Seemingly bored millionaire Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin) actually has a rather interesting hobby during his nights: so he can atone for the sins of his past as drug-dealing Eastern warlord, and channel his inner evil into something good a Buddhist monk has taught Cranston the power to cloud men’s minds, providing him with basic invisibility and other fun powers. So by night, Cranston turns into the mysterious crime-fighting vigilante only known as The Shadow, who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men and fights New York’s underworld, recruiting people like taxi driver Moe Shrevnitz (Peter Boyle) as his agents.
The Shadow’s life becomes rather more difficult when Shiwan Khan (John Lone), the last descendant of Genghis Khan arrives in town. Shiwan Khan has learned the same mystical powers as The Shadow. but he’s quite violently not bought into that whole atonement business at all. Instead, Khan plans to use his power to conquer the world, a plan that clearly can’t help but start with the kidnapping of one Dr Reinhardt Lane (a horribly underused Ian McKellen), and end with the threat of a rather premature nuclear bomb. The Shadow for his part will do all in his power to safe New York from destruction.
It’s quite easy to play the game of imagining one’s own perfect The Shadow movie out of whichever bits and pieces of Walter Gibson’s pulp novel series and the radio show it spawned and that would influence the continuing novels if Gibson wanted (which he didn’t) or not one prefers. The more pulp knowledgeable among the reviewers of Russell Mulcahy’s film tend to do that, of course, which generally results in attempts to compare the poor film with one’s dream adaptation, a process that can only lead to tears.
If I, by now grounded a bit more in Shadow lore than I was when I first watched and enjoyed the actual film at hand, would play the old game of pick and choose myself, this would certainly be a different film, one which would keep the Shadow himself quite a bit more mysterious than the film does (probably turning the Lamont Cranston identity into the pure mask Gibson in the end decided it to be), which would play up the role of the Shadow’s agents, give Penelope Ann Miller’s Margo Lane a bit more to do than fetchingly wear awesome dresses and not get kidnapped, certainly provide the Shadow with a rather more creepy laugh, and would most definitely hire someone for The Shadow’s facial prosthetics who knows what she is doing.
However, not being one’s dream movie seems to be The Shadow’s main problem, at least as far as that curious bird, the 90’s blockbuster pulp movie adaptation/superhero movie in the wake of the success of Tim Burton’s miserable first Batman film goes. The rest of the weaknesses are just your typical mid-90s blockbuster stuff, things I take as a part of the genre make-up of the film. So The Shadow quite expectedly demonstrates a horrible fear of actually being dark when it is required to be and a love for rather lame hero’s journey stuff business even if that approach to heroics doesn’t fit the actual hero it concerns itself with at all.
However, despite all these flaws and various possible niggles, I still enjoy Mulcahy’s film a lot, beginning with its surprising success at taking one of the Shadow’s “yellow peril” enemies and not having him end up as a horrible racist caricature. In part, that’s thanks to David Koepp’s script only using the most neutral tropes of this sort of thing – and to good effect – adding knowing nods like Shiwan Khan’s sartorial liking for Brooks Brothers suits, but to a larger degree, Khan works through a performance by John Lone that goes through ranting, raving, and clever little jokes with a wonderful physical presence and just the right amount of irony. Never so much of the latter it drifts into the realm of camp – generally not a problem of this particular film anyway, thankfully – but enough to turn Khan into something different from a racist caricature, not a bad guy because of his skin colour but because of his character.
And then there’s the other great joy of the film, its incredibly artificial style in the whole of its production design reaching from costumes to an architecture. All of it locates The Shadow in an artificial dream world of style that takes iconic elements of 30s and 40s fashion and architecture and blows them up to ridiculously beautiful proportions, a 30s and 40s of the imagination. I believe we have Tim Burton’s Batman – if you ask me a much less entertaining adaptation of a piece of pulp culture – to thank for a mainstream production being indulgent in this kind of way.
In any case, it’s this aspect of the film that turns it into a film not of the “style over substance” kind certain critics love to talk about and that I have only very seldom encountered myself, but one where – like in a Chor Yuen wuxia but of course not as incandescently – style is substance, dragging an audience into a world that very consciously isn’t the real one, treating cinema as a place of shared cultural dreams, or in this particular case, a place where an audience can dream about their own contemporary ideas of shared cultural dreams gone by. Not so we can self-consciously point and laugh and tell ourselves how morally superior we are to the past but – perhaps – to find the point where the old dreams and the new touch.
Mulcahy as a director is a perfect choice for this sort of thing, having spent the better parts of a career going up and down and up again making films that try to tell all they have to say through their surfaces (polished like mirrors), leading audiences into places that are often more akin to dreams than they are to stories as such; unless they end up being Highlander II: The Quickening, but putting shared dreamscapes on screen isn’t easy.
Denis Klotz contributes a regular film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?
Tatsuya is coming home – to see the birthplace of his mother, to attend the funeral of his maternal grandfather, and perhaps something more. The current head of the wealthy Tajima family (barons as it were of the rural town of Yatsuhaka-mura) is ailing and near death, and with no other heir apparent seems intent on granting that honor to Tatsuya – his step-brother, estranged from the family since infancy.
Unfortunately for Tatsuya that honor seems to grow more dubious with each passing day. In addition to the predictable greed of relations both distant and otherwise (all itching to take a slice of the Tajima pie to further their own personal agendas), the downright oddball behavior of the household’s overseers (a pair of spinster great-aunts who chortle, insult, and prowl at night), and the less-than-kindly townsfolk (disgruntled farmers, inept policeman, gossips, and an old crazy obsessed with “The curse, the curse!”), Tatsuya also finds himself confronted with the slight issue of murder. Someone or something is targeting the villagers for destruction, a modern crime which many believe had its beginnings in the distant past.
