Roger Moore, RIP

Roger_Moore_as 007Actor Roger Moore, who played James Bond in seven films, succumbed to cancer in Switzerland at the age of 89. His family made announcement was via Twitter. Besides acting, Moore was a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF and an advocate for children’s causes and animal rights. In 1999, he was given title Commander of the British Empire.
More first gained in the television series THE SAINT. He was supposedly an early choice to play James Bond when Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were preparing DR. NO, the first big-screen adaptation of Ian Fleming’s spy novels, but the role went to Sean Connery instead. After seven Bond films (including one with George Lazenby), Moore finally got to play 007 in LIVE AND LET DIE (1973), which was a box office success though not beloved by fans, who thought that Moore lacked Connery’s lethal quality.
Roger Moore was the right Bond at the right time, emphasizing the humor when the series reached a point it could not be taken even half-way seriously. In interviews, he expressed amusement that 007 was supposed to be a “secret” agent, yet every bartender in the world knew he wanted a “vodka martini – shaken, not stirred!” Moore avoided ordering the famous drink onscreen, though other characters would order it for him. Moore added his own touches to the role, such as smoking cigars rather than the Turkish cigarettes mentioned in Fleming’s books. The actor played up the one-liners (which he delivered with aplomb even when they were duds) and provided occasionally comical reaction shots to Bond’s predicaments. At times, the films approached self-parody, which irritated fans looking for something closer to Fleming’s hard-edged original.
In truth, the flaws with Moore’s first two 007 films were more due less to him than to the direction the series was taking, even before he arrived. A look at Connery’s last official Bond, DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (made by the team of director and writers who would do the first two Moore Bonds), reveals everything that’s going to go wrong with LIVE AND LET DIE and THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN – including the goofier tone, to which Connery was ill-suited. Moore’s films got better with THE SPY WHO LOVED ME (1977), one of the most enjoyable 007 outings. After the cartoonishy comical follow-up, MOONRAKER (set in outer space to cash in on STAR WARS), Moore got more serious in FOR YOUR EYES ONLY (1981) and OCTOPUSSY (1983).
Though Moore’s tenure as the world’s most famous fictional secret agent ended in 1985 with A VIEW TO A KILL, he continued to work, appearing in television productions and providing voices for such films as CATS AND DOGS: THE REVENGE OF KITTY GALORE. His other film appearances include FFOLKES (with David Hedison, who had played CIA agent Felix Lighter in LIVE AND LET DIE); THE WILD GEESE (with Richard Burton); and THE QUEST (with Jean-Claude Van Damme). He was also in an odd doppleganger movie, THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF.
Read Variety’s obituary here.

CFQ alumni celebrate classic Batman series in new book

Click to purchase
Click to purchase

Robert Garcia and Joe Desris, who wrote the cover story for Cinefantastique’s double issue on the 1966 BATMAN television show and 1990s animated Batman series, recently had their book BATMAN: A CELEBRATION OF THE CLASSIC TV SERIES published Titan Books. It’s available from Amazon.com here.

The Eyes of My Mother review

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This emphatically grim art house horror film offers hypnotic visuals but lacks a clear vision of its central character.
The Eyes of My Mother is so effective in its use of a detached, observational style of art house horror that I wish I could declare it a mini-masterpiece, but I can’t. The black-and-white images, often filmed in static long shots, refuse to sensationalize the subject matter, instead allowing the inherent creepiness to gradually ooze into your brain. The camera angles and editing are minimalist in their technique, showing only what is necessary but always picking the right shot to tell us what we need to know – though “tell” may be too strong a word, since the film as often as not let’s you figure it out, in many cases with little dialogue to aid our understanding. The result is  emphatically grim, infused with a miasma of horror, even though little violence is actually shown.
What then is wrong with the film? Its central character, Francisca, is supposed to be a fascinating enigma, a distaff Norman Bates – both disturbing and, if not sympathetic, at least relatable. Unfortunately, her development and motivations are a little bit too muddled and arbitrary, betraying the film’s attempt to depict – without comment or judgment – an understandable and even in a sense natural (if bizarre) progression. Which is to say that, long before short running time terminates, we are no longer interested in her but only in what happens to here – which can’t happen soon enough.
The Eyes of My Mother is set in an isolated rural house sometime in the 1960s (i.e., before cell phones and GPS devices) As a young girl (Olivia Bond) watches her mother, a surgeon, display her craft on a cow’s head, cutting out the eyes. After a random serial killer bludgeons the older woman to death, Francisca’s father chains him in a barn, where Francisca keeps him as a “friend,” cutting out his eyes and severing his vocal chords to keep him quiet and complacent.
At this point, you may expect a feature-length replay of The Human Centipede, with Francisca practicing surgery on her friend. Instead, we jump forward ten or fifteen years to see Francisca as a young woman (Kika Magalhaes) around the time her father dies. Alone, she seeks companionship with murderous results, first picking up a woman in a bar, then having sex with her mother’s killer (and later killing him when he tries to escape), and finally kidnapping a woman with a baby.
Exactly what’s going on with Francisca is hard to say, and the film doesn’t care to let us know. The tryst with and killing of her mother’s murderer should have come before the episode with the woman from the bar; it would have made a more logical step in Francisca’s journey – the first kill that set her on the road to her later predations. She even echoes words the serial killer said to her earlier (killing “feels amazing”), implying she has earned a taste for it, but nothing follows from this. We also see her storing the dissected organs of her victims, but what’s the point? Are they trophies? Or tributes to the surgical skill of her mother? Is the chance to collect organs the reason she kills or just a fringe benefit?
The story gets more confused when Francisca keeps the kidnapped mother chained in the barn, blinded and muted like the serial killer before her. We might think Francisca wants a replacement for her former “friend,” but not so: she is now acting as a mother taking care of the kidnapped boy as her “son,” and (in contrast to the interaction with the serial killer) her only interaction with the new prisoner in the barn is daily feeding. Apparently, the only reason for keeping her alive is so that she can escape to precipitate the climax. Since this escape takes place after years of imprisonment, we have to wonder how Francisca kept the secret from her surrogate son as long as she did.
By the end, we are not sure whether Francisca is the product of her mother’s surgery lessons, the serial killer’s senseless violence, rural isolation that has left her almost completely unsocialized, or some vague combination of the three. All we know for sure is that she’s crazy, and surgically inclined when she gets the chance.
Fortunately, Magalhaes’s affectless performance is interesting to watch under the dispassionate gaze of the camera, and the writer-director Nicolas Pesce generates not only suspense but an ambiance of dread that sustains throughout the proceedings. The plight of the kidnapped mother is harrowing ; the scene of her discovery – her son sees what to him must appear a croaking monster –  offers the kind of low-key horror that almost couldn’t exist in a more conventional genre movie, filled with obligatory jump-scares and effects.
The Eyes of My Mother is roughly analogous to Franju’s wonderful Eyes without a Face, in the sense that both affect a non-exploitive art house approach that makes horror stand out in contrast like a bloody carcass tossed onto an intricate silk tablecloth. But as impressive as it is in some regards, The Eyes of My Mother cannot see its way clearly to a satisfying denouement. Ironically, a film with an almost hypnotic visual style lacks a fully realized vision of its own protagonist.
THE EYES OF MY MOTHER. Tandem Pictures, 2016. U.S. distribution by Magnet Releasing. Writer-director: Nicolas Pesce. With: Diana Agostini, Olivia Bond, Will Brill, Kika Magalhaes, Paul Nazak, Clara Wong. 76 mins. Unrated.

