All posts by Simon Hyslop

LIST CANDIDATE: ALMA (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Rodrigo Blaas

PLOT: Young Alma encounters a toy shop containing a doll bearing an uncanny resemblance to her.

Still from Alma (2009)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: In communicating its tale of terror in a style and medium almost uniformly associated with mainstream family-friendliness, Alma stands out as weird amidst today’s persistent stream of digital animation.

COMMENTS: As this site’s regular Saturday Short feature has proven, animation is one of the most fitting mediums for short-length cinematic weirdness. Whether minimalist or elaborate, animation offers a strong opportunity to evoke a particularly singular visual concept within a short frame of time.

Former Pixar employee Rodrigo Blaas—whose name appears in the credits of some of the studio’s most beloved features—has, with Alma, added his own particular twist to this well-established cinematic convention. Drawing on his past work, Blaas bring us his simple, independent tale of surreal horror in the bright, stylized CGI that’s now all but synonymous with modern mainstream animation.

In its themes and narrative, meanwhile, Alma recalls a more antiquated form of family entertainment. Its components—the snow upon slanted rooftops and narrow cobblestone alleys; the toy shop, at once quaint and sinister; the protagonist, a mischievous little one with the air of a vagabond—bring to mind the classical elements of old children’s’ books. The plotline, which imposes a nightmarish fate upon its young protagonist as punishment for a petty misdeed, evokes the Victorian cautionary tales that Hilare Belloc so famously lampooned.

Needless to say, this results in a strikingly unique piece of short cinema; especially considering that, despite mashing together conventions of children’s entertainment from opposite ends of the 20th century, it is very clearly not intended for children. The simple plot follows young Alma, who, prancing merrily down a snowy alleyway one day, encounters a toy shop, with a doll precisely resembling her in the window. Unable to resist this singular temptation, she heads into the unattended shop to take the doll for herself, and meets horrifying consequences—ones that add a twist to the primal fear of endless damnation.

Told, like many short works of weirdness, entirely without dialogue, the story of Alma is, as befitting the nature of Blaas’ past work, communicated via five minutes’ worth of highly expressive visuals that quietly convey basic narrative and subtle details alike. Alma’s slightly ragged appearance hints at her humble background, lending context to her sticky-fingered nature. Hundreds of children have chalked their names on the wall in the alleyway in which she finds the shop. It’s also lined with what might be interpreted as a number of “Missing” posters, ominously hinting at the shop’s scourge of terror. And the store window, picturesque upon first glance, takes on the appearance of a leering monster’s gaping maw when examined more closely.

In terms of weirdness, Alma has its more obvious elements: most notably, flashes of surreal, nightmarish images when Alma seizes the doll. The genuine uniqueness of the short, however, is found in its bold effort to render an artistically-driven work of cinema in a style that’s become emblematic of mega-budget commercial family cinema. The contrast is striking. As an artistic choice, it’s not unprecedented, but Blaas, having come directly off the set of some of the industry’s leading titles, evokes the style with particular authenticity.

Development is currently underway for a Dreamworks-backed feature-length adaptation of the short. As many have already predicted, even with Blaas himself at the helm, it seems highly likely that this horrifying tale, effective chiefly for its simplicity, will lose more than a little of its punch when stretched into feature-length. If nothing else, however, said feature might draw a little more much-deserved attention to the original short.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…this is a fairytale of the old kind, and if you have any sensitivity at all, you’ll be shivering as the snow drifts down at the end.”–Jennie Kermode, Eye for Film (contemporaneous)

Alma from Rodrigo Blaas on Vimeo.

CAPSULE: THE CURSE [NOROI] (2005)

DIRECTED BY: Kōji Shiraishi

FEATURING: Jin Muraki, Rio Canno, Tomono Kuga, Marika Matsumoto

PLOT: A paranormal investigator discovers a connection between a succession of mysterious phenomena.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Though innovative and solidly crafted, the film remains too structurally close to a standard horror to be considered genuinely weird. Noroi stretched for—and, to a great degree, attained—innovation and uniqueness as a work of horror. But there’s little sense that it was ever aiming to be genuinely weird, at least not as this site defines the word. There’s an atmosphere of unreality brought about by the persistent otherworldly presence that wafts throughout the film, but nonetheless, the world in which it manifests is a sane and recognizable one, presented in the plain, organic style that befits the better-crafted sort of found footage film.

