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.
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.
Godzilla 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
- 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.
It 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.
Lazarus 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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This 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.
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.
Meanwhile, 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 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:
- The story unfolds in a manner that pulls us into its mysteries (even if those mysteries remain frustratingly unfulfilled).
- 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.
One 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.
Shiro/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.
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.
The 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.
An atmospheric and well-executed genre piece from Nobou Nakagawa, Japan’s equivalent to Terence Fisher.
If Japanese director Nobou Nakagawa is known at all in the U.S., it is because of Jigoku (1960), an art-house perennial and the recipient of a Criterion Collection release on DVD and streaming services. This might lead western audiences to view Nakagawa as a highbrow artiste, but in truth the director had a successful career in the 1950s and 1960s as a director of modestly budgeted horror films, appealing to general audiences by presenting familiar genre tropes with a sense of impeccable craftsmanship. The closest American equivalent from the era would be Roger Corman, but England’s Terence Fisher and Italy’s Mario Bava also come to mind: all three took material that could have been conventional in other hands and turned it into something remarkable.
A perfect example of this is Nakagawa’s atmospheric and intriguing entry in the Japanese Bakeneko or “Ghost Cat” genre, Borei Kaibyo Yashiki, known in the U.S. as Black Cat Mansion, though the title is sometimes translated as Mansion of the Ghost Cat (perhaps because, although a black cat is seen beneath the credits, the ghost cat itself is definitely not black). The story follows a Japanese couple who, for the benefit of the wife’s health, move from the city to the countryside, where they take up residence in an old mansion, which doubles as their home and as a clinic. Unfortunately, the mansion turns out to be haunted by a malevolent spirit, which seems to be targeting the wife.
Inquiries reveal that, hundreds of years ago, the mansion was the scene of a ghastly crime, when a brutal lord murdered a samurai and raped the samurai’s blind mother, who committed hara-kiri after charging her pet cat with seeking revenge (“Lap my blood, and imbibe my hatred!”). After the mother’s death, the cat transformed into a humanoid spirit, killing off all members of the household, including the servants. Back in the present day, we learn that the tormented wife is a descendant of one of those servants – in effect, an innocent victim of a vengeful “grudge” that is not very discriminate about its victims.
The narrative of Black Cat Mansion is wrapped in three layers, including two levels of flashback. We start in the present, with Dr. Kuzumi (Toshio Hosokawa) roving through the corridors of a city hospital late at night while a black cat meows outside, reminding him of the time he and his wife (Yuriko Ejima) moved to the haunted mansion. This takes us to the events concerning him and his wife, which in turn leads to the extended flashback regarding the history of the mansion. The movie then returns step by step to the present, first to the story of Kuzumi and his wife at the mansion, then to Kuzumi at the hospital.
The symmetrical structure neatly organizes a story that might otherwise have seemed stitched together to achieve feature length (though only barely, at 69 minutes). We get a sense of going deeper and deeper into the past, like peeling back a proverbial onion to reveal an elusive mystery. The back-the-the-present structure also provides a sense of finality to climax that is a bit vague in its details (we know what happened, though why is not precisely clear – at least not to Western viewers relying on subtitles).
Nakagawa presents the material with several stylistic flourishes that transform the genre material into a distinctive form of popular art. The wraparound segment begins with the camera drifting past an unexplained scene of a body being wheeled through a darkened hospital hallway like a ghostly funeral procession – which Dr. Kuzumi’s voice-over totally ignores, as if his thoughts are too preoccupied to bother noting the weird visual flashing before our eyes. Totally unrelated to the narrative, the scene serves only as visual warning sign, an omen of the supernatural horrors to come.
When Kuzumi and his wife arrive at the mansion, the scenery is straight out of the horror movie playbook, right down to the ominous raven perched atop a branch of one of the many wild plants apparently reclaiming the land from the disused property. Nakagawa films the scene in a simple, elegant long shot, slowly tracking to follow as the front gate is opened and the characters enter; the effect is to make the audience feel as if they, too, are crossing a borderland into a different world, a slightly dreamy landscape where anything can happen. The effect is punctuated when the extended take is broken by a single insert closeup, as the wife sees a mysterious woman within a side building – only to find that the ghostly figure is gone when Kuzumi comes to see.
