Salo or the 120 days of Sodom: gruelling film of corruption, unfettered freedom and abuse of power that turn humans into machines

Pier Paolo Pasolini, “Salò or the 120 days of Sodom” / “Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma” (1975)

Grim and harrowing to watch but an excellent and actually quite beautiful film (visually anyway) about corruption, the abuse of power and how having absolute freedom in the sense of being free from social restraints and conventions reduces humans to robots: this is the stupendous “Salo o le 120 giornate di Sodoma” (“Solo or the 120 days of Sodom”). The film was Pasolini’s last before his lynching death in 1975 and is based on the Marquis de Sade’s “The 120 Days of Sodom” but set in Mussolini-ruled Italy in the early 1940s. Four fascist middle-aged captains of society known as the Bishop, the President, the Manager and the Duke, representing respectively the Church, government, industry and aristocracy, agree to marry one another’s teenage daughters (this decision signifies the incestuous links among the various elites of society) as the prelude to a series of debauched acts at a country villa. Gangsters are hired to abduct eighteen teenage boys and girls of good family background and bring them to the villa. Four brothel madams are also hired to tell tales of excessive sexual dissipation to psyche up the men, teenagers and soldiers into eager participation in various sexual acts that include coprophagia, sodomy, rape, a golden shower and unspeakable tortures.

The film divides into four sections: Antechamber of Hell, Circle of Manias, Circle of Shit and Circle of Blood; and each section more or less begins with a woman or woman-like figure getting dressed and attending to one’s toilette. The film emphasises repetition which not only forces the viewer to become immersed in its proceedings but highlights the loss of vitality and creativity in fascist societies in which governments and the institutions allied with them insist on digging themselves and their people further into a pit of evil. In each section there is a mock wedding, of which the most memorable is the wedding that takes place in Circle of Shit as it’s followed by the reception in which shit is served to the guests. There is a highly ritualistic aspect to the activities that go on in the villa, to the point where everything seems highly fetishistic; and almost as fetishistic is the detail of the lavish furnishings and interiors of the villa and the care with which the adult characters often dress and comport themselves.

Plot as it exists is weak because it’s all about repetition as the four men descend deeper into their own degradation; each successive perversion delivers less satisfaction than the one before it. Rules set up to monitor and punish the teenagers for insubordination are eventually torn up and tossed away; all the teenagers are subjected to cruel and violent punishments in Circle of Blood. The acting seems quite stylised: the men declaim and talk at each other and everyone else and, save for a few soldiers and girls, no-one really communicates. Close-ups of actors’ faces are used frequently in the film and viewers see how deranged and terrifying the men, especially the Duke, look. Scenes often have a staged, diorama-like look, and the dining-room scene with the camera looking to the back of the room where there is a stair-case across the length of the table with people sitting on either side of it (but not at it) is repeated several times. Colours and outlines are fairly soft and the few outdoor scenes look soft enough as to be slightly melancholy. Although “Salo …” was made over 35 years ago, the film still has a contemporary look due in part to the open spaces of the villa, the sometimes minimalist, sometimes opulent style of the furniture, interiors and artwork used and the attention given to the actors’ clothes and accessories. Even the cars in the film don’t look very outdated though they are obviously of their period (early 1940s). The overall visual style of the film is precise and cold.

The pace is relentless with each successive violation and just when you think the film couldn’t get worse after the coprophagia and the golden shower scene, it goes up (or down?) another notch: our Gang of Four holds an arse inspection of the children and then dress in drag for yet another mock wedding ritual. In the Circle of Blood, the men’s moral corruption infects the children finally: they rat on one another, forcing the men to run about hysterically extirpating signs of rebellion about the villa. This section of the film details how the general public becomes desensitised to the abuse and corruption and willingly joins in.

The violence is not overt and is actually done tastefully and respectfully: all the torture scenes occur out of shot or are viewed elliptically through someone’s blocked point of view. Of course there is much nudity, male and female, but again actual scenes of sexual intercourse occur out of shot, in shadow or in a tasteful way. The violence and perversions usually serve a symbolic purpose: the consumption of human faeces may refer to the excessive emphasis on materialism in Western society and the use of a rule-book to punish young people in hideously sadistic ways might refer to bureaucracy as a mechanism for turning people into cyphers and robots.

Of all chilling moments in a film brimming with them, perhaps the worst comes at the end where the men take turns in watching the young people being tortured from the comfort of a plush chair in front of a window as though watching TV. The soldiers in the room yawn and engage in idle pastimes like dancing. This says something about entertainment in our lives: the more sensationalised and pornographic it is, the more numb and robotic we become, the more our vitality and creativity are sapped. And it’s obvious that the four libertines have become so jaded that they are unable to stop themselves wallowing in their own filth. Freedom is wasted on them: behaving as if governed by instinct, their minds and imaginations filled with pollution, the adults claw into their own rut deeper, digging their own graves as it were. Also horrific is the fact that none of the children rebel though the film makes clear they are repelled by what they have to do and two girls stage their own personal rebellion by secretly becoming lovers. (Note that most sexual activity in the film is done doggy-style with the libertines at times preventing or punishing sexual intercourse in the face-to-face missionary position, to prevent intimacy and individual expression.)

Insititutions like religion and education are mocked and overturned: the wedding rituals mock religion, important rites of passage and celebrations as joyful phenomena; the use of brothel madams to lecture the teenagers mocks the notion of education and acquiring wisdom from elders; the sexual activity mocks people generally when they have choice and live in a fairly wealthy society. All too often people choose the easy way out: a life of hedonism and immediate sensual pleasures with no compassion or generosity for others.

