Long considered the best form expressing stories of the supernatural and horrific, short fiction soon saw its nightmarish themes and surreal imagery translated to the screen in celluloid formats equally concise. Investigating particular emotions, scandalizing subjects, and dangers of soul and flesh more compactly -- and, often, with more emotional power and resonance than longer forms afford -- the episodic pleasures of cinematic vignettes, like the short fictions and folktales they were originally based upon, achieve a maximum of tension and titillation in a short time. Asking audiences to suspend disbelief for a short time, anthology films invite greater empathy and belief in fantastical events. If done well, with convincing back-story, believable characterization, and powerful imagery, horror shorts weave their sensationalized effects quicker and with more devastating effect precisely because their compactness demands that their plots and structure achieve a pre-planned emotional effect quickly ( similar to the compositional theories of Poe).
These aesthetic beliefs are not unknown to the Asian storytellers. From the myriad macabre pleasures available in such early masterpieces of the form as Kwaidan to more recent horrors of Three Extremes, the anthology has won increased favor amongst Asian filmmakers as the storytelling form of choice when attempting to evoke the intellectual/emotional upset that distinguishes Asian supernatural cinema from its less inventive counterparts. Combining the modern terror of technology, the traditional anxieties of supernatural folklore, and the intimate conflicts of Outsiders who are submerged in realms between the occult and the everyday, Asian Horror has achieved a cross-cultural renaissance, focusing on evocative expressions of terror too long been missing from Western cinema -- an art form plunged too deeply into the rivers of crass commercialism to reach true depths of pathos.
With careful attention to detail and an expressionistic eye for atmosphere, Kazuo Umezz's Horror Theater honors the archetypal power of its cultural origins while adding a unique if not always successful approach to the innovative work of recent Asian nightmares. Proving that large frights can come in small packages, this first volume in a promised three-volume set features two tales of torment. Even in their confusing ambiguity, this compilation of mini-features (similar to the lengths and rationale of Masters of Horror) reaffirms the spectral power of the Asian ability to inject unique personality into cliché themes. Albeit lacking the originality and creative skill of such dark dreams as Pulse, Spiral, or, in terms of anthologies, the terror generated by Tales Of Terror From Tokyo, this two-film feature mirrors very real, very recognizable problems of contemporary society (particularly as they apply to the middle-class) in the supernatural themes of metamorphosis and cannibalism.
House Of Bugs, directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Pulse), employs the universal fear of the unknown to penetrate the pain and violence of an intimate relationship, finding its principle tension in a self-created void between the supernatural and the psychologically crippled stability of an amoral, unknowable world. Moody and introspective, director Kurosawa arouses terror with delicate brushstrokes, illuminating for us a night-time existence most people never see, but which forever surrounds us. The plot is relentless in its ability to attack the very place we should feel safest: home. Invading domestic security and the emotional depths of our hearts, this story questions relationships, casting doubt on those we love.
Koji, a man in an adulterous relationship, believes that his wife is cheating on him. What's more, he wonders if she is still human or, as she believes, an insect. He interweaves his lover's fate with his own when he convinces her to accompany him home, where this story of unreliable narrators, identity, and subjective realities kicks into gear. Subjective interpretation is one of the story's most unique aspects, as well as one of its chief problems, as we're constantly thrown off balance by a narrative style that presents the varying points-of-view of both husband and wife. Unfolding its secrets in fragmented moments of consciousness from different perceptives that clash, the story taunts us with possible misdirection, refusing to tip its cards.
Written with intelligence and wit by Sadayuki Murai, and acted with considerable skill by Hidetoshi Nishijma and Tamaki Ogawa, this fear-fable of doubt, betrayal, and occult transformation races dreamily to an unnerving if overly ambiguous ending that provides the requisite surface scares horror fans demand while digging deeper into the fear of intimacy. While a bold experiment, and largely successful in inspiring doubt not only in the surface events but in the way which they are depicted, the story becomes unhinged at the last moment, trying to do too much with too little, succumbing, regrettably, to its own experimentation. Despite an ending that hints too strongly of surrealism for its sake rather than for any discernible advancement of story, and a line of final dialogue that contributes in no way to the previous events, the structural use of conflicting perceptions to tell the tale is refreshing, refusing to reveal just which character we should believe. If we're also tempted not to trust the author, wondering if he perhaps wrote himself into a corner, the skillful madness leading up to this point is admirable.
Director Tadafumi Ito evokes mistrust, emotional isolation, and grimly effective hilarity in a darkly effective parody of cultural consciousness and the curse of appearances in the next entry. Penned by Hiroshi Takahashi Diet examines culturally significant questions of peer pressure and a society that cares more for surface appearances than personal worth. In this entry we again watch a unique premise falter at its end, exchanging what promises to be a scathing, bold comment on youth and physical appearances (one which offered wonderfully surreal possibilities) for a trite attempt at the gross-out.
In a plot that employs carefully depicted characterization, an overweight girl finds herself estranged from love (and society) when her heartless love-interest denies her. This depiction of a female yielding to cultural demands of attractiveness, torn between physical addiction and the yearnings of her heart, is a fine work of characterization, involving the audience even as it stuns it midway with a revelation that shows us how very undependable even our own sense are. Here character is just as much a 'caricature,' typifying the sort of girl who we've all known. Inviting such identification with her, the story's resulting moments of paranoia could have been so very effective if not for a last moment surrender to Western mentality. Trying to impress her abrasive man-friend by dieting, we're ushered into the physical and emotional torment of a diet taken to a menacing extreme. Once reuniting with her repressed Romeo, she learns that she has acquired a new hunger.
"A horrifying compilation 50 years in the making," this 118 minutes of frightful fervor is both a celebration and natural evolvement of the themes and stylistic approaches that have given Asian horror such an appreciative audience. Both of these stories marry a subversively complex storytelling style to surreal images whose primal weirdness speaks to something deep inside. Based on original stories by manga maverick Kazuo Umezz, both Kurosawa and Ito weave disturbing surrealistic images amidst carefully constructed narratives, weaving subtexts of cultural consciousness beneath plots that, while not as honest or as finely tuned as they could have been, are nevertheless appealing in their attempts to break new ground.
A dark descent into the power of one's personal demons and ancient forces defying human understanding, this simply photographed, minimal budgeted shriek-show is captured in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) with pleasing (if occasionally drab) visual quality. Without any discernible flaws in its transfer, depicting the eerie events with bright, satisfying colors that draw a nice degree of contradiction between human characters and environments, there is no disguising the awkwardness of the television-style format. Audio on the disc is decently represented, including the original Japanese track in Dolby Digital with optional English subtitles. A small if fun grouping of extras include a "Making Of" featurette, an interview with Kazuo Umezz, a promotional 'premiere,' and, lastly, trailers for more Tokyo Shock titles.
An uneven if ambitious attempt at socially significant horror, Horror Theater may fail to arouse the dizzying heights of emotion or directorial intensity of its peers, but even with its occasional lackluster editing, shot-on-video look, and plots which break their initial promise of originality, the package is more worthy of our time than the insipid idiocy of the western horror movie, which has labored too long beneath the adolescent mentalities of movie producers with little taste and less intelligence.
Review by William P Simmons
|Released by Tokyo Shock|
|Region 1 NTSC|
|Extras : see main review|