As effective as these touches are, the present day footage is a bit methodical in its buildup, as the ghost’s presence becomes gradually more intrusive, entering the premises, killing the family dog (off-screen), and eventually attacking the wife. Black Cat Mansion truly comes to life when it enters its extended flashback: the uncanny creepiness of the present day scenes are replaced by a overtly horrific melodrama that is more full-blooded and colorful – quite literally so, as the present days scenes are shot in blue-tinted black-and-white, while the period footage is in color.
Nakagawa immediately captures a convincing sense of a household living in fear of its temperamental master. There is an awful sense of inevitability as the events build to the murder and rape, reaching an emotional crescendo as the blind mother begs the pet cat to be her avenger, then takes her own life, after which the cat dutifully licks up the dead woman’s blood. The revenge that ensues is bizarre to say the least, with the actual cat soon replaced by a human with cat-like features, who sows mayhem and discord, leading to the deaths of not only the guilty lord but of innocent victims as well.
The makeup of the Ghost Cat appears slightly absurd to modern eyes, but it works well enough in longshot and shadows; some of the best scenes feature the character silhouetted against translucent screens. The action uses some simple camera tricks to create bizarre imagery: jump-cuts and reverse motion imbue the vengeful cat with supernatural powers. The matter-of-fact impact of these simple effects adds a touch of low-key believability to the otherwise unbelievable scenes.
SPOILERS: With the back story filled in, the film returns to the events at the mansion, where the wife suffers a final attack before the hiding place of the murdered samurai’s body is revealed. Black Cat Mansion then returns to the opening scene at the hospital, where Kuzumi’s wife appears and asks to adopt the cat we heard meowing earlier. The return to normalcy offers a refreshing sigh of relief after what came before, but the wraparound feels a bit like the opening and closing footage of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), which used a similar structure to stitch a happy ending onto what had been intended as a pessimistic story. How did Mrs. Kuzumi survive the final attack, which apparently left her dead? Was the ghost cat exorcised by the revelation of the hidden body? Apparently so, but the film is not saying for sure. Viewers simply have to accept the ending as if emerging from the depths of a nightmare, back to a waking world where the past truly has been laid to rest, and life can go on with no residual fear of innocuous felines. END SPOILERS.
Black Cat Mansion is not a masterpiece that will sway the uninitiated. It is, however, a fine example of well-executed genre material, handled with serious intent and dedicated craftsmanship. Fans of old-fashioned horror looking for something beyond the standard list of classics should be satisfied, as should anyone with an interest in cult Japanese cinema, especially cineastes seeking the roots of modern J-horror (for example, with his feline yowl, Toshio from the Ju-On films is clear descendant of the ghost cat genre). Even cat lovers may get a kick out of the lengths to which a beloved pet will go to right the wrongs inflicted on its master and mistress. A dog may be man’s best friend; a cat, however, is a ruthless undead avenger.
Two decades after TETSUO: THE IRON MAN, writer-director Shinya Tsukamoto returns to the franchise that he last visited in TETSUO II: BODY HAMMER. The results should please fans eager for another helping of science-fiction body horror, featuring a hapless human transforming from mere flesh and blood into a mutant metallic hybrid, but despite the addition of an American lead and English dialogue, there is little to draw in first-time viewers not already bewitched by the strange spell that Tsukamoto weaves (o r rather welds).
This time out, Anthony (Eric Bossick) is an American salary-man living in Tokyo with a Japanese wife (Akiko Mono) and their son, Tom (Tiger Charlie Gerhardt). Anthony’s father Ride (Stephen Sarrazin) seems peculiarly concerned with the health of Anthony and Tom – a concern that seems mysteriously related to a lifelong admonition that Anthony should never lose his temper. (Fans of the Incredible Hulk, take note.)
Anthony’s eternal calm is put to the test when Tom is deliberately run over by a mysterious driver, known only as the Informant (Tsukamoto himself). Tom seems to take longer to die than one would expect; briefly, his shattered body seems to be retaliating against the car from below (it’s hard to tell with all the shaky camer work). Yuriko is outraged that Anthony doesn’t want revenge, but that changes when a delivery man turns out to be an assassin who attempts to kill Anthony, provoking his body to begin mutating into a misshapen Terminator-like weapon that blows away his opponents.
