Saturday, April 29, 2006

Sorrow and Sympathy

While paying my usual daily visit to those few blogs I consider part of my own fraternity yesterday, I was mortified to visit Matt Zoller Seitz's The House Next Door and discover a replacement host informing the regulars that Matt's wife Jennifer had passed away suddenly on Thursday evening at the age of 35. She was upstairs using the computer to plan an upcoming vacation, while their two children, aged 8 and 2, played downstairs. The eight year-old went upstairs to ask her mother a question and found her lying on the floor, unresponsive; an uncle was summoned to revive her and explain to the children what had happened, and the truth was kept from Matt till he could get from his office to the hospital. At present, no cause is known.

As a happily married man, wedded young, whose significant other is not only his wife but his business partner, someone on whom I rely each and every day, I can't imagine much worse than this. I don't know Matt except through his blog, and also through his fine independent film HOME (which Jennifer co-produced), and I feel shaken to know that someone for whom I have such respect and feel such kinship -- we even use the same blogging system -- must now live through this reality. If any of you know Matt or visit his blog irregularly, you can use the link above to read more about Jennifer, the family's preferred way of making a donation in her memory, and also leave a note of sympathy and support.

As for me, I want to spend more time off this computer and in the company of my wife this weekend. The last copies of the new issue are being shipped out today, we are having dinner with Donna's mother tonight, and we resume work on the Mario Bava book on Monday -- with a renewed sense of purpose and a renewed appreciation of the preciousness of time.

Friday, April 28, 2006

The Diabolic One, Oh Oh!

Today marks the centenary of the birth of Pierre Boileau, the elder half of the Boileau-Narcejac writing team. Their internationally famous partnership of the pen was the subject of this marvelously gruesome editorial cartoon (Boileau is the one impaled on the right), which I found on a Russian website; I couldn't find out anything about it, not even the artist's name. As this is one centenary even more likely to be overlooked in our day and age than that of Samuel Beckett (which was in fact commemorated with festivities in Ireland and also here by the Sundance Film Channel, which has been presenting various "Beckett on Film" programs this month), I hope you'll join me in remembering M. Boileau today and, by association, his friend and writing partner. Even if you don't recognize their names, it is virtually guaranteed that you've enjoyed their work.

Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac (real name: Pierre Robert Ayraud) began writing separately and were admirers of each other's books, in which they recognized common interests and diverse approaches. They joined forces in 1951, proposing a new form of mystery fiction that attended not the killer (as in the whodunit), nor the investigator (as in police procedurals), but the victim. Once they began to collaborate, Boileau-Narcejac became one of the great phenomenons of European mystery fiction. Their prose was lean and dialogue-driven, which made it naturally adaptable to the screen. Indeed, their work seeded and brought to bloom some of the finest thrillers ever to grace the screen: Henri-Georges Clouzot's LES DIABOLIQUES (based on their novel CELLE QUI N'ÉTAIT PLUS, translated into English as THE WOMAN WHO WAS NO MORE), Alfred Hitchcock's VERTIGO (based on their novel D'ENTRES LES MORTS, translated as THE LIVING AND THE DEAD), and two directed by Georges Franju, LES YEUX SANS VISAGE (aka EYES WITHOUT A FACE, which they adapted from a novel by Jean Redon) and the original PLEINS FEUX SUR L'ASSASSIN. One of their 1960s novels, translated as CHOICE CUTS, was later the basis for the 1991 thriller BODY PARTS. All told, Boileau-Narcejac receive screen credit on some 40 different films.

In addition to writing thrillers for adults, they also published many mysteries for youngsters and were also responsible for the continuation of two famous "orphaned" characters, Maurice Leblanc's "gentleman burglar" Arsène Lupin and Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret. In this sense, the Boileau-Narcejac partnership was also post-modernist -- professional mystery fiction written by fans of the genre capable of impersonating earlier literary voices to perfection. Boileau died in 1989, some nine years before his partner. The Criterion DVD of EYES WITHOUT A FACE includes a most enjoyable interview with the two gentlemen, filmed for French television in the 1970s.

English-speaking bibliophiles who aspire to read and/or collect Boileau-Narcejac have a tough row to hoe, and I speak from experience. Dozens of their books remain in print... alas, nearly all of it in French and German. Only a portion of their output has been translated into English at all, and some of that portion appeared only in Great Britain; consequently, what exists is highly collectable. THE LIVING AND THE DEAD was reprinted under the title VERTIGO by the British Film Institute some years ago, but if it should whet your appetite for more, Heaven help you. ABE Books shows that used first editions of their most famous novels in translation are priced in the hundreds, even the thousands.