How distant, you ask? Why 400 years! Deep in the warring states period eight wayward samurai from the Amako clan descended upon the village in hope of escaping their conquerors, the Mori clan. Though at first welcomed by the villagers for their hard work and kindness, the promise of incredible rewards from the Mori clan inspired a swift and drastic change of heart. A plot was hatched among the villagers – as they attended a local festival the unsuspecting samurai were to be ambushed and murdered, and their heads taken as prizes for the Mori clan. The fateful night arrived and the plan was grimly executed, but the betrayed Amako swore retribution, cursing the village with their dying breaths.
From that night onward the village is plagued by recurrent spates of seemingly irrational violence, each connected somehow to its most prominent family, the Tajimas, who were formalized in the immediate aftermath of the samurai slaughter by chief conspirator Shozaemon. It’s a fortuitous beginning for the Tajima family, who were granted extensive land rights (and with them near total local power) by the Mori clan for their traitorous work, but one which is short-lived. Not long thereafter founding father Shozaemon goes positively insane, murdering seven of his fellow townsfolk before gruesomely decapitating himself. The numerical connection, eight for eight, proved too much for villagers to ignore, and the fear of the curse began. Suitably scared for their own skins, the surviving townspeople gathered the scattered remains of the samurai for proper burial and erected a mountain shrine in their honor. Soon the town came to be known for the eight graves which overlooked it – Yatsuhaka-mura, the Village of 8 Gravestones.
And thus peace returned to the village, for a few generations at least. But twenty-eight years prior to the events of the film, shortly after Tatsuya’s mother fled Yatsuhaka-mura with her infant child in tow, misfortune struck the village once more from the troubled house of Tajima. Driven to madness by forces unknown, head of house Yozo murdered his young wife with a samurai sword before donning grotesque make-up and descending upon Yatsuhaka-mura with a shotgun in one hand and a sword in the other. Thirty two were massacred in total and some families obliterated entirely before Yozo escaped into the labyrinth of caves beneath Yatsuhaka-mura, never to be seen again. Despite reparations paid in cash and land the Tajima reputation was forever tarnished, and the tale of the curse of the slaughtered eight began to circulate afresh.
With memories of that tragedy still well in mind the new round of murders are enough to send Yatsuhaka-mura spiraling towards panic. As the body count rises newcomer Tatsuya finds himself a prime suspect to the villagers, whose long-repressed grievances against the Tajimas have finally boiled over. With the local police powerless to maintain order and a lynch-mob growing just beyond the walls of the Tajima household Tatsuya makes his escape into the caves below, following in the ignoble footsteps of his supposed father Yozo and desperately searching for answers. Meanwhile a certain detective is prowling, intent on piecing together the puzzle for himself even if its ultimate solution is almost too fantastic to be believed…
While it remains relatively unknown in the West (there is a French translation, at least), YOKOMIZO Seishi’s postwar mystery novel Village of 8 Gravestones remains one of the most popular of its type in its native Japan. The fourth full-length work to feature the author’s beloved detective KINDAICHI Kosuke, Village of 8 Gravestones was initially serialized over a whopping two years (March of ’49 to March of ’51) in Kodansha’s Weekly Shonen and has since been adapted three times for film (including a missing-in-action 1951 version from Toei and a 1995 effort from director ICHIKAWA Kon), six times for television, at least once for the theater, and, courtesy of From Software (Demon’s Souls), has even made the leap to the realm of video games (and this is ignoring the numerous print variants, including a wealth of manga iterations). Of all these adaptations Shochiku Co.’s 1977 effort was one of the most ambitious, a ¥700 million (roughly $3 million at the time) mega-production designed to go head-to-head with rival major Toho’s blockbuster product at the box office. The bid was well calculated. Village of 8 Gravestones turned a small fortune for Shochiku – ¥1.986 billion, roughly $8 million and more than twice the studio’s investment, making it the third highest grossing film of the year (a good one for the studio, with the dependable Tora-san‘s 18th and 19th entries adding a combined ¥1.935 billion to Shochiku’s box office take for 1977, and netting the 6th and 10th top-grossing spots respectively).
It’s well worth noting that big production values don’t always lead to great or even good films, but Shochiku were quite astute in their efforts, drawing together some of the best talent active in the industry at the time to make their big-deal feature a reality. The duty of adapting Yokomizo’s novel for the screen fell to HASHIMOTO Shinobu, arguably one of the most important screenwriters in postwar Japanese film history and a man whose credits read like a checklist of popular blockbusters and essential masterworks (Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom, Kobayashi’s Harakiri, and Moritani’s Submersion of Japan, to name a very few). More pertinent to the film at hand are his frequent collaborations with NOMURA Yoshitaro (including Zero Focus, The Shadow Within and Castle of Sand), the venerable and prolific Shochiku director tasked with bringing Village of 8 Gravestones to the screen.