Forgive me for sounding perverse but I wish the film had continued beyond the two soldiers dancing: when all the children have been killed, what next would the libertines and the brothel madams do? In the closeted environment of the country villa, I envisage that they would bring in animals, in particular fine thoroughbred horses, on which to inflict acts of bestiality. This would symbolise the effects of fascism on the natural environment, how a political system that privileges an elite and allows it extreme freedom to indulge its selfish materialist appetites eventually plunders the Earth’s resources. Then Death becomes the ultimate option for satisfaction and what could be more appropriate for our Gang of Four, having sated themselves, to turn on one another with sexual, even cannibalistic, ferocity?

This is one film that continues to be more relevant than it was when it was first released: it is still a powerful criticism of Western democratic society as it is structured today, bleeding from the inside with governments, academia and news media increasingly beholden to private corporations and the military, and all presiding over populations that they force to consume ever more infantile and superficial culture. If ever a film came close to documenting the decline and fall of Western civilisation, “Salo …” is it.

The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello: beautiful layered Gothic steampunk film steers viewers into a heart of darkness

Anthony Lucas, “The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello” (2004)

A nominee for a Best Animated Short Film Oscar in 2006, this is a visually beautiful and richly layered Gothic steampunk adventure story that is equal parts Lovecraftian and Conradesque horror. Young navigator Morello (voiced by Joel Edgerton) in the industrial city of Gothia accepts a commission to help fly a dirigible to parts unknown. He does this partly to atone for a previous voyage in which, due to a mistake he made, a crewman fell to his death. Morello leaves his wife Emilia at home as she is needed at a hospital to nurse patients dying from a mysterious plague.

An eccentric scientist Claude Belgon joins the crew and the ship chugs away; it crashes into an abandoned vessel and the crew quickly transfer to that vehicle. In his regular radio correspondence with his wife, Morello hears her hacking coughs and realises she has contracted plague. Nevertheless the men continue their journey despite one man also sickening from plague and they soon come across several sky islands. By accident, they discover that the boiled blood of a strange creature on one island cures the sick crew-member so they collect cocoons and take them back on board the ship. While on the journey home, Morello realises that crew-members are mysteriously vanishing and stumbles across the awful truth about the hatched larvae from the cocoons and their link to the disappearances.

The story is very focussed, not too complicated, and the pace moderately fast. The animation is a mix of layered 2D pictures and cut-outs made to resemble 3D objects and the characters themselves appear as silhouette cut-outs reminiscent of an Indonesian wayang shadow-puppet play. The use of first-person narrative makes the film resemble a Joseph Conrad novel and Joel Edgerton’s measured and refined tones make his young navigator a sensitive character. Morello does tend to be passive and easily influenced by the sinister Dr Belgon and the blustery Captain Griswald, and this passivity brings a touch of J G Ballard to the proceedings. The mix of Australian and near-English accents brings a salty nineteenth-century flavour to much of the film. The story gradually transforms from the thrill of adventure in its first half to quietly macabre and devastating in its second half, topped by an open-ended conclusion in which Morello, in the manner of a Ballardian hero, submits to the advice of the malevolent Belgon in the near-hopeless belief that by so doing he will save his wife’s life if not his own.

Themes of sacrificing one’s own life for the greater good of society and the advancement of scientific knowledge, and of the moral dilemma that faces Morello when he discovers what the last larva from the cocoons needs to survive – yes, if he kills it, he’ll save his own life but not his wife’s life; if he allows it to live, then he must offer himself to it – give “… Jasper Morello” a deep, dark intensity befitting its Victorian Goth look of sepia, blue and grey tones. Belgon is a typical mad-scientist type who embodies Conrad’s Kurtzian hero: his thirst for knowledge and fame drives him to commit heinous acts of murder. Interestingly the film has as its climax a conflict between Belgon and Morello that forces Morello into choosing whether or not he should repeat a past mistake, and it is this choice that determines whether Morello becomes his own man, albeit with horrifying consequences.

Morello’s passive nature, the switch from Jules Verne adventure to macabre horror and the anti-climactic cliffhanger ending probably counted against the film in competition for the Best Animated Short Oscar but I find this is a very immersive short piece of great intensity, technical detail, bittersweet tragedy and many allusions to great horror and science fiction writing: depending on where viewers are coming from, they can probably find hints of Edgar Allan Poe, H P Lovecraft, Bram Stoker, H G Wells and Bruce Sterling. The film is aimed at a general audience though it is very creepy and chilling for young children, and it’s well worth watching a few times to appreciate its distinctive animation.

 

 

 

The Awakening: tasty little film of death and how suddenly it comes

Ignacio Cerdà, Ethan Jacobson, Francisco Stohr, “The Awakening” (1991)

This 8-minute short is the first of three films forming a trilogy about death and how we are subject to elements beyond our control. In this short, these elements include time, objects and our own bodies. A student dozes off in class briefly and when he wakes, he finds the teacher and all his classmates frozen in time and space. He investigates and discovers the roll call has his name left off. He realises he is trapped in the classroom. Strange images of crucifixes and an eye atop a pyramid (this latter image appearing on a US dollar bill the student is observing when the film opens) and snatches of childhood memories flood his mind. His mind clears and he sees a commotion: someone is on the floor, apparently dying, and people are trying desperately to revive him. The student leans over and recognises the victim.