In VIDEO WATCHDOG #40, I published an article based on my long-overdue reading of THE LIVING AND THE DEAD, in which I compared Boileau-Narcejac's now-obscure novel to the Hitchcock film prized by many as the Master's best. If I had to pick a list of my 10 favorite articles I've written for VW, I might well include it; it's one of the VW pieces I'm proudest of writing, if only because articles comparing novels to films are so much less common than articles comparing different versions of films, and also because there is so little information available in English about this great literary partnership. This issue is still in print, for those of you who missed it -- and now you can even read the novel yourself, which wasn't so easy at the time the article was first published.

Maîtres de mystère, je bois à votre mémoire!

Thursday, April 27, 2006

VIDEO WATCHDOG 125 Is In The House

The new issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG was delivered to our door this afternoon and the mailing process is now getting underway. Since we posted the particulars about this "Coming Soon" issue on our website, the cover has generated an unusual amount of pre-release interest and advance orders. It would seem that new customers have been attracted by the KONG coverage, but also, every title mentioned on the cover is a big, multi-million-dollar production with a high recognizability factor -- which I suppose isn't always the case with the stuff on our covers. Why the sudden commercial stance? Well, even though VW has continued to reach newsstands on a strict bimonthly schedule, for Donna, our Kennel contributors, and me, VW was the first issue we had produced in about four months. It was the first time in 15 years that so much time had transpired between issues, or at least between bouts of active magazine production, so I was frankly a little nervous about returning to bat. I felt the occasion required everyone to pull together and put the best foot forward.

I am so proud of our contributors. They really outdid themselves, providing Donna and me with enough reviews to fill the greater part of not one, not two, but three issues. God bless them every one: As I sat down to edit their material, I found that their submissions collectively pooled into 104 single-spaced pages of criticism... but editing the work turned out to be pure pleasure because the time off had energized everyone; everyone was writing at the top of their form. As I read through the submissions, I noticed that some reviews mysteriously dovetailed with other, unrelated reviews, either topically or thematically, which made it fairly easy to organize everything into three distinct issues. But, for this first issue of the three (as I mention in my "Watchdog Barks" editorial), my goal was specific. I wanted to start out by picking "the biggest, reddest apples in the orchard."

Beyond the blockbuster titles listed on the front cover, VW 125 also reviews such releases as KING KONG - PETER JACKSON'S PRODUCTION DIARIES, THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN - THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON, SON OF KONG, MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, ALONE IN THE DARK (1982), HOUSE OF WAX (2005), KONGA, FIVE WEEKS IN A BALLOON, Bruce Campbell's MAN WITH THE SCREAMING BRAIN, Jess Franco's NIGHT OF THE SKULL, and much else of interest. Furthermore, our LAND OF THE DEAD Round Table Discussion (14 pages!) is complemented with a review of the direct-to-video DAY OF THE DEAD 2: CONTAGION; we've got Ramsey Campbell on The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society's THE CALL OF CTHULHU; and "Biblio Watchdog" features an expanded, more detailed draft of my WatchBlog review of THE FAMOUS MONSTER MOVIE ART OF BASIL GOGOS. Even Doug Winter's "Audio Watchdog" covers only monster-related soundtracks, this time around.

For a free sampling of the issue, visit our website at the link near the top of this page, click on "Coming Soon" and click on the KONG cover. This will bring up pdfs of two different page spreads from the issue -- four pages you're free to enlarge and peruse to your heart's content. The issue can also be ordered from that page.

All in all, I think it's one of our best issues, and I hope you will all add it to your collections. And for you KING KONG buffs, the KONG saga will continue in VIDEO WATCHDOG 126, with two major contributions by Yours Truly -- a "DVD Spotlight" review of the Peter Jackson film, and a feature article about Edgar Wallace and his oft-overlooked role in the genesis of the 1933 classic. I'm especially pleased with the latter, which I believe adds something conspicuously new to the annals of KONG research. You may never look at Kong in quite the same way again.

In the meantime... First Class subscribers should find VIDEO WATCHDOG 125 in their mailboxes sometime next week. Enjoy!

