Kit Wong to use rather more elaborate camera set-ups and to shoot scenes from angles from which you’re actually allowed to have a good view of what’s happening. Thanks to a script that is rather clever in this regard, Wong can also dip into other shooting styles for a few scenes. There’s the calm and mostly disturbingly unmoving camera in the 1932 ritual footage that gives the film’s strongest horror sequence an especially realistic feel. Then there’s Steven’s traditionally difficult to parse shots from his doomed expedition into the old, dark (he’s going in by night, just like the horror movie character he is) that actually manage to make long minutes of a guy mumbling and filming stuff in a dark house look rather tense.

  
  
  

Some of the “normal” documentary footage is also very strong, going for that documentary style where the camera lingers so closely on people’s most emotional moments the viewer – and of course the crew shooting – becomes something of a voyeur. In one of the small flashes of genius that make me love the film showing them, this aspect even becomes a plot point that is vaguely yet effectively connected with the way the film’s initial ceremony was worked, the camera – and therefore the audience watching what it films – becoming accomplices in the perpetuation of something quite dark.

Wong is really good at distracting a viewer from the deficiencies of a script that is full of great ideas, yet also seems awfully disinterested in real world logic even in situations where real world logic should apply. Still, thanks to Wong’s direction, it was no problem at all for me to believe in a world where people meet with someone they know to be involved in at least one ritual murder alone, in an empty house, by night, or where people learning about a ritual murder in the past contact the Vatican (probably their well-known ritual murder hotline 666-EXORCIST) instead of the police for most of the film’s running time.

Wong is able to keep a mood of high tension up through large parts of a film where not much is happening the audience doesn’t know will happen after its first thirty minutes or so are over, dropping little hints of further complexities and some quite horrifying details (if you don’t overlook them) that kept me watching with more attention as I usually have for scenes of people getting melodramatic in front of a camera.

And melodramatic people get, there’s no doubt about it, for the acting is of that slightly grating indie horror movie type where every line delivery seems slightly off, and where all outbreaks of larger emotions become scenery-chewing and mugging; especially Blatch and Hainsworth are guilty of the latter. Ironically, I feel that in The Black Door‘s particular case the slight to heavy wrongness of the acting actually enhances the film’s effect. The artificiality of the acting and the perfectly believable documentary style of its filmic surroundings rub against each other and produce a friction that makes the film a more uncomfortable experience. I also can’t help but notice that an acting style that emphasises the actors playing roles is a neat parallel to the fact that the characters they are playing are also unwillingly filling roles in the continuation of a decade old ceremony. Of course, I don’t believe the actors are doing this on purpose for one second. As a rule, I don’t think it’s important if effective elements of a work of art are included on purpose or by accident; it’s just important they are there.

The Black Door is one of those films where I can’t say at all if anyone other than me will get as much out of watching it as I have, for the things I took to most about the film (that friction and that feeling of wrongness) are also the things most dependent on a given viewer’s susceptibility for the very specific way a happy combination of creepy details and happy accidents creates a mood here. However, I can say it’s worth trying to watch the film to find out.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

The Scarlet Blade

a.k.a. The Crimson Blade
directed by
 John Gilling

1966 / Hammer Film Productions78′
written by John Gilling
cinematography by Jack Asher
music by Gary Hughs
starring June Thorburn, Jack Hedley, Oliver Reed, Lionel Jeffries, Michael Ripper, Harold Goldblatt, Duncan Lamont, Suzan Farmer

The English Civil War is in its last throes. The remaining Royalists, the Cavaliers who are pure as angels I’ll have you know, are fighting a guerrilla war trying to enable the former king Charles to escape from the – satanically evil wouldn’t you know – Roundheads.

Despite the Royalists’ best efforts the men of Colonel Judd (Lionel Jeffries) – officially a traitor to the royal cause himself – manage to capture the king. Now it’s only a matter of holding on to the arsehis former royal majesty until he can be transported to the tower, which is supposed to happen in a few weeks time.

Fortunately or un, a group of especially potent Royalist guerrillas (among them an especially scenery-hungry Michael Ripper in embarrassing brownface as “the gypsy Pablo”) led by Edward Beverley (Jack Hedley), calling himself “the Scarlet Blade” is operating in the area. These guerrillas are of course doing everything in their power to decimate the enemy troops in the area, and find a way to rescue the ex-king.

