Review Date: October 9, 2007
Released by: Synapse Films
Release date: 8/28/2007
Region 0, NTSC
Widescreen 2.35:1 | 16x9: Yes
When a film is intentionally suppressed, either because of formal censorship or political correctness, it inevitably builds up a reputation that is usually more spectacular than the movie itself. By saying something can never shown, you inevitably create more interest in the movie. Many of the more savvy censors know this, but have their hands tied by either fears of profit loss and boycotts, or by legislation.
The Video Nasties controversy in Britain kept numerous movies out of domestic video shops, but ultimately served to arouse interest from fans who sought them. Upon successfully finding them uncut, many were disappointed that so many of them, while certainly grim and violent, were also very bad as well.
Our review today is of a film from Japan, a film which was suppressed by its rights holders for decades because of fears over the controversy that might erupt with its release. But is Horrors of Malformed Men
really all its cracked up to be, or is this simply another case of a movie’s reputation getting the better of its audience?
We open in 1925 at an insane asylum in Tokyo as young medical student Hirosuki Hitomi (Teruo Yoshida
) finds himself an inmate, having been sent there for no apparent reason. He finds himself troubled by unusual visions of a deserted coastline and a strange room, and can’t get the sound of a children’s lullaby out of his head. After killing another inmate in self defense, he manages to escape. Outside the asylum he encounters a young woman who is singing the same lullaby that has been troubling him. The girl is like Hirosuki – she doesn’t know who her parents are or where she came from. The next day, Hirosuki goes to the circus where she works to get some more information out of her, and she tells him that the lullaby supposedly comes from the Sea of Japan coastline. As they are talking, somebody throws a knife into her back and kills her, and the nearby crowds assume Hirosuki was the killer and chase him.
Hirosuki gets away, and as he rides a train bound for Japan’s northern coast he discovers a newspaper report about the unexplained death of a man named Genzaburo Komoda. The Komodas are a rich and well known family in the area, and to Hirosuki’s shock the included picture of Genzaburo looks just like him! With yet another mystery to solve, he heads to the deceased man’s hometown and makes inquiries about the family. There he learns that the Komodas are rumored to be in financial trouble, and that the patriarch of the family is a recluse who inhabits a desolate offshore island that is supposedly being developed into a resort or amusement park. Hirosuki also discovers that he has a scar on his foot that is the same as a scar Genzaburo had.
Determined to crack the mystery, Hirosuki decides to infiltrate the Komoda family. He digs up Genzaburo’s grave and puts on his burial shroud, then lies on the ground in the cemetery until two monks find him, as if magically resurrected. He is taken to the Komoda family estate to “recover”, where he meets Genzaburo’s wife Chioko, his cousin Shizuko, family steward Hirukawa and a suspicious-acting manservant named Shinkichi. After he arrives, strange things start happening, as Shizuko is menaced by poisonous snakes as she bathes, some of the servants encounter a pair of deformed intruders running around the grounds, and Chioko dies mysteriously. Still unable to crack the mystery, our protagonist instructs Hirukawa to take him to the family’s island. But once he arrives he is completely unprepared for what he sees – the patriarch of the family, the sinister and deformed Jogoro Komoda (Tatsumi Hijikata
) has been creating a unique society on this island, one where the crippled, the grotesque and the malformed will be the masters, and where normal humans will be their slaves!
In the flurry of reviews that has surrounded this first ever home video release of Horrors of Malformed Men
, there have been two films that been bandied around as comparisons – Tod Browning’s Freaks
and the first adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “Island of Dr. Moreau”, called Island of Lost Souls
. Both are apt comparisons, and I would like to add a third film – Walt Disney’s Song of the South
, of all things. Why? Because even though the content of the two movies has absolutely nothing in common, both have become tragic victims of political correctness in their home countries. Both are now deemed as products of less enlightened times, and viewers in those home countries have found their access restricted. In both cases, the process of slipping into obscurity was gradual, and in both cases the relevant copyright owners have decided that overseas home video markets are a safer distribution venue (Song of the South
has never been available on home video here in America, but it did pop up in Europe and, ironically, in Japan as well). Contrary to what the cover states, the movie was never formally banned.
Viewers who have not yet seen the film should be aware that the hype surrounding this release is rather misleading. Contrary to the impression that some have given, Horrors of Malformed Men
is not an off the wall, no holds barred freak-fest. Rather, it is a carefully constructed and deliberately paced mystery whose final act is full of beautiful, grotesque and jarring imagery. This approach serves the movie well, far better than if director Teruo Ishii had brought out the wild stuff earlier in the movie.