PS: Please note that my review of DER HUND VON BLACKWOOD CASTLE of a few days ago has been amended to include a postscript with US release information shared by reader Tom Schumaker. Danke schoen!

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

THE CONSEQUENCES OF LOVE reviewed

THE CONSEQUENCES OF LOVE
Le conseguenze dell'amore
2004, Articifial Eye (UK, Region 2) and Medusa (Italy, Region 2), 100 minutes

It has been a very long time since I've seen an Italian film, a purely Italian film, that didn't look like it was produced for television. This is the initial gratification of writer-director Paolo Sorrentino's THE CONSEQUENCES OF LOVE -- there is an immediate sense of confidence and craft and style, and an attention to minutiae, that warrants a big screen presentation -- but its gratifications are continuous and diverse.

Though it's an Italian film about Italian characters, it takes place in an unnamed city in Switzerland (we presume Geneva) where a 50 year-old gentleman of apparently Northern Italian origin (placid, unemotional) has occupied the same seat in a hotel bar for the last eight years. This enigmatic fellow with the poker face, we learn through his interior monologue narration, is named Titta Di Girolamo (Toni Servillo), but we quickly learn more about him through our own observations than from his confessions -- looking through a hotel window, he sees a man distracted by a beautiful woman walk straight into a lamppost, and doesn't laugh; while riding an escalator, he passes a beautiful woman going up while he is going down, and he doesn't turn to answer her gaze. Nor does he respond when Sofia (Olivia Magnani), the attractive 20ish hotel barmaid, bids him goodnight at the end of the days they silently share. Instead, he sits in his customary seat, day after day, and jots a memo to himself in a pad that he carries: "Things to remember in the future: The Consequences of Love." (A telephone call reveals that Titta is an estranged husband and father of three children, none of whom care for him... but these aren't the consequences alluded to in his note-to-self.) Another clue is dealt when Titta notes that, every Wednesday morning at precisely 10:00 a.m. for the last 24 years, he has injected himself with heroin -- and only then. Thus we understand that this is a man who has taught himself to live in absolute mastery of his feelings, his emotions and weaknesses -- and become detached from all human feeling and ties in the process.

For all its outward stillness (even the opening shot depicts a stationary hotel porter being brought into closeup by a moving sidewalk), Sorrentino's film is a thriller in the best sense. Here, it is the mysteries of character that hold us in thrall. It's also a mob picture, as Titta's reticence is explained eventually by the fact that he is affiliated with the Mafia, for whom he performs a regular task for which a poker face sometimes comes in handily. But Sofia is angered by the refusal of that poker face to acknowledge her, and one day, when Titta doesn't reply to her goodnight, she gives him a piece of her very Roman mind. The next morning, Titta sits at the bar and tells Sofia that his change of seat may well be the most dangerous thing he's ever done in his life. This seemingly melodramatic remark turns out to be a most realistic and knowing comment.

Marked with deliberate but always surprising and very dry humor, THE CONSEQUENCES OF LOVE is a skillful construction in all departments, but is a most obvious showcase for Toni Servillo's remarkable, absorbing performance, which makes Titta one of the most memorable screen characters of recent years. Given his general look and outward passivity, it's hard not to think of Peter Sellers in BEING THERE, but Titta's passivity is icy and vigilant, steeped in the calm of an ever present danger. He's not a cipher, he's trying to blend in with the wallpaper. Olivia Magnani's playful, sensual warmth makes her an excellent foil for him, her bright eyes jewelling from a tawny complexion, as does Adriano Giannini (the son of Giancarlo Giannini), who appears briefly as Titta's exuberant younger brother -- a surfing instructor, of all things, who manages to accomplish in a single day what Titta's self-control hasn't permitted him to do in eight increasingly desirous years.

It's become a cliché to refer to the 1970s as a time of unparalleled creativity and achievement in international cinema, but THE CONSEQUENCES OF LOVE would have fit in well as a product of that period. Yet it is unmistakably contemporary in its look (kudos to director of photography Luca Bigazzi), its tasteful and often exciting techno scoring, and the enjoyably rhythmic feel of Giorgio Franchini's editing. Born in 1970, Paolo Sorrentino is more than just a promising writer-director; he's already delivering the goods. This, his fourth feature, gives one encouragement to think that the Silver Age of Italian Cinema could happen again.

