Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Invasian 3: Review Roundup

I’m sure a lot of you out there are feeling like the spring and summer of 2020 have been going supernaturally slow. And then all of a sudden, it’s the end of September! I am relieved that October is just around the corner but I’m also very irritated with myself for not having planned this Asian horror month better. I watched a huge number of movies but didn’t give myself enough time to write the damn reviews! Bad blogger! I let other projects get in the way all summer and then as soon as September hit, my wife and I started bingeing Halloween specials. I swear, you’d think that blogging was a dying medium.

So instead of being smart, I’m sitting here tonight blasting through quick reviews like an idiot. The most encouraging part of The Invasian series so far is that there is always another month’s worth of movies I could’ve watched and written about. And then another month and another, etc. So, I hope it goes without saying that I will return to this subject again, my friends. I’m like the moth in this song. Just like that. Thanks for hanging out with me and I hope to see you around these parts again soon. 

The Drifting Classroom (1987)

Directed by Nobuhiko Ôbayashi

Country of Origin: Japan

On a seemingly normal school day, disaster strikes when a school building disappears. The students and teachers inside are transported to another place and time, perhaps even another dimension. This is easily one of the most outrageous films I’ve ever seen. Horror fans will know director Ôbayashi for his cult favorite Hausu (1977) and this film does not disappoint in the utter weirdness department. Based on the manga by Kazuo Umezu, Ôbayashi revels in the outlandish plot of the source material. Adding to the chaos is that much of the cast is made up of non-professional (or just plain awful) American actors and the Japanese cast primarily speaks English. The Drifting Classroom feels like if Wes Anderson was kidnapped as a young man in the 1980s, force fed hallucinogenic drugs, and then directed a film at gunpoint without being allowed to see the script. It’s loud, it’s outrageous, and it’s several varieties of wacko. I’ve truly never seen anything like The Drifting Classroom.

Nightmare Detective (2006)

Directed by Shin'ya Tsukamoto

Country of Origin: Japan

A series of unsolvable murders inspires a desperate detective (Hitomi) to call in a man known as Kyoichi Kagenuma (Ryûhei Matsuda), the nightmare detective. His ability to tap into other people’s nightmares will come in handy on the case but I don’t dare say anything more because I don’t want to spoil it for you. This hyper-bizarre abstract horror film from Tsukamoto, one of the strangest directors to come out of Japan, takes a great premise and delivers it completely sideways. You like your existential dread injected with a very unusual sense of humor? Then this is a film for you. My only gripe about Nightmare Detective is that its madcap energy flags near the end but its worth hanging with it to the end. Tsukamoto followed up this with a sequel in 2008 which, if I recall correctly, is equally weird to the original.

Noroi: The Curse (2005)

Directed by Kôji Shiraishi

Country of Origin: Japan

Masafumi Kobayashi (Jin Muraki) is a documentary filmmaker obsessed with capturing proof of the supernatural on camera. He gets more than he bargained for when one of the urban legends he set out to capture turns out to be very real and very deadly. Over the years, I’ve grown extremely weary of found footage films and a big part of why I avoided Noroi for so long was its nearly two-hour running time. But this epic found footage film is something of a masterpiece. It’s creepy from damn near the very beginning and is never boring. Highly recommended. While not nearly as frightening as this, check out director Shiraishi’s 2007 horror film, Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman.

One Cut of the Dead (2017)

Directed by Shin'ichirô Ueda

Country of Origin: Japan

A film crew making a zombie film runs into some problems. Yep, that’s all you should know about this film before going into it. Just be patient with it, my friends. After being buried under 3 or 4 tons of hype for this film, I finally sat down and watched One Cut of the Dead. I have to say, it exceeded and defied my expectations. I'm sure that tons of folks who are way better writers than me will have a lot to say about this film. I'll just say this, when all was said and done, I had tears in my eyes. If you still haven't seen this, do it. Don't look into the details and/or try to forget what you've already heard when you give it a go. This one really is that good.