The whole film is very dream-like and surreal especially with the image of the eye and the pyramid suddenly appearing in full and precise detail on the blackboard and the student aware that the frozen figures before him are looking at him and through him. There is no dialogue and the music alternates between overly melodramatic and glitchy-electronic, reminiscent of crickets making a constant clicking and buzzing noise, creating a creepy mysterious atmosphere throughout the film. The student, wandering warily around the still classroom, starts to panic and his face twists under the strange images invading his mind. His face expresses startled horror as he realises what has happened to him. All the terror and suspense that appear are expressed in the student’s body language which up to the climax was very effective indeed; at the climax, the full horror doesn’t appear to hit the student, at least not in his face anyway, and he retreats into a dazed, passive state that continues to the end.

Although the setting is very ordinary and banal, and the student is no-one special – the teacher, played by Cerdà, even hands him an assignment marked “F” – the whole short is very unsettling with a sinister mood. Excellent camerawork which immerses viewers into the plot by assuming the student’s point of view at several points during the short including the horrific climax and its brief denouement helps to infuse suspense in what is otherwise a predictable little story. Experienced horror fans are sure to see the film’s revelation a mile away once the student wakes up from his snooze.

The music does tend to overwhelm the film especially during its most dramatic parts and viewers are left to wonder at the significance of the image of the eye and the pyramid in the film. According to Wikipedia, this is a representation of the Eye of Providence and in Christian mediaeval lore symbolises the Trinity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; in other ideological contexts and belief systems such as Freemasonry, it also symbolises the all-seeing God who observes our thoughts and actions. Is it possible that in communing with the dollar bill, the student actually does see God or something of God’s power? Does God give him a foretaste of what is to happen to him?

Quite a good little short, filled with mystery and deep symbolism, “The Awakening” is a small tasty appetiser into the world of Nacho Cerdà.

 

True demon movie hiding in “Kakurenbo: Hide and Seek” but weak story and characters need more work to bring out the monsters

Shuhei Morita, “Kakurenbo: Hide and Seek” (2004)

A very lavish short film that uses cel-shaded animation to render the CG imagery three-dimensional, “Kakurenbo” has a definite dark layered look and atmosphere and features considerable detailing in its backgrounds and non-human characters. The major weaknesses of the film are in the plot and the child characters, of whom there are too many for the film to describe adequately beyond stereotype. Seven children descend into the concrete depths of Tokyo to find a place called Demon City to play a game of hide-and-seek. One of the children, Hikora, is looking for his sister Sorincha who disappeared in this area while playing the same game. The rules of the game are basic – the youngsters have to wear fox masks as they play – but as the children wander through the shadows and dimly lit gloom, one boy disturbs a statue by hitting it with a stick, and before you know it, the kids are being chased by bizarre demon monsters sprung right out of Japanese Buddhist nightmare myths. The kids are picked off one by one until Hikora finds himself alone with a small girl. He discovers to his horror who the girl is and what she plans for him, and what happens to all the children who have come into Demon City and been defeated by its monsters.

Demon City looks much bigger than it really is and the buildings seem to be of different architectural styles but then most of the film is shrouded in darkness so perhaps my mind is being overactive and filling in the blackest parts with images of Indian Hindu temples runing riot in carvings and statues of animal-headed gods and leering goggle-eyed demons. Pity though that the same level of detail doesn’t apply to the seven children who could be clones of one another apart from size, shape and hair colour. Indeed, two kids actually are clones – they’re identical twins! – but whether they are boy or girl twins, does it really matter? English-language dubbing turns the kids into teenagers of Scooby-Doo country: their strangled talk seems trite and inappropriate for the film’s ambitious visual settings. Even Hikora, who should be the most developed character, comes off as an underdone stereotype with limited emotion and motivation. The use of fox masks obviously cuts down on the amount of work the animators would have had to do to individualise the seven children and create a range of emotions for each and every one of them but at the same time the masks dehumanise them and force viewers instead to scrutinise the children’s body language for expression. Ah, big mistake there! – the children’s bodies aren’t very expressive at all and there is so much shadow (lights in Demon City are dim for a reason) that even body outlines can be hard to discern.

The one-track plot flits from one group of children to another as they are separated into three groups and each group is pursued by a different demon. The action gets repetitive and the film stalls in parts where a child is caught by a demon and the scene fades into black. For a film of its nature, there’s no build-up in tension towards the scene where Hikora is the only one left standing: one expects a lot of quick and sharp editing in the scenes where demons corner children and the kids make narrow escapes only to find themselves in dead ends and the monsters bearing down on them. A lot of screaming and wailing might be expected too but apart from one teenage boy who exhibits a lot of bravado but is actually a scaredy-cat, the children meet their fate grimly with very little vocalisation and not much pleading or bargaining. The twins especially are mute beings.

Anyone who’s played hide-and-seek won’t be too surprised at what happens to Hikora but the conclusion does come across as more anti-climactic trite than creepy and horrific. Overall this is a good-looking little anime that could have been tightened up with respect to plot and its characterisation worked at to bring out the child characters’ individual quirks and motivations for playing the game. Deeper characterisation could have enlivened the film with teenage gang rivalry, jealousies and fights over girls, and one-upmanship. As the kids quarrel and fight over which street to turn into, the monsters stalk them silently. The game itself could be expanded into something more than just hide-and-seek: there should be different levels of proficiency, treasures to search for and weapons to pick up to fight the monsters. I’m really surprised the game in this anime isn’t designed like a computer game that gets more complicated the deeper you go into it. No lessons are learnt, no skills are picked up. If there is a deeper message in “Kakurenbo”, it may be that the game, childish though it is, represents the gradual loss of carefree innocence that children used to have in a pre-industrial age and the destiny of all those who venture into Demon City is the destiny of children when they leave school or university and are acknowledged as adults: enslavement in a machine society. The demons represent those adults responsible for preparing young people to take up their appointed slots in the giant factory system that is modern Japan.

There is a real demon movie hiding in “Kakurenbo” but it’s going to take a lot of work for future animators to seek it out.

