Monday, October 24, 2011

Are we not men?: Listening for answers in Island of Lost Souls and Kuroneko

From its opening apparition of a derelict ship emerging from a fog to its magnificent climactic images of beast-men rising up to exact revenge on their self-proclaimed creator, Island of Lost Souls (1932), photographed by Karl Struss—who won the first Oscar for his enduringly haunting work on F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1929)—is a feast of spectacle that veers between the seductive and the grotesque. Beautifully wrought visions of land, sea and laboratory intermingle with close-ups of fire-lit faces and feline hands both delicate and claw-like, desperate to feel the warmth of a very confused castaway whose sexual desire is unknowingly drawing him closer to bestiality.

But the image that lingers with me most after watching the film, late on a chilly October night, is modest in comparison: that of a single, very hairy, pointed ear. What makes this image so memorable for me is that not only is it the first sign that something terribly strange is transpiring—a foreshadowing elegantly echoed more than 50 years later in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986)—but it is also a sort of mute instruction for all of us watching: listen. Among the shrewder choices made by director Erle C. Kenton and/or his collaborators in post-production was that of using Arthur Johnston and Sigmund Krumgold’s musical score, wonderful as it is, very sparingly. The film’s celebrated atmospherics are perfected by the absence of music to soften the agonized cries of those titular souls subjected to ongoing torture in the bluntly dubbed “House of Pain.” Those cries help make Island of Lost Souls a genuinely horrific horror movie. It was those cries I kept hearing as I tried to fall asleep.

The story, for those who don’t know, comes from H.G. Wells’ 1896 novel The Island of Doctor Moreau, adapted here by Philip Wylie and Waldemar Young. It follows the ship-wrecked Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) as he’s rescued and then abandoned by a drunken sea captain on an island without a name, where mad scientist Moreau (the gloriously go-for-broke Charles Laughton) has been vivisecting his way through the animal kingdom in search of the genes that he believes urges all animals to ascend to the traits of man. Moreau lives surrounded by mutants—one played by Bela Lugosi—mostly very hairy humanoids who wear pants and rally round campfires nightly to chant out the dictates of their patriarchal, neo-colonialist master. But there is also one Lota (Kathleen Burke), the “Panther Woman,” whom Moreau, presumably unable to mate with her himself, hopes to pimp out and toss into his muddying gene pool with Parker.

It’s unlikely Island of Lost Souls would have been made just a couple of years later when the Production Code was more strictly enforced, though the film’s explicit exploration of evolutionary mayhem and trans-species lust still managed to get it banned in the UK for 25 years. These days torture has somehow been domesticated as screen “entertainment,” but Moreau’s distinctive shadow still looms over the imagination. Wells’ Moreau had to move his experiments off the grid and away from prying eyes; today he’d more likely be enjoying a brilliant career in bio-mechanics, a visionary helping to shape our post-human future. The real horror has, it seems, already started to come true.

Criterion’s exceptionally well-compiled release features their freakiest menu since Videodrome (1983); interviews with the guys from Devo, who incorporated Island into the band’s conceptual framework and helped immortalize the line, “Are we not men?”; an interview with David J. Skal regarding Wells in Hollywood; yet another excellent, bouncy, info-crammed audio commentary from Golden Age horror historian Gregory Mank; and, perhaps most fascinating, an interview with Richard Stanley, co-scenarist and original director of the infamous 1996 Island adaptation with Marlon Brando.

Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko (1968), which Criterion released last week, is set during the Sengoku period, a time of seemingly endless war. The film begins with a horde of starved samurai entering a very modest abode inhabited by two women, the mother (Nobuko Otowa) and wife (Kei Sato) of a young man (Kichiemon Nakamura) who was conscripted into the army of a local warlord. The samurai consume all available food, rape the women and set their home on fire before disappearing into the grove from which they emerged.

The brutality of this sequence—not unlike many sequences in Island of Lost Souls—is intensified greatly by what is absent from the soundtrack. There is no dialogue whatsoever for the first ten minutes of Kuroneko, but the glances exchanged by the women and the invaders prompt you to steel yourself, and the image, manifesting only moments later, of the women’s bodies as they lay in the ashes of what was once their home—their cadavers soon approached by some rather curious cats—is both chilling and possessive of a spectral beauty that will return throughout the course of this elegant, unsettling ghost story riddled with vicious revenge and perverse reversals.

Shindo’s Onibaba (1964) scared the bejesus out of me when I saw Criterion’s release of it some years back, and Kuroneko wields a similar primal power, much of it deriving from carefully crafted details: a house that seems like a theatre of mist designed by Frank Lloyd Wright; the kimono who’s outer diaphanous layer resembles the wings of a fly; the peculiar use of slow-motion or the breath that hangs in the frigid air. The script was founded on a Japanese folktale, yet it holds extra resonance due to Shindo’s class-conscious subtext. The film’s influence can be found everywhere in more recent Japanese horror films, though it received a negligent release in North America in its day. Metro Cinema screened it back in August and Criterion’s deluxe treatment should secure it the much wider audience it deserves. See it when it’s dark out. But listen carefully, too.

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