Friday, November 29, 2013

The Signal



The Signal (2007)
Dir. and written by Jacob Bruckner, Dan Bush, Jacob Gentry
Starring Anessa Ramsey, Sahr Ngoujah, A. J. Bowen, Justin Welborn




A signal which drives people insane is transmitted through a TV broadcast, plunging the world into chaos in this episodic apocalypse. That’s a good premise, and directors Bruckner (the first section of V/H/S) Bush (uh...THE SIGNAL) and Gentry (something called LAST GOODBYE which apparently has Faye Dunnaway and David Carradine in it) up the ante by breaking the story of what happens to the various affected characters into three sections, each with a different director and a different tone.


It’s a fun concept, but it’s thankfully not too pronounced, because the basic idea here is fun enough to work on it’s own without some anthology gimmick to muddy the waters. Basically, Mya (Anessa Ramsey) returns from a tryst with her secret lover Ben (Justin Welborn) to find that the world has seemingly gone insane. People are acting violent and crazy, including (especially) her asshole husband Lewis (A. J. Bowen, YOU’RE NEXT, HOUSE OF THE DEVIL). People start getting brutally murdered pretty much right away. While this is not very faithful to the beloved Shel Silverstein poem “If the World was Crazy,” it does create some pretty good horror moments. But things get interesting because remember, only people who saw the broadcast are crazy, so there are also sane people running around who merely seem crazy because the world has turned upside-down. Is the guy with the dozens of knives duct-taped to a baseball bat crazy, or is this a perfectly sane reaction to a crazy world? It’s a fun dynamic, especially when you add the extra Catch-22 that if you have gone crazy, you’re not gonna know it. That guy battering someone to death with a fire extinguisher? It makes perfect sense to him, and he can calmly explain to you why the demons had to be driven out with a force of healing, and get annoyed that you don’t find that an acceptable explanation.

Idiot box.

The first part (directed by Bruckner) is the most horror-driven, as it presents us with Mya’s perspective, stumbling upon the bloodbath of psychos and trying to figure out what to do. It’s strong enough on it’s own that it’s almost a shame that the whole movie isn’t like it; there’s a powerful sense of panic and chaos on a wide scale, even though the movie’s scope is quite limited when you stop to think about it. It’s one of the best depictions of the apocalypse I’ve seen, but the movie has other tricks up it’s sleeve, and that’s OK too. The second part (directed by Gentry) shifts to the perspective of jilted husband Lewis, clearly afflicted by “the crazy” but successfully convincing other afflicted people that both he and they are sane. While the film began with a fairly straightforward depiction, this section skews surreal, a prickly but darkly hilarious comedy of violent non-sequiturs, as the various insane people bounce off each other and try, futilely, to figure out what’s going on and what to do. Finally, the last section --and probably the least memorable, though perfectly competent--(directed by Bush) deals with Ben’s efforts to find the missing Mya. Since there’s no one else around, we can’t be sure if he’s afflicted or not, and the film offers some obligatory but enjoyable ambiguous metaphysical questions on it’s way to a final showdown.

Baseball is way more intense in the apocalypse.


The acting is pretty great across the board, way better than you can usually expect from something like this, but the movie’s secret weapon is A. J. Bowen as Lewis. I usually see the guy in nerdy loser roles, for example in YOU’RE NEXT, but he’s amazingly intimidating here, as a guy who was always an asshole but who now doesn’t have any pesky sanity to stand in the way of his more destructive side. Even so, as the segment told from his perspective makes clear, being a crazy killer isn’t easy. It’s a very complicated process of taking in some basic elements of reality and letting them percolate through a few layers of crazy before dripping out as a weird parody of rational thought. Since you don’t get to hear Lewis’ inner dialogue, you can only guess at whatever context must be in his head to have all this make sense. It’s a mordantly funny and deeply scary depiction of mental illness, and Bowen nails it.

Crazy chic


While Bowen is the best part, the whole movie is pretty great. And that’s kinda remarkable considering the complexity of what they’re trying to pull off. On what must have been a minuscule budget*, the three directors create a scary, convincing world populated by interesting characters, which shifts significantly in tone not once but three times, while still feeling like a cohesive, satisfying work. You gotta hope this is a strong signal that these three guys are going on to bigger things, and not a sign that the world is going crazy.

*$50,000!! That’s not enough to cover the damn catered lunch on a Michael Bay movie!



