Spring: character study on renewal through love and connections, and beating back monsters

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, “Spring” (2014)

A rather long and thin character study romance that’s equal parts comedy, drama and gore-blimey slimy body horror makes up this low-budget flick “Spring” whose title ends up overburdened with many layers of meaning by the time the final credits start rolling. A young Californian, Evan (Louis Taylor Pucci), has just lost his mum from cancer and follows that crisis with another when he loses his dead-end job as a restaurant cook after a fight with a customer. All at sea with no other family and no idea what to do, he accepts an invitation from friends to go travelling with them and he lands in southern Italy. He takes up a job (an illegal one, it turns out) with a farmer and strikes up a friendship with local 20-year-old girl Louise (Nadia Hilker). This friendship quickly develops into a romance, or so he thinks … it’s just that Louise behaves a bit oddly, standing him up at the most inopportune times, due to a terrible secret she carries …

The intention for this film is for it to draw its strength from the character study of the two lovebirds and the deep and complex relationship they develop. There certainly is chemistry between the two young actors who play Evan and Louise. Unfortunately much of the dialogue isn’t very convincing, especially in the drawn-out denouement where Louise explains the nature of her protean shape-shifting condition and how she needs to renew her human shape every 20 years to remain the 2,000-year-old alien-human hybrid entity she is. Parts of the action seem a bit forced at times – just how does Evan figure out in a split second that Louise needs her syringe in one horrific scene? – and the film never explains satisfactorily how in 2,000 years no-one has noticed that Louise has always looked much the same without ever ageing, or that animals and humans occasionally turn up dead in the streets, in the fields or out at sea bearing the most hideous mutilations. Come to think of it, even Louise doesn’t appear to have learned a great deal in 2,000 years on how to manage her condition; one would have thought that in all that time, she would have acquired specialised knowledge of herbs, medicines and recipes to keep her Lovecraftian love-handles at bay and everyone else from guessing the nature of her curse.

Parts of the film could have been tightened up for pace and dialogue and the running time could have been cut to about 100 minutes without too much of the plot or its message being affected. On a superficial level, the message of renewal through love and finding connections comes through clearly; on a deeper level there is an exploration of what it means to be human and mortal, and to know immortality through means other than the purely physical. Just as Evan learns to live again by making new connections and falling in love, so Louise has to learn what true immortality really means and the sacrifice she must make to achieve that. The film achieves closure when both cross into their own existential and metaphysical springs.

Filmed in southern Italy, the movie has many beautiful rural and maritime settings, and the cinematography, using filters that render outlines a bit blurry (as though to emulate the blurriness of the tragic heroine’s real looks, which viewers never see in their entirety), creates mood and feeling very effectively. One does start to care for the lovebirds and their potentially doomed romance and the climax is a satisfying and graceful close to the themes raised in the film.

Night of the Living Dead: cult horror classic is a character study and commentary on American society

George A Romero, “Night of the Living Dead” (1968)

Made on a minuscule budget, George A Romero’s famous horror film is proof that a large pot of money isn’t necessary to create a great film that still resonates with new generations of viewers nearly 50 years (as of this time of writing) later. “Night …” is essentially a character study whose plot is driven by the behaviours and motivations of the various people thrown together in a farmhouse due to an unusual emergency. A brother-sister pair visit their deceased father in a rural cemetery and are later set upon by a mysterious ghoul. The brother is killed and the sister, Barbara (Judith O’Dea), flees for her life and makes her way to the farmhouse. Ben (Duane Jones) takes her in and from this moment on, Barbara spends the rest of the film suffering from post-traumatic shock. Ben barricades the farmhouse from attacks by ghouls, at least until he discovers that a family has been sheltering in the building’s cellar. Much of the rest of the film revolves around the conflict between Ben and the family patriarch Harry Cooper (Ken Hardman) which explodes into a fight for the one rifle the besieged humans have among them when the ghouls launch a mass attack on the farmhouse.

