Horrors of Malformed Men Blu-ray Review (originally published 2018)
Medical student Hirosuke Hitomi slips out of the asylum in which he has been wrongfully confined and stealthily assumes the identity of a recently deceased nobleman with whom he bears an uncanny resemblance. Hirosuke eases his way into the nobleman’s household and his dead double’s marital bed. But, as long-repressed memories begin to bubble to the surface, he soon finds himself drawn to a remote isle where he is confronted by a mad scientist and his malformed men, and discovers the key that will unlock some long-suppressed mysteries of his own. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Teruo Ishii belongs in a special pantheon of innovative, truly unique cult filmmakers that have been forgotten or overlooked by the mainstream. His prolific output of nearly 100 features, shorts, and television episodes was spotty – ranging from children’s sci-fi serial Super Giant (Japanese: Sūpā Jaiantsu; released internationally as Starman and Spaceman, 1957-1959), to pinku eiga (aka: pinky violence) crime pictures and shockingly violent, trendsetting work on ero guro (aka: erotic-grotesque) opuses Shogun’s Joys of Torture (Japanese: Tokugawa onna keibatsu-shi, 1968) and its sequels – but the best of it is every bit as vivid and innovative as anything directed by David Cronenberg, Ken Russell, or Takashi Miike. Shogun’s Joy of Torture was almost certainly his most influential work, but his best films were his vivid, freakshow genre mash-ups Blind Woman’s Curse (Japanese: Kaidan Nobori Ryū, 1970) and the subject of this review, 1969’s Horrors of Malformed Men (Japanese: Edogawa Rampo Zenshū: Kyoufu Kikei Ningen).
Horrors of Malformed Men is based on the work of author Edogawa Rampo (real name Tarō Hirai), whose detective mysteries and horror stories were often compared to the work of Edgar Allan Poe (hence the phonetically similar pseudonym). As noted by author Pete Tombs in his Immoral Tales follow-up Mondo Macabro: Weird and Wonderful Cinema Around the World (1997 St. Martin's Griffin), Rampo’s stories grew in popularity after WWII and became the basis of a number of various genre films, beginning with serialized entries from his Private Detective Kogorô Akechi (Rampo’s Sherlock Holmes inspired alter ego) and Shonen tanteidan (Boy Detectives) series. Rampo adaptations ‘matured’ into the realms of outrageous horror at the end of the ‘60s, fronted by the strange alchemy of Horrors of Malformed Men, Kinji Fukasaku’s Black Lizard (Japanese: Kuro tokage, 1968), and Yasuzô Masumura’s Blind Beast (Japanese: Môjû, 1969). These films inspired renewed interest in the author’s work and, in turn, more adaptations, culminating in dozens of Rampo-themed releases throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s.
Ishii and co-writer Masahiro Kakefuda’s screenplay is reputedly based the novella Panorama Island Otan (Japanese: Panorama-tō Kitan; aka: The Strange Tale of Panorama Island, 1926), though it acts a sort of catch-all homage to the author by incorporating pieces of other short stories. The central, through line plot combines elements of popular detective mysteries, Lovecraftian pulp, and, most obviously, H. G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), but Horrors of Malformed Men has enough detours that it almost counts as an anthology, in line with Amicus Productions’ portmanteau pictures from the same era. Other incorporated short stories include (and thanks to Tom Mes’ Midnight Eye review for this otherwise uncredited list) The Human Chair (Ningen Isu, 1925), The Stroller/Stalker in the Attic (Yane-ura no Sanposha, 1925), The Twins (Sōseiji, 1924), and The Ogre/Demon of the Secluded Island (Kotō no oni, 1930). Rampo portmanteaus grew into a minor subgenre onto itself, encompassing television specials & miniseries, Rintaro Mayuzumi & Kazuyoshi Okuyama’s Rampo (1994), and a 2005 Tadanobu Asano-starring Kogorô Akechi movie that combined the efforts of directors Akio Jissôji (Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis, 1988), Atsushi Kaneko, Hisayasu Satô (Love Obsession, 1998), and Suguru Takeuchi.
Horrors of Malformed Men is a patchwork on more than a narrative level. Ishii’s filmmaking explores seemingly incompatible techniques in a frantic mélange of intrinsically cinematic methods, abstract experimentation, and perverted nō theater traditions. It’s less of a blatant genre mash-up than Blind Woman’s Curse – which fitfully cuts between samurai drama, yakuza thriller, horror, and absurdist comedy – but it pushes its structural and stylistic oddities further beyond the pale. Disturbing images and ideas are layered alongside ridiculous tableaus and scatalogical jokes, to a point that it becomes nearly impossible to parse the film’s tone. While plenty of audiences will dismiss this lack of narrative and dramatic cohesion, Ishii’s overwhelming approach is still based in a consistent style that builds to a series of climaxes. Whether you enjoy his excesses or laugh them off, Horrors of Malformed Men’s lasting impact is about as close to a waking nightmare as any movie ever made. Ishii continued directing singularly strange genre hybrids (mostly shot on digital video) until only a few years before his death in 2005, but he never quite recreated the singular spectacle.
