Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Sweet Home

Sweet Home (1989) aka Suito Homu
Dir. Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Written by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Starring Nobuku Miyamoto, Shingo Yamashiro, Ichiro Furudate, Nokko

Summoning James Brown won't save you now.

    Wow, so this was a surprise. I knew I had to have at least one Kiyoshi Kurosawa film in my Chainsawnukah festival this year, on account of the fact that he is clearly one of the best overall directors still alive and productive today, and he primarily makes horror movies. Which make for two pretty compelling reasons, in my calculations. KAIRO is probably in my top ten favorite movies ever, and CURE and SEANCE are both absolutely top-notch horror films, mixing the tension of Hitchcock with the patience of Ozu while retaining the elegance of both. Though Kurosawa (motto: “Just because I’m a Japanese director with the common last name of Kurosawa does not mean I’m related to... oh, forget it.”) has worked in other genres, it’s horror which seems to be his first love and his main focus. How many other directors of his caliber have devoted most of their career to his most disreputable of genres?

    Funny thing about that career, though, is that it’s little-known outside Japan. CURE, from 1997, is about the earliest work of his which seems to be easily available in America. But his first full-length seems to be from all the way back in 1980. What was he up to back then? To find out, I ventured way off the beaten path to acquire a copy of his 1988 haunted house film SWEET HOME. Details about this film are a little murky. It appears to be tied to a NES video game of the same name which also came out in 1989. IMDB claims it’s unclear if the movie is based on the game or the other way ‘round, but they were certainly promoted as a single package, as seen from this commerical which features footage from both. Wikipedia even claims that Kurosawa himself supervised the game’s design, though I can find no direct confirmation of that anywhere. Both wikipedia and this obsessive fan site seem convinced that the film came first, though, and the game’s designer* recalls being able to refer to the film to come up with elements of his game so that’s the best conclusion I can offer. All parties, anyway, seem to agree that the game, at least, is a pioneering classic, the first real attempt at a horror survival game, and an enormous influence on later games (particularly the genre-defining “Resident Evil”).

This freaked our shit out in 1989.

Given all that, I didn’t exactly know what to expect from the film. But I definitely didn’t expect this. Kurosawa’s mastery of pacing and camerawork are as apparent as ever, but in terms of content it’s a radically different film from his quiet, dread-soaked later work. It’s actually kind of a frantic, broad, effects-driven thrill ride with more in common with POLTERGEIST and HOUSE (the Japanese one) than with KAIRO. Unexpected, but not a bad thing. It starts a little slowly, with too much goofy broad comedy, but quickly builds itself into a nonstop machine of relentless craziness.

We start, though, by setting up the premise: a TV documentary crew want to make a special about the abandoned mansion left behind by a famous painter after an at-first unspecified tragedy claimed him and his family. They’re an odd bunch, sometimes seeming more like a dysfunctional family than a group of seasoned journalists (this illusion is furthered considerably because their producer has brought his precocious young daughter along, and she’s dead-set on sowing romance between her dad and a nice lady whose actual job description seems a little on the vague side). Along with our makeshift family group, we also have the egocentric on-screen reporter, a bumbling, irritating lighting guy, and eventually a badass local gas station attendant (long story). They spend most of the beginning of the film having interpersonal drama, wacky hijinks, and polite, extremely Japanese conversations about how they need to work together for the benefit of the group. But then a giant ax shows up, and you know you’re gonna be in good hands.

If you got ghost problems, I feel bad for you son. I got 99 problems, but this seems like the most pressing.
     While it starts slow, once it gets moving it doesn’t stop. Although there are hints of Kurosawa’s anxiety-soaked implied-but-never-stated ways in the buildup, the showpieces of this thing are some surprisingly intense special-effects-laden ghostly smackdowns. We’ve got a guy burned in half, a not-entirely unrelated torso that crawls around, a melting body, some nifty creeping shadow hands, a gigantic distorted demon which wouldn’t look out of place in GHOSTBUSTERS (and I mean that as a good thing), and... well, you know that rule where if a gun shows up in the first half of a movie it’s going to be fired in the second half? Well, this movie has that giant ax.

