Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Strange Circus (2005)

Asian horror has established its own brand over the last decade. A lot of Korean and Japanese horror productions are known for their extremely lurid content that leaves nothing to imagination. One can’t help but admit that the writer/directors responsible for crafting these terrifying films push the boundaries of their imagination and go all out in penning down material for their films.

Only the effort taken in writing scripts of this sort is slowly beginning to shape into a formula of sorts, with Asian horror becoming synonymous with a set of keywords representing the ingredients of a perfect Asian horror recipe: blurred lines between reality and illusion, repressed guilt, psychological trauma, family tragedy, rape, incest, grisly acts of vengeance, over-the-top, gory acts of violence, wildly perverse fetishes and finally a lengthy revelation in the form of a "twist" that turns the story over its head, being the most prominent ingredients in any dish cooked in the hellish kitchen of Asian horror cinema!

This Japanese offering, "Strange Circus" (2005), lives up to its name and churns out a highly macabre and disturbing dish for us viewers as it shoves our heads right into the twisted world of a 12 year old girl, Mitsuko.

Mitsuko is the daughter of Gozo (Hiroshi Ôguchi), a horny old, perverted principal of some grotesque-looking school; the kind that looks like something straight out of someone’s wet nightmare. Gozo has animalistic sex with his wife, Sayuri (Masumi Miyazaki) and is seen by Mitsuko, in the act one night, which triggers off a chain of gross-out events. Gozo gets a different kind of high, knowing Mitsuko saw them! He then proceeds to make her watch, from within a huge cello case, through a peephole, as he has more sex with his wife! By this time he has started raping Mitsuko too! It is only a  matter of time, before Sayuri discovers the shocking truth of what Gozo is doing to their daughter! But, wait...this is not going to turn into a conventional drama of the mother trying to protect her daughter! What happens is all the more bizarre! Sayuri is engulfed with jealous rage over the fact that she has to share her husband with her daughter, and starts becoming abusive towards Mitsuko, finding the most trivial of excuses to start thrashing her!

A circus indeed, this, and all these players, the animals; some wild and some meek! Just when you think the narrative couldn’t take any direction different from here, the story apparently takes a leap forward, or it makes a sudden transition of sorts, and we are shown that all these happenings are being written down as novels, starring a character named Mitsuko, by a wheel-chaired writer by the name of Taeko (Masumi Miyazaki again)! So what are we to believe now? Has this all been a work of fiction? Or is Taeko the grown-up Mitsuko, surviving her father’s torment and penning down her autobiography in these novels? And what about the mysterious Yuji (Issei Ishida), the effeminate assistant of the publishers who claims to be Taeko’s fan?

Writer-director Shion Sono doesn’t leave any stone unturned in disgusting his viewer! What we see is far from pleasing; in fact it is sickening, not just the monstrous deeds of Gozo, but also the claustrophobic atmosphere created. It successfully manages to suffocate, as we find ourselves gasping for a breath of fresh air at the end of the first 40 minutes! Gozo and his family live in a mansion-like home, which still seems like a locked up house, devoid of any contact with the outside world! A school is shown, but is it only in Mitsuko’s head? How else does one explain the nightmarish sets of corridors made out of vivid, blood-soaked walls, the principal’s dark cabin that has a pornographic clip playing from a projector, complete with soundtrack, that eventually becomes the venue for Gozo’s first sexual encounter with his daughter; a large TV screen, that only displays a close-up image of the eyes of Gozo, which is dragged inside the classroom as he delivers some speeches for his students and faculty! Maybe the whole school/Principal thing is just symbolic of how Gozo has the power over everything; in this case the only world Mitsuko knows, that’s her small family? It doesn’t take one long to figure out that certain surreal scenes are an exaggerated manifestation of Mitsuko’s (?) oppressed psyche; like the recurring motif of a garish circus with the cross-dressing MC and the ferris wheel that makes a creaking sound that’s deafening to Mitsuko!

At times, the sex, rape, talk of sex and libido seems a bit too gratuitous and tasteless. It’s all over the place, to the extent of being hilarious too! More than 70% of the time Gozo is on screen, he is screwing someone in various positions! Even in one sad scene, a wheel-chaired Mitsuko walks in on him when he is surrounded by hookers and he is having sex with one of them in the living room! The effeminate Yuji is an important character, but there’s something unsettling about his sexually ambiguous ways! It also gets irksome after a while when Taeko who has taken a liking to Yuji starts mimicking him repeatedly whenever he says "yes" in response!

