Americans have a good chance of surviving the night in a haunted house. The Japanese don’t. Upon crossing the threshold, the human is doomed. There is no escape from a Japanese haunted house, as there is no contest between the living and the spooks. This is the difference between the ghost stories of America and Japan.
In “Hausu,” Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 spooko, the fun is not in rooting for the characters’ survival, as survival is not an option, but in trying to keep track of who is dead and who remains alive. The ghosts are skillful in assuming mortal form whenever convenient, and the living are always a mouthful away from becoming ghost food.
The story begins with Oshare, also known as Gorgeous, collecting her friends for a summer vacation at Grandmother’s house in the country. Needless to say, they provide quite a meal for the old lady, who hasn’t eaten since her death. The fattest one is the first to disappear. An example of director Obayashi’s gross-out cuteness is when Grammy turns the girl’s head into a watermelon and, while eating it, smiles to reveal an eyeball inside her mouth.
“Hausu” teems with such visual treats, accompanied by cute little songs and playful scenes of frolicking schoolgirls. Much of the movie is such fun that it is easy to forget it is a horror show and then, bam: grossout!
Horror movies have reached such a level of explicit gnarliness that this item is unlikely to upset anyone familiar with the present state of the genre. Most of the violence is too whimsical to disturb any but the most squeamish. For example: A girl’s face turns to glass and then the glass breaks into pieces. In 1977, this was pretty extreme. Now it’s the stuff of children’s cartoons. Gross? Yes. Cute? Even more so.
The Godfather of Gore
Joe Bob Briggs has always struck me as an ignorant rubbernecker, if not an outright phony, exploiting the interest in exploitation pictures that emerged from the home-video revolution of the 1980’s to make a fast buck on a rolling donut. He demonstrates his 180-degree stupidity with a comment made early in the otherwise excellent documentary, “Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore.” He says there is little difference in quality between the pictures Lewis directed. Admittedly, Lewis is a cramped director, without many ideas on how to stage and shoot a scene, but when it comes to movies about fledgling rock bands, you can’t get much better than “Blast Off Girls,” while “A Taste of Blood” is surely the poorest excuse for a vampire picture you are likely to find.
Born in 1953, Joe Bob was, like myself, too young to have seen Lewis’ pictures in their original drive-in releases, and probably discovered them, like the rest of us, at the video store, which were, in the mid-eighties, a treasure chest of pleasures that had been forbidden us in adolescence. Outside of the seeing the titles of his early nudie-cuties such as “The Adventures of Lucky Pierre” on the marquees of downtown grind houses when I was still too young to buy a ticket to get inside, I had zero awareness of Herschell Gordon Lewis or the gore pictures for which he became famous. When I saw my first one, “The Wizard of Gore,” I was sickened. What was pulled out of the bodies of the female victims in this movie was a nauseating pile of butcher-shop potpourri that was beyond my imaginings. Now, twenty-five years later, revisiting these clips courtesy of the people at Something Weird Video who have produced this documentary, Lewis’ gore is still as stomach-turning as ever.
But “Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore” has more to offer than a handful of gross film clips. Director Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case, Frankenhooker, Bad Biology) opens up a chapter in film history that has been overlooked by historians whose coverage of exploitation films rarely strays beyond Russ Meyer, Ed Wood, and Roger Corman. Lewis was an advertising guy who realized it might be more lucrative to create product than promote it. Unintimidated by the technical specs of the film industry, he formed a partnership with producer David F. Friedman and the two of them started cranking out nudist camp movies, Lewis operating the camera and directing the action and producer Friedman recording sound. Unlike the creeps running around today making their pseudo-snuff films, Lewis comes across as an affable gentleman with a sense of humor about his past accomplishments.
John Waters, who has made a cottage industry as the voice of reason in documentaries on outlaw artists from the Kuchar Brothers and Jack Smith to William Burroughs and The Cockettes, plays Noam Chomsky to Joe Bob’s Michael Moore, offsetting the numb feeble-mindedness of the latter with his own razor-sharp acuity.
For those who may not be aware of Mike Vraney, who produced this film, his company Something Weird Video, located here in Seattle, almost single-handedly unearthed and put into commercial distribution hundreds of exploitation titles, including the Herschell Gordon Lewis catalogue. Without him, these movies would have been lost to the fading memories of the few who were lucky enough to see them in their own time, and the rest of us would have never gotten to see what was behind those lurid marquee promises that once tantalized our curious adolescent hearts.
According to military folklore, one of the advantages in becoming a soldier is the privilege of taking whatever one desires. Kaneto Shindo’s 1968 ghost story, “The Black Cat,” opens with a brutal sequence in which a band of samurais do just that. They rape and murder a woman and her daughter, then burn their house and ride off with another tale of plunder gained. The sequence is terrifying in its simplicity. Shino doesn’t need to rub our noses in the carnage to shock us with the full effect of the occurrence. For the next hour and a half, we do not stop reeling from what we have witnessed.