Rubber Johnny: small dense film in which a universe of transformation and realised ambitions is contained

Chris Cunningham, “Rubber Johnny” (2005)

Started small as a commercial based on the idea of a raver’s body morphing into different shapes as he dances, then changing into a music video clip and for all I know this concept may still be growing: as it is, “Rubber Johnny” is a surprise packet that packs a lot of meaning into its short time, be it just under four minutes (in the short version) or striking six minutes (long version). The concept will resonate very strongly with all the misfits out yonder – you know who you are – who harbour secret talents and way-out abilities invisible to all but their close pet animals. A teenage boy, born terribly deformed and crippled, barely able to speak and shunned by his family, is made to live in a dark basement with only a chihuahua for company. A psychologist talks down to him and tries to calm him when he gets frustrated and becomes violent. Left alone, the youngster springs to life in another dimension, breaking and dancing in his wheelchair and using it as a launch-pad to fly off into inner space where as Master of his own Universe he fends off lightning beams travelling at the speed of … well, light. The chihuahua watches silently, taking in everything and knowing not to breathe a word out to anyone as he’ll simply be disbelieved.

Shot on a home camera with infra-red photography and using rapid editing, the film has a very dank and grungy look which appears very realistic and has fooled some people into thinking an actual crippled boy really was filmed. Certainly the introductory scene with the psychologist, blurry at first and then blacked out for the most part when the boy lashes out, appears close to realism. Shots of the fluorescent light tube lend further realism and establish the small-scale garage-like nature of the boy’s confines.

After the opening credits, the film proper, set to original music by the English electronic act Aphex Twin (the music itself is remixes of two tracks from his 2001 album “drukQs” and is energetic and rhythmic if minimal and hard on the ears), starts and zooms off into another reality. An interruption halfway through the film by the boy’s father conveniently breaks the film into two distinct halves: if the first half is merely electrifying with the boy contorting his body and spinning his wheelchair, the second half is sheer mindfuck with the boy using the camera as his unwilling dance partner, crashing repeatedly into the glass, leaving bits of flesh and fluid behind and in the process changing his body into one shape after another like bouncing plasticine.

The latter half of the film could be interpreted more pessimistically: the boy, in slamming himself against the camera repeatedly, is trying to annihilate himself and blend in with his darkness after being told off by his father in the intermission. Whether he’s acting violently and trying to obliterate himself or is just reacting to the cocaine he’s snorted and working off the energy and stimulation, the result is the same: the boy is attempting some kind of self-transformation in which mind and body dissolve and become one with the greater universe – or void. Another possibility is that the boy becomes aware he is being watched and tries to break through the glass (and the “fourth wall”) to force viewers to enter into his world fully rather than watch him as though he were a zoo exhibit.

The only complaint I have is the end credits come all too quickly and the fate of the boy remains uncertain as the family decides to shove him into an institution. It’s hard not to feel pity for the boy as he gets pushed from one hell-hole to another. The concept behind “Rubber Johnny” is worth expanding into a longer film, perhaps to no more than 60 – 70 minutes maximum; any longer and the film would have to be built around a definite story-based narrative that would include the character’s origins which would rob the film of its energy, mystery and suspense. The film is definitely worth repeat watching at least until Cunningham brings out his first full-length feature film which at this time of writing is a question of when, not if.

Psycho (dir. Gus van Sant): a decent remake with a different message from the original film

Gus van Sant, “Psycho” (1998)

A shot-for-shot remake of the Hitchcock original with much the same dialogue and even reconstructions of the original sets, this film is actually not bad at all. It somehow seems a different movie in parts because van Sant has been able to do some things with the original characters that Hitchcock was never able to do. The remake even improves on aspects of the original and may be seen as a commentary on it. Perhaps the unfortunate thing is that the remake can’t stand as an independent film in its own right but will always refer to the original and never escape comparisons: little details like the opening credits, copying the original’s opening credits in graphics and style, and the use of Bernard Herrmann’s score throughout the remake in almost unchanged form link van Sant’s homage too closely to the original. A small director’s cameo near the start of the film in which van Sant is being lectured to by Hitchcock while Marion (Anne Heche) rushes back to work also ties the two movies together for better and for worse.

Surprisingly the shot-for-shot remake has significant changes from the original. The characters of Marion and Lila are swapped over in essence: in the first film, Marion is the lovable bad girl the audience warms to, and Lila is the one-dimensional and unappealing  good girl; in the second film, Marion becomes a good girl who feels trapped in a romance going nowhere and who yearns for a bit of freedom from her routine and passivity while Lila (Julianne Moore) is a headstrong, independent woman who needs neither man nor romance to define her. As a result Janet Leigh’s Marian is punished for wanting to determine her destiny and Anne Heche’s Marian is punished for failing to take charge of her destiny. The remake shows up how much attitudes toward women’s freedom to decide their own fates and make right or wrong choices have changed in over 40 years. At the same time, Heche’s Marian is a less memorable and sympathetic character than Leigh’s was: her facial expressions and body language suggest a self-centred woman who conforms for the sake of appearances and who might be jealous of free-wheeling tough-girl Lila.

Because Lila is a strong character in van Sant’s remake, the plot becomes a more balanced creature instead of the top-heavy structure it was in 1960. Lila wants to solve the mystery of Marion’s disappearance for personal reasons: she’s a woman who wants to get to the bottom of things, whereas her earlier incarnation felt obliged to Marion’s employer to retrieve and return the money Marion had stolen. Moore’s Lila drags Marion’s flame Sam (Viggo Mortensen) along for the ride; Sam is a passive comic foil for Moore – a constant running joke through the film’s second half is Lila’s rejection of Sam as boyfriend material.

