Horrors of Malformed Men — dvd movie review
Posted on August 31, 2007 by Chris Nelson
Any time a long banned film is finally released to the public for home viewing is a time to be excited. And, in the realm of Japanese cult films, no picture is more infamous than Teruo Ishii’s Horrors of Malformed Men, banned in its native country for near forty years. Given the fact it is an Edogawa Rampo adaptation, and the kind of images found in contemporary cinematic Rampo efforts such as Rampo Noir (see: the Caterpillar segment), one might think it’s no wonder the film was banned. I mean, the title alone evokes depravity on an epic scale, the likes of which have not been seen since Pasolini, Deodato, or Browning.
But that’s not entirely the case. The reasons for the film’s unavailability have more to do with political correctness and self censorship, a la American banned cartoons, than any truly despicable and depraved actions found within. At issue here is the depiction of the “malformed” on screen, as well as the terminology with which they are referenced. But unlike the American cartoons, I didn’t feel that this film slandered a group of people so much as it simply featured an evildoer with a physical deformity and a nasty grudge. While this could be due to limitations in the translation itself, there are no sequences involving the deformed raping or molesting women, torturing or mutilating people. At best they herd a group of women like cattle and carry around some curiously wrapped corpses. In fact, the one sequence of disturbing mutilation happens at the hands of a normal person…not a malformed. But don’t let that get you down. The film is filled to the brim with its fair share of cult facets, including widespread nudity, taboo topics, surgical experimentation, and oddball humor.
Those lucky enough to have seen the picture previously have often compared Horrors of Malformed Men to H.G. Wells’ Island of Dr. Moreau or Todd Browning’s Freaks. To be honest, the former comparison is completely apt, while the latter more an attempt at a catchphrase hook. In its broadest sense, the film is about a wealthy, but deformed man (Tatsumi Hijikata) who marries a beautiful and enterprising woman. Finding too late that she detests him (the shamelessly adulterous hussy), he absconds with her to a secluded island, where he sets about engineering his perfect society: one in which malformed men are king and the beautiful women their subjects. But it doesn’t stop there. In order to populate the island with malformed he must create them. Women, elderly, and children all find themselves captive and transformed through his diabolical plan.
The film itself focuses on a young man, Hitomi Kousuke (Teruo Yoshida), who wakes to find himself in a mental institution with no knowledge of his former state or identity, save for a foggy recollection of a strange island, and its even stranger inhabitants. Following a sudden and frightening altercation with a mysterious man, the confused Kousuke turns accidental murderer, and subsequently flees from the hospital. While on the run Kousuke comes across a newspaper article detailing the death of wealthy individual, one Mokota Genzaburou, whose exact same face he shares. In hopes of lying low while the law passes him by, he trades places with his dead doppelganger, and assumes his identity. However, things are not as they seem in his new abode. Strange happenings abound, all tied to an island off the coast, inhabited by his doppelganger’s father. As the incidents ramp up, Kousuke ventures out to investigate. He may never live to regret the decision.
Given the linear, non anthology nature of the film, the “Collected Tales of Edogawa Rampo” subtitle for the film may cause a bit of confusion. At its heart, Horrors of Malformed Men is a mashup of two Edogawa Rampo tales, The Strange Tale of Panorama Island and Ogre of the Secluded Isle, but many more actually factor in. Teruo Ishii, in an interview found on the DVD, stated that he wanted to include all his favorite Rampo elements, regardless of whether they made sense. As such, tales like The Human Chair and Walker in the Attic, as well as Rampo’s regular detective, Akechi Kogorou all make an appearance, some to hilarious effect. But therein lay another surprising thing. The movie is packed with humor. You’ll notice it first with the emergence of the libidinous monks, and further upon Kousuke’s initial nighttime explorations of his doppelganger’s home, spying on mid-sleep butt-slapping (so funny). And it continues throughout the film, up to its Scooby-Doo expository ending. But that’s not to say the film isn’t spooky. There’s a solid sense of classic mystery that permeates the film, from its eerie start through to the spiraling, explosive madness of its finale. It’s all very cool, very hip, and very fun.
As with much of Ishii’s personal (ie: non-mainstream) work, the picture is stylish when it needs to be, and straightforward when story needs to take precedence. There are an array of intriguing camera angles and tricks, from imposing camera-looking up from the toes shots of the malformed to the red-washed shots of an atrocious act, but much of the film is shot in merely a standard fashion, still pleasing enough to the eye. Likewise, special effects are typically cheap, played for laughs as often as scares (There’s a nice mix of cobwebs and saran-wrap in this one).
