2000s, 2010s, Horror/Eerie

The House of the Devil (2009) / The Innkeepers (2012)

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Director/Screenwriter/Editor: Ti West

By Roderick Heath

Revivalism is always a contentious practice in any art form, inviting charges of slavish nostalgia and unoriginality, but it’s also often a signifier of a form trying to reinvent itself and a rejection by younger artists of dominant, but oppressive and depleted models, a way of looking forward by looking back. That’s as true in cinema, though often more piecemeal because of the difficulties of film production, as it is in pop music or painting. In the case of a recent strand of revivalist-tinged horror cinema, it’s easy to see the roots of the movement: the horror film has been in a crisis, it seems, for most of my lifetime. That crisis has been ever-present, even though, or in large part because horror is a genre with a powerful commercial worth, whilst remaining doggedly verboten in the minds of many filmgoers and cultural watchdogs: many a box office list of recent years has proven what utter garbage can still lure fright and gore fans into the multiplexes. Horror proves over and over that it’s sourced in an essential ethic, one that can only be domesticated so far. The genre has seen a variety of pretenders march its halls. The much-hyped waves of Torture Porn, J-Horror and Euro Extreme yielded one or two strong films and a slew of infinitely lesser fare. Fortunately, just lately, there have been distinct signs of a sea change in the genre from the independent film scenes of Great Britain and the USA. Whereas indie cinema has for a long time prided itself on distinction from low-budget genre cinema, a crossbreeding of the two seems to be nascent, allowing adventurous young filmmakers to reject the tired reflexes of the slasher movie, endless lousy remakes, and pure stomach-churning nastiness, and channel other models.

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Ti West’s films are particularly engaging in this regard, because they represent a melding of the immersed sensibilities of a young genre fan with the anti-generic rhythms of independent film so confidently that he erases the disparity as if it was never there. The House of the Devil, for instance, immediately declares its indie cred with the mischievous touch of casting Greta Gerwig in the type of part often filled by Nancy Loomis or Belinda Balaski back when. West, who began to gain attention with two ultra-low-budget features, The Roost (2005) and Trigger Man (2007), before an ill-fated stab at becoming Eli Roth’s anointed successor with Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (2009), is suddenly the genre It Boy, and for once, the attention is for very good reasons. West’s already-signature slow-burn narratives have one foot distinctly planted in post-mumblecore realist cinema, with an emphasis on characterisation through suggestion and an almost discursive sense of narrative construction, and one foot in a classic gothic genre sensibility where a prevalence of a mood of evolving credulity, a sense of precise timing, and a slow rhythmic build-up, is of paramount importance. This mood is directly opposed to the instant gratification sensibility ushered in by the likes of Friday the 13th (1980). West extends that into the raison d’etre of his works, invoking no less a figure than Andrei Tarkovsky in the way he insists, like the Russian titan, that the surest way to build tension is to force the audience to wait. Thus in many ways West betrays the legacy of the ’70s and ’80s genre cinema he clearly loves as much as he celebrates it, because such patience and such wilful resistance to cheapjack stunts was rarely exhibited by such models.

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The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers are, in their fashion, extremely simple movies, employing spare settings and casts, and moving to deceptive beats of storytelling, at least until they hit their crisis moments, closer to ambient techno than blaring rock. The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers are linked not only by aesthetic design but by the circumstances of their production: West was inspired to make the second film whilst making the first, during which he and his crew stayed in a hotel with a reputation for being haunted. Most consequentially, they’re conjoined by their human focus, and a distinctive quality of generational biography, skewed a little, but hardly unrecognisably by the ’80s setting of The House of the Devil, and emerging more fully in the context of employment anxiety and the disintegrating faiths and decaying institutions in The Innkeepers.

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Both films follow comely, young, but hapless and semi-alienated heroines. The Innkeepers’ Claire (Sara Paxton) is spiritual kin to House’s Samantha (Jocelin Donahue), whilst moving in focus from college into the big, wide world, a world ironically defined by constantly narrowing environs to match their narrowing options. Samantha is more introverted than the kookier, talkative Claire, but each is linked by a flailing lack of direction and both seem clearly cut off from any reliable sense of refuge with, or support by, family, or more than one or two immediate friends. Samantha’s course in The House of the Devil leads her inexorably to the titular abode; Claire’s choices similarly see her unable to avoid the basement she’s explicitly warned not to venture into in the hotel that had become her home and, to a certain extent, refuge from life. If in a subtler, less transparently hip fashion, West’s cinema is nonetheless as attuned to the mindset of the moment as John Carpenter’s was in the hairy, feckless, oppressed atmosphere of Dark Star (1974): like Carpenter’s heroes in that film, the experiences of West’s heroines illustrate immediate realities through the prisms of the fantastic. In both The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers, financial anxiety is a keynote, and a subtler but pervasive air of anomie and abandonment.

