Friday, October 30, 2015


I wouldn’t necessarily say they saved the best for last, but there is a finality to Genocide that makes it the perfect choice to round out When Horror Came to Shochiku.

Released in 1968, Genocide was directed by The X from Outer Space’s Kazui Nihonmatsu [review], who here perfects his gonzo mash-up style while also taking his anti-war and technology themes to their furthest conclusion. At stake this time around is pretty much everything. Once again, the movie opens with an incident involving an aircraft (see also: Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell [review]). In this case, a U.S. bomber flying over a Japanese island carrying a hydrogen bomb. A swarm of insects sets upon the craft, first causing a PTSD freak-out from one of the crew members, an African American solider named Charly (Chico Roland, Black Sun [review]), and then disabling the engines, forcing the crew to eject their cargo and bail out.

Things only get more complicated from there. The Americans mobilize to find the lost bomb, and when the rest of the crew is found dead, an amnesiac Charly is the only key to figuring out where the explosive ended up. Meanwhile, one of the islanders, a bug collector named Joji (Yusuke Kawazu, The Inheritance [review]), turns up in town with a U.S. Air Force watch and finds himself charged with the murder of the dead pilots--even though the cause of death is quite clearly some kind of pestilence. Joji’s sweet wife Yukari (Emi Shindo) goes out of her way to help her man, even though it’s rumored that Joji has a white girlfriend on another island. Yukari summons Dr. Nagumo (Keisuke Sonoi, also in The X from Outer Space), a scientist Joji collects bugs for, to help him escape the murder charge. This works out, because Nagumo has seen some strange goings-on in the insect community that he’s eager to check out first hand.

Convoluted enough for you? Well, just you wait. The United States is not the only one on the hunt for the lost atomic weapon. There are also “Eastern Bloc spies” in the mix, and one of their number is Annabelle (Kathy Horan), Joji’s alleged girlfriend, who not only turns out to be a bit of a bug aficionado herself, but she’s also an Auschwitz survivor who hates all warring nations. The Americans are just as bad as her Nazi captors since, after all, they unleashed nuclear horror on the world. All of these crazy insects are Annabelle’s, she’s been breeding them to be more poisonous and wants to use them to destroy mankind.

Only not so fast, Annabelle! If sci-fi horror movies have taught us anything, it’s that nature is not as cooperative as all that. When Charly escapes Annabelle’s clutches--did I mention her Commie henchmen kidnapped him after he got his memory back and told everyone his buddies were killed by deadly bugs, not Joji, but Joji himself had already escaped and hooked up with his white ladypal?--the bug poison in his body causes him to hallucinate and rant about the genocide that we were promised in the title. Curious as to whether it’s all in Charly’s head or perhaps he’s maybe seen some truth the sober eyes are unable to envision, Dr. Nagumo lets himself be bitten by one of the bugs. Once the venom hits his bloodstream, Nagumo finds himself part of the hivemind, and the chatter between the winged terrorists reveals that they are also trying to rid the Earth of humanity. It’s one thing if man wants to kill himself with atomic energy, but the insects aren’t going to sit by and let the humans kill them, too.

Thus, this crazy film becomes a race against time. Who will triumph and get the bomb first? The Americans? The Communists? Why don’t Annabelle and the bugs realize they have a common goal? What of the fact that Yukari is expecting? Should she bring a baby into the world when its father is heading to the gallows?

There is a lot to parse through in Genocide. While the peace message is the most prevalent, Nihonmastsu and screenwriter Susumu Takaku complicate things by also touching on misogyny, racism, and the granddaddy of modern existential problems--just because science allows us to do something, does that mean we should? Not to mention the film’s climactic conundrum of whether or not it’s reasonable to sacrifice the few to save the many.

This last question can’t be answered with any real satisfaction, as the violent shootout between the two sides (irony?) ends in calamity. The final shots show us a most terrible conclusion, but also one glimmer of hope. Kind Yukari has escaped on a tiny boat, away from the carnage, mother and child serving as the last salvation for humanity. It’s like the end of Children of Men [review], only with no hint of a rescue.