Horrors of Malformed Men also marks Ishii’s first collaboration with butoh performance artists, the herky-jerky dancers you’ve seen (or SHOULD have seen) in Blind Beast Vs. Killer Dwarf, Screwed (aka: Neji-Shiki), and Jigoku (1999). As usual, these involve freaky-deaky mud and hair costumes, Liquid Sky body paints, and full naked glory. Tatsumi Hijikata does an excellent job as the leader of the island (think of him as a lanky spasmodic Lord Summerisle). He’s both creepy and fascinating. Likewise Teruo Yoshida conveys a virtuous and determined classical hero, but one unable to resist the lure of the flesh. It’s quite interesting. Pinky Violence fans will notice an appearance by Yumiko Katayama (Delinquent Girl Boss: Worthless to Confess, Female Prisoner #701 Scorpion) in the opening scene.
All in all, Horrors of Malformed Men was not quite what I expected, but it was none the less enjoyable because of it. To finally be able to see the film after all these years is a splendid and wonderful thing. I hope this film can now reach the audience it rightly deserves.
Released under Synapse Films’ Asia Cult Cinema label, with the aid of Panik House (it’s nice to see their logo again), Synapse’s release actually exceeds what you would expect from either company. The transfer is impeccable. Completely restored from original source materials and presented in an anamorphic transfer maintaining its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the film looks slick. I thought Synapse’s work on Street Trash last year was impressive, but this is even more so. Blacks are deep, reds are crisp with little to no bleed, details are sharp — it’s very nice. This clarity also extends to the film’s motion menus, which are actually pretty cool. I don’t usually write about the menus, but I quite liked these.
The film is presented in its original 2.0 mono audio track, keeping with the other Panik House titles, and was perfectly fine for me. The film features a heavy amount of overdubbing, but that’s not a problem with the sound synch on their part (I know, stupid thing to mention, but I believe this release is going to catch more green cult cinema fans than you would think). Also included is a rather informative commentary track by Mark Schilling.
First up as Extras on the disc is Malformed Memories, which features interviews with Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo the Iron Man, Nightmare Detective) and Minoru Kawasaki (Calamari Wrestler, The World Sinks Except Japan) on their memories of Teruo Ishii films. It’s actually a very fun watch, and had me laughing quite a bit. Personally, I had no idea that Ishii handled Sonny Chiba’s Executioner films (You’d think that would be something Adness would put on the DVD package), but Kawasaki’s enthusiasm has guaranteed I will see it in the near future.
The second big extra comes in the form of Ishii in Italia, which shows Mamiko Kawamoto’s fly on the wall/home video footage of Ishii’s visit to an Italy’s 2003 Far East film festival. Much of the video will prove uninteresting for non-Ishii enthusiasts, but stick around to the end and you’ll be treated to a little conversation with Ishii about the nature of the film. Second up in this extra is a video of Ishii’s introduction of Malformed Men at the same festival.
Rounding out the disc are a collection of film posters for Ishii films, the original theatrical trailer for the film, and two bios for Teruo Ishii and Edogawa Rampo (you’ve actually seen these before on Panik House’s Female Yakuza Tale and Blind Beast Vs. Killer Dwarf DVDs. Also included is the original Japanese theatrical trailer for the film. Very nice.
Lastly, you have two lengthy and informative liner note essays (liner notes for a cult release! Thank god Synapse is keeping these alive) by Patrick Macias and Tomo Machiyama on the film, and Jasper Sharp on Rampo adaptations. I recommend reading both of these before watching the film.
As a super cool added bonus, Synapse has also included reversible DVD cover art featuring the original poster on one side, and the new art (as seen above) on the other. I flipped mine right away, but it made the disc look suspiciously like a bootleg. I’ve since switched it back.
All in all, this is one awesome disc. If you’re at all a fan of Japanese cult cinema, or just Japanese cinema in general, you owe it to yourself to pick up this DVD. Horrors of Malformed Men is highly recommended.
Easter Egg Update Yep. Can you believe it? The disc has Easter Eggs! The place to look is in the Poster Gallery, and the eggs are the trailers for the films. View a poster, and then press up or down multiple times to access. Certain trailers activate after 2 ups (Black Line), others after 4 downs (Sexy Line). Not all posters seem to have trailers, but there are a total of 8 here. Enjoy!
About the Author