There are hints dropped all along though, as to where the film is heading! People familiar with some other Asian horror may even be able to see what’s to come, but others will surely be in for a huge surprise during the big revelation that unfolds over almost the final 20 minutes, in a ghastly climax of severed limbs and chainsaws and deafening, hysterical outbursts! It is a culmination that will either seem "mind-blowing" or will seem like the makers are cheating the audiences; nonetheless it doesn’t take away from the fact, that it sure does catch us off guard after a considerably gripping build-up of suspense. The gorgeous cinematography aptly captures the imaginative and colorful sets and the tone of the film is set in a manner so as to be disconcerting. Despite all the shrieking and wildly over-the-top acting, it is Masumi Miyazaki that runs away with the laurels. She surely deserves the acting accolades. It is a daring performance by an actress who is as beautiful as she is talented.

This is one circus you don’t want to take your kids or family to. And it is definitely not meant for the squeamish. Take a trip….if you dare!

Score: 8/10

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Cremator (1969)

Think extreme close-ups of various zoo animals and human beings in bleak, black and white. Think a creepy, ominous score playing in the background, and a clear, deep baritone voice narrating in a manner that sounds like a hypnotist’s humdrum drone, trying to put the audience in a trance!

It is an enticing beginning to this spellbinding film from the Czech New Wave, "The Cremator" (1969). The aforementioned voice belongs to the eponymous character, a man named Karl Kopfrkingl, who looks like an overgrown cherub, with his ever smiling, chubby face. This highly well-mannered, polite gentleman, is happily residing in 1930s Czechoslovakia with his family, a son Mili (Milos Vognic), daughter Zina (Jana Stehnová) and a beautiful wife (Vlasta Chramostová) who he lovingly calls Lakme or Angel! He loves his family very much. He is also passionate about music. He mostly loves classical, operatic music that gives him the most immense pleasure and he loses himself in it. He works at a local crematorium and loves his job; perhaps loves it a little too much for his own good!

What else can one say about a man so obsessed with death, funerals and cremation, that when he invites guests to a party, he interrupts the music for a bit to talk about his ideologies about death, reincarnation, and his belief that cremation is better than burial, for it takes only 75 minutes to cremate a body to ashes, thus ensuring a quick liberation of the soul of the deceased and an expedited reincarnation! He is a big follower of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan book of the dead. At his party, he quotes from this book, justifying the advantages of cremation! What’s more, he goes on to urge his guests, much to their shock and awe, to make sure that they arrange for themselves to be cremated rather than buried, when they pass away! An apparently steadfast teetotaler and nonsmoker, he promptly goes on to pull out cigars from his guests’ mouths, with a smiling face, even giving them some valuable advice like, "when you die, there is no smoking or drinking for all eternity"! This is the kind of man who experiences a different kind of high at the mere mention of a funeral hall! And then it is no surprise, he doesn’t call his crematorium, a crematorium; rather he likes to call it the "temple of death"! When a new employee joins under him in the crematorium, he tells him with a smile, "you will get your chance to see it happen through this little window, during some nice cremation"! We are shown how, in a carnival, while Kopfrkingl’s family is interested in acrobatics and other merry sights, Kopfrkingl himself is more enthusiastic about a waxworks horror show revolving around murder and suicide!

A lot of other quirky traits of this strange man slowly come into view. It’s a hilarious portrayal of a morbid persona, perhaps a bit over the top too. But it makes for very interesting viewing, how this man keeps reveling in anything related to demise! So far we aren’t really sure where the film is headed, for most of the first half deals with character introductions and their idiosyncrasies.

Based on a novel by Ladislav Fuks, "The Cremator" is set against the backdrop of the time when the Nazi forces were spreading their wings over Czechoslovakia. The crux of the narrative lies in how this darkly comic character portrait is connected to the situation of war. It is filmmaking at its best, as director Juraj Herz uses cinematic devices that give shape to the central character’s demented state of mind and his twisted beliefs. Experience the madness with visuals that are a product of trippy, hallucinogenic camerawork full of fisheye lens shots and close-up shots that tend to make you giddy; a sound design that makes you feel like there are voices in your head, playing tricks on you; a befitting, opera-like, haunting score, the quality of which enhances when clubbed with some disturbing events they accompany. It is a breathtaking marriage of sound and visuals that is designed to mess with your mind long after the film is over! Perhaps it is the director’s own experiment in hypnosis that he performs through the medium of cinema!

