The rise in popularity of J-horror franchises here in the U.S. has been simultaneously paralleled in the land of their origin with a gradual decline of the genre. The post-Ring, post-Grudge prospect for horror in Japan was great, but sadly, few filmmakers rose to the challenge of producing something remotely original (save Ju-on?s Takashi Shimizu, whose Marebito was a welcome alternative to a genre he himself had created), and the whole genre slid into the doldrums of non-creativity by about mid-2004. Unholy Women, a new anthology film written and directed in three segments by three different filmmakers, neatly encapsulates the current state of the horror filmmaking scene in Japan.
Opening with a winding voyage through a disturbingly vaginal landscape (the Japanese title translates to ?Scary Women?), the movie?s first episode is ?Rattle Rattle,? by veteran director and designer Keita Amemiya (Zeiram, Moon Over Tao). On her way home from work, a young woman hears a rattling sound in front of a tall apartment building, before being struck by something from above. In the days following, she finds herself stalked by a spindly-armed, terrifying-looking, deformed woman in red (and yes, she has long hair hanging down over her face). Like all good J-horror heroines, she tries to discover the source of this haunting, even as the wraith?s appearances increase in frequency and become more threatening. Her search leads to a revelation about a child?s accident, a grieving mother, and?something much more sinister. Proudly mainstream and holding no surprises, ?Rattle Rattle? is inoffensively middle-of-the-road. It?s a tiny bit scary, holds your attention for thirty minutes, and ends with a revelation that may not have been completely obvious earlier on, but isn?t all that much of a surprise. The best thing about it ? no surprise, coming from someone like Amemiya ? is the look and behavior of its central beastie, a combination of live-action acrobatics and cartoon-like CGI that turns what could have been a garden-variety female ghost into a twisty-armed, googly-eyed juggernaut that steamrolls across the room and pops up in the least likely places. Breaking very little new ground, ?Rattle Rattle? succeeds in its meek ambitions and can be pleasantly enjoyed, then promptly forgotten.
Moving from the mundane to the sublime, the second ? and by a long shot, the best ? episode is ?Steel,? as twisted and insane a portrait of teenage sexual angst and fears as anything committed to celluloid. But before we get to that, let?s tackle the third and final episode, ?The Inheritance,? the nadir of the triptych and a classroom-ready example of all that?s wrong with J-horror these days. Directed in flat, lifeless style by Keisuke Toyoshima, an associate of Shimizu, the film is a by-the-numbers tale of a divorced mom and her young son Michio, who move to the country and in with a bedridden grandma. Michio starts seeing strange things in the shadows and corners, and mom begins acting weird. Predictably, a family curse hangs over this group and all the genre signifiers are there: dead relatives shrouded in mystery, a locked trunk holding family secrets, over-protective maternal figures, and abusive neighbor kids who ensure that Michio stays isolated, even as he comes under greater threat from whatever it is that?s after him. Dull and clichéd, with an over-familiar plot and excessively-serious acting, ?The Inheritance? might have been mildly interesting eight or nine years ago, but in the post-Ju-on world, it?s not even worth devoting a half-hour to.
Which brings us back to ?Steel,? directed by Takuji Suzuki, an actor who has written and co-directed a few other films, but has seemingly, and surprisingly, never had any prior experience in the horror genre. Could this be what the J-horror world needs ? filmmakers who aren?t trying to scare us, but rather fuck with our heads in new and ever-more-interesting ways? Because that?s just what ?Steel? does: it takes the setup of a garden-variety, romantic TV drama ? young kid working at a garage gets asked by his boss to take his younger sister out on a date ? and stretches it out into a delirious nightmare. For when Sekiguchi arrives at his boss?s house to pick up his date, he?s met not by the familiar shy, but cute girl with a button nose and pink dress, but instead by a shapely pair of legs topped by a body covered completely in a dirty burlap sack. Threatened by his boss if he doesn?t go through with it, Sekiguchi takes the girl, named Hagane, out on the date, and discovers that not only is she tied into the sack from the waist up, but that the only noises issuing from it are grunts and burps, and that occasionally an insect crawls out of it! Even more bizarrely, Hagane seems to have a healthy sexual appetite ? and what better woman for a virginal innocent like Sekiguchi than one that?s only accessible from the waist down? Ridiculous to the extreme, but directed in such a straight-faced style that you have to appreciate the sheer audaciousness of it, ?Hagane? is a ludicrously perfect distillation of male sexual nightmares, brought giddily to life.
Undoubtedly, like most Japanese horror ?product? these days, Unholy Women is destined to be picked up by a small-potatoes U.S. video company and released directly to DVD with minimal effort and a generic cover (Media Blasters, are you out there?). Which is too bad, because inside that run-of-the-mill-looking case, there will lurk a dark and wicked little treat ? sitting there like a poisonous but sickly sweet filling, right in the middle. Do yourself a favor and seek it out, but don?t be afraid to turn it off after you?ve seen the first two segments. Or better yet, rewind it for half an hour and watch ?Steel? all over again with some friends ? the better to find out which of them can appreciate such a fucked-up little epic. If they laugh as much as they shudder, it means they get it.
Unholy Women is playing as part of the '07 Philadelphia Film Festival.