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The early scenes of The House of the Devil depict Samantha eddying in a time between times, preparing to move out of her college dormitory into a rented house, negotiating with a kindly prospective landlady (Dee Wallace), and getting a deal that will allow her to make a quick and relatively cheap leap into living by herself. She has good reasons to do so: her room back at the dorm is perpetually used by her roommate (Heather Robb) to copulate with random men, and the college is a dull, desolate space through which she flits in anxious distraction. West is suggestive but not declarative about the nature of Samantha’s background and present state of isolation, but she evokes such marked heroes of the genre as the eponymous mother of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Sgt. Howie of The Wicker Man (1972), defined by her subliminal distinction from her surrounds, retreating to the bathroom to weep in private, sprawling on steps to wait for a prospective employer, zoning out in music.

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The prospective employer is named Ulman, and has placed ads for a babysitter around the campus: the moment Tom Noonan’s voice emerges from the other end of the telephone, you know whoever’s answering this ad is screwed. Fate is given an accidental nudge along when Samantha’s solitary gal pal Megan (Gerwig) takes offence on her behalf after Ulman fails to show for the appointed meeting, and rips down all of his ads, leaving Samantha as the sole alternative when another candidate backs out at the last minute. When Samantha finally gets to Ulman’s impressive old pile of a house located (natch) deep in the woods, the list of complications gets increasingly more daunting, including the fact that she’s supposed to actually sit for Ulman’s wife’s mother, an elderly shut-in, and Ulman is willing to pay an absurd amount for a few hours’ work. Mary Woronov, the darkly vulpine star of ’80s flicks like Nomads (1986), is Ulman’s fur-draped wife, who probes with disquieting effect into Samantha’s personal life and circumstances.

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The House of the Devil, projecting large yellow titles over an ’80s pop-scored reverie of Samantha (the music is actually on her ever-present Walkman) whilst strolling through autumnal suburbs back to the college, announces it emulation of bygone genre aesthetics immediately, but also miscues those quick to assume what’s following is mere pastiche. The House of the Devil is quite a radical piece of narrative cinema in its quiet way, especially by modern standards, in taking its time to quietly condition the audience and its heroine, to the point where an inevitable eruption of chaos will come as a virtual relief from the tension—and one thing West does superlatively well is build tension. The bleary casualness of Samantha’s scenes with the gauchely agreeable Megan, even when driving her into the deep dark woods, is delectable for the mood of everyday camaraderie blended with irritation and mutual indulgence of failings. For the most part, West seeks to justify his long intake of breath with undercurrents rather than declarations: only when Megan, after dropping off her friend and leaving in a huff at Samantha’s willingness to place herself in such an odd situation for the sake of rent money and then pulls over for a cigarette in a nearby cemetery, does the lurking threat finally resolve. A helpful young man (AJ Bowen), actually the son of Samantha’s intriguing employers, steps up to the car and gives Megan a light, but the instant he realises that she is not the prospective babysitter, pulls out a pistol and shoots her in the face.

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Both The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers are structured around buildings, and the elusive sensation of isolation and paranoia that can define being alone in large supposedly empty spaces, a mood West ties ineffably to the unease of his protagonists within their own skin. Throughout the second half of House, there are shots peering in at Samantha through windows, a specimen of study, whilst she in turn explores a space that offers constant mystery and suggestion; only the privileged audience is allowed to understand, as West will seemingly casually give viewers a glimpse beyond a door that has foiled his heroine, to find bodies strewn in bloodied carnage. Such gambits relieve the almost purified pressure of the anxious unknown which defines the way The House of the Devil’s narrative works.