CHAINSAWNUKAH 2013 CHECKLIST!


  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: No
  • SEQUEL: No
  • REMAKE: No
  • HAMMER STUDIOS: No
  • SPAGHETTI NOCTURNE: No, shot in Atlanta
  • MORE (PETER) CUSHING FOR THE PUSHING? No
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: No
  • BOOBIES: No
  • DECAPITATIONS OR DE-LIMBING: One good decapitation comes to mind.
  • ENTRAILS? Not that I recall
  • CULTISTS: No
  • ZOMBIES: No
  • VAMPIRES: No
  • SLASHERS: No
  • CURSES: No
  • (UNCANNY) VALLEY OF THE DOLLS? No
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Mid, tiny budget but seems fairly well-known.
  • ALEX MADE IT THROUGH AWAKE: N/A



The Evil of Frankenstein




The Evil of Frankenstein (1964)
Dir. Freddie Francis
Written by John Elder (Anthony Hinds)
Starring Peter Cushing, Peter Woodthorpe, Duncan Lamont, Kiwi Kingston





Well, maybe there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing. Here it is, 1964, only two sequels after Terence Fisher’s solid and serious CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, and already they’re getting pretty iffy. One the plus side, you got Freddie Francis (THE SKULL, TALES FROM THE CRYPT), a former cinematographer and consistently laudable visualist directing, Peter Cushing returning to the role of the Baron, and a guy named “Kiwi” as the monster. But on the negative side, you have everything else. Yeah, pretty much everything.


The worst offender here is probably the script by producer Anthony Hinds* which ignores the events and the interesting moral element of Fisher’s original film and its first sequel in favor of a self-contained one-off. That in itself isn’t a disaster, but unfortunately he leaves out all of the most interesting stuff from the earlier films and in its place substitutes a perplexing anti-drama about Baron Frankenstein returning to his old castle (in defiance of the locals’ intense hatred of him) and… hiring an unscrupulous hypnotist to keep his monstrous creation under control?

Wow, guess they're going ahead with that Green Hornet sequel after all.


THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN, then, casts Victor Frankenstein in his more familiar mold as a sympathetic character, a misunderstood visionary chased from his home by superstitious assholes and forced to pursue his pure science in secret. Of course, he’s been stealing local corpses to do it, but the movie doesn’t seem to really hold this against him, or at least it just blames him for his usual hubristical ways. But like in Fisher’s movies, the Monster isn’t really much of a villain either; he’s just too unaware of his surroundings to really be anything other than dangerous but tragic figure. So the drama here falls to Zoltan (Peter Woodthorpe, “Marco’s Landlord” from THE SKULL but more importantly the voice of Gollum in Bakshi’s LORD OF THE RINGS) a hypnotist who has also run afoul of the locals, but for much more legitimate reasons. It is Zoltan who decides to do a little freelancing work using the monster to murder his enemies, and ultimately it’s up to Frankenstein to stop him. Which he does by firing him. Cough.


I suppose I can dimly imagine how this concept could be effective as a CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI ripoff with the Monster standing in for the Somnambulist, but unfortunately the script is just poorly structured and never develops any genuine drama. Zoltan is introduced late and looks kind of like Jimmy Kimmel, he never seem like a particular threat, especially since the people he’s murdering are the same assholes we’ve seen treat Victor so shabbily. He never menaces the main characters, and just generally seems more like a pathetic grifter than a criminal mastermind. Victor finds out what he’s up to and just fires him, and that’s pretty much it. 

But wait, that’s the climax, he fires a guy? 

No no, don’t worry, he’ll have to fight the monster at the end and destroy his lab. 

But how does that work if the Monster isn’t under the control of a shifty hypnotist anymore? 

Well, simple. The mute girl they find living somewhere (long story) offers the big fellah a bottle of wine, he gets drunk and starts fucking shit up. 

Wait, you’re telling me that the climax of the movie is the revelation that Frankenstein’s monster is a mean drunk? 

Seriously, that’s the big climax, Cushing has to fight a belligerent drunken reanimated corpse. That’s the level of effort they were at after only three sequels.

The advantage to a flat-headed monster is that his noggin serves as a handy cocktail tray.