Eventually, it turns out that Ride was involved with an experiment to create cyborg weapons; after his wife Mitsue (Yuko Nakamura) dies, he created a cyborg duplicate, by which he sired Anthony. Since then, he has worried that Anthony (and, later Tom) could transform into weapons if their anger was aroused. The Informant has been deliberately attempting to provoke this transformation, for vaguely expressed reasons of his own (echoing the first TETSUO film, he tells Anthony to use his love to destroy the world). Anthony must choose between embracing his new power to kill the man who killed his son, or restraining his anger for fear that once unleashed it will lead to uncontrollable destruction.
I fear that my summary has made TETSUO: THE BULLET MAN sound more coherent than it intends to be. Tsukamoto’s directorial approach here is to shoot everything with a bouncing hand-held camera, then splice the footage together with as many micro-cuts as possible, to create a deliberately disorienting experience. The visceral impact is undeniable, but it is also exhausting, making the film feel much longer than its 71 minutes. At a certain point, you want to say to the screen, “Yeah, I get it; let’s move on, okay?”
Consequently, narrative progression is obscured: audiences are not so much watching the story of Anthony’s dilemma as experiencing a delirious surge of sensory impressions that simulates in the viewer’s mind the confusion that must be afflicting Anthony. The revenge story is further weakened by a plot structure that focuses mostly on revealing the mysterious back story of Anthony’s situation, through flashbacks, narration, and glimpses of documents.
The hyper-kineticism pays off in the action scenes, and the final act is interesting an an over-the-top AKIRA kind of way, which maybe sees Anthony resolving his dilemma of whether or not to kill the Informant (SPOILER: Anthony’s new metal body absorbs the Informant, who vows, “You don’t want me inside you – you don’t know what I’ll do” – a threat that remains unresolved by the closing credits, which see Anthony somehow returned to a normal life with a new son.)
Stylistically, Tsukamoto has forged a new metallurgic spectacle with all the white-hot alloys and burning sparks of a foundry running at twice full capacity. It’s crazy enough that those willing to embrace that madness should have a deliriously good time. Just don’t expect much in a way of deeper exploration of themes from the previous films. This is mostly more of the same – just louder, slicker, and hotter than before.
TETSUO: THE BULLET MAN (2009). Directed by Shinya Tsukamoto. Written by Tsukamoto, Hisakatsu Kuroki. Unrated. 71 minutes. Cast: Eric Bossick, Akiko Mono, Yuko Nakamura, Stephen Sarrazin, Tiger Charlie Gerhardt, Prakhar Jain, Shinya Tsukamoto.
Despite some forays into computer-generated animation (Flushed Away, Arthur Christmas), Aardman Animations remains committed to the art of stop-motion, as evidenced by their most recent theatrical release, 2015’s Shaun the Sheep Movie, which sees the company struggling but ultimately succeeding at expanding their television series a feature film. The movie lurches to a shaky start, as if uncertain how to stretch its concept to full length, but after a wobbly first act, the narrative hits its stride and runs smoothly to a successful finish, delivering delightful entertainment on the way.
Personally, I was dubious about the potential of a Shaun the Sheep movie. I preferred the title character when he played a supporting role in his debut, A Close Shave, the Oscar-winning short subject starring the lovable characters Wallace and Gromit. The Shaun the Sheep television series moved the character to center stage, but there was not necessarily that much distinctive about the little fur-ball. Sometimes he was the one coming up with clever schemes, but other times he just happened to be the one swept up by the zany antics (i.e., in the first episode, he is dragged around by a hungry, high-speed goat, trailing behind like a water-skier). The show shifted the setting from town to country, placing Shaun on a farm run by another human-dog combo, the Farmer and his Sheep Dog (amusing but no match for Wallace and Gromit). A typical 20-minute episode consists of three unrelated segments, each telling a mini-story. The series cleverly eschewed dialogue, relying only on grunts, bleats, and exclamations (even from the Farmer), but the stories tended to be more juvenile in their appeal than Aardman’s best work. I will admit to being thoroughly charmed by “Who’s the Mummy” (which despite its title is not a horror movie spoof), which had Shaun bedeviled by a quartet of freshly hatched chicks who imprint on him (they resemble tribbles with tiny beaks, and they were so ridiculously cute that I had to laugh in spite of myself). Nevertheless, the question remained: could the format of 6-to-7-minute segments be stretched to full narrative length?
