Sunday, August 30, 2009
Hiruko The Goblin (1991) 88 Minutes. Shinya Tsukamoto, Director.
Based on two stories from the Demon Hunter manga series by Japanese author Daijiro Moroboshi, Hiroku tells the story of a goblin let loose through one of the Gates of Hell. As it begins terrorizing a school one summer, a small group of students and an archeology professor struggle to find a way to stop it.
The film starts with the disappearance of a high school teacher, Mr. Yabe, and one of his female students while exploring a cavern. The teacher's son, Masao, and his friends go looking for the missing girl, Reiko, who he is secretly in love with. He is later joined at the school by Hiedo, an archaeologist who is trying to prove that demons exist and is being spurned by his colleagues for his beliefs. Masao is clearly more important to the events going on than he realizes, because every time someone dies from an attack by one of the demons, an image of their face is burned into his back.
From the opening moments of this film, I was immediately struck by the realization that Hiruko the Goblin was not like the other Tsukamoto films I had seen. I've seen a handful of his films, and they have been universally dark and atmospheric. From the cyber-punk body horror of Tetsuo:The Iron Man, his first film, to the pent up grief and surrealism of Vital, I had come to expect certain things from a Shinya Tsukamoto movie. I was certain within the first six minutes of the film that I was not going to be getting that experience from this one. Instead of the dark, dramatic story that I usually get from his films, I found myself watching a light horror comedy with more than a few nods to other films contained in it.
Tsutsushi Umegaki's synthesizer score during the opening credits, which seems to be clearly inspired by low budget horror films of the 80's, gave me my first real clue as to what kind of film I was in for. Using that as a jumping off point, there were references to Evil Dead, Little Shop Of Horrors (1960), Alien, The Abyss, and The Thing among others. Tom Mes' excellent book "Iron Man:The Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto" even shows a side by side comparison of shots from the ending scenes of Hiruko the Goblin and Metropolis! These things never feel like they are rip-offs, but more like nods toward those films. They aren't used as scenes being repeated from those film as much as they are ideas about effects and creature design being adapted for use in different ways. I'm sure that there are probably other references that I didn't catch on first viewing.
Japan's love of arterial spray is on full display here, from the windows being showered in blood during an off camera decapitation to the on camera attachment of a demon's body to a person's head. The empty school setting is used well, providing lots of long hallways to run (or bicycle a couple of times) down, kitchens to search and fight in, and stairways to stumble around. The heroes use a variety of weapons from shotguns to bug spray in their efforts to thwart the Hiruko demons.
The DVD that I have of this film is put out by Media Blasters apparently in association with Fangoria International. The film is shot on widescreen. It's got a few cool extras on it, including an interview with Shinya Tsukamoto, an interview with the special effects designer, a small feature on the goblin creation and design, a photo gallery, and a few trailers for other films from Shriek Show.
I can honestly say that while I don't think that this is my favorite Tsukamoto film, an honor that falls to either Snake of June or Vital (depending on my mood that day), I do think that this is the most fun I've had watching one of his films and I highly recommend it to my readers. It's certainly one that I will be watching again, and one that I think would be fun to watch with a group of people as well.
I decided to do a bit of research about this film after seeing it, and thought I'd share my findings. First of all, the name Hiruko comes from Japanese mythology. It was the name of the misshapen child of the brother and sister deities who gave birth to the islands that make up Japan. The story is recorded as far back as 712 A.D. The name translates as “leech child.”
Hiruko was Tsukamoto's second film, the first being Tetsuo:The Iron Man. When he was approached to do the project he wasn't interested in doing a manga adaptation, but was a fan of Moroboshi's work and accepted. While Tsukamoto wrote the screenplay and directed the film, he allowed others to handle the cinematography and editing of the film. This is an unusual move for him, but at the time, he was intimidated by working on a film for a studio, instead of doing his own independent work. To this day, he has only directed material that wasn't completely his creation twice, Hiruko the Goblin and Gemini.
