Monday, December 30, 2013

The Haunting: Chainsawnukah Epilogue

The Haunting (1963)
Dir. Robert Wise
Written by Nelson Gidding
Starring Julie Harris, Clare Bloom, Richard Johnson, Russ Tamblyn

For the very last film of this Chainsawnukah season, I went with a classic: Robert Wise’s 1963 Black-and-white* masterpiece. It seems a fitting end to this season, since I began by discussing, in my exceedingly long and digressive take on THE AMERICAN SCREAM, what I perceive to be the great personal and psychological good that my love of horror has done me. THE HAUNTING is about psychology too, but it’s certainly a different take on the subject than I had, if not an out-and-out repudiation of my position. It’s about a haunted house, sure, but much more than that it’s about our relationship with our fears, and what happens when we face them and they overwhelm us before we can overcome them.

But hey, what do these characters have to be fearful of? Just because they’re staying in Hill House, the famed site of deadly accidents, suicides, and madness over the course of three generations, doesn’t mean there’s something evil going on here, right? If so, it wouldn’t make sense that a scientist named Dr. Markaway (Richard Johnson) would be conducting paranormal research of questionable scientific value while staying on-premise with a caustic lesbian psychic (Clare Bloom), a snarky rich kid (Russ Tamblyn, Dr. Jacoby from TWIN PEAKS!), and a repressed, unstable assistant named Eleanore (Julie Harris). I mean, that would just be silly.

Yeah, she looks like a good choice for this sort of high-stress work environment.
Fundamentally, the premise is almost identical to any number of similar films, for example BURNT OFFERINGS, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, or THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (this one was based on Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, for what it’s worth**.) There’s only so many different setups you can use to get a group of people into a haunted house in order to be menaced by its supernatural denizens, so I guess that’s not too surprising. The difference is in the kind of horror that Wise is trying to tease of of the concept: while other films (including the woeful 1999 remake) are interested in milking as many supernatural shenanigans and effects out of the concept as possible, Wise has his eye on something far more mysterious and troubling: the human brain.

See, maybe there are ghosts in Hill House (not Hell House) and maybe there aren’t. Certainly, some things seem mighty suspicious, for example the wooden door that bulges outwards like it was made of rubber. But Wise is from the Val Lewton school of horror (in fact, his first film CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE was made for Lewton) and he’s strongly invested in suggesting --not broadcasting-- the horror. Seeing a ghost is scary, but not nearly as scary as fearing there’s a ghost there that we can’t see. So the movie becomes a series of artful implications, a distorted glass through which we can see something is amiss, but can’t quite pin it down. And what’s more frightening than that? If you can identify your fear, you can take steps to protect yourself. But how can you fight what you don’t understand?***

The Scooby gang.

It’s not really ghosts or ghouls that are at the top of the worry list for our mousy protagonist Eleanore, however. She’s got a whole mess of personal issues to deal with, starting with the death of her invalid mother who she’s spent her whole life cloistered up in a small apartment caring for and maybe --just maybe-- resenting a little. She’s been living with her bitchy sister (Diane Clare, who I liked so much in PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES, what are the odds she’d be in this too?!) and seems completely adrift, unsure what to do with her life or even really how to live her own life, period. She’s possessed of a powerfully conflicted character, desperate to reclaim her own life but terrified and paralyzed by the vastness of the world which has suddenly opened up to her. She’s both claustrophobic and agorophobic.**** Dr. Markaway seems to think that her experiences with her mother will in some way help trigger the paranormal denizens of Hill House, but for her part she’s much more interested in Dr. Markaway than she is in any ghost. She’s likely never had another adult pay this sort of attention to her (even though Markaway is married and his interests appear to be purely professional) and consequently its emotional impact on her is enormous even though to him their interactions are quite mundane.

All this fear and hope and desire and confusion put Eleanore in a dangerous mental place. And Hill House is not the best place to be in that frame of mind, especially not when it’s being filmed by Robert Wise. The interiors are all oddly designed, no right angles anywhere, baroque decorations cluttering your view in every direction. It feels claustrophobic, chaotic, menacing. Wise almost never resorts to visually depicting unexplainable phenomena, but he doesn’t need to. His command of light, shadow, and texture make certain that whatever he’s showing, we’re afraid of what’s behind it. In one of the movie’s best sequences, he cuts back and forth between Eleanore’s face and a closeup of flowered wallpaper. And it’s terrifying.