Shaun the Sheep Movie begins with a recreation of the show’s opening title sequence, portraying Shaun, the other sheep, the Farmer, and his dog getting up in the morning; the joke is that this sequence, which repeats weekly on the series, is repeated multiple times in the film, creating an immediate sense of an endless, boring routine, which ultimately motivates Shaun to break that routine by fooling the farmer into sleeping in late, so that the sheep can have a day off. It’s just enough of a narrative tidbit to set up a situation in which the sheep can get into some hi-jinx; basically, it’s little more than what one would see in an average episode, and it initially seems as if the script is simply going to string together several such episodes until they fill the minimum necessary running time. Things start to feel a little desperate when a camper-trailer (in which the farmer is sleeping) rolls down the hill and into nearby city, creating an excuse for one of those action-packed high-speed chases that Aardman does so well (e.g., The Wrong Trousers with Wallace and Gromit); one almost gets the feeling that Aardman is stumbling into DreamWorks Animation territory (in which an extended, gratuitous action set piece is de rigueur in the first twenty minutes of any film).
Fortunately, all of this is just preamble – a messy first act setting up the fun to follow. Once the Farmer awakens in the city, the story moves smoothly from one development to the next, and the script never again seems to be padding itself unnecessarily. The Farmer suffers amnesia, but he recollects enough of his skill with a pair of sheers (originally used on the sheep) to become a successful barber; Shaun and the other sheep, meanwhile, find that the farm doesn’t run so well without the farmer, so they embark on a mission to rescue him, which is complicated by an officer from animal control, who is every bit as threatening and efficient (but a lot less unpleasantly designed) than the one in Madagascar 3).
For its second two-thirds, Shaun the Sheep movie is pretty much a non-stop delight, in which the comic set pieces (such as the sheep disguising themselves as humans to thwart the animal control agent) are effortlessly blended into the narrative. As always, Aardman provides state-of-the-art stop-motion, effortlessly realizing sequences traditionally difficult to achieve in the medium (e.g., splashing water, quickly moving objects). Not all of these tour-de-force moments are high-octane highlights; some are just amusing throw-aways, such as the delightful sequences in which the sheep lull the Farmer into falling asleep by jumping one by one over a fence. The basic joke (counting sheep puts people to sleep, right?) is only mildly funny, but the visual execution augments the humor by having the sheep ever so subtly go into slow motion as they reach the peak of their jump, the floating effect enhancing the hypnotic quality upon their intended victim.
Unlike many of their computer-generated competitors, who sometimes don’t know when to modulate the animated anarchy, the Aardman team know when a simple sight gag is as entertaining as a technical tour-de-force: during a stint in jail, the sheep inmates are continually perturbed by the silent stare of an angry dog in the cell opposite; the joke is that his expression is exactly the same every time the camera cuts to him (which means of course that the animators could save time by not animating the figure). The recurring images eventually pays off with a punchline I won’t spoil, except to say that it explains the character’s total lack of movement.
In a world filled with CGI blockbusters that seem to tell the same tale over and over (little guy achieves his great destiny and/or a sense of belonging), Shaun the Sheep Movie offers a pleasant change of pace. The tactile quality of stop-motion puppetry grounds the visuals – not in reality, exactly , but in a sense of physicality that enhances the sight gags and set pieces; the narrative delivers unpretentious fun without trite lessons about letting go or finding inner self.
I don’t think I will ever love Shaun the Sheep as much as I love Wallace and Gromit, but to my surprise the little lamb’s feature-film debut is actually better than the disappointing Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Shaun the Sheep Movie improves on the television series, providing the kind of stop-motion delights that should amuse adults whether or not they have children.
“You are all condemned, for crimes against king and kingdom, to hang… to dangle until you are but dead, to be then cut down still alive, to have your entrails drawn out and thrust into your own mouths, to be further hanged, then quartered like the carcasses of beef you are. You number five hundred, but even if you were five thousand, the execution of this sentence would be just before God Almighty… and may He have mercy upon your souls.” – Lord George Jeffreys.
