There's little that's more frustrating than a great idea badly executed.The great idea in this case is to take two tales of horror and mystery by Japan's venerable author Edogawa Rampo and fuse them into one film: Blind Beast andKiller Dwarf. The former was actually made into a film of its own, a staple bit of excess from one of the masters of same, director Yasuzo Masumura. His film was gloriously perverse and over-the-top, and reveled in its bizarre set designs and lurid camera angles. Now we have another Japanese director that is synonymous with excess and luridness, Teruo Ishii, taking a crack at some of the same material, and adding in another of Rampo's stories apparently just for jolly since there's little other visible reason to do so.
Ishii is mostly famous for his gore and torture epics from the Sixties and Seventies, which pushed the onscreen boundaries for what was either permissible or desirable. Unfortunately, a lot of the rest of his work falls way short of the mark. Japanese Hell was a wretched, "socially relevant" reworking of the original proto-J-horror masterpiece Jigoku; Screwed was an ambitious but flawed filming of an adult manga that needed more than just being translated so literally to the screen. Now, sadly, add Blind Beast vs. Killer Dwarf to the "flawed" list as well — and it'll be the last item on that list, since it was Ishii's last feature film before he died.
Ishii's re-adaptation of Blind Beast adds in another story, mostly for the sake of
making one good plot serve another to less of an end than you might think.
Beast/Dwarf deals with two Rampo stories whose plots have been forcibly intertwined. The first is a retelling of the original Blind Beast plotline — a blind sculptor kidnaps a woman to be his sensual slave in his "cavern" of sculptures — but Ishii opens things up a bit by having the "beast" of the title be a serial murderer. His victim, a famous cabaret dancer, is only the first of several women to suffer at his hands. To complicate things further, another murder takes place near the dancer's last public performance, one apparently committed by an ugly dwarf who seems to have an uncomfortable amount of knowledge about his victims.
The single biggest problem with the movie is the production values ... make that, the lack of production values. Ishii never worked on very high budgets to begin with — in fact, there's a lot to suggest he relished working with small budgets, because it forced him to be "creative" — but Beast/Dwarf is not just limited by its small budget but downright damaged by it. For one, it's been shot on video, and its persistently murky, underlit look (and extremely spotty audio) is a constant turnoff. It doesn't look mysterious or frightening; it just looks ugly and cheap. Other low-budget Japanese productions of late have also been shot on video, and I had a hard time telling some of them apart from film. The recent Takashi Ishii remake of Flower and Snake (novelist Oniroku Dan's take on The Story of O) was shot on HD video and was nearly indistinguishable from film. I don't have anything against a movie being made on a low budget, but I do when it makes the very act of watching the film an endurance test.
Despite the presence of the always-excellent Shinya Tsukamoto as Detective Akechi,
and some other Rampo-style ingredients, the movie is just too crudely done to work well.
The other problem is Ishii's instincts as a storyteller or filmmaker. For a movie that is supposed to generate a great deal of suspense about the goings-on, very little suspense accumulates at all, and most of the movie passes in a kind of humdrum threnody. This isn't to say the movie's a total failure. Ishii is clever enough to try something Rampo himself did fairly regularly: he makes not-so-oblique cross-references to other Rampo stories, like "Hell of Mirrors" (filmed with some variation in Rampo Noir). I particularly liked Shinya Tsukamoto as Rampo's recurring investigator Kogoro Akechi; compare his version of the character with Tadanobu Asano's more taciturn, brooding version in Rampo Noir. But when you get down to it, that's really all a movie like this ends up being good for — reminding you of other, better ways this sort of thing has been done.