COMMENTS: The roots of the found footage style can be traced back as far as 1980’s infamous piece of cannibalsploitation nastiness, Cannibal Holocaust. Found footage, in its early days, represented a promising breath of fresh air for horror. After the genre had spent the last few decades building itself up on a foundation of excess, The Blair Witch Project and its imitators introduced a fresh appreciation for minimalism, implication, and the power of atmosphere in horror—as well as a new way to stretch a budget.

As was inevitable, however, the ugly side-effects of popularity began to kick in; and, as exemplified in the latter films in the Paranormal Activity franchise, the style become an overused parody of itself, completely abandoning the subtleties that gave it its appeal and intrigue for the sake of greater marketability. The “in-universe camera” aspect became little more than an excuse to underpay the cinematographer.

Fortunately for Noroi, it hopped on the found footage bandwagon before Hollywood had fully awoken to its exploitability. Or, put another way, it came out four years before Paranormal Activity, when found footage was still mildly novel.

And, though there’s far more to Noroi than its handheld camera style, this is undeniably a defining aspect of the movie. Noroi is, in short, a horror film that, though distinctly Eastern in general content, is presented in a cinematic style invented and grown almost entirely in the Western world of cinema. Put simply, it’s perhaps one of the most literal cases of J-Horror through a Westernised lens.

Noroi’s director, Kōji Shiraishi, while perhaps not enjoying ‘s levels of cult recognition in the West, has nonetheless solidly established himself as one of Japan’s more prominent 21st century horror directors. Citing both local directors and several of Hollywood’s classic horror masters (, Raimi , et. al.) among his influences, his affinity for experimentation within the genre shows clearly in the broad and diverse body of his work.

Noroi, perhaps his most recognized work in the West, is striking for its slick and effective blend of the familiar and the unexpected. In many ways, his cinematic telling of this particular tale of horror does not shy away from indulging in well-worn genre standards. The J-Horror aficionado will immediately recognize the ominous shrines and the stringy-haired ghost girl in a billowing white gown; the found-footage enthusiast will recognize the journalist protagonist whose relentless drive to document the truth serves as the reason the in-universe camera is always on; and more or less anyone with a taste for horror in any form will recognize the disquieting little girl with the less-than-enviable bonds to the world of the paranormal, or the curse that stubbornly hangs around after centuries.

And yet, in many other ways, Noroi distinguishes itself, particularly in its portrayal of its main horror.

It’s long been established that, in horror, vagueness is often the key to effective chills. From the beginning, it’s clear that Noroi understands this well. It’s not an excessively subtle film, by any stretch of the imagination—the psychic, with his hyperactive paranoia and affinity for tin foil, couldn’t be anything but comedic in any context—but in its presentation of its central threat, Noroi is strikingly effective. The film’s unfortunate protagonists are plagued by a demonic presence that makes itself known in a far more underhanded way that the petty, poltergeist-like antics of the Paranormal Activity ghost and its ilk. At the same time, however, the threat it presents is never undermined; its presence lurks throughout the film, mercilessly persistent, and all the more haunting for its vagueness.

Of course, like any horror scenario built on vagueness, the payoff needs to be meticulously crafted. Personally, I found Noroi‘s conclusion, perfectly functional as it was, to be rather mediocre in comparison with the rest of it. Still, Noroi is a solidly founded work of J-Horror, and, moreover, one of the sadly overlooked examples of the found footage style as it ought to be implemented (most of the others, incidentally, being zero-budget webseries uploaded to YouTube). It is not, however, an example of “weird” cinema to any significant degree. It’s unique, original, and evokes an excellently crafted atmosphere; but pretending that those elements are synonymous with being “weird” only cheapens the art of cinematic absurdity we’re so fond of around here.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…overstays its welcome with an unnecessarily complicated and increasingly absurd final act…”–Neil Young, Neil Young’s Film Lodge (festival screening)

LIST CANDIDATE: ANGEL’S EGG (1985)

Tenshi no Tamago

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Voices of Mako Hyôdô, Jinpachi Nezu, Kei’ichi Noda

PLOT: In a desolate city, an angelic young girl cherishes an egg.

Still from Angel's Egg (1985)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: This haunting animation more or less entirely forgoes dialogue and narrative for a large helping of theistic symbolism and rich visuals.

COMMENTS: It’s often said that we anime fans fetishize the “otherness” of anime—or, put less pretentiously, it’s often said we like stuff simply because it’s Japanese.

To be honest, there’s some accuracy to that. But can you blame us? As one of the only non-Western entertainment mediums to gain measurable popularity here, anime represents, for many of us, the one substantial deviation from our entertainment norms. Hell, for many people, it’s more or less the only reminder that a norm even exists.

