Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Onibaba (1964)

...aka: Demon, The
...aka: Devil Woman
...aka: Hole, The
...aka: Ogress, The
...aka: Witch, The

Directed by:
Kaneto Shindô

After a man is drafted in war-torn 14th century feudal Japan and sent off to fight, his impoverished and lonely mother (Nobuko Otawa) and wife (Jitsuko Yoshimura) remain in their swamp-land home. Food is scarce and every day is a struggle for survival, so the women are reduced to ambushing worn-out or injured warriors, killing them and selling their armor and other belongings to a greedy local merchant, before disposing of the corpses by throwing them down a large hole in the ground that's located near their home. The older woman comes to mistrust her daughter-in-law when she couples up with a deserter (Kei Sato), and begins to wear a demonic facial mask she has taken from a slain samurai to try to scare them away... only to eventually discover it won't come off! A rare film from this era that has the courage to be unrelentingly grim, this is one of the best horror films produced in Japan (or anywhere else for that matter) during the 60s. It's well acted (especially by Otawa), extremely bleak and even surprisingly sensual at times, with brilliant black-and-white cinematography, a breath-taking visual composition and potent nightmarish imagery. Though it predominately takes place out in the open air, the film is wonderfully eerie and claustrophobic thanks to the closed-in living quarters of the ladies, who are seemingly separated from the rest of the world by fields full of tall, wavering reeds.

Not until somewhat recently has this film began to get the recognition it deserves as a horror classic and that's thanks in part to the excellent 2004 DVD release from Criterion. The fact it was released in certain countries over the years with such generic and non-descript titles as THE DEMON, DEVIL WOMAN, THE HOLE, THE OGRESS and THE WITCH probably didn't help its reputation any back in the day, but apparently it made enough of an impression on William Friedkin that he patterned the flashes of the white demon faces in THE EXORCIST (1973) directly on the look of the mask in this film.


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