Artificial Eye's THE CONSEQUENCES OF LOVE (in Italian with optional English subtitles) gives the film an attractive 16:9 presentation with handsomely detailed Dolby 5.1 sound. A short "making of" documentary (9 minutes) and a somewhat longer "behind-the-scenes" visit (15 minutes) are also included, along with a theatrical trailer, all with optional English subtitles. It must be noted that an Italian release, LE CONSEGUENZE DELL'AMORE, is also available on the Medusa label. This disc offers the film with the same audio mix and a choice of English, Italian or French subtitles, and the same production supplements, though these are not subtitled on this release. What makes the Italian disc particularly desirable for fans of the film is a selection of alternate and deleted scenes, for some reason not imported to the Artificial Eye disc; it's also a bit cheaper. But one shouldn't underestimate the value of the English subtitles on Artifical Eye's production supplements, as Sorrentino offers some important insights as to the film's themes and origin.

Both discs are available domestically from Xploited Cinema.

Tony Randall on WEREWOLF IN A GIRL'S DORMITORY


Tonight on Game Show Network's WHAT'S MY LINE?, they showed a 1963 episode with mystery guest Jean Pierre Aumont and guest panelist Tony Randall. When it became known that the mystery guest starred in a new movie opening on Broadway that week, the blindfolded Randall asked, "According to the newspapers, the motion pictures opening on Broadway this week are DIARY OF A MADMAN, CORRIDORS OF BLOOD and WEREWOLF IN A GIRL'S DORMITORY... are you in one of those?"

Naturally, the answer was negative but the question got a big laugh. From me, especially.

After the guest's identity was made known, amused host John Daly asked Randall about the picture he had mentioned called "MADMAN IN A GIRL'S DORMITORY." Randall replied, "No, it's WEREWOLF IN A GIRL'S DORMITORY. Isn't that something? No, I'm not making it up! I'm going to see it!"

It's for moments like this that I love watching vintage TV.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

DER HUND VON BLACKWOOD CASTLE reviewed

DER HUND VON BLACKWOOD CASTLE
"The Hound of Blackwood Castle"
aka THE MONSTER OF BLACKWOOD CASTLE (export title)
1967, Kinowelt and TOBIS/UFA Home Entertainment (Region 2), 89 minutes

After the scenically brilliant DER MÖNCH MIT DER PEITSCHE (US: THE COLLEGE GIRL MURDERS, 1967), Rialto Film's long-running Edgar Wallace series entered into what might be called its "Roger Moore phase." The films that followed were not exactly bad, but hereafter, the use of color began to noticeably cheapen what it had so brilliantly illuminated in earlier productions, the scripts began to poke self-conscious fun at the series overall, and the performances became more generally tongue-in-cheek. Also, more than ever, Edgar Wallace was left at the door. One searches in vain for a clue as to which Wallace novel provided the source for DER HUND VON BLACKWOOD CASTLE, whose title seems cobbled together from Arthur Conan Doyle and Algernon Blackwood (not to mention Bryan Edgar Wallace's THE STRANGLER OF BLACKMOOR CASTLE), but it does offer a cellar full of snakes, so 1926's THE YELLOW SNAKE (the source of 1963's CCC-produced DER FLUCH DER GELBEN SCHLANGE, or THE CURSE OF THE YELLOW SNAKE) may be a reasonable bet.

Upon the death of her father, Jane Wilson (Karin Baal) returns to Blackwood Castle for the reading of the will, only to learn that the castle itself -- a brooding, derelict place full of skulls, suits of armor, and stuffed polar bears -- is her only inheritance. The family solicitor (Hans Söhnker) informs her that the place is worthless, that he might be able to get her $10,000 for it, but while freshing up in her father's old room, she overhears a visitor offer the solicitor twice that amount. Something strange is going on, and it's going on in all directions. The servant at Blackwood Castle (Grimsby, played by Artur Binder) tries to frighten Jane by placing a snake in her bed (one of many he cares for in the cellar); a neighboring inn begins to see unprecedented seasonal business from visitors (Horst Tappert as "Douglas Fairbanks," CARMEN, BABY's Uta Levka) showing unusual interest in Blackwood Castle... and each other; and the two seemingly harmless old fogies playing chess in the inn's tavern are using a tricked-out chesspiece to send messages to the snake-caring servant. Meanwhile, Sir John of Scotland Yard (Siegfried Schürenberg, flirting as usual with sexy secretary Miss Findlay, played by Ilsa Pagé) sends a man (likeable Heinz Drache as "Humphrey Connery"!) to the area to investigate a series of animal attacks committed by a hound with large, tusk-like teeth.