A theme of doubles and doppelgangers seems to be prominent in the film. In one scene we see a pair of identical twins having a meal at a table. At another point of time, Kopfrkingl desires to tell his friend about a girl who was born with two heads and four pairs of limbs! In a hallucination, a ghostly double of Kopfrkingl himself appears as a Buddhist monk. And then there’s the prostitute Dagmar, who bears a striking resemblance to Kopfrkingl’s wife Lakme (both roles are played by the same actress, Vlasta Chramostová)!

As the film progresses, it gets increasingly phantasmagorical with its recurring motifs and characters that constantly cross Kopfrkingl's path. There’s the beautiful young girl and her boyfriend who keep popping up; even meet to make out at a cemetery! Then there’s a couple; a hysterical, paranoid woman with a hat and her irritated husband, who happen to bump into Kopfrkingl almost everywhere he goes! An enigmatic pale woman (Helena Anýzová) keeps appearing as well; but it is not clear whether she is a real person or Kopfrkingl's hallucination, or an apparition! He seems to know her though, for in one scene he stops short of saying who she reminded him of! It is not explicit whether anyone else acknowledges her presence either.

It is towards the third act that the film takes an unexpected turn of shocking proportions and builds to a hair-raising climax. It boggles the mind how, merely an idea suggested can terrify, as opposed to some modern so-called horror flicks that claim to be "scary", based merely, on cheap thrills. Juraj Herz’s "The Cremator" is a masterpiece; a refreshingly original film, with a bravura, unforgettable lead performance by Rudolf Hrušínský. It is utterly sad that films like these get lost in the depths of obscurity.

Score: 10/10

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Woman (2011)

The eponymous character in "The Woman" is apparently the last survivor of a cannibalistic, feral tribe. This Tarzan-like jungle woman lives in a cave, roams around the woods in tiny rags, hunts animals with her dagger for food, and bathes in a little stream running across the woods. In a long drawn sequence, with drone-like sound effects, a daily routine of hers is shown along with a dream vision of a baby and a wild dog!

Needless to say, she is totally unclean, has a horridly dirty mouth, but teeth that bite like an alligator! In one of her bathing routines, she is spotted by a successful country lawyer, Chris Cleek (Sean Bridgers), through the scope of his hunting rifle, during one of his hunting trips in the woods. One wonders why this cave woman was never spotted before in all these years! Perhaps she has been a nomad all along, but didn’t anyone ever discover her before, and hand her over to the authorities or provide help? No answers are provided for this implausibility.

Chris is immediately turned on by her beautiful body and animalistic body language and the mood suddenly shifts from dark and menacing to that of a light-hearted teeny bopper film, as some happy alternative pop-rock music starts playing, as Chris watches, like some curious teenager, his tongue almost sticking out, as the woman bathes and moves about in slow motion!

He promptly kidnaps her, brings her home and restrains her in his cellar! As it turns out, Chris has a family; a meek, but scary-looking wife Belle (Angela Bettis), two daughters, Darlin and Peggy (Shyla Molhusen and Lauren Ashley Carter respectively), the latter being a teenager, and an adolescent, aspiring basketball player, son, Brian (Zach Rand). But Chris himself comes across as a psychopath; a man who slaps his wife, mouths some cryptic ramblings, smirks wickedly and mumbles his dialog in a fashion that beats Harrison Ford in "Bladerunner"! This is the kind of character who drips wickedness from the first instance you set eyes on him.

Chris introduces his family to the woman and sets up tasks for each of the family members as a daily routine, as steps towards "civilizing" the woman! A totally lame explanation given, considering, shackling a woman up in the cellar like a circus animal and forcibly training her is hardly civilized behavior. The family members appear disturbed, but comply anyway. Over the next few days, Chris, and later his son, subject the hapless woman to inhuman treatment, force feeding her, dressing and undressing her at gunpoint, and also raping and molesting her, while she continues to remain shackled, all under the guise of turning her from an animal into a human!

