Monday, October 17, 2016

Paranoia (1969)

AKA Orgasmo

The world of the Italian horror/thriller has seen many a memorable artist/muse collaboration over the years. One that springs to mind immediately would be the now legendary pairing of Lucio Fulci and Catriona MacColl with the trilogy of City of the Living Dead (1980), The Beyond (1981) and The House By the Cemetery (1981). Another obvious one being Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi with Argento giving Nicolodi, his wife for a time, numerous roles in films like Deep Red (1975), Inferno (1980), Tenebre (1982), Phenomena (1985) and Opera (1987). Then of course there’s the king and queen of the giallo, Sergio Martino and Edwige Fenech who defined the subgenre with The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971), All the Colors of the Dark (1972) and Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972). One of the more fruitful director/performer tag-teams to come from the golden age of Italian genre cinema would be Umberto Lenzi and former Hollywood blonde bombshell Carroll Baker, who from 1969 to 1972 made four films together after Baker relocated to Italy following legal troubles and a divorce, Paranoia, So Sweet… So Perverse (1969), A Quiet Place to Kill (1970) and Knife of Ice (1972), with the first of these collaborations, Paranoia, being the best along with being one of the best Italian thrillers to come from this period and one of Lenzi’s finest films.

Kathryn West (Baker), a wealthy jet set widow retires to her estate in Italy following the death of her husband. One afternoon, Kathryn hears a car horn outside the gates and meets Peter Donovan, a young local who’s car has broken down and needs to use the phone. Peter returns later that night and Kathryn aggress to let him stay and the two begin a passionate affair with Peter eventually moving in. Not long after, Kathryn is introduced to Peter’s sister Eva whom Kathryn takes an immediate liking too and she too moves in. At first Kathryn feels reinvigorated, letting go of all her worries and having fun until she returns home one night to find Peter and Eva in bed together. Soon Peter and Eva’s sinister intentions behind befriending Kathryn dawn on her as she finds herself becoming a plaything for the two incestuous sadists amusement.

Featuring dialogue like “One has to be afraid of everything these days, especially when one’s happy” and “When I think of myself I want to vomit. But I’m happy because I realize it”, Lenzi makes no attempt to hide his nihilism throughout the course of Paranoia. Even by Lenzi standards Paranoia is a pessimistic gem, shining a light, albeit a highly eroticized and pulpy one, on some of the rotten things human beings are capable of doing to each other. As a thriller, the film works for all the obvious reasons although what’s interesting is that there really isn’t a sense of mystery to the film setting aside Peter and Eva’s end goals. Virtually every advertisement for the film made it glaringly obvious that Peter and Eva aren’t what they seem and in any other film a similar storyline probably wouldn’t have much momentum however in the case of Paranoia its what gives the film its wheels. This is mainly thanks to the wonderful performance of Carroll Baker who is sympathetic from the start of the film and only gets more so as the film becomes more mean spirited. Baker perfectly captured the devolution of Kathryn’s psychical and more importantly, mental state which Lenzi also perfectly translated visually by deliriously liberal use of the zoom lens. What also makes the film interesting is that underneath the main plot is a none too subtle element of class warfare and generational gaps which Lenzi would explore again in the similarly themed Oasis of Fear (1971).  

Paranoia is one of several Lenzi films that has a tendency to confuse some newcomers to the world of European cult cinema based on its title. The film was originally released in Italy as Orgasmo (Orgasm), however once it entered overseas markets the films title was later changed to Paranoia. One year later following this film and So Sweet… So Perverse, Lenzi and Baker teamed up again for what was originally released in Italy as Paranoia later became A Quiet Place to Kill. This particular re-titling can lead to some confusion of its own as the aforementioned Oasis of Fear is also known as An Ideal Place to Kill! Lenzi would encounter the re-title again and sometimes ironically as when his TV movie The House of Witchcraft (1989), part of the House of Doom project Lenzi did along with Lucio Fulci was released in Germany as Ghosthouse 4, despite having absolutely nothing to do Lenzi’s original Ghosthouse (1988). Then there was Lenzi’s underrated voodoo/zombie mash-up Black Demons (1991) which was renamed Dèmoni 3 and marketed as the third film in Lamberto Bava’s Demons series. Regardless of its title, what’s certain is that Paranoia or Orgasmo is a special film from an unusual yet surprisingly simpatico director/actress collaboration. Sexy, stylish, more than a bit misanthropic and featuring what has to be one of Carroll Baker's finest performances, Paranoia is unquestionably an essential Lenzi title.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Scorpion With Two Tails (1982)