This particular series entry, the most emphatically static and stagebound of all the Wallace-krimis, is not unlike watching a filmed stage play; and since the director is Alfred Vohrer, the most visually dynamic of the series' specialists, one can only surmise that this approach was experimental, possibly expressive of a passing interest in the limitations Alfred Hitchcock had imposed upon himself in his ROPE and DIAL M FOR MURDER period. The film begins nicely with a hound attack on a misty moor, preceding marvelously psychedelic main titles accompanied by one of Peter Thomas's all-time-great Wallace film themes. Thomas's score, in fact, is largely responsible for keeping one interested through all this gothic silliness; the visuals suggest what the experience of one of Wallace's 1920s stage productions might have been like, but the score is aggressively modern and humorous, a kind of sprightly, big band funk with barely coherent Mantan Moreland-like vocals by Joe Quick ("It's COLD, man... lookit that MOON lookit that MOON!... I gotta get outta here it's COLD... at Blackwood... CASTLE!"). As the strangely danceable film wears on, Thomas begins to underline each new surprise with a weird-sounding fanfare that's weird-sounding because it was recorded backwards, with the air gasping back into the trumpets; it's inventive at first, but it soon exhausts its welcome and becomes irritating.

Pictured: Siegfried Schürenberg and Ilsa Pagé.

DER HUND VON BLACKWOOD CASTLE was originally released on DVD by Kinowelt with some welcome extras (outtakes, photo gallery, interviews with Uta Levka and Ilsa Pagé) but, alas, no provisions for the English-speaking viewer. This version remains the official stand-alone release in Germany, but a new 1.66:1 anamorphic transfer of the film with optional English 2.0 audio and subtitling is available as part of TOBIS/UFA Home Entertainment's four-disc Region 2 box set EDGAR WALLACE EDITION 7 (1967-68), which also includes DER MÖNCH MIT DER PEITSCHE (an infinitely superior transfer of the film released here by Dark Sky Films as THE COLLEGE GIRL MURDERS), IM BANNE DES UNHEIMLICHEN (aka THE HAND OF POWER) and DER GORILLA VON SOHO (aka THE GORILLA GANG or THE APE CREATURE). Of the four films in this set, only IM BANNE DES UNHEIMLICHEN is not English-friendly -- a needless omission, considering that Sam Sherman's Independent-International owns an English-language negative of THE HAND OF POWER, which was released to TV as THE ZOMBIE WALKS.

I am not aware that an English version of DER HUND VON BLACKWOOD CASTLE ever received a US release, but the disc's English audio track is vintage and fairly well done, and English subtitles are included as optional accompaniment to the German audio track. The anamorphic transfer is occasionally grainy but nevertheless attractive and uber-colorful, and the German audio track is very full-bodied and the best choice for enjoying the musical accompaniment.

Both the Kinowelt release (search for "EDGAR WALLACE - DER HUND VON BLACKWOOD CASTLE) and the EDGAR WALLACE EDITION 7 (1967-68) box set are available online from Sazuma Trading.

Postscript 4/27/06:
Reader Tom Schumaker of Parkton MD writes "I know of at least two playdates for DER HUND VON BLACKWOOD CASTLE in US theaters. I saw an English-dubbed print of THE HORROR OF BLACKWOOD CASTLE (not “MONSTER” as referenced in your Blog review) at the Glen Drive-in in Richmond, VA, back in the late 1970’s. It was co-billed with the Peter Cushing/John Carradine potboiler SHOCK WAVES. It was also playing at a local urban Grind-house (the palatial Lowe’s) at the same time. As I recall, the print was marred with green scratches & a few jumps, but otherwise seemed OK. I still have an ad mat from the Lowe’s engagement , which I clipped from the local newspaper ('shows at 2:15, 5:15 & 8:15'). When THE STRANGLER OF BLACKMOOR CASTLE came out on DVD, I had to do some research to convince myself that these were, in fact, two different films."

Monday, April 24, 2006

"Do I Disturb You, Mister?"

Thanks to a correspondent who receives the UK satellite station BRAVO, I've finally been able to see Takeshi Miike's "Imprint," the banned thirteenth episode of Showtime's MASTERS OF HORROR. "Finally" may be a strong word to use in reference to a film originally scheduled to premiere on January 27 -- not even three full months ago -- but I feel like I've been waiting years to see it. Such is the headiness of forbidden fruit.