The film’s ending is less jarring than it was in the original, not least because it pays more attention to Lila’s reaction and near-breakdown when she finally hears that Marion and private detective Arbogast (William H Macy) are both dead. The psychologist (Robert Forster) is less didactic in his delivery and the atmosphere in the police station where he gives his report is soft and less intimidating than in the original film. Van Sant’s portrayal of the police is more positive than Hitchcock’s depiction: in the Hitchcock world, police and other authority figures were corrupt, unhelpful and inefficient; in van Sant’s interpretation, the police are at least diligent in enforcing the law and are generally benevolent if human after all. Even the creepy officer who rattles Marion early on is only doing his job. Significantly van Sant cuts out a church scene in which Lila and Sam appeal to the town sheriff for help a second time and the sheriff simply tells them to get on with their own lives.

The major weakness of the remake is in Vince Vaughan’s casting as hotel proprietor Norman Bates: Vaughan looks wrong for the role and is unable to convey the nervy bird-like behaviour tics that Anthony Perkins mustered so well. The role calls for someone tall, skinny and angular who can look nervous and insecure and who can change facial expressions and emotions from one extreme to the other in a matter of seconds. Vaughan tries hard in the role but looks too much like a man in control of himself and appears too self-assured. Van Sant gives his Bates a lot of back-story: the association with birds is much stronger with a live aviary and Bates is revealed as a gun-nut obsessed with fighting, war and pornography in late scenes. A masturbation scene which says very little about Bates’s inhibited sexuality appears elsewhere in the movie.

As Hitchcock used black-and-white film, van Sant goes to town with the use of colour with particular shades like green, orange and yellow used to symbolise evil and danger. An interesting use of colour comes in the setting of Mrs Bates’s bedroom: like everything associated with her son, the room is decked out in green and orange yet the windows are framed in curtains of red (signifying sexuality and passion) and when Lila opens the closet door, clothes in shades of pink, white and other colours except Norman’s signature tones appear. The wardrobe contents, the drapes and little statues around the room tell viewers that Mrs Bates probably won’t resemble the psychologist’s description of her. The green-orange-yellow motif extends to the landscape at the end of the film when Marion’s car is towed away from the swamp: it suggests that there may be many more people like Bates at large in its part of the world.

The central theme about the place of women in the world and how they are defined by themselves and their society remains strong. Van Sant’s “Psycho” suggests it is only by taking control of their destiny and defining themselves that women can survive with integrity. Marion’s brief fling with freedom and self-determination, shaken by her encounters with the police officer, the car dealer and Bates himself, ends because she retreats back into her normal routine of letting others define and control her. (As in the first movie though, her employer and his client are prepared to overlook her embezzlement.)  If only van Sant had heeded his film’s advice and made it a film independent of its Hitchcock parent: details such as the music soundtrack and the dialogue, some of which has dated as it was based on social expectations of women in the late 1950s, should have been adapted for a 1990s audience.

Anxiety about industrialisation and technology and their effects on individuals and society in “Tetsuo: The Iron Man”

Shinya Tsukamoto, “Tetsuo: The Iron Man” (1989)

Once again Tsukamoto has remade “Tetsuo: The Iron Man” in the form of “Tetsuo: Bullet Man”, the previous remake having been “Tetsuo: Body Hammer” in 1991, so it’s worth looking at what the 1989 student film original, made on a budget of less than US$1,000, might mean for current audiences. The plot is very basic and uses a cast of six actors of whom three play major characters. An unnamed youth usually known as the Metal Fetishist (Tsukamoto) panics after mutilating himself with a steel tube and runs out onto the road. A car driven by an unnamed salaryman (Tomorowo Taguchi) knocks down the youngster; the salaryman and his girlfriend passenger (Kei Fujiwara) believe he is dead so they dump his body in a forest. Later the salaryman begins to transform into a scrap-metal monster and realises that the Metal Fetishist isn’t dead after all but is controlling his metamorphosis and channelling his rage and frustration into something very sinister indeed.

The use of black-and-white film is effective in detailing the grimy industrial environment of urban Tokyo where the salaryman and the fetishist live: the textures of cables, wires, toxic goop and industrial waste look so detailed they take on a very inhuman life of their own. Fast-forwarding, lightning-fast edits, flashbacks, close-up images (some so close up that you can see saliva hanging off teeth in mouths), nightmare scenes, stop-motion animation and the odd sequence that has no relation to the plot make for a fast-paced film that ratchets up the tension to the moment when the salaryman is forced to admit to his sin and face off against the Metal Fetishist. Cables and wires shudder with a malevolent tentacle demon soul and pullulate like hypersexed parasite bacteria in a new host victim.

Many taboos and assumptions particular to modern Japanese culture come in for a hatchet job: the post-1945 notion that technology is humanity’s friend and servant gets a good hammering and the salaryman’s demonstration of anger may well be a cutting comment on expectations of male white-collar workers in 1980s Japanese society as compliant and uncomplaining cogs in a machine network that exploits them and their efforts. Social beliefs about Japanese women as meek and mild also get roasted: the two females in this film are transformed by their contact with the Metal Fetishist into ravenous sexual predators. The salaryman has a nightmare about his girlfriend anally raping him with a penis that’s part-python/part-electric cable. Some viewers might interpret the portrayal of women in “Tetsuo …” as indicative of dislike and distrust of women and their sexuality but this depiction is part of a greater criticism Tsukamoto makes which might unintentionally reflect his own views on how men and women should treat each other. It should be said that at the very moment the salaryman and his girlfriend meet the Metal Fetishist a bit too head-on, the youth has cursed them with his flesh-metal fusion obsession; from then on everything about the couple including their dreams and thoughts is manipulated by him to torment them, and this includes turning their expectations of each other upside-down. This suggests that contact with industrial society and its values warps natural human drives and turns them into unnatural, monstrous phenomena.