Godzilla Resurgence review

Unlike the Energizer Bunny, the new Godzilla is a windup toy that runs down – or, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor, runs out of radioactive steam.
shin-godzilla-posterGodzilla roars again, but the sound has been fed through a broken ring modulator, resulting in a distorted signal. This is highly unfortunate, since the new film SHIN GODZILLA (Shin Gojira in its original Japanese – which translates to “Godzilla’s Resurgence”), bristles with promise in the form of satirical jabs at governmental bureaucracy and clever winks at the history of the character (whose dual name “Gojira/Godzilla” forms the basis of an amusing joke at the expense of the U.S.A.). The movie is funny without being an overt comedy, and the humor never undermines the titular behemoth. The filmmakers have other methods for doing that.
Shin Godzilla gets off to an intriguing start (reminiscent of Godzilla 1985) when the coast guard encounters a mysterious unmanned vessel, which is capsized by some unseen force before it can by towed to shore; moments later, some kind of impact causes a leak in an undersea tunnel. A series of rapid-fire shots conveys the government’s response: the irony of the editing is that the response itself is anything but rapid, as officials hem and haw, wrangling over the nature of the threat and which department should handle it. The result is an amusing satire of of the Japanese government’s decision-making process, depicted as hopeless mired by concerns of form (the ministers keep ducking back into the Prime Minister’s office because conversations in the main room are on the record, and not everyone feels comfortable with what needs to be said out loud). It’s not quite Dr. Strangelove, but it’s fun for a while.
The film establishes an approach not dissimilar from that seen in some anime series, revealing character names and job descriptions in subtitles. More than just a technique to eliminate awkward exposition, this cinematic style sets the tone of the film, which is as lean as the 5%-fat beef one buys in the supermarket: this is a movie totally focused on process; characters exist only in terms of their job functions, and all conflicts relate to the main objective. There is no time wasted on building characters with humanizing domestic scenes or personal conflicts; only one seems to have a family member – who is, pointedly, rendered completely faceless.

Young nerds and whiz-kids save the day.
Young nerds and whiz-kids save the day.

As energizing as this approach is, it cannot sustain an entire movie (unless rendered by some kind of genius). At some point the film has to settle into a grove and get down to the actual business of telling its story by depicting the threat of Godzilla. Ironically, in this regard, Shin Godzilla stumbles about as awkwardly as its initial depiction of Godzilla. When the radioactive beast first reveals itself, it looks like an overgrown polliwog, hunched over and almost slithering on its belly (an unpleasant reminder of Emmerich and Devlin’s 1998 Godzilla). The waving moments of its head suggest a Chinese dragon at a parade; one expects to see humans underneath, manipulating the creature with rods. Even worse, its unblinking eyes look like giant buttons; probably intended to suggest a mutated creature, they are too big, suggesting a cute anime character instead of a destructive menace.
Fortunately, Godzilla soon mutates into an upright creature, but he never fully becomes the familiar icon. He always looks a half-formed abomination with vaguely Godzilla-esque characteristics. This might have been an acceptable approach, except that it contradicts one thrust of the screenplay: as in the 2014 Godzilla, this creature is supposed to provoke the awe one associates with a deity (we’re told the “Gojira” means “God Incarnate”). That simply cannot work when the mangy creature’s only claim to god-like status is size; it needs to look awesome in order to be awesome.
It’s a little hard to tell whether this problem is completely one of design or partly attributable to the effects artists. Clearly there is an attempt to distort perspective in order to convey Godzilla’s size as seen from humans at ground level, but as often as not this simply makes the beast seem malformed, especially in long shots, where the tail seems almost larger than the body.

Excellent CGI composite work replaces old-school miniatures.

Excellent CGI composite work replaces old-school miniatures.

Unfortunately, the problem is not only cosmetic; it goes beneath the skin. The initially intriguing attempts to have the human characters analyze this new life form (despite the “Resurgence” in the title, the film treats Godzilla as something new) come to nothing. Many metaphoric cans of worms are opened, but the dissection is left unfinished, resulting in a depiction of Godzilla that is more non-entity than powerful enigma.
There is a nice attempt to show some limits to the beast, whose initial foray onto land is cut short because of a need to regulate its body temperature by returning to the water. Later, it becomes apparent that Godzilla (who true to form feeds off nuclear fuel) needs to recharge after expending his energy. This affords an opportunity for the characters to develop a strategy, but it also subverts the films’ central threat, rendering Godzilla as little more than a big windup toy that frequently runs down – just long enough to allow his lilliputian adversaries to get the jump on him. (I’m not using the windup toy metaphor casually: Godzilla does not curl up to sleep after expending nuclear energy; the beast almost literally stops in mid-stride, tail poised in the air, exactly like a mechanical device whose spring has wound down.)
Quibbles about the creature’s depiction aside, Shin Godzilla is engrossing for its first two-thirds, building to an amazing confrontation between the monster and combined Japanese-U.S. forces, which results in an orgy of devastation that is spectacular and haunting in equal measures. Unfortunately, the third act is unable to top this mid-movie climax, as it focuses on one of the least exciting plans ever devised to defeat Godzilla, which consists of firetruck-like vehicles using hoses to feed a “de-coagulate” into the dormant monster’s mouth; unintentionally funny, the scene suggests that Godzilla is having dental work.
The strategy results in a non-ending that literally stops the clock without resolving the story. The anti-climax literally feels like a fake-out: the audience expects the characters to breath a sigh of relief just before – surprise! – Godzilla springs back to life and they have to figure out how to really kill the beast. Instead, the film simply stops, leaving an opening for a sequel so wide that Godzilla itself could have fallen into it (SPOILER: a final shot of Godzilla’s tail shows that a little asexual reproduction is about to take place, spawning new Godzillas – another unfortunate reminder of the 1998 film. END SPOILER) In the end, Shin Godzilla – rather like its title character – runs out of (radioactive) steam.
Which is sad, because there is so much that is good, great, and even amazing about Shin Godzilla. The initial scenes have a nice contemporary feel designed to make the concept work as something more than a nostalgia piece (despite the frequent soundtrack excerpts from past films). There has never been a Godzilla film that wrestled so carefully and believably with the questions of collateral damage and rules of engagement (more on which later). And in what could have been a sop to younger viewer but turns out to be an encouraging statement about human cooperation, the success against Godzilla is rendered by a younger generation of government employees and experts who pointedly forge a “flat” organization, without a traditional hierarchical structure, where everyone is invited to speak up and contribute, without having to cut through fifteen layers of red tape.