In its structure Village of 8 Gravestones reminds heavily of the screenwriter’s other collaborations with the director (particularly the then-recent Castle of Sand), and of many of the latter’s other films besides. Nomura’s penchant for flashbacks (well in evidence even in the earliest of his work that I have seen, 1958’s Stakeout) may have found its perfect outlet with this production, in which the material allows him to traverse not just hours or days but whole hundreds of years with a single cut. Indeed, the film begins with the fated samurai looking down upon the village that will be their doom before transitioning, with a hard cut and the roar of a jet engine, from a close-up of an Amako clansman in 1566 to a wide shot of a JAL airliner landing in 1977. In an instant the pastoral images of rural life and warm hues of an autumn sunrise give way to hazy smog, the glint of aluminum, and a pale concrete runway shimmering with summer heat – an abrupt collision of past and present that aptly sets the tone for what is to follow. Nomura may well be the master of the flashback technique, which by this point in his career was as essential an aspect of his storytelling as the moving image itself. More than just a tool for major revelation, Nomura uses flashbacks where other directors might settle for more traditional exposition, and goes so far as to eschew expository dialogue all together where the images alone will suffice. It’s a less obtrusive device than one might suspect, even used so often as it is here, and the atypical narrative flow that results is a big reason this Village of 8 Gravestones feels so uniquely of Nomura’s making.
The device also results in what are arguably Village of 8 Gravestones‘ two most memorable scenes – the ambush of the eight Amako samurai in 1566 and later massacre of 32 by the demented Tajima. The former is brilliant old-school horror stuffs, punctuated as it is with unexpectedly graphic violence (the suffering visited upon these unsuspecting samurai is ghastly indeed) and a curse delivered as an electrical storm rages overhead. The latter plays like a bona fide art-house nightmare, with the demonic Tajima hacking, slashing, and blasting his way through the hapless population of Yatsuhaka-mura as cherry blossoms drift down from above. There’s a sense of vengeful justice to the scene, with its almost heroic scoring and elegant slow-motion takes of Tajima charging through the cherry blossoms. The accompanying music is rousing and propulsive, calling to mind the golden age of the American western, and is one of the most evocative of acclaimed classical and prolific cinema composer AKUTAGAWA Yasushi’s contributions to the film. The contrast of Akutagawa’s heroic overtones with the horrific violence onscreen (Tajima cutting down tens of men, women and children in cruel and gory fashion) is a big part of what makes the scene so unforgettable and disturbing. More so still the fact that many of its details were founded in the real-life Tsuyama massacre (right down to Tajima’s bizarre choice of headgear – a pair of military-issue flashlights), a grim historical grounding that lends the scene an exploitative tabloid appeal that’s every bit as delicious as it is difficult to justify.
The frequent flashbacks aside Village of 8 Gravestones offered Nomura an opportunity to dabble in his other directorial idiosyncrasies as well, including a fondness for long takes of characters strolling down rural roads (a staple image of Castle of Sand with comparative examples to be found throughout his work) and a fascination with the depiction of rail travel that borders on the obsessive (his 1958 feature Stakeout offers perhaps the most ostentatious example of this, a 7 and a half minute pre-credits jaunt on an express train from Yokohama to Hakata). Nomura’s persistent establishment of location shifts with superimposed text is present and accounted for, and taken to an almost parodic extreme during detective Kindaichi’s mid-film investigative travelogue – seven changes in location across two minutes, with most accompanied by superfluous degrees of superimposed time and location data. Indeed, Kindaichi’s involvment in the proceedings can itself seem quite perfunctory, and rather than being the focus of the piece (a Kindaichi mystery!) is instead used by Nomura as a device to explore yet another of his perennial interests – that of adults haunted by troubling childhood events (a theme echoed in Castle of Sand, The Shadow Within, Writhing Tongue and others). To that end Tatsuya, whose hazy past comes into focus through the events around him, is a quintessential Nomura protagonist (though contrary to Castle of Sand et al, here it’s a haunting from the past doing the revealing as opposed to a haunting past being revealed). Village of 8 Gravestones remains a mystery film regardless, but as is typical of Nomura, the mystery it’s most interested and engaged with isn’t likely to be the one the audience expects.
While some of this may seem exceedingly minor (and some of it really is), it all adds up to a style as distinctive as that of any of the more lauded auteurs, one which Nomura established early and exhibited with surprising consistency throughout his thirty year tenure as a director for Shochiku. Beyond his own curious proclivities, a lot of that consistency doubtless lies with the professionals Nomura so regularly surrounded himself with. Perhaps most notable among them is director of photography KAWAMATA Takashi, a frequent Nomura collaborator from 1961’s Zero Focus onward. His photography here is much in line with that of the earlier Castle of Sand, eschewing a more heavily stylized genre approach in favor of a more neutral and restrained one, and punctuated with more dramatic flourishes where justified (a few intense and angular setups contrast heavily with Kawamata’s otherwise level and distanced compositions). Aforementioned composer Akutagawa was a frequent accomplice as well, first paired with the director as Nomura was establishing himself in the late 1950s – for Village of 8 Gravestones he followed up the symphonic tour de force of Castle of Sand with another of his very best scores. The styles on display are appropriately eclectic for a film so concerned with the clash of distant past and modern present, and set so unusual a tone in some sequences that it borders on the absurd. A late film wander through Yatsuhaka-mura’s caves by Tatsuya and and a Tajima family confidant quickly develops into a veritable travelogue of death (the caves are strewn with the recently deceased, all victims of murder), but Akutagawa willfully contradicts its abject ghoulishness with a slow waltz that’s practically dripping with romance. The five minute cue may well be the highlight of Akutagawa’s entire score, and for the cumulatively oddball Village of 8 Gravestones it strikes just the right (if rather strange) chord, ultimately pulling viewers in precisely the unexpected direction Nomura intended. Shochiku was so certain of Akutagawa’s talents that they actively sold the picture on them; one of their five (!) theatrical trailers for the film is devoted to his involvement, and puts his waltz front and center.