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If The Innkeepers is slightly more prosaic in its style, with much more dialogue, more defined generic situations, and a few nods to traditional horror movie tricks, it’s also slightly more mature. The dynamic between Samantha and Megan is reconfigured into Claire’s slacker-hued companionship with Luke (Pat Healy), a slightly older he-nerd and fellow college dropout who’s further along in the process of cultivating disengaged contempt for the real world, spending his days surfing internet porn and building a web page to showcase the supposed sepulchral delights of the hotel they work in. The hotel, the Yankee Pedlar Inn, is a virtually empty Edwardian pile about to be closed down. The boss has skipped out to holiday in a tropical paradise, and the young duo is left as a live-in skeleton staff over a long weekend. It’s the sort of job that could be a godsend to the creatively self-involved, but the anxiety provoked by the job’s imminent demise, the immersive constancy of it, and the lack of any other purpose in their lives, makes the mysteries swirling within the building’s aged bricks and timbers a trap that works a perfect spell on Claire. The hotel is supposedly haunted by Madeline O’Malley, a lovelorn suicide who, it is said, can still be glimpsed wandering the halls. Luke claims to have seen her, though he’s caught no more substantial evidence so far than a video shot of a room door closing spontaneously, and he and Claire salve their boredom by engaging in a part-time ghost hunt.

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Claire’s fraying capacity to survive in the outside world is brought out in an early scene, the only one where she leaves the immediate surrounds of the hotel to visit a neighbouring café, only to flee swiftly at a barrage of whining by the barista (Lena Dunham, herself an indie filmmaker). She withers under the anxious contempt of a woman (Alison Bartlett) who’s staying in the hotel with her son (Jake Schlueter), who proves less than an ideal audience for Claire’s ghost stories. An encounter with a childhood hero, former actress Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis), who, tellingly, played a maternal figure in an ’80s TV show Claire once adored, proves equally discouraging. Leanne supposedly comes to stay at the hotel for a fan convention, but it’s actually a gathering connected to her new occupation as a new-age therapist and psychic, and Leanne’s sozzled prickliness is sometimes mitigated by a more friendly demeanour as she willingly uses crystals to try to commune with the hotel’s spirits. Her contributions to the ghost hunt are vague at best in her bad tidings and warnings to stay out of the basement. Claire, left on a solitary nighttime vigil with a sensitive microphone provided by Luke as part of the hunt, seems to hear traces of far-off piano music, and tracking it to the piano in the lobby, she witnesses one key struck with melodramatic impetus, scaring the hell out of her, but also seeming to announce that the haunting isn’t just the hotel’s emptiness getting to them. And yet, there remains a possibility that Claire’s assailed psyche is cracking.

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McGillis’ presence in The Innkeepers, like that of Wallace, Noonan, and Woronov in the earlier film, pays a definite nod to ’80s genre cinema, and utilises the actors’ specific auras and capabilities with intuitive aplomb. Noonan’s capacity to seem both affable and unsettling is expertly employed in his character’s mix of old-world gentlemanliness and desperation to please Samantha enough to get her to stay around. His towering height is utilised in The House of the Devil’s best gag, when Samantha and Megan first meet him, his head cut well out of the frame that comfortably encompasses the two shorter, daunted ladies. McGillis admirably embraces her part as a greying, fatigued, spikily alcoholic old dingbat with élan, her initial patronisation and coldness to Claire transforming a childhood hero into an embodiment of both the alienating schism between art and life and implicitly maternal condemnation and a generational gap. Later, Luke sneaks in a few low blows, figuratively speaking, at Leanne’s drinking and failed career in revenge for her hurting Claire’s feelings, and this bit made me wonder if in some way all our contemporary obsession with the failings of the famous is sourced in similar motives. Either way, West advertises himself through such casting as an heir to Quentin Tarantino’s and Christopher Nolan’s penchant for reviving the careers of faded figures of former cool.

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But West is always focused on his central, younger figures, and he gets gems of performances out of Donahue and especially Paxton, whose wrestling match with a garbage bin early in The Innkeepers is a terrific piece of physical comedy that doubles as a furtherance of characterisation, as Claire is easily overwhelmed by inanimate objects, and the sight of Leanne gazing down from her hotel window like a hovering, disapproving owl deepens the moment’s humiliation. There’s a sequence in The House of the Devil where Samantha momentarily wins her war of nerves against both her own depression and her boding surrounds by cutting loose for a moment by listening to music on her headphones and dancing around the place with a kind of footloose energy and innocence that seems definably pre-’90s.