AKA Assassinio al cimitero etrusco (Murder in an Etruscan Cemetery)

From 1971 to 1973, Sergio Martino was on a serious role, establishing himself as the king of the giallo. Together with screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi, Marino helmed the genre defining masterpieces The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh (1971), The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (1971), All the Colors of the Dark (1972), Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972) and Torso (1973). Gastaldi and Marino continued to collaborate although either out of boredom with the genre or fear of burnout, Martino began to move away from giallo films and began working in a plethora of other genres like Euro crime with The Violent Professionals (1973) and Gambling City (1975), spaghetti westerns with Mannaja: A Man Called Blade (1977), the cannibal epic Mountain of the Cannibal God (1978), and creature features such as Island of the Fishmen (1979) and The Big Alligator River (1979), several of which feature writing by Gastaldi. In 1982, Martino and Gastaldi, along with fellow legendary screenwriter, former Lucio Fulci collaborator Dardano Sacchetti, teamed up for Scorpion With Two Tails, somewhat of a return to the giallo for Martino but with a (literal) twist. Originally conceived as a mini-series then later edited down to a theatrical feature, Scorpion With Two Tails is often dismissed as a lesser Martino film when in fact its one of Marino’s most interesting and a unique spin on the giallo.

Soon after discovering a previously unheard of Etruscan tomb, Arthur Barnard, an esteemed archeologist is murdered by having his head twisted backwards, an ancient Etruscan method of murder. Prior to his death, Arthur’s wife Joan had a dream involving a ritualistic sacrificial ceremony taking place in the exact same tomb Arthur had discovered. Joan, along with two of her late husband’s colleges travel to Italy and come to find out that while in the tomb, Arthur uncovered a crate, the contents of which were very lucrative and not for Arthur’s eyes. Dissatisfied with the way to police handled Arthur’s murder, Joan decides to stay in Italy to so some investigating of her own and soon finds herself in the middle of a mysterious plot involving murder, drug smuggling and an ancient Etruscan treasure as well as coming to the realization that she may have more in common with the ancient Etruscans than simply knowing the language.

A strange mix of giallo, Euro crime and supernatural horror, there certainly is a lot to digest at once with Scorpion With Two Tails. Given that the film originated as a much longer mini-series, there are some points in the film where it becomes apparent that certain things were trimmed for time, for instance a very important subplot ending rather abruptly, however in the end Martino has the film come full circle with most of the loose ends being tied up. The things that are left unexplained mainly pertain to the films supernatural side and is here where the film really becomes interesting. Despite it being fairly obvious that Joan has some sort of connection to the ancient Etruscans, Martino wisely leaves it a mystery as to whether or not she actually is supernaturally inclined which leads to many a surreal moment expertly rendered by Martino in an appropriately dreamy fashion and often involving the memorable use of maggots. Of course being centered around the ancient Etruscans the film is ripe with stunning locations, the main tomb is an astounding site and Martino wastes none of its potential, particularly during the finale. What’s also unique about the film is the blending of various subgenres with the giallo/murder mystery elements leading to the more esoteric side of the film while the crime subplot makes both a bit more engaging and never once does one trip over the other which is again surprising considering that many things had to be omitted for a theatrical release.

The final theatrical edit of the film received several VHS releases around the world over the years and finally a DVD release from Mya Communications in 2006, however the original TV version has yet to be seen anywhere. As a bonus, the DVD included a few excerpts from the TV version which includes more screen time for the legendary John Saxon who plays Arthur. One of the many complaints leveled at the film is Saxon’s bit part and while more John Saxon is always a good thing, for the sake of the narrative his character had to be killed off early in the film so even if he was in the TV version longer he still probably wouldn’t have made it that much longer anyway. Lead actress Elvire Audray in the role of Joan is another big target of negative criticism. Her dubbing may be a bit off (not exactly her fault) but otherwise her performance was more than appropriate as she appears to be in a delirious state a good portion of the time which fit her character. For whatever reason, Martino signed the film with his “Christian Plummer” pseudonym. Perhaps he was unhappy with the final edit of the film but its hardly a film to be ashamed of. True, its not like his earlier giallos but its something a bit different and a good melding of distinctly European genre styles.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Mannaja: A Man Called Blade (1977)

