Cast: Teruo Yoshida, Tatsumi Hajikata, Minoru Ohki
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurettes, Still Gallery, Bios, Trailer, Liner Notes
When a film is proclaimed as the "most notorious Japanese horror film EVER made" and has been banned for decades in its native country, you know you are in for something highly unusual. That is what is printed on the DVD cover art for "Horrors of Malformed Men, " a 1969 movie by unsung director Teruo Ishii that until fairly recently had been largely suppressed in Japan and virtually unseen anywhere else. The increasing popularity of J-horror over the past few years has introduced American audiences to Japan's inventive and often graphically violent films, so the promise of Japan's most notorious horror movie is a tantalizing prospect for gore hounds. "Horrors of Malformed Men" has finally been given its Western DVD debut courtesy of Synapse Films.
Taken from the stories of Edogawa Rampo, the film follows medical student Hirosuke Hitomi (Teruo Yoshida), who finds himself in an insane asylum for reasons unknown to him and haunted by strange memories of a soothing lullaby and the deformed figure of a wild man on a mysterious beach. After escaping the asylum, Hitomi meets a young woman who knows the strange lullaby of his memories. When she is murdered during one of their meetings, he leaves the city incognito to escape accusations of her murder. He comes across a newspaper obituary for Genzaburo, the head of a society family who looks uncannily like him. Believing there may be a connection between them, Hitomi proceeds to assume the man's identity, pretending to be a resurrected Genzaburo, and infiltrate the man's home.
Fooling the man's family is easy enough, initially. But trouble catches up with him when bizarre messages reveal that he and the family are being watched by a murderous stranger. When Hitomi learns of Genzaburo's reclusive father who has retreated to a private island to conduct some sort of experiments, he decides to make his way there. Sure enough, the island is the mysterious beach of his memories, and the deformed figure is Genzaburo's father. What Hitomi finds on the island turns out to be more horrifying than he imagined as he discovers a race of mutated degenerates created to usurp power from the physically normal race. Flooded with all sorts of debauchery, the island reveals further shocking secrets about Hitomi and Genzaburo's family that finally result in the collapse of Hitomi's entire construction of reality.
If this story sounds disjointed and illogical, that's because it is. Very little of this film, either narratively or stylistically, is anchored in reality. Every scene is infused with the surrealistic and disconnected atmosphere of a dream. Indeed, it is questionable just how much of the story is really happening and how much of it is simply the mental or psychic construction of the main character. This could be attributed to the fact that the movie is an amalgamation of more than one story by Edogawa Rampo, a pulp writer who took his pseudonym from the Japanese pronunciation of Edgar Allen Poe. Perhaps it is the very fantastic nature of the story that allows some of the more off-putting and morbid situations, like genetic mutation and incest, to be reasonably accepted by the audience.
While the DVD cover art's suggestion of notoriety is true, it should be noted that this film is relatively tame by today's standards of graphic violence. The controversy surrounding this film had more to do with its images of deformed human beings, which garnered much criticism from film critics and the public alike. Because of this, the film has never been released on home video in Japan, making it a rarity and, consequently, a much sought-out prize for cult film enthusiasts. The material here is sensational, to be sure, but it is no where near as shocking as the packaging may suggest. Some critics have called the film a cross between Tod Browning's "Freaks" and H.G. Wells' "The Island of Dr. Moreau," which is not a bad comparison at all. The film is disturbing in its fascination with malformed creatures, including conjoined twins of different sexes and mixtures of human and animal bodies, most of whom frolic around naked. Drawing from soft-core "pink" films of the time, Teruo Ishii features a fair amount of sex and nudity throughout. Some of it is erotic, but most of it is just plain bizarre.
There is a definite element of trash cinema at work here with the lurid subject matter and completely gratuitous sexploitation. Doing as much to emphasize this as it does to hide it, the film is gorgeously shot in brilliant colors. Scenes are bathed in expressive lighting and color filtering that play up the dreaminess and celebrate the grotesquery of the island misfits. The images are simultaneously repulsive and beautiful to behold, and even as we want to turn away in disgust we are drawn into the picture through its expert cinematography. Action is composed to fit perfectly with the widescreen format, and there is a poetic quality to the movements and compositions within each frame.