While the plot writes itself – there is not much a group of humans in a farmhouse under attack from flesh-eating monsters can do apart from trying to prevent ingress and arguing about the best way to do this – the interest in the film stems from Romero’s casting choices and the many ways in which the film up-ends conventional Hollywood stereotypes about plot and character. Hiring a black actor to play the more sane and compassionate Ben endows the film with a social justice theme: in emergency situations, people must rely on one another for help and safety regardless of their social and economic backgrounds. The humans in the farmhouse become a metaphor for Western rationality and enlightenment surrounded and threatened by ignorance, bigotry and hatreds from white America’s dark past of its relations with black and native Americans. Harry Cooper, a white man, behaves selfishly and indirectly causes his own death. The radio that the humans depend on gives them information about how the ghouls came to be: news that the ghouls are dead people reanimated by radioactive fall-out from a fallen satellite rams home a warning about how nuclear warfare and related technologies can have dire consequences for the survival of humankind.

Ben and Harry’s argument is significant in defying audience expectations about aspects of the plot: Ben argues for safety on the building’s top level and Harry wants everyone down in the basement cellar; as it turns out, when the zombies invade the farmhouse, Ben takes refuge in the cellar! Another way in which the film defies conventional story-telling is that when US authorities finally arrive at the farmhouse to rescue any survivors, they end up killing the sole survivor of the mass zombie attack as well as the zombies themselves. This downbeat ending underlines the film’s message that in the end, death overtakes us all and what matters is how we have lived our lives before then.

The film’s minimal style and the cast’s naturalistic acting – and Barbara’s trauma – ensure that it remains fresh even after half a century since it was made. The many innovations and breaks with conventional story-telling introduced by “Night …”, along with its raw natural style and underlying message about humans, endowed with intelligence and reason but unable to work together to solve common problems because of social and cultural barriers, not only spawned an entire new genre of zombie movies but cements its status as a classic American film.

The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover: a parable on the decline and fall of neoliberal British society and culture

Peter Greenaway, “The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover” (1989)

Straight away viewers can tell there’s much more simmering away in this story about a cook, a thief, his wife and her lover. This is no simple tale of a love triangle, with all its messy and emotional complications and unfortunate consequences, that forms over food and its consumption – especially when Peter Greenaway is the one shaping the narrative and the film’s visual appearance which draws heavily on Renaissance and Baroque art in a very formal and artificial way. This is a film of rage at the decline and fall of Western civilisation and British civilisation in particular, through an allegory that tells of the greed of an elite that ravages society and culture to feed its own spiritual and moral emptiness, that destroys life and imposes its rule on vulnerable people, and which can only end up destroying itself through its own gluttony.

Through means fair and foul (but mostly foul, I suspect), the mobster Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) claims ownership of Le Hollandais, a high-class restaurant run by French chef Richard Boarst (Richard Bohringer), and crudely demonstrates who’s boss by holding court at the main table every night with his retinue of thugs, gorging on food and fighting with customers who dare to criticise the food and with kitchen and waiting staff alike. Forced to accompany Spica is his timid wife Georgina (Helen Mirren) who quickly catches the attention of bookish regular customer Michael (Alan Howard) with whom she begins a secretive affair aided and abetted by Boarst. Spica learns of the affair from the girlfriend of one of his myrmidons and Georgina and Michael are forced to hide at his book depository. Spica eventually tracks down the lovers through young kitchen-hand Pup (who is also tortured) and he and his men suffocate and kill Michael while Georgina is away visiting Pup in hospital. Georgina and Boarst plot to avenge Michael’s death in a way that unravels like a 17th-century Jacobean revenge tragedy parable that traps Spica in his own greed, gluttony and violence.

The formal artificiality of the film and its self-referential nature help to smooth over much of its intense brutality and the high emotion and drama. The colours of the film – which also pervade Georgina’s quaint Victorian-styled bondage costumes, changing their hue as she passes from one part of the restaurant to another – reference the close relationships linking life, food, sex, death and rebirth. It is with the death of Michael that Georgina finally discovers her true nature and is reborn – though that new nature itself is not pure. It is with the death of the restaurant that Boarst is able to assist Georgina in paying back Spica for all the abuse and violence he has meted out to her. It is only with the death of Spica that everyone he has belittled can finally heal and become normal human beings entitled to freedom, love and a culture that prizes learning, contemplation and a love of the written word.

While the film is horrific in its extreme and gross violence and the filth and corruption that surrounds the restaurant and follow Spica and his band of murderous men, what saves it is the complexity of the characters: Spica genuinely desires to be and to have what Georgina has (refinement), even if he doesn’t quite know how to achieve it except by bullying his minions, and he weeps for what he and Georgina will never have together (children, a stable family life). Georgina changes drastically from timid put-upon abused wife to secretive and vivacious lover, to cold-blooded and vengeful bitch. Exactly what Michael offers Georgina is not too clear – it’s certainly not freedom as she keeps returning to Spica every evening – and his character more or less remains bland while he is alive (though perhaps to a woman whose husband’s behaviour goes from one violent extreme to another, the lover’s very blandness must be his most attractive quality).

