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Monday, 22 February 2016

Horrors Of Malformed Men (1969)


This "banned-for-three-decades" (by Toei, the studio that made it), Japanese horror flick had been built up so much I came to it expecting something akin to a cross between In The Realm Of The Senses and a grindhouse take on The Island Of Doctor Moreau, with maybe a side order of The Hourglass Sanatorium.

Unfortunately, in all honesty, Horrors Of Malformed Men is actually quite mundane and underwhelming.

Escaping from an anarchic mental hospital in the 1920s, medical student Hirosuke Hitomi (Teruo Yoshida), plagued by inexplicable dreams, a haunting lullaby, and no knowledge of his family, follows a trail of breadcrumbs to a coastal town.

He arrives just when the son of a local eccentric is being buried, and is shocked to discover that the dead man - Genzaburô Komoda - looks just like him and even has a matching scar on the sole of his foot.

Naturally, Hitomi assumes the guise of Genzaburô and infiltrates the Komoda household... because how could that end badly?

Strange things do happen during the time spent in the house, and death seems to follow Hitomi, but eventually - at about the film's mid-point - the protagonist demands to be taken out to the quarantined island where 'his' father is supposedly building a "paradise".

Arriving there, Hitomi very quickly finds out that Genzaburô's father, Jôgorô Komoda (Tatsumi Hijikata), is an insane wannabe-scientist creating a tribe of "malformed" men, with plans to... well, that's never really made clear.

Jôgorô is certainly the most fascinating character in the film, a contorted, web-fingered, messianic Manson-esque demagogue, played by an avant-garde performance artist, whose dance troupe portray the 'malformed men'.

There are moments when Horrors Of Malformed Men goes a bit weird, such as the extended dance number after Hitomi first arrives on the island and meets Jôgorô, but these are very few and far between.

In fact, a major fault with the film is its verbosity, there's a lot of talk and ominous foreshadowing of things that never really come to fruition.

Then in the final act, having gone from family drama to weird sci-fi body horror, the film suddenly takes another diversion into police procedural territory.

This comes out of nowhere and ties up everything way too neatly, and with a bucketload of exposition that we probably didn't want.

I can see that maybe some of the ideas in the film may have been controversial in their time (for instance, there's an incestuous love story sub-plot, and several scenes of casual topless female nudity), but really it's all a bit tame and coy by modern standards.

As sometimes happens with cult movies, especially those that go unseen for a lengthy period of time, they gain a certain reputation through a combination of wishful thinking, Chinese whispers, and Emperor's New Clothes (in that those who do see it feel embarrassed to admit it's not as good as they'd been telling people it would be).

Based on a selection of the macabre tales of Japanese horror and mystery author Edogawa Rampo, Horrors of Malformed Men certainly didn't bore me (I made it through the 99 minutes without any breaks for toilet, snacks, or other distractions), but then again it also didn't particularly engage me.

While there are faint shades of Tod Browning's superior Freaks here, the closest comparison in Western cinema is the bizarre 1996 version of The Island Of Dr Moreau, starring Marlon Brando.

And the explosive finale of Horrors Of Malformed Men is far more comical than anything else.

All that said, this is a well made film, given the limitations of its time, and Teruo Ishii's direction carries you along, even if only because you are constantly being promised that just around the corner there's something truly gonzo going on. It's just that you never actually get to look round that corner.

It has been described as "dreamlike", and the blurb on the DVD case boasts, rather optimistically, that "after you've experienced it for yourself, you may never be able to watch normal movies again", but for me Horrors Of Malformed Men was, itself, in large part, too normal, too mundane, to be anything particularly memorable.

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