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Unlike some obvious precursors like The Haunting’s (1963) Hill House or The Shining’s (1981) grandiose Overlook, The Innkeepers‘ Yankee Pedlar is nominally vintage, but is actually undistinguished in any quality except by age. But in the grand generic tradition, it has become a snare for frustrated dreams and circular lives: as well as the ghost whose backstory carries intimations of despair and abandonment, an aged man (George Riddle) turns up asking for the room his spent his honeymoon in, a room that, like most of the rest of the hotel, has been stripped down and sealed up. Claire and Luke acquiesce to his request, only for Claire to later find he’s committed suicide, the final catalyst for an onrush of terrible visions. Much of The Innkeepers is sustained by the attentive back and forth between Claire and Luke, particularly in an epic movement where the pair escapes ennui by getting drunk and playful, Claire’s flaky forlornness for a moment almost connecting with Luke’s sexual frustration and stymied attraction to his coworker. This tension resolves as Claire suggests descending into the basement to hunt for Madeline, culminating in a intense sequence offering only close-ups of the two actors in the midst of a sea of darkness, and Claire fearfully informing Luke that the wraith is standing right behind him. Luke freaks out and flees the hotel entirely, leaving Claire to try to survive alone. This sequence is enormously pleasurable on several levels—the slow-rising, sustained tension, the precision of characterisation and acting, the cunning use of camera perspective that generates a certainty of the supernatural whilst still never confirming its existence beyond Claire’s point of view.

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If West’s otherwise marvellous diptych is hampered by anything, it’s by the relatively stolid conceptualisations of evil and the uncanny once they are actually revealed: the witch-woman (Danielle Noe) who claws her way out of the attic to perform a devilish ritual over Samantha’s trussed form at the climax of The House of the Devil and the mangled ghosts that pursue Claire in The Innkeepers are standard movie ghouls. West hasn’t really yet figured out ways to complicate and explicate deeper edges to his supernatural Macguffins yet. To a certain extent, that appears deliberate. West relishes their cheesy impact as ways of reminding people that he really likes the schlocky side of his films as much as their more ambitious elements. He’s clearly reaching a stage in his career where he might be advised, a la Quentin Tarantino with Jackie Brown (1997) or John Carpenter with The Thing (1982), to tackle an adaptation or a personalised remake that can enrich his lexicon. On the other hand, West displays in both films judiciousness about just what he does explain and depict that evokes the greatest traditions of Western ghost stories, as in the tales of M.R. James. One beauty of this approach is their simultaneous success as psychological narratives and genre fare. The apparently demonic gestation the witch-woman plants in Samantha in The House of the Devil is easily decipherable as the encumbrance of pregnancy putting a final damper on Samantha’s stymied upward mobility, and Claire’s final pursuit and death at the hands of a vengeful Madeline sees her unable to use an escape hatch she herself locked earlier in the film, finally entrapped by her own choices and susceptibilities. Both The House of the Devil and The Innkeepers resolve in genuinely haunting final images, suggesting survival in some form or another entails unknowable menaces.

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1980s, Horror/Eerie

Amityville II: The Possession (1982)

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Director: Damiano Damiani

By Roderick Heath

Long my private vote for the best worst film of all time, Amityville 2: The Possession is the sort of film that ought to be utterly humdrum, but proves to be a welter of cinematic putrescence. A sequel to a big hit and a big enough hit itself to justify another sequel (Richard Fleischer’s Amityville 3-D, far better than either precursor), it still managed to be badly acted, tackily directed, photographed with elaborate yet hilariously pointless camerawork, festooned with cheapjack special effects—altogether representative of ’80s horror at its low point. Amityville 2 is for me that mother lode many movie fans search for to speak to some part of us that seeks perfect, laughable shit. Such great crap must be a strange, almost contradictory mixture: it must, obviously, be awful, but it must also be bearable enough to drag you along with its proliferating absurdity. Of late, many have found such a film in Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003), an interesting choice for being a so-called drama and the Calvary of independent cinema. But for me nothing quite scratches the itch like a truly bad horror movie. I have happy memories of my childhood’s improvised household versions of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, making ruthless fun of this claptrap. And it never disappoints.