In terms of style, Genocide fits in with the other films in When Horror Came to Shochiku: cheap special effects, science gone wrong, the ghosts of war invading the present day (and represented visually by intrusive, abrupt inserts), and a general distrust of mankind’s most common impulses. Just as Goke’s alien invaders saw us as hopelessly caught up in our own drama, so too do the bugs here completely dismiss any notion that we can save ourselves. Perhaps that’s why they decide not to go along with Annabelle, the human factor is unpredictable and she could make things worse for them in the long run.

This is horror as nihilism. No ghouls, goblins, or golems will ever be as terrifying as we are ourselves. The faint glimmer of hope that an individual might stand up and do the right thing is dashed time and again, the efforts that one person makes aren’t enough, the fight is futile, the bomb drops anyway or the aliens have already won, and even if we could pick up and carry on, the planet doesn’t want us anymore. Consider it this way: the bugs in Genocide could just be a metaphor for climate change. In both cases, we have manufactured the problem in the name of progress, and reversing what’s already been done seems nigh impossible. Though the movie is bizarre and freakish and as unpredictable as a practical joke, the punchline is all kinds of chilling.

Excuse me while I go pour myself a good stiff drink.

Sunday, October 25, 2015


You’d think loneliness was some kind of luxury.”

It’s fascinating watching countries grapple with their own troublesome history, particularly when the events in question aren’t yet that distant in the past. We can already see it in some of the early American films about both wars in Iraq. Consider how formless and lost ThreeKings and Jarhead were as the first out of the gate, or the polarizing aspects of American Sniper [review], which I still think was most interesting when it was the least political.

I’m sure I’ve written about this before, but this use of art to sort through the guilt and wreckage of wartime politics and, in a sense, a national defeat, was a major factor of the Neorealist cinema, including, of course, the great films of Roberto Rossellini, who portrayed the anti-fascist resistance [Era notte a Roma] and also tried to show the everyday life of Italian citizens living under Mussolini in many of his releases during the 1940s and ’50s [like these]. Though following many years on, director Ettore Scola picks up that thematic torch for his 1977 film A Special Day, a potent drama grounded in the lives and homes of two very different people.

A Special Day is set in the late 1930s during Hitler’s visit to Italy to meet with Mussolini and the fascists. All Italian citizens are expected to turn out and greet the visiting dictator as he tours their streets in a grand parade. Left behind in a towering tenement is beleaguered housewife and mother of six, Antonietta (Sophia Loren). An escaping mynah bird leads to a chance encounter with a neighbor across the courtyard, a depressed bachelor named Gabriele (Marcello Mastroianni). Unbeknownst to Antonietta, Gabriele is on his own because he is an antifascist who has been fired from his job due to his political beliefs. An intellectual and effete, Gabriele sees little hope in a life under fascist rule.

Perhaps sensing a similar loneliness in the housewife, Gabriele turns up on her doorstep seeking coffee and conversation, and risking scandal from the spying landlord. Over the course of their day together, they get to know one another, crossing a divide that is greater than their courtyard: Antonietta is a true believer in the current regime.

A virtual two-hander, the success of A Special Day relies entirely on the chemistry of its stars. Fortunately, Mastroianni and Loren had a tremendous and deep working relationship that had started many years prior and included several films in collaboration with Vittorio De Sica, including Marriage Italian Style [review] and Sunflower [review]. The pair was always comfortable and natural in each other’s presence, and are overdue their distinction as one of the great screen couples of classic cinema. Their experience infuses this first-time meeting of their characters with something uncommon. Gabriele’s confidence, Antonietta’s nerves, their mutual need for acknowledgement--there is a gravity connecting them immediately. There is little hint, at least initially, that their attraction is sexual or romantic, though Antonietta wouldn’t mind a single man desiring her again. Loren may be a sex symbol, but she is such a strong actress, she was also able to internalize the dowdiness required here in a way that goes beyond wardrobe and make-up. Any time her natural beauty starts to peek through the façade, she manages to wrangle it back down.

