Horror films I said I wouldn’t watch, but did.

Back in September of 2010, I wrote a blog entry entitled The horror films I probably won’t watch, and why in which I listed five films that, solely based on my knowledge of their content, I felt unlikely that I’d opt to view them. The five films were:

  1. Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980).
  2. Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) by Pier Paolo Pasolini.
  3. The August Underground Trilogy (August Underground 2002, Mordum 2003, Penance 2007) created by the Pittsburgh-based film production/special effects/design company Toetag Pictures.
  4. The mondo-style films Faces of Death (1978), and it’s imitators Faces of Gore and Traces of Death.
  5. Irreversible (2002) directed by Gaspar Noé.

The main issue I had with the listed films were the common element of “cruelty for the sake of cruelty” — or, in other words, that the sadistic nature of their content existed only to titillate in the most exploitative manner possible. Of course, since I had not seen these films, I had only their reputation on which to base my decision.

In the six years since I originally wrote that post, curiosity has — perhaps, predictably –gotten the better of me. Of the five films on that list, I’ve watched two (and almost three) of them. Here are my thoughts on each, in the order in which they first appeared:

Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust is, without doubt, a nasty film. Every frame of film looks smeared in blood, grime and sweat, probably because it actually was. The animal deaths are brutal and very real, and the actors endured a great deal of hardship while filming in the Amazon. The film is so notorious for the animal deaths, in fact, that I felt little shock when they finally happened as I’d read a great deal about them already. I was not prepared, however, for the casual manner in which violent rape was thrown on the screen. Now, if you’ve watched any number of 70’s Italian exploitation films, you’ll already be aware that rape is depicted with a great deal of frequency. Cannibal Holocaust is no different in that regard, but it’s much more violent here. Then again, this is a brutally violent world that Deodato is creating for us, and he does this quite effectively. The first half of the film, with the rescue team heading into the Amazon to locate the missing filmmakers, is frankly a bit boring. Things improve considerably in the second half, with the executives in New York viewing the footage recovered by the rescue team. This is where the whole “found footage” conceit kicks in, and is without question the greatest contribution Cannibal Holocaust has made to the horror genre. We’d probably not have The Blair Witch Project without the shaky, hand-held camera and POV-style of this earlier film.

The gore is spectacular and reasonably well executed, with the iconic impalement scene standing out as an impressive achievement in practical special effects. Sure, all the blood looks like red paint but, hey, it’s 1979-80. By the end of the film-within-a-film, you’re basically cheering on the natives to take their bloody vengeance on the monstrous Euro-American filmmakers — and boy, do they ever. If you consider yourself more than a casual horror film fan, then you owe it to yourself to watch Cannibal Holocaust at least once. Of the Italian cannibal films, it’s probably the best (though I haven’t seen all of them).

Incidentally, Eli Roth’s 2013 offering The Green Inferno is basically a mash-up of this film with Umberto Lenzi’s Cannibal Ferox (itself a complete retelling of the basic plot in Deodato’s film). Roth’s rehash pales in comparison to the brutality of the earlier films, partly owing to the fact that one simply couldn’t make those films nowadays (laws protecting animal rights in films were passed after the making of Cannibal Holocaust). The only change Roth makes to his film which I felt worked was the repositioning of the native tribe from “peaceful victims pushed to violence” to very purposeful and sadistic predators. The cheerfully privileged college student-activists in The Green Inferno die out of sheer First World naïveté which — aside from a problematic view of non-white “primitives” as the menacing Other — is an interesting re-contextualization of the traditional cannibal film narrative. 

salo-3-1024x677

Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) by Pier Paolo Pasolini.

 

I tried to watch Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom, I really did. I only made it about 45-minutes into the film before I switched it off. Sure, the cinematography was fabulous and the acting seemed very competent … but, it was so fucking boring. Judging from the first 45-minutes only, it appeared that the sadistic fascists planned to bore their adolescent victims to death with all their incessant talking, talking, talking. One has to suppose that all the infamous rape, torture and shit-eating occurs much later in the film. Perhaps several cups of coffee are required to view this lengthy piece of arthouse-smut. I may follow-up with a films I said I wouldn’t watch because they were so boring, but I persevered anyway post at a future date.

I haven’t watched any of the August Underground Trilogy yet, and I’m still on the fence about them. I may give-in to my curiosity late one night, when I’m feeling up to the challenge of a film that features a headless, maggoty toddler corpse. These films are not available (nor will ever be available) on streaming media like Netflix. One has to dig in the deeper, darker places of the Internet to unearth these atrocities.

968full-faces-of-death-artwork

One version of artwork for the “Faces of Death” VHS case.

I have, however, watched the infamous Faces of Death (1978), and found the film completely hilarious. I recall closely studying the VHS case at my local Blockbuster Video when I was a teen in the 80’s, curious about the title but too intimidated to actually rent it. Banned in 46 countries! Depiction of actual death!

