This week, Joe McCulloch examines your cultural find of the moment, Japan's own Hausu, before leaping forward a decade to deliver the verdict on Lars Von Trier's Epidemic. Tucker just watched all the Resident Evil movies, but at least he votes.
aka: Hausu, 1977
If there’s any Asian genre picture of the 1970s that needs no introduction right now it’d have to be this; high-profile dvd/blu launch aside, you might actually have seen the tour and bought the t-shirt. Indeed, if I’m not mistaken, the striking case design on display now at your friendly Barnes & Noble originated as a promotional poster initially designed for a regional booking, later graduating to nationwide event shows and a popular t and decal design. This parallels the canny marketing that’s gone into “one of the most exciting cult discoveries in years,” per the back cover hype – like a perfect round of hopscotch, House danced across my filmgoing vision as must-link YouTube fragments-turned-Special Screenings Only-turned-mass release rumors culminating in a so-obvious-you’ll-slap-yourself pre-Halloween arrival in stores.
And it is a fine lump of marble to be so carved, endlessly given to catchy excerpts and breathless synopses all but prompted by divine right to tickle horror-camp -exploitation-art-nerd desires. A girl is eaten by a piano and disembodied teenage legs fly kick a cat picture that SPITS AN OCEAN OF BLOOD. It’s God’s work of putting over a real curio, and Criterion brings the effort into your home by tossing out the term “indescribable,” again on the all-important back cover, although certainly Mr. Chuck Stephens acquits himself as more than capable of description within a colorful included booklet, to say nothing of the disc supplements themselves. I realize the value of this aesthetic/contextual bet-hedging -- it’s a time-tested emphasis on spectacle, keyed to a viral-infected audience’s appetite for the tonally outré -- but I can also see how it risks framing the effort as an exercise in new fashion for the jaded movie mole, whereupon online discussion flash-freezes into stuttering exclamations of Weird and Unbelievable and Hilarious and Crazy; were this an Armond White review, and not merely a distant cousin in syntactic derangement, the term ‘hipster’ would be making its inevitable cameo right about now.
None of this is to downplay the visceral shock of the odd that accompanies this picture; the supremely confident first feature work from experimental filmmaker/advertising veteran Nobuhiko Obayashi, extrapolated in part from fanciful terror scenes imagined by his young daughter Chigumi and locked and loaded with all the new and lowdown editing tricks television and cinema history had to offer, House is absolutely brazen with go-for-broke stylistic bravura, not so much blending tints and focuses and freeze frame dissolves as abjectly denying that anyone had really discovered their destined form until Obayashi hit the scene. At times it gets so vigorous in kneading in animation effects and searing colors and frames-within-frames with dreamily deployed sociological anxiety you’d swear it’s all some mid-‘00s superflat art school put on – there’s even a girl down on her knees in a maid uniform who’s transformed first into a doll and then an oozing, clicking organic gearwork…!! Truly this is the perfect moment for Obayashi’s vision to resurface: when the fuzzy-edged visual effects don’t resemble a Tim & Eric sketch, they evoke the handmade spookiness of on-the-fly children’s television experiments a solid chunk of the home video target audience will perhaps involuntarily recall. Think the odder Sesame Street animations, the ones still slick with the membrane of experimental film; that’s the texture at hand.
Yet as Stephens helpfully notes, House was also careful at the time of its release to acknowledge contemporaneous pop culture touchstones -- apparently going so far as to anticipate which mass-appeal programmer it would be serving as risky B-feature for, so as to sneak in a pertinent joke -- while also getting a soundtrack album out well in advance of the premiere to build (and eventually subvert) expectations; I expect the irony of a film once carefully marketed as tangential to wider popular phenomena now finding itself carefully marketed as sui generis freakout food is readily ascertainable. Far from a baffling mania of stimuli, the film’s young-girls-stuck-in-a-haunted-house-connected-to-one-of-them plot is steeped in folkloric and cinema tradition, as well as familiar history; teenage Gorgeous is pissed at her beloved absentee father taking on a serious lover (thus depriving her of his exclusive attentions when he’s around), so her and six similarly mononymic pals head off to vacation at the remote home of Gorgeous’ distant aunt, actually a deathless cat spirit who’s refreshing her corporeal form on young girls since her betrothed croaked in WWII. The crew is terrorized -- often literally to pieces -- and Gorgeous and the phantom eventually fuse into one to exact vengeance on the perfectly nice lady Our Heroine’s dad is trying to marry.
