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Embossed with the same themes as Shindo’s masterful ONIBABA (1964), KURONEKO (1968) is another Japanese horror folktale. The film is staggeringly pretty and unsettling, well-worth seeking out (and a must for any fans of Japanese ghost stories) for the aesthetics alone.
The film starts with an act of savagery as mother and daughter-in-law are raped and murdered by passing samurai on their farm. Close-ups linger on the faces of the samurai as they watch one another in the fiendish acts of violence, leaving the women dead amongst the burnt ruins of their smallholding. The women return as vengeful spirits, taking their human forms to seduce samurai and drink their blood; becoming the famous spectres of ‘Rajo Gate’. This section of the film becomes somewhat repetitive, and it seems needless to loop very similar scenes together in this way. But this is a minor quibble.
Where KURONEKO’s screenplay really excels is when said mother/daughter-in-law’s long-lost son/husband – ‘Hachi’ – returns from battle a samurai and is tasked with finding out whether the rumours of the demons at ‘Rajo Gate’ are true. Shindo’s film then becomes a rather simple, if unquestionably powerful, tragedy as ‘Hachi’ confronts the spirits of his dead wife and mother.
Carnal desires are a focus of the film, with Hachi’s wife foregoing her life-after-death in order to spend a few days of physical pleasure with the husband she thought dead; whilst Nobuko Otowa’s undead mother character’s lust for revenge against samurai is so great as to force her to consider murdering her own son.
The theatrical visuals and set-design make much of the film seem like an expressionistic stage-play, with key set-pieces looking like symbolic dream (or nightmare sequences). It’s hard to think of many other films which have showcased the stunning contrasts of black and white so effectively. What’s more is that it’s not like Shindo was forced into his choice of black and white photography by technical or budget limitations – it was an explicit choice. It works fabulously, and I seriously couldn’t consider watching the film in colour which would paradoxically wash-out the eerie hue of the film.
The uncanny score, underwritten by a rasping drum, heighten the tempo of the film’s set-pieces to pull together a fantasy film which is as unforgettable as it is visually impressive.
Ennio Morricone may have penned the soundtrack but from the opening titles it’s seething with Carpenter’s pulsating synth-style. So slow is this score that it’s close to crawling, but its sonorous beat is cold, withdrawn and chilling.
Carpenter uses many low-view shots of desolate corridors and darkened shadows whilst Dean Cundey’s cinematography is once again evidenced through the beautifully lensed neon flares, blue-hued snow and the velvet of the polar nights – it’s sublime.
Like Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), and to a lesser extent in Prince of Darkness (1987), the strength lies in the attachment Carpenter draws to our doomed band of men. The scientific research station is initially portrayed as a kind of giant bar; when we get there, its occupants a parade of bar-flies whiling away time playing cards, pool and drinking. That is until the paranoia sets in; Blair is locked up; Clarke innocently gunned down and Bennings and others executed mid-transformation.
The cast are unbelievably strong and welded together with a script epitomising the everyday dialogue of men trapped in moribund isolation. Aside from Kurt Russell’s towering performance as the de-facto leader of the group, Wilfrid Brimley’s character Blair is fantastic; the first to realise the potential for ”The Thing” to escape, he opts for a scorched-earth policy before being exiled to the tool shed. Garry, played by Donald Moffat, is under perpetual suspicion until after a dose of blood testing provides proof his innocence , he robustly declares ” I know you gentlemen have been through a lot, but when you find the time, I’d rather not spend the rest of this winter TIED TO THIS FUCKING COUCH!!”.
Keith David’s Childs is hot-tempered and vying for alpha male position with Kurt Russell’s McReady. The much-talked-about final scene as these two sat amongst the ruins of the camp, with temperatures plummeting and no power, staring at one another hoping each isn’t “The Thing”.
One of my favourite scenes is when Stevie Wonder’s superstition plays over the radio as we pan around the barren corridors looking for “The Thing”. Another is the shot of the dog (the original host of the Thing) approaching the shadow of an unknown man sitting on a bed, and we know as the shadow’s head turns back that he’s about to come face to face with “The Thing”.
Rob Bottin’s special make-up effects still stagger today; these eye-popping visuals won the film some infamy on release but they are terrific set-pieces peppered throughout the film. Watching a head detach from the body, grow spider-legs and run away is a remarkable experience.