Lacking any sense of true narrative, the film is a cobbled-together series of newsreel and documentary footage showing fatal accidents, war photography, human autopsies, and animals being dispatched in slaughterhouses, all loosely connected by the authoritative voiceover of our death-tour guide, the fictitious Dr. Francis B. Gröss. Some of the footage is clearly (and, in some cases, laughably) staged reconstructions of reputedly real events. The segment featuring a group of American tourists supposedly eating monkey brains in some exotic locale is laugh-out-loud ridiculous.

The final film, the Gaspar Noé directed Irreversible (2002), I plan to watch at a future date. It’s such a seminal film within the framework of “New French Extremity” that I feel I should, though I seldom feel like settling-in to witness Monica Bellucci get violently raped for several, protracted minutes. Blech. Still, the time-reversal conceit seems like an interesting one.

Anyway, happy Halloween horror-viewing!

Deviant Desires: Erotic Grotesque Nonsense, part III. “Horrors of Malformed Men” (1969).

This is Part III of my series of posts relating to the Japanese cultural phenomenon called “ero-guro-nansensu”, or erotic-grotesque-nonsense. Part II, which discussed the cultural contributions of Edogawa Rampo, is found here.

The mad Doctor Komoda and one of his 'malformed men' whom, it would seem, possesses a football-sized scrotum.

The mad Doctor Komoda and one of his ‘malformed men’ whom, it would appear, possesses a football-sized scrotum.

Horrors of Malformed Men

(1969, dir. Teruo Ishii, a.k.a. Horror of a Deformed Man or The Horror of Malformed Men)

The first film I’d like to discuss in my Deviant Desires series is Teruo Ishii’s “pinky violent” contribution to the ero-guro landscape entitled Horrors of Malformed Men. By the time Ishii came to helm this film, he had already enjoyed a long and very prolific career as a director. His filmography consists of over 80 films, including the much-beloved children’s science-fiction series Super Giant, and — at the very opposite end of the cinematic spectrum — the infamous sex-and-sadism film Shogun’s Joy of Torture (1968). He was frequently referred to in Japan as “The King of Cult”.

Horrors of Malformed Men is best described as avant-garde theatre meets exploitation film. It’s a hodge-podge of at least four different Edogawa Rampo stories, including “The Human Chair”, ‘The Stroller in the Attic’, ‘The Twins’, and the title story ‘The Strange Tale of Panorama Island’. This film also draws heavily on H.G. Wells’s novel “The Island of Dr. Moreau”, as well as the 1932 film adaptation entitled “Island of Lost Souls”. Ishii fashioned these different Rampo stories around an overarching tale of an amnesiac young doctor’s search for his missing father.

horrors-of-malformed-men

Often labeled under the category “pink film” — which was a type of Japanese softcore pornographic theatrical film produced in the 1960’s and 70’s — the nudity and sex on display in Horrors of Malformed Men is certainly tame by contemporary standards. Even in the Japan of 1969, the occasional glimpses of bare breasts and bum that flash across the screen wouldn’t have alerted the ever-vigilant eyes of the censors. The violence in this film is minimal, and it’s not especially gory nor horrific for a film entitled Horrors of Malformed Men. So, why was it banned in Japan? (Note the text “Banned for Decades! The most notorious Japanese horror film EVER made” emblazoned across the top of the DVD case.) The answer is — quite surprisingly — political correctness in the 1970’s.

Edogawa Rampo zenshu: kyofu kikei ningen

You can use many terms in Japanese to describe malformed or disfigured people, but the one that was actually used in the Japanese title (see above) was the most negative and derogatory possible. Compounding this issue was also the fact that deformity has traditionally been considered a social taboo in Japan, so much so that to have a member of your family born with a congenital deformity was considered a shameful “loss of face” to the entire family. It was likely due to the strong negativity of these traditionally-held beliefs regarding the disabled that the ‘politically correct’ reaction against them in the 1970s may have overcompensated for the years of discrimination.

Describing the plot of Horrors of Malformed Men is a near impossible task, as it contains plot twists so numerous that to chart them all would prove daunting. The story begins with a young doctor named Hirosuke who suddenly finds himself imprisoned inside an asylum. The story also involves two murders, circus performers, hunchbacks, topless girls, snakes, more topless girls, and a mysterious double named Genzaburo whom Hirosuke impersonates upon his death. A series of strange events compels Hirosuke to seek out answers from Genzaburo’s estranged father who lives on a secluded island. On arrival, Hirosuke and his entourage encounter Genzaburo’s father, who is the unhinged doctor Jogoro Komoda. Similar to Dr. Moreau of the H.G. Well’s novella, the mad Jogoro has been subjecting poor kidnapped individuals to nightmarish medical experiments, all for the purpose of creating his utopia of “malformed men.”

hijikata59

Tatsumi Hijikata, who was one of the founders of the avant-garde theatre and dance movement called butoh.