Scola, who was a credited writer on 1962’s Il sorpasso and also co-writes here, opens his film with a lengthy newsreel that sets up the events of the day. It features voiceover commentary that carries through the narrative, heard throughout the tenement on the radio as the pomp and circumstance blooms. Scola and director of photography Alfio Contini (The Night Porter) dial the color way down, pumping up the browns, matching the documentary footage and giving A Special Day a faded, sepia-toned sense of authenticity. This aesthetic--and the isolated location--give the movie a feeling of immediacy, and despite a visual technique that might, in other cases, seem distancing, uses the familiarity of memory and the closeness of the sets to create intimacy. A Special Day feels less like a film we observe than it does one we actually participate in.

This distinctive touch is given particularly nice treatment in the new high-definition restoration and Blu-ray transfer, but the relevance of the situation would communicate regardless of image clarity. A Special Day seems particularly crucial as a rediscovery today, when the political divide that splits many nations is so strong, there seems to be little by way of common ground. Or at least empathy and common understanding. There is a beautiful image midway through the movie where Gabriele sits at his table eating an omelet, and Antonietta stands outside the kitchen, on the opposite end of the frame, deciding whether she will join him. There is a wall between them, and by its placement within the image, we feel a great distance, despite the actual proximity of the two figures. Scola effectively erases it, the next cut being the pair at the table together. No one had to cross the divide. They were already there. They break bread while, in the background, two oppressive powers celebrate their union.

Because, in the end, it’s not about dogma or ideology or belief, it’s about human contact and the essential longing within all of us. As we learn more about both participants, other secrets are revealed, other more defining aspects of their personalities that make them different, but also essential to who they are. Gabriele has a particularly powerful revelation to make, one I will leave to your discovery, even though it may be far more obvious to modern eyes than it was 40 years ago. The real reason he is in exile should only add a bigger wedge between him and Antonietta, but instead it underscores how they suffer the same feeling of alienation and have the same requirement to be needed. Mastroianni gets to slowly unleash, his quiet confession turning to external rage, but Loren gets a more subtle, more fragile chance to reveal Antonietta’s weakness. She may not have lost her “job” the way Gabriele did, but she is not valued as a person all the same. Her husband, as it turns out, sees her as a servant and a baby factory (one more kid and they get a tax break for being a large family!), making the betrayal that he is cheating on her with an educated woman doubly heartbreaking. She has thoughts and feelings, too, but no formal outlet to express them. No wonder, we realize, she was drawn to Gabriele. Their whole second meeting is predicated on his insisting she borrow a book, a copy of The Three Musketeers, because it would never occur to him that she wouldn’t have an interior life in need of nurturing.

It’s important to note that, despite the ease with which we will automatically take sides in A Special Day, Scola offers no extra commentary on the citizens who support fascism. Antonietta does not change her mind in the end, and there is no profound transformation a la the anti-Semitic old man coming to love the young boy in Claude Berri’s The Two of Us [review]; even so, as the movie closes, we do see that she has been moved by her new friendship, even if, tragically, she is stuck in the life she lives, and still required to fulfill her “duty.” The day may have altered the hearts of two individuals, but the collective still dominates.

It’s kind of weird to jump nearly four decades from A Special Day to 2014’s Human Voice and see Sophia Loren in her late ’70s, but the pairing is fitting in that both of the characters she plays are solitary women at a loss for love.

Human Voice is a short film adapted from Jean Cocteau, and directed by Loren’s son, Edoardo Ponti. Loren stars as an older woman waiting in her home for her regular Tuesday rendezvous with her lover. Over the course of several phone calls, it becomes apparent that he won’t be coming that evening, and that the affair may be at an end.

It’s a great showcase for the actress, and a great gift from her son to create it for her. Age has done nothing to dull Loren’s onscreen presence, and the forcefulness and honesty of her performance here is remarkable. The device of having a one-sided conversation over the phone allows for Loren to undercut her own vanity and to be vulnerable. At first, the telephone line allows her to lie, to hide her true feelings and situation, only to open up as the day progresses, and then to break down completely. As emotions flare and implode, it’s heartbreaking, and would be so even without Ponti’s short cutaways to other scenes--the lovers together, the woman waiting outside the man’s house, etc. They work, but the context is unnecessary. Loren gives us everything we need to know.

The movie was provided by Criterion for review.