The film is too long with an overly loud and shrieky musical soundtrack to be one of Greenaway’s better films. The end when it comes is abrupt compared to the rest of the movie and one isn’t too sure that Georgina, Richard and all the others wronged by Spica are justified in what they have done to him; but then, that’s the lesson of life: greed and violence corrupt people, culture and society wherever they go.

 

In the Realm of the Senses: two lovers pursuing happiness and freedom in a repressive society

Nagisa Oshima, “Ai no korida / In the Realm of the Senses” (1976)

Forty years ago this film was made and it still has the power to shock current audiences with its explicit sexual scenes, the intense sexual obsessions, and the asphyxiophilia leading to the shocking climax and aftermath. For much of its running time though, “In the Realm …” can be boring and excruciating to watch: the plot is very basic and repetitive, and only really gets going towards the end when its protagonist and antagonist start exploring the extremes of their sexual passion; and the characters themselves tend to be one-dimensional and underdeveloped.

The plot is based on an actual historical case in Japan during the 1930s and the names of the two main characters are unchanged from those of the original doomed lovers. Kichi Ishida (Tatsuya Fuji) runs an inn in Tokyo where Sada Abe (Eiko Matsuda) comes to work as a waitress. The two are attracted to each other and in no time at all have commenced an affair even though Ishida is already married. Initially in their affair the two experiment sexually and indulge one another but gradually their affair becomes all-consuming: Ishida leaves his wife and Sada becomes intensely jealous and obsessive to the point of threatening to kill Ishida if he returns to his wife or sleeps with another woman. Their affair soon occupies their attention almost daily and their sexual experimentation becomes ever more extreme with Ishida suggesting to Sada that she try strangling him to excite him sexually. Sada cannot conceive of life and happiness without Ishida and the emotions this arouses together with the erotic strangling has horrific if entirely predictable consequences for the two lovers.

As a character study, the film doesn’t work very well: there are early indications that Sada has been a prostitute in the past and is possessed of a powerful sexuality that draws men to her. She can also be easily roused to anger and strong emotions, and her anger may respect no human-made boundaries. It’s apparent that life for a passionate young woman in the Japan of the 1930s, a hierarchical and strongly conformist society then passing into militarism and fascism, is going to be very difficult. Unfortunately Oshima does not emphasise the conflict between Sada’s nature and the society that would try to turn her into a meek and submissive woman much at all. By contrast Ishida is a curiously passive man who readily gives in to Sada’s demands to the point of leaving his wife and any children they already have, and to neglect his business. This surely would have been enough to earn the couple considerable social opprobrium and ostracism. As it is, the affair forces Sada to take up prostitution again at various points in the film. With the way Oshima has framed the narrative though, focusing exclusively on the intense affair and Sada’s obsession with continuing it, viewers see nothing of the effect it has on Ishida and Sada’s ability to cope and survive, and on the people most affected by the relationship; and this narrow focus may be considered a major defect of the film.

The film’s themes are more important than its plot or its character development, superficial though the latter is: through Sada and Ishida’s obsession, Oshima raises the question of how far people can go to pursue happiness and fulfillment in an increasingly repressive society. At first their obsession provides Sada and Ishida with some measure of happiness, connection and freedom to express and explore themselves, psychologically as well as physically; but over time it becomes a destructive and paradoxically enslaving addiction for both. While the two pursue their passion, the outside world comes to see them as strange and perverted though curiously it makes no attempt to separate them. The sexual experimentation (and its explicitness and increasingly extreme character) becomes a revolt against political and sexual oppression; at the same time this revolt isolates Sada and Ishida from the rest of humanity so as rebellions go, it is a rather pathetic one. This alienation could have been made more devastating had Oshima included something of the outside world’s opinion of the affair through Ishida’s wife and employees, or through the rural inns the couple flees to, to conduct their relationship.

The film can be seen as a criticism of the roles men and women are or were expected to play in Japanese society: Sada, a poor working girl and prostitute, plays the active role in the relationship while Ishida, her employer and social superior, follows her lead. Again the sexual experimentation represents a break with the expectations of what is appropriate behaviour for men and women in sexual relationships, and gives a glimpse of an alternate world where people are free to express themselves and explore new identities free of gender limitations.