Director Teruo Ishii made a rather inspired choice in his casting of Jogoro Komoda. Rather than an actor, he cast the performance artist and dancer, Tatsumi Hijikata to play the unhinged doctor. Hijikata was the founder of the avant-garde butoh movement in Japan. Created as a reaction to Western forms of dance, which reached upwards towards the divine, Hijikata’s “dark butoh” saw contorted forms writhing on the ground in a tormented display of anguish. Inspiration often came from discomfiting places, such as the movements of the handicapped and the mentally ill. Hijikata famously described the dance as 
“a corpse trying desperately to stand upright”. Butoh performers cover their bodies with white make-up and move in strange, disjointed, often contorted movements. Incidentally the actress Takako Fuji, who portrayed Kayako Saeki from The Grudge is a trained modern dancer who borrowed heavily from the tradition of butoh for her character’s unnerving movements.

My favourite scene from Horrors of Malformed Men opens with the improvised dance of Hijikata (a sequence that Ishii liked so much that he featured it in the film twice). Then, after a brief discussion with Hirosuke, the mad Jogoro takes his visitors on a tour of his island and his “creations.” They witness troupes of butoh dancers performing an array of grotesque tableaux in and around the water. We see hunchbacks with whips lashing screeching, half-naked monkey-women, two strange human-goat hybrid creatures, naked women swimming and behaving as if they were koi fish, and the performance of some mysterious, arcane ritual by the water’s edge.

Hijikata performing his improvished dance on the rocks.

Hijikata performing his improvised dance on the rocks.

horrors

Butoh dance troupe.

I sincerely hope this actress was well compensated for having to go ass-to-ass with a goat.

I sincerely hope this actress was well compensated for having to go ass-to-ass with a goat.

Here’s the scene I describe above.

Next up, Hiroshi Harada’s infamous underground anime Midori — The Girl in the Freak Show.

Deviant Desires: Erotic Grotesque Nonsense, part II. Edogawa Rampo.

This is Part II of my series of posts relating to the Japanese cultural phenomenon called “ero-guro-nansensu”, or erotic-grotesque-nonsense. Part I, which introduced and defined “ero-guro-nansensu” is found here.

Invariably, any examination of erotic grotesque nonsense will conjure up the name of the single most artistic contributor to that cultural phenomenon, and that name is Edogawa Rampo. In this post, I will introduce Rampo and briefly discuss his cultural legacy and creative output. Rampo serves as a common thread that links Japan of the 1920s-30s to the films I’ll be discussing in subsequent postings, as well as to the artwork of contemporary artists working with ero-guro style imagery. Of the five films I plan to discuss, three are adaptations of stories written by Rampo.

Edogawa Rampo was the pen name of Hirai Taro and the acknowledged grand master of Japan’s golden age of crime and mystery fiction. He is also a major writer in the tradition of Japanese Modernism, and exerts a massive influence on the popular and literary culture of today’s Japan. That his chosen pen name is derived from the Japanese pronunciation of Edgar Allan Poe is a pretty clear indication of his creative inspirations and early passions as a reader.

rampo_reader

The “Edogawa Rampo Reader”, first published in 2008.

Even though Rampo has remained a household name in Japan since the 1930s, translations of Rampo’s fiction were not available in the West until 1956, with the publication of Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination. This collection of nine short stories remained the only dedicated volume of Rampo available in English-language translation up until the early 21st-century (some short stories had been translated and published in other anthologies, but there hadn’t been a dedicated volume of Rampo available). In 2008, the Edogawa Rampo Reader was published, which contained short stories and some non-fiction prose that had hitherto been unavailable in translation.

While a university student, Rampo read detective stories by Poe, G.K. Chesterton, and Arthur Conan Doyle, which appealed to him precisely because of their use of careful plotting, logic and reasoning, and dark overtones. Many of Rampo’s stories feature a main protagonist in the character of Akechi Kogoro, a private detective very much in the vein of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes character. Like Holmes, Akechi is a brilliant but eccentric detective who consults with the police on especially difficult cases. He is a master of disguise and an expert at judo whose genius lets him solve seemingly impossible cases.

It is Rampo’s more bizarre, fantastic and darkly erotic works of fiction, however, that ultimately established him as the Godfather of Ero-Guro. Rampo’s stories were wildly popular during the turbulent interwar years in Japan, and it is their transgressive spirit that best captures the essence of ero-guro-nansensu.

“The Japanese writer Edogawa Rampo has been called the Father of Japanese Mystery Fiction. This statement, while not inaccurate, fails to adequately consider examples of his writing that border on the macabre or the fantastic. Many of his works tap into the elements of strangeness that Japan’s headlong rush into modernity after the Meiji Restoration had unleashed. Far more than conventional mysteries, these stories incorporate elements of the fantastic, the gothic, and the absurd, in ways that thrill and entertain, and also leave the reader unsettled, and they delve deeply into the fear of the unknown that all humans share.”

— (Quote taken from the foreword written by Patricia Welch in Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination.)

I’ve selected two of my favourite Rampo short stories to discuss, the first being The Caterpillar, and the second The Human Chair. These are two of his best known and most celebrated stories, and have been adapted in both film and manga form numerous times throughout the years. First published in 1934, The Caterpillar was the only of Rampo’s stories to have been banned by the prewar Japanese authorities for being ‘anti-nationalist’.