Saturday, October 17, 2015


Well, if there was any prevailing motto for the horror movies being made at the Japanese studio Shochiku in the 1960s, it was “anything goes.” Their films were defiant of genre, narrative structure, logic, and yet embracing of imagination, ambition, and the glee that comes with throwing caution to the wind.

Two from 1968 nestled in the middle of the WhenHorror Came to Shochiku boxed set, Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell and The Living Skeleton couldn’t be more different. One is a color sci-fi mash-up that sits right alongside any flying saucer schlock to be found in an American drive-in; another is a black-and-white ghost story more in the tradition of Val Lewton. Both narratives stem from a horrible accident on a travel vessel--a crashing airplane, a massacre on a boat--but there the similarities end.

Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell was directed by Hajime Sato. It has many of the hallmarks of a smart B-movie production in that it makes do with a limited budget by isolating the events. In this case, a commercial airplane is stranded in the middle of nowhere after being knocked from the storm-torn sky of an alien invasion. Once the craft is on the ground, surviving crew and passengers must wait out the storm and each other’s dwindling patience. Things were tense even before the crash. An anonymous tip told the crew there was a terrorist bomber on board, and while the hunt for him didn’t uncover any explosives, it did expose a hijacker (Hideo Ko) who had smuggled a gun in his luggage. Rather than be detained after the accident, the bad guy takes the stewardess (Tomomi Sato) hostage. His flight from justice only leads him to the alien craft, however, and the gelatinous ooze that has come to Earth looking for a host.

The image would not be out of place in a horror manga. The hijacker’s face splits open and the alien goo crawls inside. Once possessed, the hijacker starts hunting down the other passengers, sucking out their life force like a vampire. One by one, the crew falls, but not before their class positions and particular sins are exposed. It’s like Kurosawa’s TheLower Depths crossed with Hitchcock’s Lifeboat [review]. Amongst the passengers are a corrupt politician (Eizo Kitamura), a feckless arms dealer (Nobuo Kaneko, The Human Condition [review]), and an American widow (Kathy Horan) grieving for the husband she lost in the Vietnam War. The original bomber, as it turns out, was only faking, looking to have some kicks in a world he finds boring, using violence as his own private stimulus.

There is a fairly clear anti-war message here. The aliens, it is theorized, have managed to infiltrate humanity because everyone is so busy fighting each other, they can’t see the threat from beyond the stars. Thus, the bickering fliers are a microcosm of the macro problem. They can’t agree on anything, so they all die. Goke seems sadly prescient. Many of its horrors are relevant to today. Terrorism, privacy, disagreements about science, birds mysteriously falling from the sky--or, committing suicide, as it were. It could just as well be our own timeline the plane is hurtling threw. Albeit, minus the aliens, plastic special effects, and silly plot machinations. Hopefully our world will be absent the bleak ending, as well.

There is some influence of the French New Wave evident in how the scenes of war are cut into the sci-fi monster narrative: random flashes of overexposed violence doused in red flash across the screen at the mere mention of Vietnam. Actually, that’s another element Goke has in common with The Living Skeleton. Sketchy memories of the inciting massacre reappear throughout, just quick splices to remind us of the bloody horror that set all the later spookiness in motion.
Directed by Hiroshi Matsuno, The Living Skelton seems more serious minded than the Shochiku films viewed previously, though with no bigger budget and no better special effects. Hell, there isn’t really a living skeleton, just a lot of fake skeletons anchored to the bottom of the ocean. And they look no more real than the bats that serve as bad omens for the evil men whose greed kicked everything off.

In the opening scenes, a gang of opportunistic pirates attack a sailing vessel and kill everyone on board. Jump ahead three years later, and Saeko (Kikko Matsuoka), the twin sister of one of the murdered, accidentally stumbles on the ship’s ghostly wreckage while scuba diving. She communicates with her lost twin through whatever dimension separates the living from the dead and learns all about the crime. Now having seen the faces of the men responsible, the surviving girl starts posing as the ghost of her sibling, scaring the crooks into their own untimely deaths.

