Monday, December 31, 2012

Edogawa Rampo Noir

My daughter, bless her, gave me a DVD entitled Rampo Noir for Christmas (Japanese with English subtitles).  Shortly after Christmas I visited Sioux Falls and found a copy of Edogawa Rampo’s Japanese Tales of Mystery & Imagination, from which two of the stories in the film are ostensibly taken.  That adds up to an East of Evil blog post!
Edogawa Rampo was the pen name of Tarō Hirai, the author of stories that have been compared with those of Edgar Allen Poe, whom Hirai admired.  The title of the above translation is obviously intended to be an illusion to Poe.  I commit here on one of the stories. 
The Hell of Mirrors
This is the only Rampo story I have read so far.  It is a solid work of horror fiction.  The narrators tells of his “queerest friend”, Kan Tanuma, who was obsessed from an early age by “anything capable of reflecting [or carrying] an image”.  Tanuma collects mirrors and telescopes.  He studies optics in college.  He builds telescopes and periscopes with which he spies on neighbors and his own female servants.  He builds bizarre optical devices in which he dances for his own amusement.  Ultimately, he builds a circular room in which he is alone with his reflection.  He comes to a bad end.  The story narrator himself is horrified by his own reflection, which adds to the intensity of the horror. 
Japanese horror frequently focuses on obsession.  One or more characters become obsessed with something rather ordinary, and the obsession leads to madness or something worse.  Japanese culture puts a high premium on the perfection of simple activities such as flower arrangement or brewing tea.  The dark side of this hunt for simple perfection is conjured up as a self-devouring obsession.  In reality, of course, the reach of an obsession is generally limited to the personality of the obsessed.  In horror fiction, it leaks out to contaminate the external world and gobbles up the innocent. 
The brilliance of the story lies in the idea that one might transcend the strict physics of mirrors.  A mirror only shows us one perspective.  If you stand between two or more mirrors focused on the same point, you get a glimpse of infinity: mirror after mirror recedes into the distance.  However, your own image is blocking the view.  Perhaps this is God’s way of keeping his name holy or, what is the same thing, of protecting us from being destroyed by the sight of the infinite.  Rampo’s story suggests the horror that awaits someone who managed to go beyond those limits.  

Mirror Hell
Unfortunately, Jissoji Akio’s contribution to Rampo Noir has almost nothing to do with Rampo’s story.  It is a solid, if not particularly inventive piece of J-horror film.  The story begins in a Tea House, a place where brewing and serving tea are taught as a ceremony full of simplicity and grace.  Two women in the house die, their faces burned down into the bone.  The link is a hand mirror made by a beautiful and, let us say, obsessive man who had a relationship with the deceased.  We get a pseudo-scientific explanation of how the mirror microwaves its victims and a pseudo-Freudian explanation of the mirror maker’s motives.  If you like J-horror, you will certainly enjoy the tale but you will not rank it near the top of your list.  

Good horror always plays with ideas.  Great horror plays with fundamental, universal ideas.  Ringu, my personal favorite, blends the intersection of science and the occult and presents them in the context of new technology.  The spirit world is always connected with the dream world that every person who sleeps is familiar with.  Any reflection, in water, in a mirror, on video tape, has an element of the dream world in it.  That is where the ghosts and demons find their avenue of attack.

Both Rampo’s original story and Akio’s film short play with the mirror as a challenge to waking reality.  I wish, however, that Akio had found a way to bring us the original story.  I haven’t given up hope for J-horror just yet. 