The Caterpillar (1934)


The Caterpillar is a short story about an army wife named Tokiko and her severely injured husband, Lieutenant Sunaga. A recent returnee from an unnamed war, Sunaga has unfortunately become a horribly disfigured quadruple amputee who is deaf, mute and dumb. He is, of course, completely dependent on his wife for all his physical needs, and he communicates these to Tokiko through a series of animalistic grunts and the use of his eyes. While Lieutenant Sunaga is literally trapped within the limbless stump of his body, Tokiko is also trapped in an endless cycle of care for her husband because, as she is continually reminded by those around her, it is her “wifely duty” to do so. As she is told by the retired major general in whose cottage the couple now reside, “The loyalty and meritorious services of Lieutenant Sunaga are of course the boast of our Army.”

Given his condition, Sunaga devolves into something less-than-human and, much like the caterpillar (whose form he now physically resembles), his entire existence focuses on food, and sex. With her new position of power in their relationship Tokiko, resentful of her endless round-the-clock care of her husband, begins to cruelly toy with Sunaga. In a fit of rage at her husband, Tokiko gouges out his eyes with her fingers, thus removing his only sensory connection to the world. The sightless Sunaga manages an insectile crawl out of the cottage and plummets down a well to his death. (I plan to go into greater depth on this story when I discuss the film “The Caterpillar” (2010) directed by Kōji  Wakamatsu, in a later posting.)

The Human Chair (1925)


The second Rampo short story I want to discuss is The Human Chair, which was originally published in 1925. The story involves a young woman writer named Yoshiko who receives a mysterious envelope in the mail. At first, she believes it to be a manuscript from an aspiring writer seeking her critique, but as she reads, she quickly realizes it is a rather long and confessional letter penned by an unnamed writer. The mysterious letter-writer, who describes himself as “ugly beyond description”, confesses to a series of increasingly bizarre and perverse crimes. He reveals that he is craftsman skilled in the art of chair-making, and that he had been commissioned by an upscale hotel to manufacture a large, custom chair for its lobby. Deciding that this commissioned chair is his masterpiece, and therefore reluctant to part with it, he opts to fashion a compartment in the inside back of the chair that would accommodate a human being (namely, him). He then accompanies the chair to the hotel lobby, where he hides inside of it during the day, sneaking out of it at night to steal valuable items from the hotel. The chair-maker soon realized, however, that he received a perverse, erotic thrill when female hotel guests sat in his chair — and thus, on top of him.

After months of this strange existence, the hotel came under new management and some of its contents, including the chair, were sold to private individuals. Coincidentally, Yoshiko’s husband had purchased an overstuffed chair a short while back at an auction, which his wife loves to sit in whilst she reads (so, you know where this is heading, right?). The letter-writer then goes on to describe the daily routine of Yoshiko, confessing that he had fallen in love with her. Horrified, Yoshiko jumps out of the chair and runs from the room. Within moments, she receives a second mystery missive – this time a telegram – stating that the confessional letter was, in fact, a work of fiction, and that the author hoped Yoshiko enjoyed the effectiveness of the story.

Toshio Saeki, being the ‘Godfather of Japanese Erotica”, adds a predictably erotic slant to his interpretation of Rampo’s

Toshio Saeki, being the ‘Godfather of Japanese Erotica”, adds a predictably erotic slant to his interpretation of Rampo’s “The Human Chair” story.

My next post in this series will discuss Teruo Ishii’s gloriously schlocky, psychedelic mashup of Rampo-with-butoh, Horrors of Malformed Men (1969).

Deviant Desires: Erotic Grotesque Nonsense. Part 1 (Introduction)

Hello, my darklings. It’s been an embarrassingly long time since I’ve composed a new post for this blog. My other projects have managed to keep me away — but I’m back. I’ve decided to rectify this prolonged blog-neglect by posting, over the course of several weeks, excerpts taken from the lecture I gave at the Black Museum in Toronto on the topic of “Erotic Grotesque Nonsense”, a cultural phenomenon that developed in 1920s-30s Japan. I hope you enjoy, and find the posts entertaining as well as informative.

Image by a contemporary ero guro-inspired Japanese artist, Suehiro Maruo.

Image by the contemporary ero guro-inspired Japanese artist, Suehiro Maruo.

Synopsis

The interwar years in Japan were a time of rapid modernization and social change. It was also a time of economic hardship and, as the fascists rose to power, increasingly oppressive politics. During these difficult times, a popular cultural phenomena flourished. Dubbed by the Japanese media as ero-guro-nansensu, or “erotic-grotesque-nonsense”, this movement rejected the narrow standards of conventional morality insisted upon by the fascists, and instead celebrated the deviant, the bizarre and the ridiculous.

