Monday, 10 September 2018

ALLURE (2017)

Allure is the cinematic debut of Canadian photographic artists Carlos and Jason Sanchez, working here as a fully-fledged feature writer-and-directer team.  The brothers design images for their gallery-exhibited photographic work that function within photojournalistic parameters covering natural disasters or human interest stories that one might find in a glossy magazine. In fact, the brothers meticulously stage all the images and incidents depicted in their work and approach all their subjects like a film script, building sets and employing actors in an effort to make the physical and emotional content of the work seem more convincingly authentic. They have even been known to exhibit what appear to be movie stills that, in fact, come from Hollywood films that exist only in the Sanchez brothers’ imaginations. By mimicking the visual techniques, codes and signifiers marking out various genres of publically consumed image making, including photo-realism and movie stills, their photographic representations automatically suggest in the viewer’s mind a reality beyond the picture frame that we know does not really exist for the imagery it depicts. As a result, their photography can achieve a strange hybrid resonance, almost Lynchian in the way it manages to displace the concept of the ordinary within apparently naturalistic settings. The images are artificial reconstructions of authenticity, often containing confounding details that really shouldn’t be there. A favourite device is the staging of a domestic scene that at first glance appears to be quite innocent and ordinary -- even banal-looking – but which conjures all sorts of odd or disturbing narrative possibilities in the viewer’s mind the more carefully the image in question is studied.

Given this tendency to approach photography as though they were auteurs in charge of directing a scene (the brothers’ gallery shows are routinely described as ‘cinematic’ by art critics), concocting images capable of sustaining sophisticated narrative threads, it’s interesting to see how differently the brothers approach image-making when they are overseeing an actual movie. Their art normally exploits the fact that a single image can sit within a particular genre, inform the telling of a story and suggest an entirely fictional world. But a film obviously depends on an extended series of inter-related images flowing one to another to make sequences and scenes in combination with the spoken word and other kinds of diegetic and non-diegetic sound; the single composed shot is available within that framework as one particular tool that can be used in conjunction with a great number of others. Allure works as a low-key relationship drama with erotic overtones, and the visual presentation the Sanchezes arrive at through their collaboration with cinematographer Sara Mishara is relatively unobtrusive and naturalistic. However, they take full advantage of the emotional engagement and viewer investment it is possible to create only when working with a fully committed actor whose performance holds nothing back. Rather than concentrate on the purely visual to create the resonating and ambiguous effects for which their photography has come to be appreciated in contemporary art circles, Allure (previously titled A Worthy Companion for its premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival) sees the Sanchez brothers significantly expanding their palette to exploit the unique possibilities that cinema brings to the table when it gives itself over to performers and actors who are able to work the material to create sophisticated, complex characters with ambiguous motives and conflicting drives and aims. 

Evan Rachel Wood is the active ingredient here: a dynamic but sensitive combustive element whose performance ignites inside the film and allows the Sanchez’ brothers to apply their subtle, detached, naturalistic yet rigorously formal visual approach to content and subject matter that many will find shocking and upsetting. They manage this without losing the humanity and emotional fragility at the heart of what could have become a mere stylistic exercise in cinematic transgression. 

That said, the brothers’ talent for scene-setting, for creating a whole milieu out of a judiciously judged use of location with careful lighting and the thoughtful placement of objects and people within a scene etc., is as evident from the start as it has been in all of their previous photographic works: throughout the picture a drizzly, leaf-damp, autumnal suburban landscape entering the frosty prelude before the darker days of winter, is presented as a deadened hinterland full of anonymous rented hotel rooms, generic office workspaces and blank house interiors which are isolated cocoons of emotional manipulation: prisons of domesticity and unvoiced familial trauma. Wood plays Laura Drake: a deeply troubled twenty-something of retro-grunge musical tastes and ‘emo chick’ clothing, who works as a cleaner for her lean-framed, nervously twitchy father William (Denis O’Hare), who he runs his small mobile house cleaning business for middle-class districts of Montreal. The provocative opening scene of the film introduces Laura hazily waking up in some drably lit, seedy rented roadside hotel room to engage in rough violent sex with a blindfolded stranger (Jonathan Shatzky), who can’t rise to the occasion when confronted with Laura’s angry indifference, and can’t take the slaps and punches she dishes out as she rides him ferociously -- as if attempting to obliterate the horror of some past traumatic event by re-enacting a version that puts her in control of it. The scene is extreme yet ambiguous because we can’t quite tell if Laura is a customer, a client, a victim or an aggressor. 

These kinds of distinctions will prove difficult to formulate for all the film's relationship depictions. The screenplay peppers the dialogue with allusions and references that suggest something untoward may have occurred between Laura and her father in the past, and the awkward body language and dysfunctional interactions between them at work certainly suggest as much. But even when the script appears to be forthcoming about these supposed events, there is always a large degree of uncertainty present because of the web of manipulations and dependencies such ‘revelations’ have as their context. 

There are hints that Laura tends to get herself involved in illicit, destructive lesbian relationships with women she’s met through her cleaning work, some of which involve her stalking those she has become attached to. It is even hinted that her father knows about what goes on during her clandestine hotel rendezvous with strangers and that he ‘cleans up’ for her when things go wrong. But  this is mainly suggestion or insinuation; the film is never one-hundred-per-cent clear on the precise nature of the relationship between Laura and William, but there is enough information by the end to indicate that there has been a fundamental struggle going on inside the former for self-definition and independence, stifled by the guilt and regret William feels for something he has done to her in the distant past. 

There is one other equally fraught parent-daughter relationship depicted in the film: sixteen-year-old Eva (newcomer Julia Sarah Stone) is a student of classical piano, whom we first meet on-screen when Laura is engaged to clean for her divorcee mother Nancy (Maxim Roy). In these initial scenes, the Sanchez brothers use a handful of cinematic techniques to imply the distant relationship that exists between Eva and her mother. For instance, they use a shallow lens depth so that the camera focuses exclusively on Eva practising in the living room, while what’s going on behind her (which involves Laura being given her cleaning instructions by Nancy out in the hallway) remains completely out of focus. The camera shifts its focus just long enough to catch Laura noticing and taking an interest in Eva from behind as she passes the room.

 As she practices, Eva is shown to be a person who is isolated in her own headspace, slightly removed from her mother’s immediate concerns which are focused on preparing to move in with a new boyfriend and his young son. Playing classical piano appears to be something Eva does to please her mother rather than for pleasure; a classic case of the parent living out her own failed dreams by proxy through the activities of the offspring, while requiring an impossibly high standard be maintained to achieve the level of success she deems appropriate. The harsh regime of constant practice cuts Eva off from the life of an average sixteen-year-old girl growing up in a prosperous but ‘dull’ city such as Montreal. But it does keep her close to her mother, which is its main function for the daughter. However, the coming move threatens all that -- and promises to produce a fatal rupture in an already fairly dysfunctional and strained state of affairs. 

One early scene, shot at some distance from behind, has Eva playing the piano alone inside the otherwise empty house, pouring her feelings into an emotional, non-classical recitation, becoming so lost in the undulating melancholy of the piece she is playing that she does not notice her mother has come home and is quietly walking up behind her. When she feels her mother’s hand lightly rest on her shoulder, Eva instantly stops the melody dead, then starts playing again -- but this time taking up a dizzyingly fast and complicated fugue by Bach which sounds robotic in contrast to the simple but heartfelt piece she had been playing to herself before. Sacrificing your own desires for another then being disappointed by their lack of ability to reciprocate with the kind of sacrifices you require from them in return will become a key emotional leitmotif that informs all the events to come. Events set in motion when Laura turns up at Eva’s house to clean and finds she has walked in on the tail-end of an almighty bust-up between mother and daughter, culminating in Eva refusing to move house and Nancy reminding her daughter, before storming out, that until she is eighteen she has no choice in the matter.  

The build-up to this moment has been marked by Laura’s quiet but determined attempts to befriend this young girl while her mother has been preoccupied at work, the two being regularly left alone after Laura finishes her cleaning shift at the house. The implication is that the young woman is attempting to facilitate a much more intimate relationship with Eva than the girl’s age legally allows. She manoeuvres herself into becoming Eva’s link to the outside world, as they bond over the music of Nirvana (Laura clocks a Kurt Cobain poster on Eva’s bedroom wall) and Laura introduces Eva to marijuana cigarettes. There is the queasy taint of a paedophilic grooming process about the methodical manner Laura goes about the business of gradually ingratiating herself, inch-by-inch, into this much younger girl’s affections. Yet such is the evident hollowness and frustration of Eva’s relationship with her mother -- who remains inattentive and blind to her daughter’s need to develop her own independent personality and discover her own interests and desires -- that one cannot help relating to Eva’s willingness to grasp the apparent escape route being offered by Laura, even though the older girl’s motives seem more than a little bit suspect.