Stephens ably cites to Criterion-affiliated antecedents such as Jigoku director Nobuo Nakagawa’s Ghost Cat Mansion (1958) and Onibaba director Kaneto Shindo’s Black Cat (1968), but I think two further points of reference can offer further illumination; one is obvious, the other less so.
The first is manga artist Kazuo Umezu, whom I can envision standing on his seat and screaming during the show; Obayashi was eventually recruited for a 1987 movie adaptation of Umezu’s immortal The Drifting Classroom, which can seem in the abstract like the most perfect pairing of director and source material in the whole of cinema history, although I haven’t seen the result, nor have I heard much good about it. Still, there’s much in common between the two men’s work. Just as Umezu’s early horror comics planted sparkly little girls in riotous settings of Western-oriented luxury, all the better for the rug to pulled from underneath their shiny shoes, so does Obayashi couch the early scenes of his film in a woozy paradise of school halls and scenic verandas and rainbow nature vistas, augmented and subtly undercut by positioning characters in front of colorful murals and advertisements that ‘frame’ certain scenes, alerting us to the fabrication of it all. Indeed, this half-hour idyll mostly resembles a highly aggressive, very long television commercial, the tropes of which Obayashi knew just as well as Umezu understood the glamour-addled concerns of the early shojo manga where he got his start.
Both artists drag these tropes screaming into horror, emphasis on the screaming; just as seemingly every line of Umezu’s horror comics is delivered at the top of any given character’s lungs -- like in Mark Trail or the writings of Stan Lee, it’s often difficult to find lines of dialogue that don’t end in an exclamation point – so do the seven heroines of House giggle and yelp and shout on top of each other for pretty much the entire runtime, interrupted only by bursts of funky guitar work or pop ballads or the film’s incessant piano theme, which as I’ve previously indicated at least has the courtesy to bring an actual piano to life to eat Melody (the girl who likes music). While her body is being devoured, Melody’s disembodied head bobs into the frame to glance at her kicking naked legs and comment on how naughty they look, which demonstrates another Umezu similarity: a willingness to mix rather overt comedy directly into the horror, resulting in a disquieting glee. This shakes you, as horror is ostensibly supposed to, but it does so in such an unorthodox fashion that it can be difficult to even understand that ‘horror’ is the approach; easier, then, to smirk at the artists -- kindly, appreciatively -- and call them ‘insane,’ or lounge in carefully distanced appreciation of the ‘awkwardness’ of what can only be a tragically misfired attempt at looking like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or something, right? This is the peril I mentioned earlier, but just as Umezu’s often strange intent became clearer as more of his output became available -- and I’ll readily admit I didn’t get him at all until The Drifting Classroom dropped -- so can comparison with like-minded artists illuminate Obayashi.
But wait. What does it all signify anyway? Certainly not Umezu’s fascination with social proprietary and planetary ruin. Criterion’s disc offers some clues, particularly by way a 1966 Obayashi short titled Emotion, which Stephens identifies as of a type with the director’s early experiments in stylizing young girls teetering on the ominous cusp of maturity. Know this, and suddenly the image of a high school girl striking a kitty’s yawning mouth and causing it to bleed becomes 10,000,000% less elusive.
This brings us to my second point of reference, which I’ll confess I only thought of after planning to team House with Gaspar Noé’s recent Enter the Void for an evening of visual delights. The latter film’s co-writer is Lucile Hadzihalilovic, a frequent Noé collaborator who directed an excellent feature of her own in 2004, an apparently controversial and bewildering-to-some allegorical drama titled Innocence, set at a secluded girls’ school that represents the color-coded students’ troubled path to sexual and emotional bloom under the tutelage of flawed adult women and before the distant gaze of powerful, unseen men. Likewise, Obayashi opens his film with images of Gorgeous playacting as a bride (which looks more like a witch, we’re assured), and then ensconces his seven girls in adult auntie’s House, all the crew coded by human characteristics pertinent to women: Gorgeous (the primary state), Kung-Fu (toughness), Prof (intelligence), Mac (stoMACh; appetite), Melody (artistry), Sweet (charity, domesticity) and Fantasy (imagination). All of them are stripped, chopped up, dissolved or otherwise taken apart and compartmentalized, save for Gorgeous, the first, who assumes the cat spirit and fuses with her aunt, and Fantasy, the last -- and, in true scary movie style, the only one who sees everything that’s going on, though nobody believes her until it’s too late -- who regresses to an infantile state and is last seen resting her weeping head against Gorgeous’ suddenly mature, exposed breast.