A white-knuckle high-octane thrill ride!

The whole place is designed to cause anxiety and paranoia, but Eleanore seems particularly susceptible. And we know this because, in an unusual move for film, we can actually hear her inner monologue. Every painful question she asks, every time she tries to reassure herself, we hear her quavering voice echoing in her own head. It’s an odd device, but I think it ultimately works because we can relate to it. After all, we all have our own little inner monologue, don’t we? Hearing Eleanore makes her all the more vulnerable; she can’t even fool us with the thin veneer of bravado she tries to put up. We’re inside her head, aware of all her deepest fears, aware of all the thoughts and wild terrors that torment her every minute of  the day. And as things get more and more frightening, we can see the dangerous turn her mind is taking.

This is obviously a great movie, but you know that already. So what I’d really like to talk about is her fear, and the way it takes her already fragile mental state and warps it, gradually turns it in on itself until she disappears into it. When I started this season, I talked about how being afraid and then being forced to face my fears as a youngster started me down the long and happy road to being a horror fan. I talked about how living with the fears and embracing them and making them a part of myself helped make me a smarter, healthier, and -- I believe -- better person.

But that’s not what happens to poor Eleanore. The fear doesn’t reveal itself as easily to her; she can’t or won’t come to terms with her anxieties and the reasons behind them. They stay, like the house itself, mysterious and undefined, for all the world like ghosts in her head. She feels constantly under assault from invisible, unknowable forces, deathly afraid of losing the paltry autonomy that has just recently entered her life. And each fear seems to trigger a flood of other apprehensions until she can barely stay afloat in the roiling, ever-rising tide of generalized terror.

Trust me, there's an upside.

I mention all this, because one of my main fears these days has to do with fear itself. I look out into the world everyday and I see an awful lot of scared people. Just like Eleanore, their fears are vague and undefined, but all consuming. They’re struggling, just like she is, to try to stay afloat in a world which sometimes seems to be sinking very fast; just like her, they’re wildly unprepared to be dropped into a world without support, without direction, but with just enough nagging, desperate hope to try and fight for. They too seem to hear ghostly voices; invisible threats always menacing from just beneath the surface.

And certainly, the world is not without it’s real dangers, just as Hill House exhibits plenty of classic horror movie tells that it is indeed haunted. There will always be things to fear, threatening things which we don’t understand and can’t control. But no ghost lays a hand on Eleanore. It’s her fear of them that slowly pushes her to hysterical, paranoid reactions, and in the end it’s her own actions that lead to her undoing. And in truth, that’s what I see when I look out across America’s cultural landscape. Lots of scared people, people who feel vulnerable and beset by powerful malevolent forces beyond their control. People whipped into a frenzied panic by the whispering cultural voices always echoing from somewhere far away on the other side of the TV screen, like malicious spirits haunting society at large. The more frightened they get, the more they react out of anger and paranoia, and the less they think (or worse, the more warped and self-confirming their thinking becomes). And in turn, we get a society which lurches from one mostly-imagined panic to another, lashing out violently and randomly sometimes in a mad, headless effort to flee from the spectres and phantoms that lurk behind that mundane wallpaper.

