Some famous cult classics have titles which seem rather normal for the content provided, others are more fitting. But few titles can claim to be the major reason for a movie's unavailability to the general public for nearly forty years!
Yet this is what happened to Teruo Ishii's "Horrors of Malformed Men".
A Japanese film still unavailable in its home country as a local release, this title has finally gotten a DVD-release abroad with a lovingly created region-free disc. Synapse films surely deserves a pat on the back for their efforts here as they not only give everyone finally a chance to see what the hype is about, but provide enough extras to explain what caused it.
So why is it so notorious and controversial?
Surely in a film from 1969 it can't be "political incorrectness", not all the way up to this day?
Small history lesson:
In the late sixties, Japanese studios were threatened by the rise of television and were experimenting to find new genres like pink and erotic horror to thrive in. Teruo Ishii was a very successful director who had already proven himself to be able to generate money from unlikely scripts, so when he was interested in filming a horror story from renowned author Edogawa Rampo studio Toei gladly let him do it. The story chosen for this movie was "The Horrors of Panorama Island" and this was also going to be the title, but Ishii realized this might be the only Rampo movie he'd ever make so he started adding bits and pieces from other Rampo stories as well. The end result was cobbled together from so many stories that the studio changed the title into "The Complete Works of Edogawa Rampo: The Horrors of Malformed Men".
This title proved problematic from the start. You can use many terms in Japanese to describe malformed or disfigured people, but the one they actually used was the most negative and derogatory possible, with the closest translation being "those filthy evil invalids". On release, this movie was not a success and quickly left the public eye, but every chance of a re-release was torpedoed by people taking offense to the title.
Invalidity and disfigurement is a bit of a taboo in Asia, often to the point that having a disabled relative can be seen as a loss of face. As a backlash of a society feeling guilty about that, any open reference of these people being "lesser" is heavily frowned upon, and mentioning this title doesn't buy you credit. Especially since almost no-one knows what the movie is actually about although everyone knows there are fake evil invalids in there.
You can compare this to, say, an American filmmaker releasing a movie in the sixties called "Horrors of Those Filthy and Evil Niggers" (apologies, extremely derogatory term used here on purpose!). With the movie containing many shots of obviously white people, wearing black make-up, being evil and filthy, and raping white women.
Imagine the outcry that would have caused! The same thing happened here.
Because of this stain "Horrors of Malformed Men" has been banned from home release ever since it disappeared from cinemas. It got a bit of a cult status because of its unavailability and because several directors claim it as being a great art movie. In truth its contents are closer to batshit-crazy than offensive, and anyone who after seeing it still thinks this to be a pamphlet against disabled people obviously has a screw loose (or two).
It's 1925 and medical student Hirosuke Hitomi has a very bad time. Not only is he plagued by weird nightmares, he suddenly gets thrown into a mental hospital where people keep trying to kill him!
He manages to escape though and goes searching for the source of both the nightmares and the assassins.
When the trail leads him to a coastal village, he assumes the identity of a recently deceased rich man who bears an uncanny resemblance to him. He manages to fool everyone into thinking he's the same guy, miraculously resurrected, but soon finds himself caught in a web of fraud, deceit, adultery, torture, incest, mass abduction and murder...
Using his newly found resources as master of the household, Hitomi plans a visit to the nearby island where the rich man's hideously disfigured father has for many years been toiling away at a secret project. On arrival, he discovers (gasp) THE HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN!
Writer Taro Hirai took the name Edogawa Rampo as a writing nick because he was such a huge fan of Edgar Allan Poe (say both fast and you'll see why). Therefore it is fitting that "Horrors of Malformed Men" resembles Poe-inspired works like Roger Corman's "Masque of the Red Death". As a horror film it isn't nearly frightening enough, as a detective thriller it is far too weird. The plot (full of holes) is only used as an excuse to provide spectacular visuals, often tinged with nudity and torture, but the whole still manages to capture the mood and atmosphere of the writer whose work it was adapted from.
The story unfolds as a slow potboiler, following Hitomi who we suspect as being at least slightly mad. When his investigations take him to the island halfway through the movie this approach is abandoned and replaced by a gallery of weird images, each one more odd or perverted than the previous one. The actor Teruo Yoshida who plays Hitomi manages to keep a straight face as he, insane or not, turns out to be our only anchor to normality in the ensuing madness.
And just when you think Ishii forgets the plot altogether, revelation upon revelation follows. Upon revelation. Upon revelation...
Seriously, this movie manages to tie its stories together in a way which is impressive and unsettling. For a long time all you see are talking heads explaining things, but the story emerging adheres to its own logic and is just about the most depraved that has ever been put on celluloid. It's during this stage that references to Rampo's other stories are used left and right, and the end result is the most convoluted revenge scheme this side of "Oldboy", one that takes over fifteen minutes to explain!