While Tsukamoto doesn't claim to have negative memories of working on the film, the studio staff under him resented being forced to work seven days a week on the project, which was the style that Tsukamoto preferred to use. They also felt that he was too young and inexperienced a director. His biggest problem on the set was in dealing with a supporting actor, Hideo Murota, pictured below. Murota had an alcohol problem and would often show up on the set already drunk and carrying a bottle. Having starred in over a hundred films by that point, dating back to the yakuza films of the '60s and '70's, Murota disagreed about his part in the film and tried to force his opinions. He and Tsukamoto almost came to blows at one point during production and were separated by the cinematographer and one of the assistant directors.
The film also represents what Tsukamoto states is the only time that he has ever made a compromise regarding one of his films. He feels that the ending of the film is not what he would have wanted and that he had to settle for something less because the production ran out of money. The film had a budget of approximately $2 million, and when it ran out of funds near the end of production, the crew continued to work on it without pay to insure its completion.
It turns out that this film was a massive failure upon its release. (I didn't discover it until years later.) The studio, Sedic International, spent a lot of money on TV spots and ads for the film, but Tsukamoto felt that the posters were worthless. He was not involved in any of the promotion of the film, and looks back on it as a mistake. Tsukamoto has had a hand in every aspect of his films from that point on, from preproduction to marketing.
My information on the history of the film comes from interviews with Shinya Tsukamoto and from Tom Mes' superb book “Iron Man: The Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto,” which I highly recommend to his fans. It is released by FabPress, and can be found here: http://www.fabpress.com/vsearch.php?CO=FAB064 or at www.amazon.com .
Comments are welcome, of course! =)
Sunday, August 23, 2009
Last House On The Left (2009) 114 Minutes, Unrated Cut. Dennis Iliadis, Director.
As I posted on twitter the day before this film released on DVD here in the USA, I had only one wish for this movie. I wished that it not make me angry. I am a big fan of Wes Craven's original film and, when hearing that it was going to be remade, I was not a happy camper. Why not? Well, I'm not a big fan of remakes. I don't mind them, in theory. It comes down to what's done with that material. Some remakes improve on the material (The Thing), some do interesting spins on the material (Dawn of the Dead '04), some are mediocre (Texas Chainsaw Massacre), and some are absolute travesties (I Am Legend.) I always worry about having a travesty befall a story that I love. While admittedly not a huge fan of Friday The 13th, on the whole, I was completely incensed with how poorly that “re-boot” was handled. This is also the reason that I didn't go to the theater to see this film, and waited for DVD. The one thing that made me feel a little bit more comfortable about this remake being made was that Craven was directly involved with it and hand picked the director for it. I don't always like Craven's work, but I trusted him to understand how important the original film was to its fans.
It was not without a sense of dread, and I assure you that it wasn't the kind of dread that the filmmakers were hoping I'd have, that I put the DVD in my player. All I wanted was to not hate this film. I would have been totally fine with it being mediocre, just did not want it to suck. Luckily, I got my wish.
For the uninitiated, Last House On The Left is a remake of a semi-notorious 1972 film of the same name. It was the first film written and directed by Wes Craven, which was loosely based on Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring. While it's not without it's flaws, it was a disturbing and deeply affecting film.
Both versions of Last House On The Left tell the story of a teenage girl named Mari and her friend encountering escaped convict Krug and his gang. The gang kidnaps the two girls and assault them in the woods. Then when circumstances leave the gang stranded in the woods, they seek refuge in a nearby home that just happens to belong to the Mari's parents. The parents eventually figure out what happened and seek revenge for their daughter.
Strangely enough, this film is bookended by the two weakest scenes of the entire film. The opening five minutes should have been trimmed off, in my opinion. It's too predictable and unnecessary. There is no information there that we couldn't have figured out for ourselves from a single line or two of dialog that occurs about fifteen minutes later. And the last two and a half minutes of the film require a suspension of belief that is far beyond anything else that occurs in the film. Again unnecessary and honestly, just plain silly.