Thursday, December 27, 2012


If you were fortunate enough to have watched The Hobbit two thirds of the way through and then suffered a medical emergency, you would have seen a very good movie.  Fortunately, Peter Jackson seems to have found resources to draw upon when crafting his portrait of Middle Earth.  Everything that happens in the Shire is good enough.  Ian McKellen is so very good as Gandalf that one suspects that J.R.R. invented him.  Martin Freeman presents us with a compelling Bilbo Baggins.  If ever I read The Hobbit again, imagination will not have to labor at the faces. 
The story develops well and the familiar parts of it early on remain familiar.  A lot of the Trilogy is read back into the story and that is quite proper.  Tolkien himself effectively rewrote the original work by his later magnum opus.  I loved the scenes in Rivendell.  They even called it Imladris at one point.  Elrond and Galadriel were worth the entire production cost. 
Also excellent was Bilbo’s encounter with Gollum.  If you have read the books and watched Jackson’s Trilogy, you have to have special section of your heart reserved for Sméagol.  This poor creature, whose soul is torn apart by the corruption of the Enemy’s Ring, who nonetheless never entirely loses his better self, is something to be feared and pitied.  There but for the grace of God…
Unfortunately, Peter Jackson is still Peter Jackson.  Most of the last third of the film was taken up by the main characters hanging on to something as they fell.  In other words, it turned into King Kong.  The characters cling to rock ledges as Godzilla-sized rock monsters battle.  They cling to bridges as the bridges fall, endlessly, down canyons.  In scenes that would shame a Buster Keaton film festival, our heroes always manage to keep on the right platform and land safely while an army of goblins always falls off just in time.  Even when they are out of the goblin caverns, they get chased into falling trees and the action goes on and on.  It is as if Jackson were somehow addicted to this ridiculous action trick and held off as long as he could; but once he got started he couldn’t stop.
I really wanted The Hobbit to be what it should have been.  It was, for a good bit.  Unfortunately, I didn’t go into shock in time.  Please don’t let the rest of this thing be as absurd. 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Todd & The Book of Pure Evil

We are living at a time of embarrassing riches when it comes to horror and fantasy film making.  While there have been a few superb horror films in recent decades, most of the really good stuff is produced for TV.  This is mostly a result of the expansion of cable venues.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, the first couple of seasons of Lost and the first season of Heroes, Being Human, Alphas, and The Walking Dead, all offer a lot more delicious and finely wrought fiction than can be found in the theaters.  That is not to mention Dexter, one of the most brilliant shows I have ever watched. 
Cable has made it possible to do a lot more than previous TV or the movie industry allowed.  Todd and the Book of Pure Evil is one of the most interesting things I have seen in a long time.  One reason for that judgment is why I am watching it.  I got the entire first season for less than twelve bucks from Amazon, free shipping.  That is what these things should cost, when they aren’t free from Netflix.  TBPE lasted only two seasons, with 13 episodes each.  I have seen only the first season, but it was cleverer and more engaging than one could possibly have predicted. 
The story is standard issue high school horror: something demonic at large in the halls of Crowley High.  The book of pure evil flits around, flapping its binders like bird wings, and presents itself to various persons, offering them a chance to realize their wildest desires.  Of course, there is always a terrible cost. 
The production value is very modest, but that is part of the charm.  It has a feel that will be familiar to anyone who has watched a Nickelodeon series with one of his kids.  Think of Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets Saved by the Bell, with a soundtrack as uncensored as a locker room.  I don’t think there is a single recognizable actor among the lot.  This is TV produced at the level of high school drama.  

The title character, Todd (Alex House), is simply appalling.  He’s the pothead who wants to be a heavy metal god, but can’t really play the guitar all that well or anything else for that matter.  His only motive for playing the part of the hero is his desire to win Jenny the hot chick (Maggie Castle), who is pursuing the book to find out what happened to her missing father.  Todd’s side kick Curtis (Billy Turnbull) is an overweight goofball with a prosthesis for one of his arms.  Todd is pursued by not by a Hermione but by a would-be Hermione, Hannah (Melanie Leishman) who wants to be but isn’t really all that good at science.  That’s our team of demon fighters.  They stand to Harry, Ron, and Hermione the way the Stones stood to the Beatles. 
That, of course, is the chief part of the charm.  If a supernatural evil got loose in your high school, what are the odds that the boy who lived and the greatest witch of her age would be on hand to meet it?  Not very high, if my memory serves.  Instead of a selflessly courageous hero and a science whiz, you’d have to make do with a serial masturbator and a young lady whose dreams of becoming a scientist are about as realistic as Todd’s dreams of becoming a rock star.  