Eva’s big argument with her mother makes it very easy for Laura to convince the emotionally upset and angry teen to leave home and come and live at her house without telling her mother where she has gone. As we watch Laura’s orchestration of this highly dangerous situation, the film becomes ever more uncomfortable to watch: we see Eva gaining more confidence from being free of her mother’s unhealthy control, and engaging in more of the kinds of activities a girl of her age would normally be experiencing, while Laura gets to present herself as a sisterly mentor figure. But at the same time, Laura is spiking Eva’s soft drinks with vodka, choosing which clothes she should wear and clearly attempting to manipulate her into adopting the role of a girlfriend rather than a younger sister. Julia Sarah Stone, physically very slight and winsome-looking, is a twenty-three-year-old playing a vulnerable sixteen-year-old here, but if anything she looks a good deal younger than her character is supposed to be in the film -- thus adding even more, as this relationship develops, to a sense that these two are embarking down a very dark path. When Eva is filed as a missing person with the police and an officer comes to interview Laura at her work’s offices, events take an even more pronounced turn for the worse and the relationship becomes openly abusive and manipulative. First Laura locks Eva in a room all day to make sure she’s not seen by neighbours and preventing her from phoning home to reassure her worried mother while Laura is at work; then she tries to make Eva feel guilty for the fact that she has to be locked up in the first place -- which Laura puts down to Eva’s reckless disregard for the knowledge that Laura would go to jail if anyone found out what she has done. Laura characterises what has now apparently turned into a prospective kidnapping and false imprisonment charge (leaving aside her plotting to corrupt a minor) as a sacrifice she has made on Eva’s behalf, which Eva doesn’t appreciate because she has so thoughtlessly neglected to consider what Laura had to put at risk in order to provide this opportunity for her to live the life of ‘freedom’ she now enjoys.

Even more shocking is that this argument resonates enough with Eva for a form of co-dependence to develop between the two girls that eventually becomes so all-encompassing it makes it very difficult to tell who is really in control of the situation: thanks to her manipulative spiel, it at first appears to be Laura who holds all the cards: she sets herself up as Eva’s ‘suga mama’ and the younger girl willingly submits to the restrictive terms necessary for preventing her discovery as a lodger in Laura’s home. But soon, any kind of assertion of independence or any interest Eva takes in any other person, even a playful friendship with Laura’s disabled brother Benjamin (Joe Cobden),  results in Laura falling prey to jealous sulks and violent rages that escalate in intensity (“I say what you can and cannot do!”), followed by hysterical bouts of apologetic self-recrimination and violent self-harm. This is the paranoia of someone who has at last found another person that they can manipulate easily enough to be able to create the façade of a normal relationship that mimics the kind they’ve always been seeking, and which they feel they desperately need in order to feel complete, but who at the same time realises that the object of their obsession could, for the same reasons, just as easily fall under the influence of someone else, too. It is a realisation that makes Laura uniquely vulnerable to the threat of eventually losing Eva to another, and this knowledge induces in her feelings of inadequacy and rage that increase the likelihood of exactly that situation occurring.  

For the most part, the Sanchez brothers allow this relationship study to play out in naturalistic terms that echo the understated visual style they generally favour throughout. Their attention to the composition of their images often sees them adopt a frame-within-a-frame aesthetic choice that utilises doorways, mirrors and windows to suggest multiple simultaneous frames of reference, a subtle visual code for the way in which Laura and Eva can be viewed to have created their identities through mutual identification with the image of the other, in Laura’s case, by manipulating the younger girl with the aim of creating a self-image that Laura wants to see reflected back in Eva’s interactions with her. The music functions in a similar ambiguous way, with many of the apparently non-diegetic cues used by Montreal-based musician/composer Olivier Alary that define the emotional temperature of the relationship, suddenly becoming diegetic when we see Eva playing them on the piano in the scene following their audio introduction. These compositional and editing choices create a distancing effect: the sense that we are looking in on events from without, attempting to assess the constantly shifting nature of what we are seeing and hearing, and frequently finding our natural prejudices and sympathies vacillating accordingly. By the end, the power positions in the relationship seem almost to have been diametrically swapped around, like they’ve fallen out of one of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s spellbinding female-centric melodramas. Despite a growing intimacy, Laura’s preference for rough sex forces her back to the twilight world of shady encounters in cheap hotel rooms where a violent incident leads to a major shift in the focus of the drama’s relationship narrative: Laura takes on the role of an abuse victim rather than that of an abuser; someone who now needs active care from Eva as the latter finds herself forced to outgrow many of the adolescent rites of passage her association with Laura had been helping to precipitate in her. 

However, this, too, is another disguise of sorts, allowing for a fabrication that is also an obfuscation to be made of painful familial secrets from Laura's past. The Sanchezes allow themselves only one ostentatiously abstract image during all of this: a shot of Eva floating in a dark, formless watery void that recurs several times in the second half of the film before it is revealed to have been a flash-forward to a scene that takes place at the very end, when the girls are visiting an indoor swimming pool at a crowded public baths and there is a sudden, unexplained power blackout. This episode seems to have a metaphorical importance to the story, conveying the girls’ sundering with a Lynchian sense of strangeness, and an atmosphere similar to the kind the brothers have frequently been able to capture in their photographic work. Allure is a powerful, provocative study of isolation, obsession, unhealthy desire and unstable identity, anchored by a frighteningly convincing performance from a fierce and diamond-hard Evan Rachel Wood. Newcomer Julia Sarah Stone is perfectly cast to lend solid support in what is, for most of the run-time, a virtual two-hander and American Horror Story’s Denis O’Hare is quietly, unassumingly riveting as Laura’s tortured father. Allure is a promising debut. 

This film is now available on DVD in the UK from Eureka Entertainment.  

Thursday, 9 August 2018

The Old Dark House (1932)

The Old Dark House is a striking, lavishly mounted pre-code oddity from the early years of producer Carl Laemmie Jr’s cycle of horror classics made in the 1930s at Universal City in Los Angeles. It saw the British director-abroad James Whale return to the genre that has since come to define his reputation not long after attempting to escape its gravity-like pull with a little-remembered drama called The Impatient Maiden, which had delivered somewhat unconvincing results at the box office following the huge success of Frankenstein the previous year. In the novel Benighted (the original 1928 source for the picture) the Yorkshire-born author & playwright JB Priestley sought to critique what he perceived to be the aimlessness and drift of interwar Britain, viewing the country’s malaise through the allegorical lens of a well-established British Gothic tradition for bad-things-happening-to-people-in-creepy-abodes plots stretching all the way back to the first Gothic novel itself -- Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, from 1764. This Gothic tradition was sustained in English literature through various permutations until eventually influencing John Willard’s 1922 comic stage play The Cat and the Canary: a recurring text in the story of how the Gothic mode got translated from literature into a visual medium by way of the German director Paul Leni’s 1927 American-made silent version of the play and its now-lost Universal sound remake The Cat Creeps, which technically predates Dracula as Universal’s first foray into Horror.

Undercutting or deflecting the possibility of censorship by using comedy to distract from the often macabre or sensational nature of Gothic subject matter was a common technique in the early Horror sound pictures -- becoming especially prevalent as a method once the Hays Code really kicked in. But in the hands of James Whale, the turn to comedy contributes to a high-camp auteur sensibility unique to this director’s particular oeuvre, and indicative of a much more subversive and playful approach to the material. The Old Dark House may indeed be Whale’s most artistically cogent expression of that ironical, witty style of his. Perhaps one of the main reasons he suggested that the film rights to Priestley’s novel be secured by Universal lies in the fact that this property so obviously gives him the perfect opportunity to provide Universal with yet another horror blockbuster starring Boris Karloff, while simultaneously indulging himself in what is at heart an intrinsically British comedy of manners, full of deliciously strange characters. 

One of Hitchcock's former collaborators, Benn Levy, contributes a screenplay adaptation capturing the sort of waspish, cutting sense of humour that Whale himself often demonstrated off-screen, and gives the comedic material an incongruous context via Gothic set designs that hark right back to Leni’s original film. Indeed, Universal Pictures’ art director and frequent James Whale collaborator Charles D. Hall had himself worked on the 1927 version of The Cat and the Canary. This combines with a taste for the absurd deriving from the novel itself, which is delivered on screen in the guise of a series of macabre comedy grotesques made ‘flesh’ via the particular talents of Universal makeup man Jack Pierce; not to mention a hand-picked cast, largely made up of British stage performers already known to Whale from his days as an actor and theatre director, imported especially to play alongside the genre’s latest star, Boris Karloff.