While the film is sexually graphic, I don’t see it as a pornographic film: the sex on display illustrates the couple’s break with and alienation from society, and it is not at all titillating or arousing. Whereas pornography seeks to enforce the status quo in gender and class relations, “In the Realm …” goes out of its way to question and criticise what pornography accepts without question. This is a film of two people trying to find inner peace, happiness and freedom in a world marching towards war and repression.

Dead Sushi: wacky comedy horror film takes pot-shots at corporate culture and greed, and food obsessions

Noboru Iguchi, “Dead Sushi” (2012)

In the tradition of wacky Japanese comedy horror flicks comes this little number that takes a bizarre concept (bloodthirsty monster sushi) and milks it for all it’s worth (and then some) while managing to sneak in a coming-of-age / road movie theme in which discovering your true self and talents is the goal. Teenager Keiko (Rina Takeda) is trained by her sushi chef father to be both a sushi chef herself and a martial arts practitioner. The exacting standards her father imposes on her – plus his disdain for the fact that she was born a girl, not a boy – lead Keiko to run away from home and take up a job as a waitress at a rural hot springs resort. The other waitresses bully her and the resort owners kick her around roughly and warn her to maintain the place’s high (chortle) standards. Only the gardener Mr Sawada (Shigeru Matsuzaki) treats her kindly. A group of corporate employees from a pharmaceutical firm arrives at the resort and the guests start throwing their weight about as well. Unbeknownst to all, a former employee has followed his erstwhile work colleagues to the resort, planning to avenge his sacking on his former bosses by injecting a liquid into sushi that turns the tasty morsels into fanged ravenous critters with the power of flight!

The computer-generated gore flies freely and bloodily and the fight sequences are perhaps a little too sharp and smooth in their choreography. Most characters are as one-dimensional and stereotyped as can be – even Keiko isn’t completely plausible as the shy, put-upon doormat who becomes an unexpected heroine – and director Iguchi has to continually pile on one send-up or cliche on top of another to keep the film going. The victims of the mutant sushi turn into rice-spewing zombies, the angry researcher transforms into a giant tuna monster, two pieces of sushi propagate an army of killer baby sushi balls (which later make for a beautiful spectacle of whizzing colour as they attack a human victim) and a giant salmon roe sushi battleship flies after Keiko flinging chains and blasting fire at her!

What helps to keep the movie going, aside from the pace and the ratcheting up of more jaw-dropping silliness, is a sub-plot involving the resort owners and the sushi chef they employ, along with themes of corporate corruption and the eventual triumph of good over evil. Underdogs, be they human or sushi, perform heroic deeds and sacrifice themselves if necessary to thwart evil. No-one associated with the film, least of all the cast and the director, takes it all that seriously and the general tone is light-hearted. The film ends on a happy note with both the corporate baddies and the monster sushi brought to heel and Keiko finally discovering her life’s purpose. For all the silly fun and jaw-dropping freakishness, the film cleverly skewers plenty of cultural stereotypes in modern Japanese society: the obsession with perfection in food preparation that amounts to gastro-pornography, the control that corporations have over their employees, and men’s sexist treatment of women, among others. Like Iguchi’s other gonzo freak-fest “RoboGeisha” which I reviewed not so long ago, “Dead Sushi” in its own way critiques contemporary Japanese society and values by throwing its obsessions at it and exploiting them to the hilt.

Ugetsu: a parable of two men in pursuit of fame and glory, with social justice themes

Kenji Mizoguchi, “Ugetsu” (1953)

Two interwined morality plays about peasants blinded by thoughts of personal fame and glory are the basis for an exploration of love, loss and the importance of community and working together in this sumptuous historical drama. The story of Tobei and Genjuro is set during a period of civil war and instability in mediaeval Japan. Tobei, a farmer, dreams of becoming a samurai and Genjuro is obsessed with becoming a master maker of pottery, selling his wares and enriching himself and his family. A skirmish of samurai employed by a local landlord gives Tobei and Genjuro the opportunity to escape their ravaged village and realise their dreams.