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Instead of fashioning a straight sequel to the intriguing, but witless The Amityville Horror (1979), the filmmakers made a prequel purporting to portray the original murders that gave an attractive and surprisingly affordable piece of real estate a bad name. The first film tied itself to a pseudo-factual account of the supposed haunting of a real Long Island house, and as the series’ cred was at least partly staked in that “based on a true story” frisson, a follow-up had to stay within those parameters. The Montelli family moves into the house, which a mover (a black guy—they always sense these things quicker in movies) senses is watching him. The family comprises cranky father Anthony (Burt Young), frayed mother Dolores (Rutanya Alda), hunky teenage son Sonny (Jack Magner), comely daughter Patricia (Diane Franklin), and two younger siblings, Jan and Mark (Erika and Brent Katz).

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Casting Young as anybody’s father is immediately unfair. Young offers a characterisation—frizzy hair, wild eyes, beer gut dangling pendulously against his slob shirts—that resembles less a hardworking, aspiring, middle-class paterfamilias than a wino the filmmakers hired off the street with the offer of fifty bucks and as much sterno as he could drink. All that’s missing is the cloud of flies buzzing about his head. Anthony bellows and barks and threatens his children with his broad leather belt and constantly jams a saliva-sticky cigar between his lips in a caricature of boorish plebeian masculinity. Somehow, he and his wife have produced a young Adonis of a son and a luscious daughter, in whom Damiani subtly suggests latent incestuous tension by having them bicker in a moron’s idea of screwball banter and having Patricia lounge against her brother wearing a skin-tight white woollen sweater. If ever a garment deserved an Oscar, that sweater is it.

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In a night of terror, repetitive knocking at the door brings out Anthony with his favourite rifle, whilst ethereal spooks terrify the younger children by painting a bizarre mural on the wall that suggests that if the house wanted to give up scaring unsuspecting tenants and take up art, it might one day have a fine exhibition at the Tate Modern. Consumed by hysteria, the family bellow and brawl, father slapping younger children and mother until son picks up the rifle and presses it to his father’s jaw. Mother takes the gun from her son’s hands and walks toward the camera to speak the line (honestly): “What’s happening to us?!” Mother attempts to talk their local Catholic priest, Father Adamski (James Olson!) into blessing their house, but another incomprehensible act of spook vandalism sets father off into a rage at his younger children again, causing Adamski to walk out in disgust: the last sane action in the film. When mother insists that father go to the church and apologise, the family dresses up and leave, except for Sonny, who isn’t feeling too hot. Alone in the house (shudder), Sonny is drawn downstairs by eerie noises, and finds a gate into the crawlspace open. And what does he see in there? You don’t want to know! No, really, you don’t want to know, it’s that disappointing!

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Like too many directors after Jaws (1975), Damiani uses a subjective camera to suggest a roving, malignant presence; Sonny is pursued around the house by an unperceived, but apparently horny apparition, constantly backing off from the approaching camera with a look of vague distress, as if the steadicam operator is giving him weird looks. Yeah, steadicam operators unnerve me, too: they’re always hairy and smell of cheap deodorant. But enough of that. The film turns here into a queasy gay-panic precursor to The Entity: the house wants to have sex with Sonny, as the spirit pinions him on his bed and repeatedly rams against his belly, infesting his hunky young body with mysterious lesions and swellings before the whole house erupts in orgasmic consummation. Rifles in their racks discharge spontaneously, windows and doors open and shut, furniture flies about, the boiler blows off steam, and the furnace spews fire. It’s safe to say the house is definitely a top. Having been perverted by a piece of real estate, Sonny’s new amorality knows no bounds, as he enters his sister’s room, and, in play-acting the fashion photographer with his model, gets her to take her nightgown off, and then pinions her for a night of hot, hot incest love, baby.

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When mother finally gets Adamski to return, he moves about the house shaking holy water around until Sonny and the evil presence conjure another pointless manifestation—the holy water turns to blood, making mother freak out about the cleaning up, and Adamski vomits in the sink. Soon mother perceives the rather too fraught glances between brother and sister, and a suddenly primly dressed and shamed sister goes to confess to Adamski, who soon enough goes off on a fishing trip with another priest with whom he seems very, very friendly, and ignores a worried phone call from Patricia. These damned ministers, who do they think they are, going off to have fun when people are in danger from haunted houses?!