In terms of timeline, we are focussing specifically on the years 1923 to the mid-1930’s. Ero guro developed and emerged as a mass-media driven cultural phenomenon shortly after the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and faded out by the mid-1930’s due to Japan’s increasing militarism and invasion of China (and, subsequently, WWII).

Defining Ero-Guro-Nansensu

The clearest and most succinct definition I’ve come across for ero-guro is the one by offered by Jim Reichert, a professor of Modern Japanese Literature at Stanford University. Reichert describes ero-guro as:

“… a bourgeois cultural phenomenon that devoted itself to explorations of the deviant, the bizarre, and the ridiculous. […] [Such] works were produced and consumed at a historical moment when Japanese citizens were bombarded by propaganda urging them to devote themselves to such “productive” goals as nation building and mobilization. In this context, the sexually charged, unapologetically “bizarre” subject matter associated with erotic-grotesque cultural products is reconstituted as a transgressive gesture against state-endorsed notions of “constructive” morality, identity, and sexuality.”

Rather than simply a form of escapism, Reichert suggests that ero-guro may have formed (if indirectly) a radical resistance to the totalitarian political state.

Let’s break the phrase up into its three constituent elements:

  • Ero (“erotic”) representing the erotic, or the pornographic. Typical motifs include sexual obsession, fetishism, and other paraphilias. Can often be represented by cross-dressing and fluid gender identities.
  • Guro [hard ‘G’ GUH-ROE] (the “grotesque”). Often represented through physical deformity, also through mental instability, disguises, and the dangerous double or Dopplegänger. It is a common misconception that guro is synonymous with gore. While guro can often be gory, it is not a necessary component.
  • Nansensu (NAN-SAY-SUE] (“nonsense”)
    Representing fantasy, the supernatural, and the absurd. This is the element that can be often overlooked in ruminations on ero-guro — it’s darkly comedic underpinnings.

Ero guro nansensu is a wasei-eigo [ WAH-SAY AY-go ] phrase, meaning that the words are borrowed from English, made to confirm to Japanese and are given meaning as Japanese-derived English (this distinct from engrish). The phrase itself is an example of the Western-inspired modernism that came into vogue during the 1920s in Japan which, in turn, fed into the phenomenon of ero guro. By which I mean that ero guro was initially inspired by Western cultural products such as the gothic-mystery stories of Edgar Allan Poe, which was then absorbed and transformed by ero guro writers like Edogawa Rampo (whom we will discuss in a later post) into very Japanese cultural material.

I began my lecture with a clip of the opening scene from Sion Sono’s 2005 film Strange Circus. My rationale for this was that, in it’s mere two minutes of running time, this scene so perfectly and concisely encapsulates the main themes and motifs that typify ero-guro-nansensu, or “erotic grotesque nonsense”. The scene in question is not available freely online, but below is the trailer, which should at least give you the flavour of Sono’s film.

So, what are the “erotic grotesque” elements in this scene?:

    • An audience composed of ‘decadent’, cosmopolitan and stylishly-dressed youth (note the 1920’s style of clothing). These represent the original consumers of ero-guro. Note that Reichert’s definition of ero-guro indicates that this was a “…bourgeois cultural phenomenon”. This detail is key because, although ero-guro was disseminated widely through the use of print and other contemporaneous media, it remained a largely urban, middle-class phenomenon. The reason for this was simply that the more affluent Japanese citizens had the leisure time and finances to patronize the cafes, movie theatres, and dance revues that were the modern playground of ero-guro.

strange1

    • The representation of fluid gender identities and sexualities (which would have been labelled ‘deviant’ in the context of the 1920’s-1930’s). Our host, Black Shadow, would embody these blurred gender boundaries.


strange2

    • Heightened theatricality and performance (motif of the circus and the circus ‘freak’). It could be argued that ‘ero guro’ and the Gothic aesthetic are distant cousins to each other in terms of theatricality. Also, an element of camp can often be present.
    • Violence, either actual or suggested.
    • Underpinning of absurdity and humour. After all, this is erotic-grotesque-nonsense. All three of these elements are conjured in this last image, showing the moment when Black Shadow asks the audience if any of them would want to be guillotined.

strange3

Imperial Japan

During the age of Imperial Japan, a concern for “racial health” and for Japan’s ability to fight wars, expand its empire, and claim its position as a great world power motivated a new societal power over sex by the fascists.

30s_poster_16

A propaganda poster circa 1930’s, urging Japanese women to remain in the home raising the next generation of healthy, productive Japanese citizens.

Public officials, schoolteachers, and sexologists worked together to classify individuals by sexuality and control behaviors that they marked as “deviant.” The cultural phenomenon of ero guro responded to and opposed these life-for-the-empire biopolitics of the fascists by imagining a possible alternative. Cultural critics such as Jeffrey Angles (in his essay “Seeking the Strange…”, published in Monumenta Nipponica), have interpreted the interwar fad for the erotic grotesque as “…reflecting people’s desire to escape the difficult economic circumstances and increasingly repressive political developments of the 1920s and 1930s for an alternative sphere of imaginative play.”

