Sunday, October 26, 2008

Horrorpa-Loser in the Land of the Rising Sun

I'm fried. To the absolute nub, ladies and gents.

A desperately-needed vacation beckons on the not-too-distant horizon (we fly out tomorrow), and it promises to be a true adventure to an alien land. It's my reward for toiling in the Gehenna of a fourteen-day work week.

Tectonic shifts at work--and an inordinate amount of study in devotion to the aforementioned vacation--have eaten most of my leisure time. The Petri Dish usually becomes a haven for all things horror in October, and I pride myself in devoting some serious copy space--on a daily basis, no less--towards my most beloved cinema mistress every year at this time. But this year, sadly, I've had no damn time to do so.

So there'll be no Horrorpalooza this month, but I am seriously mulling the possibility of a November Horrorpalooza (who says you can only memorialize the macabre in October, anyhow?).

In the meantime, as a meager consolation to the throngs of you (again, Petri Dish Definition of a Throng = two or more persons) despondant over the loss of the 'Looza, please find some recommendations for terror-ific viewing, courtesy of the exotic country I'll be visiting soon.

Matango--Attack of the Mushroom People (1965): The Criterion Collection Edition of David Cronenberg's mindf#$@ classic Videodrome includes a great 1982-vintage public access round table between four of that decade's key genre figures--John Carpenter, John Landis, Mick Garris, and Cronenberg. At one point in the interview, Landis outlines the disparity between older chillers and their modern forebears (his decades-old analysis, sadly, is as true now as ever). Modern low-budget horror flicks, he observed, were basically laughable pieces of crap bolstered by great special effects: Conversely, old-school B-flicks were pretty damned solid and involving...Until the cash-strapped producers hauled out their ridiculous zipper-backed monster.

The point to this meandering setup: Matango--Attack of the Mushroom People illustrates definitively the type of old-school horror flick Landis described.

It's a paranoid fable about a group of flawed, disparate characters marooned on a remote tropical island. As weariness and hunger begin to pick away at their spirits, some members of the party begin feasting on the local fungi, with catastrophic results. Director Ishiro Honda (helmsman behind damn near every kaiju eiga of the fifties and sixties) maintains an atmosphere of hothouse dread and slowly-mounting tension as the verdant island begins warping its new visitors (shades of David Cronenberg, indeed).

Then come the infected victims. In their early stages, they look sufficiently grotesque and unsettling (see above), but once they mutate into their penultimate mushroom-person form they just look (let's call a spade a spade here) frickin' ridiculous. The cumulative effect doesn't diminish Matango's entertainment value (if you can't derive significant enjoyment from a guy in a mottled giant-mushroom costume, then you've staggered into the wrong blog by mistake, Bucky), but it blunts Honda's masterfully-crafted ambience to a surprising degree. An interesting, occasionally creepy chiller that (and I cringe as I use these words but...) actually might benefit from being remade.

Wild Zero (2000): The loudest, coolest band in Japan (OK, maybe the world) blows out eardrums and takes on flesh-eating zombies, multiple flying saucers, and a heavy who sports a Buster Brown haircut and package-constricting short-shorts. Just because I've plugged this unabashedly demented (and indescribably fun) pastiche of exploitation, Sam Peckinpah, rock and roll, and Crying-Game gender confusion already doesn't make it any less glorious.

Horrors of Malformed Men (1969): Teruo Ishii's weld of self-consciously arty butoh theatricality and The Island of Doctor Moreau isn't a horror film per se, but it's a disorienting, willfully absurd journey alongside a young man who may or may not be a murderer as he journeys to a remote island that may or may not be populated by genetic freaks created by an insane whirling dervish of a man who may or may not be his father. Malformed Men continues to be a firebrand of controversy in its native land--genetic mutation and deformity remain two of Japan's most sensitive taboos--and the movie captivates, despite (or because of) the fact that it wears its late sixties vintage on its kimono sleeve. I watched the finely-appointed Synapse DVD three times, and I still don't know what the hell to think of it. That's a compliment.

Goke--Bodysnatcher from Hell (1969): Still waiting patiently for one of the creepiest, most nihilistic horror movies of the 1960's (and a member of last Horrorpalooza's Terror Top 50) to come out on domestic DVD. Fortunately Goke periodically surfaces on Turner Classic Movies. Keep an eye out for it.

The Manster (1959): A daffy Japanese scientist injects a grouchy, tobacco-stained American newsman (Peter Dyneley) with an experimental serum that induces, um, growth of an additional head. Two-headed monster flicks seldom run as entertaining as this US/Japanese co-production: Silly as it is, there's a sense of slightly sleazy pulp menace running throughout it, too. It's like low-grade Sam Fuller presaging that multiple-melon classic, The Thing with Two Heads.