The fact is, unless you live in Syria or somewhere, you’re living in the safest world anyone has ever inhabited -- ever. So why are we so scared? Like Eleanore, we feel out of control. The world has gotten so much bigger and more complex, and our ability to feel in control of it hasn’t caught up with the ever-expanding world of possibility. Even as we’ve become ever more able to shape our lives and environment as we see fit, our understanding and awareness of the vastness of the world has grown so much faster. Like THE HAUNTING, we’re at the precipice of a new world, thunderously shocking in its vastness and mysteriousness. The potential gains to be had in such a world are staggering, and the potential for loss even more so. And to add to that, though we’re wealthy beyond our ancestors' wildest dreams, our splintered economy has pushed so many people closer to the edge than ever before, precariously balanced on the precipice of a plunge that would land them on the forgotten side of a culture roaring by them. And then, the ghosts: terrorism, banking debacles, self-serving politicians, suspicious strangers all around. Theft, infidelity, pedophiles, holocaust deniers, cheats, liars, thieves, violent brutality nuclear war global dimming religious zealotry animal cruelty addiction heart disease death depression sexual dysfunction the water bill the West Bank and more TRANSFORMERS films. Always whispering from behind that wallpaper at us, interrupting our frantic inner monologue, brushing against our ears in the dark. Egged on by those bodiless spirits behind the computer screen or the twitter handle or the newscaster’s haircut. Real fears, genuine fears, but implacable, hidden, lying in wait. Filling the dark places of our minds with the shadows of what they could be, while craftily hiding their real shape in the chaos of the screeching hurricane of general anxieties. Just like the ghosts of Hill House, these are the shadows of the past, jealously trying to take the present for themselves, too.

Bill O'Reilly said what!?

Well, I love horror, and I love a movie that can scare me. Hell, I watched 55 of them in October, finding at least something entertaining in every one. But you know, I’m not scared much anymore. It’s not that I don’t acknowledge that the world is full of genuine things which could hurt me or the people I love. Rather, as someone who used to spend much of my time in the company of fear, I know the terrible burden it forces you to carry. Bad things can and will happen; I’ll do my best within reason and within the boundaries of the rich life I hope to live to protect myself and the people I love, and beyond that I’ll simply have to deal with anything that comes up as it happens. But I refuse to be burdened by the great tyranny of the unknowable. I’m as helpless against the dangers of the world as anyone, and a good deal more vulnerable than some. But I have control over my own mind, and I can decide who I want dominating the conversation in there. We’re all afraid, all vulnerable; it’s the human condition. And we all sometimes feel like Eleanore does, that we’re at the center of some kind of malicious and intangible conspiracy to push us until we crack. The trick is to be solid enough within yourself to withstand the furies of the world, both real and imagined, and come out whole.

Eleanore can’t do that, but I hope that I can. And I think the reason I might has a lot to do with why I ended up writing about horror movies to begin with: the more you understand about yourself and the world, the less terrifying it becomes. A world full of vague shadows is endlessly terrifying because you’re powerless against them. But a world full of real but concrete dangers is one which you can practically and productively  take reasonable precautions for, and then get back to the business of living in. And it’s not enough to merely learn about the world; you’ve also got to learn about those ultimate arbiters of this world: your own senses, your own soul, your own mind. That’s where the horror movies come in. Horror isn’t, in my view, about wallowing in misery or macabre subjects; it’s about exploring what they mean to us, how we relate to them, how they manage to sometimes get the best of us. People who spend their lives avoiding these things simply don’t have any experience dealing with their own reaction to the darker side of life; it’s liable to push them in bizarre and extreme ways, as we see with Eleanore, or Fox News. But those of us who have made it part of their life’s pleasures to explore the world of the phantasmic nocturne... well, we know where we stand with it. And we know that while it may always be there, whispering from behind those menacing angles and banal wallpaper… that’s all it can do. We’re all permanent residents of Hill House, but what we make of it says more about us than it does about the dead.

That’s it, that’s all I got. Happy Chainsawnukah/ New Years (sorry, next year I swear I’ll get some of these reviews under 10,000 words and hopefully wrap up a little sooner), and may Chainsawnta Claus bless us (with more HELLRAISER sequels), everyone!

*In fact, Wise’s contract with MGM specifically limited the film to being made in black and white; when Ted Turner tried to colorize it later for TCM, Wise successfully prevented him from doing so by pointing to the original contract.

** Leaving “The Hill with a House that was Haunted” as the only remaining variation on the name

*** Unless you’re a evolution denier, then you fight using lawyers.

****By the way, poor actress Julie Harris was going through severe depression during the movie's filming, and I bet having to spend a lot of time in this bizarre, unnerving house set didn't help. I suspect a lot of the crushing vulnerability she projects here derives from that.

Talk about playing all the angles.