Not to be outdone by those involved behind the camera, Village of 8 Gravestones’ cast is a hodge-podge of new stars and established talent that ranks among biggest and best of its time. This is the sort of production in which even the most incidental of roles is filled with a seasoned professional, with such familiar names as HAMAMURA Jun (The Burmese Harp), OTAKI Hijeki (Deathquake) and IGAWA Hisashi (Pitfall) to be found among the supporting players. KATO Yoshi (Profound Desires of the Gods) seems to relish his brief appearance as Tatsuya’s maternal grandfather (who manages to utter only a couple of garbled words before spectacularly snuffing it from strychnine poisoning) while TODA Junko (The Blossom and the Sword) is goofily convincing as an elderly and curse-obsessed local crazy. ATSUMI Kiyoshi (Tora-sanhimself, and one of the most bankable actors in the history of Japanese cinema) took on the all-important role of detective Kindaichi, and lends the character an easy-going personality that contrasts wonderfully with Yatsuhaka-mura’s increasingly fear-crazy townsfolk. Though Atsumi may have been the de facto star of the picture it’s HAGIWARA Ken’ichi (musician, actor, and lead vocalist of the late ’60s pop group the Tempters) as Tatsuya who takes center stage dramatically, playing the essential straight man around whom Village of 8 Gravestones‘ considerable craziness revolves. OGAWA Mayumi (Vengeance is Mine) and YAMAMOTO Yoko (Gappa the Triphibian Monster) each take hefty supporting turns as rare voices of reason from within the Tajima household, while ICHIHARA Etsuko (The Eel) and YAMAGUCHI Ninako are appropriately insidious and creepily inseparable as the two great aunts. Even with such a bounty of fine performances to be had YAMAZAKI Tsutomu (Tampopo) and NATSUYAGI Isao (Warm Water Under a Red Bridge) can’t help but steal the show, and ghoul it up in iconic fashion as Yatsuhaka-mura’s pair of resident boogeymen – the deranged Tajima Yozo and the betrayed Amako samurai leader respectively.
If it sounds to you as though I’m singing the praises of Village of 8 Gravestones too highly, you’re probably right. But one should know that my enthusiasm lies less with any subjective judgement of its greatness on my part than the fact that I find it so endlessly, and perhaps even obsessively, interesting. I’ve screened it more times for the purpose of this review alone than I can rightly remember (a dozen or so over the past week I’d guess), and as I become ever more intimately acquainted with the idiosyncratic minutiae that form its whole such objective qualifiers as “good” or “bad” seem increasingly inapplicable to my case. I am fascinated by the intellectual experience of the thing, pure and simple, and by the contradictory sense that the more I see it the less it seems like any film I have ever seen before. To some extent I could say the same of the rest of the Nomura film’s I’ve seen, all of which are strikingly similar and yet no two of which seem the same. Among them Village of 8 Gravestones stands as perhaps the quintessential example of what makes Nomura’s cinema so unique. Practically all of the director’s stylistic quirks are present and accounted for, and often in spades, but the film remains highly accessible by virtue of its mainstream genre pedigree. For those curious to explore Nomura’s work there is no better starting point than this and, in case this mountain of words hasn’t already made it obvious, I recommend!
Village of 8 Gravestones is reviewed from the Shochiku blu-ray, which was released on October 3rd and from which the screenshots in this review were gleaned. The disc offers no English subtitle or audio options, but does present the film in a lovely new HD restoration made with the assistance of cinematographer KAWAMATA Takashi. The restored audio is presented in two flavors of 96 kHz / 24-bit LPCM – the film’s original 4.0 stereo and 2.0 monophonic mixes – and is supported by optional Japanese SDH subtitles. Shochiku’s 5-trailer ad campaign is the only supplement – these are also newly transferred in HD with 96 kHz / 24-bit LPCM audio, and total roughly 17 minutes in all. Village of 8 Gravestones is dual layered and appears to be all region compatible (it played without issue on my Region B secondary deck), and retails for a relatively reasonable ¥3,300. As of this writing it can be had for around $30 shipped from Amazon.co.jp.
Sportsman and collector Archer Coe (Robert Barrat) dies in what at first looks like suicide to investigating Detective Heath (Eugene Pallette) and District Attorney Markham (Robert McWade), but amateur detective Philo Vance (William Powell, shortly before Nick met Nora) soon sets the two straight, for what we have here is a rather complicated case of murder that just happens to be a real locked room mystery, too.
Finding suspects is quite easy in this case, for Coe must have been the most hated, and surely the least pleasant, man in town. Possible suspects are (and I might forget one or two here, given their sheer number): Archer’s brother Brisbane (Frank Conroy), the kind of guy who carries around a book called “Unsolved Murders”; Archer’s niece Hilda Lake (Mary Astor), terrorized by her uncle’s oh so cruel holding of the purse strings as well as by the fact that he’s standing in the way of her marriage plans, and, the film suggests not particularly subtly, sex life; Sir Thomas MacDonald (Paul Cavanagh), the marriage plan embodied; Archer’s secretary Raymond Wrede (Ralph Morgan), also interested in marrying Hilda, though she doesn’t want to; Archer’s cook Liang (James Lee), a highly educated Chinese gentleman who helped Archer out in some shady antiques dealings and now finds himself not only relegated to his cook but also further betrayed; Eduardo Grassi (Jack La Rue), a near business partner of Archer’s who sees himself spurned after Archer finds out he has an affair with his girlfriend Doris Delafield (Helen Vinson); and something’s off about the butler Gamble (Arthur Hohl), too.
As if being spoiled for choice weren’t difficult enough for Vance, it’s also devilishly complicated to actually establish what happened the night of Archer’s death. After a while, there’s another corpse to deal with, and as many obfuscation attempts as there are suspects. It’s no wonder Nick Charles would start to drink so many martinis.
