Kwaidan

More Asian Horror, this time not part of the post-Ringu era, but a classic from 1964. Kwaidan is an anthology film, collecting four of the folk-tale-inspired ghostly horrors of ex-pat writer Lafcadio Hearn, all set in pre-modern Japan.

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The Black Hair (from which the 2006 anthology-film, Dark Tales of Japan, got the title and idea for its Blonde Kwaidan segment) tells of a poor samurai who abandons his faithful wife for a new bride from a wealthy noble family. Later, regretting the unhappy match, he goes back to his old home to find it ruined but his wife still there, still spinning on the same old wheel. He spends the night with her but wakes to find himself lying next to a withered corpse, then goes mad as its long black hair comes to life and pursues him through the crumbling ruin.

In The Woman of the Snow, an apprentice woodcutter sees his master frozen to death by the breath of a pale, demonic woman, but avoids a similar fate by promising never to speak of what he has seen. Some time later he marries, though of course doesn’t notice how remarkably similar his bride looks to that very same ice demonness. Inevitably, he breaks his promise and tells his wife what happened that night.

Hoichi the Earless is the rather bleak tale of a blind biwa-player whose skill brings him to the attention of the denizens of the underworld. To stop him from being snatched, nightly, to play before an undead court, a local priest covers Hoichi from head to foot in holy writings, missing only his ears. That night, when a ghostly messenger comes once more to summon Hoichi, all he can see is a pair of ears floating on their own in the air. The next thing we know, Hoichi is screaming, clutching where his ears once were, blood pouring from between his fingers. Lovely.

The last segment, In a Cup of Tea, is a story-within-a-story, as we learn why one writer failed to finish one particular story about a samurai who inadvertently drinks a man’s soul.

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Throughout, Kwaidan makes no attempt at realism, but uses very theatrical sets, sometimes with fantasticated backgrounds, as with the Dali-esque eyes-in-the-sky of the Woman in the Snow segment, which adds to the superstitious feeling that all of nature is alive with a threatening demonic presence.

The most striking aspect of the film, though, is its soundtrack. Kwaidan uses a minimal set of traditional instruments, one of which, at times, sounds almost like an eerily extended human scream. The moments of supernatural horror are made all the more effective by the way natural sound effects drop into silence, as if the characters have fallen into another order of reality, while the sparse music twangs and grunts and screeches.

The Creature from the Blue Lagoon

Creature from the Black Lagoon is one of those films I always felt I’d see one day, classic monster flick that it is. And surely I would — it was bound to come on in the classic Sunday afternoon slot on BBC2 wasn’t it? Well, in the old days maybe, the pre-digital, pre-satellite, pre-cable days, but now it probably shows on a constant loop on The Creature from the Black Lagoon Channel, and as I’ve only got an old-style non-digital TV, and Rupert Murdoch personally stops me from accessing Freeview in my flat, I decided to put it on my Amazon rental list. That’s what the Amazon rental list is for.

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Alright, so the reason for that ramblous first paragraph is I really don’t have much to say about the film. It has no real plot to speak of, other than to get the scientists down the Amazon river into the Black Lagoon where they can have a series of encounters with the Gill-Man, and a number of dives into the lagoon itself to show off about 18 minutes of underwater footage (in glorious black & white 3D, when it first came out). No, the film’s only redeeming feature is the creature itself, which works really well, even though it’s a man in a suit. In the underwater sequences, the creature moves very sinuously; on dry land, its gasping breathing is quite convincing in a fish-out-of-water kind of way. And, it just looks good, for a monster. It works, visually, particularly in the grainy underwater sequences.

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It was a given in 50s horror films that the creature would kill the men it came across while trying to kidnap the one and only woman. With Creature from the Black Lagoon, this “given” has become so accepted that the filmmakers felt no need to give any explanation as to why a fish-man should want to kidnap a female human, (other than that he’s a foot fetishist, I’d say, from the evidence of these two stills), particularly as, once he’s got her, all he does is take her to his cave and drape her (that’s not a euphemism) casually on a rock. But perhaps that’s just because the “main act” has already taken place between the two of them. Earlier on, in the film’s most aesthetically pleasing sequence, the creature swims (facing upwards) below the woman (facing down), at the height of which she performs some ecstatic (and no doubt symbolic) aqua-acrobatics. Shortly afterwards, back on the boat, we see her smoking a cigarette, which she casts, half-finished, into the Black Lagoon. So the Gill-Man, by kidnapping her and storing her away in his cave after this metaphoric lovemaking, is really just trying to do the decent thing. The film’s hero, after all, has been putting off proposing to her in lieu of other, far more square-chinned activities such as diving for rocks, so it’s no wonder she’s tempted to swim out into the lake and dally (that is a euphemism) with strange men. Even if they’ve got gills.