Phone (2002)

Directed by Byeong-ki Ahn

Country of Origin: South Korea

After exposing a child prostitution scandal, a reporter (Ji-Won Ha) begins to receive creepy and threatening phone calls on her cell phone. She tries fleeing the city to stay at her friend’s house, but the spooky incidents follow her. Phone takes a generic ghost plot, a hilariously overwrought thriller story, random Christmas sequences, “Moonlight Sonata”, and one of the creepiest little kids ever, and squishes them into a huge hit for director Ahn. I like Phone but it doesn’t hold a candle to Takashi Miike’s One Missed Call (released the following year), which is impossible not to think about when you’re watching this movie. I like Phone well enough but it’s unfortunately a bit disposable. I remember enjoying this director follow-up ghost movie Ouija Board AKA Witch Board (2004) much more.

Premonition (2004)

Directed by Norio Tsuruta

Country of Origin: Japan

Just seconds before a road accident claims the life of his child, Hideki (Hiroshi Mikami) finds a newspaper clipping predicting the incident. Afterwards, he and his wife Ayaka (Noriko Sakai) become obsessed with tragedies where witnesses reported seeing a mysterious newspaper that foretold the calamities before they occurred. I remembered this film being just okay but revisiting it really made me appreciate it so much more. It has truly great performances from Mikami and Sakai, plus it gets really creepy (and depressing).  A big part of Premonition’s success comes from its composer, the venerable Kenji Kawai of Ringu (1998) and so many other amazing scores. 

Satan's Slave (1982)

Directed by Sisworo Gautama Putra

Country of Origin: Indonesia

After their mother dies, a family must cope with their grief and simultaneously fight off a bevy of ghosts and zombies. When you’re looking for something truly different for your western eyes, give the horror films of Indonesia a look. The influence of American films is strong with Satan’s Slave. The son character is just a wee bit inspired by Mike of Phantasm (1979), but this goes on some wild tangents that feel wholly original. The film runs a little long at 96 minutes, but I can let that slide, especially if it might means cutting that sweet outdoor discotheque sequence. I’ve heard good things about the 2017 remake of Satan’s Slave, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.

The Snake Girl and the Silver-Haired Witch (1968)

Directed by Noriaki Yuasa

Country of Origin: Japan

An orphan named Sayuri Nanjo gets adopted by a family with a dark secret, or two. The selfless and kind Sayuri just can’t seem to make her new sister Tamami happy no matter what she does. It doesn’t help that Tamami is insane (among other things). As if that wasn’t bad enough, at night, Sayuri is constantly threatened by a freaky witch with long fangs! Released the same year as The Living Skeleton (one of my all-time favorite Japanese horror movies), this black and white kids’ horror movie confection is the biggest surprise I had while watching Asian horror this month. Every bit of this film plays out like a creaky old horror manga by someone like Kazuo Umezu. Oh, this was based on one of his stories? Color me not surprised at all! 

The Visitor in the Eye (1977)

Directed by Nobuhiko Ôbayashi

Country of Origin: Japan

After a tennis accident, Chiaki (Nagisa Katahira), a student at an all girl’s school, needs a cornea transplant, but due to the risky nature of the surgery, no doctor will take her case. Enter renegade surgeon Black Jack (Jô Shishido)! He agrees to perform the surgery but through an unfortunate mix-up, Chiaki begins to see the ghostly figure of a debonair man beckoning to her. How in the actual frick did Nobuhiko Ôbayashi direct this film AND Hausu in the same year?! I literally can’t process it. Now don’t get me wrong, this adaptation of Osamu Tezuka’s hit manga Black Jack doesn’t have the power to resonate with me like Hausu does. But The Visitor in the Eye is such an achingly beautiful film that it’s difficult for me not to be smitten with it, at least visually. From the disco fresh tangents of the soundtrack to the bittersweet melodrama to the painterly cinematography, this is a prime slice of Ôbayashi.