Quite possibly Italy’s most popular contribution to the world cinema landscape, the spaghetti western was certainly one of the most lucrative subgenres to be born during a time of intense productivity in the Italian film world. There may have been an innumerable amount of films made in other popular Italian genres, namely giallo and poliziotteschi, but in terms of the sheer volume of films made during a specific time period, the spaghetti western trumps them all. While there were European westerns made before, clearly the film that jumpstarted the Italian western craze was Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and from then on until the mid to late 70’s it seems as if virtually every Italian director tried they're hand at the western genre. This included many who would go onto to become horror maestro’s such as Giulio Questi, Lucio Fulci and Umberto Lenzi. Dario Argento even received a writing credit on Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Being the gene chameleon he is, naturally Sergio Martino spent some time in the wild west. Following his two mondo oddities Wages of Sin (1969) and Naked and Violent (1970), Martino made his narrative film debut with Arizona Colt Returns (1970) and would return to the west 7 years later with Mannaja: A Man Called Blade, one of the best and more unusual films the spaghetti western genre has to offer.

A mysterious, hatchet wielding bounty hunter ominously known as “Blade” (Maurizio Merli) arrives in Suttonville, a corrupt mining town to collect the reward money for capturing a wanted man. Almost immediately after arriving however Blade runs afoul of Theo Voller (John Steiner), the ruthless right hand man to Ed McGowan, who rules both the mines and the town with a fanatically religious iron fist. Blade confronts McGowan, although things aren’t what they seem as Voller is soon discovered to be disloyal, kidnapping McGowan’s daughter with plans to take over the town which prompts McGowan to plead with Blade to deliver the ransom money Voller is demanding in order to save his daughter. Reluctantly, Blade agrees and sets out to get rid of Voller all the while confronting his own personal demons.

Mannaja is a deceptively unconventional film. To be sure, as far as western canon is concerned, Martino covers quite a few of the bases with the character of Blade being a fairly archetypical western hero, i.e. the mysterious nomadic drifter with a dark past who’s arrival disrupts the order of the town, plenty of bandits (which leads to a brilliantly composed stagecoach ambush) and vendetta’s to be settled. At the same time however Martino makes the genre his own and what really sets Mannaja apart from the majority of westerns, spaghetti or otherwise, is its mood, visual design and atmosphere. There is downbeat esotericism to the film with the preverbal dark cloud trailing both behind and in front of Blade and Martino essentially lenses the film as if it were a horror film which gives the film an air of surreality, with the town of Suttonville shrouded in rain, fog and copious amounts of mud. In proper western fashion, it’s a landscape as unforgiving as its inhabitants and one particularly unforgettable method of torture employed in the film wouldn’t feel out of place in a Jodorowsky or Arrabal film. Martino also masterfully utilizes slow-motion during the films memorable opening and a haunting shot of a near death driver manning the aforementioned stagecoach. A literal “phantom carriage” so to speak. The films odd theme song also bears mention as it features some of the most bizarre vocal styling’s heard in any spaghetti western theme song fitting in perfectly with the films other offbeat tendencies.

By the time Mannaja was made the spaghetti western was beginning to decline and interestingly Mannaja was one of the very last spaghetti westerns made. Martino assumes it was either the second to last or the very last of the cycle that began in the 60’s. Martino also insists that his casting of Maurizio Merli was not simply because of Merli’s resemblance to Franco Nero, a common criticism but rather because Merli was also an established genre star and was the right fit for the role of Blade. Martino has also explained that the films unique visual design relied heavily on environmental factors as the film was shot at Elios Studios near Manziana which was in a state of decay and rather than spend the money to repair it, Marino shot it as is which allowed him, in his own words, to portray a "ghost town". The weather also played a major hand with the constant rainfall leading to even more mud and fog. Despite the technical difficulties the area posed, in the end it contributed to the films singular look and feel. Despite being made when the spaghetti western was beginning to die off, Mannaja doesn’t at all feel like the product of a dying era. Thanks to Martino’s original stylistic approach and the films interesting tone, Mannaja is a must see for spaghetti western fans and a fairly essential Martino title.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Naked and Violent (1970)