Lord of War

I haven’t liked anything with Nicholas Cage in since (and including) Leaving Las Vegas, and have yet to leave a cinema more peeved at such an utter waste of money and time as that film. Lord of War, in which Cage plays a self-justifying arms dealer, was no exception, though it did have the plus of at least trying to teach its audience a thing or two about the evils of the arms trade. (Oddly enough, even what were surely the most surprising facts about the weapons industry — “There are over 550 million firearms in worldwide circulation. That’s one firearm for every twelve people on the planet.” — seem curiously unsurprising, perhaps because I was so prepared to be overawed by the sheer horror of what is so evidently a horrific aspect of human life. But this point is most succinctly, and poignantly, made by the film’s title sequence, where we follow a bullet from manufacture to its ultimate destination in a child’s forehead. Thus, the film’s first few minutes are not only its high point, but pretty much make the rest of it redundant.) Far more interesting would have been some insight into the human side of the equation — what makes an arms dealer do what he does? — but we don’t get that. Instead we get a highly laboured morality tale, as Nicholas Cage’s Yuri Orlov loses all he holds dear in the world (his clichéd addicted-but-beloved brother, his clichéd trophy wife, his clichéd loveable toddler, his clichéd poor parents struggling to make good in a no-good world). Far more interesting, for me, is that Yuri Orlov is one more instance of a rather peculiar archetype that’s been appearing in so many Hollywood films of late: the professional killer as hero.

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More and more, assassins are popping up as the heroes of Hollywood films — not as anti-heroes, where the killer may take most of the screen time but we’re still meant to find them despicable, but as the actual heroes, who we’re supposed to admire because of the skill and professionalism with which they carry out their work. There’s Grosse Pointe Blank, for instance, with John Cusak as a super-successful professional killer returning to his home town for a high school reunion. There’s Mr & Mrs Smith, where Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are a married couple who both carry on secret lives as professional killers. And A History of Violence could well be named as another — a film I found quite disappointing when it tossed aside all the promise of its carefully nuanced first half with a crude action-flick ending and no attempt to deal with its own moral implications.

The formula with this character type is that they always have sharply divided home and work lives. At work, they kill ruthlessly and super-efficiently. But that’s all forgotten the minute they get home, where their families have no clue about daddy’s real line of work. But what happens when the division between work and home breaks down? The family starts to suspect the truth, then someone from daddy’s work pays a casually threatening visit to his home — and suddenly, daddy stands to lose all he holds dear but took too much for granted, blah blah blah. It’s this last point that perhaps points to why this character type is so prevalent. It’s because the professional killer embodies, in exaggerated form, how a lot of people feel about their own lives. At work they have to live by a corporate morality which minimises social responsibility in favour of making money and increasing the organisation’s efficiency whatever the cost (as long as it’s legal). Then they go home and have to lock away all the casual inhumanities of the workplace in some secret inner strongbox so they can try to be a normal human being with not just their family but themselves. But that locked-away part means they can never be a fully real human being, even with their loving family. There’s always an undermining guilt, however muffled. Something has to give. The point about the ruthless professional killer is not so much that they kill other people, as that they slowly kill off their own humanity; when their families discover their true nature and either leave or are taken from them, it’s just an externalisation of the hollowness that was inside them anyway.

With Lord of War, Cage’s character is an arms dealer — not a killer but a facilitator of killings — but his life starts to fall apart when he is forced, for the first time, to face the implications of his work and actually kill someone with one of his own guns. But the film is far more interested in making its (really rather simple and shallowly-put) moral point than in creating a drama (which would have been the way to make its simple moral point really stick), so it seemed too long and by the end of it, I was wandering around doing other things while it was playing on the TV to its predictable conclusion.