What Ishii does so effectively is create an almost dream-like world that always seems slightly divorced from reality. This begins from the opening scene in the asylum, a nightmarish place full of madmen, insane half-naked women, and home to a mysterious bald man who does nothing but stare at Hirosuki. When the bald man tries to kill him (the event that prompts his escape), Hirosuki bashes him over the head and inflicts a major wound, only to have the man sit up and attack him again in a moment that is eerily reminiscent of what happens in a zombie movie when a person attacks somewhere other than the zombie’s head. From there the movie makes the transition to the beautiful but desolate coastline of northern Japan as Hirosuki infiltrates the Komoda household. Once he assumes Genzaburo’s identity, the film’s middle portion is set entirely at the family estate, making it very much resemble a Western “old dark house” movie – in a good way. The final act then takes us to the island, a place full of disturbing sights and psychedelic imagery.
It is during this final act that the movie takes a major stumble, one from which it never recovers. Having created a nightmarish, surreal world in which we can’t be fully sure if Hirosuki is truly sane, Ishii ruins it with an unimaginative climax that wraps up the story and explains everything in such a neat, tidy and conventional way that it is a disappointment, something that the visually spectacular final shots cannot undo.
Having been unavailable in any form for so long, Horrors of Malformed Men
has certainly built up the expected reputation, one that it may have a hard time living up to, especially considering the publicity surrounding its release. This is not to say that it’s bad movie – it’s not in the slightest. It’s just not quite what its advertised as being.
Horrors of Malformed Men
was locked away and untouched in a studio vault for the better part of forty years, and this anamorphically enhanced 2.35:1 transfer certainly looks like it came from film elements that had almost never been used. Colors look dazzling, with a fantastic level of clarity and detail. The transfer is only marred by some very noticeable specks and scratches around what are presumably reel change points.
The film is presented in its original Japanese language soundtrack, in Dolby 2.0 Mono. Aside from a few noticeable drops in audio volume the track sounds fine, with only a few places where any sort of unwanted background distortion is audible.
This release comes with removable English subtitles.
The supplements kick off with a commentary by film critic and scholar Mark Schilling. It’s a good thing that I wanted to know about Teruo Ishii, because that’s all the commentary is really about. Schilling gives an in-depth look at his career and films, but barely talks about Horrors of Malformed Men
itself, something that will surely disappoint many viewers. An unnamed moderator prompts him with questions, prompting that’s badly needed because Schilling rarely speaks on his own. The track features numerous dead spots that continue until the obviously frustrated moderator gets the man talking again.
The next extra is a twenty-three minute featurette entitled Malformed Memories
, in which Japanese directors Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo the Iron Man
) and Minoru Kawasaki (The Calamari Wrestler
) discuss their memories of Ishii’s films and the writings of Edogawa Rampo, the Japanese pulp author whose stories served as the basis of Horrors of Malformed Men
. Tsukamoto worked with Ishii on his final film and made his own adaptation of a Rampo story, and has some interesting points about each man’s work. The featurette also contains numerous clips from Ishii’s other films. All in all it’s an interesting look at Ishii and Rampo, but it’s also a little bit too long.
The next featurette is called Ishii in Italia
, and it runs about fourteen minutes. It documents Ishii’s visit to the 2003 Far East Film Festival in Italy, where Horrors of Malformed Men
received its first screening outside Japan. Also provided is the introduction that Ishii gave to the Italian audience, which is playable as a separate supplement.
The release is finished off with a theatrical trailer, a gallery of Ishii poster art, talent bios for both Ishii and Edogawa Rampo, and two sets of liner notes, one by Patrick Macias and Tomohiro Machiyama, the other by Jasper Sharp.
There’s much to recommend about both Horrors of Malformed Men
and its release from Synapse. Its presence on American DVD shows how the power of home video can not only resurrect long forgotten classics, but also defeat censorship (the movie is still not out on DVD in Japan, but with this release being region free, there will surely be a number of Japanese fans importing this one). The transfer on this release is excellent, and the supplements aren’t bad either. Check it out.
Movie – B+
Image Quality – A-
Sound – B-
Supplements – B+
- Running Time – 1 hour 39 minutes
- Chapter Stops
- Japanese 2.0 Mono
- English subtitles
- 1 Disc
- Audio commentary with Mark Schilling
- Malformed Memories featurette
- Ishii in Italia featurette
- Teruo Ishii introduction to the film
- Theatrical trailer
- Gallery of Teruo Ishii poster art
- Talent bios
- Liner notes