It is rather seductive to pretend that Philo Vance changed his name to Nick Charles after this particularly stressful case, started drinking too much, and married Myrna Loy, at least William Powell’s performance here, in his last and – as I’m told – best Philo Vance film, isn’t far off from type, just sober. Did someone by any chance write a meta-detective novel with this plot? Someone should.
Anyhow, Michael Curtiz’ The Kennel Murder Case has not only the reputation of being the best Powell-starring Van Dine adaptation, but also of being the best of the Philo Vance mysteries, which I find difficult to doubt, given how perfect an example of its style this is, with little room for improvement except for the film being an over-constructed “golden age” mystery. But complaining about that would be idiotic, my general dislike for that part of mystery history notwithstanding. Particularly when it turns out that, when they are executed this well, I don’t mind the tropes of the sub-genre at all.
This is one of the films where all elements come together so well, it can turn even someone not particularly fond of a (sub-)genre like me into a believer. The film’s virtues start with Robert N. Lee’s and Peter Milne’s excellently paced script that has a point-on rhythm so well realized, not only are various revelations here actually exciting even whole new film languages and mystery sub-genres later, even the comic relief sequences seem to belong in the movie instead of being their usual, squeezed-in selves. There are also some surprisingly pleasant elements to the film not very typical of its time, with a Chinese character, played by a Chinese American who doesn’t have to speak in pidgin or bizarre folksy metaphors, and who isn’t our detective’s main suspect just because of his race. In fact, there’s even a short bit where Vance reacts to Heath’s casual racism with a nice little eye-roll. Why, the film treats Liang like a human being not qualitatively different from anyone around him, and actually seems a bit sympathetic towards a man having to live quite below his abilities because of his skin colour. The film doesn’t make a big thing out of this, but it’s very pleasant to witness in a film of this age nonetheless; it beats me if this is part of Van Dine’s novel, too, though I very much doubt it, going by the man’s general hateful snobbery.
The script is full of these little touches that give its stock characters more life (as does the fine cast), and just make the – well-constructed yet contrived, as it should probably be in this sub-genre – plot quite a bit more interesting because it seems to involve people with actual social and personal relations; I found the mystery itself pretty satisfying and fun to watch unravelling too.
Curtiz’ direction is something special here too, for most of the minor productions of big houses of the time were directed either with carelessness or with a by-the-book style that never seems to even aspire to provide an audience with something to look at beyond groups of people who might as well be assembled on a theatre stage. Curtiz approach here is much more dynamic, with many an expressive camera angle, movements that explore the film’s sets as physical spaces, and a clear and concise idea of how to make the most out of the actors’ performances, as well as how to deepen an inevitably dialogue-heavy story through the things the audience sees. That’s the sort of thing that gives a director like Curtiz, who at the time was just another hired studio gun, if one with quite a bit of experience already, his auteur reputation. Even though I’m not a fan of his horror films for Warner, and don’t even enjoy Casablanca all that much, it’s hard to disagree when confronted with as perfect a genre film as The Kennel Murder Case, and not just in the light of other highlights of the director’s filmography.
Denis Klotz contributes a regular bi-weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?
Warning: there are one or two rather mild spoilers ahead
Eddie Brewer (Ian Brooker, an actor whose screen credits only seem to consist of a few bit parts, which looks preposterously unfair in context of his performance here) is a rather old-fashioned kind of paranormal investigator. He works alone, mistrusts the whole EXTREME Ghost Hunters approach as much as the professional sceptics, and clearly abhors mediums; in fact, even though he has encountered strange phenomena quite often, he doesn’t necessarily even believe in spirits as such.
Despite his friendly curmudgeonly nature (with an edge of sadness connected to the burning death of his wife decades ago), Eddie has agreed to be accompanied by the documentary crew of a culture TV channel for a bit. The investigator clearly thinks they are doing some friendly puff piece, so it comes as a bit of surprise to him when he learns that their plans also involve a group of modern style ghost hunters and capital-S sceptic Susan Kovac (Louise Paris) with whom he has clashed before.
Mainly, Eddie is concerned with two cases right now. One involves some poltergeist type occurrences surrounding a young girl named Lucy Blakewell (Erin Connolly), phenomena which started out harmlessly enough but that by the time Eddie appears at the scene have become quite disturbing to Lucy’s mother (Bella Hamblin). And after all, how unthreatening can a phenomenon be that is connected to Lucy’s imaginary friend, when said friend calls itself after the clown Grimaldi?
Eddie’s second case concerns some odd happenings in Rookery House, a historical yet run-down building owned by the local council that’s being – rather haphazardly it seems – renovated. Particularly the building’s cellar appears to be a veritable hotbed of weird occurrences. In fact, Eddie will have encounters there that will be closer than any he’d ever expected.
During the course of the cases, Eddie will also learn that there just might be connection between them, that if you look into an abyss, the abyss just might look back at you, and that you really don’t want to waltz into certain cellars with a horde of people in tow.
Expectations are a wonderful thing, particularly if you go into a film like Andrew Spencer’s The Casebook of Eddie Brewer expecting another paranormal investigation POV horror film (I still can’t believe this is now an actual horror sub-sub-genre with more films in it than the Nazi zombie film) as I did, only to be delighted by what the film then turns out to be.
