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If ever a film deserved a passing grade on its title alone, it’s Horrors of Malformed Men. The best thing about the titillating title is that it's actually a story spoiler. The label tantalizes much like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would, leaving its viewer to  wonder fervently what the Hell any of this has to do with malformation until reaching the film’s final forty minutes. It's a little like re-titling Alien Horrors of the Creature in John Hurt's Chest, only not quite so extreme.

Horrors of Malformed Men
Title aside, Malformed Men is a pretty remarkable little film, one I wish I’d discovered sooner. After months of napping through Ring clone after Ring clone, it's good to remember that the Japanese used to be able to make surprising horror. And speaking of good timing, I just finished reading Pete Tombs' Mondo Macabro, a book about 'Weird and Wonderful Cinema Around the World' with no less than three chapters dedicated to Japanese horror and fantasy. Most of the films mentioned aren't available on DVD, though a few have found their way into my Netflix queue (though that thing moves at a salted snail's pace these days). Tombs had some interesting things to say about both director Teruo Ishii and original storywriter Edogawa Rampo, so needless to say the DVD arrived just in time for me personally.

The film's credits roll over footage of spiders attacking each other, and then moves straight on to an image of two pale and bluely tinted bare breasts. Below these are two pale hands gripping a knife that’s shine flairs out the camera lens. This is followed by a chaotic sequence of our protagonist running from the owner of the bare chest and knife within the walls of a barred cell, filled with other naked and obviously mad women. Without any warning director Ishii has thrust us into a 1920s Japanese insane asylum, and has stabbed our new hero. We're left to assume the worst. Is this the end of the film? Are we going to hear the story of how this man ended up stabbed by a half naked crazy person? Where are all the Malformed Men?

Horrors of Malformed Men
The jokes on us, it turns out the knife is a fake, and these crazy women have nothing to do with the plot as we will know it for the next hour or so. Our amnesiac lead escapes the asylum and begins to uncover his past. What follows is a rather standard thriller, like some kind of Nippon impersonation of Hitchcock, specifically pseudo-detective stories like North by North West. The narrative then finds itself in an 'assumed identity' groove (think Talented Mr. Ripley), complete with just about every cliché in subgenre handbook (using the wrong hand to write, forgetting to use glasses to read, etc.). This admittedly suspenseful, but surprisingly conventional middle section (which also acts as a satire of these conventions) might be enough to make most viewers forget about the ever-looming Malformed Men.

And just when you think you've figured it out, and I suppose this might be considered a bit of a spoiler so tread lightly, Ishii and Rampo begin to channel both HG Welles’ The Island of Doctor Moreau and Tod Browning's Freaks, but in a purely Japanese exploitation fashion. Within the subsequent forty minutes Horrors of Malformed Men manages to shatter basically every taboo imaginable.

Horrors of Malformed Men
I have this tendency to forget how much I enjoy the look of Japanese films from the '60s and '70s, regardless of genre. Malformed Men is a nice reminder. The Toei-scope framing, the mod-ish style (despite the decade any given film takes place), the skewed camera angles, the constant experimentation with colour saturation, it's all so authentically country and era. Despite obvious budget constrictions, perhaps even because of them, Malformed Men (among several other similar films) has a distinctive and sincerely disturbing look. Though a given malformation make-up effect won't necessarily look 'realistic', its construction and the way it's filmed (lit, framed, angled) will surely inspire a few nightmares.

And that's really the key. Beyond the film's historical or academic significance (of which the wonderful liner notes state there is plenty), Malformed Men gave me honest to God nightmares. Me! Nightmares! I haven't had a movie related nightmare since I saw Requiem for a Dream, despite the fact that more than half the movies I've watched in the last seven years have been of the horror variety. This cheaply made film from a relatively tame era, filled with non-sequential images, ripe performances, ripped off story elements, and one of the most contrived plots I've ever seen, managed to disturb my subconscious enough to give me nightmares.

Horrors of Malformed Men

Video


For a supposedly lost film from 1969, Malformed Men actually looks better here than some new films I've seen recently. Synapse films have done an almost unbelievably good job remastering the original source material. Grain is present, but fine and details are exceptionally sharp. There's plenty of print damage, but with the exception of a few warped frames and bad splices, it's almost unnoticeable. Colours are quite vibrant, though blacks are occasionally dull, and grainier than the rest of the print. The tops and bottoms of the frame are a little lighter than the centre during darker scenes. The occasional blur is most likely due to mistakes made by the original focus pull.

Audio


There's no fanciful remixing done here, just the original Japanese Mono, and it sounds fine. Distortion is minimal, mostly allocated to the musical score, sharp brass specifically. There's a decent depth of field for a mono track, and though not extreme, the bass is effective. There are a few cases of what seems to be audio drop out during some scene changes, but no dialogue or music seems to have been lost, just sound effects.

Horrors of Malformed Men

Extras


Basing my uneducated opinion purely on this film, the disc's extras, and Pete Tombs' book, director Ishii seems to be kind of a Japanese equivalent to Mario Bava - a skilled artisan that ploughed his way through several popular genres, without any particularly pretentious claims of artistic intent. Both filmmakers seem to have found fame later in life thanks to the praise of younger and more popular filmmakers, though in Bava's case he died before he really had a chance to appreciate the recognition of his visual genius. Two of the younger and more popular filmmakers that praise Ishii are interviewed on this DVD, Shinya Tsukamoto ( Testsuo: The Iron Man, Vital, Tokyo Fist) and Minoru Kawasaki ( The Calamari Wrestler).

Both filmmakers, especially Tsukamoto, also heap praise on the work of writer Rampo, whose work has been compared to Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe. I'm entirely unfamiliar with the man's work, but if this film and Tsukamoto's words are anything to go on, I might need to seek it out. The featurette/interview, entitled Malformed Memories lasts about thirty minutes, and is quite entertaining and informative, especially since Kawasaki finds it impossible to say “Super Giants” without giggling. Tsukamoto is his usual stoic self.

Horrors of Malformed Men
Variety film critic and writer Mark Schilling continues things with a commentary track, and is joined by an unnamed producer (perhaps Don May?). This producer is consistently forced to keep Schilling on track, and seems to know just as much about the film, Rampo, and Ishii. Schilling knows his stuff, but he’s unprepared for the track (they apparently recorded it on the fly at a German film festival). This is a far cry from the mile a minute commentaries of Bey Logan, Tom Mes and Tim Lucas, and features a lot of silence. I learned much more from the liner notes and director interviews.

‘Ishii in Italia’ is a small video travelogue of the director’s trip to the 2003 Far East Film Festival in Italy, where he was the guest of honour. Though short, and mostly unconcerned with Malformed Men, the video is touching and heavy hearted, considering Ishii died soon after the visit. It’s a nice inclusion to the set; affectionate and bittersweet.

The rest of the disc is filled out with the original Japanese trailer, a gallery of Teruo Ishii poster art, and biographies for Ishii and Rampo. The box art is reversible, the back side being the original Japanese poster art, and inside are some in depth liner notes from writers Patrick Macias, Tomo Machiyama, and Jasper Sharp.

Horrors of Malformed Men

Overall


Malformed Men is a very strange film, one that the majority of casual viewers won't care for, or even find themselves able to struggle through, and the fact that it gave me nightmares isn't a guarantee that it will mortify anyone else (factually I wasn't really all that scared while watching the film). However, adventurous viewers, sick of boring Asian ghost stories, tedious Saw and Hostel rip-offs, and insipid PG-13 punch-pullers may want to give it a shot. If I were Siskel and Ebert, and if this was At the Movies, Horrors of Malformed Men would be my ‘video pick of the week’.


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