  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: Yes, from Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting of Hill House. Not be to confused with THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, or THE HAUNTING OF HOBBIT HOUSE (coming soon from director Peter Jackson in eyeball-punishing 48 frames for 30 or so hours).
  • SEQUEL: No, but ripped off by basically everyone ever.
  • REMAKE: In 1999 director Jan de Bont thought this would work better with a bunch of cheesy 90's CGI and Owen Wilson. History will vindicate him.
  • BOOBIES: Nope, you get some strongly implied lesbianism, though.
  • CURSES: It's suggested the house itself is cursed, but they're never explicit about it.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Low. Well-remembered classic.
  • ALEX MADE IT THROUGH AWAKE: No. But remember, this is movie 55, people.
Like THE SHINING, this one should get a hypothetical 6th hook for being an unambiguous classic. But I can't find a happier picture of Pinhead, so just try to imagine it.
Women talk to each other quite a bit here, about a variety of topics.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Plague of the Zombies

The Plague of the Zombies (1966)
Dir. John Gilling
Written by Peter Bryan
Starring Andre Morell, Diane Clare, Brook Williams, John Carson

The year is 1966. It’s been almost a decade since the success of THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and HORROR OF DRACULA ushered in the golden age of Hammer horror. Since then, they’ve tried werewolves, mummies, reptiles, abominable snowmen, hounds of Baskervilles, gorgons, witches, phantoms of operas, lost civilizations, women, and many, many sequels. That it took them this long to get to zombies is in itself telling about the time and place; NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is still two years away, and hence zombies are still a minor gimmick from a handful of racist voodoo horror movies from the 30’s and 40’s (WHITE ZOMBIE, KING OF THE ZOMBIES, etc). Hammer got to zombies only after covering pretty much all the familiar Universal Monsters several times over and adapting any potential literary horror classic they could get their hands on.

The result is that this is pretty much the last of the voodoo zombie films, before the very term would get (unintentionally) redefined by George Romero in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and become the ubiquitous bore it remains to this day. Yes, it’s hard to imagine, but once upon a time zombie films were not only referring to a particular religion and region, but were in fact fairly rare. There had been around 20 zombie films* in the 30 years prior to PLAGUE (since WHITE ZOMBIE’s premiere in 1932). By contrast, there were 16 zombie films in 2011 alone. So it’s actually kind of refreshing to see what Hammer was doing with this genre before it became the unimaginative parade of cliche that currently clutters up the DTV horror market.

Fortunately for voodoo zombie aficionados, this last gasp of the subgenre is a worthy capstone, eliminating some problems which, ah, plagued earlier entries in this subset of films and --more importantly-- simply working as a prime example of everything a tightly crafted, highly entertaining Hammer film ought to be.   

Before they wanted BRAAAAAAIIIINNNS, Zombies frequently provided transportation means for beautiful comatose women.

The story revolves around the redoubtable physician Sir James Forbes (Andre Morell, Watson in Hammer’s HOUNDS OF THE BASKERVILLES) who sports an impeccably manicured mustache and the kind of precision-guided witty indifference that only a level 10 Englishman would be able to muster. Forbes receives a letter from a former pupil (Brook Williams) a novice doctor who is struggling against a mysterious ailment in an isolated rural village, compelling Forbes and his spritely daughter (Diane Clare, THE HAUNTING) to come to his aide. When they arrive, however, it becomes quickly clear that something beyond a mere epidemic is afoot here. And we the audience already have a strong suspicion it may have something to do with the sinister masked figures we’ve seen conducting murderous ceremonies in the title sequence. Maybe not, though, who knows, could be anything.

PLAGUE succeeds over other Hammer films of this period (lookin at you, EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN) by getting the basics right. It’s a simple, complete narrative story with likeable characters that moves along at a good pace and makes certain to throw a memorable set piece in every ten minutes or so for punctuation. Director John Gilling (a veteran of more than 35 films by that point, this being his first Hammer collaboration) isn’t as interested in moody atmosphere as some Hammer directors, but evokes Terence Fisher’s work on THE DEVIL RIDES OUT in his commitment to entertain. There’s pretty much always something interesting and menacing happening here, helped along by the uniformly charming cast (how often does that happen in this kinda movie?)