Jigoku (Hell, 1960): A college student involved in a hit and run accident flees the scene of the crime, only to be hunted down by his own conscience. The first two-thirds of Nobuo Nakagawa's cautionary tale resemble an extended Twilight Zone episode, but the final stretch descends (quite literally) into the nether regions, dragging the viewer into an ultra-graphic representation of the Buddhist notion of Eight Levels of Hell. The gore at the climax rivals Herschell Gordon Lewis in its one-track relentlessness: And the artistry with which it's executed only amplifies its impact.

Audition (1999) and The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001): Director Takashi Miike may be the closest thing Japan has ever had to a Roger Corman: The Japanese auteur pumps out all manner of genre films with staggering frequency. I've found worth in every Miike movie I've screened, but these two represent my favorites amongst his efforts.

Audition starts off as a quiet and gentle drama about a widower attempting to find romance in the wake of his profound loss. Miike builds the movie at a near-leisurely pace, subtly generating a sense of unease that literally spatters and assaults the viewer at the end. If it weren't so gruesome at its conclusion, I'd warrant that Audition would get mentioned in the same breath as some of Hitchcock's best--It's that powerfully-orchestrated.

Happiness of the Katakuris, meanwhile, extends the Miike-as-Corman metaphor by giving the Japanese director his own Little Shop of Horrors. The titular family runs a struggling bed-and-breakfast, when a boarder accidentally dies one evening. Soon a succession of guests begin dropping from suicide, murder, and accidents; and the Katakuris decide to conceal the rising body count...To musical accompaniment, of course. Like the musical adaptation of Corman's black comedy classic, there's an inherent glee to Happiness of the Katakuris that makes it almost indescribably joyous to watch. And Miike has no qualms about bookending gruesome deaths with musical numbers that rival Bollywood's gaudiest in their colorful absurdity.

Enough prattling. I've got a plane to catch. Have a great Halloween, all, and I'll see you again in November. Oyasumi Nasai!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Neighborhood Metamorphosis

Every day I step away from Mundane Necessity for exactly a half-hour by taking as vigorous a walk as I can. I've clawed and scratched for this oasis of activity amidst the generic confines of an office environment, and these strolls have--I'm firmly convinced--kept me sane and improved my health.

If the weather is inclement, that stroll takes place in a white, enclosed building. It consists of as many trips up and down a four-story staircase as many times as I can muster in the brief time alloted (I usually average a half-dozen times each way along these sixty-one steps). If Nature decrees to don some of her lovelier raiments, I hit the pavement around the neighborhood and walk. Whether indoors or out, an MP3 player (upgraded from my dilapidated old Discman shortly after these pics were shot) channels music in my ears--providing heart-pumping energy, melodramatic escapism, or intense contemplation depending on my mood.

The neighborhood is an enormous Petri Dish whose industrial/urban expansion pushes and crowds intrusively upon the last few scraps of the organic. The latter continues to hold on just enough to reveal its beauty, if you know to open your eyes and look.

Because things constantly change, I'm always conscious that many of the things that modern developers look down upon--plants, weeds, shrubbery, older buildings that've commited the unpardonable sin of showing their age and their exquisite faults--possess special beauties of their own, unique enchantments that'll fall beneath the ever-turning wheels of gentrification and homogenized urban growth soon.

One summer day a few weeks ago, I brought a camera and decided to snap some photos while I took my afternoon constitutional around the neighborhood. I realized that almost everything I photographed would likely vanish in a very short time, and after looking at the pictures, it occurs to me that some of those things already have disappeared. I'm glad I thought to capture them.

I don't have a lot of regard for the polished, shiny, faultless, impersonal face that the neighborhood's inexorably taking. Small wonder that a few layers of peeling wallpaper on a neglected old wall stimulate my senses far more than all the new shops and health clubs put together.

Small wonder also that the intermediate stages of construction--during which makeshift tunnels and pathways create pockets of film-noir shadow and texture amidst the generic brightness--look far more interesting than the shiny and bland end results.

Hmm...Not very pop culture-y this time. OK, let's talk about what I was listening to at the time of these pictures: A mix-disc including:

Cibo Matto, "Artichoke"

The Circulatory System, "The Pillow"

Charlie Rich, "Everytime You Touch Me (I Get High)"

Swervedriver, "Lead Me Where You Dare"

Tones on Tail, "You, the Night, and the Music"

Serge Gainsbourg, " Requiem Pour un Con"

Next time, some more pop culture. Thanks for joining me for the detour.