One of the chief sources I consulted for research on the erotic grotesque was Miriam Silverberg’s book entitled Erotic Grotesque Nonsense: The Mass Culture of Modern Japanese Times. This is a densely packed academic text that examines, in great detail, the emergence of the erotic grotesque as a cultural phenomenon. Silverberg offers four major factors that she asserts contributed to erotic-grotesque nonsense:

  • The changing roles of women.
  • Changing attitudes towards sexuality.
  • The emergence of new public spaces.
  • Mass culture & modern consumerism.

silverberg

Following an economic boom of WWI, Japan quickly fell into recession. This economic decline pressured women, who had hitherto remained in the household, to enter the work force. Women belonging to a higher economic/social status entered the “white-collar” work force as secretaries and other office workers. These women were dubbed moga, or ‘Modern Girl’, by the Japanese journalists of the day.

The Modern Girl often wore Western-style clothing contemporary to her time, with short bobbed hair and knee-length skirts. That said, the majority of Japanese still preferred to remain in tradition Japanese dress.

233-wh-bs-artdeco-01

With her newfound freedom and economic power, the Modern Girl went to the movies, smoked, drank and danced at the various jazz-infused dance halls that began to appear in the trendy Ginza district of 1920s Tokyo. She also, most shockingly, met up with men – unchaperoned — in public spaces. The Modern Girl is imagined to have had a succession of lovers prior to marriage (whether or not that was, in fact, the reality for most Japanese women at the time is another matter – but what is key is the idea of this was even entertained as a possibility).

Dance revues, jazz clubs, cafes and movie houses gave form to new a landscape of urban modernity. Working-class women found employment as café waitresses, while others worked as professional “taxi dancers” in the dance halls, where tickets for a 3-minute dance could be purchased.

ginza-taxi-dancers

Ian Buruma, a writer and academic working in the U.S. who focuses on the culture of Asia, described the social atmosphere of 1920’s Tokyo as “a skittish, sometimes nihilistic hedonism that brings Weimar Berlin to mind.” A tantalizing comparison can be made between interwar Japan and the short-lived Weimar Republic of Germany, with it’s famous brothels and cabarets of the prewar period. Similarly, Tokyo had the dance halls and cafes of the Ginza district, and its own decadent, jazz-listening pleasure seekers. It is within this atmosphere of newfound social freedom and modern pleasures that the “erotic grotesque” was born.

Next up, we’ll review the writings of Edogawa Rampo, the Godfather of Erotic Grotesque.

Deviant Desires: Erotic Grotesque Nonsense in Japanese Horror Films (upcoming lecture)

timthumb

Hey Gentle Readers! I’m giving a lecture at the Royal Cinema (in Toronto) as part of The Black Museum: Lurid Lectures for the Morbidly Curious in May. I will be showing clips from five Japanese films, a few of which are rare, under-the-radar gems of “ero guro nansensu”. Details here: http://theblackmuseum.com/?p=1494

The interwar years in Japan were a time of rapid modernization and social change. It was also a time of economic hardship and, as the fascists rose to power, increasingly repressive politics. During these difficult times, a popular cultural phenomena flourished. Dubbed by the Japanese media as “ero-guro-nansensu” (or, “erotic-grotesque-nonsense”), this movement rejected the narrow standards of conventional morality insisted upon by the fascists, and instead celebrated the deviant, the bizarre and the ridiculous. The stories of Edogawa Rampo, the first writer of the modern mystery in Japan, were wildly popular during these turbulent years. It is Rampo who best captured the darkly erotic and transgressive spirit of “ero-guro”, and his legacy has lasted until present day in Japan.

This lecture will focus on five films, three of which are adaptations of Rampo stories: Horrors of Malformed Men (1969), Teruo Ishii’s gloriously schlocky, psychedelic mashup of Rampo-with-butoh, Blind Beast (1969), Yasuzô Masumura’s lurid tale of sexual obsession and sadomasochism, and Koji Wakamatsu’s strongly anti-nationalist Caterpillar (2010). Other films to be discussed will include Nagisa Oshima’s infamous art film In The Realm of the Senses (1976) — described by film critic Ian Buruma as “perhaps the only intelligent hardcore porno film ever made” — and the seldom seen, and equally controversial, anime film Midori – the Girl in the Freak Show (1992).

May 13, 2015 at 9:15pm
The Royal Cinema, 608 College St, Toronto
Cost: $12 advance / $15 at the door

 

 

Lady Lazarus’s 2014 Halloween List: Scary Movie Moments.

Hello, my Darklings! It may be a relatively balmy afternoon in Toronto, but the warm weather’s not fooling Lady Lazarus.  It is undeniably mid-October, which means it’s that time of year to carefully craft a horror-themed list in anticipation/celebration of Hallowe’en.  While the tagline for this blog “musings on the macabre” indicates my year-round fascination with all things spooky and disturbing, come Hallowe’en, this fascination finds full expression in mainstream culture. In short, I can hoist my horror-freak flag up high.

