Saturday, September 30, 2023

Las crueles (1969)

... aka: Cruel Ones, The
... aka: El cadáver exquisito
... aka: Exquisite Cadaver, The
... aka: Finom holttest (Nice Corpse)

Directed by:
Vicente Aranda

A despondent-looking young woman emerges from some dried corn stalks, takes off her jacket, kneels down and then lies her head on the tracks right before a train comes barreling through. Years later, a book editor (who is annoyingly never given a name despite being the lead character, but is played by Carlos Estrada so I'll be calling him "Carlos" from here on out) receives a small package wrapped in yellow paper. Inside is what appears to be a severed human hand. He refuses to touch it, insists it's fake, made out of wax and must be some kind of joke and makes his secretary (Alicia Tomás) swear she won't tell anybody else about it. He's next seen out in the woods burying the hand and frantically looking around to make sure nobody has seen him.

When Carlos returns home, he's greeted by his two annoying young sons, who inform him that his wife (who is also never given a name but is played by Teresa Gimpera, so she's now "Teresa") is out running around with the new neighbor and the two had been "having drinks in the kitchen" and talking "about clothes... and about men... and pills" before taking off. When the wife finally shows back up, we can quickly see this is a loveless and miserable marriage. She presents him with a telegraph asking if he'd like a forearm next. Signed "Parker."

The following day at work, Carlos receives another yellow package, this one much larger than the last. Too scared to actually open it, he takes it to a public square, leaves it on a seat and waits for a man to steal it and walk off. When he returns home, his wife hands him back the same package and claims a man brought it to their home. This time she opens it. Instead of a body part, there's a dress and a photo of an unknown brunette woman. Suspicious, Teresa starts trailing her husband and discovers the woman in the photo, who dresses in all black and seems to always be wearing black gloves, is stalking her husband and even knows where they live. Another note is left behind at their home, again mentioning the forearm.

The mysterious woman who's been signing all the letters "Parker" turns out to actually be a Parisian woman named Lucia Fonte, who's played by glamorous French actress and model Capucine. When she pulls up next to Carlos one evening and looks over, he feels compelled to hop into the car with her. The two take a silent drive to a mansion, where she tells him all of his questions will be answered if he drinks a glass of whiskey and eats a blotted paper LSD tablet. After he does, he hears voices from a woman bemoaning her lost love, who apparently didn't feel the same way about her as she did him. That's followed by the discovery of a well-preserved nude corpse in an upstairs fridge, a hallucination of a nude woman falling over and over again and brief flashbacks. The spurned lover, Esther Casino (Judy Matheson), turns out to be the train girl from the opening scene, while the man who drove her to suicide was, you guessed it, Carlos.

Carlos awakens the next day at home in his own bed, with his wife informing him that she brought him back there herself at Lucia's insistence. However, Lucia's recollections from the night before do not match the husband's. She claims it's Carlos who's been stalking her for weeks, finally showing up at her home and exposing himself to her. Fearing being raped, she slipped a sleeping pill into his drink and then called Teresa to come fetch her wayward unconscious hubby.

Finally backed into a corner, Carlos is forced to confess his affair to his wife, which we see in flashbacks. Esther was a troubled, aimless, unemployed, bored hippie into astrology and on some kind of medication that she refused to take because it made her put on weight. He first spotted her in a diner drinking a strawberry milkshake and playing with her pills (red flag!), but began a brief, intense affair with her anyway. That all ended with him eventually tiring of her bizarre behavior, moodiness and suicidal tendencies, and literally leaving her in the dust. There's now clearly some scheming going on with at least one of the characters, though it's best I not reveal any more.

This film has no reputation to speak of, few online reviews and has mostly been forgotten, which made the discovery that it's actually quite good all the more sweet. For starters, it's well-written for a change, especially in comparison to most other European mystery / suspense / gialli from this same time. There's an intriguing and twisty plot, some surprising content (electric carving knife dismemberment anyone?), interesting characters and a decent, somber mystery that reveals different layers all the way up to the end. The direction is also nice, with some tastefully done, stylish flourishes here and there using stills, sepia flashbacks, film run backwards in slow motion, out of focus shots, surrealist elements, etc. These are used sparingly to enhance the story, not distract from weak writing as we all too often see in films like this.