Fortunately for the impatient and globally-connected, "Imprint" was shown on BRAVO (UK) a couple of weeks ago, on April 7... with commercial interruption (what brave sponsors!), but at least it was shown. It should trouble us that we Americans supposedly live in "the land of the free," but if we want to see Dario Argento's MOR episode "Jenifer" uncut, we're out of luck altogether; and if we want to see "Imprint" at all, we need to swap DVD-Rs with someone living in a country that is actually notorious for censoring theatrical and home video releases -- even if we've already paid Showtime for the privilege.

As you may remember, when "Imprint" -- the only MOH episode produced outside Vancouver, British Columbia -- was screened for Showtime, they made the decision not to air it. No official explanation was given, but MOH executive producer Mick Garris later told The Horror Channel that "Showtime felt it was something they didn't feel comfortable putting out on the airwaves." Consequently, "Imprint"'s position as the series' twelfth episode was inherited by "Haeckel's Tale," a Clive Barker story directed by John McNaughton, which was rushed into production to fill the vacated time slot. Originally to be directed by Roger Corman (who backed out for health reasons), "Haeckel's Tale" turned out to be one of the poorest episodes of the first dozen. For all its baleful warnings and talk of forbidden sights, the episode's "transgressive" imagery ultimately delivered nothing more taboo-breaking than a naked woman grinding her rounded hips atop a Romeroesque zombie in a misty graveyard. It was pathetic and laughable.

Which, after all, is what Americans really want horror to be. Statistics show that we won't support a horror film if it's promoted as being in the least comic, but what we really want from the genre, my experience as an observer shows, are scares we can either surf or ride like bulls. We love that feeling of victory as the shock waves swell beneath us, we love riding them out. But such cheap thrills were not the goal of Takeshi Miike (AUDITION, VISITOR Q), the most poetical of the new J-horror extremists. When speculating about the reasons behind Showtime's rejection of "Imprint," online pundits have often pointed to the episode's abortion-related imagery as a likely cause, but I always doubted this was so -- and now that I've seen the episode, I know that Right To Life sentiments weren't necessarily part of the problem. This episode has no shortage of ideas and imagery just as discomforting as having an unborn fetus pulled from your nether regions.

I believe Showtime's refusal of the episode has much more to do with the vast gulf between the American and Japanese concepts of horror. In America, everyone is raised on horror films; we want monsters, gore, laughs and titillation. In Japan, as in Europe, horror films have always been an adult genre. In Japan, perhaps most adult of all. Just look at a movie like HELL [Jigoku, 1960] and you know they're at least 40 years ahead of us in these matters, maybe 50. There, the genre has always been about the investigation, probing and rupturing of taboos; it's about transgression -- social, sexual, spiritual. The most frightening thing any Japanese horror film aspires to deliver is a new, irrational way of thinking or looking at the world. "Imprint" was not created to entertain, but to disturb, repulse and frighten. To those ends, it works admirably well.

Set in a heavily stylized 19th century, it stars Billy Drago (Frank Nitti in Brian De Palma's THE UNTOUCHABLES) as a self-confessed "strange man" from America who returns after a lengthy absence to an unnamed island off the coast of Japan in search of Komomo (Michie), a geisha who once won his heart -- because she reminded him so of his dead sister. The American follows his lead to a carnival-like sin capital where he is warned of lurking dangers, and for his own safety, he agrees to spend the night with another geisha (Youki Kudoh, pictured above), a friend of Komomo's whose face is partially disfigured. The American surprises the geisha by not being repulsed by her twisted features, indeed by finding her "very attractive." Tired and lovesick, the American wants rest more than sex and asks the geisha to tell him a story about herself as he drifts to sleep. She tells him about her childhood, as the unwanted daughter of a midwife who discarded unwanted fetuses in the river outside their rustic home, and proceeds to tell him the story of her friendship with Komomo. The story ends with Komomo's death. Upset and angry, the American feels that the geisha isn't telling him the full truth and demands to know more -- prompting a different and more upsetting story. But this version strikes the American as so horrible that still worse secrets about these events must be harbored by the storyteller. "Why is it that everyone always wants to know the truth?" the geisha ponders. "Sometimes the lie is better. It's prettier."