There’s plenty of hilarious black humour in scenes where the Metal Fetishist, meeting the salaryman in person for the first time, presents him with a bouquet of flowers and a female train commuter under the fetishist’s control early in the film pursues and harasses the salaryman relentlessly, pausing only to peek at herself in her mirror and fix her hair a bit. The funniest and most disturbing scenes involve the salaryman with his big Black-and-Decker pecker chasing his girlfriend around their apartment; she knifes him and he drills her in a mutual orgasmic bloodbath. Apart from taking the term “screwing” to its most logical extreme, this part of the film may say something about how the sexual act has become mechanised and robbed of human emotion in a technological society. Equally lunatic and twisted is the fight between the Metal Fetishist and the salaryman: this battle of sexual penetration metaphors ends in an ultimate orgasm where corporeal boundaries are literally dissolved and the pair bring forth a new offspring. The true purpose of sexual intercourse in the industrial environment is to generate more machine beings to spread the contagion of technology throughout the world: the new creature with both the Metal Fetishist and the salaryman at its helm rides off to conquer the Tokyo suburban wilderness.

The soundtrack is important in this film: one comic moment comes when the salaryman spoon-feeds his girlfriend and as she drags the food off his fork with her teeth, metal-scraping noises can be heard. The music by Chu Ishikawa is a bouncy industrial rock pop that suits the film’s frenetic pace and the dense montages of images that each last for a split-second.

The undercurrents of “Tetsuo …” are at once malevolent, pessimistic, cartoony and absurd; the subconscious human fears that it dredges up can be very confronting for many people. Jokes and ideas are taken to their logical extreme that milks them as much for laughs as for horror. This is a definitely a film for people who like being challenged and confronted with ideas and themes that riff on the deepest human fears and anxieties. Humour is used to allay some of these anxieties and make what could have been a highly intense film more bearable but its resolution, which may be a surprise to some viewers and is at once funny and sinister, is firm and uncompromising about the eventual fate of humanity.

 

 

Night of the Hell Hamsters / Eel Girl: two efficient comedy horror film shorts

Paul Campion, “Night of the Hell Hamsters” (2005), “Eel Girl” (2008)

Film shorts are a flexible medium for telling particular kinds of stories or expressing ideas in ways not possible in full-length feature films, usually due to budget limitations or the idea not being substantial enough to sustain over 40 minutes of viewing time. The two shorts under review are respectively the first and second directorial features for British / New Zealand director Paul Campion who came to film-directing somewhat late in his life after a career of illustrating book covers and doing texture painting on films.

“Night of the Hell Hamsters” is an affectionate parody of and tribute to B-grade supernatural horror films that are usually aimed at a teenage audience. Julie (Stephanie Ratcliff) is babysitting for her neighbours on a dark and stormy night when her boyfriend Karl (Paul O’Neill) drops by with a Ouija board game. While playing with it at Julie’s insistence, the two accidentally summon up a demon from hell which for strange reasons of its own decides to inhabit the bodies of two pet hamsters. The zombie hamsters torment Julie and Karl with a wickedly twisted sense of humour that subjects the youngsters to laughably crude sexual jokes and, for Julie, misogynist taunting. The girl is forced to adopt vampire-slayer heroics to fight the rodents.

“Eel Girl” combines comedy, science fiction and horror in half the time Julie and the hamsters sort out their differences. A military officer drops in on two scientists at a naval science laboratory with an order to take one of them away for briefing. The man protests, saying that protocol requires at least two people to be working together in the same laboratory at any one time, but the guard subtly threatens him and the two leave together. The second scientist (Euan Dempsey) immediately switches his focus to a pet vanity project, perhaps secretly approved by his superiors, which is studying a female hybrid eel-human (Julia Rose). Behind a safety barrier, the creature signals interest in the scientist and the man, excited and nervous, throws caution aside to open the security door to touch and maybe kiss the girl.

The first film is straightforward story-telling with jokes, clichés and some errors in continuity and logic which may be either deliberate or accidental. There’s no indication that the hamsters attack the sleeping children being babysat. The two actors playing Julie and Karl carry the entire film capably which is as well as the tension dissipates quickly after the hamsters turn demonic and the only thing of interest to viewers is to see how Julie atones for her innocent mistake in summoning the demon. On the whole, the film is well-made as it should be but, by itself, it says little about the director’s talent and ambition.

“Eel Girl” is a more serious proposition, more elegant and efficient in style, that builds up and sustains the suspense right up to the moment when the hybrid performs her own version of oral sex. Dialogue is completely non-existent after the officer leads away one scientist and the remaining characters communicate their feelings through their body language alone. Close-ups of the second scientist’s face and his behaviour (licking his lips, fiddling with his clothes, clenching his fists) and the quick editing involved reveal his anxiety and maintain the growing tension. There may be some very interesting ideas hinted at in this short: defence scientists using taxpayer money to engage in ethically dubious activities winked at by senior brass;  men’s attempts to control nature and women for selfish purposes; and humanity’s presumption in manipulating and splicing DNA material from different species to achieve a certain result, only to get something completely unexpected that threatens to become a disaster. The very limited setting – a darkened, cramped room and a dirty grey-green chamber dominated by a tub filled to the brim with thick black gunk provide the scene – helps to give the film a sinister atmosphere that enhances the tension.