There is perhaps no more enduring mystery in the world of cinema than the cult reputation of Jesus Franco. Certainly, no filmmaker ever did less to earn more respect from people who should know better. A purveyor of exploitation trash, Franco is viewed as a talent who transcended genre obligations and meager resources, and Exhibit A in his case is The Bloody Judge (original title: Il trono di fuoco), a 1970 production that sees the director for once working with something like a reasonable budget. Sadly, this means only that Franco’s usual cinematic shortcoming are elevated to the level of garden-variety incompetence.
Like 1966’s Psycho-Circus, The Bloody Judge is one of Christopher Lee’s non-horror “horror” films – which is to say, it has enough genre trappings to capitalize on the actor’s status as horror star, but these elements are simply window dressing on a story that is really something else: a wanna-be historical epic of political intrigue, upheaval, and warfare. (This misrepresentation of the film as a horror-thriller was compounded in the U.S., where the release was irrelevantly re-titled Night of the Blood Monster.)
Lee plays Judge Jeffreys, a real-life historical character, who is initially seen presiding over the trials of accused witches, who are tortured to extract confessions. Just when viewers think they are seeing Lee’s version of Witchfinder General (1968), the narrative shifts: the witch-hunting turns out to be a gratuitous sideshow; the remaining running time focuses on political foes seeking to overthrow the current regime in England, and most of the people before Jeffreys’ court stand accused of treason. At times, Jeffries seems less like the lead character than a Greek chorus, delivering exposition to explain action taking place elsewhere, though he does occasionally take some action to squelch the uprising. In short, this is another one of producer Harry Alan Towers’s scatter-shot scenarios (he co-wrote the story as “Peter Welbeck”) and also an example of a modestly budgeted film that couldn’t afford to keep its star around for the duration of production, resulting in a fragmented, unfocused mess, which abandons its most interesting idea to waste time on secondary characters.
Strangely, there is an interesting idea at the heart of the film – well, not at the heart, but pulsing in one of the outer arteries, blocked from circulating throughout the rest of the system. Though Jeffreys is presented as a merciless judge in public, he privately frets about the severity of the sentences he hands down, continuing in his work only because he believes it is his duty before God and Country, regardless of his personal feelings. This leads to a nice confrontation wherein Lord Wessex (Leo Genn) admonishes Jeffreys, wishing that for once the judge would see one of his abominable sentences carried out, so that his abstract justifications might be tempered by a collision with the awful reality.
In a nifty bit of accidental art, Wessex’s admonition rings true precisely because The Bloody Judge belongs to that breed of exploitation film which, for reasons of budget and schedule, keeps its star well segregated in his own little portion of the film, never allowing him into the torture scenes, which seem to have been filmed separately, with an eye for inclusion on a country-by-country basis, depending on local audience preference for depraved debauchery. Thus, Jeffreys truly does seem completely oblivious to the horrors inflicted because of his judgments.
At the conclusion, Jeffreys – arrested and in jail, awaiting the sort of punishment he has handed out to others – looks out his cell window and for the first time beholds an execution – a sight which provokes a heart attack in the previously stolid judge, who collapses, gasping, “You were right, Wessex. I never knew!” It’s a strangely affecting moment, well stage and acted, evoking pity for a character who bestowed so little pity on others – a hint of what The Bloody Judge could have been, had its focus remained on the title character.
Sadly, the film spends just about as much time on this dramatic arc as I have spent describing it here; the impact is considerably diluted by the rest of the movie, with its political machinations, espionage, warfare, attempted rapes, aimless brutality, and torture scenes forming a bloody stew of mismatched ingredients.
Had these other scenes been executed with aplomb, their inclusion might have been forgivable, but often they are simply absurd. One “highlight” features Lord Wessex’s son visiting an oracular woman living in a cave: she vaguely warns him of “danger” but neglects to mention that, not sixty seconds previously, the king’s men were in the cave searching for him and are presumably still outside waiting. When he leaves, he almost literally walks right into their arms. (Of course, how young Wessex managed to get past them and into the cave is a question best left unasked, because the film will not bother to explain it.)