What Judd doesn’t know is that his daughter Claire (June Thorburn) has been helping Royalist refugees for quite some time, even though she isn’t exactly subtle about her loyalties; from there, it’s only a small step to involve herself in the conspiracy meant to save the king. Ironically, Judd’s right hand man, the deeply cynical Captain Sylvester (Oliver Reed) sees quite a bit more clearly what Claire is up to, but instead of denouncing her, blackmails himself into the Royalist conspiracy too. For Sylvester has fallen in love with Claire and has decided that the best way into a woman’s heart is threatening her with exposure and then helping her out with the things she’s afraid of being exposed for. He is a smooth ladies man, Sylvester is.

Alas for poor Sylvester, once Claire lays eyes on the prime middle-aged woodenness of Beverley, her heart is forever lost to him. Of course, being played be Oliver Reed in a very sneering mood, Beverley is not the kind of guy who takes these things on the chin, and again the cause of saving one mass-murdering asshole to replace another mass-murdering asshole with him is threatened by the vagaries of love.

The deeper I dive into the pool of non-horror movies Hammer Studios made parallel to their horror output, the more impressed I am by the non-horror movies’ general quality.

  
  
  
  

John Gilling’s The Scarlet Blade may not be the second coming of the historical adventure movie, seeing as it uses a period not often seen in this sort of film in a bit too shallow a manner, doing a bit more violence to actual history than seems necessary for the kind of film it is. It’s one thing to decide on one side of the English Civil War to be the moustache-twirling bad guys, but it’s quite another one to basically have the angels sing on the soundtrack whenever fucking Charles I., who deserves the word “tyrant” the film uses for Cromwell quite well too, appears on screen.

However, whenever the film decides to explore the more complex loyalties and motivations of its characters, and relegates actual history to the attractive background like most modern swashbucklers do for a reason (we’re a long way from Weyman, for better or worse), it becomes less annoying, and more believably human. In fact, the strained loyalties all of the film’s major characters except for its nominal hero Beverley have give the handful of scenes of actual physical violence much more poignancy than they otherwise would carry, and give the film’s melodramatic scenes quite a bit of power. Beverley, on the other hand, is and stays the sort of boring, wooden romantic lead you’ve come to expect from this sort of film (the times of Errol Flynn alas being over, too), a man whose moral certainty is not based on an ability to work through his doubts and fears, but on a lack of imagination and personality, which makes him pretty difficult to cheer for, even when he puts love before duty.

It doesn’t help our theoretical hero’s case that Jack Hedley’s performance is so neutral it sometimes becomes difficult to remember he’s there, nor that his main rivals for screen time are Lionel Jeffries and Oliver Reed, both doing their best to outdo each other in intensity, nor does it improve matters that the script doesn’t bother to give him much of interest to do.

June Thorburn’s character is quite interesting for an adventure movie of this period (and especially one from Hammer, who weren’t exactly front runners when it comes to active female leads) in that her character is actually allowed to have some agency as well as a backbone. In fact, Claire seems a much more heroic character than Beverley to me, because she actually understands the implications of what she is doing, and decides doing it despite of these implications because she thinks she is doing right. I just wish Thorburn were a little better at projecting the force of personality the script suggests her character to have; while she isn’t as lacking in screen presence as Hedley is, she’s never quite convincing enough, which is a bit of a shame.

Other reviews of The Scarlet Blade on the ‘net tend to come down hard on the action scenes. However, I don’t think that’s particularly fair. It’s true nothing Gilling presents here is truly spectacular, but the film’s emphasis lies more on its character-based melodrama of loyalties, with the action only meant to provide the story with enough spice to keep it moving. That, I think, the action does quite well.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

Occult

a.k.a. Okurato
directed by
 Koji Shiraishi

2009 / 110′
written by Koji Shiraishi
cinematography by Koji Shiraishi
starring Koji Shiraishi, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Peko Watanabe, Shinobu Kuribayashi, Akira Takatsuki, Takashi Nomura

Director Koji Shiraishi (in not the only moment of meta in the film played by Occult‘s very own director, writer, cinematographer and editor Koji Shiraishi; he actually has played himself now in so many of his movies we may see them as their own sub-genre) is shooting a documentary about a spree killing that happened a few years before at a picturesque tourist spot. During the course of the project, Shiraishi and his small crew interview survivors and bereaved, and stumble upon strange events surrounding these people. More than one of the victims had heard voices enticing them to the place of the massacre, and the bereaved have strange dreams of their loved ones; one of them even has a new photo of his dead girlfriend looking very much alive to show.