Interestingly, although the screenplay adheres fairly closely to events as detailed in the novel, little of JB Priestley social commentary survives beyond the most perfunctory elements of character detail. The author was apparently sorry not to be asked to contribute to the script or even to be consulted about it, yet he and Whale share formative experiences (as do a great many of the cast) rooted in their participation in the First World War, and these undoubtedly inform each of their very individualistic approaches to the work. For the Bradford-born Priestley, his time in the army made the young writer acutely conscious for the first time of the English class system in a way that led him to believe that it played a key role in contributing to the moribund psyche of the Country in the years after the war. For Whale, though, becoming a POW in Germany during the conflict introduced him to the world of drama for the first time. He put on theatre shows while imprisoned in a Holzminden prison camp in Germany, and afterwards became an actor and theatre director whose most successful London stage production was an adaptation of R.C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End --  a play set in the trenches of World War One – which successfully transferred to Broadway and Chicago and provided him with his route into film and to Hollywood. Whale’s first proper directorial assignment (after re-sculpting a sound version of Howard Hughes’s Hell’s Angles) was the 1930 Tiffany film version of the same wartime play.

Meanwhile, some of Priestley’s wartime ennui survives in the film in the character of Roger Penderel, played by Melvyn Douglas, who is an amiable cynic described by one of the other characters as “one of those chaps who’s been knocked about a bit in the war.” Nevertheless, Penderel’s existential grief is downplayed by Whale, and Douglas’s performance is that of a slightly shop-soiled but down-to-earth everyman-cum-self-sacrificing romantic hero who provides a contrasting counterpoint to the more morbidly eccentric occupants of the house. They are clearly the main focal point for Whale as expressions of the director’s own arch, essentially British and borderline aristocratic sensibility, which is emphasised over and above the allegorical, state-of-the-nation pretensions of the original novel.     

One of the other ironies about the film that Whale himself might have appreciated in retrospect was that Priestley’s novel had been quite poorly received at home in Britain, while Whale’s lighter, comedic adaptation would go on to be an especially big hit with cinema audiences in the UK upon its release there. In the US, though, the reverse was the case: Priestley’s novel – retitled The Old Dark House for American publication -- did extremely well, which is what prompted Universal’s decision to film it; but the odd tone and camp humour peculiar to Whale’s film version resulted in the picture being unfavourably compared to his Frankenstein by many US critics who, because of Karloff’s presence, were expecting a more formulaic terror picture. Audience attendance proved to be nowhere near as impressive although it still did solid if unspectacular business. 

This perceived disappointment must have contributed, though, towards The Old Dark House falling into obscurity in subsequent years, while Dracula and Frankenstein would be frequently revived and their success prompt the making of numerous sequels. The film came to be considered almost lost until the director and producer Curtis Harrington rescued a nitrate print from the Universal vaults in the 1960s. Now it has been restored by the Cohen Media group after years of murky prints that in the past have made it seem tough-going to sit through. It re-emerges as a stone-cold classic thanks to a pin-sharp 4K transfer that highlights every meticulous detail of set and costume design, along with cleaned up audio emphasising the atmospheric soundtrack of thunderclaps and howling winds which replaces a more traditional musical accompaniment. The Eureka Entertainment Masters of Cinema edition also serves up a fine selection of extras -- including a total of three commentary tracks and a thirty-minute video essay.  

Both book and film detail how a trio of travellers on their way to Shrewsbury find themselves marooned in a sodden, remote region of the Welsh mountains, where they encounter the deranged household of the eccentric Femm family after a terrible storm and a flood have caused a landslide to block the narrow muddy road out of this forbidding landscape. The group seek shelter in the family’s slab-like, rain-lashed mansion house, first discerned looming out of the shadows thrown up by their car headlamps. This opening sequence is a bravura spectacle of flickering studio created lightning, soundstage wind machines and a driving torrent of sprinkler-produced torrential rain; a miniature, seamlessly spliced into the waterlogged live action, illustrates how the travellers’ motor vehicle narrowly avoids destruction beneath the slurry of mud and cascading rocks produced by the landslide. 

Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart and the aforementioned Melvyn Douglas -- the American and Canadian contingent of the cast -- play the lost and beleaguered travellers seeking shelter amongst the mixed assortment of West End imports from the British stage who play the floridly weird Femm hosts. According to Gloria Stuart, the story’s set-up, which plays on a division between the oddball hosts and the fish-out-water visitors, was carried over into the off-screen relationships between the cast members, the American contingent feeling very much the outsiders as Whale filled the rest of his cast with British luminaries he had known or worked with during his years as an actor and theatre director in the UK. The British thespians indulged in strange arcane English rituals like ‘elevenses’, while Universal contractee Stuart and her co-star Melvyn Douglas played cards in the corner of the studio. Whale’s casting choices here couldn’t have had more resonance with Priestley’s critique of the English Establishment and the stultifying class system at its root, providing unspoken subtext to the macabre humour that furnishes much of the surface entertainment in the picture. 

This is especially evident during, for instance, the early dinner scene, which takes place soon after the three travellers have arrived: a set-piece of ghoulishly delightful comic awkwardness presided over by the creepily sepulchral Horace and Rebecca Femm -- the two heads of the demented household -- and waited on by the couple’s mad, drunken troglodyte mute butler Morgan, played by Karloff.

A distinguished thespian who was also the grandson of the 1st Lord of Chelmsford and a nephew of the 2nd, the prissily sparrow-like Ernest Thesiger, playing the hyper-nervous, aristocratic atheist aesthete Horace Femm, already must have seemed like a figure from a lost age to his American and Canadian co-stars; as would Eva Moore, who plays his half-deaf, religious maniac sister Rebecca. Moore was a veteran of the Edwardian women’s suffrage movement, who had been appearing regularly on the stage as a performer since the 1880s and was known as a great beauty during the late-Victorian era. She was also the mother-in-law of Laurence Olivier from his first marriage to Jill Esmond. The household presided over by Horace and Rebecca represents its own similarly self-contained lost world, into which are plunged a modern young married couple and a war veteran still searching for his place in modern society. 

The film becomes a brooding Gothic metaphor for interwar England as a land caught between the judgemental religious mania of its morally punitive Victorian past, and the ineffectual petty bureaucracy of the present, run by an intellectual class that cannot command the respect to change or challenge the shibboleths that define its antiquated surroundings. Karloff, meanwhile, represents the rather prejudiced JB Priestley vision of the brutish working classes: uneducated and inarticulate, latently violent, often drunk and lecherous, and easily exploited by the destructive anarchistic tendencies existing within the margins of a body politic usually kept figuratively locked in the attic, but which, in this case, is also literally present in the form of a homicidal pyromaniac brother, Saul Femm (Brember Wills) -- who is indeed locked up in the attic. The soul of the family is the witheringly old and critically enfeebled patriarch Sir Roderick, who is maintained at the age of 102 in a state-like, oak-panelled bedbound splendour -- like a funerary corpse hidden in the upper chambers of the house. He is played, in a typical example of Whale’s offbeat knowing humour, by a little old lady with a Jack Pierce-made glued-on beard! (Elspeth Dudgeon -- credited as ‘John’ Dudgeon in the cast list) 

Perhaps one of the things about the film that confused audiences at the time, and still disconcerts some of its viewers today, is that it has no real story … It really is just a collection of encounters between some lost young people and a selection of oddball characters that take place over the course of one long night, with everyone going his or her separate way in the morning as if nothing had happened ... except for Penderel and chorus line ‘showgirl’ Gladys (Lillian Bond) who fall in love during the course of the night despite Gladys having arrived halfway through the evening in the company of ebullient self-made businessman Sir William Porterhouse – a part which affords Charles Laughton one of his first Hollywood roles. 

Staging it like a proscenium play in one location, with a series of entrances and exits of characters strategically placed across a three-act structure, Whale nevertheless exploits the space in the film to make these interactions extremely psychologically compelling and dynamic, marshalling showy camera movement in the form of those enduringly wobbly tracking shots one tends to find in pictures from the early 1930s, and fractured, almost avant-garde  editing techniques which are utilised to startling effect to enhance the across-the-board excellent performances of the ensemble cast, especially the exquisite mime performance given by Boris Karloff, who is otherwise overshadowed by the likes of Thesiger, Laughton and Moore as they get to deliver all the film’s many memorably juicy dialogue scenes. 

There is no greater example of Whale’s directorial flair combining with the meticulous attention to detail of the screenplay and the performances of the cast to create heightened, resonate spectacle than an early scene that takes place between the young married Margaret Waverton (Gloria Stuart) and the barnstorming god-botherer Rebecca Femm after Margaret asks to change out of her wet clothes in Rebecca’s room soon after arrival at the Femm mansion. The room is dark and fusty, cluttered with Victorian china figurines and brass candlesticks, and dominated by a big brass bed and a large framed portrait photograph of Queen Victoria on one wall. Under the disapproving gaze of Rebecca (and Queen Victoria), Margaret strips by candlelight down to silk stockings and a loose, revealing shift undergarment, before unaccountably changing into a somewhat impractical (in these grim surroundings) bias-cut, satin velvet, Jean Harlow evening dress with spaghetti straps, personally specified by Whale for aesthetic reasons because he wanted Stuart to stand out like a ‘white flame’ when Karloff’s Morgan has to chase her around the house later in the movie. 