Meanwhile, the high school staff is even worse than usual.  The guidance counselor is in league with a cabal of evil wizards seeking the book.  The cabal dwells in the dark confines of a nursing home.  Here is a sample of his guidance, as he informs a student of the results of his aptitude test. 
I have to admit of a little puzzlement here because, before today, I didn’t realize that you could actually fail an aptitude test. 
Are you saying I’m stupid? 
I’m not.  I’m not.  But this test is absolutely screaming it.  You’re going to have to take this test again because it indicates you are about as smart as a monkey but, sadly, not one of the smart monkeys. 
The chemistry teacher goes over the top in telling Hannah that she has no future in science. 
“Are those your dead parents?  Sure don’t look like they were groundbreaking scientists!  Frankly Hannah you shouldn’t spend so much time in the science lab.  It’s why you have no friends. 
Hannah: Friends are overrated.  I have one true love and that love is science. 
Yeah but science doesn’t love you, Hannah.  Hell, it doesn’t even like you.  It killed your parents.  No offense, Hannah, but you’re twice as reckless as they were with half the talent. 
Real guidance counselors and teachers don’t talk like this, of course, even in the most challenging cases.  Academic culture wraps every unpleasant reality in a thick, verbal blanket of insulation.  This is just what the staff is frequently thinking and what many a student is actually hearing.  TBPE is dense with this kind of dialogue.  It is persistently, if bitterly, funny. 

The plots are equally clever.  In “Gay Day,” the Book finds a bullied gay student who asks for the tables to be turned.  The book works its evil magic so that every heterosexual student is turned gay.  Unfortunately, the young man is also turned straight and finds himself just as much an outcast as he ever was.  In “Cock Fight”, a jock with a small endowment gets a much bigger one from the Book.  Guess what?  It has a mind of its own and he can’t keep it in his pants. 
Todd and the Book of Pure Evil is pure genius, in a high school locker room sort of way.  The first season is available on DVD.  It seems that the second season is only available from Amazon Instant Watch.  I’ll give you a report.  Meanwhile, don’t miss this one.  It’s the kind of thing you’ll love, if you like that kind of thing. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Troll Hunter!!!

If you are tired of those shaky, found footage mockumentaries, well, that's too damn bad. The device is being employed frequently these days and it is producing some of the best horror available in years. Cloverfield, [Rec], and its American doppelganger, Quarantine, and Paranormal Activity, were each of them very solid additions to the horror catalog.
Now comes Troll Hunter out of Norway. It strikes me as the best of the lot, as well as one of the freshest and most engaging monster movies I have ever seen. I've seen a lot.
Trolljergeren is directed by André Øvredal. The film is in Norwegian with English subtitles, though a good bit of English is spoken by some Polish bear traffickers. I view it as a general rule that any movie with Polish bear traffickers speaking English to Norwegians is worth watching.
The film begins with three college students following and filming a man they believe to be a bear poacher. Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud) and Johana (Johana Mørck) are both very convincing as naïve youngsters playing at the roles of investigative reporters. Hans (Otto Jespersen), whose truck and weathered trailer they are following, stands of course in stark contrast: older, jaded, and sporting a magnificent beard under his wide-brimmed hat. After several attempts to shoo them away, he decides to let them film the big secret he is in on. He is tired, of keeping secrets among other things.  As you may guess from the clip above, he is not so much a Troll Hunter as a Troll warden.  
Unlike any of the other mockumentaries, Troll Hunter is full of gorgeous footage. A lot of their time is spent zipping up rain splashed pavement with fjords and misty mountains always in view. The wet realism of the scenery was one the things that kept me watching.
One of the bits of genius in the cinematic recipe was a taste for subtly pretty everywhere except, of course, when a troll actually comes into view. There are a few splashes of scientific pseudo explanations, a dash of secret government agency paranoia, and just a pinch of supernatural spice. Let this stand for one small spoiler: the Trolls don't like the smell of Christian blood.
The trolls themselves look as sound about as real as any creature could that has escaped from a children's collection of fairy tales. Since they are always up when the sun isn't, they can blend in with the darkness or gray fog. A Darwinian adaptation? We report, you decide. I'll just say that I can't think of large monsters that ever seemed so real on camera.
One of the most important tasks of dark fantasy cinema is to take the childhood ogre and make it feel real again. Troll Hunter does this very well. I give it four stars out of four.