Though essentially a ghost story, its criminal underworld setting adds a touch of noir to The Living Skeleton before eventually careening off into mad scientist territory and even a little tragedy. There are also Christian overtones throughout. The living twin spends much of her time at church commiserating with the priest (Masumi Okada, Crazed Fruit). And, of course, the chaste Saeko only finds the underwater skeletons after having sex with her boyfriend (Yasunori Irikawa, Samurai Spy). Some tropes don’t just transcend genre, but international borders.

The Living Skeleton doesn’t ever really get scary, though credit to cinematographer Masayuki Kato for getting the look just right. The moody photography creates an otherworldly atmosphere. Like the rocky terrain of Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell), the foggy seaside of The Living Skeleton could be everywhere and nowhere. It is of no real origin, of no real time. Kato and Matsuno get inventive with some of the underwater shots, placing the characters in a kind of netherworld. It could be under the ocean, or it could be outer space, or perhaps this is just where we go when we die.

Which, again, sort of encapsulates what is going on in the When Horror Came to Shochiku set. Whether from above or below, from within or without, the threats are indescribable, boundless, and ultimately deadly. Yet, even with the body count, they’re also grand fun.  

Saturday, October 10, 2015


NOTE: A version of this review originally appeared in 2007 when Docurama released their boxed set; the screengrabs also reflect that standard-definition DVD release.

D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back, a profile of Bob Dylan on his 1965 British tour, is arguably the most influential rock 'n' roll documentary of all time, predating even the Maysles' Gimme Shelter and Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock. Thirty years later, Grant Gee pretty much orchestrated his Radiohead feature, Meeting People is Easy, note for note from Pennebaker. Ironically, given the movie's title, Don't Look Back is a film that deserves to be revisited every couple of years. My first viewing was part of a theatrical revival in the mid-1990s, before I was even a Dylan fan (the movie kind of made me one). And while the doc has been on DVD since 1999, and got an overhaul and expansion with 2007's 65 Tour Deluxe Edition, this high-definition upgrade brings Don't Look Back further into the modern age.

Make no mistake, Bob Dylan in 1965 was one cool cat. The smartest thing Pennebaker did was to stay out of Bob's business and just hang around. The performer allowed Pennebaker's camera unbelievable access. The cramped shots taken from within the entourage, tracking Dylan from press conferences to backstage waiting rooms and through taxi rides up to the hotel, bring the viewer incredibly close to the subject. Pennebaker isn't just a fly on the wall, he's landed in the ointment, and he captures the bare reality of touring life. There is the whirlwind of fan activity, the backroom negotiations, and more glad-handing than any one person should be expected to take. Hence, the onset of ennui that compels Dylan to go into some mesmerizing tirades, tearing into and tearing down journalists who he sees as beneath him. His behavior is arrogant and mean, but yet you can't blame him and you even sort of like him for it.

Other great moments come when participants have let their guard down, such as Joan Baez ribbing Bob by gently parodying his lyrics or when Pennebaker captures the expression of hurt on Alan Price's face when he tries to tell everyone it's no big deal that he was jettisoned from the Animals. Then, of course, there is the running Donovan joke, giving Pennebaker an unexpected throughline.

And there is also the music. We don't get a lot of complete performances in Don't Look Back, usually just snippets, often of the same song, underlining the tedium of the endless string of performances. Yet, Pennebaker is smart, and he knows that when it's all said and done, it's the music that counts, and no portrait of the singer would be complete without it. So, he lets the movie climax with the last big night, before delivering a coda that is so perfect, you can't believe he doesn't drop the camera then and there and kiss Dylan and manager Albert Grossman for delivering it to him. It lets all the air out of the rest of the movie, reminding us that most of what has happened is just palaver, and that Dylan's insistence that he is just a guy like anyone else is more true than the preceding ninety minutes suggested.

2007's companion film, Bob Dylan 65 Revisited is an unsurprising byproduct of the DVD era, a service to the hunger for newer better more extras. Pennebaker went back into his archives and put together a new compilation of footage that lasts a little over an hour. Revisited is pretty much more of the same, but without the rancor. The emphasis is on performances, as there are quite a few included, and Dylan's interactions with his fans. This collection of outtakes shows him as far more generous with his audience than one might have gathered from Don't Look Back. There is also a brief appearance by Nico, whose luminous presence even calms the notoriously grouchy Grossman.