But the conceit also helps to illustrate the pathological puritanism of her host, bringing the casual sexuality of the 1930s into close proximity with a suffocating cloud of stiff Victorian rectitude. Her face creased with malice, Rebecca slyly informs Margaret of the salacious history of wantonness and’ fleshly pleasures’ once pursued in this house by her brothers and her ‘blasphemous’ father. She details with lip-smackingly cruel suggestive pleasure the diabolical fate of her sister, who died in the very bed on which Margaret is at this very moment sitting: “all the young men used to follow her about, with her red lips and big eyes and her white neck. But that didn’t save her! She fell off her horse, hunting, and hurt her spine!” The malignant old woman continues to relate how her sister would beg to be allowed to die in order to escape the chronic pain she was left in after the accident. Rebecca would ignore these entreaties and instead concentrated her efforts on trying to get her crippled sister to accept the Lord. “She didn’t,” snaps the old woman with satisfaction, her face distorted by the cracked and warped mirror on an old bedside wardrobe;“she was Godless to the last!”

Then, prodding at the young woman’s semi-exposed chest, Rebecca turns her attention to the vulnerable, half-naked Margaret: “you’re wicked too! Young and handsome. Silly and wicked. You think of nothing but your long straight legs, and your white body, and how to please your man! You revel in the joys of fleshly love, don’t you!” With that, she scuttles out of the room, leaving her shaken guest alone with her now utterly disturbed thoughts. Margaret distractedly attempts to straighten her hair in the gloomy mirror, but the image reflected back at her is now utterly warped and fractured. Whale emphasises her distressed state of mind by flashing back to Rebecca’s mean words and her spiteful face also warped by the mirror, intercutting it with brief images of scarred Morgan’s misshapen leering gaze ... A window blows open in the turmoil of the storm outside and suddenly it is as if the entire room is now rejecting her, as she, in turn, recoils from everything that it represents: the judgmental obsession of an oppressively cloistered household with sin and moral retribution. 

Whale includes a lovely scene expounding on this theme not long after, when Margaret, still in her fetching evening dress, makes silhouette animal shapes on the wall in the candlelight of the dining room, only for the short, stout outline of Rebecca to suddenly materialise alongside them, invading the frivolous spectacle as if from nowhere to poke Margaret’s shadow self -- also being thrown onto the wall -- in the chest. It’s as though Margaret’s peace of mind and ease with the idea of her own sexual allure has now been irrevocably tainted by exposure to the hateful moral spite of her host.

But this tour de force only sets the scene for a succession of similarly metaphorically suggestive sequences: Morgan’s subsequent violent pursuit of Margaret around the threatening Gothic pile, and the various attempts of her polite and sophisticated male companions to restrain this raging symbol of proletarian sexual brutality. Additionally, the escape of the imprisoned pyromaniac brother Saul -- kept locked in the attack until a drunken Morgan releases him to set in motion the film’s climactic struggle, sees Penderel forced to go head-to-head with this deranged imp of a man who appears at the head of the staircase in an ill-fitting threadbare suit. Amid the scattered trash and smashed cutlery from previous upsets that now litter the dining room floor, their altercation escalates downstairs before leading back up to the balcony landing, where Saul sets fire to the curtains. During their fight, Saul, giggling maniacally, shockingly attempts to bite Penderel sadistically on the neck – a scene censored from many early prints; as were references made by chorus girl Gladys earlier in the movie suggesting that she was not averse to accepting money for sex. 

The subplot involving Gladys being at the centre of a love triangle with Penderel and Lord Porterhouse provides a slither of conventional human interest drama amongst the lovingly rendered grotesquery, that also allows Charles Laughton to shine as this loud, bluff Yorkshire businessman with a bought title, who is, by the close of the picture, revealed to be so much more sensitive and likable than his initial coarse image might have suggested when he and Gladys first barged into the mansion. Whale finishes the film by upending the downbeat conclusion of the novel  -- which bowed out with Penderel dying during the struggle with Saul – and making an intertextual joke: the two still plunge from the first floor balcony, but a distraught Gladys, cradling her lover in her arms believing him expired, suddenly detects a pulse and exclaims with joy “he’s alive! .. alive!” -- repeating verbatim Frankenstein’s famous line from Whale’s classic film of the same name!

The Old Dark House is a unique entry in the Universal horror pantheon that stands proudly alongside other pre-code horror classics of the day from other studios, such as The Island of Lost Souls or the 1931 version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. But James Whale’s camp humour and the performances of Thesiger, Moore and Laughton bring something extra special to it that’s still discernible today. This dual format release from Eureka Entertainment features a stunning 4K high definition transfer that really makes the film pop and helps highlight how much of its humour still seems current. The extras bring together previously recorded commentary tracks including one made by Gloria Stuart herself, who gives a fascinating insight into the behind-the-scenes relationships between cast members. James Whale biographer James Curtis contributes a thorough, informative production history, while film critic Kim Newman and author Stephen Jones bring their brand of chatty knowledgeability to the party. Critic and filmmaker, David Cairns, continues to be a leading exemplar of the art of the video essay with another fine one included here; and there’s a short archive film featuring Curtis Harrington, detailing how he managed to save The Old Dark House from becoming lost to film history. Finally, Sara Karloff talks about her father’s prestigious career and the resurrection of The Old Dark House as a horror classic. Early pressings of the dual-format release include some impressive artwork on a limited edition O-Card by Graham Humphreys and Philip Kemp contributes a written overview essay in the accompnaying booklet. An essential release.       

Sunday, 3 June 2018

CURE (1997)

When the boom in Japanese horror took off in the West during the early 2000s it apparently arrived fully formed, attracting attention largely on the back of the landmark statement made at the time by Hideo Nakato’s Ringu, its various sequels and offshoots, and the franchise created with Takashi Shimizu’s extensive roster of Ju-On (Grudge) movies. But, from very early on in the critical discussion surrounding the distinctiveness of the J horror scene, it became de rigueur to refer back to Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s unnerving 1997 psycho-thriller Cure as the ground zero of the phenomenon; a template that set the style and tone for what was to follow despite very marked differences to most other entries in the sub-genre. Oddly, though, given its importance to the development of this branch of horror, the film always remained quite hard to see. Devotees of Asian genre cinema had to actively seek out region three or region one DVD releases in order to view it. And UK fans had a particularly hard time of it when it came to the availability of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s work in general. Only in the last year or so -- with his award-winning films such as Tokyo Sonata having by now acquired the director some measure of arthouse respectability -- have Kurosawa’s career-making horror masterworks from the nineties and early 2000s started to filter into the UK market; and this new dual-format Blu-ray/DVD release of Cure (definitely the director’s career breakthrough) from Eureka Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema imprint, marks the film’s debut in this country … a bewildering state of affairs for a film that stands up now as well as it ever did, and which can also be said to have transcended its original role as midwife to the J horror explosion and become just as essential to any consideration of the emergence of the modern form of what, these days, might be referred to (for better or worse) as arthouse horror. In a new interview included with the Eureka release, Kurosawa himself muses on why the film has endured and concludes that it is “a unique combination of art film and genre film”, before going on to compare it in style to the work of David Cronenberg.   

Cure does not deal in overtly supernatural phenomena like most of its J horror cousins: there are no wronged, long-haired female ghostly spirits here, spreading unstoppable curses passed along through the conduit of technological communications. If anything, it’s far more profoundly disturbing on a philosophical level for being much harder to pin down just what exactly is supposed to be going on during large chunks of this picture’s narrative, precisely because we are not afforded the luxury of being able to label any of it supernatural. Although suggestive allusions to ‘occult ceremony’ are made near the end of the film, they are all the more unnerving for remaining speculative and poetic in their nature. The narrative seemingly operates on a mythic/symbolic/metaphoric plain, despite being grounded in a series of identifiable, familiar urban locations. And Kurosawa achieves his effects by refusing to be pinned down to logical explanations, evoking instead a sense of loneliness and emptiness by his choice of settings: anonymous, semi-industrial sites on the edges of cities. Abandoned or decaying, they have often been cleansed of significant historical markers in a process of constant renewal and permanent redevelopment suggestive to viewers of a modern malaise of the psyche, as pictured in landscapes nurtured in the aftermath of the bubble economy of 1990s Japan.