In this way, the early ad-happy artifice of House represents carefree childhood; there’s an excellent scene where auntie’s tragic WWII origins are revealed as an old intertitled wartime movie, with the teenage primary cast commenting frivolously from off screen like noisy girls in a theater, unable to relate to wartime agonies on anything but the level of how manly and virtuous special guest Tomokazu Miura looks fighting for Japan (Miura was an actual teen dream pop star of the day, lending an added layer of verisimilitude-of-fakery). In the house, the seven girls -- seven being the potent number of heaven, perhaps suggesting the eternity of femininity -- are bedeviled by increasingly intrusive, violent effects, invading the frame and molesting reality, to say nothing of their sleepwear-clad young bodies.
Yes, there is a potent sexual charge to this film, as the looming endgame visions of butts and legs and occasional flashes of nudity -- again, on rather young-looking girls – most creepily reveals. Yet if Obayashi exhibits a hungry interest in all this tender flesh, it’s deeply ironic; from a male filmmaker, House is nothing if not a monument to male sexual self-loathing, missing no opportunity to deride every male character as hopelessly ineffective. This is tied, naturally, to WWII, framed as both the last gasp of Real Men in Japan and the straw that idiotically snapped the camel’s back for good. From there comes the real terror of this film: the appetites of grown-ass women, romantic and longing women, a destructive force positioned to obliterate anything stable in its path. To become an adult is to join with the hungry kitty’s mouth, to become restless and vengeful, to become happy and very, very unhappy.
Remember, though, that this is a horror film, and that horror needs no stable form; it can be crazed and cackling like Umezu, and it can express sad and downbeat notions on gender roles in society. The final eight minutes of House are affecting and fine, depicting the grown Gorgeous’ confrontation with her father’s lover as a still, sun-soaked meeting over 1977’s most syrupy ballad, beckoning the listener to come live in my house. It’s the most quiet scene in the movie, for most of it, and rather achingly sad instead of scary or cathartic, capped by home movie-like footage of Gorgeous as a girl once again. Subtly, cruelly, Obayashi suggests refuge in childhood, of ad-molded ignorance, although the video-fuzzed nature of this final battle suggests that you can’t escape the Void anyway. But there is no male Light around; if there ever was; it burned off over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leaving cold tears and gnawing frustration to grow as pretty as ad men and movies can paint them.
Resident Evil, Resident Evil: Apocalypse, Resident Evil: Extinction, Resident Evil: Afterlife
Somebody Hates Numbering Things, 2002-10
The Resident Evil movies are a commercially successful series of films loosely based on a popular video game series. The films all star Milla Jovovich, who plays the character "Alice" and, in the later films, clones of this aforementioned "Alice" character. Although the first film is a hybrid horror/action film, the other three are, for the most part, R-rated super-hero films set in or around zombie related conflicts. While the films, like many super-hero movies, consistently gather negative critical reviews, their fanbase rarely mounts the sort of large scale sanctioning that greet the nation's print critics whenever they publicly lambast the quality of comic book movies. Generally speaking, it would seem that the majority of the people who have returned to movie theaters, again and again, over the last eight years are both aware and satisfied with the basic crappiness of the series. All things being equal--or not, as it were--that's the most interesting aspect of these movies. No one is mounting an argument that they're very good, but a relatively large amount of people remain invested in watching them, as well as paying for the privilege. Why?
Finding the answer to that question does not, unfortunately, reside in the film's themselves. Each of them has a sequence or two that's visually compelling, Jovovich presents an attractive (while not always charismatic) presence throughout, but the film's are consistently dull, confusingly plotted, and stingily laced with the same generic fight scenes. There's some minor entertainments to be found after one realizes the little regard each consecutive filmmaker had for their prior contributors efforts--each movie closes with some sort of cliffhanger, but the beginning of the next one immediately subverts and effectively destroys it--but none of this works to deliver any real entertainment, nor does it reveal why, exactly, these movies continue to succeed. (The contributions of the international box office do seem to be drastically increasing their profitability, but American audiences have yet to make any serious moves away from the movies.)
The only possible answer to the question would therefore be one constructed out of a cursory reading of anecdotal fan praise mixed with a vitriolic dose of misanthropic contempt for "the filmgoing public", possibly America as a whole. There is no factual basis on which to present an analysis of why these films consistently fail at failing, only a banal listing of some of their more egregious stupidities, presented in a tone of false shock at why no one seems to care that these stupidities have gone unpunished. This difficulty could provide the opportunity for another discussion, one that contrasts the ability of the series to present a hard R (for nudity and extreme violence) super-hero film successfully, but that would ultimately crash against the same dilemma--these movies aren't any more impressive than Watchmen, they were just able to turn healthy profits before resorting to DVD sales to buttress lost marketing dollars, and no one can explain why.