AKA America così nuda, così violenta (America So Naked, So Violent)

Although pre-dated by the cautionary films from the 1930’s and 40’s such as Reefer Madness (1936) and Mom and Dad (1945), the “mondo” film is nonetheless one of the oldest subgenres in the exploitation field. Generally speaking, the mondo film in its classic form is very much an Italian creation with the main men responsible being Gualtiero Jacopetti, Franco Prosperi and Paolo Cavara with their film Mondo Cane (1962), which caused a sensation worldwide and spawned numerous imitators. While Jacopetti and Prosperi continued to steer the ship with other infamous films like Africa Addio (1966) and Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971), more Italian directors decided to throw their hat in the mondo ring such as the Castiglioni brothers Angelo and Alfredo with their series of African based mondos and Antonio Climati and Mario Morra with their “savage trilogy”. Of course there are other international examples of films that came in the wake of mondos, perhaps the most infamous being the Faces of Death series which in turn led numerous similarly themed imitators, however by and large, the exploitation documentary market was cornered by the Italians. Sergio Martino, an Italian master, began his directorial career in the mondo genre with Wages of Sin (1969) which he quickly followed-up with Naked and Violent, a stand out film in the mondo genre for its setting but also for being of the most bizarre films of its type.

Unlike other Italian mondo films of the time which mainly focused on Africa or other exotic locations, Naked and Violent is a travelogue across the United States casting its leery and often scandalous eye on a variety of topics ranging from the homeless, living conditions of the elderly, the hedonism of Las Vegas, hippies and the anti-Vietnam war movement, race relations, the sexual practices of the bored bourgeois, fringe religions, bikers, the plight of Native Americans and everything in between.

Taken at face value, Naked and Violent probably comes across as cynical and crass and in truth it is, however like the majority of mondo films the manner in which it approaches its subjects is so hyper sensational and over the top its impossible to take completely seriously. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think that a good portion of what the film presents is accurate, although it becomes a guessing game of what is and isn’t as the film also makes use of another mondo trait, staged scenes. More often than not its fairly obvious to figure out what was staged, for instance the crew following the police to the scene of a “suicide”, a gang of rednecks attacking a black man or a hippie cutting off his fingers as to avoid the draft. There are however scenes in the film who’s authenticity is a tad more ambiguous. What really sets the film apart from other mondo’s is its sheer oddness with some “exposes” being so strange they almost cross over into surreal territory such as an African tribal ceremony being performed in New York City, a man getting close with a rather frightening looking blow-up doll, a bourgeois orgy where all the participants dawn grotesque masks and the obligatory satanic ritual featuring a sacrificial chicken. Of course there is “lighter” material like young hippies being “rented” by bored middle class ladies for a weekend rendezvous and the condescending Italian narration throughout makes everything a bit more humorous.

There are those who will no doubt be quick to label the film racially insensitive although such reactions are quickly dismissed considering Martino’s condemnation of the bastardization of Polynesian culture in Hawaii for tourism purposes, and the film does paint a fairly sensitive portrait of the struggle of the American Indian. Plus those with racist beliefs shown in the film are generally portrayed as backwards thinking and ignorant. Its bears mentioning that the film was scored by Bruno Nicolai who would go on to score Martino’s Arizona Colt Returns (1970), The Case of the Scorpions Tail (1971), All the Colors of the Dark (1972) and Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972). Jess Franco fans will immediately recognize cues from Nicolai’s soundtrack for Franco’s Eugenie… the Story of Her Journey into Perversion (1969) reused here during the satanic ritual which, despite being recycled was a perfect choice. Naked and Violent isn’t mentioned all that often despite having an official DVD release from Mya Communications. Like all mondo’s its bound to incite some sort of reaction, never apathy. Its an interesting look into Martino’s pre-giallo days and a fascinatingly weird film in general especially when compared to other mondo films. Those looking for a serious Italian critique of early 70’s America should know better, however as an exploitative freak show, Naked and Violent has all the bases covered.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Maps to the Stars (2014)