Warning: Do Not Play AKA Amjeon (2019)

Directed by Kim Jin-won

Country of Origin: South Korea

A filmmaker named Mi-Jung (Ye-ji Seo) has a serious case of writer’s block. She wants to make a horror film and is trying to desperately to find something that both inspires and scares her. Mi-Jung thinks she’s found the perfect subject: a student film that is supposedly so terrifying that it can kill you. But once she finds out that the hype is real, it’s already too late for her. I was really surprised by Warning: Do Not Play. On the outset, it doesn’t seem like much, but it explores some deep territory like dealing with depression, the healing power of horror movies, and exorcising trauma through the creative process. It also has an excellent movie within a movie within a movie crisscrossing storyline going for it as the walls of what’s real and what’s imaginary collapse in on themselves.

100 Monsters AKA Yôkai hyaku monogatari (1968)

Directed by Kimiyoshi Yasuda

Country of Origin: Japan

When an evil landowner uses his influence to throw out the poor inhabitants of a small village, a rather large group of helpful monsters invade to scare off the baddies. 100 Monsters is colorful and just a delight to behold. There’s a lot of time spent with the human characters but fear not, the yokai goodness is just around the corner. Director Yasuda made over fifty films in his lifetime and a few of his horror films are real gems. Daimajin (1966), his contribution to the kaiju genre, is fantastic and inspired two sequels the same year of its release. He also made two of the three Yokai films released between 1968 and 1969. If you like monsters, and I’m willing to be that you do, then seek out this fantastic -and quite insane- period piece.

Monday, September 28, 2020

The SoulTaker (2001)

Directed by Akiyuki Shinbo

Country of Origin: Japan

Kyosuke Date is a confused young man. He’s just been resurrected, which is strange enough, but then he quickly remembers that he was stabbed through the heart by his mean mommy on her deathbed. Unfortunately for Kyosuke, his new lease on life comes with a slight caveat, wherein he must turn into The SoulTaker, a demon or mecha (or both?) kinda thingie. In this super-powered form, he takes on enemies from an evil hospital and also the government, I think. But don’t worry, he teams up with a cool guy and a nurse girl. Is his mom still alive? Is his doctor dad also a SoulTaker? Check, please!

Over the years, I have watched a lifetime's worth of anime. It's such a vast and never-ending wellspring of wonders. Once a while, a show comes along that stands above the rest and The SoulTaker is one of those shows. What makes it so special? It's one of the worst things I've ever subjected my poor wife and myself to. I rarely regret the decision to watch the full run of an anime, much less get worked up enough to rant and rave about how stupid I feel for doing so. And yet, here we are.

Despite its low budget -and trust me, I’m no snob when it comes to a budget- and mishmash of ideas taken from other, better shows, The Soultaker was just stylish and interesting enough for me to get the halfway mark of its 13-episode run. Little did I know that I shouldn’t have ignored the alarm bells going off in my head that told me to bail. This show is utter dogshit during the second half. I should've followed my instinct and shut it off after episode 6. My poor wife tried to warn me not to keep going but I didn't listen. I got regrets, y'all.

I’ve seen plenty of classic animation where the crew is forced to break out some penny-pinching tricks to get a show done: reusing or re-purposing animation from previous episodes, dragging the camera across a still image to simulate movement, zooming in on a character’s eyes while they’re speaking to save on animating mouth movements, etc. Serial Experiments Lain is a perfect example of a show that succeeds despite its tiny budget because it’s able to more successfully hide the flaws artfully. SoulTaker tries to do things so stylishly and so bizarrely that it thinks the viewer won’t notice that there’s very little substance at hand.

However, the shortcuts in the animation of SoulTaker completely boggled my mind. Reusing animation is the least of this show’s problems. Often times, the screen would just go black, blue, or red, where I presume the animation of a scene was incomplete. At first, I thought it was a stylistic choice. Then I noticed that along with those blank screens, there were a lot of still shots of characters just standing statically frozen for long periods of time.