The film looks pretty good thanks to Francis’ unflashy but intuitive framings, and of course Cushing is working hard here like he always does. But even the production design looks a little indifferent; this one was distributed by Universal so Hammer was free to hew closer to the design of the iconic Karloff movie without the fear of a lawsuit they’d encountered on CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. So what did they do? They just recreated pretty much the same thing, right down to the Creature’s inexplicable square noggin. I don’t know if they just didn’t realize that it was Karloff’s performance that made that one such a classic and not his doofy flat head, but suffice to say this just reeks of cheap imitation. The makeup and technology are not nearly further advanced enough that it feels fresh to see this design again, and so it just feels rote (particularly since even the Karloff version was getting a little tiresome by the end of the endless sequels and parodies Universal had done decades before). I wasn’t a huge fan of Hammer’s new Monster makeup design in CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, but at least it was different, unique. It had its own distinct flavor. This one barely registers. In fact, for a movie called THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN, neither the title character nor his creation really leave much impact. And as far as I can tell there’s not a whole lot of evil here either, mostly just one greedy asshole who kills a few other assholes and then gets fired for it.

Yeah, this certainly did look impressive and scientific... in 1931.


I can’t help but feel like Fisher, although not much of a visualist, had a much better sense of what these monster films were fundamentally about. His films may lack style, but they have a focus and genuine imagination which many of the later Hammer films completely lack. Fisher understood that it’s not simply enough to plop a recognizable monster in front of an audience; you have to understand what it is about the concept that made it work on a psychological and narrative level. EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN is a good example of what happens when you make a horror film just by checking off boxes but not by considering why those boxes are there in the first place.

*who under the pen name John Elder scripted a bunch of Hammer sequels, including KISS OF DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN. It’s worth noting that he was a producer by trade, who started writing scripts when the budgets started shrinking to the point that they couldn’t afford to hire a real writer.

HAMMER'S FRANKENSTEIN SERIES:

3: THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN





CHAINSAWNUKAH 2013 CHECKLIST!



  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: Semi-sequel to Shelley's original novel.
  • SEQUEL: Yes, #3
  • REMAKE: Another Frankenstein, it doesn't specifically remake any older ones although it does copy a lot of design elements from James Whale's 1931 version.
  • HAMMER STUDIOS: Yes
  • SPAGHETTI NOCTURNE: No
  • MORE (PETER) CUSHING FOR THE PUSHING? Yes
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: No
  • BOOBIES: No, don't think so.
  • DECAPITATIONS OR DE-LIMBING: ... no specific memory of this.
  • ENTRAILS? I feel like I remember a flashback with the Creature eating sheep entrails?
  • CULTISTS: No
  • ZOMBIES: No
  • VAMPIRES: No
  • SLASHERS: No
  • CURSES: No
  • (UNCANNY) VALLEY OF THE DOLLS? No
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Mid-high, third sequel
  • ALEX MADE IT THROUGH AWAKE: N/A

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Curse Of Frankenstein

I'd like to take a quick moment to point out that this review marks my 44th Chainsawnukah 2013 review, finally surpassing last year's 43 entries. And, uh, I still got like 10 more to go. Maybe I overdid it a little this year.

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
Dir. Terence Fisher
Written by Jimmy Sangster
Starring Peter Cushing, Hazel Court, Robert Urquhart, Christopher Lee




CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN is Hammer’s very first attempt at a horror movie, and the one which started them on their long roller coaster ride of Dracula sequels, Cushing/Lee teamups, gothic horror, psychological thrillers and, eventually --inevitably-- kung-fu vampires. It marks a first for pretty much everything Hammer would eventually become known for: stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, adaptations of classic horror literature, gothic atmosphere filmed in vivid color, and, of course, at-the-time boundary-pushing violence and depravity which now seems pretty quaint. But never fear! Just like with HORROR OF DRACULA, Hammer entrusted their flagship horror property to Terence Fisher, who’d managed to rack up an impressive 26 films as director since 1948 but who would really come into his own by creating the archetypical Hammer horror film.


I say archetypical instead of prototypical because nothing about CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN feels half-formed or clunky. Though the punishingly low budget doesn’t allow for a ton of action, Fisher manages to create a serious and troubling take on Shelley’s Frankenstein which gets plenty of mileage from the expected story beats but also offers a new and genuinely fresh perspective on the tale.


Of course, for whatever reason it doesn’t seem like any film version of Frankenstein really follows the novel very closely*, which is a shame since Shelley’s original story is obviously better than anyone anyone has subsequently come up with. But this one is particularly unique for keeping many of the fundamentals intact, but changing one major thing: here, Baron Frankenstein himself is clearly the villain. The way this fact subtly alters the entire focus of the story makes it a rather remarkable entry into the Frankenstein cannon.