Performances are quite strong here, too, especially from the ill-fated Capucine (who committed suicide in 1990) as the enigmatic, possibly lesbian, possibly vengeance-seeking woman in black. On the flip side, the male protagonist is a complete dickhead and difficult to handle on at first, though that just ends up making the finale all the more satisfying. Genre regular Víctor Israel swings by for a minute as a creepy doorman and there are also small parts played by José María Blanco, Luis Ciges and Luis Induni, but focus is placed almost exclusively on the four lead characters.

The director went on to make The Blood-Spattered Bride (1972), which is highly regarded by some, and co-write THE PEOPLE WHO OWN THE DARK (1976) before finally finding some acclaim in his homeland in the 80s and 90s, winning some of the country's top awards in the process. 

It's based on the story "Bailando para Parker" by Gonzalo Suárez, who isn't mentioned much in horror circles despite writing and / or directing some pretty interesting films himself. Some of his other work includes the short El horrible ser nunca visto / "The Horrible Being Never Seen" (1966), El extraño caso del doctor Fausto / "The Strange Case of Dr. Fausto" (1969), the underrated MORBO (1972), La loba y la Paloma (1974; called House of the Damned in the UK and US), Beatriz (1976) and Rowing with the Wind (1988), which netted him a Best Director Goya Award.

Reportedly, the production was beset with problems from the get-go, which also extended to its post production and eventual release. Director Aranda and Suárez were feuding (stemming from a previous production the two had worked on together), Aranda got injured, they went through five different scripts and then, after filming wrapped, there was a lawsuit over ownership and issues with distribution. Quite a headache.

Though this boasts a cast seemingly hand-selected to appeal to international audiences (the four leads are all from different countries: Argentina, England, France and Spain), I'm only aware of a couple of countries this was officially released in. Aside from Spain, a cut, English-language version was released theatrically in the U.S. in 1973. This same print, which is oddly missing any credits and doesn't even have a title screen (the one I'm using was taken from the trailer), was used for the later Something Weird VHS, DVD-R and streaming releases.


Friday, September 29, 2023

Tsuitô no zawameki (1988)

... aka: 追悼のざわめき
... aka: Noisy Requiem, The

Directed by:
Yoshihiko Matsui

The seriously disturbed Makoto Ishikawa (Kazuhiro Sano) is first seen aimlessly wandering around the slums of the impoverished Kamagasaki district of Osaka. He stops to feed pigeons, then suddenly bludgeons one with a hammer and rips its head off, adding it to a collection of dead birds he keeps hidden in the sewer. He treats his human prey about the same way. A serial killer, Makoto beats his victims, robs them, defiles their corpses and then dumps them in junkyards, trash heaps and abandoned buildings around the city when he's done with them. He sometimes strips naked, takes the entrails from his victims and stuffs them into a hole bored out of the crotch of his mannequin "girlfriend," whom he shares a "home" (actually a rooftop) with, buys an engagement ring and expensive dresses for, dances naked with, cuddles with, has sex with and licks bird droppings off the face of (!) Also, great news for the couple: She's recently become "pregnant."

A schoolgirl discusses a dream she had that involved gray pigeons preventing a single white one from eating some beans, the white pigeon turning into a crow, the beans turning into starving people ("Like in that song 'We Are the World'!"), the starving people turning into dead bodies and the crow feasting upon those bodies, finally noting that we all have the capacity to be that crow picking at the carcasses of the weak and dying, granted we're hungry enough. This prompts her to give more than her friend thinks she should to a pair of disabled Pacific War vets panhandling by a fountain. Immediately after, Makoto extinguishes that good deed by accusing the men of being Koreans faking being Japanese. He knocks them both down, bites them, stomps on them and stabs one of them in the leg with a crowbar, which he then twists around to intensify the pain. He then steals their money.

No doubt like many others living there, Makoto has a long criminal record, though he's still free to roam the streets among the other undesirables. Aside from the assorted criminals are the mentally ill, the homeless, the poor, the deformed, the disabled, the different; all of those folks "polite society" has no place, and often no compassion, for. At the end of the day everyone wants love in any way they can find it, even those whose idea of love would be viewed as sick, immoral or perverse by the standards of the world at large. And we get to meet many such folks here.