Now if the story had been awesome, I could've forgiven it. But before the end of the show, it all completely fell apart. Characters inexplicably changing sides or coming back from the dead and left field revelations, all just muddy the already murky waters of the plot. And that’s not even going into how overly complicated the show tries to get. I really think the creators of The SoulTaker decided to cram their half-thought out second season into this run and those tangents kind of made me wish I was dead.

I hate to straight up diss an anime like this but since I wasted a good chunk of my weekend on the punishingly bad The SoulTaker that I had to say something. The best thing I can say about this show is that it features some quite dazzling kaleidoscopic colors packed into its Art Deco style with some excellent character designs as well. If you watch the first couple of episodes of SoulTaker, you too might be wooed by the look of this show. But then the undeveloped ideas borrowed from Devilman, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Revolutionary Girl Utena, and a host of other better shows will just make you take stock of your life. I really did wonder, “Where did it all go wrong for me?” 

Fun note: The Soultaker had a spinoff series!? 

Friday, September 25, 2020

Quick Review: Arang (2006)

Directed by Sang-hoon Ahn

Country of Origin: South Korea

Several douchebag bros have died in gruesome, inexplicable ways and the cops are completely baffled. Their only lead is a mysterious website that shows up on their computers showing a rundown salt house while playing a creepy melody. Detective So-Young (Yun-ah Song) discovers that the site is referring to a village where all these idiots used to hang out. As soon as she gets there, So-Young and her rookie partner (Dong-Wook Lee) discovers that the villagers have been afraid to go near the salt house because it’s friggin’ haunted.  

I wasn’t in a big hurry to revisit Arang but boy, I’m glad that I did! It blends the (totally not overdone at all) ghost girl subgenre with a police procedural very well and the characters, especially So-Young, are really interesting. Yun-ah Song is so damn good in this movie. Her character is tough and cocky but just under the surface, she’s in great pain from a past trauma. What a performance! While the ghost elements are well done, they owe a lot to the Ringu films and a whole mess of other Asian horror flicks. But just like the folklore that it’s based on, the story of Arang is tinged with sadness. This movie, especially if you can find it cheap, is well worth your time.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Guest Blog: Two Unbalanced Tales

Two Unbalanced Tales”: Two essential episodes of Ultra Q
by Tyler Miller

2020 has been a wild year. It's been the year of COVID and pure madness. But while the world is filled with despair and the dread of the unknown, the arts have been a welcomed escape. One of the brightest lights of hope has been movie communities and the friendships formed from them. When I heard Richard was planning a third Asian horror-themed month, I knew I had to get in on the action. So dear reader, follow me on a journey to an “outside the box” entry in Japanese horror.

Released in 1966, Ultra Q was a massive hit for television and its influence is very much a part of J Horror’s history. The series was originally dreamed up (or maybe it was a nightmare) by writer Tetsuo Kinjio, who wanted to show strange tales of the supernatural. The original title was going to be “Unbalanced” to showcase the everyday reality being thrown into a loop. Special effects wizard Eiji Tsuburaya had just started his own production company, Tsuburaya Productions, and the show was a lovely fit for bringing monsters and sci-fi weirdness to the small screen.

Tsuburaya and his company would bring their iconic special effects to TV, giving viewers something like a mini-Godzilla movie every week. Shot in moody Black and white, Ultra Q has a cinematic look. The camerawork is inventive, the lighting is atmospheric, and many of Toho’s key actors and bit players would have regular roles in the series. The real star of the series would be all the bonkers monster designs. The first episode released, “Defeat Gomess!”, even features a reused and repainted Godzilla suit. The show’s success soon led to a spinoff show called Ultraman and monster history was born.