One of David Cronenberg’s biggest strengths as a filmmaker has always been the ability to contort reality by introducing slightly futuristic concepts into what were otherwise fairly real world situations. In early films like Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977), a man made parasite and surgical advances caused an outbreak of sexual mania and a unique form of vampyrism of sorts. With Videodrome (1983), technology really came to the forefront with the “watching is better than living” idea of television causing hallucinations, an idea Cronenberg would expand upon using video games and virtual reality in eXistenZ (1999). While not a “genre” film per-say, the fetishization of metal colliding with flesh in Crash (1996) also has a slight sci-fi bend to it. Psychology has always been of the biggest weapons in Cronenberg’s armory and with films like Dead Ringers (1988), Spider (2002) and A History of Violence (2005), it’s the psychology of the characters that distort the perceptions of what’s real and unreal with the protagonists of said films either living in their own self-created realities or slowing slipping into one. Maps to the Stars is a logical continuation of films like Spider, A History of Violence and Cosmopolis (2012), shining a darkly humorous and at times uncomfortable light into the minds and worlds of the Hollywood elite in what has to be one of Cronenberg’s most demented films and easily his best since Spider.

Fresh off a lengthy stay in a mental asylum, Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska), a badly burned schizophrenic arrives in Hollywood. Thanks to an online correspondence with Carrie Fisher, Agatha is able to land a job as a personal assistant to Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), an aging starlet desperate to land a role in a biopic playing the part of her dead mother, a former actress who’s ghost constantly haunts Havana. Pop psychotherapist Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), the father of both Agatha and Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird), a 13 year old child star and recovering addict, doesn’t take too kindly to the news of his estranged daughters arrival in town as it threatens to let known a dark secret, the consequences of which would spell disaster for all involved.

If Mulholland Drive (2001) was David Lynch’s love letter to Hollywood then Maps to the Stars could be considered Cronenberg’s break up letter. While its true that Cronenberg gleefully gives tinsel town and the big personalities it can create a proper skewering, saying that the film is solely about Hollywood would be selling the film short. By and large, Cronenberg seems more interested in exploring the self-involved, insular worlds these characters have created for themselves. Its not always a pretty picture, with there seemingly being no low any of the characters won’t sink too which is where the film gets its perverse sense of humor from with several moments that are sure to make many question whether to laugh or cringe. As funny as the film is, there is also an element of Greek tragedy to it all with the final moments of the film being equally touching as it is twisted. Cronenberg also has the film take the occasional foray into hallucinatory territory with multiple characters seeing visions of the departed and his use of schizophrenia here is interesting when contrasted to how the condition was portrayed, although never named, in a past film. The performances are all around brilliant with Moore being more than deserving of her best actress award at Cannes by relishing in Havana’s despicable nature, but stealing the show with ease is Evan Bird as the egotistical rotten little bastard child star who’s deadpan delivery of many of the films best, awkwardly hilarious lines is just pitch perfect.

Longtime Cronenberg fans will no doubt spot the films connection to The Brood (1979) by way of Stafford Weiss’ very psychical approach to psychotherapy which echoes the psychoplasmic practices of Dr. Hal Raglan in The Brood. Cronenberg also has a wink to his previous film Cosmopolis by casting Robert Pattinson (which is sure to hilariously irritate the same people that scoffed at his casting in Cosmopolis) in a role as a limo driver as opposed to having him reside in the backseat of one for the majority of the film ala Cosmopolis. Much like Cosmopolis, Maps to the Stars was a hard sell with Cronenberg trying unsuccessfully for several years to get it made. Cronenberg stated “…it's a very difficult film to get made as was Cosmopolis actually. Whether I can get this movie to happen, I tried it five years ago, I couldn't get it made, so I still might not be able to get it made." and Maps To The Stars is very extreme. It's not obviously a very big commercial movie, and even as an independent film it's difficult.” So perhaps it could be considered a miracle that it did get made as its yet another example of Cronenberg’s ability to still make films that are not only as off center and challenging as his classic work but wipe the floor with the dreck that passes for cinema these days.