Formally, The Casebook isn’t a pure POV/found footage film at all. Most of the film does consist of the material the fictional TV crew is shooting but whenever things happen when and where having a camera around would be improbable, or when the paranormal activity is playing around with the camera while Eddie experiences something horrifying – which just happen to be scenes much more effectively staged without the POV camera style – it changes to a more traditional filmmaking language, with many a well-composed (and moodily-lit) shot. Trained against the improbabilities of the POV conceit as I – and probably other viewers of the type who haven’t grown to loathe it – now am, I would have expected to find this changing approach jarring, but Spencer uses it so effectively, naturally, and logically, the shifts in viewpoint seem to be organic parts of the film that wouldn’t make any sense if done differently.
That’s not the only highly impressive aspect of a film clearly made on the tightest of budgets, the kind of production where half of the people involved take on three or four roles behind the camera. The sound design is particularly worth mentioning, with various creepy noises taking the place of visible special effects, though the latter do come into play when appropriate, generally to good effect, unless you just need to see something explode, or want very explicit gore. In that case, however, this won’t be a film to make you happy anyway.
It’s not as if The Casebook were coy about the supernatural, though. There’s no dragging of feet in the script, and an absolute willingness to show the audience creepy and disturbing things, unless – and I love it when a film has the brains to know the difference – it is more creepy not to show something, and instead to suggest it. The film also does right by some other pretty difficult elements of horror, namely the so often tedious and annoying battle between believers and sceptics. The film is always clear that its sympathies (at least in the context of the plot) lie with Eddie’s approach to the supernatural, but it anchors these sympathies in Eddie’s characterisation instead of trying to convert the audience or preach at it, or even worse annoying with the bizarre holier than thou attitude of something like The Conjuring (a film as inferior to this one, by the way, as its budget is higher). In fact, professional sceptic Kovac doesn’t seem to be looked down upon because she doesn’t believe but because she’s an asshole about it, which goes for the Ghost Hunters! from the other side as well.
What impresses me most about Spencer’s film aren’t any of these fine and impressive elements, though, but rather how well it builds up a feeling of dread, beginning in a wry, friendly and even comedic tone that slowly shifts as the more disturbing parts of the plot unfold. At first, the hints of things to come only break the film’s seemingly laid back flow a little, but like Eddie’s nerves, the tone becomes increasingly brittle until even what starts out as a scene making fun of a broadly acted medium can turn frightening at a moment’s notice. Brooker, as the actor who is in most of the film’s scenes, sells this change of mood and his character very well. In his performance, there’s a certain edge to Eddie’s character from the beginning, yet the edge is counteracted by a feeling of basic, no-nonsense (in the polite British way, not the American one) decency. Until, that is, one of the film’s central horrors occurs, and the wonder and calm that are part of Eddie’s character shift into fear and utter horror. It’s quite the thing to watch.
Not coincidentally, as the whole of The Casebook of Eddie Brewer is.
Denis Klotz contributes a regular bi-weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?
Teen Aubrey Fleming (Lindsay Lohan) is living a charmed life – she’s bright, wealthy, has a supportive family, and could have all the jock boyfriends she could handle; all reasons for her not to be perfectly happy are hidden quite well or perfectly obvious after this description. Then one day she disappears, probably the third victim of a serial killer.
Unlike your usual victim of a serial killer, Aubrey reappears quite alive, if without her right hand and parts of her right leg. Her abductor’s earlier victims suggest he is into torture through amputation before he kills his victims, so this isn’t completely surprising, if horrible. The police assumes Aubrey must somehow have escaped from her tormentor and just made it close enough to a road to be noticed.
But the returned Aubrey says she isn’t Aubrey at all but an exotic dancer called Dakota Moss; she also claims not to be able to describe anything about her tormentor, and to barely remember anything at all, if with a reluctance that suggests she might not be telling the whole truth. Everyone is convinced Aubrey has developed some choice delusions to protect herself from her traumatic experience – the FBI in childishly annoyed ways that surely would help no traumatized victim open up, Aubrey’s family with a mixture of horror and a willingness to get through this thing too, somehow, whatever “this thing” actually is.
However, Aubrey/Dakota hasn’t even told anyone the truly strange parts of her story, something so unbelievable it looks she and her shiny new high class prosthetics (medicine is surprising fast on the film’s planet) will have to catch the serial killer themselves.
I suspect the general hatred for Chris Sivertson’s I Know Who Killed Me is based on the general hatred for lead actress Lindsay Lohan, something I neither share nor care for, since nothing I know of Lohan’s public life suggests anything more than the not atypical story of somebody growing up in public and becoming troubled and somewhat self-destructive, which certainly aren’t things deserving of hatred in my world. That “compassion” thing I heard about once might be a more appropriate reaction, but of course, if there’s one thing left and right, identity politicians and bigots have in common right now, it’s their pleasure in judgement and talking down to people instead of making even the tiniest attempt at empathy or developing tolerance for any imperfections in others.
Be that as it may, and leaving Lohan’s (who gives a perfectly decent performance here, and if that’s the sort of performance deserving a Razzie, the people responsible for that award should probably watch actually bad performances from time to time) public image aside, I Know Who Killed Me looks to me like the sort of film everyone who’d be interested in a (relatively) contemporary US variation on the giallo should take a look at when she’s through the films of Brian De Palma, whose shadow seems to hang over the film in more than one scene.
I Know Who Killed Me is not at all interested in “realism”, or in being the kind of thriller whose plot would be even vaguely probable in real life, or even just sound probable as fiction. Rather, Sivertson’s film attempts to create a dream world, a filmic place where visual metaphors (some so very, very blunt as to make Eisenstein blush, some surprisingly subtle) are more important than plot logic. For my tastes, Sivertson is very good at this sort of thing, using surprisingly complex and meaningful colour schemes, gliding camera work, and the sudden influx of the fantastic and the bizarre into the semi-reality of the film, all in the service of creating a fictional place and a mood that enables him to talk about how difficult it is to be a young woman right now, quite independently of class, or talent, or just blind luck. One might suggest that this theme rather fits the film’s lead actress, but hey, what do I know?