Some of the series fans would soon start working in the fields of film, television, and anime. The influence on the works of Hideaki Anno, Shusuke Kaneko, and Shinya Tsukamoto is crystal clear. Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) has some shots that would feel right at home within Tsuburaya and crew, especially if they wanted to get more bloodthirsty. Tetsuo even has a chilling opening that feels like one of the pre-credits scenes in “Baron Spider” or "Goro and Goroh”.

The show revolves around the adventures of ace pilot and amateur sci-fi novelist Jun Manjome (Kenji Sahara), his flight partner Ippei (Yasuhiko Saijou), and Daily News reporter Yuriko (Hiroko Sakurai), who discover a strange news story. Some of the episodes would focus on other characters, but the trio would become the key adventurers. The series is now available on a gorgeous Blu-ray boxset from Mill Creek after a decade’s long legal battle with Thai film company Chaiyo Productions and it’s owner Sompote Sands. Now the series can be rediscovered by monster kids and fans of J-horror. So with Halloween around the corner, here are two must-see episodes of this black and white spooky wonder.

“Mammoth Flower” is the fourth episode in the series. It begins with a sidewalk being destroyed by a strange looking weed. The next day Jun and Ippei discover that the printing shop there visiting has been wrecked by a mysterious earthquake. But Ippei questions how the quake would just affect the building and not all of Tokyo itself. The two men bump into Yuriko, who is working on the earthquake story. The three of them soon discover that something odd is also happening at the nearby water side. Once there they discover that the same giant plant is loose in the water, it isn’t long until the plant starts to grown and uproot a nearby building.


This episode is a bit of an oddity. It doesn’t feature a humanoid monster, but instead a giant vampire plant. Characters even jokingly call it a plant Dracula. The whole episode is packed with style and haunting images of the giant plant with its tentacle like vines. The imagery is also familiar to Godzilla fans. Godzilla vs Biollante (1989) borrows many ideas and shots from this episode. Biollante’s story came from longtime kaiju fan Shinichiro Kobayashi, who also wrote a treatment for a episode of The Return of Ultraman, and screenwriter/ director Kazuki Ohmori. Both men wanted to make a unique and bizarre Godzilla movie. The borrowing of the off balanced plants in “Mammoth Flower” brought some truly gruesome ideas to Toho’s titan franchise.

The ninth episode in the series is one that is sure to please haunted house fans. “Baron Spider” begins with a giant spider attacking workers in a lighthouse. Jun and company are on their way to the scene of the story when they are stopped in the fog. With them is three other people, all of which are poetic and obsessed with the supernatural. Ippei and one of their guests falls into a lake nearby and almost catch their death from the cold. The six make their way to a house near the lighthouse and hope for help. They discover that the house is empty and covered in spiderwebs. It turns out that the house was owned by a crazy baron who was obsessed by spiders. He also lost his wife to the deadly bite from a wild spider. So now the house is cursed and the spider is hungry for blood. 
"Baron Spider” is a visual tour de force. It’s my favorite episode of this iconic series and one that is sure to please horror fans. Feeling like a sister to Ishiro Honda’s Matango AKA Attack of the Mushroom People (1964), the whole episode is dripping with dread. Every shot is filled with smoke, spiderwebs, or moody shadows. The teleplay mixes elements from killer animal stories and ghost legends. It even turns into a slasher with the character being lost, coming into the mysterious house, drinking, and then being separated. Like Michael Myers in Halloween (1978), or Billy in Black Christmas (1974), The Baron spider creeps around and waits to strike. He is able to teleport and disappear from the scene. The spider’s design is simple but also chilling.

Ultra Q is one of the greatest horror/sci-fi Television series. While Ultraman is better known to Monster Kids, Ultra Q is a special first. Each episode is filled with wonder and life. Thanks to the wonders of DVD and Blu-ray this iconic series is now easier than ever to finally see. So pop some corn, turn off the lights, and let yourself be transported for 30 minutes into the unbalanced realm of dreams that is Ultra Q.