The tale of Tobei is very straightforward, centred around the foolish Tobei himself and his long-suffering wife who pays a heavy penalty for her husband’s ambitions. The story could have ended very badly for Mr and Mrs Tobei but at the end they are still together … and moreover, living quite happily ever after. Genjuro’s story is as complicated as the character himself: taking his ceramics to sell in a market town, Genjuro encounters the mysterious aristocratic Lady Wakasa who invites him to stay at her family mansion. As you might guess, Genjuro and Lady Wakasa become a little too friendly with each other and Genjuro forgets that he has a wife and son waiting for him at him. A mendicant monk disabuses Genjuro of any fancy notions about living with Lady Wakasa as man and wife and Genjuro finally realises that Lady Wakasa and her retinue are ghosts. Sadder and wiser, he goes home only to discover that his wife has been killed by soldiers, leaving their son behind.

Both Tobei and Genjuro’s stories can be read as parables on the folly of men trying to achieve dreams and ideals beyond their talents or abilities to control, and the suffering they cause to their wives and children. On one level, the film can be read as essentially conservative, in urging people to accept their places in society according to their abilities and skills. On another level, the film warns that individuals who try the play the system for material profit risk being destroyed by forces against which all their own intelligence, skills and wiles are bound to fail – because the system is rigged against them. Certainly Tobei comes across as a stereotypically foolish dreamer who lacks insight and who fails to understand that to become a samurai, one needs to be born into the right social class and have the means to pay for intensive weapons training, learning how to fight and how to plan military strategy. As for Genjuro, a more intelligent man on the other hand, his materialist greed and lack of concern for his wife and child separate him from his family and put him in spiritual danger and his loved ones into danger from the chaos and violence of war. While Tobei and his wife survive simply by sheer luck, and one is unsure as to whether Tobei has truly learnt his lesson, Genjuro’s family is much harder hit – yet his suffering and his son’s suffering have an unexpected benefit as the wife’s spirit becomes an inspiration to Genjuro to refine and improve his pottery-making skills, and concentrate on creating pottery of intrinsic beauty rather than pottery aimed at pleasing others and for monetary profit.

The suffering that Tobei’s wife is subjected to as a result of his folly – and the tragedy of Genjuro’s wife – highlights the social injustices women were forced to endure in traditional Japanese society. Even an aristocratic woman such as Lady Wakasa is denied the freedom to live and love as a human, and has to become a ghost in order to experience the full range of human experiences.

The film has a smooth gliding quality that enables the ordinary and the supernatural to co-exist and allows a fairy-tale featuring ghosts to deliver a message about the suffering political instability (represented by civil war) and socio-economic hierarchies cause to working-class people and their families. While the editing is sometimes slower than most Western audiences would prefer and the film’s conclusion tends to drag, the narrative weaves from Tobei’s story to Genjuro’s story and back easily and smoothly. The horror provided by the ghost story sub-plot is stealthy and insidious rather than overt, and viewers get the impression that Genjuro is very lucky to escape Lady Wakasa with his life and soul intact.

The film is often cited as one of Japan’s greatest movies though I sometimes wonder whether the social justice aspects of the film make much impression among its fans.

The Shining: a histrionic epic horror film saved by its themes of control and alien manipulation

Stanley Kubrick, “The Shining” (1980)

In most directors’ hands, a Stephen King horror novel of a family disintegrating under the impact of the husband / father’s alcoholism wouldn’t have been more than a small-scale pedestrian flick destined for weekday daytime TV. In the hands of Stanley Kubrick, “The Shining” becomes an epic tale of how a small family is trapped by unseen and vaguely conscious forces that have shaped human history and led to suffering, tragedy and genocide. The film is noteworthy for its widespread use of Steadicam tracking shots, an eerie musical soundtrack, its creepy hotel setting and the performances of Jack Nicholson and Danny Lloyd as father and son set against each other due to external alien powers.

Writer Jack Torrance (Nicholson), seeking somewhere peaceful and isolated for his writing project, accepts a temporary position as an off-season caretaker for the upscale Hotel Overlook in a remote part of Colorado. At his interview, Torrance is told that the hotel is built on a Native American burial site and that a previous caretaker, Charles Grady, developed cabin fever and killed his family. While Torrance is being interviewed, back home in Boulder, his son Danny (Lloyd) has a premonition about the hotel in which rivers of blood swamp the hotel floors and he falls into a trance. Danny’s mother Wendy (Shelley Duvall) takes the boy to a doctor and mentions that he has an imaginary friend called Tony.