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Unhinged either by having sex with houses or sex with his sister, or perhaps to keep Young from making another Rocky film, Sonny walks into his parents’ bedroom and shoots his father, before deciding to go the whole hog and, in a sequence the whole family can enjoy, executes mother and three siblings. Adamski awakens in a fright to find his friendly fellow priest bent over his bed and smiling, which is a more frightening notion than anything else in the film. “You were dreaming,” the friendly creepy priest says. No, Adamski insists, he felt something. They dash back to Amityville and discover, sure enough, authorities carting away the corpses and a distressed Sonny screaming that he can’t remember killing them. Having at last gotten the familial psychodrama out of the way, Amityville 2 can finally become what it always wanted to be: a really awful The Exorcist knock-off.

Adamski interviews Sonny in his nuthouse cell and finds he’s possessed, apparently not by Mercedes McCambridge this time, but by Joan Crawford. It’s a pity he didn’t shout before his killings, “Bring me the axe!” Moses Gunn plays…I’m not sure what, but he spends his time looking between Sonny and Adamski like he hasn’t read the script, and is glad he didn’t. Adamski begins to dig into the house’s troubled history, and learns—are you ready, folks?—that the house was built by a Salem witch over an Indian burial ground. Now there’s tempting fate.

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Within all this idiocy might have been an intriguing template for satirising the nuclear family idyll consumed by changing mores and the anxieties of upward mobility, rather than taking refuge in the already exhausted Catholic guilt theme. Sonny keeps a Jim Morrison portrait on his wall, associating his spree with the oedipal massacre at the core of Morrison’s epic song “The End,” whilst his possession leaves him looking like Lou Reed circa Transformer. He hears demonic voices through his headphones (he has a Walkman, despite the fact the film is set in 1974), evoking both the threat of schizophrenic disintegration and furthering the timeless paranoia over the pernicious influence of evil pop music on modern youth. (And, indeed, Fall Out Boy make me think about mass homicide, too.) Damiani had been a workhorse director and writer in Italian cinema for many years, but his cheaply cynical approach imbues the film with no more relevance or intensity than a commercial for cornflakes.

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Sonny soon escapes from hospital and Adamski, to save Sonny from the demon, races to the house to perform an exorcism. When Sonny arrives, he cackles like a drag queen at Adamski, and warns him that his exorcism can’t succeed because he hasn’t been given the church’s authority. The demon then tries to throw off Adamski by morphing into Patricia, wearing slutty eyeliner and red lipstick to suggest the priest had wanted to bed her, before waggling her tongue at him. Unfortunately, this display suggests less the Whore of Babylon than Divine. The demon then starts to tear its way out of Sonny, splitting him apart with make-up that looks like dried lasagne, before Adamski, knowing how this scene goes, shouts out for the demon to take him instead. Flames explode from the house’s windows, and Adamski is left sprawled in the corner, whilst Sonny floats in a halo of light. He’s been saved by the power of the Lord, only to be hauled away and executed for multiple homicides. “We’ll make them understand,” the friendly priest promises him. Sure. And Adamski is left, the telltale swellings throbbing on his arm, within the house. A chilling…or something…coda shows a “For Sale” sign up outside the house, whilst from someplace deep within, in the shadowy depths of the netherworld, the laughter of Ed Wood echoes from beyond.

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1960s, Horror/Eerie, Japanese cinema

Kaidan (1964)

aka Kwaidan

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Director: Masaki Kobayashi

By Roderick Heath

Japanese horror cinema has been bludgeoned in the past decade by a glut of cliché and repetition and cash-in Hollywood remakes. But it’s a genre with a long tradition, and arguably the most famous exemplar is still Masaki Kobayashi’s Kaidan. His film, consisting of four traditional ghost stories, was based in their collected retelling by Lafcadio Hearn, whose book Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, first appeared in 1904. Kaidan was obviously an attempt to make a capital-A Art Horror film, with its showy artificiality and hyper-stylisation, quotations of traditional Asian artistic styles, and a famously spare score by the master composer Toru Takemitsu. A more Japanese film is hard to imagine, but Kobayashi, director of The Human Condition (1959-61) and Seppuku (1962), admitted his desire was to communicate a sense of the Japanese tradition to the rest of the world. Japanese audiences rejected Kaidan, probably for being too slow, pretentious, and not sensational enough. Part of me feels a certain sympathy. Kobayashi’s excellent visual storytelling renders unnecessary refrains in the narrative line that continually tell us the same thing twice, and the film’s episodes take their sweet time about getting to the point. But Kobayashi’s technique imbues his tales with a rhythmic, slowly uncoiling sense of dread: in each section, the domineering quiet and pregnant atmosphere holds the threat of grim portent before and after the moment of revelation, and never entirely disperses.