This year, I decided to go with the theme of “scary movie/TV moments”, meaning those scenes that, for me, contain particularly potent images of horror. As always, this is a highly subjective list. Your list will likely vary. One curious thing I noticed when crafting my list is that all the scenes share a common element. Read on to discover what that would be.

1. Hospital hallway scene from Exorcist III: Legion (1990). William Peter Blatty’s novel Legion is the true sequel to The Exorcist, and not that ridiculous, let’s-cash-in-on-the-original Exorcist II that starred a somehow “re-possessed” Regan (with Linda Blair reprising her role) and a bunch of locusts. When I heard that Blatty himself would direct Exorcist III: Legion, I was actually hopeful that the movie wouldn’t suck. Well, it did. Except for this scene, which is a classic jump-scare moment, expertly done. I don’t want to spoil the moment if you haven’t seen this film, but I would like to point out how well the slow pacing, the static camera, and the everyday banality of the moments leading up to the jump-scare serve to underscore the horror.

Bob2. There are two things that creep me out about the character of Bob from David Lynch’s cult TV series Twin Peaks. Firstly, it’s his appearance. He’s a bedraggled, denim-on-denim denizen of a very seedy underworld, with wild eyes and a maniacal grin. His long hair, toothy grin and feral nature casts him in the role of the Big Bad Wolf, only the world that he emerges from is not one of fairytales, but of nightmares. The second, even more chilling aspect of Bob is how he always just appears, seemingly out of nowhere. One moment, there you are sitting on the broadloom of your parent’s tastefully decorated, circa 1980’s suburban home — complete with floral arrangements and throw-cushions — and suddenly BAM! There he is, climbing over your Mom’s couch with that sinister grin, making his way directly towards you. Whatever his plans, you know it’s not going to end well. Much like the psycho-killer in the scene above from Exorcist III: Legion, it’s Bob’s sudden, inexplicable appearances that always freaked me out.

ju_on_the_grudge2

3. I first saw Ju-On (2002, dir.Takashi Shimizu) at the Toronto International Film Festival back in 2003, and it still remains one of my favourite J-horrors of that era. While I have to admit that the latter half of the film is mainly comprised of a relentless succession of jump-scares, Ju-On still offers up some great visuals, such as the image of the ghost-woman Kayako slooooooowly crawling down the stairs towards the horrified heroine Rika. The image that has always stuck with me, however, is the one depicted above — with Kayako suddenly materializing underneath the bed covers, and directly on top of her victim. Can you imagine lifting your bed sheets to see that face staring up at you? NO.

exorcist-horror-trivia-secrets-of-the-exorcist

4. Yes, ok, The Exorcist (1973, dir.William Friedkin). I know it’s a given on any horror movie-related list, but there’s a really good reason why that would be. It’s just that good. I’ve already mentioned in a past post the freaky demon-face that haunted all our childhood dreams — if you happen to be of a similar vintage to me — but the image I’d like to address is the one with Father Karras’s mother suddenly appearing on Regan’s bed during her prolonged exorcism. Other than the fact that the scene cuts to this image so abruptly, eliciting a jump-scare moment out of the audience, it’s the sad, questioning expression on her face that I find so unnerving.“Why, Demi? Why?” Indeed.

So, that’s it. Have a safe and happy Hallowe’en, kids. I hope to, as long as nothing sinister suddenly appears around me.

The Artist in Horror Cinema.

We all have an idea in our minds of what constitutes the “Artist”: a tormented, misunderstood outsider, compelled by an almost otherworldly drive to create. We recall images like those of Vincent van Gogh’s famous self-portrait with bandaged head, concealing the wound that resulted from severing his own left ear, or we envision the distorted figure of Edvard Munch’s magnum opus The Scream, it’s creator checking himself into a private sanitarium later in life after hearing voices. While these biographical details of Van Gogh and Munch are true and verifiable, this notion of the Artist as a mad, tormented genius is a cultural construction originating from the 19th-century Romantics, as described by scholar Pamela Fletcher in her Victorian Studies text Rebels and Martyrs: The Image of the Artist in the Nineteenth Century:

[Michael] Wilson’s title essay traces the myth of the artist as a unique genius, alienated from society both by his own commitment to the demands of his art and a philistine public’s inability to value or understand it. Wilson rightly notes that the idea of the artist as a melancholic genius dates back to the Renaissance, but he locates the full flowering of the myth in the Romantic era. — excerpt from “Rebels and Martyrs: The Image of the Artist in the Nineteenth Century”, by Pamela M. Fletcher.

The Romantic era (approx. 1800-1850) reconfigured the artist as a tragic hero who, in the best case scenario, is a darkly brooding and cynical Byronic hero or, in the worst case, is a half-lunatic hermit who lives on the very fringe of society. Though most-assuredly a myth, this notion of the artist as a crazed — and possibly even dangerous — outsider has persisted even into the modern era.