Neither do the victims of this samurai raid. The slain woman and daughter make a pact with a black cat to lend it their forms in order to tear out the throats and drink the blood of every last samurai. They make good on their oath until a samurai rides through their haunted grove who they cannot bear to destroy, He is the son and husband of the two ghosts, who had left them alone on the farm while he sought his fortune as a soldier. Among the many ethical dilemmas explored in the story is the question of whether he is to be spared the wrath of the black cat and, conversely, if the ghosts are to be spared by their relation who has accepted the commission to destroy them.
Shindo is among the several masters of Japanese cinema whose work has been largely unseen in the West. Of the 158 film he has written and 45 he has directed, only 1960’s “The Island” and 1964’s “Onibaba” are well-known in this country. He has been, however, active to this day, with the script for 2009’s “Hachi: A Dog’s Tale” among his most recent credits. “Kuroneko” joins “Onibaba” as one of Japan’s spookiest and most thought-provoking horror films. Its blend of subtle eroticism and eerie atmospherics, plus the use of Noh theatre to add a ritualistic element to the violence, fills the screen with both enchantment and terror. You won’t want to blink your eyes lest you be caught off your guard.
Vampire Girl Vs. Frankenstein Girl
“Vampire Girl Vs. Frankenstein Girl”, from the makers of “Robo-Geisha,” “Tokyo Gore Police,” and “Machine Girl,” reverses the genders and debunks the romanticism of “The Twilight Saga.” Set in a high school that holds annual wrist-cutting rallies, has a Clark Kentish vice principle who is actually the successor to Doctor Frankenstein, and employs teachers who stalk the female students, this is as far away from Forks, Washington as you can get.
On Valentines Day. transfer student Monami gives hunky Jyugon a small chocolate filled with her blood that sends him into a psychedelic heavy-metal flip-out after biting into it. Lolita girl Keiko, who has professed her love to Jyugon three months earlier and would have given him chocolates had they not been confiscated by her teacher, suffers a mounting jealousy that climaxes with her fall from a high place after lunging at her vampire rival. Her father, the mild mannered vice principal / kabuki-robed scientist, having found the secret to reanimation through mixing his own blood with vampire blood, brings her back to life (in a wildly different form) and the combat between the monsters begins.
Directors Yoshihiro Nishimura and Naoyuki Tomomatsu have delivered a kinetic live-action cartoon set to a bouncy J-pop score. Aside from a few surprising shock images, the comic gore is mostly CGI globules floating and popping in space. The picture’s main draw is Yukie Kawamua’s vampire girl, with that thousand year old wisdom beaming from the face of a cute schoolgirl. Eri Otoguro is bratty and bossy as her opponent, and Takumi Saito is suitably passive as the love prize.
The picture offers a look at a kind of Japanese gang we don’t hear much about, the ganguro clubs, the members of which wear black make-up and pretend to be African American. There is also a lot of silly fun, such as a scene in which the over-sexed school nurse chases an elusive drop of vampire blood across the floor. Although “Vampire Girl Vs. Frankenstein Girl” is of a lower caliber than the transcendently trashy “Robo-Geisha,” it will neither disappoint fans of the genre nor leave unblemished those encountering such a movie for the first time.
“October Country” is eerier, creepier, spookier, and just plain more scary than any common fright film. The Mosher family is caught in a cycle of damnation to rival the lineage of the fabled Ushers. This is the family portrait Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist” fell so short of being, the one that should shake us out of our torpor and wake us up to ourselves.
Don, a war veteran whose humanity was shell-shocked out of him in Vietnam, and who spent the rest of his life as an emotionally-challenged police officer, heads the Mosher family. His sister is a lonely and pathetic witch who hangs around the cemetery asking the ghosts if they want to play with her. His wife, awaiting the day when an intelligent person will emerge and escape from this cursed family, is a philosopher of the lost, watching the repetition of stupidity and violence in the lives of each of her family members. Her daughter, whose ex-husband is now in prison for child molesting, has two daughters. One of them, pregnant and realizing the necessity of an abortion, is losing her daughter to the child welfare authorities. The other is still young enough to have her wits about her, realizing that if she plays video games all day long, there will be little time to rot her brain by watching television.
The ugly little town where these people live draws its economic blood from Remington Arms, a weapons manufacturer, and distributes goods for the well-being of its citizenry through Wal-Mart. That is the extent of these lives, these personalities, these wasted souls who inhabit the spaces between the cheap bare walls of a pre-fab abyss. Were they not buried so deep in the blindness of self-negation, they might be able to defend themselves against the case the camera has prepared against them. As it is, we can only look on and see that we, no matter how superior to the Moshers we might feel ourselves to be, are part of this same decline in the art of living.