There is resolutely nothing that I dislike about this movie. It’s pure Carpenter.
It’s oft-stated that Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) is the pinnacle of sci-fi terror, but over the years I have increasingly come round to the notion that this isn’t quite right. Carpenter’s film is the more visceral, the more watchable and the more tense.
For me, whilst Alien’s elegance may ever propel it to the top of various lists, Kurt Russell’s gang of paranoid men isolated in Antarctica will always hold me more than the crew aboard the Nostromo in Ridley’s classic.
In the midst of a viral outbreak which has turned much of the world into zombies, a band of British soldiers and scientists use a group of children who are able to resist aspects of the virus to develop a cure.
We’ve not been starved of offerings from the zombie genre over the last decade, either on the small screen or in multiplexes. For me, the best of these efforts have been in the form of the Sang-ho Yeon’s satirical nail-biter Train to Busan (2016) and Balaguero/Plaza’s spanish dreadfest REC (2007). I’d give more than a footnote to the Brian Cox narrated Exit Humanity (2011) too.
Part BFI-funded, “The Girl With All The Gifts” belongs to this special grouping. Director Colm McCarthy takes choice-cuts from the genre; the satirical pulse from Train To Busan as an underlay to the script and REC’s putrid tension in his taut set-pieces; reformulating them into a standalone entry which will be a genre mainstay for some time to come.
Thematically immersive – and not dissimilar in this way to Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985) – the film goes diligently beyond the usual-satire, which can border on parody, endemic in the zombie-apocalypse industry; instead opting to pose some conceptual questions about our role in the biosphere. At its core, the film is another coming-of-age drama but this isn’t exactly Stand By Me (1989). Beginning life as a rather standard ‘survivors-trapped-in-a-bunker-from-the-living-dead’, the plot changes tac and nestles the story of the girl of the film’s title in a ‘lifeboat’ movie. Whilst Chernobyl may double for parts of London – in the aerial photography at least – the airless and desolate city location encloses the audience.
The tight cast spun around our child-lead give strong performances – with Glenn Close’s amoral scientist and Paddy Considine’s soldier (think Hicks from Aliens (1986)) really standing-out. As the film goes on, it’s clearly Sennia Nanua who brings the film together. You wouldn’t think that a ‘zombie-kid’ could be so believable.
The screenplay gets it just right with the dash of humour. In a final scene which splits critics, I’d probably fall on the side of those arguing it’s rather needless and a more thoughtful conclusion might come out of some post-shoot editing to remove this sequence, leaving the visual power of the penultimate scene to sit and smoulder.
Anthony Perkins’ directorial debut represents an unexpectedly stylish take on the Psycho franchise, eschewing the mystery-thriller approach of Richard Franklin’s admirable Psycho 2 (1983) and forging a Giallo-hued entry which has been rather unfairly treated down the years. Psycho 3 is partly Psycho a la mode of course.
The look of the film, and in particular the lighting and European-lensing, is distinctly different to its predecessor. Dean Cundey’s work on Psycho 2 is solid in its own right – and particularly the look of the storm clouds set above Norman as he stands outside the Bates house – but the combination of Bruce Surtees as director of photography and Perkins in the chair this time manages to result in a visual style too interesting and eccentric for a paint-by-numbers slasher film. Primarily, that’s because Psycho 3 is not such a slasher film. Yes, the gore and smut factor has been elevated for the 80s audience but the talent behind the production means this is a different kind of movie.
You’d never guess that this is Perkins’ baptism of fire in the art of directing given he pulls off some tantalising camera-placing and engineers numerous dutch angle shots. There are two pieces of camerawork which stand-out even today. The first is a seamless fading shot as we switch between the movie on a TV screen in a bar to the same movie on a TV screen in Norman’s parlour as he gazes out of the window, illuminated by a green table lantern – it’s absolutely gorgeous. (There’s also another fading shot in the film as we move directly from a hospital room to Mother’s room, through the simple act of Norman opening and closing a door). The second is a transformation of a shaft of light under a door into a gleaming kitchen knife.