The film has a quirky, tangential style, full of narrative ellipsis and ambiguous, hard-to-read occurrences much in evidence from the opening scenes and continuing throughout. Even so, it also seems at first to be a pure exercise in neo-noir rather than straight horror, essaying a mix of story elements that refer to then-recent developments in the genre such as Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs and David Fincher’s Se7en, rather than to contemporary Japanese ghost stories. Thus, the film appears initially to be defined by the conventions of the detective genre: a few minutes in, and we are presented with the familiar figure of the rain-coated detective, here played by Kurosawa regular Kôji Yakusho. Detective Takabe is introduced to us in a scenario straight out of a standard police procedural: he has been called to the scene of a crime in which the mutilated body of a prostitute has been found by a cleaner in a blood-splattered Tokyo hotel room … So far, then, so familiar. Forensics is being gathered by a team at the site, and clues are being amassed in the usual manner as it is established that the woman has been knocked senseless with a blow to the head from a piece of lead water pipe, then left to bleed to death from an injury to her neck caused by a large letter ‘X’ carved into her throat with a knife. It doesn’t matter if a handful of disconnected scenes or images don’t quite add up, because we expect the fragmented pieces to get slotted into place as the film progresses, and as the detective starts to match motive with suspect to reach the end of a process of ratiocination that will result in all becoming clear to us, as well as to him, at the end of the picture. Or, as Takabe puts it himself at one point “All I want is to find words that will explain the crime … that’s my job.”

Solving crime for Takabe, then, is as much about uncovering, understanding and assigning motive as it is about the identification of a perpetrator. Yet Takabe’s psychologist friend Sakuma (Tsuyoshi Ujiki) sees things rather differently; he assumes that people invariably go about their lives without awareness of what truly drives their actions, then concoct a narrative afterwards to explain their behaviour to themselves as much as to anyone else: “No-one can understand what motivates a criminal,” 
he asserts; “ sometimes, not even the criminal.” This notion militates against the very idea that criminal acts can be slotted inside a full logical system to explain human behaviour: “People like to think a crime has some meaning,” Sakuma later states … “but most of them don’t.” Instead, Sakuma assumes that we must stick to matching specific crimes to identified perpetrators, and be content with that.

This first act tension between two opposing philosophical outlooks represented by the investigative leads might be assumed to drive the thematic underpinnings of the film’s events for the rest of the narrative -- but Kiyoshi Kurosawa makes it the point of the picture instead to undermine from the start both identity- and motive-based methods for arriving at any firm conclusions. Takabe and Sakuma are dealing with a case that defies all approaches to understanding; indeed, one that doesn’t play ball at all with the very assumptions that define criminal investigation. It’s this undermining of the intrinsic ground rules of the genre that he is nominally supposed to be working within that enables – indeed forces -- Kurosawa to send his characters off instead on an experimental journey that becomes an abstract investigation into the psychological foundations of (Japanese) identity itself.

We find out early on that what has been so perplexing Takabe and Sakuma about this case comes down to the fact that the prostitute’s murder is the third killing they have investigated in the last two months to exhibit the same modus operandi, which suggests the work of a single serial killer. Yet, each time, there has turned out to have been a different perpetrator responsible, each one unconnected to and unaware of all the others and despite a news blackout being put in place on the details of the crime wave ruling out the possibility of copycat killings. The prostitute’s killer is also picked up, still at the scene, hiding naked in a service hatch in the corridor just outside the very hotel room in which the murder was committed. Like all the others, he vaguely remembers carrying out the crime but can offer no explanation for his actions. Takabe is faced, then, with the conundrum of being expected to bring to an end a continuing and escalating wave of identical murders, but with no single suspect to focus on apprehending and no motive whatsoever to explain any of what has been happening!

Eventually, Takabe comes up with a solution that appears to provide him with a way out of this head-spinning impasse, and also a means of providing closure to the case while still maintaining a rational investigative framework. A suspect is apprehended who seems to have a connection to several of the bewildered perpetrators. (Throughout the film, the viewer has also been following this man’s interactions with these various persons who later go on to kill in an unpremeditated fashion.) Takabe latches onto the idea that this man, known as Mamiya (Masato Hagiwara), has somehow hypnotised all of these previously upstanding, conscientious, law-abiding citizens and one-by-one turned them into an army of killers. All that now remains to find out is how and why.

This idea recalls the central concept behind Fritz Lang’s sequel to his 1922 film of Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (Dr Mabuse, the Gambler) where, at the end of the original story, inspired by Norbert Jacques’ novel, the German criminal mastermind Dr Mabuse -- who has exerted such dominance over an entire nation by personally presiding over a vast network of fraud and conspiracy -- goes insane and is confined to an asylum indefinitely. In the sequel, made ten years later, Das Testament des Dr Mabuse (The Testament of Dr Mabuse), Mabuse is still quite mad and has by now become totally incoherent. He continues to be confined to his cell and has no access to the outside world. Yet, his criminal network seems to be back up and running, and Mabuse’s identifiable personality seems to be all over a series of crimes that are once again sweeping the German capital. Halfway through the film, Mabuse actually dies, yet his crimes continue unabated -- as though his will has somehow transcended his physical form. It transpires that during the course of his obsessive study of his patient, the director of the asylum has taken on Mabuse’s characteristics through a process of transference akin to possession, and now continues to carry out the Mabusian program of destruction in his former patient’s place. Lang was tapping into the mood of his time as German democracy collapsed into fascist tyranny, and predicting how the will of a strongman leader could corrupt an entire nation by shaping and distorting the zeitgeist. In the end, it doesn’t matter if that leader is even around anymore: the environment and the culture he shaped continue to impose his will without him. The main difference with Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s formulation is that at the centre of all the criminal activity in Cure, there appears to be the very opposite of a Mabuse-style dominating personality to impose his personal will on others through overpowering charismatic force and mesmeric influence. Instead, Mamiya appears to have no personality at all; no identity or recall of his own past, and barely any short-term memory.

While Mabuse captures the notion of powerful ideas turning into social contagions that can take on a life of their own, Kurosawa’s more ambiguous, abstract take on the concept strips out all sense of their having an origin in a personality or personal doctrine, and jettisons any ego based foundation that might ground such a contagion in a firm sense of continuing identity. It seems a specifically Japanese take on the subject: the approach of an anonymous, modern but conformist consumerist society that ranks cohesion of community above the needs of the individual. The film was made against the backdrop of the Aum Shinrikyo Sarin subway attack, not long after Japanese society had experienced a profound moment of existential crisis that led it to ask itself how so many educated graduates and apparently stable citizens could have been drawn to a doomsday cult espousing the mass slaughter of its own people. In the mid-1990s, the Japanese Government’s Cultural Affairs Agency registered 183,470 groups as religious corporations (reported in Damian Thompson’s The End of Time: faith and fear in the shadow of the Millennium, published in 1996). Yet these were essentially home-made religions – or what in the West we would dismiss as ‘cults’ -- which were springing up with such frequency precisely because Japan had become the type of society where, as Thompson reports, ‘there was no stigma attached to joining them.’ Indeed, sociologists of Japanese society have apparently identified four waves in the expansion of interest in such doomsday groups and small-scale religions, each one associated with a period of social upheaval caused by rapid industrialisation, natural disaster or war.

So, in Cure, we have what appears to be a detective story. But it is a detective story in which we are presented with a crime wave that has no explanation reducible to individual psychology, merely an endless series of perpetrators with no motive, and the correlation each of them has with an amnesiac who has no sense of self and no understanding of the social setting in which he exists. Takabe repeatedly attempts to progress his investigation by conventional deductive means, but each time he appears to be making progress in uncovering a piece of information that might be used to build a psychological profile of the blank space that is Mamiya, all he actually ends up doing is highlighting the ambivalences that underlie his own sense of identity, emphasising the double life he leads as a carer for his young wife (Anna Nakagawa) while being forced to watch powerlessly and to accept the consequences, as her identity slips away due to some sort of early-onset dementia. His stoic existence outside of work is contrasted with his persona as a cop who, as a requirement of his job, is under constant pressure to establish identity, forge motive … in short to produce meaning. “The detective or the husband; which is the real you?” Mamiya taunts, at one point, as detective and suspect play out a tenuous variation of the prison cell confrontation scene so familiar from countless examples of the genre Kurosawa is experimenting with here: “neither one is the real you … There is no real you.” The two incompatible sides of Takabe’s character are constantly being brought into conflict by the very interrogation process on which Takabe must rely when assessing Mamiya’s involvement with the case, causing an internal existential crisis of Being that can only be soothed with the ‘cure’ Mamiya’s solution offers to all those he encounters.