So what is there to do with them, then? Admitting one watched all of them--while tacking on a shameful excuse, something like a muttered "building and packing had to be done, these were the wallpaper"--is the only useful response, especially when picking out their worser moments results in a painful headache, the kind that might accompany the hangover of a poorly-thought-out fluid exchange or a particularly embarrassing phone message. The only true lesson to be gleaned is this: shame doesn't always represent a character flaw, the way it does when a masturbating Catholic starts to hate themself. Sometimes it's a friendly reminder; there are things that you're better than, and you don't have to try them out just to prove it's true. One of those things, and you can consider this a warning, is Resident Evil--number one, number two, number three, and especially, number four.
The “von” is ironic, 1987
If, as the saying goes, a director reveals himself most completely in his first feature, Lars von Trier marked himself a contrarian early by waiting for his second. Both a loose-limbed conceptual pursuit and practically a joke -- its genesis was in a wager that von Trier couldn’t make a film for less than a set amount, made by a Danish national film consultant who, in the film itself, plays a version of himself given to lecturing filmmakers on the breaches of trust inherent to producing films on an unorthodox whim – Epidemic sees von Trier and screenwriter Niels Vørsel starring as filmmakers who abandon their tepid non-starter of a detective project (amusingly implied to be the pair’s 1984 breakthrough The Element of Crime) to crank out a script about a future plague and the idealistic doctor who unwittingly infects anyone stupid enough to care for him. The moment EPIDEMIC hits the page, the film’s title appears in the upper left-hand corner of the frame, the only element of the screen ever in color, both an omen of doom and an all-important watermark assuring the viewer that they are indeed enjoying an official Lars von Trier product, copyright mark clearly visible at all times.
It’s left to the viewer’s interpretation whether the resultant action, alternating between 16mm footage of our Dynamic Duo hashing out the script and 35mm scenes of the doctor’s journeys, is either a massively indulgent head trip saga in which von Trier & Vørsel accidentally unleash the plague from out of the pages of their screen concept, or a desperate gambit on the part of the pre-title von Trier & Vørsel, cobbling together a cheapo movie basically about themselves, which of course is effectively what the real von Trier & Vørsel are doing as a deliberate attack on the propriety of art-minded Danish cinema, with part of the attack being that the deliberation is not particularly emphatic. Needless to say, if von Trier irritates you, this is probably his most irritating film, but inherent to that is the fact that’s it’s also the most directly von Trier of films, from its aesthetic limitations and irreverent theory to the Tarkovsky-like religious force and invisible menace floating around the film-within-the-film(-maybe)’s Stalker-ready natural settings, though instead of playing color against b&w, von Trier positions differing levels of visual quality in conflict.
Critically, the rattier 16mm (save for a critical bridging scene toward the end) conveys all of von Trier’s and Vørsel’s misadventures, revealing the director as nothing if not eternally self-aware as to the cruelties of his own work. Epidemic was retroactively positioned as part of a trilogy with The Element of Crime and 1991’s Europa, the shared subject matter being the enduring wounds of a Europe entering the future, reopened by purported problem solvers; the trick is, if the contagious physician of Epidemic is at least well-meaning, his creators are rather not. Everywhere, von Trier & Vørsel portray themselves as shallow, essentially parasitic men, given to dropping “drama” into their film for little reason other than preventing the audience from getting bored or inserting anti-clerical mockery for no good reason beyond von Trier’s bored insistence on such. The faults add up, from an in-35mm scene of a female character gasping and choking to death buried alive in a coffin – because the boys feel the movie needs something like that! -- to a risible speech by Vørsel on the head games he played with a score of American teenage pen pals for the purposes of establishing writerly verisimilitude.
All of this feeds into the picture’s massively goofy and goofily disquieting finale, a session of sadistic violence-on-woman primal scream therapy that refutes all of the narrative devices of dramatic filmmaking in favor of the purest, most agonizing texture of noise. It might as well be Lars von Trier summarizing his filmmaking impulse as inevitable in the face of societal, psychological breakdown, which you mustn’t mistake for any patent virtue.
-Joe McCulloch & Tucker Stone, 2010