Perkins the actor, perhaps laid bare in all his typecast glory, comes close to japing the audience with that all-knowing smile and blank – nearly icy – stare. As in Psycho 2, Perkins now appears a rather gaunt and unkempt version of the boy-next-door who initially haunted Vera Miles in Hitchcock’s 1960 classic; but the strength of his performance is – as always with his Norman persona – in effortlessly displaying the complete madness and underlying vulnerabilities of the “child-within-a-man”. Jeff Fahey’s character “Duke” is the mirror image of Norman – he’s confident with women, carefree but also a sexual predator – and it’s with Norman where the audience’s sympathy remains. The elemental reason being that at the heart of the Psycho franchise – and particularly the sequels – is tragedy not horror. Perkins’ Bates is no monster but a pitiable antagonist, a key difference between him and the likes of the deliberately faceless slashers who characterised 80s horror cinema.
Explicit attention is once again given to Norman’s heartfelt desires, this time love and companionship with Diana Scarwid’s “Maureen” – a runaway nun who has turned her back on God (and an uncomfortable doppleganger for shower scene victim Marion Crane) – and at some points in the film you actually begin to believe this is going to work and free him of his tragic split-personality. Both Norman and Maureen are having a crisis of faith; Maureen in her god and Norman in his sanity. The religious themes of restitution and atonement are heavy (perhaps even too heavy) with frequent symbolism, the best of which being the large window in the Bates house’s hallway resembling a stained-glass window in a church. The similarities between Scarwid’s Maureen and Perkins’ Norman are strongly reminiscent of those between Janet Leigh’s Marion and Norman in the original film. In fact the first half of this film is thematically alike – and intentionally so – to Hitchcock’s film. Fans will notice the route that Janet Leigh took to the Bates Motel; running away from a crime, driving through pouring rain and seeking shelter; is markedly analogous to that taken by Scarwid in this picture. The script also wallows in self-reference with Perkins delivering my favourite line in response to Mauren’s hospital-bedside-apology for her suicide attempt in the shower of Cabin 1:
Maureen: Sorry, I did leave the bathroom a mess.
Norman: I’ve seen it worse.
There are further nods to Hitchcock from the off, beginning with an opener which is nothing short of a gushing tribute to Vertigo’s bell-tower moment. There’s a reworking of the iconic shower scene from the original film, only here it’s a phone box rather than a bathtub. Perkins clearly picked up on Hitchcock’s black humour and memorably stages a police chief unknowingly sucking blood-spattered ice cubs from an ice box as he defends Norman in front of his detractors.
Carter Burwell’s soundtrack has claim to be one of the most under-rated scores in the genre. The main theme is jealously eerie as it plays over the opening credits of Maureen drudging through the barren wilderness surrounding the Bates motel. The incidental scores are just as strong, and really add to the picture’s togetherness.
What Perkins doesn’t get quite right is the mood of the picture; certain scenes fly just a little close to self-parody and modern audiences may decide the sight of a cross-dressing killer snarling from the dark is more jocularly camp than anything else.
In a sentence, Psycho 3 is a well-shot sequel that is far superior to anything it *should* have been. Perkins himself later claimed that he didn’t really have the requisite technical skill to do the film justice; how wrong he was. Furthermore, it’s unfortunately now remembered by most as just another slice ‘n’ dice movie from a decade soaked in them. How wrong again.
Hotdog rating: 8/10
Right, Arrowhead (1953) is a film which is almost universally panned; long subject to vitriolic attacks from critics but it’s resolutely unfair to chastise a film which so accurately attempts to reflect guttural conflict that still characterises the world today.
What I think irks most critics is the utter malice on display from our protagonists, Charlton Heston and Jack Palance. Heston plays an Apache-hating scout and Palance, clad in rather hilarious make-up, an Apache bent on rebelling against the ‘white eyes’. Heston’s character is thoroughly unlikeable: no hero. But his role is not even that of an anti-hero; he’s a full-blown racist and to blame for igniting the violence in the film by executing Apache go-betweens without question or hesitation. However, Heston must finish what he starts in the film’s logic, and that’s why he ends up in some people’s eyes as “the hero”. But it’s unanswerable that the screenplay demonstrates the contempt in which he is held by all. The army come to a regrettable conclusion that they need this seething ball of bile in order to prevent massacre, but it’s a wrenchingly difficult choice and the audience is never comfortable with it.
On the other hand, the Apaches whilst brutal are still shown as honourable – governed by their code – but inflexibly beholden to faith and belief which brings about their downfall. Palance – clad in make-up – is a bit theatrical but well-juxtaposed next to his more cautious and peace-seeking father.