I don't want to spoil the experience of this episode by revealing too much before most of you have the opportunity to see it, so I'll stop my synopsis there. In fact, I will warn those who haven't seen the episode to avoid at all costs a promotional clip from the episode which is available for viewing online (I won't give the URL, but its Googlable) because it reveals a plot revelation no one should anticipate before they reach that point in the story.

My own interpretation of "Imprint" is that it's about the human reflex that Roman Polanski charted so well in that moment from REPULSION when Ian Hendry, repulsed by the sight of the dead man in the bathtub, suddenly leans in closer for an unflinching look. It's about our desire to know the worst without being touched by it. It's about the horror of our flesh-and-blood existence, steeped not only in repugnant imagery, but much that is beautiful within its repugnant imagery, if we have the courage to lean in closer for a more unflinching look. The American's desire to know the worst he can know is inextricably tied to any viewer's own quest for the capital Truth, and Miike suggests that absolute truth is absolute horror. Our polite refusal to experience horror, even intellectually, especially intellectually, banishes us from the Truth. He shows us some monstrous things about who we are, where we come from, and where we sit in relation to stories such as this. As such, "Imprint" would have been the perfect way to conclude MASTERS OF HORROR's first season, because it responds to the very idea of the show by throwing down a gauntlet no Western director is likely to approach -- not for another 50 years, anyway.

It's a curious East/West schism that Japanese horror somehow becomes more delicate, more epicurean, when it is most gruellingly sadistic, whereas Western horror almost always forfeits its sophistication when crossing these lines, too blunt to be effectively cruel. We're going through a big "torture" phase now in American horror cinema (SAW, SAW II, HOSTEL), and the sociologists among you can fill in the reason for that. But there is a bluntness about the violence in these films that resists intellectualization; not thinking too much about the violence, even enjoying it to a degree, is part of the Big Picture. No matter how gross or gruesome these scenes become, the films always shy away from identifying too much with the victim. (The sociologists among you can rhubarb about that one too amongst yourselves.) There is a protracted torture scene in "Imprint" that is exceedingly difficult to watch, because we never once side emotionally with the pain being so exquisitely inflicted by the torturer, but remain resolutely identified with the victim. However, Miike keeps the process as gratifying to the eye as it is otherwise repulsive -- with color, motion, composition and the occasional goose of surprise. His 19th century Japan is highly stylized, with exquisite décor, much Felliniesque detail (the American's guide is a dwarf with a cancer-eaten nose and a severed cock's head bobbing atop his headdress), and the geishas sport blue and flaming red hair, allowing this ancient past to be shot through with irrational flashes of modernity. During one of the tortures, we see Komomo suspended from the ground like an inverted objet d'art, and as hard as it was to endure this scene, on reflection, I had to admit it was preferable to seeing someone anonymously chainsawed in an American slasher film. Why? Because, as repellent as these tortures might be, seeing a thinking, feeling body reduced to an objet d'art is somehow preferable to seeing a piece of meat reduced to meat. Miike forces us to weigh the civility of violence, inspired violence meted out with black-toothed glee against brute violence... fine distinctions I'm not often called upon by the cinema to acknowledge or consider. These are upsetting things to weigh in one's heart and stomach, and therefore defiantly uncommercial. As my friend Charlie remarked when we discussed this: "Can you imagine Miike trying to make movies like this in the States? They'd probably arrest him. And then torture him!"

On the basis of a single viewing, I'm not certain how successful "Imprint" is -- either as a film, or as a chapter in the Takeshi Miike canon. It is unquestionably as creepy as hell. This man can deliver visual horror like it's never been done. I also found myself chuckling a good deal late in the episode, but I can't be certain yet whether this was a correct or unintended response. Certainly some of my laughs were prompted by shock and surprise. Drago's performance is way over-the-top, in the best Jack Palance/Christopher Walken tradition, but it will take additional viewings before I know if this was a creative error, a thespic weakness, or exactly the spice needed by the stew. On the other hand, it was immediately evident that "Imprint" is the most ravishingly photographed (Toyomichi Kurita), designed (Hisashi Sasaki, Takashi Sasaki), and scored (Kôji Endô) of all the MASTERS OF HORROR episodes.

It's my understanding that Anchor Bay Entertainment will be issuing "Imprint" on DVD sometime this fall. I can't speak for the general horror audience, but no courageous student of the genre should miss it.