    This sort of shit is buckets of fun, and executed with real artistry by Academy Award winning makeup and FX wizard Dick Smith (THE EXORCIST, LITTLE BIG MAN, SCANNERS). But crucially, Kurosawa walks a fine tonal line between eye-popping special effects bonanza and genuine serious horror. You’re gonna have to smile at a 20-foot-tall screaming semi-transparent green demon, but we’ve also spent enough time with the characters that when they start to get gruesomely offed you do feel a stirring of real horror. It’s awesome to watch a guy get burned in half, but less chuckle-worthy that he crawls around, weeping and begging someone to help him. Combined with the excellently designed haunted mansion (complete with gigantic creepy murals), darkly atmospheric lighting and camerawork, and a genuinely twisty mystery that reveals a suitably horrible secret, the film as a whole finds the right tone somewhere between extravagant thrills and darker themes. The performances of the leads are strong enough, and their story is simple enough, that it never gets entirely overwhelmed by the ghosts, either. Not an easy balance to maintain, but Kurosawa makes it look effortless.

So, holy shit, it turns out that the producer's adolescent daughter (far right) is actually played by single-namer "Nokko", a pop star in her mid - twenties. The fuck did they pull that off?

In true POLTERGEIST fashion, this film is rumored to have been heavily tampered with by producer Juzo Itami (THE FUNERAL, TAMPOPO) which might explain the broad humor and breakneck pace. Many sources claim that Kurosawa ultimately disowned or disassociated himself from the final product, although once again, I can’t find any direct confirmation of that. It’s certainly different enough from his later, better work that it’s not hard to imagine that he wants to leave it in his more commercial past. Still, I hope he at least has a certain amount of pride in the work. Even if it’s not quite the unique voice he would eventually develop, there are plenty of great things about SWEET HOME which make it unique unto itself. It’s technically superb, filled with memorable gimmicks, and manages to find the right mix of hysterical thrills and genuine horror while still leaving room for a human element. It’s one of the only films I saw this month that I can genuinely describe as a wild roller coaster ride, and as a bonus you got solid atmosphere, awesome effects work, and just enough inexplicable Japanese weirdness** to keep you off-balance (I should mention: at about the three-quarters mark, a minor character suddenly has a musical number). It ought to be better known, or at least legally available, on this side of the Pacific. Oh well, at least we’ll always have SWEET HOME: The video game.***

*Tokuro Fujiwara, himself something of a visionary developer, having worked on “Mega Man”, “Ghost N’ Goblins,” “Resident Evil” and, good lord, A WILLOW video game!

**One great example of it’s Japanese character is that one of our heroes, after learning the ghost’s tragic backstory, still berates it for causing such a fuss. It’s actually a great point that I don’t think I’ve ever heard in another haunted house movie. Sure, the ghost had one horrible, horrible thing happen, but otherwise lived a pretty charmed life. The fuck does it have to complain about? It’s an entirely charming Japanese perspective which probably explains all that talk about working together for the greater good at the beginning.

***Considering that the NES version is considered the direct forefather of the Resident Evil series, I suppose you could consider the film version an ancestor, however distant, of Paul W. S. Anderson’s series of catastrophic follies. Maybe that explains why Kurosawa is none too keen on being associated with it.


LOVECRAFT ADAPTATION: No, possibly video game adaptation. Or maybe the other way around. Japan is crazy, dude.
BOOBIES: Japan, so no.
> or = HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS LEVEL GORE: Actually yeah, there's some pretty decisive kills in here.
OBSCURITY LEVEL: Extremely high.
MONSTERS: Definitely some monster-y demon things.
CURSES: The Mansion is definitely cursed, several people say so.
The female director and reporter talk about working together for the greater good, and later the same director talks at length with the daughter about staying alive.

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