Torrance gets the job and soon moves the family into its new quarters at the hotel. They meet the head chef Halloran (Scatman Crothers) who takes Danny aside and tells him that they are both telepathic. Halloran warns Danny that the hotel harbours many memories, not all of which are good, and that the boy must not enter Room 237.

Time passes, with Jack’s writing going nowhere while Wendy and Danny explore the hotel and its grounds which include a giant maze that Danny becomes expert at traversing. Jack becomes frustrated and angry over his writer’s block and his relationship with Wendy disintegrates. Danny continues to have terrifying visions of ghosts and blood but is drawn to Room 237 and enters the room where he is attacked by an apparently dead woman. He escapes with bruises on his neck which his mother blames on Jack. Jack investigates Room 237 where he also sees the apparition.

While Wendy and Danny continue exploring the hotel, Jack retreats to the Gold Room where he meets a bartender and a butler who reveals himself as Delbert Grady, the hotel’s former caretaker, among a party of phantom wealthy revellers. Delbert Grady tells Jack that his son is telepathically contacting Halloran (who is on his way to the hotel from Miami to find out what is going on) and that he, Jack, must “correct” Wendy and Danny. The stage is thus set for a conflict between two mysterious forces using humans as their unwilling pawns.

While “The Shining” may not be a great Kubrick classic, it has much in common with other films of his, like “2001: A Space Odyssey” and several of his war films. Jack is a typical Kubrick man whose sense of masculinity is weak and superficial, based as it is on dominating and subjugating weaker people like Danny and the submissive Wendy. The ghosts in the film recognise Jack as a weak man reliant on alcohol to prop up his masculinity and they seize on his weakness to compel him to murder. Significantly he kills Halloran, a representative of a traditional victim group (Afro-Americans) in US society. One wonders whether the rivers of blood that terrify Danny in his visions might actually represent the blood of Native Americans butchered and thrown into mass graves – and might not Hotel Overlook be sited on such a grave? – by the US Army as it drove indigenous people into reservations so their lands could be seized by the Federal government.

The acting ranges from overwrought (Duvall) to bravura (Nicholson) and almost understated (Lloyd). While Duvall has to make the best of a role of a passive child-like woman, and Nicholson refines his almost typecast persona of a man going mad, Lloyd probably delivers the best performance in a role where he has to play an imaginary friend with its own voice speaking to Danny Torrance. Significantly the main adult characters in the film regress almost to an infantile state while Danny Torrance adopts adult qualities to save himself, if not his mother. The boy’s talent, the “shining”, is not of very much help to him and Wendy, and only his knowledge of the maze and his persistence save his life. Perhaps this is Kubrick’s way of demonstrating that humans can be more than what they come into the world endowed with, and that perhaps we can overcome our aspects of our past with knowledge and reason.

Thanks to Kubrick’s obsessive attention to detail, the film has a distinct look (as all Kubrick’s films do) and manages even in its most surreal and gory parts to be elegant and beautiful. This refined look doesn’t always work though as in the scene where Jack enters Room 237 and meets a naked young woman who seems more robotic than ghostly. The hotel interiors take on a palatial aspect thanks to the unusual camera angles and the scale on which the settings have been created, dwarfing the humans who inhabit them.

Special mention should be made of the music soundtrack, featuring dissonant pieces from Krzysztof Penderecki, Gyorgy Ligeti and Wendy Carlos, which becomes a character in itself (albeit a rather overbearing and screechy one) along with the hotel. The music could have been quieter in parts and allow for more space than it does to heighten the tension and dread.

Parts of the film can be very histrionic, and Duvall’s character especially is of a screaming-damsel-in-distress stereotype that does her talents a disservice, but it does display an exceptional power. The underlying themes of control, a crisis in Western masculinity, humanity being in the grip of possibly malign forces shaping its evolution and destiny, and a child embodying hope and positive transformation are the film’s saving grace.

Onibaba: a psychological horror study with an anti-war theme

Kaneto Shindo, “Onibaba” (1964)

An old Japanese Buddhist tale of a woman who uses a mask to frighten her daughter from visiting a temple becomes in Kaneto Shindo’s hands a psychological study of a post-apocalyptic society in which people crushed by warfare and poverty exist as best as they can but are undone by the stresses of day-to-day living and the repressed emotions and tensions generated which can explode in unexpected ways. The film is set in mediaeval Japan during a period of civil war and widespread destruction; the capital Kyoto has been set ablaze and two rival Emperors are vying for power and control. Peasants have been recruited by daimyo to fight for either Emperor or the Ashikaga shogun family. Two women, the mother (Nobuko Otawa) of one such peasant and his young wife (Jitsuko Yoshimura) have fled into swampy countryside where, hidden by tall seas of grass, they eke out a living killing and robbing lone samurai and selling their armour and swords to a merchant who pays them in bags of millet.