If I Know Who Killed Me only consisted of these elements, it would be a rather easy film to digest and love, but Sivertson adds even more to the mix: there are moments when the dream mood becomes a fairy tale mood (see also the classic fairy tale trope about lost siblings), moments of Lifetime Channel type melodrama awkwardly rubbing against the rest of the film, rather too coy sleaziness (the stripping and the sex feel more than just a little absurd thanks to that), and a sense of dry humour that pops up in the most unexpected places. It’s a bit of an overload of contradictory impulses, and certainly doesn’t help make the film an easily digestible whole. It does, on the other hand, create something of a feeling of more going on behind the film’s curtains than one at first suspected, suggesting a complexity of ambition behind the film I’m still not sure is actually there. What it definitely leaves a viewer with is room for copious divergent interpretations of hidden meanings, which is always a fun game to play with a film inviting one to it.
Of course, this tonal inconsistency drawing me to I Know Who Killed Me like catnip does to Socks is exactly what will drive a lot of people away from the film. Any given viewer will find more than one moment in it either impressively imaginative or strained to the point of inadvertent comedy; I don’t believe anyone watching will be left neutral. As should be obvious, I found myself impressed more often than not, and appreciated the film’s more dubious moments because to me, these moments look like the result of a film actually taking risks, and often strange risks to boot, instead of going the easy route of just being a very standard thriller.
Denis Klotz contributes a regular weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?
The early years of post-war Japan. Private detective Kosuke Kindaichi (Toshiyuki Nishida) is asked to take a look at the curious affairs of the Tsubaki/Tamamushi family, whose upper class life is taking a turn for the worse. Eisuke Tsubaki (Noboru Nakaya) was the main suspect in a nasty poison murder and robbery affair, but after his name had already been cleared his body was found dead of suicide.
Curiously, nobody seems to have told Tsubaki he’s dead, and various members of his family see him appearing at the theatre, and in the windows of the family mansion. It’s gotten so disturbing, the family – not exactly a hotbed of sanity in any case – decides to hold a séance. Despite Kindaichi sitting in, there are even more curious things happening during the séance. Some of these, at least, look very much like products of human agency – ghosts, after all, are generally not wont to play records of their very favourite flute pieces when they could do some ghostly fluting of their own.
While Kindaichi seems rather at a loss to explain what and why is going on, someone (or is it something?) kills the doddering family gramps (Eitaro Ozawa) locked room style. With that, a series of unfortunate events gets rolling. Kindaichi starts on an investigation digging up family secrets and hidden sins, all the while trying to protect young, innocent, and pretty Miyako Tsubaki (Tomoko Saito) from the worst fall-out of the confounding affair.
Mystery writer Seishi Yokomizo’s character Kosuke Kindaichi has proven so popular in his native Japan that there’s a rather impressive number of movie and TV adaptations of the novels, with the detective so ingrained in parts of the popular imagination there’s even a rather popular anime, manga etc. cycle about the adventures of his grandson (the latter, it seems, pleasantly unauthorized by the author’s heirs).
Yokomizo is often (at least in the few parts of the English language internet talking about him at all) called “the Japanese John Dickson Carr”, and going by the Yokomizo adaptations I’ve seen – the translation situation of the writer’s novels into English or German being as bad as typical of nearly all Japanese writers of popular fiction before the advent of the light (that is to say, generally not very interesting) novel – this is one time when that sort of description actually fits. It’s not just that Yokomizo is as inordinately fond of locked room mysteries and impossible crimes as Carr, there’s a real kinship in the type of impossible crime the writers prefer, with many a well-researched accouterments of the gothic, the occult, the supernatural and the macabre used in a way that situates these mysteries well inside of the realm of the Weird, resulting in mysteries that need awe-inspiringly (and very often inspired) contrived solutions to be explained as natural instead of supernatural. Personally, I’m not much of an admirer of the “murder as a puzzle” approach of so-called “Golden Age Mysteries”, but when that approach is enhanced by copious amounts of séances, ghosts, vampirism, witchcraft and everything else that makes life worth living, I actually turn into something of a fan of the form, particularly when created by the kind of wit and imagination Carr and (again, going by the movie adaptations) Yokomizo brought to the table. Uncommon for the style, the “rational” explanations for the surely supernatural are generally not disappointing with these writers, for their use of sheer, overwrought yet often perfectly well thought out contrivances often reaches a point where their “rationality” seems even stranger than the supernatural would be.
Devil’s Flute‘s director Kosei Saito (that is at least his name when you follow the IMDB – the rather dubious subtitles call him Mitsumasa Saito, and I’m not fluent in Japan apart from knowing how to shout “Help! Ghost!”, so take your pick) does some rather extraordinary work with these nearly supernatural aspects of the plot, turning the parts of the movie concerning them into a Japanese approach to the Gothic, reaching intensity through artificiality, theatricality and dark and stormy nights. That aspect of the movie is – not exactly typical for the parts of this kind of film where the “rational” is supposed to assert itself – even strengthened once the identity and motivation of the killer become clear, for his or her reasons are completely founded on themes and ideas you’d look for in a Gothic novel. This impression is further enhanced by Saito’s decision to let his actors – apart from Nishida’s Kindaichi, who stands like a rock of basic human decency, understanding, compassion and rationality among the waves of melodramatic insanity surrounding him, undeniably close to Chandler’s idea of the private detective as a knight – go all out on their melodramatics, with emotional lives that seemingly start at being turned to eleven (and really, what less melodramatic human being would kill for this kind of bullshit, and in that way?), and no stops to be pulled out even in sight.