Rose’s make-up which covers her whole body (she appears nude) makes her look cold and alien, and the actor herself moves in a slow, steady and studied way as though to suggest her monster is studying the scientist as he studies her. The film’s make-up budget obviously didn’t extend to cutting all of Rose’s hair off so that she could look more eel-like and maybe even a bit obscene with a shiny bald head but that’s a cosmetic detail that probably wouldn’t have made much difference to the overall plot build-up. The special effects used in the film’s climax don’t look completely realistic – viewers can easily see computer enhancement has been used – and I would have liked to see the monster’s second set of jaws in her throat working themselves forward as she opens her mouth. (I’m assuming the eel that inspired the film short was a moray eel.) The climax would have looked a lot more natural and gruesome.

For a five-minute film, “Eel Girl” is a punchy effort that packs in good acting, sustained tension, black comedy and a dark atmosphere. For once the lack of a back-story to the monster and how the naval laboratory acquired her invites viewer speculation about what the film could be saying in the way of a theme. There may be no theme at all and viewers can read whatever they wish into the film. It’s a huge improvement on “Night of the Hell Hamsters” and if Campion can build on this achievement – at this time of writing, he was working on a full-length movie and had a few other movie projects on the boil – he’ll go a long way indeed: upward that is, not downward as that foolish second scientist did.

 

 

 

Viy: Gothic fairy-tale horror film of Cossacks and seminarians threatened by witches, vampires and demons

Georgiy Kropachyov and Konstantin Yershov, “Viy” (1967)

A rare 1960s Soviet film in the horror genre, “Viy” is more Gothic fairy tale than a straight horror film, due to its close adaptation of the original short story by 19th-century Ukrainian / Russian author Nikolai Gogol. Yet the film itself has the look of many horror movies made in the West at the same time with lots of colour, some excellent photography and a staged look to the sets. What makes this movie different from contemporary horror films is that the story is steeped in the culture of the people and time from whom and which Gogol was inspired to write his story. The setting is in rural Ukraine some time in the 1300’s or 1400’s when Slavic-speaking people settled in the eastern and southern parts and inherited customs and folkways from people already living there that became the basis for Cossack culture. An Orthodox seminary breaks up for holidays and the students walk to their homes: three of them decide to take a short-cut across some fields but get lost. One student, Khoma (Leonid Kravulyov), stays at a farmhouse and meets an old witch there who tries to ride him like a horse; he beats her severely and runs away home. Later he is contacted by his seminary to be told that he must say prayers for a Cossack chieftain’s dying daughter (Natalia Varley). He is forced to travel to the village where the chieftain and his family live and discovers to his dismay that the girl is not only now dead but may be the incarnation of the old witch. The chieftain compels Khoma to stay in the village and say prayers for three nights for the girl who specifically requested the young man’s presence before her death. During his stay, Khoma gets drunk, acts stupid and tries to escape but the chieftain and his servants make sure that every night for three nights running Khoma is in the dilapidated church next to the young woman’s bier reading and chanting prayers.

The first half of the film builds up steadily to the moment when Khoma’s three-night ordeal begins; there isn’t much to attract people looking only for horror but for parents and children watching together, the scenes of past peasant and religious life in a faraway country will be of interest. The character of Khoma is clearly established: he’s young and not particularly devout, and he likes to drink and have a good time with the other seminary students. By the time he starts his nightwatch, viewers already have a clue his faith in God is shaky and there’s a good chance he won’t last the three nights. The villagers look up to him and call him “philosopher”, the chieftain is more suspicious of him but insists on his presence as the daughter had asked for him by name. The teachers at the seminary treat him as a bit of a fool. Apart from Khoma, everyone else plays support but the film is all about a test of one fallible man’s character and faith when surrounded by evil. Kravulyov perhaps looks too healthy and robust to play a fragile, naive youth but his portrayal of Khoma as perhaps not too bright and very out of his depth in the real world away from the shelter of the seminary is very good.

And what evil there is, in the second half of the film – the special effects might not be great by the standards of horror films made outside the Soviet Union and eastern Europe in the 1960s but they’re adequate for “Viy”: the girl’s coffin flies through the air in circles, giant hands emerge from the walls and floors and deformed creatures literally crawl out of the woodwork to menace Khoma. They cannot breach the circle of chalk he has drawn around himself so they call for Viy, the biggest and most evil demon of all, to break through the magic protection sustained by Khoma’s rapidly fading courage and confidence. Some of the acting probably needs to be more overdone, the demon make-up and costuming are at once hokey and scary, and Viy does look like a laughable carnival freak but the demon attack on Khoma is truly frightening though not at all gory. The animated skeletons and a close-up of a cute bristling monster weasel are major highlights. The filming method used in the horror scenes is outstanding with the camera continuously circling around Khoma or the flying coffin to create a sensation of delirious fear, dizziness and helplessness.

Apart from the use of special effects and the constantly rotating camera during the nightwatch scenes, the cinematography isn’t very remarkable though it does show the colour and flavour of rural Ukrainian life of several hundred years ago very well. The aerial riding scene is good with aerial photographs of lakes and forests whizzing by in the background behind the witch and Khoma to suggest the couple’s speedy flight. The music soundtrack by Karin Khachaturyan is notable with very screechy violin strings in parts and softer, more bell-like tones in other parts.

Viewers will note a sexual subtext to the story: the witch’s ride can be read as a metaphor for seduction or rape and the chieftain himself suspects Khoma of having had sexual relations with his daughter. He knows Khoma is poor and tempts him with the promise of a thousand gold coins in payment if the young man can sit through the three nights with the girl’s corpse so the night-watch is as much a test of his self-control and honesty as it is a test of his religious faith. Perhaps if the film-makers had deviated from the original short story during the horror scenes and allowed the witch to try to seduce Khoma and tempt him with pleasure mixed with terror, the film might have become an artistic work in its own right that appeals to all audiences and not simply a retelling of a story with fairy-tale elements.