Of course, it’d be obscenely simplistic to say that’s what makes a work like Angel’s Egg so deeply engaging—but it’s definitely a factor.

Released in 1985, this 71-minute OVA (non-theatrical video feature) is the brainchild of director Mamuro Oshii (best known, at least around here, for his sci-fi philosophy-fest Ghost in the Shell) in collaboration with artist Yoshitaka Amano. One of the earlier efforts—and his second OVA—on Oshii’s extensive resume, Egg showcases that familiar blend of surrealism, introspection, and distinctly grit-flavored sci-fi that defines not only Oshii’s own work, but also a great deal of anime’s other “weird” offerings (End of Evangelion and “Serial Experiments Lain” come to mind).

Like so many of the movies featured here, Angel’s Egg largely supplants narrative with hefty symbolism and visual indulgence. Set in a grey and empty city of desolate Victorian/Gothic architecture—every single frame of it rendered with almost dizzying artistic excellence—the film follows a young girl who ekes out a lonely existence scavenging among the ruins and, for reasons known only to her, collecting hundreds of glass bottles of water. The girl tends to a large egg, carrying with her everywhere, believing that it holds a beautiful bird within it.

One day, a young man wielding a cross-shaped staff intrudes on the girl’s lifeless world, following her to her lonely abode. Other stuff happens, but really, to try and describe any aspect of this film with words is to sell it short.

Angel’s Egg is—again, like so many of the List’s films—a work of cinema defined by more than what happens on screen. It is defined by its atmosphere; a heavy, heavy atmosphere. The Gothic elements of this animation extend well beyond the architecture. Every frame of this film oozes ghostliness and desolation. The girl and the young man exist in a world of crumbling greyness and deafening silence, and every moment of the film’s striking visuals, ominous choral soundtrack, and heavy, lingering shots ensures that the viewer shares in every bit of the characters’ haunting isolation. Some may Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: ANGEL’S EGG (1985)

READER RECOMMENDATION: PHILOSOPHY OF A KNIFE (2008)

Reader recommendation by Simon Hyslop

DIRECTED BY: Andrey Iskanov

FEATURING: Tetsuro Sakagami, Yukari Fujimoto, Manoush, Elena Probatova

PLOT: War prisoners are subjected to various horrifying experiments in the Japanese Imperial Army’s infamous Unit 731 facility.

Still from Philosophy of a Knife (2008)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Between the dreamlike cinematography, the unconventional, fractious narrative, and the bizarre attempts to blend a documentary with an arthouse film, this is definitely among the least conventional works of World War II cinema.

COMMENTS: A few short years before the outbreak of World War II, one General Shiro Ishii of the Japanese Imperial Army—a man who possessed a fatal combination of power, patriotism, intelligence and absolutely no regard for human life—oversaw the construction of a military facility in the Chinese province of Manchuria. Officially registered as a water purification plant, this facility—Unit 731, as it would come to be known—housed not only military personnel, but several thousand Chinese and Soviet prisoners, and a team of some of Japan’s top scientists. Over the next few years, these prisoners would be subjected to a series of horrifying, inhumane experiments in the name of helping the Japanese war effort. Prisoners were infected with deadly diseases, exposed to bomb blasts, and amputated and dissected without anesthetic.

And thanks to vested Cold War interests on the part of the USA, most of the perpetrators of these atrocities would walk away unpunished, and go on to enjoy prosperous careers.

This is the story that 2008’s Philosophy of a Knife—from one of modern Russia’s resident oddball directors, Andrey Iskanov—tells. Or, at least, purports to tell.

There’s a lot that needs to be said about Philosophy of a Knife, mostly because there’s so much of it. The film clocks in at over four hours; and while, admittedly, there are instances when it’s acceptable for a film to do that, I’m not convinced that Knife is one of them.

If there’s a key mistake this film makes, it’s in its genre. The film, it seems, is making a bold attempt to blend an art film with a documentary, combining stock footage, interviews and voiceover with heavily stylized reenactments of the experiments conducted at Unit 731. And while this is a debatable issue, I can’t see that blend as other than doomed to failure, since those genres are, in my opinion, irrevocably opposed. After all, any documentary worth its salt is going to try and be objective; while art, in any form—in my opinion— is inherently subjective. At least, until we’ve invented painting robots.

But even a viewer who disagrees with that particular perspective will probably agree that, as a documentary, Philosophy of a Knife‘s efforts are half-hearted at best. The voiceover segments—narrated by what sounds like a castrated Robbie Williams—cover only the most Continue reading READER RECOMMENDATION: PHILOSOPHY OF A KNIFE (2008)