Franco admirers cite the mid-film battle sequence as an example of what the director could achieve, given decent resources, but the result is not exactly David Lean in scope; it looks more like a competently executed second-unit scene, whose moderate impact is undermined by foreshadowing that completely oversells the event: a character refers to an army “10,000 strong,” which – even allowing for hyperbole – is laughably wrong. What we see looks more like 50 men on horseback, fended off by half a dozen unsupported canons. Photographing the same horsemen from three or four different angles doesn’t make them seem like 150 or 200 men; it makes them look like the same men photographed from three or four different angles.
Even worse, the geography of the battlefield is so haphazardly presented that it’s never clear why the horseman ride directly toward the canons instead of simply circumventing them and attacking from behind. A few do ride up from behind, but the editing quickly obscures this, in order to keep the scene going, because it’s clear that, even with their small numbers, the horsemen could easily overwhelm the cannoneers while they pause to reload.
As if this were not bad enough, midway through the sequence, Franco violates the 180-degree rule, switching to a 180-degree reverse angle, so that the cannons suddenly seem to be firing from left to right onscreen instead of right to left. Viewers cannot tell whether the canons have been re-aimed in the opposite direction or whether there is a different battery of canon. Confusion is aggravated by the fact that the cannoneers’ uniforms change from blue to red, and they seem to be shooting at other soldiers in red uniforms. A triumph of cinematic mise-en-scene, it ain’t.
As lame as these cinematic stumbles are, they look like exemplars of cinematic form compared to the torture scenes, which pretend to be the physical manifestation of Jeffreys’ harsh judgments but feel more like gratuitous torture porn. The allegedly serious intent is hardly enhanced by the presence of actor Howard Vernon as the chief torturer Jack Ketch: his skinny frame, dressed in a black-hooded costume, suggests a reject from a Monty Python sketch.
Some of this footage was omitted in the 84-minute version of the film released in 1970, but it’s been lovingly restored in the 103-minute version currently available on DVD and streaming services. The key sequence involves Mary Gray (Maria Rohm), an accused woman who has caught the eye of the judge, who summons her to his quarters. For reasons the film never explores, Ketch does not immediately bring her from the torture chamber as ordered; he has a little fun with her first, apparently unconcerned that his boss might be a little impatient.
Ketch’s “fun” consists of shoving Mary into a cell with a tortured woman, who is either unconscious or dead, and then waiting to see what Mary does. Literally, he gives no orders, forces her to do nothing. Instead, she takes the initiative on her own, kissing and licking the other woman’s wounds. In the liner notes for the DVD, Tim Lucas calls this scene “incredible, transgressive erotica,” but a more accurate description would be risible nonsense. What is presumably supposed to register as horrible humiliation and degradation instead reads as silly soft-core foreplay, as actress Rohm exhibits neither reluctance nor revulsion. It should go without saying that none of her subsequent scenes show any hint that the character has been scarred by this experience, because it is precisely the kind of scene intended to be included only in versions of the film released to specific countries that want a little extra schlock (a theory supported by the fact that, unlike the rest of the film, the restored scene is dubbed in German, with English subtitles – suggesting that the footage was never intended for English-speaking countries).
If this is the evidence that’s supposed to prove Franco’s genius, I remain unconvinced, but in spite of its manifest shortcomings, The Bloody Judge did keep me watching until the end, if only for the benefit of seeing Lee in a mildly interesting role in a historical film. The Bloody Judge lacks the class and craftsmanship of the Hammer Film productions that made Lee famous, and the Jeffreys lacks the iconic stature of Lee’s Count Dracula, but at least the villainous judge is given a tiny note of interest. (Fortunately for Lee, the actor would appear in a high-class period costume piece a few years later, The Three Musketeers.) Apart from Lee, The Bloody Judge has little to recommend it to anyone who has not already succumbed to the dubious allure of Franco. It’s beautifully shot but inept in storytelling and execution, and even its sleazy excesses are more laughable than shocking. This Judge has been weighed on the scales of cinematic justice and found wanting.