Now I know, I know, Frankenstein himself has always been something of an ambiguous character. Various depictions offer different levels of sympathy, but the thing they all have in common is that Frankenstein is, at best, a victim of his own hubris, a man who chose to meddle in God’s domain and so invited calamity. Frankenstein, maybe more than any other fictional book, has probably inspired the tiresome cliche about the dangers of “playing god” as represented in THE FLY, JURASSIC PARK, THE ISLAND OF LOST SOULS, INVISIBLE MAN, and so forth. These movies suggest there are some things man is simply not meant to know, and exploring beyond these boundaries is in itself an act of evil. But you know, the actual Shelley novel is much more complicated than that; as we learned from GOTHIC, it’s not so much about areas that man was not “meant” to meddle in, but rather the moral horror of creation and responsibility. Victor Frankenstein isn’t in error for pursuing his scientific curiosity, but rather for failing to take responsibility for its consequences. It is Frankenstein’s rejection of his creature, not his creation of it, which ultimately causes things to turn out so poorly for all concerned parties. It’s about the responsibility we take on when we create life, and the destruction caused if that responsibility is shirked or corrupted (in fact, it’s almost like PROMETHEUS, but with better scientists. And not brain-deadeningly idiotic.). It is, I’ve always thought, actually a uniquely female perspective on horror, particularly considering Mary Shelley’s own anxieties associated with motherhood (she had a series of miscarriages and infant deaths).


Well, ok, Fisher’s CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN doesn’t do that, but it does offer an interesting perspective on what the moral hazard here is. If Shelley was interested in man’s obligation to his creations, Fisher, in a perfect example of a theme that runs throughout much of his work, is interested in science’s obligation to man. Cushing’s Baron Victor Frankenstein isn’t condemned simply by the nature of his work, but rather because in his pursuit of science he has lost his humanity.




It doesn’t begin that way though; Jimmy Sangster (THE HORROR OF DRACULA)’s script begins with Victor Frankenstein as an orphaned (but still wealthy) youth hiring a tutor to aid him in his education. The man for the job seems to be Paul Krempe (Robert Urqhuart), a brilliant but kindly scientist who becomes first Victor’s teacher and then his partner as the young man grows into a sharp and ambitious 20-something (hilariously played by Cushing, 10 years Urqhuart’s senior). Krempe (a character invented for this movie version, although I suppose there is some crossover with Shelley’s Henry Clerval) is amazed at Victor’s intellect, and believes they have achieved their crowning glory when they find a means to restore life to adorable puppies (and presumably everything, everywhere). But Victor isn’t satisfied, he won’t be happy until he can create his own life, and when Krempe balks, he resorts to surprisingly nasty methods of getting his way.


This transition is especially interesting, because Hammer usually cast Cushing as the good guy, and for the first section of the movie he appears --if misguided-- at least comparable to other iterations of the character who are doomed by their hubris and not their innately despicable character. But as things go along, Victor’s evil escalates and eventually he’ll cross lines beyond which we can’t support him anymore (fortunately, Urqhuart’s Krempe is a likeable foil for him so the audience still has someone to identify with). Before long, he has a few murders under his belt and is using his monstrous creation (Christopher Lee in a Ringo wig and paper maché whiteface) to dispose of anyone he finds inconvenient. Interestingly, this version of the story has Krempe, rather than Victor, trying to destroy the monster over Victor's strenuous protests; it would almost turn the moral on it’s head, except that Victor is too sociopathic to care about the monster beyond using him as a tool. In fact, Krempe’s desire to destroy it seems almost like a kindness to the creature, who through Lee’s portrayal comes across as a genuine abomination, an unthinking juggernaut who reacts violently out of the pain and horror of his own unceasing existence.




It's Cushing’s portrayal of Victor, however which makes the film especially interesting, because neither the actor nor the script identifies a clear point when Victor becomes a monster. I think he’s been one all along, but not in the usual horror villain kind of way. Cushing never plays Victor as as malicious or overwhelmingly egomaniacal, nor is there much evidence that Victor is doing what he’s doing for particularly selfish reasons. He’s just a coldly intelligent obsessive, and he’s more than smart enough to rationalize his own horrific actions to himself. Even at the end, when Victor is locked up and awaiting execution, he seems to believe he’s the victim here and is shocked that no one seems to understand his story. When things finally unravel for him, it’s obviously richly deserved but it’s also almost shockingly harsh; I think he genuinely never realized that he’s the villain of this story.


