Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The publicity for Synapse's Horrors of Malformed Men leads one to expect at the very least a transgressing gross-out epic, something that crawled out from under a rock after being kept in obscurity for almost forty years. The adventurous (for lack of a better word) director Teruo Ishii unleashes a horror film that's actually an absurdist collage of weird ideas from various stories by legendary Japanese author of the uncanny Edogawa Rampo. Described as a twisted combination of Freaks and The Island of Lost Souls, the seriously-played Horrors of Malformed Men is actually an absurdist pageant of sadistic delights.
Not knowing if he's sane or deranged, medical student Hirosuke Hitome (Teruo Yoshida) escapes from an asylum and tries to piece together his past. Wanted for a murder he didn't commit, Hirosuke makes his way to the coast, where he finds that he is virtually identical (right down to the swastikas carved into the soles) to a man named Genzaburo Komoda, who has just been buried. They may be brothers. Hirosuke takes the corpse's place and fakes a miraculous return from the dead. Both Genzaburo's widow and mistress pursue Hirosuke for sex, and threatening letters appear. More murders occur until Hirosuke takes a boat to the mysterious island where his reclusive, deformed father Jogoro (Tatsumi Hijikata) is said to be preparing some kind of 'earthly paradise.' Hirosuke instead finds that his father is a madman ruling scores of captive women and freakish deformities. Hirosuke's mother is a prisoner chained in a cave. Jogoro expects his son to help him transform his 'normal' prisoners into more monstrosities -- through atrocious surgery!
As they say at war crime trials, Horrors of Malformed Men takes some explaining! Some transgressive movies are motivated by serious cultural or political philosophies, like Yasuzo Masumura's Moju, where a captive model willingly allows a blind sculptor hack her to pieces in pursuit of an erotic nirvana. Other 'off the deep end' gross-out pictures are more like Alejandro Jodorowsky's The Holy Mountain, an outrageous fantasmagoria that we suspect is an elaborate nihilistic joke. Horrors of Malformed Men definitely leans toward the second interpretation, presenting its grotesque absurdities like a succession of freaks in a sideshow tent. We're astonished and even amused by the sheer insanity on view. Malformed Men combines exploitative sex, giddily perverse relationships, experimental perfomance art, sadistic ambition on a grand scale and a perfunctory detective story. The movie makes no apologies for being artificial, tasteless and occasionally revolting. Yet it repeatedly inspires laughter -- laughter of the, "Oh, no he can't be serious" variety.
The plot resembles a Louis Feuillade adventure as imagined by a pervert humorist. The confused hero Hirosuke fights for his life in a jail cell filled with deranged, half-naked women, before it is revealed that he's in an asylum and has drifted into the wrong snake pit. Somebody tries to murder him, and somebody does murder the helpful circus girl he finds when he escapes. Oddball comedic characters enter when Hirosuke pulls off an unlikely identity swap, as everybody's far too ready to accept that the man they buried a day before, has suddenly revived. This is followed by a bizarre episode in the Komoda household as Hirosuke discovers that the man he's replacing was left-handed. The dog knows Hirosuke is an imposter but neither his 'wife' nor his 'mistress' suspect a thing, despite the fact that he's sleeping with them both.
Director Ishii pulls the rug out from under his audience when Hirosuke finally goes to the island to learn the rest of the family secrets. The balance of the movie alternates between shocking discoveries and feverish back-stories. Hirosuke and company are met on the beach by his father Jogoro, who appears doing a strange performance-art dance among the crashing waves. The creepy-crawly dance reminds us of Charles Manson, as does the earlier revelation of the swastikas carved into human flesh. Jogoro keeps dozens of strange malformed freaks locked in cages and strapped into shelves, while a corps of nearly naked beauties crawls over a hillside like dogs on leashes. Members of actor/choreographer Tatsumi Hijikata's no-holds-barred experimental dance troupe play the various demented captives and degraded freaks. 1
The artificial effects are mostly theatrical in nature, with art direction that suggests twisted bodies rather than depicting them in naturalistic manner. Hands and faces are covered with a material that looks like a spider's web and women stand with odd tubes attached to their genitals, as if participating in some kind of obscene medical experiment. Some of Jogoro's freaks are man-made, making us remember the final transformation of Olga Baclanova in the Tod Browning classic; Hirosuke has been spared so that he can continue with Jogoro's grandiose plans to create more monstrosities. Jogoro ambition is for Hirosuke to cut the flesh from a bunch of people to make a giant mass of organic matter with a live horse's head on top. As they say, a sick fantasy is its own justification!