There aren’t many horror films that mix horror with dark fantasy, folk-tale elements and an examination of human nature and superstitious cultures, and put them all in a world that’s at once ordinary yet fantastic enough that witches, vampires, demons and werewolves can live there and “Viy” remains a good example of what’s possible with that kind of fusion.

Repulsion: slow but very good psychological horror character study of sexual attraction / repression

Roman Polanski, “Repulsion” (1965)

A good psychological character study of a young woman suffering mental illness and falling apart while alone and isolated in her sister’s apartment, “Repulsion” was the English-language debut for both director Roman Polanski (his second full-length directing feature) and lead actor Catherine Deneuve who was 22 years old at the time she made the movie. The plot is a basic one that just manages to sustain the 105-minute running time though there are a fair few passages in the film that could have been edited for length. In much of the latter half of the film there is not much dialogue and Deneuve herself utters no words as her character gradually loses the power of speech.

Carole Ledoux (Deneuve) is a recent migrant working as a manicurist in a beauty salon in London and lives with her older sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux) in a busy part of London in the 1960’s. Their life is precarious: they are always behind with the rent payments and Helen is having an affair with a married man Michael (Ian Hendry). Michael moves into the apartment, much to Carole’s disgust. She has an aversion to men and there are hints throughout the film that she is both repelled by and attracted to men in ways she can’t understand or control; on top of that, men themselves are attracted to her because of her beauty and blonde hair and misinterpret her timidity and whispery voice as provocative come-ons. Michael and Helen go on a holiday to Italy, leaving Carole to fend for herself in the apartment. Losing her job at the salon, Carole is cut off from the world around her in the apartment: her social and physical isolation combine with her sexual fantasies, feelings, traumas and paranoias to bring 0n a full-blown mental breakdown which has catastrophic consequences when two men, a would-be boyfriend (John Fraser) and the landlord (Patrick Wymark), enter the apartment on separate occasions to confront her.

Deneuve does a great job carrying the film as the fragile Carole. Initially she is shy and dreamy and viewers see her discomfort in a world that has no time for dreamers and dawdlers. Indications of her disintegrating mental state come early with nail-biting, scratching, chewing her hair and repetitive actions suggestive of wiping or cleaning herself. The camera often focusses closely on Deneuve’s flawlessly sculpted face with its frequently blank expression and wide-open vacant stare. Something of British director Alfred Hitchcock’s influence might be seen in the opening and closing scenes of the film with the camera lingering and then respectively zooming out of or into Carole’s eye. There may be a mix of under-acting and 0ver-acting on Deneuve’s part throughout the movie but most of the time she has a blank look that does not over-strain for effect. Carole’s actions throughout the film are filled with horrific portent (and are sometimes blackly humorous with sexual suggestion as in a scene in which a co-worker at the salon sees a rabbit’s head sticking out of Carole’s hand-bag) but seem credible. One can almost believe Carole is capable of murder in her increasingly addled state. The support cast is very good if deliberately one-dimensional to emphasise the lack of empathy and the single-minded pursuit of pleasure and material goals among the people Carole lives and works with.

With most of the action taking place in Helen’s apartment, background details are important and as Carole descends into madness the apartment’s dimensions change from cosy and cramped to wide with cracked walls and floors. The cracks that suddenly rip across the walls have much blunt sexual symbolism as do the hands that reach out from the walls in the hall-way. Indeed the apartment’s floor-plan suggests the interior of the female reproductive system with rooms leading off from the hall-way which itself ends in the bathroom. Needless to say the bathroom ends up in a very sorry  state of mixed fluids.

The film can be slow in its early stages, setting up the social context in which Carole lives and works and building her character and the various social interactions between herself and others, and among the various characters. Women express disgust with men and their sexual aggressions and behaviours, men talk about women as if they are animals to be broken in and controlled roughly. With all this talk going on around Carole, it’s no wonder she decides to retreat from the outside world into her own world once Helen goes away. The problem though is that Carole’s inner world is filled with more horror than the outside world is: flashback memories or fantasies of rape and control play out over and over in her mind. The repetition can be overdone – we only need to see Carole’s rape fantasies twice perhaps to realise her mind keeps dwelling on them – and it’s not necessary for the camera to pause repeatedly over the rotting rabbit on the plate to indicate Carole’s forgetfulness and mental confusion over household routines. Suspense and tension exist but the film’s slow-ish pace, some over-long scenes and the repetition tend to dissipate the build-up of tension.

The soundtrack is significant in the film: bells, alarms, phone ring-tones and the sound of spoons being clapped by a group of wandering musicians pop up from time to time to remind viewers of real life as opposed to Carole’s “reality” and to measure the extent to which Carole recedes from the outside world.

“Repulsion” is well-named, there are several meanings here: repulsion as in rejecting and / or avoiding sexual urges and impulses, memories and fantasies of rape and assault, and the double standards of sexual behaviour that apply to men and women in 20th-century Western society. A lonely and alienated figure, made so by the consequences of those double standards perhaps, rejects this world for her own traumatised world in which memories and fantasies interact and play out over and over. Plus the more Carole withdraws from life, the more the outside world claws at her; even when she is unconscious, there is a suggestion that Helen’s lover Michael finds her sexually irresistible. This is Carole’s tragedy and the “comedy” of the film, that as much as she tries to resist her desires, fantasies, past traumatic events and men’s attention, she keeps ending up in situations where she can’t avoid them.