That’s a lot to chew on, which is good because as I said there’s not a lot of action to be had; most scenes are of well-dressed European men smoking pipes in sitting rooms and talking about ideas. Christopher Lee (hired mainly for his height) isn’t in it much, doesn’t have much of a character to play and their last-minute makeup job (altered from the original design because Universal threatened to sue for mimicking their iconic Karloff version) isn’t especially memorable. And there are a few awkward moments and ideas that don’t go anywhere, perhaps the result of the tiny budget and script rewrite (Sanger actually adapted it from an original treatment by Amicus founders Max Rosenberg and Milton Sobotsky, which was also ruled too similar to the Universal version).



But you know, there definitely is something genuinely disturbing happening here. Audiences at the time were shocked by its grotesque images and (now pretty tame) violence, but I’d wager that it’s the film’s unnerving take on the title character that made these elements seem more perverse. Terence Fisher spent much of his career exploring the middle ground between science and religion, and for that reason I think his vision of Victor Frankenstein --as a man who has completely left his human compassion behind him in the pursuit of scientific endeavor-- is a particularly salient target for him. Screen villains in this sort of film are usually of the mustache-twirling, speechifying variety, and it’s extremely disconcerting to cast charismatic Cushing as a character with many likable qualities who still goes this far over the line. Lots of people erroneously believe the monster to be named Frankenstein, and I suppose that’s reasonable considering how thoroughly he dominates most films that bear his name. He’s a great marquee heavy, sure, but at the end of the day he’s just another lumbering killer, the object of our fears and maybe to some degree our sympathy, but always comfortably distinct from us and our own lives. Fisher’s film, though, revived his legacy by focusing on the other monster in the story. And this time his name really is Frankenstein. And the scariest thing about him is not his monstrous appearance, but rather how closely he resembles us.

* (1973’s FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY may come closest, though Branagh’s 1994 version has its 
merits)

HAMMER'S FRANKENSTEIN SERIES:

6: FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL



CHAINSAWNUKAH 2013 CHECKLIST!



  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: Yep, of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus
  • SEQUEL: The first of five loose sequels and one satiric film by Hammer. Most had Cushing, but only this one has Lee as the monster.
  • REMAKE: Not yet.
  • HAMMER STUDIOS: Yes sir, key early Hammer horror.
  • SPAGHETTI NOCTURNE: No.
  • MORE (PETER) CUSHING FOR THE PUSHING? A lot more.
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: Early starring roles for Cushing and Lee.
  • BOOBIES: Nah, later Hammers would get into that, but it's too early for it here.
  • DECAPITATIONS OR DE-LIMBING: Severed head, check. Think there might be an arm too.
  • ENTRAILS? No
  • CULTISTS: No
  • ZOMBIES: .... I guess Frankenstein doesn't quite count.
  • VAMPIRES: No
  • SLASHERS: No
  • CURSES: No, despite the title there's no evidence of a curse.
  • (UNCANNY) VALLEY OF THE DOLLS? No
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Mid, historically important and a hit at the time.
  • ALEX MADE IT THROUGH AWAKE: No

Friday, November 22, 2013

Cure


Cure (1997)
Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Written by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Starring Koji Yakusho, Masato Hagiwara, Tsuyoshi Ujiki

I love that this weird Japanese poster makes it look like the box for that game Operation.


An emotionally repressed detective named Takabe (Koji Yakusho, 13 ASSASSINS) is tracking a bizarre serial killer who seems to strike at random, carving an “X” into his victims and then disappearing without a trace. Only it’s strange, the victims seem to have done most of the work themselves, murdering each other or killing themselves seemingly at the will of the mysterious killer. Enter Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara), a severe amnesiac who can’t seem to even remember his own name or where he is, but who seems clearly related to these killings somehow. As Takabe comes to understand Mamiya’s strange secret, his own life begins to unravel in dangerous ways.