Hirosuke surgically separates a pair of Siamese twins, one a beautiful woman, the other a hideous man -- the film's most conventional horror makeup job. Just as Hirosuke took the place of his brother, he finds that he's related to yet another victim of the family curse. I can't imagine Horrors of Malformed Men being a big hit with polite society, as the only thing that tops the taboos being broken is the general 'Ick' factor. It is revealed that one character surreptitiously crams himself into a hidden compartment in a large upholstered chair, for the purpose of molesting the woman he knows will sit in it!
The mystery is finally explained by Jogoro, and a detective character borrowed from other popular books by Edogowa Rampo. Without giving too much away, the young Jogoro went bonkers when his bride rejected him because he had webbed fingers. In retaliation he chained her and her lover in a cave, and when the lover died, forced her to eat the crabs consuming his body. More Agatha Christie-style revelations explain how Jogoro's captives were obtained, and why Hirosuke was tossed in an asylum and framed for murder. The ending is a delirious lampoon of the romantic suicide subgenre, with an outrageous and absurd pyrotechnic finale.
The publicity for Horrors of Malformed Men say that it was effectively banned soon after its release. As plenty of other transgressing Japanese thrillers didn't have this problem (Teruo Ishii was himself a leading proponent of 'sexy torture' films), the cause for the film's banishment seems to have been its mockery of deformities, a subject unworthy of public mention in polite Japanese society. Patrick Macias' essential liner notes explain that a conservative cultural swing in the 1970s made the very words of the film's title unpalatable.
Synapse's DVD of Horrors of Malformed Men looks fine; Teruo Ishii's oddball shocker must have been resting all these years under perfect conditions in a cool storage facility. The color on the enhanced Toeiscope transfer is excellent and the highly creative sound design (capped by Masao Yagi's dynamic score) gives the tale a macabre immediacy. Not a minute passes that one doesn't think, "Where can this possibly go from here?"
Disc producer Marc Walkow fashions some helpful extras -- the film may seem baffling without expert guidance. Critic Marc Schilling, a reviewer for The Japan Times and a reporter for Screen International is on a full-length commentary track. Writers Patrick Macias, Tomohiro Machiyama and Jasper Sharp provide well researched insert essays on the film and its creators. Two new featurettes explain the legacy of Teruo Ishii, who passed away in 2005. Malformed Memories allows cult directors Shinya Tsukamoto and Minoru Kawasaki to guide us through their memories of the director, who served as sort of a father figure to both of them. Ishii in Italia is a more linear memento of Ishii's 2003 visit to Italy's Far East Film Festival. A stunning poster gallery is from the collection of producer Walkow and Chris D.; a trailer and bios round out the package. If some of these one-sheets were posted outside the American 1960s theaters I frequented, the management would have been arrested!
The English subtitles are removable. The jacket sleeve is reversible, if one prefers the original poster over Synapse's more shelf-ready cover art.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Horrors of Malformed Men rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary by Mark Schilling, featurette Malformed Memories, featurette on Teruo Ishii's visit to the Far East Film Festival in Italy, poster gallery, bios on Ishii and Edogawa Rampo, Insert liner notes by Patrick Macias, Tomo Machiyama & Jasper Sharp
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 25, 2007
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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