One day, a soldier peasant, Hachi (Kei Sato), returns from the wars: the mother immediately plies him with questions about her son Kichi and Hachi replies that he is dead. Hachi sets up his hut not far from where the mother and daughter-in-law live and eventually he seduces the daughter-in-law and invites her to live with him. The mother, dependent on her daughter-in-law to help in killing samurai, offers herself to Hachi once she realises what is going on but Hachi is not interested. The mother tries to prevent the younger woman from visiting Hachi every night but her efforts exhaust her.

One night while the daughter-in-law is out with Hachi, the mother meets a lost samurai (Jukichi Uno) who wears a demon mask. The samurai tells the mother the mask is necessary as he has a beautiful face that is not for peasants to see. The samurai forces the mother on pain of death to lead him out of the swamps but she tricks him into falling down a large hole where the women usually lure their victims. Once she is sure that he is dead, the mother descends into the hole to retrieve his armour and swords, and with effort takes the mask off his face. She sees that the samurai is severely disfigured.

The demon mask gives the mother an idea of how to control her wayward daughter-in-law and for the first few times she succeeds in stopping the girl from visiting Hachi by putting the fear of demons into her. Unfortunately an unexpected rainstorm enables the girl to escape and creates another problem for the mother with the mask …

The film may be very slow for some viewers but the pace helps to build up unbearable tension, especially unbearable sexual tension, gradually and relentlessly. The main actors do a fine job in expressing their fears of isolation and loneliness, and their need for connection and love, through their expressions, actions and dialogue, minimal though these are. The mother’s sexual frustrations and jealousy lead her to deny her daughter-in-law the chance of fulfillment with Hachi, even though he is a drunk and a sleaze, and these emotions transform the older woman into the demon hag of the film’s title. The film’s swampland setting, dominated by restless waving forests of susuki grass, and with its lone tree and the vagina-like hole that promises death to high-born samurai but gives life to the peasant women, reflects the sexual frustrations of its main characters and becomes a significant character in its own right. The music soundtrack which ranges from improvised jazz bebop to ritual drumming adds to the feeling of unease and tension.

Some audiences may be perturbed by the macabre grand-guignol climax which turns the film into uncomfortable comedy, completely at odds with its otherwise realist themes. The film’s conclusion comes quickly and is deliberately left open-ended. The one thing we can be sure of is that chaos will follow: the vagina-like hole, which had received male victims of wealth and status, might now receive an impoverished female victim and what cosmic disruption might now be caused by a new imbalance in nature can only be guessed at.

The film derives its impact and horror from the characters’ psychology, the stresses, inner conflicts and tensions they experience and the actions that result with their devastating consequences. Stunning black-and-white cinematography, an arch music soundtrack and a minimal style that throws emphasis on character development help turn a bare-bones story into an unforgettable work of art. Few other films showing how a debased society at war and the pressures of poverty and uncertainty it creates can lead to people treating one another in the most dreadful ways can match “Onibaba” for drama and impact.

Supervenus: a 3-minute critique on Western standards of female pulchritude and the damage they cause

Frédéric Doazan, “Supervenus” (2013)

This 3-minute debut effort for writer / director Frédéric Doazan is a devastatingly critical comment on modern standards of female beauty as they have changed over time. Using Photoshop, a home-made green screen to film his hands and Adobe After Effects, Doazan cuts out a picture of a woman from an old anatomy textbook and changes her appearance from ordinary and generic to a more glamorous creature by puffing out her cheeks and lips, replacing her brown eyes with blue (by ripping out her eyeballs), giving her lustrous dark hair, augmenting her breasts, digging out a pair of ribs and performing other kinds of cosmetic surgery in fairly gruesome and bloody ways. The result is varnished with a burst of sunlamp ray and the newly tanned lady looks quite attractive if rather bland. Doazan proceeds to the next step of transformation of his model by pumping up her cheeks and lips even more with Botox, zapping her brain with drugs, denying her her unborn child, thinning and extending her limbs, and stuffing more silicon into her already stuffed breasts. He subjects his victim to yet more sunlamp rays and the end result is … more sizzled than sizzling.

