We’ve been lucky enough to see Ringu, Audition and many of the best of the recent spate of Japanese horror movies, but we’ve seen amazingly little of the four decades of Japanese horror films that predate and influence them all. Jigoku was and remains one of the best and most influential, not just for its frightful story but its stylized, surreal approach that’s still striking today. And yet the only way to see it as of this writing is in an import DVD edition (which, thankfully, has English subtitles and is in pristine shape), which is a large part of the reason why I’m writing this review. It’s more reminiscent of classic British horror productions — the Hammer Studios films, or the Ealing releases — than the dump-the-guts-on-the-floor movies that passes for horror today, and its sense of genuine dread and inevitability lingers with you long after it’s over.
Jigoku is the Japanese word for hell, and the Buddhist sutras that describe the sufferings that await sinners in the underworld are hair-raising stuff that would give Dante himself pause. One of Japan’s national artistic treasures is a series of illustrated scrolls that graphically depict many of hell’s tortures — everything from the burning of the body with red-hot irons to being drowned in a river of filth (and those are the softer tortures, trust me). Jigoku the movie, however, focuses less on hell itself at first than how the sins committed here on earth lead to the torments in the hereafter. Hell remains almost completely unseen until about the final third of the movie, but that is only because the movie is wisely building a case for just how horrible hell really is. Read more
I remember reading a number of science-fiction novels, most of them published in the Seventies, which showed civilization coming to an end not through nuclear war or disease, but simple fatigue: Things fall apart, the center cannot hold. Such stories are usually used as a demonstration of a bleak survival-of-the-fittest social philosophy — institutions are arbitrary creations, men are ultimately animals, etc. — and even if the insights aren’t exactly new, they’re usually cast in a way that makes them at least riveting as drama.
Temps du Loup is a film made more or less in that vein, about a time ostensibly not so far from now, when things have indeed fallen apart; it’s, as they say, every man for himself and God against all. But it is not about a disease that has a miracle cure, or a heroic trek to restore the protagonist with his family; it follows a group of survivors doing nothing more than the best they can to survive, and ends on a deliberately inconclusive note. The process is more important than the outcome here.
Loup opens with Anne (Isabelle Huppert), her two children and her husband arriving at a country summer home. Right away we can tell they are not here on vacation: their tones are flat and urgent, their faces tense. Someone else has broken into the house before them, and he shoots Anne’s husband dead before they can even figure out if he wants anything. Anne and the kids flee, and eventually end up in the company of a group of others who are squatting in the switch room of a train station, waiting for … answers? Rescue? Trains come through every now and then, but pass coldly on by without stopping, and there are vague plans to blockade the tracks and force them to stop. Read more
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The Last Unicorn is another of the great “lost” animated productions, and for so many reasons that a description threatens to turn into a catalog. It was a lavish adaptation of one of the most beloved of fantasy novels, mentioned in the same breath along with the Narnia books and Tolkien’s Ring cycle; its failure at the box office sent it into a limbo from which it still has yet to emerge completely from and which has caused both its author and its audience much grief; and it features an array of talent from many countries, including what would eventually become the nucleus of one of the most prestigious animation studios on the world.
It’s also quite simply a wonderful movie, literate and intelligent, and that in itself is reason enough to see it even if it had no cult following. It deals with, as the title might imply, the last unicorn (Mia Farrow) — a creature living in a timeless forest where it is always spring, and where nothing ever changes except the outside world. The Unicorn has grown restless and curious, and has come to wonder if there are any others like her. Her fellow animals tell her of the Red Bull, a monstrous creature who herded all of the other unicorns to the end of the earth for reasons unknown. Find this beast, she reasons, and I shall find the others like me — and so she sets off to do exactly that.Read more
Burst City more than lives up to its title — it’s a gloriously out-of-control mess of a film that has more going on per frame than any five other movies that come to mind. Part punk rock concert film, part teen / youth exploitation picture, part gangster-violence drama, part biker-gang story and part underground / indie moviemaking monstrosity, it’s been one of Japan’s best-kept movie secrets for decades, and is only now finally available in an edition that shows off why it’s commanded such a reputation for so long. Love it or hate it, it’s unique: it spends every moment of its running time doing its damndest to scour your senses flat, and you have to admit it does that in a way no other movie can remotely match.
The film is set in a shantytown occupied by human refuse of all kinds: criminals, drug addicts, madmen, prostitutes and pimps, creeps and thugs — but especially punk rockers like the Roosters (and their in-film competition, the Rockers and the Stalin), who gather every night and play ear-searing concerts to audiences that are even crazier than they are. They drag-race with competing crews, get high, get drunk, get wild; they’re mostly party animals whose worst crime is not being able to see anything outside of their little circle of pleasures. They’re contrasted vividly with a local yakuza outfit, hired muscle who are being brought in to ensure that a nuclear power plant gets built nearby and goes online, on schedule. Read more