The film has two particularly callous scenes. The first is Palance’s shooting of his unarmed – and welcoming – ‘blood brother’ from childhood, a white man who now runs the local stagecoach. The second is the suicide of Heston’s half-Apache scheming mistress; followed up with Heston’s sadistic utterance “there’s a dead Apache in here….get it out”. It’s hard and uncompromising stuff.
Ray Rennahan’s gorgeous photography of the landscapes, and use of colour filters to simulate the coming dawn are evidence of a dichotomy between the topography of a graceful land and the chilling racism that exists on its plains.
It’s high-time Arrowhead was rehabilitated; and it’s resonance with current affairs is not be sniffed at. This is a dark film – and perhaps so bleak that you think it may have been unintended by the producers – but whatever its motivations, Arrowhead is an unforgettable and misanthropic movie experience with a punchy aesthetic.
The melancholy of Scott’s film is that its best bits are simulated rehashes of the original 1979 film, but luckily there’s just enough of them to make this another enjoyable adventure in the series – and nothing remotely more.
Aesthetically pleasing – with a visual bonanza at the film’s close – and with some solid blood-letting in the best of fashion, it’ll please the style brigade at least. But Scott critically neglects the character development that made us care so much about the Nostromo’s crew in his 1979 genre-definer; and for all the visual jazz, it feels a cold experience.
Thematically similar to Blade Runner, and with an opening scene which could have come directly from that classic of neo-noir, Scott’s overtly preoccupied and wedded to the artificial intelligence theme for much of the running time. For sure, Fassbender’s synthetic is the realised fulcrum of the picture but the plot twists around his character are far too readily seen, predictability mitigating the film’s shock value. The ‘big reveal’ is nothing of the sort it was in Alien (1979), and it’s as if Scott can’t help but let out the secret way before time. That said, Fassbender’s performance is totemic in its own right – after this and Prometheus (2012) he’ll surely go down in franchise folk history – but I’d pine that it feels like a role chiselled into the wrong film.
The screenplay involves some ludicrous decision-making by the colonists – even by typical genre standards – which stretches the imagination. I couldn’t help garnering a sly impression that the writers were in fact quite lazy, and couldn’t be bothered to think of ingenious methods for our would-be settlers to become exposed to the alien(s).
Once the alien is on board the spacecraft, we know exactly what is going to happen and then Covenant just re-runs the latter part of the original movie. Of course, with Scott in the director’s chair it’s done very well from a choreography point of view, but you don’t feel as strongly for the cast as you did in Scott’s first effort from nearly 40 years ago. Part of the reason is another missing aspect, down again to the writers, who by making the colonists couples, cheaply extinguish the par-boiled sexual tension which simmered beneath Weaver’s Ripley and Skerritt’s Dallas in Alien (1979). In addition, there is apparently scant logic to the creature’s behaviour in Covenant ; once aboard the ship it just seems to uncaringly tear through things. That isn’t how the alien was portrayed in the original, and the xenomorph’s intelligence and stalking abilities have clearly now been downgraded to being little more than a klutz of a killing machine.
What this film does have is a viciously suspenseful shower scene, harking back to the haunted-house concept in Alien(1979). In spite of its great achievement, that’s really ‘all’ the original film was – a simple haunted-house movie in space. It’s strangely telling that Covenant is strongest when recreating this simplicity and weakest where it tries to carry on the complexity and layering of Prometheus (2012).
All in all, Scott is valiantly attempting to construct a lore and a mythos but it doesn’t feel necessary. The lacking backstory could and I’d strongly argue should be seen as positive element in these films and not a negative one. The failure to realise this continues to leave the Alien franchise in an unfavourable place.
But perhaps us fans should shoulder some of the responsibility, after all it’s our crippling desires for a universe all of our own which must have somewhat forced Scott’s treasured hand. It would have been better if the question of where this all comes from had been left as the Alien franchise’s lingering rhetoric, rather than the driver for a intricately networked batch of prequels.
Hitchcock reworked The 39 Steps (1935) for the first time in Young and Innocent (1937) adding more light-hearted humour than in many of his British films and restricting the action to a smaller geographical region than his UK-trotting seminal 1935 thriller. The grippingly gloomy Sabotage (1936) had immediately preceded Young and Innocent (1937) in Hitchcock’s filmography, so it’s no surprise that he returned to a more playful film.