Monday, August 8, 2016

A Night in Nude: Salvation (2010)

The cinematic landscape of Takashi Ishii is filled with several reoccurring motifs whether they be represented visually via his obsession with torrential rainfall and neon drenched lighting which are found in virtually everyone of his films, or thematically, for instance his predilection for sadomasochism in films such as Flower and Snake (2004) and Sweet Whip (2013). One particular idea that Ishii is constantly exploring no matter what genre he may be working in is just how rotten the human race can be to itself and there is a great sadness running throughout all his work. Ishii has never shied away exposing the physical and psychological trauma humans inflict on each other and more often than not its women who are on the receiving end of the abuse. This has led to many westerners dismissing Ishii as a misogynist while in Japan Ishii is applauded by many feminists and its easy to see why, as all of Ishii’s films are incredibly heartfelt and it should be glaringly obvious that Ishii is always on the side of his female protagonists as evidenced by films like Angel Guts: Red Vertigo (1988), Freeze Me (2000) and Sweet Whip. A Night in Nude: Salvation, Ishii’s sequel to A Night in Nude (1993), is one of Ishii’s most potent plunges into the abyss of human cruelty and yet another example of Ishii’s sensitivity while dealing with wounded female psyches.

Jiro (Naoto Takenaka), an odd job man willing to take on any task depending on the payment, is approached by Ren (Hiroko Sato), a young woman asking him to locate a missing Rolex. Although skeptical of her story, that the watch was accidentally dropped out of a helicopter while scattering her late fathers ashes, Jiro accepts and finds the watch. Impressed by Jiro's never asking questions, Ren goes to him again for another job, to locate the whereabouts of a missing girl named Tae whom Ren credits with having saved her life. Jiro once again accepts and the further he gets into his investigation of Tae, the more over his head he finds himself in Ren and her family’s strange and dangerous world of sex and murder.

To the uninitiated, A Night in Nude: Salvation (Nûdo no yoru: Ai wa oshiminaku ubau, ヌードの夜 愛は惜しみなく奪う) will probably seem like a barrage of nihilism and exploitation and there is quite a bit of truth to that idea. The film is one of Ishii’s bleakest projections of his worldview, presenting a vision of Japan where the rain never stops, human bodies are nothing more than a form of currency and the concept of family is perverted and synonymous with nothing but suffering. At the same time, those already familiar with Ishii will recognize an attempt at understanding the behavior of the characters, specifically Ren. Ren is one of the Ishii’s most tormented creations and the more time Ishii spotlights her family, the more her reasoning becomes apparent which makes the involvement of Jiro all the more gripping and ultimately tragic. Ishii’s way of setting up the story is a bit deceptive with the mystery of Tae quickly revealing itself to not be much of a mystery at all. Instead of loosing its momentum, Ishii’s letting the audience know more than the characters beforehand gives the film even more, with the mystery being how will the main players react to certain situations and just what depths will they sink too. The sheer bizarreness of Jiro’s journey down the rabbit hole make the film all the more fascinating and Ishii even finds time for some pitch black humor thanks to the lunatic antics of Ren’s family and their nonchalant attitudes towards some fairly risky activities.

In what instantly became one of the most infamous moments in Ishii’s oeuvre and a make a break factor for many viewers, Ishii has lead actress Hiroko Sato repeatedly flagellate herself for an extended period of time. It’s an exhausting sequence and while many have complained about the length and indulgence of the scene, Ishii brilliantly uses the scene to give a glimpse into Ren’s state of mind and the harrowing voice-overs heard throughout make it a scene of immense self-loathing and emotional purging. The scene is not only a testament to Ishii’s unique way of handling some pretty loaded subject matter but also the phenomenal performance of Hiroko Sato who follows in the footsteps of a long line of fearless actresses like Harumi Inoue (who appears here as one of Ren’s demented sisters), Aya Sugimoto and Mai Kitajima who’ve gone through the psychical and psychological ringer for Ishii with astonishing results. As good as Naoto Takenaka is in his 9th role for Ishii reprising his role as Jiro the handyman from Ishii’s first Night in Nude, as is often the case in an Ishii film, it’s the female who gets center stage and Sato leaves a lasting impression. Despite being a sequel, A Night in Nude: Salvation works perfectly on its own and is further proof of Ishii’s willingness to go to places most contemporary directors don’t have the nerve to go.