Takabe’s interactions with Mamiya put him in the same perilous situation as the perpetrators we have seen committing terrible crimes after they also have encountered this anonymous person, in a variety of earlier contexts. The feeling of unease and the mounting sense of dread Kurosawa establishes throughout the film, as Takabe is being inexorably drawn towards an indefinably disturbing new understanding of himself and the world around him, is achieved with a technique dependent on Kurosawa’s masterful formal control of compositional elements, and a suite of visual components all working together to bring about a profound effect on the viewer that seems far more than the sum of its parts, and is almost impossible to put into words. Key to Kurosawa’s method is how he completely marinates all aspect of his visualisation of the narrative in a soup of Jungian archetypes, to such an extent that the movie doesn’t just reference them in passing but is dependent on a fictional landscape completely constructed out of them. During the film, a breakthrough in the case with implications for the development of Takabe’s attitude towards both his job and his wife’s condition, comes when he discovers Mamiya’s decaying apartment on the grounds of a run-down construction site: it’s stuffed with text books on the treatment of personality disorders and works by Carl Gustov Jung, and appears to bear out Takabe’s theory concerning how Mamiya may have influenced the spate of crimes by confirming that he was indeed once a psychology student who at one time studied the animal magnetism of Franz Anton Mesmer. The astute viewer might feel at this point that they have also been made the subject of an attempt by a master of suggestion to bring about a trance-like hypnotic state of mesmerism, this time carried out by the director. The film is suffused with Jungian symbols, particularly those of fire and water, all suggestive of the idea that the surface personalities of the perpetrators of the various murders Takabe has been tracking are indicative of the eternal narratives of the unconscious, built from an intertextual web of character types, images, story structures and genre types that constitute the stuff of all storytelling. As, of course, Kurosawa’s own narrative itself demonstrates in its own construction.

Mamiya’s first appearance in the film occurs on a desolate beach, where he encounters a polite teacher, who takes him back to his beachside house after becoming concerned by Mamiya’s amnesia and apparent confusion. Kurosawa positions Mamiya in the beach landscape in such a way as to frame him standing alone against the backdrop of the ocean, which stretches away into the horizon. The ocean in Jungian semiology stands for an undifferentiated pre-conscious primal state, while the horizon stands for the limits of the conscious mind. Water is fundamentally a symbol of the unconscious in Jungian thought, while fire stands for the light of consciousness, but also for its more passionate emotions related to fury and to sex. Another important Jungian symbolic motif that recurs constantly throughout the film is that of the cave or some kind of darkened enclosure that can stand for a womb-like space. Takabe’s first fraught encounter with Mamiya takes place in the unlighted basement of a hospital, and the first murder of the film is preceded by an image of water gushing after the killer breaks off a piece of water pipe in an enclosed darkened underpass. This is followed by the image of a flashing electric light made faulty by a short in the circuit caused by the sudden outpouring. It's as if Kurosawa is setting out at the start the symbolic alphabet from which the rest of the film’s narrative will be composed. After he has murdered the prostitute with the pipe, the killer washes off in an overflowing shower and hides naked in an empty service hatch in the hotel corridor, where he is discovered later by Takabe, curled up in the foetal position.

Mamiya seems to be a personally blank manifestation of the unconscious forces that shape human behaviour and give rise to wider epidemics of mass hysteria that shape the cultural reaction to vague psychogenic maladies, given credence when they’re packaged into medical syndromes and disseminated throughout our culture. In the teacher’s beach house, the pulsing sound of the tides sets up a drowsy, rhythmic, hypnotic effect and reinforces this idea of a womb-like space that will bring forth a new consciousness leading to murder becoming a casual activity that, as one killer explains it, “seemed like the natural thing to do.” A flickering flame from a cigarette lighter is Mamiya’s hypnotic cue that allows him to bring to the surface the buried passions and resentments of his previously placid-seeming subjects-cum-murderers: the educated teacher who viciously murders his wife; the policeman who suddenly calmly shoots dead a colleague; a young female doctor who walks into a men’s restroom and murders a former patient, then performs an impromptu autopsy on the corpse as though re-living the circumstances of her time as a medical student, when she suffered from the institutional sexism of the medical profession.

How does Mamiya exert such control over these people? Here, Kurosawa foregoes logic and allows the narrative’s content to be shaped by the abstract Jungian idea of the collective unconscious: “All the things that used to be inside me … now they’re outside,” Mamiya tells the young female doctor. “I can see all the things inside you, doctor. But the inside of me … is empty.” Mamiya has no internal self but is the external manifestation of the suppressed emotions that exist collectively in all of us. Water overflowing a sink basin in a restroom, the spread of a pool of liquid across the floor when a glass is spilled in a hospital clinic or the sudden appearance of a damp stain on the ceiling of the cell where Takabe interviews Mamiya, denote this permeable state of consciousness – no longer confined by bodies but percolating through the culture at large. Takabe himself lives near a harbour; his sick wife sometimes gets lost on the bridge that spans it: a metaphoric representation of the slippage in her sense of identity and of Takabe's futile efforts to preserve it. There is no way of escaping or of existing outside this symbolic system of self-identification, not even for him. Kurosawa allows Mamiya to weave his spell on the viewer as well, to a certain extent: a scene in which he is put before a hearing of officious Japanese authorities at police headquarters is played for broad absurdist comedy as Mamiya’s blankness unravels the pomposity of his interrogators in a way that leaves them completely flummoxed and allows us to feel, just for a moment, a measure of sympathy towards him.  

Kurosawa suggests an origin for this peculiar state of affairs in the practices of a nineteenth-century clinic that, like so many of the locations seen throughout the film, is now disused and has been left in a state of permanent dereliction. Naturally, when Takabe and Mamiya meet there in the final Act of the film, the old building is letting in rain and has become semi-flooded, as befits a centre for Jungian tropes. An old scratchy piece of film has led to this site, discovered by Sakuma before he committed suicide to prevent himself succumbing to the syndrome that he and Takabe have now inevitably been exposed to because of their interrogations of Mamiya. It shows an unseen clinician hypnotising a female subject called Suzu Murakawa, who was institutionalised for murdering her son by also carving the ‘X’ sign, found carved into all of the bodies of the recent victims, into his neck. Not only does Kurosawa anticipate a popular motif in J horror with this scene (think of the videotape curse in Ringu), he also refers back to the history of hysterical epidemics and their origins in the medical professions of the 18th and 19th century, when Jean-Martin Charcot and Sigmund Freud founded schools of thought that intended to explain human behaviour and to cure it of its most burdensome psychic maladies. Charcot and Freud’s efforts in some sense also shaped the medical culture by providing a narrative – that of hysteria -- that helped to create our notion of an unconscious self. Charcot first established his clinic at the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris in the 1770s, when it was part poorhouse, part medical establishment, and part prison for women. As Elaine Showalter describes it in her 1997 book Hystories: hysterical epidemics and modern culture: ‘this old hospital was an ideal environment for the manufacture and marketing of hysterias’ and it became a place where ‘doctors, patients and culture came together for the first time’.  Charcot gave popular demonstrations every Friday morning in which he brought the medical concept of hysteria – stripped of its previous religious connotations -- to wider recognition by publicly demonstrating how hysterical symptoms could be stopped or created using hypnosis. Patients ‘flocked from all over the world to his consulting room’ and the Salpêtrière became a popular tourist attraction, before Charcot's reputation was largely eclipsed by Freud's ideas in the nineteenth century.

 Kurosawa leaves the original objectives and identity of the anonymous therapist at the centre of the film’s particular institutional ‘cure’ as a mystery: all we ever see or hear of this figure is an enlarged but blurred photographic portrait, hanging behind a sheet of plastic in the abandoned clinic, and an old Edison gramophone recording in which an incantation of nonsense phrases is repeated ad infinitum. After all, in Kurosawa’s diffuse and haunting world, identity can never be pinned down and is, in any case, illusory (a provocative and disturbing thought in an age where Identity with a capital ‘I’ has become one of the defining political and cultural issues of the day). It seems this mysterious figure was regarded as something of a heretic during the Meiji period in the late 1860s when Japanese society began to industrialise and to adopt a more western style of governance. Hypnotism was thought of as ‘soul conjuring’ during this period and suppressed as a form of occultism by the Government. The film is thus drawing an interesting and ironic parallel between the activities of medical practitioners in the 19th century, grappling with the secrets of the psyche and invoking nervous diseases that involve both the body and the mind, and the methods of the witch hunters and the priests they were trying to discredit and replace. Showalter also points out in Hystories how Charcot’s techniques echoed those of the witch-hunt and involved searching the bodies of his patients for signs of hysterical “stigmata” and pricking or writing on their skin. Kurosawa’s film suggests that when a conservative, authoritarian society suppresses these investigations into the unconscious and attempts to replace them with a purely surface concern with the pursuit of consumerist pleasures, it causes a mass societal neurosis to take root, much as the repression of trauma is said to lead to the physical manifestation of hysterical symptoms in Freudian psychoanalytic theory. The semi-urban world at the edge of the city depicted in Cure, with its degraded, sub-Gothic landscapes of perpetual Jungian liminality, is itself an expression of the sense of dislocation and unconscious anomie its characters experience at a subconscious level as part of their daily lives. Ironically, the final scene sees Takabe, at last, finding a place of healing and calm only previously experienced in short bursts of fantastical heavenly flight when riding on a bus with his wife on her way to her appointments at her mental health clinic. Yet it provides a bitterly bleak coda to this entrancing but stark view of the modern human experience.

