Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Sûîto Homu (1989)

... aka: Sweet Home

Directed by:
Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Mamiya Mansion, former home of deceased painter Ichirou Mamiya, has been off limits since the artist's death thirty years earlier. Since then, ownership of the home has fallen into the hands of the local government. Widowed documentary filmmaker Kazuo (Shingo Yamashiro) shows up in town hall to get permission to go there in hopes of locating, filming and restoring a rumored fresco that's also the late artist's final work. He's warned, reluctantly given the keys and then travels there with a small crew that includes program coordinator Akiko (Nobuko Miyamoto), cameraman Taguchi (Ichiro Furutachi), reporter / art restorer Asuka (Fukumi Kuroda) and Kazuo's teenage daughter Emi (Nokko), who's there basically because she has no other place to go and would really like her father to hook up with Akiko. The huge, crumbling mansion - a spooky place indeed - is located in the middle of the woods, surrounded by an iron fence and so dilapidated it's on the verge of collapse. The crew enter, get the generator running and find the fresco, only to discover the entire room the wall painting is on is actually a huge mural so macabre in design and erratic in execution it shows signs of the artist's mental deterioration.

The crew decide to spend a few days there until they can get the footage they need and soon enough are experiencing strange supernatural occurrences. Asuka begins behaving bizarrely, digs up a child's corpse in a nearby graveyard and crashes the car trying to frantically leave. Several people then die under mysterious and rather gruesome circumstances that involve fire eating away an abdomens from the inside out, a body split in two, a face chopped down the middle with a huge battle axe and a human meltdown. Actually, there end up being two human meltdowns, including a pretty impressive and detailed full body meltdown later on that reduces a victim to a pile of bones. Eventually, elderly local gas station owner Mr. Yamamura (played by producer Jûzô Itami) shows up to tell the sad tale of what went down at the house and why it's haunted and young Emi is abducted by the spirits and in need of rescue.

Though very little of this is original (ideas are clearly pinched from The Haunting, The Legend of Hell House, Suspiria, Poltergeist and other earlier films), it's very well done in all of the important areas regardless. There's good acting from the entire cast and effective and highly atmospheric art direction inside the home. The lighting designs, especially a standout moment where large finger-like shadows trail down a hallway and close in on a victim, destroying lighting fixtures in the process, are extremely stylish. There's also a strong, well-paced script with enjoyable characterizations that intelligently factor into the finale. The ending is quite haunting and even touching, though this doesn't know quite when to quit with the banishment of the malicious spirit and gets a little hokey in its last few frames. Perhaps most prominent of all its merits are some really excellent special effects. Oscar-winning American fx master Dick Smith was flown all the way over to Japan to work on this one and really delivers the goods here. The large, monstrous ghost puppet that eventually shows up is a major highlight and one of the most impressive full scale effects I've seen in any 80s horror film.

A 'Sweet Home' video game was released simultaneously in Japan in 1989 by Capcom / Famicom for the Nintendo Entertainment System, making this notable as an early cross-promotional project used to sell both video games and movie tickets. Of course this is all extremely common nowadays with numerous action, horror, sci-fi and super hero blockbusters being turned into video games (and vice versa), but back in the late 80s this was all-new ground that was being broken. The game itself also went on to heavily influence the later, best-selling Resident Evil series. As for the supposed 'debate' over whether the game or the film was made first, there IS no debate. The game's director, Tokuro Fujiwara, has stated in interviews that he viewed the film first and even toured the set (in 1988 when it was being filmed) so that he could incorporate elements from the movie into the game, so that answers that. He also stated he was given free artistic license and wasn't forced to stick too closely to the actual movie, though he ended up doing just that.

Sweet Home is also noteworthy as the first horror effort for director Kurosawa, who'd later become a big name in the genre with such films as Cure (1997), Seance (2005) and his most famous crossover hit Kairo / Pulse (2001). Unfortunately, this early effort has never been officially released in America and isn't the easiest of films to find. An English subtitled print that's not in the best of condition is floating around on the gray market though. It's likely sourced from the bootleg formerly distributed by the now-defunct Video Search of Miami. This certainly deserves better distribution.

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