That’s not all! While the youngest member of the family (Darlin) remains oblivious to the goings-on, Belle and Peggy are visibly disturbed, while there’s some other matter that also appears to be troubling Peggy. Her teacher (Carlee Baker) notices the change in her behavior and wonders what to do about it, while the primary characters, the family members continue to walk and talk like zombies throughout this bastardization of the horror genre. But what is bothersome is the inherent misogyny in the writing, and Jack Ketchum seems to revel in writing about women being brutally victimized. "The Woman", in fact, reminds of Jack Ketchum’s earlier film adaptation, "The Girl Next Door" (2007), based on the real life incident of the torture and murder of Sylvia Likens during the 60s. That film was a more blatant torture porn show, depicting a series of brutal acts, unleashed on a teenaged girl, by a woman, her kids and the neighbouring kids, while keeping her restrained in a cellar!

"The Woman" almost treads similar ground, except it pretends to carry a "feminist" message. The only problem is, merely adding an uplifting ending can’t make up for the various, unforgivable atrocities that almost all the women in this gruesome tale are subjected to. Sample this: Chris and his son, both rape and molest the cave woman, while she is still restrained, and the son even tortures her by piercing her nipple with a pair of pliers!! Other primary women characters in the film are collectively subjected to heinous acts like underage sexual abuse, brutal beating, slapping, punching in the stomach, verbal abuse, dragging around the lawn with hands tied, having their face eaten up, even being fed to the dogs! In the final act, in what seems to be served as comic relief, albeit in a macabre and bad taste, you even get to see one woman behaving like a dog!

If you have a writer that takes delight in creating situations that involve his female characters being subjected to atrocities, an able director usually does a good job of showcasing it, in a way that it gets under your skin. But Lucky McKee who gave us the wonderful "May" (2002) earlier, also starring Angela Bettis, misfires this time around with his shoddy writing (he has co-written the script with Ketchum) and substandard directing. One may argue, that director Lucky McKee, succeeds in emotionally draining the viewer out. While he tries, he doesn’t entirely succeed, for our focus keeps shifting to how badly some scenes are directed, hence rather than get emotionally gutted with the happenings on screen, we are distracted by the poor execution. 

Firstly, The soundtrack to the film is all wrong. Throughout the film there is background music that is completely out of sync with the nature of the scene being depicted on screen. Most of the music used is alternative or pop-rock that’s a total misfit and completely ruins any chance of building tension in some of the film’s more intense scenes. In fact, it near about drowns out some of the dialog in some seemingly ordinary, but important scenes, like the conversation between Peggy’s teacher and her male colleague, where a background score simply wasn’t necessary! Secondly, the film is almost devoid of any suspense, and you practically know how a scene is going to play out. Most of the shock value, then comes from the gore and the torture scenes! Such terrible handling, along with implausible situations, over-the-top characterization, and a hurried, unconvincing and unsatisfying climax, (albeit one that has enough "meat" to satiate the gore-hounds) bring the film down to the ground!

There is almost nothing that works in the favor of McKee’s obnoxious film, apart from a commendable performance by Bettis; and yet she isn’t half as great as she was in her earlier "May". Lauren Ashley Carter as Peggy, doesn’t do much, except sulk and sob helplessly, while Pollyanna McIntosh hunts dogs, gets manhandled by the male characters, gets exhausted, while still maintaining a considerably menacing look on her face and growls, hisses and bites once in a while! One also wonders how a woman who has lived so far from civilization all her life, manages to maintain a completely clean-shaven upper lip, armpits and legs!

Zach Rand as Brian is completely wooden. Sean Bridgers delivers an irksome lead performance as he grimaces and mumbles his lines as if chewing gum! His lines are much clearer when he is hurling abuses at the women!

With this grisly, but flawed and completely pointless mess called  "The Woman", what we get is yet another gory midnight horror, with lots of blood-and flesh-splatter and gruesome acts, but almost devoid of suspense or anything remotely exciting. In the end, it is simply akin to an exploitative grindhouse flick, with torture and misogynistic tendencies at its center. It is films like these, that are ruining the horror genre beyond redemption.

Score: 4/10