 Cure finally arrives in the UK via a dual-disc edition from Eureka Entertainment featuring some worthwhile extras taking the form of an excellent video overview and critical appraisal by Kim Newman and two interviews with Kiyoshi Kurosawa: one an archival piece, and the other brand new. Plus, there’s a trailer, and a collector’s booklet featuring an extended essay by Tom Mes. It is the film itself that ensures, though, that this will be an essential purchase.                             


Wednesday, 16 May 2018


One of the things I hope for when reviewing the new Blu-ray and DVD releases is finding that what has dropped through the letterbox is a previously unsuspected perfect masterpiece that I hadn’t been aware of before. Legend of the Mountain is a film that falls into exactly that rare, much-appreciated category. It is an extraordinary fantasy-horror epic, made by wuxia supremo King Hu in 1979 -- and it now finds its way to UK shores in a definitive Masters of Cinema dual-format edition released thru Eureka Entertainment, having been fully restored to perfection in 4K back in 2016 by the Taiwan Film Institute.

The Chinese film industry had been mining its rich history of folk tales, legends and ghost stories since way before the release of this picture at the end of the seventies. Notably, King Hu’s first employers -- Shaw Brothers Studios -- from his days as a jobbing actor, had a run of successes in the Horror genre and even teamed up with Britain’s Hammer Studios in 1974 to co-produce The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires. But Hu’s film, produced, like most of his better known pictures in Taiwan, and starring many of the key names from his repertory of Taiwanese actors, belongs in a special category all of its own, despite deriving from the same literary source materials and incorporating similar shenguai elements as many of the earliest efforts in a genre that would in later years become better known to western audiences with Ching Siu-Tung’s 1987 hit A Chinese Ghost Story. In many ways, Legend of the Mountain represents a throwback to a more elegant cinematic past, and has more in common in its artful approach with classic Japanese arthouse supernatural cinema from the '50s such as Kenji Mizoguchi’s transcendent Ugetsu Monogatari, than it does with the increasingly sleazy materials that were being produced in China at the time under the Shaw Brothers umbrella -- like Ho Meng Hua’s Black Magic (1975) and Black Magic II, or his bizarre follow-up Oily Maniac (1976).

King Hu was a masterful filmmaker, noted for his blending of western film editing techniques with the choreography of traditional Chinese martial arts, the resulting aesthetics replicating the formalities of the Beijing Opera he had loved since childhood. King Hu’s retinue of skills as an editor, production designer, costume designer and visual artist facilitated a combination of influences that resulted in outstanding new school wuxia classics such as his breakout film Come Drink With Me (1966); the record-breaking box office hit Dragon Inn (1967); and its follow-up (in which the director’s style-conscious thinking-man’s-action-movie approach to direction reached its zenith), the critically acclaimed A Touch of Zen (1971): all of which married great artistic visual beauty with dynamic camera work and complex plotting. Although the latter also featured representation of the metaphysical as understood through Buddhist philosophy alongside the swordplay and intrigue, a straight ghost story in the style of China's traditional folk tales such as Legend of the Mountain represented new ground for King Hu’s cinema.

By 1979, though, Chinese horror pictures were, in general, becoming more exploitative. Yet King Hu’s uniquely beguiling, ambiguous yet baroque creation seems to display some affinities with the idiosyncratic ‘70s cinema of Nicolas Roeg and even takes inspiration from visual imagery found in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents over and above the high profile western horror pictures that had started to exert an influence on the direction of Chinese horror. Rather than following the pack, this film represents King Hu continuing to move away from mainstream commercial concerns. Like A Touch of Zen a full eight years before it, its extended run time -- in excess of three hours! -- worked against the film attracting a large audience; and in the west, its runtime was severely truncated. After spending so many years on A Touch of Zen, Hu made some effort with the work that followed to get back to producing the commercial hits of his early career by adapting to the new Kung Fu style pioneered at Shaw Brothers. But he found it increasingly difficult to attract funds for his favoured form of historical swordplay epic. Interestingly, the circumstances surrounding his decision to make Legend of the Mountain at that precise point in time, and the reasons it turned out as it did, had less to do with Hu's pre-existing artistic proclivities and everything to do with the  practicalities of his professional and personal life coming together to interact in a very specific way during this stage of his career.

Firstly, Legend of the Mountain was the second of two movies Hu was contractually signed up to make back-to-back on location over the course of a single year, requiring him to utilise largely the same cast and crew and shoot at the same locations in South Korea: a production method very similar to one famously employed by England’s Hammer Films in the mid-sixties for the purposes of cost-cutting. In this case, the approach was driven by Hu’s need to attain funds from the Korean Motion Picture Promotion Corporation: a body set up by the Korean authorities to make it attractive for foreign film production to come and invest in Korea by shooting on location there. A primary condition was that a minimum of two films had to be made in the county in order to qualify for this generous funding subsidy. So, with this in mind, King Hu wrote Raining in the Mountain: a film about life in a Ming Dynasty monastery, which he conceived after visiting a Korean folk village  - a kind of living museum that seeks to preserve historical monasteries, buildings and artefacts on site and in their original condition – while on a scouting mission in the mist-shrouded mountains, realising that the location could easily double as a Chinese historical setting since the architectural style showcased by its Buddhist temples was very similar to that which was developed in the 11th century by China’s song dynasty. This film was to be made for Hu’s usual Taiwanese backer. But Hu still needed to come up with a second film, which he would produce himself and own the exclusive distribution rights to. For this reason, Legend of the Mountain had to be made very cheaply by going straight into production on completion of Raining in the Mountain and utilising the same re-dressed locations and sets, as well as retaining largely the same cast and the same crew.

At around the same time, King Hu married a Chinese writer and scholar called Ling Chung, who had written extensively about Chinese literature and had been teaching the subject for several years at the State University of New York in Albany. Chung gave up her academic career in the States to come and work with her new husband -- and was delegated the job of writing the screenplay that would form the basis of the second film Hu planned to make after completing work on Raining in the Mountain. Hu nearly always scripted his films alone, so suddenly having someone else generate his material (even if it was his own spouse) was undoubtedly a new experience for him. Working from elements of legend found in the much-mined 18th century text Strange Tales From A Chinese Studio, by Pu Songling -- specifically the short story A Cave Full of Ghosts in the West Mountain, which provides the basic framework of the screenplay -- Chung came up with a tale that was very different from anything Hu had written and filmed before, presenting unique challenges for a filmmaker with a style underpinned by his talent for shooting complex action rooted in the real world.

Chung’s story, although an original variation on a traditional tale set in the culturally sophisticated Song dynasty, nevertheless remained true to the poetic spirit of Chinese folk tales and legends of the supernatural, while actually containing barely enough plot to fill a half-hour short. However, Ling Chung imbued her modern interpretation of the story with references to the many religious traditions that had co-mingled in China for centuries, informing its intellectual and spiritual life, its philosophy and everyday superstitions. This presented King Hu with the interesting conundrum of how to present such a context on screen with characters that largely stand for metaphorical ideas, and have motivations rooted in the indefinable abstractions of their historical milieu. For his solution, King Hu took the counterintuitive and daring approach of actually extending the film’s running time rather than reducing it, experimenting with duration to reinforce an ethereal atmosphere and create a concentrated  film texture full of poetic allusion that does not need to busy the screen at all times with concrete incident and complex plotting. A dreamlike state is induced by extending moments in which nothing much is happening while collapsing events that would normally take place over a great period of time (such as the courtship before a wedding) into mere seconds. The approach was in no way intended to provide padding to make up for the sparseness of the story source; Hu was attempting instead to give expression to the mixture of Taoist and Buddhist thought which provides an illustrative intellectual backdrop to the kinds of folk beliefs this story and others like it inherently rely on for their appeal.

This intent won’t perhaps be apparent to the unwary viewer who comes into this world without prior knowledge of it -- at least until some way into the film; and neophytes may initially feel bewildered by the apparent indifference to issues of pacing or plot development. Indeed, at first it seems all Hu is really interested in depicting at great length is his protagonist -- a naive clerical copyist played by frequent King Hu collaborator Chun Shih -- wandering a series of arresting otherworldly mountain passes and various landscapes of outstanding natural beauty, usually framed as a tiny fragment amidst the splendour, whilst serene Chinese woodwind musical cues float forth, interlaced on the audio track with the profound eeriness of wailing mountain winds. The film begins in this graceful, relaxed register and returns to evocations of such moods at several junctures to show how key narrative events and the characters associated with them also have profound implications for interpreting the landscape. Implicit in such an approach is the philosophical assumptions of the Taoist religion, where an enchantment with nature and its ineffable, ungovernable forces exists alongside a belief in the harmonious creative energy that lies unseen behind everything, connecting all living things and inanimate objects in a matrix of potentialities for transformation. Couple this with the ideas of reincarnation and karma that come from a pervasive Chinese Buddhist strain of thought, and you end up with a -- to western eyes – strange and idiosyncratic ontology, with everything having resonance with something else: animal spirits can take on a human form, and silent meditation or ritualistic incantation (even the act of playing a musical instrument and the creation of melody) express the modes of a life force that also regulates the development of ecosystems and the weather through an all-enveloping teleological wholeness functioning across multiple plains of existence. Even without any prevailing knowledge of Chinese religious thought, viewers will find they have soaked up this metaphysical context perhaps without even realising it, thanks to an extensive series of powerfully allusive montages, edits and pillow shots King Hu expertly weaves throughout the picture … not to fill out time, but to imbue the interactions of his characters with a textural spiritual resonance that’s embedded in a belief system incorporating an immanent supranatural agency.