As a bookend, Pennebaker includes another take of the film's iconic opening: Dylan running through a set of cue cards with pieces of the lyrics from his song "Subterranean Homesick Blues." The well-known version has Bob in an industrial area with Allen Ginsberg hanging around in the background; this second version has him on a rooftop with tour manager Bob Neuwirth and another record producer Tom Wilson. The wind is blowing, and it looks cold, and it has a certain metaphorical resonance as a capper to Don't Look Back and all of its trappings. Returning to such a popular and significant film could have been a dangerous prospect, looking either like a cursory cash-in or shrinking from the glare of its more famous precursor. Pennebaker beats the odds with Bob Dylan 65 Revisited, employing a slightly different strategy and letting the footage stand on its own. It's a welcome exercise in nostalgia.

Sunday, October 4, 2015


It wasn’t my intention to watch Ridley Scott’s new film The Martian on the same day as The X from OuterSpace, the 1967 Japanese sci-fi monster flick directed by Kazui Nihonmatsu, but it made for a funny little double-feature. Accidental symmetry.

In Scott’s film, Matt Damon plays an astronaut on a mission to Mars who ends up stranded on the planet after a dangerous storm forces his crewmates to leave without him; in The X from Outer Space, the leading film in the Eclipse set When Horror Came to Shochiku, the Japanese expeditions to Mars suffer from a pre-emptive peril. Namely, something is destroying their ships mid-journey.

Thus it is that the AAB-Gamma is launched with a three-man, one-woman crew to try to find out what’s going on. They acknowledge that this is kind of a risky solution because why won’t the hypothetical UFOs also destroy this “astroboat” and all who sail on her? Never mind, this is science and bravery!

The X from Outer Space is fun and ambitious, while also clumsy and strange. Plot points don’t always connect, nor do the explanations for what is happening at any given time. Nihonmatsu’s picture, which was heavily guided by Shochiku, Japan’s second-oldest film company, is clearly designed to hit certain popular trends. Its rubber-suit monster, Guilala, is little more than an alien cousin to Godzilla, and would be perfectly at home on Monster Island. Its sci-fi setting seems a little too late for the 1950s space race pictures that Hollywood gave us (The Day theEarth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Forbidden Planet), but it provides the movie’s best segments. While Guiliala’s stomping around miniature cities and battling off toy armies is pretty silly, the outer space effects, particularly the AAB-Gamma itself, are kind of cool. Someone had fun building those ships and making them fly.

There are also some intriguing character dynamics, namely between the two women in the movie, blonde American Lisa (Patricia Neal), a biologist that is part of the Gamma flight crew, and Japanese astronaut Michiko (Itoka Harada), the ship’s main point of contact at the extensive moon base that serves as a pit stop between Earth and Mars. While Neal’s casting seems like a cynical ploy to appeal to certain audiences (no need to cast Raymond Burr in the American version!), the dynamic between her and Michiko is kind of fascinating. They are friends, but both share a certain affection for Captain Sano (Shunya Wazaki). Michiko’s annoyance at Sano’s blind indecision is obvious from her first scene, when she blatantly cold-shoulders him.

But Lisa is not the only white face in the cast, and though The X from Outer Space’s warnings against dangerous science are muddled (we are far afield of the original Godzilla [review]), one could interpret the presence of Americans in a variety of ways, reflecting the difficult relationship between the Japanese and the occupying forces following World War II (see also: Suzuki’s Gate ofFlesh). On one hand, the helpful Dr. Berman (Franz Gruber) is a symbol of international cooperation; on the other, the reluctant astronaut Dr. Stein (Mike Daneen), is a boorish complainer who only does what’s required of him begrudgingly. Everyone may have one purpose--figuring out how to destroy Guilala--but they aren’t always working together (once again, not dissimilar to The Martian). Though Lisa is instrumental in unraveling this riddle, spoiler alert, Michiko gets her man.

As commentary, it’s not very sharp; likewise, as speculative horror, there is zero that’s terrifying about The X from Outer Space. The film is schlocky fluff, but if it’s the kind of distraction you’re looking for, and if you’d rather crack wise than jump in your seat, than this little sci-fi curio can be entertaining.