Young and Innocent is bookended by two grandiose shots, of which the latter is particularly famous. It’s an impressive crane shot meandering over a hotel ballroom to reveal the jazz drummer as our twitching murderer (see previous blog post https://hotdogcinema.wordpress.com/2014/07/13/hitchcocks-best-shot/). The first is the same twitching killer set against a rough sea in a thunderstorm.
Nova Pilbeam excels as the daughter of a chief contestable, falling haplessly for man on the run (and of course, the wrongly accused) Derrick De Marney. Watch out for Basil Redford is an amusing bit-part.
Whilst it was made relatively early in the director’s career, this film could be none other a ‘Hitchcock movie’. The theme of an innocent man on the run, romantically involved with a “good standing woman”, is almost his own and there’s many similarities here for those looking to consistency in his cannon. Early on the film, De Marney’s position is that of Henry Fonda’s in the unloved The Wrong Man (1956) and there’s a scene which would be replicated 20 years later with Fonda, where detectives attempt to put words in De Marney’s exasperated mouth. The crane shot is a clear precursor to the rousing “key in the hand” sequence in Notorious. More deviously, throughout Hitchcock’s films, he loved to include scenes of dinner table discussions of murder (Shadow of a Doubt, The Paradine Case, I Confess, Frenzy to name but a few) and we have one here, with Pilbeam’s family chirpily discussing “the murderer” De Marney’s probability of escape. Pilbeam’s reactions are the same as those of Wright’s in Shadow of A doubt when a dinner conversation about her killer of an Uncle begins in his presence. Also note the use of clothing apparel as a murder weapon, which would be vividly revisited over 30 years later in Hitchcock’s penultimate and most savage film, Frenzy (1972).
At its heart, whilst both begin with a murder, the big difference between The 39 Steps and this film is that Young and Innocent is more of a romance thriller – there’s even a scene where de Marney enters Pilbeam’s bedroom via a window in something out of Romeo and Juliet – whereas the 39 Steps is what I frequently call one of Hitchcock’s “athletic” mystery thrillers which would culminate in the never-bettered North by Northwest. These films are defined by their dynamism, pace, romantic leads, use of landmark locations and churning plot twists. Whilst N by NW is the pristine example, there are many in Hitchcock’s filmography (Saboteur (1942)being one of the sadly neglected; and note the handcuffs sequence with the blind man).
On its own merits, the 39 Steps has ground to be Hitchcock’s most enjoyable movie of the British period (although with stiff competition from the original The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)). In some sense, the 39 Steps is the first “bond movie” but is glossed with all the director’s hallmarks. The visual style starts in scene 1 as the words” music hall” are lit up before our eyes as the camera scrolls the screen. The film opens and closes in a music hall, and the finale echoes aspects of The Man Who Knew Too Much conclusion with a balcony-situated killer waiting in the wings. Whilst Young and Innocent is more about the growing love between two mavericks, The 39 Steps is devoted to the theme of deception – nearly every character is deceiving someone else, and with Donat’s hero going from being the one who is deceived to the one doing the deceiving.
There are other cinematic nuggets including the iconic close-ups of the handcuffs that chain Donat and his love-interest together, and the zoom in shot of the identifiable missing knuckle of the villain of the piece. Much of the action takes place in the Scottish Moorland, and there’s some neat atmospherics, rolling fogs and wandering sheep. Thematically, one could argue that the MacGuffin was conceived in this very film (what exactly are the 39 Steps?) and it’s perhaps more than a coincidence that often Hitchcock gave the train-to-Scotland example of what he meant by the MacGuffin.
Both movies showcase the talent of a director who not only managed to make the films which defined his time but also which still today endear themselves to audiences 80+ years later. Their longevity is a testament to the ability of the best filmmaker our little island has produced.
Clint Eastwood seemed fond of a particular Western story in the 70s and 80s – albeit not as keen as Howard Hawks with his own repeated themes in the Rio Bravo / El Dorado/ Rio Lobo trilogy – but keen nonetheless. Eastwood’s story is that of a perhaps supernatural stranger who comes to town to punish bad people for past deeds, or indeed the wrong they have done to the stranger in particular.
High Plains Drifter (1973) and Pale Rider (1985) are the films in point, and are startlingly similar – even if the latter is the more polished of the two (as expected given Eastwood’s progress in the director’s chair). It’s frustrating that the second is sometimes accused of being a shoddy copycat version of genre classic Shane (1953), whereas it’s a deeper and more mature reworking of Drifter’s rough diamond. In fact, some of gone so far to say that Eastwood’s preacher in Rider is the same character as the mysterious stranger in Drifter.