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Shin Gojira does not lack big-scale monster action. The old miniatures have been put in mothballs, replaced by computer-generated imagery that renders destruction spectacular detail; even if Godzilla looks a bit lumpy, the tanks and attack helicopters are convincing, and the coordinated attack on their target is one of the most spectacular scenes of its kind ever committed to what passes for celluloid these days. In an attempt to avoid citywide destruction as much as possible, the human adversaries employ a strategy of gradual escalation, starting with machine guns, then missiles, then canons, and finally culminating in a B-2 bombing run by cooperating American forces, which finally breaks the skin and sheds some blood – just enough to make the monster retaliate, spewing plumes of purple radioactive breath and shooting energy beams out of its dorsal spines in a spectacular barrage of special effects.
This display of near invulnerability ultimately exposes a fundamental problem with the script, which fails where previous Godzilla films succeeded: even when they were a tad silly, the Toho movies of the 1990s and the 2000s did a good job of talking out of both sides of the mouth – depicting Godzilla as a threat while simultaneously suggesting that he might be less of a threat than his current opponent (be it King Ghidorah or whatever). After going the extra mile to depict Godzilla as a force that threatens the entire world – a form of life superior to humanity, which will probably lead to our extinction unless destroyed – Shin Godzilla goes out of its way to portray the umbrage of its Japanese characters when the U.N. (led by the U.S. naturally) decides that the monster needs to be nuked.

After Tokyo is nuked by Godzilla it is hard to worry about the U.S. dropping an H-Bomb.
After Tokyo is nuked by Godzilla it is hard to worry about the U.S. dropping an H-Bomb.

You may remember the scene in The 7 Samurai in which a decision was made to sacrifice a few homes in order save the village under attack, but that’s not what Shin Godzilla has in mind: the filmmakers want us to see the decision as an example of a trigger-happy U.S. eager to nuke Japan again (partly because, for reasons too garbled to be worth repeating, the U.S. has a vested interest in Godzilla that it would like to cover up). Now, this is a perfectly valid plot complication for a Godzilla movie – but not when the script has gone so far to put humanity’s survival on the line that nuking Godzilla seems like a necessary (though tragically regrettable) move.
This confusion stems from the nationalistic tone of the Shin Godzilla, which expands on themes visible in Japan’s kaiju eiga genre going back the past two decades – not only Toho’s Godzilla series but also Daiei Film’s rival Gamera franchise. If the movies are to be believed, Japan is tired of depending on foreign power for protection; they want to rebuild their military might and, more importantly, loosen the restrictions on using it. Most of all, they don’t want the U.S. dictating policy. Well, fine and dandy, I say, as long as they realize that this message resonates well within the context of a movie about a giant monster attacking heavily populated urban centers but somewhat less so in a real world where actual violence and warfare is on the decline.
Conceptual confusion aside, Shin Gojira is a slickly made product, with good tech credits (even if some of the animation is less than convincing). The Japanese cast provide appropriate sincerity and gravitas; though the characters are not rendered in complex detail, the performers come across as focused on the overwhelming task at hand, rather than one-note.
The films "American" liaison
The films "American" liaison, played by Satomi Ishihara

The American characters are another matter. In keeping with Toho tradition, these roles seem to have been cast with amateurs. Director Hideako Anno disguises this to some extent by framing the actors in long shots or having them talk with their backs turned while exiting a room. This works for a while but ultimately becomes funny when the technique becomes too obvious: during a dialogue between Kayoko Ann Patterson (Satomi Ishihara) and her American father, the elder Patterson is seen only as hands and arms, the camera pointing every direction except his face. Hilarity ensues.
Which brings us to the issue of Ishihara’s performance. Her character, a liaison to Japan, is supposed to be an American with a Japanese grandmother, but her awkwardly delivered English dialogue is clearly spoken by someone who did not grow up in the U.S. As if to underline the shortcoming, other Japanese characters do a much better job delivering English while coordinating their anti-Godzilla efforts with American counterparts. Presumably, Japanese audiences were little concerned with this, but it is rather blatant to U.S. viewers.
We have to give the filmmakers credit for teaching the old monster some new tricks; even if their efforts are only partially successful, two-thirds of a great movie is not bad. With its weird mutant, Shin Godzilla shares a certain affinity with the misguided 1998 Americanization of Godzilla: both films seem to have been made by people who did not want to make a Godzilla movie, so they tried to make something else and call it Godzilla. Rolland Emmerich and Dean Devil gave us a JURASSIC PARK ripoff. Hideako Anno and Shinji Higuchi give us a twisted variation on Attack on Titan, which goes so far as to hint that Godzilla is not merely the product of accidental nuclear contamination but perhaps a deliberate experiment by a scientist (“Goro Maki,” named after a character in Godzilla 1985) angry over the demise of his wife. In fact, the mysterious disappearance of Maki, immediately before Godzilla’s appearance, even leaves open the possibility that Maki may be Godzilla* – one of many unresolved plot points that will probably be explored in sequels. It’s just one more way that Shin Gojira falls flat at the end, too tired, apparently, to bother finishing its story, instead simply stopping to resume another day. Hopefully, like Godzilla, any follow-up will be fully recharged – and will allow its creature to mutate into a Godzilla that deserves the “god” in his name.

Note: This review has been updated after a second viewing of the film.

Footnote:

  • In the Attack on Titan anime series, the cannibalistic giants are eventually revealed to be humans who expand to titanic proportions. There is also a scientist who disappears without explanation; presumably future seasons will tell us he had something to do with the creation of the Titans. To be fair, this plot element in Shin Gojira also echoes Warner Brothers Godzilla (2014), in which the prehistoric alpha-predator appears only after the demise of Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), suggesting that his spirit is somehow imbued in the beast.

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Prelude to Darkness/Gothic Girl music video featuring Barbara Steele

Our sister site Hollywood Gothique has just posted a music video of a cover version of “Gothic Girl.” Originally recorded by The 69 Eyes, the song has been revamped into a tribute to actress Barbara Steele, who starred in such wonderfully atmospheric Gothic horror movies in the 1960s as BLACK SUNDAY, CASTLE OF BLOOD, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, and AN ANGEL FOR SATAN.