Shiraishi’s investigation into the matter soon centres on a man named Eno. The killer didn’t use his knife on Eno to kill him like his other victims, but carved strange symbols into his body, telling him that “now it’s your turn”. Eno clearly hasn’t been the same ever since. He’s barely surviving through temp work, spends his nights sleeping in manga cafes, and just doesn’t seem to be quite right in his head anymore. Eno insists that ever since the attack on his life, he’s been witnessing “miracles”: UFOs, objects in his surrounding moving on their own accord, that sort of thing. Oh, and he also hears a voice talking to him, though he doesn’t understand what it’s trying to tell him, or so he says. The only thing he is sure of is that the spree killing was some sort of ceremony to please a god, and – though he’s not really clear about it – Eno does seem to have ideas about a ceremony of his own.

Once Shiraishi has witnessed one of the poltergeist phenomena that are a daily occurrence to Eno, he and his team start researching the symbol. Turns out Eno’s attacker had the same symbol on his body as a birthmark. Shiraishi doesn’t realize yet that he himself has a connection to these symbols, but that will come to him soon enough, as well as the truth about the “ceremony” Eno plans.

 
 
 

With Noroi and A Slit-Mouthed Woman (aka Carved), Koji Shiraishi made two of my favourite Japanese horror movies of the post-2000 era. Both are films mixing modern and more traditional Japanese mythology with the horrors of contemporary life. What I have been able to see of Shiraishi’s last few films – which isn’t always easy, for neither English nor German language DVD labels seem to be much enamoured of his films – has been rather frustrating, culminating in the “girl group screeches forever” horror of Shirome, until now the last film of the director.

Occult was made two years earlier, and it shows the director in much better form, again using the fake documentary format that served him so well in Noroi and would later serve him so badly when filming the exciting ghost adventures of a Momoide Clover. For its first half hour or so the film feels a bit disjointed and silly, with Shiraishi seemingly hell-bent to squeeze in every paranormal phenomenon he can think of, from UFOs, to telekinesis to blobs on the camera. But once the film begins to concentrate on Eno and the things happening around him, it begins to make more sense, developing focus and even the sort of narrative drive you don’t usually get from the fake documentary format.

As already mentioned, Shiraishi is particularly good at mixing very Japanese feeling mythology (with hints of Lovecraft hanging in the background if you want to look at the film from a certain perspective) with very contemporary anxieties. The film does, after all, ask the question: “what if the cult-ish spree killers and suicide bombers were actually right and god is speaking to them?”, only to then take the whole thing further and ask if the god speaking to the spree killers is actually telling the truth about its own nature or why it wants what it wants from its servants. What if their god is malevolent?

 
 
 

Occult also does some equally clever things with the meta elements it introduces, going far beyond the cameos of great director Kiyoshi Kurosawa and mangaka Peko Watanabe as themselves – or in Kurosawa’s case as horror director and hobby archaeologist Kurosawa and in Watanabe’s case as mangaka and automatic writer Watanabe. There’s a really clever plot twist I don’t have the heart to spoil based on Shiraishi’s position as a character in his own film that demonstrates a clear eye for audience psychology, a sense of self-irony, and quite a degree of ruthlessness, and that really gave me the feeling of just having had the rug pulled from under my feet when it occurred. It also fits right in with the very quiet, and very dry sense of humour that’s also running through the film.

The only element of Occult that just does not work at all are its special effects. These are just plain atrocious, looking as if the effects budget had consisted of the spare change Shiraishi found in his trouser pockets, and really ruin at least one final moment that should have been supremely creepy but turns out to be rather hilarious in just the wrong way. If you want to be prepared, I have provided a screenshot of the moment in question. Fortunately, the film doesn’t need the effects to be convincing for most of its running time – its effect on a given viewer is much more based on its own intelligence working with the viewer’s imagination. Still, it would have been nice if someone had provided Shiraishi with the $500 he could have used to upgrade the effects from ridiculously bad to horrible.

The problem of its “special” effects notwithstanding, Occult is a film that should delight anyone interested in Japanese low budget horror with a brain. It’s a film well worth ignoring its effects, and digging up the fansubs to understand what’s going on in it.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.