Rider is the more cryptic of the two with scant attention given to the backstory of the preacher, and his grudge with sadistic gun-for-hire Stockburn (played wonderfully by a gaunt-looking John Russell, incidentally the villain in Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959)). I’ve always felt that the main plot in Rider, of the competing interests of tin-pan miners and a ruthless company with technologically advanced methods is just an excuse to generate the showdown between Stockburn and the preacher himself – and the inevitable revelation that Stockburn’s dollar driven sadism cannot go unpunished even in a land as lawless as the West. Drifter offers more in terms of contextual backdrop with elongated flash-back sequences detailing the whole town witness a murder they engineered to save the livelihoods they have built.
In Rider and Drifter, concentration is laid on the reactions of the other characters to the arrival of the stranger. In Rider, the reaction of Michael Moriarty and his tin-pan community is one of growing hope – literally seeing Eastwood as a kind of saviour. Stockburn’s reaction is one of cautious foreboding, sensing a confrontation which has long been coming. In Drifter, the response of the townsfolk is similar to the tin-pans initially, but gradually shifts toward a more ominous feeling.
The personalities of the stranger in the two companion pieces are actually rather opposite – in Drifter, our anti-hero is darker and even cruel at times, whereas in Rider the stranger is more ‘just’. Within the first ten minutes of Drifter, our stranger has shot 3 people and raped a woman in a scene which by today’s standards would be uncomfortable for many. More generally, Rider is less violent and less brutal than the dirtier Drifter which is jammed with unlikeable characters played to the hilt by an awesome patchwork of a cast (Geoffrey Lewis, Anthony James, Mitchell Ryan, Walter Barnes and of course the memorable Billy Curtis as the sole goody guy).
The supernatural nature of the stranger in both films is somewhat disputed, but to me seems indisputable in Rider at least. Stockburn’s weathered reaction to the preacher’s description, and his shock-ridden eyes when he comes face to face with Eastwood in the finale seems to confirm it. The ending of Rider and Drifter both show the stranger disappear into the distance, nearly dissipating into the landscape like the spectres they are implied to be. Both film’s scores have the feel of the supernatural about them too, particularly Drifter’s sloping introductory and closing pieces. The religious symbolism is overtly obvious in Rider -with Eastwood’s stranger himself being ‘summoned’ onto the screen as Sydney Penny reads out a bible verse about the 4 horsemen of the apocalypse – but also apparent in Drifter. Our stranger here changes the town’s name from Lago to ‘Hell’, forces the townsfolk to paint the buildings blood red and confronts Lago’s gutless and sanctimonious preacher.
Eastwood’s camerawork in Rider is better than in Drifter; and his manipulation of the set-pieces has come on leaps and bounds between 1973 and 1985 with the ending coda to Rider being one of the best Western set-pieces of modern times. That doesn’t automatically mean the Rider is the superior film, and it admittedly lacks the punch of Drifter and its bluntly revisionist stance built on a pernicious anti-hero. But these are two great movies, which are really extensions of one another.
Hitchcock’s second Hollywood outing, SUSPICION (1941), is probably most famous for its ending – an example of studio executives’ interference and retroactive aversion to portraying Cary Grant, in all his dashing glory, as a devious murderer. Hitchcock’s latter interviews with Truffaut display the director’s own post-mortem of a film which he felt would have been so much better, had it not been for the slight of hand from RKO pictures.
But – and I am in an unequivocal minority if IMDB is anything to go by here – I am rather of the opinion that the film’s coda as it stands represents something of a coup. Unlike its predecessor, REBECCA (1940), the photography is bright throughout SUSPICION (1941); it’s only with the passing of time and Fontaine’s descent into conjectured mistrust that the frames here darken, finally resulting in the iconic ‘glass-of-milk-up-the-staircase’ scene – one of the finest and statuesque sequences Hitchcock put on film. It’s this closing down of Fontaine’s world, and her grip on reality, which is the underlying story of the film. Convinced she’s about to be murdered, Fontaine flees for the sanctuary of her family home; unknowing of Grant’s genuine lack of murderous intent, before finally realising she’s entirely misunderstood events (just have we the audience) as Grant saves her from falling to certain death during the car journey there.