Monday, July 25, 2016

One Missed Call (2003)

Its funny how trends come and go in the horror genre. These days, its hollow patchwork "homage" films and remakes of classics and it would appear that Hollywood has gotten so bored of remaking films that have passed the 30 year range that plans are in motion to remake films from the 90’s. In the late 90’s and mid to early 2000’s however, Asian horror was all the rage. Clearly the most popular country of origin during the Asian horror boom was Japan and in particular Japanese films belonging to that specific faction of J-horror dealing with vengeful poltergeists with the most popular examples being the Ringu (The Ring) and Ju-on (The Grudge) series of films and of course their Americanized remakes that just had to follow. While Takashi Miike is rightfully considered a master of Japanese horror, he interestingly chose to stay away from these types of films for the most part with his horror films from around the time period covering a wide variety of styles from the dramatic Audition (1999), to the over the top zombie/musical/comedy hybrid The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001) and the surreal and abstract Gozu (2003). Miike did eventually throw his hat in J-horror ghost story ring in 2003 with One Missed Call, a film that hits all the right notes of the subgenre making it stand out in a crowded sea of similarly themed films.

Yumi, a young psychology student witnesses her friend Yoko receive a missed call notice on her cell phone. Strangely, the call was dated two days in the future and sent from Yoko’s own number and the voice on the message appears to be Yoko’s own, in mid-conversation before letting out a blood-curdling scream. Two days later while walking home and talking to Yumi on her cell, Yoko is suddenly killed by an oncoming train. Not long after, another friend of Yumi’s confesses to getting the same missed call notice and is immediately killed in front of Yumi which is followed yet again by another one of Yumi’s friends receiving the call. Yumi eventually meets Yamashita, who’s sister was one of the first victims of the cursed call and soon enough Yumi too gets the call as the two set out to uncover the origin behind the calls in hopes of saving Yumi from the fate of her friends.

Although relatively straightforward on the surface, One Missed Call (Chakushin ari, 着信アリ) could nevertheless be interpreted in a few ways. Detractors of the film dismiss it as a mere Ringu rip off while others see the film as a parody of the J-horror craze of the time. The later is somewhat understandable given the films almost hilariously familiar trajectory as similar films however the film seems more like a deconstruction of J-horror, as if Miike took all the familiar tropes of the subgenre that were prevalent at the dawn of the new millennium and said “Now this is how its done!” and therefore as a stand alone horror film, One Missed Call knocks it out of the park. Despite being one of Miike’s more commercially minded films when compared to the likes of Ichi the Killer (2001) or Visitor Q (2001), the film isn’t exactly lighthearted even with some well placed humorous commentary on the media and one very over the top death scene. Much like Audition and even Imprint (2006), there is a feeling of great sadness that hovers over the entire film with virtually every character dealing with some kind of past trauma and Miike finds a way to brilliantly fuse Yumi’s tragic past with the exceptionally grim origin of the cursed phone calls which culminates in a scene which turns from horrifying to heartbreaking in a matter of seconds. This overwhelming gloom is further emphasized by the films equally bleak visual design and a general feeling of unease and unusualness.

Yasushi Akimoto's novel, the cover
of which was the basis for the poster
art for the American remake.
Considering its subject matter and the time period in which it was released, its almost as if Miike was begging an American studio to remake the film which is exactly what happened in 2008 which funnily enough was a few years after the J-horror craze in the west began to cool off a bit. Unsurprisingly the remake is considered a failure in pretty much every area and is normally classified as one of the worst American remakes of a Japanese film. In Japan the original film spawned two sequels although Miike didn’t return to direct any of them. What’s also interesting is that while the film is technically based on a novel by Yasushi Akimoto, the script for the film and the book were written side by side with both differing from each other in various ways. According to Miike, he was forced to make some compromises while making the film and that if he had it his way the film would have probably turned out more in the vein of Gozu. Nevertheless the film still retains several of Miike’s signatures and again manages to do something personal even with the tried and true premise. Definitely one of the best films J-horror has to offer and a peculiar film for Miike that, despite its relative lack of eccentricities normally associated with Miike, still fits right in with many of his other horror films.