Sir Forbes bemoans the indignity of having to save the day.

The zombie material itself is probably a little tame by today’s standards (almost no gore) but that’s OK because the design is good and the film makes a real effort at crafting eerie, unsettling zombie sequences that make the most of them. But remember, this is a voodoo zombie movie, so the zombies are just henchmen, under the thrall of a voodoo master. And fortunately, Gilling and company excel at creating a charismatic, satisfyingly hateable antagonist with a genuinely unique evil plan and a superlative visual style. The masks that he and his dastardly polo-playing henchmen wear are the movie’s signature horror icon, and frankly they’re so great that I can’t imagine why they haven’t been ripped off a million times by now. Stylized masks are one of my favorite horror tropes, and these are definitely some of the best I’ve seen in awhile, creepy and ominous without being overly representational.

Not a guy you'd want to meet in a dark ally, which is exactly what happens in this scene. Still, I bet those horns really help his radio reception.

But wait, Voodoo master? That sounds uncomfortably close to all those racist 40’s movies where decent, God-fearing white people get to be menaced by malicious, godless “other” cultures. Not to worry, this is 1966 England, they knew that shit wasn’t gonna fly anymore, so they solved the problem by removing all black people whatsoever. There’s like two black guys seen playing drums in the villain’s house (maybe they’re zombies, too?) but otherwise everyone is white and the villain is condemned for his actions, not his religious practices. So as long as you’re OK with a total whitewash of the entire concept, you don’t have to feel like a bigot for enjoying this one. In fact, without spoiling anything, it almost delivers on my challenge to make a non-racist zombie-master film which works as an analogy to capitalist exploitation of labor (see first footnote). I rather doubt that Gilling and company had any specific socio-political allegory in mind, but the concept of a rich Englishman subverting African religious practices explicitly to create an army of slaves seems rife with subtext.** Hopefully someone in Hollywood will someday take a cue from this one and make a modern interpretation of the Voodoo Zombie myth with some slightly more explicit political undertones. But even if not, at least PLAGUE amply demonstrates the strength of this particular horror conceit, while gracefully shedding a lot of the unpleasant baggage from its early iterations.

The disgruntled dead.

The point here is that this isn’t just a good genre movie, it’s by a large margin the most enjoyable Hammer film I watched all year. It’s full of great sequences --like the one where Forbes and his pupil check on a recently buried corpse only to find that things are already considerably worse than they imagined-- but the real surprise here is how endearing the characters are. Morell is a hoot as the upper-crusty doctor who finds this adventure to be a rather trying bore (but who isn’t above beheading a zombie with a shovel should it become inescapably necessary) and John Carson gives him a good foil as an aristocratic fiend so smooth you almost believe him when he protests that he’s been unfairly maligned. But my personal favorite is Diane Clare as one of the only memorable female Hammer characters that I’m aware of. Her character has all the cliches you might expect from this sort of setup (including ending up as the damsel-in-distress) but Clare has such a natural ebullience about her that the character still manages to seem confident and self-actualized even if she never has a swordfight or walks away from a huge explosion without looking back or is played by Angelina Jolie. Obviously I’m all for badass women characters who show up the men at their own game, but I like this sort of female character too; even though she’s perfectly in sync with the gender stereotypes of the time, she’s way too smart and vivacious to ever be a simple object. She’s a full character and a likeable one at that, which in some ways is just as feminist as being a starship captain or something. Good on her. Unfortunately like poor Alex Datcher in BODY BAGS it doesn’t seem like Clare went on to much else and retired from acting two years after this movie came out.

Certified badass.

As evidenced by it’s gender roles, PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES does have a faint sense of datedness to it. Otherwise, though, it’s a thoroughly rousing experience and a great example of the good things that could happen when Hammer made an effort to get the fundamentals right. Snappy dialogue, good characterization, excellent monster designs, slight but effective atmospheric impulses, energetic pace, gothic sets, a tense but trippy dream sequence, some iconic images, and a suitably exciting climax. If there’s a reason it seems unfairly forgotten today, it may be that the lack of Hammer luminaries like Cushing and Lee may have worked against it, giving people the false impression this was an also-ran cash grab. Far from it. This is one of Hammer’s best works, and if that wasn’t enough on it’s own, it’s also a fascinating historical oddity, a window into a particular time in horror filmmaking. The last groan of the pre-Romero zombie film.