THE BLOODY JUDGE (Original title: Il trono di fuoco [“The Throne of Fire”]; also known as NIGHT OF THE BLOOD MONSTER, 1970) Produced by Arturo Marcos, Harry Alan Towers. Directed by Jesus Franco. Written by Enrico Colombo, Jesus Franco, Michael Haller; story by Harry Alan Towers, Anthony Scott Veitch. Cast: Christopher Lee, Maria Schell, Leo Genn, Hans Hass Jr., Maria Rohm, Margaret Lee, Howard Vernon. 103 minutes.
With a title like Psycho-Circus, not to mention the presence of two Count Draculas (Christopher Lee and Klaus Kinski), fright fans will probably expect this to be some kind of lurid horror-thriller filled with circus acts gone horribly wrong (lion tamers mauled, knife thrower’s assistant stabbed) along the lines of 1960’s Circus of Horrors (stock footage from which appears here). Unfortunately, Psycho-Circus is horror-in-name only; though it features a circus, there is nothing psychotic about it. Based on a story by Edgar Wallace, the film is more of a mystery-crime-melodrama, more accurately represented by its original title, Circus of Fear. Taken on its own terms, the film is a passable time-waster, though just barely.
The plot kicks off with the nicely staged robbery of an armored car in broad daylight, abetted by one of the security guards. The stolen loot is hijacked, however, when one of the robbers is killed while trying to deliver the money to an accomplice at the circus. This sets up two mysteries: (1) Who was supposed to get the money; and (2) Who actually got the money? Unfortunately, the film is concerned with the mechanics of its gimmicky mystery plot that it forgets to ask, let alone answer, the most important question: Why should we care about the answers to Questions 1 and 2?
Misleading artwork for the re-titled version of the film.
This is a consequence of a typically fragmented script by producer Harry Alan Towers (writing under his Peter Welbeck pseudonym), which follows different characters in different plot threads, without ever winding them into a tight skein. There’s no central protagonist or point of view, and the interesting bits must fight for attention with scenes that drag the pace to a crawl: the police attempts to solve the crime are interrupted by criminal attempts to track down the loot, which in turn must give way to behind-the-scenes melodrama at the circus. Though the anticipated circus carnage never takes place, eventually suspects and witnesses start showing up with knives in their backs, but that’s so obviously a red herring for the knife-thrower that you almost wonder whom the film thinks it’s fooling.
Credit the scattershot approach to a combination of convoluted mystery plotting and more pragmatic concerns: a British-West-German co-production, Psycho-Circus is proto-Eurotrash cinema, a genre in which the need to satisfy investors from different countries outweighs the needs of the narrative. German money? Get German actor Klaus Kinski in there for a few scenes, whether or not he adds anything to the plot.
One intriguing bit involves Lee’s character, Gregor, the lion-tamer, who goes through most of the film wearing a mask, supposedly to hide scars inflicted by one of the beasts in his act – or is he really a criminal hiding his identity? Is he the man to whom the loot was supposed to be delivered, or did he purloin it to finance his escape, now that a dark secret in his past seems to be catching up to him? There might have been a fascinating film to be made that focused on these aspects; instead, these tiny threads are twisted and knotted with less interesting strands.
Despite star billing, Lee is just one of the ensemble. At least his voice is distinctive enough to register while his face is hidden, and when he is finally unmasked he manages to generate a little pathos for a character who is a bit shady. Leo Genn is decent as the Scotland Yard detective on the case, but Kinski gets little to do except skulk around suspiciously.
Production values are okay; direction is competent but unremarkable. The film could have benefited from more robust handling to push it out of the German krime territory and into the giallo genre; a little stylized violence would have gone a long way toward enlivening the drab plotting. The story winds up with one of those scenes in which the detective assembles the suspects to reveal the murderer’s identify. If you’re a fan of that kind of who-dunnit hijinx, it might be worth your while to sit through this one to the end.
Though the revelation of Gregor’s face is withheld until late in the British film, the trailer gives it away.
Credits: Produced by Harry Alan Towers. Directed by John Llewellyn Moxey. Screenplay by Harry Alan Towers (as Peter Welbeck) based on Edgar Wallace’s novel The Three Just Men (uncredited). Cast: Christopher Lee, Leo Genn, Anthony Newlands, Heinz Drache, Eddi Arent, Klaus Kinski, Margaret Lee, Suzy Kendall, Skip Martin. 90 minutes.