Of course, not everything in the film works at the same level of its visuals. To be perfectly honest, the movie is not particularly scary. Its depictions of depraved behavior are still fairly potent, but there is no genuine build-up of suspense in spite of the film's overall tone of dread. Also, Ishii provides one scene of rather odd and downright perplexing comic relief, involving two servants trying to take Hitomi (posing as the resurrected Genzaburo) inside the family's house. The scene borders on slapstick and feels totally out of place with the rest of the movie. By and large, however, the film's strengths make up for its weaknesses, and it remains a fascinating experience made all the more special because of its heretofore obscure history.
The DVD transfer provided by Synapse Films was mastered in high-definition from the Toei Company's original vault elements, and it looks glorious. Presented in its original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio and anamorphically enhanced for 16×9 TVs, the film boasts a clear and crisp image. Colors are vivid and beautifully rendered. Black levels are strong as well. The picture is sharp with very good contrast and no signs of edge enhancement. There are a few speckles here and there, and some film grain is noticeable throughout, especially in the darker scenes, but this really is an excellent image.
Audio is presented in its original mono soundtrack. It appears to have been cleaned up as well, though it may not be as strong as the picture quality. For the most part, the sound is fine, if a little harsh at times. It gets the job done and does not take away from the viewing experience. We also get "newly-translated" (according to the package), removable English subtitles.
Synapse Films has really done a great job in delivering informative and entertaining special features for this film. First up is an audio commentary by Mark Schilling, film critic for The Japan Times and friend of director Teruo Ishii. Schilling spends the majority of the commentary discussing Ishii and his career rather than the film specifically, though he does offer some good information on the major cast members and some of the controversy. The sound quality of the commentary is a little rough, as it was recorded at a makeshift studio at a German film festival, but it is adequate. Oddly, Schilling shares the track with someone else who remains unidentified. There are a few long gaps in the discussion, but overall Schilling imparts some informative tidbits about this little-known director.
Up next is the 23-minute featurette, "Malformed Memories," featuring interviews with Japanese directors Shinya Tsukamoto and Minoru Kawasaki. The two gentlemen individually share memories of their first times seeing an Ishii film and the influence he has had on their careers. Of course, they both speak of "Horrors of Malformed Men," but they also mention several other films from the director, and brief clips from these films are interspersed throughout.
"Ishii in Italia" is a 14-minute video chronicling Ishii's 2003 trip to the Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy, where he was honored with a retrospective screening of his films. Accompanied by Mark Schilling, Ishii is shown sightseeing, signing autographs, and speaking in front of an audience before a showing of his films. His introduction to "Horrors of Malformed Men" at the festival is provided separately.
Rounding out the supplements on the disc are the film's original Japanese trailer, a still gallery featuring poster images for several of Ishii's films, and lengthy bios for Ishii and Edogawa Rampo.
In addition to this wealth of material, Synapse has included an insert with extensive liner notes. First is an essay by Patrick Macias and Tomohiro Machiyama called "Freaks in the Head: Four Decades of Malformed Men," chronicling the film's production and release. Second is "Edogawa Rampo's World On Film" by Jasper Sharp, focusing on author Rampo and the various screen adaptations of his works. These two essays are extremely informative and the perfect cap-off for this release.
Teruo Ishii's name may not be familiar to most horror fans, but with the release of "Horrors of Malformed Men," that will hopefully change. As a piece of high trash cinema, the film emerges as something of an uncovered masterpiece. Compulsively watchable and delightfully nasty, it is a must-see for fans of Japanese horror. For cult enthusiasts, this is akin to finding a buried treasure, a film that most people have not yet discovered and with a reputation that is surely to grow with time. I am definitely giving a strong recommendation to viewers who enjoy this type of film to see it for themselves, and I offer great praise to Synapse Films for not only releasing it but taking the time and effort to give it such a solid presentation.