One could argue that Saito lays this sort of thing on a little too thick from time to time, but I’m not sure Devil’s Flute‘s plot would work at all if the director treated his characters’ emotional lives with a more subtle approach. It’s also quite obvious that Saito is able to enact a little less breathless melodramatic intensity when he wants to, for the film’s main emotional set pieces are broken up by scenes that create a very believable post-war Japan, a land of broken people standing right between utterly different approaches to look at life and reality, and utterly non-artificial landscape shots, embedding the Gothic melodrama of the film’s main plot in a much more conventionally bitter reality.
Denis Klotz contributes a regular weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?
China during the Warlords Era. Policeman Song Donglu (Lau Ching-Wan, doing his crazy detective bit with all the verve and charisma I expect from what might be my favourite living Chinese actor) may work in a prison, but he’s a nearly superhumanly able investigator. He spends his time actually talking to the prisoners, clearing up wrongful convictions through his powers of deduction – not that this frees anyone, mind you – and learning what he can about human psychology from the inmates. Donglu may be a cop in a dirty system, but he’s as humanist a man as one could imagine.
The numerous letters regarding the wrongful convictions he has written must have earned him the respect or supreme annoyance of somebody somewhere, for he is transferred to the city of Tiancheng to work on the local police force’s corruption problem.
Not a man to be discouraged by little things like getting an office in the file archive in the cellar, Donglu quickly inserts himself into an interesting case, the kind of mystery he developed his talents for. A peculiar series of murders has begun in the munitions factory of a certain Mr Ding (Liu Kai-Chi, in a horribly over-done performance that doesn’t jive at all with anything everyone else on screen is doing). The victims are shot by some unknown and unseen person, but the bullets are nowhere to be found. It’s as if they were disappearing into thin air. So it’s no wonder the workforce – held in virtual slavery by Ding – believes the killer to be the vengeful ghost of a killed worker girl who died in a game of Russian Roulette dressed up as “asking the heavens” for a verdict on a supposed crime by Ding.
Donglu, working with cop Guo Zhui (Nicholas Tse, as neutral as always acting-wise), the fastest gun in Tiancheng, and clearly a policeman nearly as clever and as interested in the cause of actual justice as Donglu is, soon realizes that Ding is the kind of guy who would cheat in a game of Russian Roulette, and that whoever commits the murders certainly does so in connection with crimes Ding committed. But realizing this and finding out and proving what is actually going on are different things. Things that can be dangerous once one finds out that the local chief of police is in Ding’s pocket, and there aren’t many people an honest cop can trust.
At first, it’s easy to assume The Bullet Vanishes to be a Hong Kong clone of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies, seeing as how the films share an eccentric and brilliant detective, some techniques of demonstrating said detective’s brilliance, and a soundtrack style. However, once the film gets going it becomes clear that director Law Chi-Leung was certainly taking inspiration from the Holmes movies yet is wise enough to be doing very much his own thing with it. Which, as much as I enjoy Ritchie’s pulp action mysteries, really is as it should be.
Law’s film keeps inside the genre lines of the pulp mystery, with the mandatory – and excitingly done – chases and shoot-outs, the contrived murder method that can only be understood through just as contrived and very entertaining investigation techniques, and a damn boring romance sub-plot between Nicholas “I may win prizes for best actor but you sure wouldn’t notice” Tse and Yang Mi as terribly cute fake soothsayer Little Lark (some women really know how to wear a 2012 idea of a 1920s hair cut is all I’m saying) who unfortunately share not an ounce of chemistry.
Despite the very uninvolving romance, that feels shoe-horned in from a “blockbuster writing 101” checklist, I’d be perfectly satisfied with The Bullet Vanishes if it did only repeat the expected genre beats in its own enthusiastic and accomplished fashion. However, Law is a more ambitious filmmaker than that. Consequently, Bullet goes through some mood shifts reminiscent of a style of Hong Kong film made thirty years ago, with tragedy and serious discussion of ethics as much on the program as detecting, shooting and a bit of silliness. This more po-faced aspect of the movie didn’t work quite as well as I would have wished for, with some of the more melodramatic moments feeling not quite as well built up as they should be, and the discussion of political ethics coming somewhat out of the blue, but I prefer a film like this that attempts to add something more to genre formula filmmaking and not quite achieves it to the more harmless and riskless kind of movie; at least when the not quite achieved ambition does not ruin the rest of the movie, which it doesn’t here. Plus, it’s nice to see a Hong Kong film that doesn’t shy away from agreeing with a humanist view of people even though it is willing to respect other perspectives. There’s none of the unpleasant respect even for corrupt authority that is en vogue in Hong Kong cinema since the Takeover to be found in the film, either – after all, these bad guys are Warlord Era capitalists, so there’s surely no connection to contemporary China (or America, or Germany) here, right, Mister Censor?
While I and many of my Hong Kong cinema loving peers have written many sad words about the descent of Hong Kong cinema already, if you watch the right movies, the old lady still has some life in it beyond whatever Johnnie To directs in a given year. More importantly, there still seem to be filmmakers like Law Chi-Leung willing to do interesting and at least somewhat ambitious things inside of very commercial genres without looking down on them or their audience. The wild years of Hong Kong cinema may be long over, but films like The Bullet Vanishes are proof that there’s a good chance that the second decade of the slick years of the city’s cinema can still produce films very much worth watching and thinking about. Like Lau Ching-Wan’s character in the movie, I choose to remain hopeful.
Denis Klotz contributes a regular weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?