The Valdemar Legacy review

La Herencia Valdemar posterIt almost borders on amazing that The Valdemar Legacy (La Herencia Valdemar) has not been embraced as a cult item by horror fans around the globe. The Spanish production name-checks such genre icons as Poe (borrowing the name “Valdemar” from one of his stories) to Lovecraft (the alleged source of inspiration for the screenplay) to Aleister Crowley, Bram Stoker, and Lizzie Borden (all of whom appear as characters). As if that were not enough, Spanish horror star Paul Naschy appears in his final screen role, proving the monster-kid credibility of writer-director José Luis Alemán. All of that makes The Valdemar Legacy sound like a fanboy’s dream of home movie, but the film is actually a lavishly mounted affair, beautiful to watch and drenched in ominous atmosphere, with enough production value to rival similar efforts by Tim Burton and Guillermo Del Toro. Viewers eager to enjoy terrors dressed in the accoutrements of Gothic horror may have a good time, though slow pacing and a misguided ending undermine the effectiveness.
Like one of Nobuo Nakagawa’s Japanese horror film from the 1950s, (e.g., Black Cat Mansion), The Valdemar Legacy takes a modern-day story and wraps it around an extended flashback, with events in the two time sequences sharing equal weight in the narrative. The story begins in present day with Luisa Llorente (Silvia Abascal) called in to value an old mansion after a previous appraiser mysteriously disappears. Llorente discovers her predecessor’s body in the house, then encounters a ghostly presence; Llorente escapes with some caretakers, who keep her locked up. Seeking to avoid publicity, the mysterious Valdemar Foundation (which is overseeing sale of the property) brings in Tramel (Oscar Jaenada ), a private investigator, to find Llorente. On a long train ride to the property, Dr. Cervia (Ana Risueño) explains the history of the house to Tramel.
Valdemar Legacy seanceLazarus Valdemar (Daniele Liotti) and his wife Leonor (Laia) used to operate a foster home out of their house. A photographer, Lazarus raised funds for the orphanage by conducting phony seances during which he took “spirit” photographs. The Valdemars are exposed after they refuse the blackmail demands of an unscrupulous reporter. Lazarus is thrown in jail, but Leonor receives help from Aleister Crowley (Paco Maestre). In exchange for freeing Lazarus, Crowley wants the photographer to conduct another séance, because Crowley has determined that Valdemar’s fakery has inadvertently made genuine contact with the other world. The ritual goes awry, releasing a demon that inhabits the body of a corpse, leading to a conflagration at the house, and then…
Nothing.
Instead of returning to the present to wrap up the story, The Valdemar Legacy stops with a “To Be Continued…” cliffhanger, leaving the Llorente’s predicament completely unresolved. This is not only frustrating; it is mildly insulting. The Valdemary Legacy presents itself as an old-school ghost story that builds slowly to a climax, but the methodical pace fails to reward viewer patience with a worthwhile payoff.
Consequently, The Valdemar Legacy winds up feeling like one long back story – almost like the pilot episode of a television series, with subordinate characters introduced not because they will do anything interesting now but because they will show up later in Part 2. The strategy is effective in terms of igniting interest in viewing the sequel, The Valdemar Legacy II: The Forbidden Shadow (La Herencia Valdemar II: La Sombra Prohibida); unfortunately, that film is not available in the U.S. except as an import DVD and as a YouTube rental (in Spanish without subtitles).
Before its abrupt ending, The Valdemar Legacy is a visually impressive exercise in old-school horror; though few Lovecraft elements emerge (expect more in Part 2), the story is an entertaining mashup of familiar tropes and figures, enhanced director Alemán’s obvious love for the genre. The makeup and effects work are well crafted, though the computer-generated imagery sometimes reveals its digital origins. Although the script is slow to get anywhere, sympathetic performances help to hold our attention until the third-act séance finally delivers the goods,with hell literally breaking lose.

Valdemar Legacy Naschy
Paul Naschy as Jervás

There is a certain black humor in the notion that the resulting horror not only inspired Bram Stoker to write Dracula; it also gave Lizzie Borden a flash of insight on how to deal with her “family problems.” These esoteric touches may not draw a wide audience, but fans should get a kick out of seeing a film clearly aimed at viewers with their knowledge base. Fans will also be happy to see that Naschy (a cult figure for his many screen appearances as doomed werewolf Count Waldemar Daninsky) is quite good in a non-scary supporting role as the Valdemar’s faithful butler.
If you want to see old-fashioned Gothic horror realized with 21st century craftsmanship, Alemán’s exercise in affectionate nostalgia feels less embalmed than Crimson Peak. A pastiche whose familiarity is part of its appeal, The Valdemar Legacy brings its cliches to life with winning enthusiasm, unhindered by any ambition to reinvent the genre. If not for the narrative missteps, it would be a real gem.
Note: The Valdemar Legacy was – but no longer is – available for streaming through Hulu.com. It can still be found on YouTube, though misleadingly labeled under its sequel’s title, La Herencia Valdemar 2 pelicula completa en español.

Tomie: Unlimited review

Tomie Unlimited posterIf you enjoy cinematic outrageousness for its own sake, you may have a good time with <strong>Tomie: Unlimited</strong>; unfortunately, the film’s real strength is buried beneath the special effects.

For those of you who do not know, Tomie is the also-ran in the Japanese creepy girl sweepstakes. If Sadako (Ring) and Kayako (Ju-on) are Dracula and Frankenstein of J-Horror, respectively, then Tomie is maybe the Wolf Man or more likely the Mummy: she is a popular favorite, but she is no contender for the crown. Although she frequently returns from the dead, Tomie is not a yūrei, bōrei, shiryō, or any other variation on the Japanese concept of a ghost; she is some kind of inexplicable mutant, origin unknown, whose body can regenerate endless copies of herself, with personality and memories intact, though often deformed physically. She is also effortlessly attractive to men, driving them into jealous rages in which they kill each other and frequently her as well. Originating in a manga by Junji Ito, Tomie has appeared in eight films and one three-episode TV series, which means she has actually made as many or more on-screen appearances in Japan as either of her rival scream-inducers*, but in this case quantity is no guarantee of quality. Her most recent effort, Tomie: Unlimited (2011; original title: Tomie Anrimiteddo) is far from a gateway drug that will hook you into the rest of the series, but it will give you some idea what the character is about.

Tomie Unlimited death
Is Tomie dead? Um, no.

