Friday, October 31, 2008

“L'horreur… l'horreur…”

First off, I want to point out that my critical take on Kaidan (1964) and Histoires extraordinaires (1968; Spirits of the Dead) might be clouded by the fact that I stayed up late to watch both of these movies in an venue that is gradually becoming known around Rancho Yesteryear as “Insomniac Theatre.” So if it seems like I was unduly harsh—it’s only because I’m cranky.

TCM scheduled Kaidan at 2am, and while the horror anthology—based on Japanese ghost stories adapted from books written by novelist Lafcadio Hearn, an American who settled in Japan in 1880—is well scripted (Yako Mizuki) and directed (Masuki Kobayashi), the stories are a bit on the Poky Little Puppy side. I thought the best of the four was Segment #2, “The Woman in the Snow”—about a young woodcutter (Tatsuya Nakadai) who is rescued by a snow witch (Keiko Kishi) from a devastating storm and is allowed to live provided he tells no one of his experience. (Interestingly enough, this tale was edited out when Kaidan was released in the U.S. in 1965.) “Hoichi the Earless” is also pretty fun; a blind servant is painted with religious symbols to repel evil spirits—but the priests neglect to paint his ears…

Following Kaidan, Spirits of the Dead is another anthology (but with three stories instead of four) that I preferred over the previous film only because the source material (based on stories by Edgar Allan Poe) was more familiar to me. If you catch this one on DVD, skip the first segment because it’s definitely the weakest; in “Metzengerstein,” Jane Fonda plays a libertine countess whose infatuation with her cousin (and there is a substantial ick factor here, since he’s played by brother Peter) is not returned—so she sets his stables on fire and he’s killed in the blaze while rescuing a prized horse. A wild stallion shows up later on Jane’s estate, and the implication is that it’s the equine form of the reincarnated cousin…which Jane spends the rest of the segment trying to seduce. (I’m not making this up.) If you go for Jane in the sex kitten phase of her career (her then-husband Roger Vadim directed this segment, which sometimes resembles a blueprint for Barbarella [1968]) this might be your meat—but honestly, Jane looks pretty bored throughout and I know exactly how she feels.

The best segment in Spirits is “Toby Dammit,” directed by Federico Fellini and starring Terence Stamp as a wasted English film actor who’s invited to Italy to make a film about Jesus Christ (as a revisionist western) and finds himself in a nightmarish Hell of fawning press, producers and other film industry wannabes. If you’re not familiar with Fellini, this mesmerizing horror tale might just be the perfect introduction to his work; his trademark humor and grotesque characters are on full display here, except in a smaller dose. The final segment (though it’s actually in the middle) is “William Wilson,” starring Alain Delon as an accomplished cad/wanker who finds himself constantly bedeviled by his doppelganger. Brigitte Bardot is also in this one, as a woman who engages Delon in a game of cards and loses (she also gets flogged, in case you need to be further sold). It’s directed by Louis Malle, and what I found most interesting about the story is that Malle takes us to a boys’ school in the beginning, which is highly reminiscent of his latest Oscar-nominated Au revoir les enfants (1987). (Though I should point out that Au revoir does not feature a scene where a gang of bullies torture a kid by lowering him into a tub of rats.)

I’d give Kaidan two and a half stars and Spirits three (on the strength of the Fellini material alone).

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