That’s the plot of CURE, but like most Kiyoshi “No, not that Kurosawa” Kurosawa movies, plot isn’t the main point. This one isn’t as surreal and expressionistic as my favorite of his films (and one of my favorite films ever), KAIRO, and it’s much more action and plot oriented than glacial chillers like CHARISMA, but it’s still a film which gets most of it’s mileage from tone and atmosphere rather than splatter. There is a serial killer here, and even a few nicely gruesome murder scenes, and there is an obsessed detective living with a tragic personal burden, just like there would will be in the inevitable American remake. It’s a little ambiguous, but it does have a pretty concrete story to it, a mystery which gets resolved to some degree, even a twist. You could definitely make a trailer to it that made it look like a normal movie.




But, it’s Kiyoshi Kurosawa, so it’s not a normal movie. Instead, it’s a quiet, tense, dread-soaked journey into the dark. While not outright minimalistic like some of his films, there’s a very calculated sparseness to it; characters talk during plot points, but mostly they stay silent if possible. The camera moves when it has to, but mostly it stays still in long, static takes. Occasionally there are pretty images, but most of it takes place in claustrophobic, ill-lit run-down rooms with only one or two characters. It’s a serial killer story stripped down to the bare elements, but rather than making it seem diminished, this allows Kurosawa to fill in the leftover space with tenebrous trepidation that seems at once focused and intangible. It conjures the image of people standing under a lone light in the middle of a blackened room, with no visible barrier to prevent our minds form fearing the blackness around may well stretch into infinity. His brilliance is in his ability to give us just enough catalyst that our darkest fears and anxieties take over and fill in the rest.


It’s hard to describe exactly what is so deeply affecting about Kurosawa’s work without turning to vague descriptions like that. They just have a fundamentally sinister strangeness to them, the clear sense that something is deeply, deeply wrong somewhere beyond the quiet, austere surface. How do you describe something that has to be experienced? I’ve seen a bunch of K. Kurosawa films (including SEANCE this year, which I’ll be reviewing in a week or two) but I’ve only reviewed this one and the decidedly atypical SWEET HOME. And I’ve been kind of dreading this one, because writing about this kind of film is like trying to describe a frightening dream. “There were just two people sitting in a living room, kind of talking about nothing, but I knew something really bad was happening…” You know how horrifying it felt, but you feel like an idiot trying to explain it so someone who wasn’t there can understand. It’s a testament to Kurosawa’s awesome command of cinematic language that he can do this to you -- go straight for your subconscious mind and stir up uneasy feelings you can’t quite explain or put into words. I mean, the guy is a genius, but other than cataloguing his obvious technical mastery of every facet of cinema, it’s hard to describe the powerful effect his films have on me.  




I’ve read a bit of analytic stuff about K. Kurosawa’s films and the symbolism and themes in them, but this is the first one I’ve seen that actually has a full length “making of” where he gets to talk about the motifs and influences and stuff. Interestingly, he sees this as a film about the fragility of identity. “Identity is in flux constantly,” he correctly notes, but I’m not quite certain if it’s a film about the dangers of believing yourself to be an unwavering single consciousness, or a film about the horror of identity loss. Or perhaps even how the false concept of identity anchors us to reality. The idea that it’s a film about identity, anyway, makes a lot of sense, in the same way that it makes sense that KAIRO is about the isolating effects of technology. But it’s also just as incidental to the way the film gets under your skin. It’s not like once you understand the metaphor, suddenly it turns scary; it didn’t occur to me at all that this might have some kind of subtext while I was watching, it’s the very experience itself which is fundamentally unnerving. In fact, in some ways I think it’s the very alienness of Kurosawa’s world that is so subtly alarming. If you could put it into words, you’d lock it down and take away a lot of it’s power. Something you can understand, you can control, and so Kurosawa’s horror is at it’s strongest when it’s at it’s most ethereal.


Sometimes I wonder if that alienness is the result of me missing out on some lost-in-translation Japanese subtext; Kurosawa points out that the Japanese don’t have a word for “identity” (not sure what word he’s using in his description, then) but if that’s true, shouldn’t  a Japanese director be less horrified by the consequences of an unfixed personal identity? I’m not sure. I long suspected I just didn’t understand the nuance of Japanese cinema, but a few knowledgeable people have convinced me lately that it’s not that I don’t understand, it’s just that Japanese artists and audiences have a higher tolerance for ambiguity and strangeness than Westerners generally do. I feel like that’s the case here; Kurosawa may be playing with notions of identity, but he’s more interested in creating something disorienting and uncanny. Which is just fine, because he does that better than pretty much anyone.