The film focuses on Tsukiko (Moe Arai), an amateur high school photographer, who is jealous of Toshio (Kensuke Owada)’s interest in her older sister, Tomie (Miu Nakamura). Fortunately for Tsukiko (so to speak), her romantic pathway to Toshio is cleared when Tomie is killed in a bizarre accident: a cross-shaped piece of metal impales her while Tsukiko’s camera, dropped in panic, clicks picture after picture of the carnage.
Right about now, viewers familiar with Tomie are wondering: If the character’s origins are a mystery, how can she be someone’s older sister? Don’t worry about that right now, because the film will not bother to address the issue until much later, though in this case “address” is probably too strong a word.
Anyway, a year later, Tsukiko’s attempts to move on with her life are plagued by nightmares and by her parent’s insane obsession with the departed Tomie, to whom they sing happy birthday (complete with cake) on the day she would have turned eighteen. The celebration is interrupted by a knock on the door, which turns out to be Tomie, as good as new, her miraculous resurrection completely unexplained – not that anyone even questions her mysterious return. Old jealousies are reignited as Tomie again catches Toshio’s eye, and the familiar cycle of carnage erupts, resulting in multiple deaths and resurrections for the title character, while Tsukiko tries to navigate the nightmare engulfing her family and friends.
For its first third, Tomie: Unlimited shows promise. The situation is a monstrous joke: death is expected to create irrevocable change, which humans must learn to accept, but here, much to Tsukiko’s dismay, the change is summarily revoked as if  by a giant Reset button in the sky. The story plays like an extreme twist on the familiar drama of survivor’s guilt. Tomie’s demise has given Tsukiko a chance to get what she wants, but instead of feeling guilty over taking advantage of the opportunity, Tsukiko’s “good” fortune is abruptly terminated by the reappearance of her older sister, who immediately becomes the center of everyone’s attention, forcing Tsukiko to remain where she has always been – on the sidelines.
Tomie Unlimited head
Unfortunately, the film is not interested in exploring this idea. Tomie: Unlimited is all about creating as many mutant versions of its titular character as possible. This starts when her father goes nuts and kills her, cutting her up into pieces, all of which have the potential to regenerate, including a half-dozen faces in a box of sushi, a head which balances on a spinal cord while emerging from a wastebasket, and a caterpillar version (which tears someone in half, rendered in CGI unworthy of a bad videogame). After a while, I started to lose track of all the different Tomies, and I’m pretty sure the filmmakers did as well; at a certain point, the script seems content to have one show up whenever there’s a need for another scare scene.  Eventually, the film begins to feel like a vaudeville “variety” show in which all the different acts feature the same performer.
At this point, the gonzo gore takes over, and the film treats us to several set pieces, which are so over-the-top as to be more laughable than horrific: for example, a new Tomie grows like a pimple on a girl’s neck, so a gang of rowdy guys cut off the original head to make way for the parasite to take over; the one who actually wields the garden sheers acts as if his actions were accidental, even though they were clearly deliberate and everyone in the room is happy with the result. The result was perhaps intended to reach the giddy heights of Evil Dead II. It falls short.
Tomie Unlimited upside down face
After enough mayhem has ensued to stretch the film to feature length (in this case 85 minutes), we get one of those “it was all a dream but really not” twists, which kinda, sorta explains how Tomie is Tsukiko’s older sister (she has grown so powerful that she can impinge “on reality”). It turns out that the endlessly attractive Tomie is fascinated by Tsukiko’s outsider status, offering her a chance to merge together so that Tsukiko can finally experience what it’s like to be the center of attention.
This leads to an interesting sequence in which the new, hybrid Tomie-Tsukiko (seen only from behind) walks down the street, viewing numerous other Tomie’s engaged in happy social interaction (curiously, no one else seems to notice the exact same woman showing up in multiple locations, but may this is just another dream). Tsukiko gets to be the center of Toshio’s attention – though, true to form for Tomie, that attention manifests in grizzly fashion.
Production values and makeup effects are mostly good. The prosthetics are sometimes rubbery, but that is no doubt part of the nostalgic charm, reminiscent of ’80s horror films. CGI is variable. The performers do a fine job of registering the melodramatic reactions inspired by Tomie (adoration turns homicidal like the flip of a switch). Miu Nakamura is a highlight in the title role, insinuating and seductive, with an eerie, calm confidence that is chilling. Moe Arai manages to make us care about Tsukiko’s plight – quite an achievement in a film more focused on “anything goes” effects.
Tomie giant faceIf you enjoy cinematic outrageousness for its own sake, you may have a good time with Tomie: Unlimited, but frankly there are other Japanese gonzo gore movies that fly farther over-the-top into insanity, with a much faster pace. Tomie: Unlimited‘s real strength lies in the beguiling and sinister charm of its lead character, whose emotional predations are the real source of horror. Sadly, this facet is buried beneath latex, drowned in blood, and eclipsed by computer graphics.
Footnote:

  • The numbers might work out differently if we include foreign remakes.

RIP: Keith Emerson

Keith Emerson (right) with Dario Argento
Keith Emerson (right) with Dario Argento

Keith Emerson – the keyboard genius and composer – has died. According to Rolling Stone, the 71-year-old musician was found at his home in Santa Monica, with a single gunshot wound in his head – an apparent suicide (though that has not been confirmed yet). Emerson was known mostly for his virtuoso keyboard work in the 1970s prog-rock band Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, but he also provided soundtrack music for such horror films as Dario Argento’s INFERNO, Lucio Fulci’s MURDER ROCK, Michele Soavi’s THE CHURCH, and Godzilla’s 2004 swansong, GODZILLA: FINAL WARS.
Emerson was a flashy musician, who combined virtuoso technique worth of a concert pianist with outrageous stage antics (such as thumping his Hammond organ up and down to distort the sound, and using alligator clamps on the keyboard to create droning notes over which he could solo). Besides organ and piano, he was an early user of the Moog synthesizer, a monophonic instrument that could produce novel, electronic sounds, which Emerson used to create amazing solos and sonic landscapes, many with fantasy, science fiction, or mythological overtones, such as “The Three Fates” and “Tarkus,” an epic suite whose cover art suggested an epic battle between a manticore and a biomechanical armadillo-tank. His music combined rock and pop with classical and jazz influences. He frequently performed rock arrangements of classical pieces such as Holst’s Mars, Bringer of War (on the Emerson, Lake, and Powell album from 1986) and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, a staple of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s live shows (including the throbbing and creepy “Hut of Baba Yaga,” inspired by a painting of a witch-like character from Slavic folklore).
Brain Salad Surger - artwork by Giger
Brain Salad Surger - artwork by Giger

Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s 1973 album Brain Salad Surger featured cover artwork by H.R. Giger, and climaxed with Karn Evil 9 – 3rd Impression, which featured an early use of a sequencer (a device to pre-program notes which can be played back at any speed), with lyrics suggesting a futuristic battle between humanity and artificial intelligence.
Emerson’s work on INFERNO – his debut as a soundtrack composer – features a quieter, moody approach, with melancholy piano chords over strings, but there are a some faster-paced cues with pulsing rhythms and/or ominous electronic sounds. The soundtrack album represents some of his finest, most subtle work. It is also remarkable for representing one of the few times that director Dario Argento used a complete score intact in one of his films, instead of cutting and pasting together bits and pieces: the music on the album and in the movie coincide almost identically (with one or two minor deviations).
Emerson’s later soundtrack work was not up to par with INFERNO. NIGHTHAWKS was adequate. MURDER ROCK has one or two interesting cues. His main theme for THE CHURCH was effective, but his contribution to that film was limited to a few cues, mixed in with contributions from Phillip Glass, Simon Boswell, and Fabio Pignatelli of Goblin.
Purchase at Amazon.com
Purchase at Amazon.com

GODZILLA: FINAL WARS was another patch-job, stitched together from Emerson’s contributions, along with music by Daisuke Yano and Nobuhiko Morino. Fortunately, Emerson’s distinctive contribution shines through, particularly his glistening fanfare for the main title theme, which features Emeron’s trademark keyboard sound, emulating brassy orchestra.
Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s back catalog remains easily available. Emerson’s soundtrack albums may be out of print or hard to find, but the tracks were assembled into the album Keith Emerson at the Movies, which is available on CD through Amazon and via streaming through Spotify.

Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait – review

Muoi wallpaper resize
Remember when J-Horror and K-Horror were a thing, and Asian filmmakers could barely churn out titles fast enough for Hollywood to remake them? Well, here is a relatively late  example of the form, an elegantly crafted Korean ghost story, Muoi: Legend of a Portrait (2007), which should please fans who cannot get enough of a good thing, even if this particular thing is not quite as good as the films that turned you into fans in the first place. The background landscape is new, but the familiar compositions and pictorial elements remain, enhanced with an interesting color palette, a fine sense of light and shadow, and some entertaining brush strokes; however, the portraiture is more technically proficient than inspired: unable to render its subject in compelling detail, the finished painting is a beautiful pastiche but no masterpiece – interesting enough to peruse in a gallery but not enough to purchase and admire for a lifetime.

Yun-hee (An Jo) hopes to write a book based on the legend of a haunted portrait.
This is the Night Gallery.

The story has Korean novelist Yun-hee (An Jo) desperately trying to come up with material for a new book before a publishing deadline runs out. Fortunately, Seo-yeon (Ye-ryeon Cha), an old friend who moved to Vietnam, has run across a fascinating legend about a haunted portrait; unfortunately, Yun-hee’s previous book used thinly disguised and possibly embarrassing material based on Seo-yeon’s life. Hoping that Seo-yeon never realized the connection, or perhaps never even read the book, Yun-hee heads to Vietnam and begins investing the legend of Muoi (Anh Thu), a woman who died after a horrible betrayal and whose vengeful spirit was contained in a painting . The writer begins having nightmares, fueled by a combination of her research and residual doubt about whether or not Seo-yeon is really unaware of having been exploited in Yun-hee previous book.
In the manner of good Korean horror films, Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait relies on subtle brushstrokes to gradually reveal hints and portents, until finally the accumulation of detail resolves into a clear picture of the horror lurking in shadows behind the foreground characters. The problem is that those characters are not worthy subjects: they are too shallow to be intriguing, and the attempt to creature mystique through Chiaroscuro lighting only reveals how obvious their “secrets” are.
Seo-Yeon (Ye-ryeon Cha) is incredibly happy to see the "friend" who betrayed her.
Seo-Yeon (Ye-ryeon Cha)

Yun-hee’s dreams may indicate she is victim of a guilty conscience, but she actually seems completely remorseless; her concern is only about having her betrayal discovered, not about atoning for it. Seo-yeon, on the other hand, is so preternaturally congenial that viewers immediately suspect she is faking it; the visuals and the narrative identify her so closely with Muoi (both of whom suffered betrayal horrible enough to inspire revenge) that, if you’re wondering whether Seo-yeon’s attempt to help Yun-hee is really a cover for a hidden agenda, all signs point to an emphatic YES!
The problem is exacerbated by a narrative gambit that the screenplay fails to pull off. By structuring the story around the relationship between Yun-hee and Seo-yeon, Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait misfires, building to a confrontation so climactic that the story seems concluded – although, in fact, it is this sequence that finally unleashes the vengeful power of Muoi from the portrait. What should have been the climax – the film goes on to paint the screen red with blood in a satisfyingly horrific rampage of revenge – instead feels like an extended epilogue.
Yun-hee wakes up from one of her scary dreams.
Yun-hee (An Jo)

This epilogue lasts just long enough to make one realize that it could have been the main body of the film: the script could have begun with the deaths and had Yun-hee tracking down the legend of Muoi’s portrait not simply to earn a paycheck but to put a stop to the murders. With the threat active throughout the proceedings, dread would have evolved naturally, instead of being artificially injected through Yun-hee’s dreams. As it stands now, the film is punctuated with the world’s least suspenseful countdown, with calendar dates periodically flashing on screen to let us know that the traditional date upon which Muoi takes revenge is approaching – even though the story has given us no reason to think Muoi is currently targeting anyone and, in fact, we are clearly told that her spirit is helplessly trapped in the portrait.
Without this kind of ongoing threat, Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait relies on a vague sense of anticipation (what – if anything – is Seo-yeon up to?) coupled with Yun-hee’s quest to discover the truth about Muoi. The later is a bit contrived and even clunky. At one point, Yun-hee randomly questions people on the street – a pointless endeavor, considering that she does not speak Vietnamese; however, the screenplay provides a lucky coincidence that rewards her efforts.
Muoi12
Flashback to betrayal

Fortunately, the actual revelations of the Muoi’s history is intriguing enough to sustain interest, and it climaxes with a truly heart-rending double betrayal, first in life and then in death: the first drives Muoi to suicide; the second traps her soul in the portrait before she can seek justice against those who wronged her. The film then tops this with a parallel betrayal in the more recent past, which is ghastly enough to prime viewers for the supernatural settling of scores that eventually transpires. You will guess where the film is heading long before it gets there (once you learn that Muoi has a reputation for rendering vengeance on behalf of those willing to pay her price, the big plot revelation is relatively obvious), but you will be glad to follow along anyway.
Like a lesser work in an established artistic movement, Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait is more interesting when considered within the context of its predecessors (e.g., as in 1998’s Ring, we have a female writer tracking down the legend of a ghost that strikes with clockwork regularity). Enhanced with lovely location work in Vietnam (apparently a first for this kind of film), Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait attempts to create an interesting variation on established conventions; even though it fails to equal the masterworks it emulates, it does understand and exploit the power of the familiar stylistic devices, rendering a new work that reminds us of why we enjoy the genre. Muoi: The Legend of a Portrait will not win many converts to the movement, but the already initiated may find it worthy of a brief perusal.