*Wikipedia’s “List of Zombie movies” cites 23 titles, there may be more but the list also includes some questionable entries like Vincent Price’s THE LAST MAN ON EARTH or INVISIBLE INVADERS, where the dead bodies are possessed by aliens. Not sure that counts.

** On an unrelated note, I always kind of wonder what strongly religious people must think about movies like this, where Voodoo is clearly shown to work and yet Christianity seems curiously unable to mount any kind of defense. Isn’t this pretty much demonstrating that Voodoo is the correct religion? I mean, if Christianity was true and there really was only one God whose will appears in the Bible, other religions wouldn’t be able to produce this kind of result, right? So de facto, this movie demonstrates that, at the very least, Christianity is fundamentally wrong, if not that Voodoo is demonstrably right. Don’t religious folks realize that merely by buying into the film’s central conceit, you’re essentially discrediting the Abrahamic religions? Maybe they don’t think about it much or figure it’s the devil’s work or something. Anyway, I digress.


  • SEQUEL: No
  • REMAKE: Not yet
  • MORE (PETER) CUSHING FOR THE PUSHING? No, he was doing the interesting-sounding ISLAND OF TERROR with Terence Fisher and playing Doctor Who in the awkwardly named DALEKS - INVASION EARTH: 2150 AD. The previous year he did THE SKULL, and SHE, so yeah, the guy's schedule was pretty full.
  • DECAPITATIONS OR DE-LIMBING: One decapitation, but it's off-screen
  • ENTRAILS? No, unusual for zombie movies today but not expected at this time.
  • CULTISTS: Yeah, I think it's safe to say these guys have some kind of creepy cult and are not accurate representations of mainstream Voodoo.
  • ZOMBIES: Yessir, right there in the title.
  • CURSES: No
  • (UNCANNY) VALLEY OF THE DOLLS? Voodoo Dolls do figure prominently.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Alas, fairly high. Deserves to be better-remembered.

Thursday, December 12, 2013


Seance (2000) aka Korei
Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Written by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Tetsuya Onishi
Starring Koji Yakusho, Jun Fubuki, Kitaro

A struggling husband and wife in modern Japan think they’re in luck when they randomly come across a kidnapped girl. See, Wifey can’t hold down a normal job because of her strong psychic abilities, and this is a chance to build the business by stringing the cops along and making their “discovery” of the girl seem like irrefutable evidence of her psychic ability. Things go awry, though, and soon the couple finds themselves trying to cover up their earlier efforts and avoid suspicion of kidnapping.

About halfway through watching this characteristically moody, minimalist thriller from CURE and KAIRO director Kiyoshi “Not Akira” Kurosawa, I suddenly realized it must be a remake of the Richard Attenborough/Kim Stanley British psychological horror classic SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON. I didn’t notice it in the credits, but indeed, it’s apparently adapted from the same novel by Mark McShane, though this time with a distinctly Japanese flavor and one major deviation for the plot of the original: The wife, Junco (Jun Fubuki), actually is really psychic in this one.

This meaningfully changes the dynamic of the couple; in the original version (which I’m now regretting not reviewing here) the crux of the horror is on the fact that the wife is a fake -- she has no real powers, but her forceful personality has pushed her husband into implementing her crazy scheme and even covering for her slipping sanity. It’s a horror film about what we can be pushed into by people smarter and bossier than us, and the lies that we have to tell in order to convince ourselves we’re still good people. Kurosawa’s version isn’t really like that, though; we see several supernatural encounters from Junco’s perspective and have no reason at all to believe she’s anything other than completely forthright about her abilities. But they’re much more of a curse than a gift; they interfere with everyday things and prevent her from living a normal life, so you can understand her desperation to seize this unique opportunity to have the world take her seriously. And since it’s random happenstance rather than malice that puts the girl into their hands, the couple is a lot more sympathetic than their British counterparts were.