Beyond the movie itself, Kurosawa talks in this documentary about his chief influences, who turn out to be pre-JAWs 70’s American directors like Sam Peckinpah, Robert Aldrich, Don Siegel, Richard Fleischer. I guess that makes sense, given his serious tone, rock solid (but rarely flashy) technical chops and deliberate pace married with somewhat shocking ideas and images. His films actually have quite a few visual elements in common with that era, which probably explains part of why I like them so much. But he goes on to make an interesting point: all those guys were old school Hollywood decades before they made their classic 70’s films. They were solid craftsmen who had solidified their experience as journeymen, workaday shepherds of safe studio projects, honing their craft but lacking really meaty material to play with. And suddenly in the 70’s they found themselves cut loose to marry their technical prowess with challenging and darker ideas as the studio system imploded. That’s a pretty damn smart explanation for the embarrassing overabundance of great films by these directors, especially since it was not a cadre that ever precisely became celebrity auteurs. OK, Peckinpah had a pretty recognizable style, but Siegel, Fleischer, Aldrich? What they had in common is that they made great fuckin’ movies during this period. I think the subtext may be that Kurosawa appreciates unflashy craftsmanship by genuine pros who don’t have anything to prove, and hence avoid messing up a good thing with a bunch of attention-grabbing look-at-me style.  




As much as he might admire their work and reflect it in his own films, I don’t know if Kurosawa quite fits that description, since he has one of the strongest authorial voices of any director working today*. Remember how shocked I was when SWEET HOME was just a regular horror movie, and didn’t seem like his usual work at all? His style may not be overtly ostentatious, but it’s immediately recognizable for its austere discipline and rigid refusal to overexplain. I love Siegel’s films, but there’s no way he’d be able to resist using a crashing scary audio sting during the murders, as Kurosawa does here. One of the most memorable moments in the film is the murder of a cop standing out on the street in golden daylight, and Kurosawa just plants his camera across the street and watches the whole thing, silently. For all the stylized, expressionistic and exaggerated horror scenes I watched during Chainsawnukah, there’s something about the chilling straightforwardness and the abrupt collision of naturalism and perversity in this scene that puts it on another level. Just another example of his refusal to force information on the audience, and his total confidence that if he can plant a good suggestion in your head, you’ll do the rest yourself much better than he could. CURE isn’t his most ambitious film, but I think it among his best.** The unusually grounded plot provides the perfect foundation for his unique vision of horror to sneak up on you, and the result is a powerful and precisely crafted journey to the darkest parts of your subconscious mind.

*Although, of course, he too went through a long period of studio work before he made CURE in 1997, most of which isn't commercially available for me to evaluate (often at his own request: this interview finds him saying, "There are an enormous number of films that I never want to see again in my life [because] I’m too ashamed of them...The advantage is that if my early films are shown to the public, the public will realise that it’s the work of a young madman who was searching for himself through mediocre films, but that over the course of the years and work, he progressively delivered more successful films.") Perhaps this is why he feels a certain kinship with that group of directors, and why he has so much respect for reliable journeymen who only got to make passion projects much later in their careers.

**Bong Joon-Ho, director of THE HOST and MEMORIES OF MURDER, goes one step further, calling it one of the best films ever made. I don't think that's Tarantino-style hyperbole, either, I think he really feels that way, and may well be justified in doing so.



CHAINSAWNUKAH 2013 CHECKLIST!


  • LITERARY ADAPTATION: No
  • SEQUEL: No
  • REMAKE: No, although they did remake KAIRO so it's not completely safe.
  • HAMMER STUDIOS: No
  • SPAGHETTI NOCTURNE: No
  • MORE (PETER) CUSHING FOR THE PUSHING? No
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: Not sure how famous these guys are in Japan, Yakusho was in 13 ASSASSINS and BABEL, though. But it's never slumming to work with a director of this caliber.
  • BOOBIES: Yeah, corpse boobies, though.
  • DECAPITATIONS OR DE-LIMBING: Slashing only.
  • ENTRAILS? No
  • CULTISTS: No
  • ZOMBIES: No
  • VAMPIRES: No
  • SLASHERS: Another serial killer, but not a strict slasher.
  • CURSES: No
  • (UNCANNY) VALLEY OF THE DOLLS? No
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: High, little-known outside Japan, although it's one of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's more famous films.
  • ALEX MADE IT THROUGH AWAKE: No.