The Lady Vampire review

The Lady Vampire nightclubThis movie has everything – well, almost everything. It has a dwarf; a mute bald-headed assistant; an old lady who shows up at the beginning of the story, looking young; another old lady who shows up at the end of the story looking old; a bunch of other ladies immobilized like mannequins on display; and an artistic Japanese vampire who dresses like a European count and turns savage by the light of the full moon. About the only thing the film lacks a Lady Vampire, but you can’t have everything.
The Lady Vampire (original title: Onna Kyuketsukiaka) is one of many horror films directed by the prolific Nobuo Nakagawa during a fertile period that lasted from the late 1950s through the early 1970s. Unfortunately, The Lady Vampire serves to prove that even the talented Nakagawa could not hit a home run every time; at least he doesn’t totally strike out. Though the story is a jumble of mis-matched elements, the film is enjoyable in bits and pieces, thanks to the familiar stylistic tricks and narrative devices.
Things get off to an intriguing start when a taxi carrying reporter Tamio (Keinsosuke Wada) seems to run over a mysterious figure that appears out of nowhere – only to find no body lying on the road. The non-collision slows Tamio down so that he arrives late for the birthday celebration of his girlfriend Itsuko (Junko Ikeuchi), who cuts herself instead of her cake. Though the wound is slight, it seems like an ill omen to her father Shigekatso (Torahiko Nakamura), who recalls the time his wife mysteriously disappeared twenty years ago. The recollection seems slightly prophetic when, coincidentally, the mysterious figure from the road shows up and turns out to be Miwako (Yoko Mihara), Shigekatso’s wife and Itsuko’s mother – and she has not aged a day since her disappearance.
vamp10
While Miwako recuperates, too incoherent to explain her decades-long absence, Tamio and Itsuko go to a museum, where they see a semi-nude painting the strongly resembles Miwako. Though they do not notice, an elegantly dressed stranger (Shigeru Amachi) overhears their conversation. Later, the stranger orders his dwarf assistant to steal the painting and deliver it to Miwako. The painting jars her memory: on vacation long ago, she fell under the spell of an artist, who turned out to be a vampire. Flashing further back, we see that the artist was a samurai who became undead hundreds of years ago, after he drank the life’ blood of his beloved, a member of the Amakusa clan, a sect of Japanese Christians, rather than let her fall into the hands of the Shogun’s conquering army. The vampire, who preserves his immortality by drinking the blood of Amakusa’s descendants, promised her immortality. Eventually, she escaped, and now the vampire (who currently signs his paintings Shiro Sufue, though he otherwise goes by the name Nobutaka Takenaka) wants to find her again.
Lady Vampire collageMeanwhile, we see that Shiro/Nobutaka, despite his well-coiffed appearance and fancy apparel (including the no-vampire-would-be-caught-undead-without-it cloak), has a werewolf-like reaction to moonlight, which turns him into a bestial blood-drinker who attacks women like a violent thug. Despite living in an apartment right next to a recent victim, he manages to avoid the slow-moving police long enough to kidnap Miwako and take her back to his lair: an underground castle. The police follow, along with Tamio and Itsuko. Apparently tired of Miwako, Nobutaka kidnaps her daughter and offers the same immortality deal he previously offered her mother. Tamio and the police arrive; a wild melee ensues, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing, and eventually the young couple walk away to safety.
For most of its short running time, The Lady Vampire comes across like the Japanese equivalent of the Mexican horror films that would start appearing a few years later: it resembles an assembly of clichés from classic American horror movies, filtered through the cultural eye of some competent technicians intent on manufacturing a successful pastiche with a touch of local flavor. The black-and-white photography is nicely done; the mystery is intriguing; the whole thing seems like good fun, but…
After the initial setup, the story goes nowhere fast; the human characters wander around somewhat cluelessly, while the vampire puts his plan into effect. But even his plan is unnecessarily protracted: once he knows Miwako’s whereabouts, why not kidnap her immediately instead of going through the trouble of getting the painting to her – which turns to be simply a plot device to jog her memory, so that the film can fill in the back story via flashbacks? Consequently, The Lady Vampire ends up treading water during its middle section, while the audience waits for someone to do something, with only Nobutaka’s occasional vampire outbreaks to rev up the proceedings.
The Lady Vampire womenThe Lady Vampire is further hampered by its confusing mix of elements, best exemplified by the title itself: Shiro/Nobutaka never turned Miwako into a Lady Vampire, leaving her continuing youthful appearance somewhat puzzling. The enigma is exacerbated by his mannequin-like collection of women, embalmed in eternally youthful perfection; these are women who previously rejected Shiro/Nobutaka’s overtures – a fate that may befall Miwako as well – but the process by which they are immobilized is never explained, and considering that we see only half a dozen, we have to wonder whether that meager blood supply was enough to sustain him for centuries. This image of embalmed former wives/lovers standing at attention seems borrowed from the 1934 Universal Pictures horror film The Black Cat, in which Boris Karloff’s character had a similar collection of ex-wives; elements like this suggest that the writers of The Lady Vampire were tossing in genre motifs at random, out of a misplaced sense of obligation – such as the lunar transformations, which haphazardly mixes vampire mythology with lycanthropy.
Eventually, the unanswered question mount too high. Why was the vampire hanging out in the museum at exact time that Tamio and Itsuko happened to see his painting – was he hoping that Miwako’s relatives would just happen to show up and reveal her location, or is he just an egotist with an eternity to admire his own work? Why does the moon send Shiro/Nobutaka on a rampage? What the hell is the crazy ritual Shiro/Nobutaka performed on Miwako, thumping her breast with the base of a large candelabra? Why does Shiro/Nobutaka, after going to such trouble to retrieve Miwako, suddenly give up on her and go after Itsuko instead? If Shiro/Nobutaka requires the blood of Amakusa descendants to survive, why do we only see him drink from random victims when he wolfs out during the full moon?
Even when the script attempts to answer questions, it proves mostly lip service. I am willing to accept that, having lived several hundred years, Shiro/Nobutaka could have picked up a dwarf assistant somewhere along the way; however, the film randomly introduces two other servants, a bald henchmen, who provides a little extra muscle, and a withered old crone, who looks as she wandered in from Black Cat Mansion (which Nakagawa made a year earlier) and whose sole function is to utter prophecy of doom to explain why things go so wrong for Shiro/Nobutaka. She claims that that Shiro/Nobutaka is somehow angering the God that protects the Amakusa family, which I guess explains why the moonlight at the end suddenly ages him instead of simply turning him into a monster. Though I enjoy the idea that the old crone sees the Christian God as just another polytheistic deity, I have to wonder why Yahweh took so long to put the hammer down on Shiro.
I also have to wonder whether we’re supposed to assume that Shiro/Nobutaka became a vampire specifically because he drank Christian blood from his lover all those centuries ago – and does that also explain why he appears mostly in the guise of a Western-style vampire instead of a more indigenous species?  (I guess this is as good a place as any to point out that script pretty much makes up the vampire rules to suit itself: Shiro/Nobutaka walks in daylight, drinks wine, and casts a reflection; we never hear exactly what it takes to destroy a vampire, but in the end he is dispatched by rather prosaic means.)
In spite of all this, why does The Lady Vampire remain watchable? Two factors:

  1. The story unfolds in a manner that pulls us into its mysteries (even if those mysteries remain frustratingly unfulfilled).
  2. Nakagawa knows how to deliver the genre elements you want to see in a film titled The Lady Vampire.

Like 1958’s Black Cat Mansion (based on a source novel by Sotoo Tachibana), The Lady Vampire wraps its story in three layers: present day, flashback to living memory, and flashback to history. This provides a sense of peeling away layers of the mystery moving deeper into the past, before returning to present day to see how the echoes of history reverberate in modern times. Unfortunately, the technique works less well here: in Black Cat Mansion, the historical flashback was the emotional core of the story; in The Lady Vampire, the much shorter flashbacks serve more as exposition, which do little to engage is in the outcome of Nobutaka’s pursuit of Miwako.
Fortunately, we still have Nakagawa’s visual skills to pull us through. The oddball mix of Western and Japanese genre elements  is visually enjoyable, with some interesting variations on the expected: for example, instead of a fly-eating Renfield, this elegantly cloaked vampire has an ugly, misshapen assistant – but a dwarf rather than the more traditional hunchback.
Lady Vampire car sceneOne of the eccentric joys of Nakagawa’s horror films is that, though the supernatural elements are rooted in tradition and history, these elements often manifest in a modern context, creating an interesting clash of sensibilities (often underlined by jazzy soundtrack music). Typically, The Lady Vampire begins with an opening credits sequence playing over the dashboard of a car, whose journey will soon be interrupted the unexpected reappearance of Miwako. From this opening scene of the ghost-like figure nearly run over, Nakagawa establishes a supernatural atmosphere the overlays the entire film; the buildup to the revelation of Miwakos’ return (including a service bell ringing in a room closed for decades, followed by a long walk, illuminated by fluttering candles, into the room) is a classic bit of anticipation. The sequence stands on its own as a mini-gem of low-key horror in the Japanese tradition, enhanced with striking images, such as blood from Itsuko’s cut finger dripping blood on her own birthday cake – an unsubtle omen that jabs the eye with its impact.
Equally effective is Shiro/Nobutaka’s first moonlit vampire transformation. In the manner of Horror of Dracula (1958), The Lady Vampire presents its immortal blood-drinker in two guises: refined and savage. The jarring transition afflicts not only the character but also the film itself, which goes from the more refined uneasiness of a traditional Japanese ghost story to outright brutality. Shiro/Nobutaka’s attack upon a maid plays like a vulgar rape scene, with an emphasis on the helplessness of the victim. After filming the facial change with a subtle lighting effect (a la the 1932 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which used tinted filters to gradually reveal makeup otherwise invisible on black-and-white film), director Nakagawa plays with our visual expectations, keeping the camera mostly focused on the floor, where we see feet and shadows, as if to keep the violence just out of frame – but then he breaks the expectation with a jagged insert shot of the vampire savagely goring the maid’s throat, before tossing her on the bed to finish her off.
The Lady Vampire nightculb rampageShiro/Nobutaka’s later outbreak in a nightclub is even more extreme: a ramped-up rampage with multiple victims, it plays like an action set-piece and like a precursor to the later body-count attacks of monsters like Jason Voorhees (though of course without the explicit gore). The craziness of the sequence, with spectators standing in slack-jawed stupefaction while the vampire runs around unimpeded, has a go-for-broke quality, with the last couple victims gratuitously thrown in just for good measure. Unfortunately, even here, the narrative is confusing: Shiro/Nobutaka is exposed to moonlight because his dwarf assistant hurls a bottle through a tinted window. Did the dwarf do this on purpose – and if so, why? – or did he just get carried away while blowing off a little steam?
Nakagawa and his cinematographer also do a fine job with the vampire’s lair, initially visualized in flashback as a black void, housing only necessary props: a painting on an easel, a couch where Miwako reclines naked (arm strategically placed, of course), a mirror behind which the vampire’s previous brides stand motionless. We get a better look during the third-act daylight scenes, when the underground castle appears like a bundle of expressionistic angles and shadows, and Nakagawa, ever the master of the tracking shot, uses the twisted corridors to make us feel as if we are entering a netherworld fantasy-land of the imagination.
Sadly, Nakagawa’s directorial skills desert him when the wild melee erupts in the castle. Tamio and Shiro/Nobutaka run around fighting, while Itsuko is pursued by the dwarf, while the police rush in to assist. Because the sets are limited, the characters retrace their steps several times, crossing paths while pretending not to be able to catch each other. The overall effect is a bit like watching a horse race in which all the jockeys have taken bribes and are trying to let the other horses outrun them.
Is that age makeup, or did the actor fall face-first into a mud puddle?
The climax (after aging in the moonlight, Shiro/Nobutaka seemingly commits suicide by walking into a pool of water and drowning) is not only a rather unusual demise for an undead being; it is also anti-climactic and visually uninteresting. (The troweled-on age makeup and the ridiculous white fright wig hardly help.) As if to compensate, the old crone blows up the castle, providing a little pyrotechnic excitement.
Yoshimi Hirano’s photography and Haruyasu Kurosawa’s art direction provide ample atmosphere throughout, enhanced by Hisachi Iuchi’s music. Amachi cuts a dashing figure as the vampire, though he over-does the evil sneer a bit. The rest of the cast is adequate.
Lady Vampire posterThe Lady Vampire is historically significant not only as Japan’s first full-blown vampire film but also as an early example of a vampire in a modern setting; also, Shiro’s longing for his lost love prefigures the reincarnation plots of Dark Shadows and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as well as the romanticized depiction of vampirism in many later films.
Aesthetically, The Lady Vampire does not rank among Nakagawa’s top-tier efforts (Jigoku, Ghost Story of Yotsuya), but it does contain individual sequences that rank among his best work. If you are a fan of old-fashioned black-and-white vampire movies, and you are seeking something beyond the acknowledged classics, you might want to tap this vein.