Quantum physics ruins yet another round of speed-dating

More sympathetic, but also in a way more mysterious. The point of the original film was the drama between the two characters and their conflicting desires. In typical Kurosawa fashion, the husband and wife team this time around are almost completely opaque in their introverted inner pain. It’s hard to really get a fix on them, to understand what exactly pushes them to do something which is ultimately pretty unforgivable. They seem worn out, hollow shells walking around trying to mimic life but spending more and more time with ghosts than with humans (the wife, through her psychic conjuring and the husband, --less literally-- through the recordings from his job as a sound engineer). I sort of think that the caper with the kidnapping victim may be their last bid to rejoin humanity somehow; to connect with the world more meaningfully. But it doesn’t work out too well, if I may be so bold.

Like most of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s films, this one thrives on a minimalistic dread that slowly permeates everything. There aren’t too many straight-up scare scenes, it’s mostly slow and quiet and filled with despair rather than crushing tension. The randomness of the circumstances by which they end up with the little girl diffuses the tension of planning and carrying out a crime (heck, the original is almost a heist movie!) but also makes it feel like the noose is inexorably closing on them, like the hand of fate has suddenly and inexplicably turned against them and there’s nothing they can do to understand --let alone mitigate-- their impending doom. This is a movie about the doomed, and as such, it’s maybe even more dismal than Kurosawa’s usual fare: it’s a murky, misty, dark world that these character inhabit, filled with dilapidated wrecks and muddy menace. They’re at the mercy of this dark world, and the one choice they are even able to make will lead them to their destruction. I’ve read it argued that this film is some sort of metaphor for Japanese millennial economic malaise; I don’t really know anything about that, but it would definitely make sense as these two empty, broken people find themselves turning unexpectedly brutal in response to the arbitrary cruelties life has dealt them.

Although most of the film is intentionally shot obsessively low-key, occasionally elements of green (which just explode out of the screen here) take over and turn the experience almost psychadelic. 

You gotta be impressed that Kurosawa would take the premise of an already-excellent, highly respected film and using only minor plot changes turn the whole thing on its head. In a lot of ways, the structure of this remake is remarkably similar to the original, but the end result fills your head with an entirely different set of question. Whereas the Attenborough version* is a masterfully tense game of power dynamics, Kurosawa’ version is bleak and obsessed with the randomly indifference of a cruel universe. And it’s even worse, because in Kurosawa’s film we don’t even have the comfort of a materialist universe to retreat to; it’s a world of malevolent supernatural entities who are beyond our understanding even while we are decidedly not beyond their reach. And to add insult to injury, it may not even be real. When a Shinto priest (summoned to conduct an exorcism) is asked about Hell, he responds only that Hell exists if you believe it does. It sure seems like fate stacked the deck against these two poor souls, but maybe the problem is that they invited it to, that they believed they were screwed enough to actively screw up their own lives.

If I’m making it sound depressing, well it is. Still, it’s not exactly misery porn, either; it’s moody and completely engrossing, enhanced by Kurosawa’s reliably masterful direction. If possible, he’s probably even more restrained here than he is in CURE, cultivating something with a very naturalistic feel in spite of its supernatural undercurrents. Apparently this was a TV movie, which is another good reminder that the Japanese are completely and utterly insane. It’s hard to imagine something so dark and captivating being interrupted by commercials for game shows where the contestants are stung by scorpions or whatever. Although I must admit, it might make the film’s subtext about both the arbitrary brutality of the universe and our implicit complicity in it feel a whole lot more applicable. Anyway, there’s not a moment here that doesn’t have the clear fingerprints of a masterful filmmaker. Fate may be cruel and arbitrary, but every once in awhile the remake gods throw us a bone.

*Directed by Bryan Forbes, of STEPFORD WIVES fame(?).


  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: Yes, of Mark McShane's book Seance on a Wet Afternoon.
  • SEQUEL: No
  • REMAKE: Yes, more or less; there's a 1964 version with Richard Attenborough.
  • CURSES: No
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Fairly high, TV movie, quite hard to get hands on over in the US.