And then, when everyone has exhausted themselves with explanations, all people reflect on the past, make peace with each other and are unfortunately spirited away by aliens who probe them to death.
No, not really, but the REAL finale is even weirder! You need a pretty potent drug to come up with this ending.
As such it's really difficult to rate this movie. At times it's a detective story, at time it's torture-porn "avant la lettre" and at times it's just plain odd. But it always manages to keep a nightmarish mood, it always provides interesting visuals and it has a hell of a villain.
Oh, that villain!
The bad guy in this movie is played by performance artist Tatsumi Hijikata and the work he does here is nothing short of spellbinding. Hardly an actor at all, he uses dance as a way to express emotions and as such can be seen gallivanting across the island in unsettling ways. Teruo Ishii chose Hijikata for the role of the literally barking mad Jougorou after seeing him perform live, and it's a choice that really pays off. Hijikata used the spastic movements of physically and mentally handicapped people in his performances so he was already exposed to the same controversy that would eventually hit the movie. He is mesmerizing to look at though and the figure of Jougorou doing his insane dance on the beach can be seen as a precursor to how the ghost moves in the "Grudge" movies. At times you'd swear his back was broken, judging by the angles he makes.
Incidentally, on the disc Ishii reveals that this whole sequence, which may be the most famous part of this movie, happened by accident! He explains: "It wasn't in the script at all, but Hijikara was having so much fun on those rocks that we decided to film it".
"Horrors of Malformed Men" is the end result of three eccentric (or slightly mad) geniuses bouncing ideas between each other. I'm speaking of writer Edogawa Rampo, director Teruo Ishii and dancer Tatsumi Hijikata, and the movie is a weird mixture of cheap exploitation fare, a Sherlock Holmes detective story, a depraved horror movie and a work of art. And although reasons can be found to call it a bad example of either of the first three, it undeniably succeeds as a piece of art. At the very least it's an interesting failure, at it's best a mesmerizing painting.
I'd like to recommend it although I haven't the faintest who to recommend it to!
It's an oddity and if you expect it to be, you won't be disappointed.
On to the DVD:
All bow to Synapse films. As a release of a movie which was all but lost, this disc is an astounding success on nearly every front.
"Horrors of Malformed Men" boasts some impressive cinematography with VERY strong use of colors, and this NTSC transfer is all people could have asked for. Nitpickers may argue about the amount of grain and noise, but the truth is I've seen movies that are far more popular and far more recent treated far worse than this. Respect!
As for sound, it includes the original mono soundtrack. No remixing here so this is one for the purists. The sound is a bit "tinny" though, which is a shame as the soundtrack is almost as wild as the visuals and maybe would have benefited from a thorough clean-up. Then again I'm no expert: maybe this is as it has always sounded in which case I would be against changing it.
Subtitles are excellent.
As such it's a shame the commentary track by Mark Schilling doesn't have them. An acquaintance of Ishii's, his commentary track is very good and filled with fun anecdotes about the late director, but unfortunately it's sometimes hard to make out what he says. A mystery man accompanies him and asks him questions occasionally, but try as I might I couldn't find out who he was. Also, this mystery man thanks Mark at the 33 minute point for his track, after which it stays silent for a while until the sound of the movie gets turned back up! I really thought the commentary was already over (Mark had covered quite some ground already) but just as I wanted to turn the movie off it started back up again. The track contains a couple more of these pauses, but keep listening as it's generally worth it!
As for extra's, there are several. Biographies for Teruo Ishii and Edogawa Rampo, which are all nice and good but are overshadowed by the excellent booklet inserted in the packaging, which describes the history surrounding this movie extensively. It's printed as a folder but the contents are worthy of Eureka.
A very nice gallery of Ishii movie posters and a good quality trailer follow. Interestingly the trailer features footage of Hijikata's beach dance that's not in the movie.
There are also two documentaries on this disc. One is called "Malformed Memories" which lasts twenty-odd minutes and features interviews with Minoru Kawasaki and site-favorite Shinya Tsukamoto. Both directors have fond recollections of meeting Ishii and share their opinions on "Horrors of Malformed Men".
The other is called "Ishii in Italy", lasts 13-odd minutes and documents Ishii's visit to the 2003 Udine film festival, which showed a retrospective of his work including "Horrors of Malformed Men". This footage was recorded by film journalist Mamiko Kawamoto and it's funny to see because when Ishii takes the camera (a tacky sign displays: "Ishii's last film", which irked me a bit) it shows that all women act the same around the world when someone points a camera at them. As a bonus you also get to see Ishii give an introduction to "Horrors of Malformed Men".
This DVD shows the power of this medium to its fullest: here you have a little known odd movie you'd normally only hear about but never would get to see. It gets an exemplary release, and adds the extras needed to be able to appreciate it in full.
Very, very well done, Synapse!