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The first two stories explore the contracts by which men and women live together. Kurokami (“Black Hair”) is based on the same folk myth that Mizoguchi adapted in his Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) and tells of a married samurai (Rentaro Mikuni) who leaves his first wife (Michiyo Aratama) behind in poverty after his lord dies, ignoring her desperate pledge to ply her trade as a weaver even harder than she is now. He travels to take a position in the service of another lord. He prospers and marries the lord’s spoilt daughter (Misako Watanabe), and, soon disillusioned, begins to pine for his first wife. He finally packs in his post and returns to his old home, where he finds his wife seemingly unchanged, still labouring on her loom. They spend the night together. When he awakens in the morning, he finds he’s slept with a corpse; a spectral mane of black hair, like hers used to be, enfolds him and reduces him to an age-shattered husk before he can escape. It’s a moody opening, hurt by the cheesy effects of Mikuni trying to escape the wrath of a wig. But Kobayashi stares at his characters with implacable coldness, discerning in Aratama’s intense performance a palpable desperation, and discovering in Watanabe’s simpering, smug smile an obnoxiousness that is confirmed when her lips part and reveal a maw full of rotten black teeth.

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Like so many ghost tales, it is about the immutable nature of loss and memory, here making biting commentary on the inability to regain what is thrown away in terms of a foolish man’s violence towards a generous wife, exchanging her for a woman who has a half-dozen people labour to bring her a bucket of water to cool her face. The finale is vicious in the reversal it represents: the first wife’s submissive self-sacrifice contains a contract of responsibility that transcends death. The gender roles cut both ways.

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Yukionna (“The Woman of the Snow”), the second tale, was originally cut out of Western prints and sometimes shown as a short, but it’s the tightest, finest segment. It tells the story of a young woodcutter, Mi Nokichi (Tatsuya Nakadai), who, with an older lumberjack, is caught in a blizzard. Unable to cross the river to get back to their village, they shelter in a ferryman’s boathouse. During the night, Nakadai awakens to see the elder having the life sucked out of him by a pale, stunningly beautiful spirit (Keiko Kishi), who moves to do the same to him. Impressed by his youth, however, she instead makes him promise never to speak of her, and departs. Nokichi is discovered near death the next day, and his mother (Yûko Mochizuki) nurses him back to health. Having recovered by summer, Nokichi encounters a young woman, Yuki (Kishi again), on the road; she claims to be an orphan travelling to Edo. She seems to fall swiftly for Nokichi, and marries him, eventually bearing him two children. One night, shaken in recognising the similarity of Yuki to the spirit, Nokichi dismisses it with a laugh and tells her about that encounter. But of course, Yuki is the spirit, and, outraged at his having broken his promise, which was a contract for life for “both of us,” only spares his life for the sake of their children. She returns into the snowy night leaving him with the threat to return and kill him if their children should ever have cause to complain about him. Now there’s a way to keep deadbeat dads in line.

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Yukionna trembles with longing and regret, and Kobayashi’s stylisation is dazzling, but also subtle and intense. Under the motif of a painted sun that constantly evokes a relentless, watching eye, the forest world of the tale suffers under raw, lashing gales and a dreamy summer sun in which Nokichi and Yuki recline and make love, drawing out the sense of natural rhythms inherent in such folk myths. In one peerless shot, the woods about Nokichi’s hut quiver ever so slightly with a suggestion of a haunting presence, as the snowy cladding on the fir trees crumbles in misty veils. This second episode deepens the first’s anxiety over the complexities of male-female relations. Yuki’s state becomes a powerfully ominous avatar for the mystery any couple will find in each other, and the potential of denial and silence to destroy intimacy. The final image, of a pair of sandals Nokichi made for Yuki disappearing and leaving their imprint in the snow, is yearningly tragic.