The silent animation – there are sound effects of slicing and dicing, but that’s all – is entertaining to watch as comedy horror satire. Doazan makes a good point about how much female physical appearance is forced to conform to a highly artificial standard determined by external forces (represented by gloved hands) and how much individuality and the natural functions of the female body are sacrificed in following such a standard. Most disturbing of course is the moulding of the brain (and the woman’s own sense of identity) and the harm the various procedures cause to the woman’s body until it can’t stand the tortures any more and literally falls apart.

Doazan might have made a stronger point about how corporations profit from establishing standards of beauty that compel women to undergo often quite dangerous and life-threatening procedures, and about how cosmetic surgery turns women and their bodies into passive vessels on which men may inscribe their desires and expectations. The very minimal style of animation certainly allows viewers to make up their own minds about what Doazan is saying about cosmetic surgery and its place in the way physical beauty is defined in Western society, and the harm and damage such narrow aesthetic standards can create.

The Last Man on Earth: still retaining the power to shock and horrify with a message of post-apocalyptic despair and existential angst

Ubaldo B Ragona and Sidney Salkow, “The Last Man on Earth” (1964)

Over 50 years since it was made, this cheaply made horror film has clearly not lost its power to shock, horrify and leave its audiences in stunned silence with its message of despair. “The Last Man on Earth” is the first of three films based Richard Matheson’s sci-fi horror novel “I Am Legend” (the others being “The Omega Man” and “I Am Legend”) and apparently follows the novel’s plot quite closely. Vincent Price plays Dr Robert Morgan, the eponymous star of the story, in which he survives a mysterious plague due apparently to having been bitten by a bat while working in South America. Seemingly the rest of humanity including Dr Morgan’s wife (Emma Danieli) and daughter has succumbed to the disease which turns corpses into zombie-like vampires if they are not immediately burned after death. Morgan himself is forced to survive by playing a Van Helsing vampire hunter role each day, every day: in the day-time he hunts down, impales and burns any vampires he finds and in the evenings he holes up in what remains of his house while a group of zombie fangsters, led by a former work colleague Ben (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), besiege him and threaten him.

A good two-thirds of the film are taken up with showing the doctor’s dreary daily routine of driving around his abandoned home city and hunting down and impaling vampires. The middle part of the film finds him remembering or dreaming about the last days of his former normal existence as a virologist and happy family man before his daughter and then his wife die suddenly. Price does a good job portraying Morgan with his survivor guilt, his depressed episodes and mixed emotions about his past life. Voice-over narration by Price establishes the narrative of Morgan as lone surviving human forced against his own reasoning and knowledge to acknowledge the existence of the vampires and to hunt them down mercilessly.

The story becomes interesting in its last third when a female non-vampire character Ruth (Franca Bettoia) is introduced and warns Morgan that, because of his exploits as a vampire killer, he is feared by a small community of surviving humans. Almost on cue, these humans arrive in Morgan’s city and despatch all the vampires including Ben before turning their guns on Morgan – because he had taken out quite a few of their number as well as the hunted vampires.

For a cheap movie which is dated in parts, “The Last Man …” features some astonishing scenes of sheer loneliness and isolation, despair and hopelessness. It is rather wonky with respect to dubbing and other technical aspects linked to the shoestring budget, and maybe there were some bad decisions made with regard to plotting as the last 15 minutes of the film become an action thriller set in an incipient police-state dystopia. The early parts of the film are slow-moving and reveal Morgan in all his desolation and anguish. He probably could have shown more angst about having to kill vampires who were once friends and relatives of his but one significant scene in which Morgan laughs and then cries is well done, showing what a fine actor Price was when given the chance to showcase his talent and experience.

The cinematography turns out to be a major highlight in creating an atmosphere of despair and hopelessness, especially at the beginning of the film with a series of silent stills showing dead bodies in streets of an apparently abandoned city. If it were not for the Italian neo-realist influence on the cinematography, “The Last Man …” would probably look even more B-grade cheap.

The film’s conclusion is tragic and depressing, demonstrating how societies under severe stress can become more dangerous and monstrous than the monsters they pursue. For a slow-moving character study with not a great deal happening until the very last moment, “The Last Man …” turns out to be an intriguing piece on the nature of being, the purpose of one’s existence and how societies might cope with long-term terror and mass psychological stress.