Ever since the day I reviewed Synapse Films’ DVD debut back in 2007, Horrors of Malformed Men sat high on my personal list of movies I absolutely must own on a high-definition format. Previous to Synapse’s disc, the film was more or less lost, due to the scandal surrounding its original release. Or at least that was the story. Whatever the cause, it was all but impossible for anyone, even in Japan, to see the film outside of this out-of-print DVD until now. Arrow’s 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer has been restored in 2K from the original negative by Toei. I’ve included screen caps from both this remastered disc and Synapse’s DVD for comparison’s sake. Generally speaking, the DVD cannot compete in terms of detail, clarity, and compression. Ishii and cinematographer Shigeru Akatsuka’s vivid colors, which are particularly punched-up via chemical tampering during the surrealistic ‘story-in-story’ sequences, are super-saturated, yet avoids the blocking and bleeding issues that plague the SD image. Grain is relatively consistent (which is quite a feat, because the original materials are inherently so inconsistent) and the softened elements don’t exhibit posterization effects.
However, there are major discrepancies in the palettes here and I fear that the Synapse transfer is the more accurate representation of what Ishii and Akatsuka intended. First of all, the new transfer has been touched by the modern nadir of yellow & teal color timing. This is pretty easy to overlook, but you will note the tealing of daylight whites and yellowing of darker neutral hues, particularly the skin tones towards the end of the film. The bigger issue is the black balance during those saturated moments, as noted in my final screencaps from each disc. The warm vs. cool qualities of the greens is up for argument, but it seems clear to my eyes that the richer blacks and higher contrast seen on the Synapse disc are preferable. My assumptions and personal tastes aside, I suspect that Toei was using a different reference print while grading the scan (both Arrow and Synapse claim that their transfers were remastered from vault elements, for the record) and, considering Ishii is dead, we’ll probably never know which approach is ‘correct.’
The original Japanese dialogue mono soundtrack has also been restored and is presented in uncompressed, 1.0 LPCM audio. The sound design is experimental in that it uses unusual and amplified noises for effect, but, like many low-budget Japanese films from the period, it isn’t particularly intricate or heavily layered. As a result, this track’s biggest job is maintaining as much clarity as possible. In this regard, it does a fine job minimizing tinniness, keeping distortion down on high volume levels, and pulling at least a little depth out of the single channel mix. The biggest issues relate to dialogue tracks, which are sometimes hissy. Considering how off the lip sync can be and that sometimes one actor will have hiss problems while the person they’re speaking to does not, I’m going to guess that this was the result of post-production shortcomings. Some scenes are laced in abstract reverb/echo effects that I assume were intended. Composer Masao Yagi opts for an eclectic, constantly shifting score. He combines vocals performances, kettle drums, strings, brass, and traditional Japanese instruments that really benefit from the lack of compression.
Commentary with Tom Mes – The Japanese cinema expert, Midnight Eye contributor, and author of Iron Man: The Cinema of Shinya Tsukamoto (2005 FAB Press) and Agitator: The Cinema of Takashi Miike (2006 FAB Press). Mes’ discussion is a little more loose than usual, in part because he is aware that there is already a very good track about the film available (see below) and in part because he’s had a bit to drink (as he jokingly admits early in the track). Still, he offers a unique perspective on some of the film’s finer points.
Commentary with Mark Schilling – Not content with a single expert track, Arrow has also included the Synapse release’s commentary with the author of The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture (1997 Weatherhill), No Borders, No Limits: Nikkatsu Action Cinema (2007 FAB Press), and others, alongside an unnamed moderator. This is the more fact-filled and educational of the two tracks (Schilling has some fun anecdotes about meeting some of the people involved as well) and probably the one you should listen to first.
Malformed Movies (13:38) – A new interview with screenwriter Masahiro Kakefuda, who runs down his long career writing/co-writing exploitation movies of various genres for Toei. The inclusion of coinciding HD clips make me think that Arrow has more Toei releases on their future slate.
Malformed Memories (22:53, SD, Synapse Films extra) – Filmmakers Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo the Iron Man, 1989) and Minoru Kawasaki (The Calamari Wrestler, 2004) discuss Ishii’s career and his impact on their work. The featurette ends with footage from a 2003 interview with Ishii, who talks about Rampo’s writings.
Ishii in Italia (13:49, SD, Synapse Films extra) – Schilling traveled with Ishii during a visit to the 2003 Far East Film Festival and shot this video of the director doing audience Q&A and seeing the sights.
Calling Horrors of Malformed Men a mad Japanese mirror to British and American Edgar Allan Poe movies is an understatement and oversimplification. It’s more like Poe, Joseph Conrad, and H.G. Wells shared an opium nightmare and an escaped troupe of criminally insane asylum escapees decided to reenact it. It is absolutely must-see cinema. Arrow’s Blu-ray blows previous releases out of the water with superior detail and clarity, but, in my subjective opinion, they’ve fallen a bit short in terms of the last act’s color grading. Sound quality is good and the extras include a new expert commentary, a new featurette, and all previously available supplements. Quibbles with the image quality aside, this release comes highly recommended.
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer. Full-sized .jpg versions can (currently) only be accessed by right-clicking/ctrl-clicking the images and opening them in a new window/tab.