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Miminashi Hoichi no Hanashi (“Hoichi the Earless”) is the blockbuster episode. Its hero, Hoichi (Katsuo Nakamura), is a blind biwa player and reciter of historical songs about the Heike clan, which was wiped out in a civil war in the 1100s. The tale begins with a Kabuki-on-the-backlot vision of the Heike’s defeat at sea, followed by the mass suicide of the clan’s women: it’s a perfervid riot of colour and action, glazed with the sorrowful mystery of history. Hoichi is so gifted a reciter that shortly after moving into a monastery close to where the Heikes’ ruined castle lies, the ghost of one of their generals (Tetsuro Tamba) comes to ask Hoichi to recite for his lord. Being blind, Hoichi doesn’t know that his audience are ghosts. Meanwhile, mysterious will o’ the wisps accompany sightings of the Heikes’ ghostly ships and the wrecking of fishing boats: the Heike are still vengeful in their haunting.

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Once the abbot of the monastery (Takashi Shimura) learns this, he and another monk work to save Hoichi from being torn apart by the ghosts. They paint his body with holy texts to make him invisible to the spirits. They forget to cover his ears, however, which the general can still see when he comes to collect, and he tears them off Hoichi’s head. Hoichi survives and becomes famous and rich thanks to his story.

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“Hoichi” is the most visually dramatic tale, from its placidly threatening, shimmering seascapes to the full-bore genre chic of the Heike castle, where the ghosts casually morph from courtly hosts into their bloody post-battle states, and then into fog-wreathed grave markers. Although the episode is cumbersome and distended in points—having given us the tale of the battle in the beginning, Kobayashi labours the point in the middle—the screen positively bleeds colour and atmosphere in evoking Japanese Gothic. If the first two episodes meditate on the way past corrodes present interactions of men and women, “Hoichi” takes the same idea on in a broader, more political and artistic fashion. The victims of someone else’s triumph, having staked their claim to immortality in honour by fearlessly meeting death, refuse to be forgotten, consuming the living when they stray into the ghostly realm. Hoichi himself is a strong metaphor for the dangers of the accomplished artist. His gift stirs up the dangers inherent in analysing the past, exhuming the suppressed memory. Hoichi’s sense of the past is far greater than his awareness of the present, hence his blindness; to become a truly great artist, he has to sacrifice more than he would want to.

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The final chapter, “A Cup of Tea,” depicts a writer in 1900 (Osamu Takizawa, also the film’s narrator) composing the title story, about a samurai retainer named Kannai (Kanemon Nakamura) who sees a demonically mocking face in his cup of tea. Soon, the owner of the face, Shikibu Heinai (Noboru Nakaya), who seems to be a ghost, appears to Kannai, claiming to have some sort of unfinished business with him. Kannai doesn’t know him and strike down the shade, but the ghost disappears. Three agents of Shikibu come to present his challenge to Kannai, and Kannai lashes out at them. He seems to kill them, but they reappear. Kannai’s situation evokes a proto-Kafka sense of the mysteries of social hierarchies and roles. The vengeful spirit is, in essence, the ethic of honour and feudal responsibility affixing itself to Kannai just for the hell of it; the ethic demands victims, and no warrior’s skill can overcome it. As Kobayashi put it in 1968, regarding Séquences: “Men, in their actual civilisation, let their human aspects dim. They have lost their faculty of wondering and their ability to recognise the soul.” The tale breaks off here, as the writer’s publisher and sister come to visit and find him gone, only his ghostly form beckoning from within a vat as Shikibu did from the tea cup. It’s a blackly humorous punchline, spun from the fact the story was never completed. It doesn’t really promote the story from being a concluding scrap, but it does bring the motif of telling stories to a terminus, as tale consumes teller. It also halts the film’s cultural memory at the edge of the modern world in which the folk-myth is fading yet still asserting a binding spell.

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Although the film is largely specific in its cultural resonance, it fits into the genre of its period as well. The paint-in-water imagery of the title sequences present an interesting accord with the similar effects used in Roger Corman’s pop-arty Poe adaptations, and the generic reflexes in “Black Hair” resemble Corman’s explication of similarly morbid tales like “Morella” (in Tales of Terror, 1963) and the pseudo-Poe of The Terror (1963). The lustrous colour compositions place it in the company of Bava and others in the new vitality their embrace of colour gave to the gothic genre, pushing on to almost experimental extremes. The large budget and high grade of technical proficiency gives it a unique edge where it lacks concision in form. That Kobayashi stresses such a restrained, attentive style both sustains tension and draws out the latent themes with care: Kaidan seizes on the both the analytical relevance and the irreducible poetry of the tradition it invokes. Despite the longeurs, it provides one of the richest, most entrancing cinema experiences around.

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