Those two things aside, this is a surprisingly solid remake. It is appropriately violent, bloody, and disturbing. The key change that most concerned me from the original (that one of the girls survives) is not as troublesome to the story as I'd been worried it would be. Several things are improved upon from the original version. One of the biggest improvements is the character development and the quality of the acting. All of the characters seem to be more fleshed out, more realistic.
The most obvious example of the improved acting is that of the parents. In the first film, they were easily the weakest link of the first film. (That is assuming that you take out the intentionally bumbling policemen, who were added to lighten the mood of the material. Thankfully, the remake removes that bit of nonsense.) In this version the parents act more like real people and less like soap opera archetypes. The original has a really annoying scene of the parents baking a cake for their daughter's birthday with them reading the recipe book together and so on that is completely ridiculous. For one, I've never had anyone read a recipe book with me, have you? But, I digress. In this version, they seem like more complete people, with the father wanting to get alone time with the mother although never actually saying so, the mother dealing with people from her job that she doesn't care for but has to feign politeness with(something I relate to more than I like to think about), and so on. They have lost a child already in this version, and that adds toward the reasons that they are willing to go to the lengths that they do for their daughter. And when they go to those lengths, it's very satisfying.
While it's an important part of the film, the rape scene is uncomfortable to watch, and if you are deeply affected by that kind of thing in a film, I'd advise you not watch this one. The scene is very graphic, but not in any kind of an arousing way. I feel like the scene is very much about power, punishment, and subjugation and not at all about sex or sexuality. At least that's the impression that I take from it. Surprisingly, unless you count Dillahunt's ass, this a nudity free scene. It's one of the most viscous rape scenes I've seen in recent cinema. Not on the level of Irreversible, mind you, but brutal to watch. It also shines a real spotlight on the sound design in the remake, as there are some very uncomfortable sounds at this point in the film. It certainly adds to the level of realism in the film.
The gang in the remake is still comprised of people who are sadistic killers, but they don't have the level of insanity that I felt from the gang in the original film. I don't mean to say that they do not work in the film or that they are a detriment to it, it's simply that the original casts a shadow over this one for me. In some ways this is one of the things about the remake that would work for me a lot more if I had never seen the original film.
Garret Dillahunt gave a great performance as Krug. I was familiar with him from having seen his work in Deadwood, The Assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford, and No Country For Old Men. He will also be in the upcoming film, The Road, which I'm very excited to see. His version of Krug is more calculated and measured character than David Hess' out of control psychopath. While there is nothing at all wrong with Dillahunt's performance or casting, for myself at least, David Hess is Krug. He is a lot of what made the original what it was.
I feel I need to mention the performance by Riki Lindhome. At first glance I thought she was cast for the simple reason that she was pretty enough and capable of looking mean. She looks like what I suspect some Hollywood executive would think a bad guy's girlfriend would look like. I have to chalk that up to my own personal cynicism though, because after watching the remake twice now, I have to say that she's my favorite character of the film. Lindhome brings the Sadie character to life far more than in the original film. She is desperate for Krug's approval, and while she is as deeply involved in the gang's deeds as anyone, there are moments where you get the feeling that she doesn't want things to be the way that they are. When her character is cornered later in the film and forced to fight, she is like a caged wild animal, positively feral. At that point in the film, she completely sold me on her performance.
I honestly can't say that I disliked the performances of anyone in this film. My only real complaints with it were the two scenes I mentioned earlier. That being said, I feel like this remake is pretty solid and totally worth watching. I would complain that it didn't really bring anything new to the story, but in the case of a story that I enjoy so much, I think it would have the potential to really upset me if it had. I think that for audiences today who are unwilling to watch older cinema (and shame on you if you are one of those) this is a great film.
For myself, I prefer the grainy look and feel of the original. Something about how it was shot, and certainly David Hess's Krug, make it a more visceral and frightening film to me. This film is more polished and clean looking, even if it is covering some gritty material. Still, it didn't upset me, and I'm very pleased about that part.
As for the DVD itself, it's pretty a pretty bare bones release. A couple of deleted scenes and a three minute long "Inside Look" featurette. I would have really liked a commentary track or two.
Comments are welcome.