The genre of horror is fed by our psychological and cultural fears. One of our collective fears is our fear of the Other: those individuals who, whether through a transgression of gender, physical deformity, or mental illness, deviate from the “norm” in terms of their appearance and/or behaviour. (See my previous series of posts on Deviance, gender and the ‘aberrant female’ in horror, which addresses the topic of women as the Other). These types of individuals tend to make the majority anxious, and therefore they are ideal to occupy the role of the “monster” in horror fiction. Given the Romantic notion of the “mad artist”, it’s hardly surprising that artists have served in this role of the feared Other in horror cinema. Below are a few examples of horror films that have featured visual artists in such roles.

Film still from "Blind Beast" (1969

Film still from “Blind Beast” (1969, dir. Yasuzô Masumura).

1. Blind Beast (1969, dir. Yasuzô Masumura) is a masterpiece of ero guro nansensu from Japan that is based on a story by Edogawa Rampo. A blind sculptor kidnaps a beautiful young model and takes her back to his home to act as his model and muse. He and his mother live in a warehouse which he’s transformed into a surreal sculptural installation of giant body parts, dedicated mainly to the female form. At first, the model only wants to escape from this bizarre scene, but eventually she succumbs to his strange vision and even surpasses his obsession. In true ero guro style, they develop a curiously erotic, sadomasochistic relationship that eventually leads to the crazy, horrific and over-the-top violent finale. Below is the entire film posted on Youtube, though regrettably it lacks English subtitles. Worth watching, if only for its beautiful and bizarre visuals — such as the two protagonists cavorting atop a giant (foam rubber) sculpture of a reclining female nude.

2. As an artist myself, I can fully understand the urge to find the exactly correct hue for a project. On many occasions I’ve paid a princely sum for tubes of Cadmium Red paint because, well, no other pigment is as brilliantly, intensely red (the toxicity of the metal cadmium notwithstanding). Hershell Gordon Lewis, the notorious exploitation-film director who singlehandedly created the splatter-gore film, used this notion of the dangerously obsessive artist to splatter his signature gore in Color Me Blood Red (1965).

"Color Me Blood Red" (1965, dir. Hershell Gordon Lewis.

“Color Me Blood Red” (1965, dir. Hershell Gordon Lewis).

Artist Adam Sorge struggles to find critical and commercial success when he accidently discovers that blood smeared across his canvas provides his paintings with the vibrancy they previously lacked. This discovery provides the rationale for Sorge (and Lewis) to bloodily dispatch a couple of bikini-clad beauties in this lesser offering from Lewis’s “Blood Trilogy”. Low-budget and poorly acted (Lewis often relied on non-actors), what this film lacks in craft, it makes up for with its campy, rough-hewn B-movie charm. You can watch the entire, uncut film on Youtube. Considering that it was made in 1965, it truly is subversively gory.

3. Cauldron of Blood (1970) is a terrible film. That said, I kinda have a soft spot for it. Also known under the title Blind Man’s Bluff, it was cobbled together over a few years, repurposing footage from different films. One reason for this cinematic mess is the fact that its star Boris Karloff was in very poor health, and couldn’t appear in a number of scenes (he died in 1969, before its release). Thus, its creators were obliged to pad the film with previously shot footage. Karloff appears frail and sadly diminished — but even a diminished Karloff is still pretty good. Here’s the short synopsis from IMDB: “A blind sculptor works on his magnum opus unaware that the skeletons he has been using for armatures are the remains of the victims of his evil wife and that he is the next target”.

Again, the entire film is available on Youtube (one assumes distribution companies don’t care about these older films). My advice is to forward to the 1:27 mark and watch the final showdown between Karloff and his gloriously evil wife, where she meets her comeuppance in a vat of acid.

Female Eye Film Festival, Toronto.

Video still from "Domestikia, Chapter 3: La Petite Mort", 2013. Directed by Jennifer Linton.

Video still from “Domestikia, Chapter 3: La Petite Mort”, 2013. Directed by Jennifer Linton.

The voice actors have already recorded, and the creative work is well underway for Toronto Alice. Thanks again for all your support!

I’m delighted to announce that my previous animated short film Domestikia, Chapter 3: La Petite Mort will be screening in the Late Night Horror: Canadian Feature program at the Female Eye Film Festival in Toronto. Screening will be on Saturday, June 21st, 11 pm – 1 am. Q & A with directors to follow the program. Canadian horror directed by women — yes!

If you’re in the Toronto area, come check it out. The festival has a great line-up this year! http://www.femaleeyefilmfestival.com/#!sat-june-21st/c1vaa

Lady Lazarus’s 2013 in review!

Was Jayne Mansfield a satanist? That, amongst other burning questions, is what drove the most traffic to my blog over 2013. View all the details in the 2013 annual report for this blog.

[For those of you not familiar with my blog, I don’t typically write on such heady topics as “was Jayne Mansfield a satanist?”. My blog features examples of my artwork from the past several years, as well as my musings about visual art and horror cinema, with a focus on art and film that evokes the bizarre, macabre and/or uncanny.]

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 47,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 17 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.