A drooling, filthy bum (Isamu Osuga) who's been reduced to having sex with a tree stump (!) stumbles upon Makoto's mannequin, attempts to have sex with it and ends up cutting his dick on a broken bottle top shoved inside her crotch hole (an extra precaution from her man to prevent "cheating" I suppose). Makoto is hired by a dwarf (Toshihiko Hino) and his dwarf sister, Natsuko (Mamiko Nakai), to clean out sewers. She has bad burn scars all over her neck, arm and chest from getting splashed with hot oil as a kid, is constantly laughed at and ridiculed and manages to drive people away simply by existing. Lacking in the romance department, she's reduced to sex toys and the occasional hookup with pedophiles who try to pretend like she's a child. Oh yeah, and once a year her brother gives it to her out of pity, per their dead mother's final request!

Also weaved into the film is a touching story of a teenage boy (Simon Kumai) and his sweet young sister (Yukiko Murata). They chill at the beach, play hopscotch and give each other knowing, loving looks. And then he decides to rape her to death, tries to spit her blood back into her mouth, paints her face, buries her in a lot, digs her back up and then cannibalizes her corpse. After stripping all of the flesh off, he then carries around her bones in a bag. He's not the only person to go mad either. Poor Makoto loses it too, starts killing people with a claw hammer, burns down a building and, in a very striking and surprisingly moving scene captured in long shots, runs toward a hundred or so schoolgirls for help, only for them to flee from her in horror.

There's an out of body experience, a headless Buddha statue with eggs on its neck stump, a dead parakeet, a ghost, a hand getting impaled, self-mutilation, spitting up half-chewed food, a disembowelment, a fetus getting ripped apart, a close-up shot of a dirty asshole, puking on someone's face, accidental death by discus hit to the back of the head and many, many incidents of casual, seemingly senseless cruelty and violence.

Societal alienation has always been a key theme in all of the director's films. His debut, Rusty Empty Can (1979), dealt with a homosexual love affair at a time when gays were heavily discriminated against in Japan. That was followed by Pig-Chicken Suicide (1981), which dealt with racism against Koreans living in Japan and also reputedly has many scenes of real animal slaughter, which is why I've avoided it thus far. Many of the same themes, namely the search for love and affection in a world filled with prejudices and obstacles, have carried on over to this one.

This proved to be something of a challenging view for me and it took three separate tries to finally make it all the way to the end. The controversial content didn't bother me at all, nor did the grotesque and gory imagery. What was more of a struggle was the formless plot, which takes seemingly forever to start taking shape, and the repulsive, thinly-drawn characters, This really could have used some tightening up in the editing room as well. While I don't necessarily have a problem with a 2 1/2 hour movie, I do have a problem with a 2 1/2 hour movie packed with unnecessary long shots of mundane things that seem to go on forever. There's making a point and then there's making a point and then beating the audience over the head with that point for an additional hour.

Aside from the prolific Sano, who's a director himself and a regular presence in Hisayasu Satô movies like RE-WIND and SURVEY MAP OF A PARADISE LOST, the cast is comprised almost entirely of amateurs, though everyone plays their part effectively.

What really saves the day here is the style. This is one of the most visually remarkable pieces I've seen in quite awhile. It's shot in grainy 16mm and black-and-white (one of my personal favorite aesthetic choices), with lots of unsteady handheld camerawork roaming about, great framing and very striking shots and camera placements. There's one great high contrast shot after another and the whole thing looks fantastically gritty. That by itself is enough of an incentive to give this a look, though the narrative and the content may not be to everyone's tastes. I'm a bit torn. Even though I really appreciate the artistry and imagination behind this, and there are a number of powerful moments worth seeing, it's definitely not something I'll ever sit through again.

This project began all the way back in 1983, took three years to complete and another two years to release. It caused controversy in its home country but became a big underground cult hit, playing in one theater until 2004! However, the film didn't make much of an impact in other parts of the world. Supposedly a number of film festivals, even those outside of Japan, refused to show it. It also didn't do much for the career of the director, who wouldn't make anything else until twenty years later. His next and, as of this writing, last film, Where Are We Going? (2008), once again dealt with love among the marginalized, this time between a young male factory worker with a traumatic past and a transsexual.

While the film took forever to release on home video (which wouldn't occur until the late 2000s), there are several Japanese DVDs on the market now and English subs are available. Though uncredited, Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), Gakuryû 'Sogo' Ishii (Burst City) and Takahisa Zeze (In the Wake), all supposedly worked on this in some capacity.

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