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.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Crimes of Passion (1984)

While there have been exceptions, for the better part of the past 20 or so years it seems as if Hollywood and American films in general have stopped caring about taking chances in terms of material, choosing to stay stagnant in a sterile CGI/green screen rut. It might seem strange that there was once a point in time however when a Hollywood film with several million dollars behind it could cause a major stir, draw the ire of the MPAA and be completely subversive. Paul Verhoeven for example had this down to a science with films like RoboCop (1987), Showgirls (1995) and Starship Troopers (1997), films infamous for their content but for their intelligence as well. William Friedkin’s notorious Cruising (1980) also immediately springs to mind. So its not entirely surprising that Ken Russell would be invited to Hollywood to make Altered States (1980), although Russell’s reputation as a result of his clashes with Paddy Chayefsky who adapted to screenplay from his own novel not only led to Chayefsky taking his name off the film, in the process Russell found himself becoming a persona non grata of sorts in Hollywood. Never one to let reputation get in the way, Russell again managed to cause a major fuss with his follow-up to Altered States, 1984’s Crimes of Passion, one of Russell’s most outrageous films and at the same time one of his most heartfelt.

Electronics salesman Bobby Grady (John Laughlin) is hired by a fashion designer to do some nighttime surveillance trailing one of his employees, Joanna Crane (Kathleen Turner) whom he believes is stealing from him. While following Joanna, a serious, no nonsense business woman by day, Bobby is shocked to learn that at night Joanna takes to the streets as China Blue, a sharp tongued prostitute willing to fulfill any fantasy. Bobby, who’s marriage to his high school sweetheart Amy is in shambles, pays Joanna, as China Blue, a personal visit and soon finds himself falling for the real Joanna, all the while Joanna is being relentlessly pursued by reverend Peter Shayne (Anthony Perkins), a psychotic preacher obsessed with “saving” her.

Crimes of Passion is a blunt as a film can be in the way it presents it ideas yet at the same time can still be a bit difficult to get a read on in that while its subject matter is incredibly heavy, this is also a Ken Russell film filled to the brim with bizarre and flamboyant moments. On a purely surface level, this is a film about sex, however deep down its really a film about fear. Bobby’s fear of admitting his marriage has lost whatever spark it may have had, Amy’s fear of admitting her lack of interest in sex and Joanna’s fear of being herself and letting anyone into her life in an intimate manner outside of her China Blue persona. Its these things which give the film its heart, particularly in the dialogue department. The discussions of sex are frank and at times awkward yet purposely so, for instance in a brilliantly performed scene between Bobby and Amy where the two are finally honest with each other for the first time in what seems like ages. On the opposite end of the spectrum would be the back and fourths between China Blue and Reverend Shayne, which are just fierce but also darkly comic and the film does have a tendency to bounce back and forth between being a serious drama, erotic thriller and absurdist comedy and the later takes over every time Perkins is on screen in one of the most hilariously deranged performance ever captured on film.

Russell would return to similar territory and controversy later in his career with Whore (1991) which in many ways could be seen as somewhat of a sequel to Crimes of Passion with its pull no punches look at the life of a streetwalker mixed with the occasional moment of Russell oddness, although nothing that comes close to the lunacy that is Perkins in Crimes of Passion. Whore also features a typically fearless performance from Theresa Russell just as Crimes of Passion features Kathleen Tuner in one of her most iconic and greatest roles, no hyperbole. Aesthetically however the films are worlds apart with Whore being no frills and shot documentary style whereas Crimes of Passion is smothered in flashy neon lighting and 80’s kitsch even featuring a random moment of classic Russell surrealism represented by a television commercial and the film is equally defined by its gloriously 80’s synth score via Rick Wakeman. Despite the controversy surrounding the film upon its original release, it would appear that the film has been somewhat forgotten about over the years especially when compared to other Russell titles like Women in Love (1969), The Devils (1971) or Tommy (1975) just to name a few. Both perverted and poignant with astounding performances from Turner and Perkins, Crimes of Passion is a quintessentially Russell experience and deserves to hailed as one of his best films and a 80’s highlight.