Of course, generations all assume that Cary Grant is the villain of the piece; but as our ‘odd’ mystery writer lets on earlier in the film, it’s the (would-be) murderers who are heroes in this genre. Joan Fontaine, a woman sodden with the paranoia meticulously tracked on camera, is actually the malefactor to Grant’s self-reflective libertine. This is the true meaning of the ‘studio’ ending, whether they meant it or not. And isn’t this all-the-more interesting in theme and narrative, than simply “that nice movie star is actually a cold-blooded killer?”.
Whilst I have a truck with the majority view of the ending, I am less-inclined to lavish a degree of praise such as to raise the rest of the film into the upper strata of the great director’s cannon. It’s not on the same level as STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951), ROPE (1948) and PSYCHO (1960) but it’s a better film than some of Hitchcock’s widely-acclaimed movies such as DIAL M FOR MURDER (1954) and TO CATCH A THIEF (1955), which rely mostly on a polished aesthetic alone. For example, the dynamic between Grant, Fontaine and Nigel Bruce as the ill-destined “Beaky” seems heartfelt here and the aforementioned 50s thrillers lack a degree of that playfulness.
Feudal Japan, jet-black in look and heart, is the setting for this outstanding slice of horror fantasy. Shindo’s film is, at a human level, about the destructive effects of jealousy and lust but also serves as a wider allegory for the corruption of war and the economic system.
The story is something of a fable. The linear narrative concerns two peasants – an old woman and her daughter-in-law- who are forced to murder passing soldiers in order to steal their possessions and trade them for food, as war rages across the country. Men are in scarce supply due to the fighting, so when a returning male neighbour sets out to target the younger woman as a means to satisfy his desires this sets off a chain reaction of green-eyed envy. One could wonder where the horror element enters proceedings, well this comes in the form of a masked Samurai – reportedly maintaining said mask to protect a handsome face – who is quickly despatched by the old woman and falls into a pit holding the skeletons of the couple’s previous victims. The old woman then realises that she can use the Samurai’s mask as a prop to scare her daughter-in-law away from her lecherous suitor.
You know you’re in for something different from the off, as the opening scenes establish our two peasants as unscrupulous and efficient murderesses in a well-choreographed dialogue-less sequence. Their art of murder runs like clockwork, indicating a solid track record in the killing and pillaging of returning Samurai.
There’s lots of shots of nature here; close-up takes of reeds dancing in the wind and of clouds rolling in the sky. Just as stunning are the quick edits of emotion-etched faces and burning eyes darting around the claustrophobic interiors of the small dwellings. The masterful black-and-white photography and exotic visuals alone would be sufficient for a gushing review – and it’s incontestably the images of the mask set against the velvet night which stays with you on the first viewing – but the sound design is a lesson in the utilisation of effects to maximum degree. The whispering reeds, rhythmic (and at times, passion-filled) breathing and dread-inducing score are huge positives. What might surprise a modern audience is the gratuitous display of female nudity and coupled with the presentation of sweaty bodies in sinful embrace, makes for a wave of carnal instinct definitively choked with sexual tension that still stands up today. You can really feel the salacity of the characters in a way which is unusual for films of this period.
The curse of the demon mask itself emerges as quite terrifying in the film’s climatic scenes, punishing both the Samurai and the old woman for their sins. In the Samurai’s case, his sin is presumably that of narcissism whilst the old woman realises only too late that she is being punished for her envy and deception. This final sequence in which the old woman, now panic-stricken, desperately tries to remove the mask from her face is agonising to watch. That said, the horror in ONIBABA is not primarily of a supernatural origin. There’s more brutal fear to be evoked from the inward-looking motivations of human beings, in the extreme circumstances of a situation in which physical possessions are worth far more than life itself.
The reach of ONIBABA has evidently been great, influencing the visual depiction of the demonic face in Friedkin’s THE EXORCIST (1973) and also the symbolic well in 1998’s J-horror classic RINGU.
If there’s a problem with Shindo’s film, it’s most likely in the pacing with the running time being around 15 minutes too long. But that’s of course tolerable when the quality of filmmaking is as high as this. All in all, a simply gargantuan movie in horror cinema and one to be savoured. Indeed, this is in all honesty one of the best films I have seen in years.
Hotdog rating : an easy 10/10