The film’s hero, meanwhile, embodies the more practical, rationalistic traditions of Confucianism. Clerical scholar Yunqing Ho (Chun Shih) is a man with his feet planted firmly in the real world. He has been charged with a specific practical task he must travel a great distance to accomplish: to carry a scroll, containing a written sutra that releases the souls of the dead, to the Mudra Temple, high up on a plateau of the Gaya mountain, where he is to copy it for General Han in the wake of a great battle on the frontier that has resulted in the loss of many soldiers who, according to Buddhist belief, cannot pass on to the next stage of their existence without it. Ho does not reject the supernatural. Indeed, he leaves armed with prayer beads given to him by a monk to ward off any demons he might encounter along the way. They have been blessed in a sombre temple ritual, composed of elaborate hand gestures and earnest genuflection, treated with the same amount of gravity as later outright manifestations of supernatural power by way of a heightened and discordant audio design emphasising striking idiophonic percussive sounds. Ho assumes, though, that such realms are distinct and separate from the ordered rational world informed by the six senses, and so is surprised and disconcerted to find his lonely journey across the vast, overwhelmingly beautiful terrain, not so much interrupted by as infused with uncanny sights and unsettling encounters: a glimpse of a spectral woman in white who shimmers in the mist that perpetually floats above a mountain lake; ghostly flute music with no player, emanating from a deserted rest-stop pavilion; and an inscrutable Lama in orange robes who seems regularly to appear out of nowhere as Ho makes his way between eerie empty staging outposts (with their perfectly preserved but now-empty monasteries and religious statuary) and the serenely picturesque mountain trails across which he tenaciously treks inbetween.

This portion of the narrative echoes the opening act of many film versions of Dracula (as well as Stoker’s novel itself), and recalls Jonathan Harker’s journey into the wilderness of Transylvania, where he too is expecting merely to complete a straightforward clerical task, before finding himself immured by the irrational forces of a great supernatural evil. Here, though, Yungqing Ho's journey seems to find its resolution in a destination that appears at first far less threatening and uncanny than his route getting to it, despite initially falling foul of a shambling oddball mute manservant on the outskirts, called Old Chan (Feng Tien) -- the story’s equivalent of an Igor figure from James Whale’s Frankenstein. Arriving at General Han’s deserted fort compound to be told that his host (Yueh Sun) is in fact already dead, Ho is offered sanctuary in the already-prepared rooms of Han’s favourite concubine by the General’s smilingly friendly chief advisor Tsui Hung-chin (Lin Tung), and introduced to the only other residents of the complex: a raspy-voiced but voluble busybody housekeeper by the name of Madam Wang (Rainbow Hsu) and a young maid-servant called Quing; but most significantly, Wang’s beautiful daughter Melody (played with relish by Dragon Inn heroine Feng Hsu), a former court musician whom the cajoling housekeeper seems unusually eager to pair-off with the bookish visiting scholar. Instead of a horror story or fantasy epic, we appear to have stumbled into a domestic comedy of manners-cum- sex farce in which Madam Wang and her maid-servant conspire to have Yunqing Ho act as tutor to Wang’s daughter in the hope of getting the two close enough for long enough to marry them off. Rainbow Hsu, as the domineering Madam Wang, here provides the film with one of its more unexpected highlights thanks to her enjoyable turn as a comedy grotesque, but we soon realise (although Yunqing Ho does not) that supernatural machinations are afoot when Melody’s recreational drumming skills turn out to have hypnotic properties that allow her to put the young copiest into a memory-erasing trance, thus allowing her to claim the next morning that he has had his way with her while drunk and is now honour-bound to agree to Wang’s terms of marriage! This is particularly unfortunate, because no sooner has Yunqing Ho tied the knot and consummated his marriage to the sinister Melody for real (a love scene overlaid with nature imagery in a montage that combines scenes of sunsets and mountain lakes, and cuts from phallic images of fish swimming to a spider’s web being spun) than he falls in love with the daughter of the widow of a frontier magistrate, called Cloud (Sylvia Chang), who lives in a simple dwelling with her mother outside the fort.

The jealous love rivalry that ensues between Melody and Cloud unleashes a multitude of outlandish supernatural interventions, and it becomes more and more apparent to Ho that he is in fact surrounded not be people but by earth-bound spirits, who are the very souls he has been called here to help pass to the next stage of their existence. All the relationships that have heretofore been established between the characters are revealed, therefore, to be entirely false. In truth, Melody is the chief instigator of all preceding events: a serial murderer during life who killed Wang, Quing and Cloud before being tried for her crimes at General Han’s court where she was exiled to die alone. Seeking to settle her scores, Melody's wandering spirit was granted occult powers by a misguided Taoist priest (Hui-lou Chen) and she became a powerful demon who has enslaved the souls of Madam Wang and Quing to help her steal the sutra and use it to resurrect herself in the world of humans. The Taoist priest and his Lama assistant (the traveller who shadowed Yungqing Ho’s journey across the mountains) are trying to stop her, but her powers are growing too strong to resist. All of this is later explained by way of the priest’s prayer shrine, which has the ability to function as a cinema screen that explains to people what motivates their actions by reflecting images of events from their past lives back at them (thus allowing King Hu to deliver convenient info dump flashbacks to his own characters as well as to the viewer). These revelations also mean that Ho’s love for Cloud is as doomed as his marriage to Melody, for, as the laconic Lama magician points out: “an affair between a man and a ghost can never work out.”

But it can certainly leave a strong impression -- as Hu demonstrates repeatedly throughout the colourful three hours-plus of this by-turns visually poetic, awe-inspiring, comedic, and hallucinogenic audio-visual experience. (And that is, in the end, the best way to think of the movie – as an experience!) Lengthy digressions in the form of serene montages appreciating both the beauty and pitilessness of nature, also suggest oblique ties to the ghostly affairs that play out on the spiritual uplands of human relationships. There are several extraordinary hypnotic scenes in which religious and demonic forces battle each other with opposing rhythmic drumming and lots of coloured smoke. All the skills for shooting action Hu demonstrated in past full-throttle wuxia films are here brought to the service of bonkers gladiatorial supernatural showdowns between Melody and her various antagonists which, in other hands, could’ve looked rather weak given the poverty of the special effects budget. Here, through a combination of effective editing, precisely choreographed gesture, showy camera movement and lots of that coloured smoke, alongside a clamorous audio track of thunderous drumming and discordant janglings, they are rendered utterly strange and compelling.  Only one short sequence relies on the sort of wire work more usually prevalent in the wuxia genre, but it’s a good one – and infused with a peculiar fantastical mood that’s equal parts fairy tale and nightmare. It involves Quing the maid emerging from a sort of earthworks in the middle of a sunlit clearing that Ho and Cloud encounter after having trekked through a darkened gothic forest of crooked burnt tree trunks while trying to escape the malign influence of Melody. With the uncanny sound of fluttering feathers high up in the audio mix, the evil spirit swoops and acrobatically dive bombs the couple from above like a bird of prey, at the same moment demonstrating all the fragile grace and beauty of a gravity-surfing butterfly. Astonishingly, this sequence was one of the things cut from the film when it was originally released in the west in a shortened even more incomprehensible form!

 It is not until the concluding act, though, that King Hu finally allows the film to register a fully recognisable Gothic mode that fully embraces the irreducible irrationality of its subject matter; by which point, because of its now total disdain for anything approaching narrative logic, combined with a determination to bombard the viewer with a full sensory overload of uncanny supernatural stimuli, the movie begins to resemble, in both visual style and textual tone, the neon-soaked nightmare fairy tale of Dario Argento’s Suspiria: with a delerious coloured light-drenched showdown that involves multiple doppelgängers and plentiful psychokinetic pyrotechnics, it concludes with a splendidly gooey body horror meltdown, at which point the film apparently cycles back to the beginning in a Dead of Night-style coda.

This amazing piece of work gets a very nice treatment for its UK outing, with extras featuring a video essay by David Cairns, an insightful talk by former King Hu associate and Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns, and a noteworthy booklet featuring informative writings by King Hu and screenwriter Ling Chung, a splendid essay by Glenn Kenny, and a plethora of behind-the-scenes photographs featuring the cast and crew filming on location in South Korea.