Horrors of Malformed Men (1969)
Banned for decades in its native Japan, director Teruo Ishii's Horrors of Malformed Men is considered a landmark of Japanese horror, in particular the "Ero guro" (erotic-grotesque) genre, which combines horror with bizarre sexuality. Based off the literary works of author Edogawa Rampo, Horrors of Malformed Men is a surreal, psychedelic fever-dream of a movie, where logic and neat, tidy story progression are set aside in favor of a more dream-like atmosphere. While decades of increasingly extreme horror movies, both from Japan and elsewhere, have muted the film's shock value, it remains a uniquely bizarre film.
The film's surreal tone is set right from the very beginning, with young medical student Hirosuki Hitomi (Teruo Yoshida) finding himself in a jail cell with several raving, topless women (there's a lot of these in the film) with no memory of how he got there and only a fragmented idea of who he really is. Several thoughts haunt Hitomi's mind, including a mysterious dark room, a strange, animalistic figure crawling over Oceanside rocks, and a haunting lullaby. Desperate to find out what all these things mean, Hitomi escapes his cell and finds his way to a small seaside town, where he discovers that he is a seemingly exact double of the recently deceased head of a powerful local family. What's more, both men share the same scar of a swastika on their bodies. Taking the dead man's identity, Hitomi infiltrates the man's family, and after a series of increasingly strange events, he eventually makes his way to a secluded island where horrifying experiments are being conducted on people, turning them into grotesque, animalistic hybrids. But the shocking revelations don't end there...
Given the subject matter, comparison's can be made to H.G. Wells classic The Island of Doctor Moreau, but make no mistake, Horrors of Malformed Men is far from a rip-off. Hell, it would be a stretch to even call it an homage. Though both stories deal with the creation of horrifically mutilated half-humans, Ishii's film is ultimately not interested in the philosophical questions Wells asked in his novel. Instead, the story is merely the backdrop to Ishii's theatre of the bizarre, which includes naked women swimming and being fed like fish, an actress eating live crabs off of her dead lover's body and even a surreal, out of nowhere dance sequence (yes, you read that right). Ishii also saturates flashbacks in extreme reds and greens and uses jump cuts and freeze frames to add to the film's psychedelic freak-show atmosphere. To top it all off, almost the entire last half hour of the film is dedicated to an escalating series of twists and revelations that almost borders on a parody of shocking twist endings. This all adds up to a jumbled, scattered film, but that's all part of its bizarro charm. And really, would you expect a film that has a mutated pair of Siamese twins to feel slick and logical?
People watching Horrors of Malformed Men expecting a lot of gore due to its notorious reputation may be disappointed, because aside from a few flashes of blood here and there, the film is pretty light on the red stuff. Even the final, over the top gore effect which ends the film is rendered more surreal and absurd than graphic. Still, given the film's copious amounts of female nudity and subject matter which touches upon everything from cannibalism to incest to body horror (among other such wholesome things) I can imagine mainstream audiences in 1969 reacting with disgust. Although it won't be nearly as shocking to people today, it's still definitely a warped experience.
Special mention must go to actor Tatsumi Hijikata, who plays the crazed doctor conducting the experiments. Peering through a mess of long, straggly hair and clad in a flowing white dress, Hijikata twists and contorts his spindly limbs into unusual shapes and delivers his lines in a guttural bark, a mad glint ever present in his eyes, and his performance is easily the most memorable and entertaining of the film. As Hitomi, leading man Teruo Yoshida is much more restrained, the expression on his face almost permanently set to a combination of steely-eyed determination and confusion. Rather than detract from the movie though, Yoshida instead acts as a much needed counterpoint to the madness around him.
Horrors of Malformed Men is not without its faults, with Ishii's pacing dragging a bit during the film's mid-section when Hitomi is trying to infiltrate his doppelganger's family. Fortunately, the film picks up again once Hitomi makes his way to the island and manages to keep its momentum until the end. Additionally, many of the film's make-up effects have not aged particularly well, the quality level being roughly comparable to the original Star Trek series. In many cases, the malformed men of the title are depicted with little more than a coat of body paint. While this isn't much of a problem for background characters, it dulls the intended impact of some of the more prominent freaks like Hijikata's character. He's supposed to have deformed hands, but most of the time it looks like the actor simply dipped his arms in a bucket of plaster before the camera's started rolling. None of these flaws are enough to completely derail the film, but they also prevent it from taking that extra step from being perversely outlandish to truly disturbing.
Given the increasingly shocking, depraved films that Japan has produced in recent decades, modern lovers of blood and guts cinema seeing Horrors of Malformed Men for the first time might wonder what all the fuss is about, but it nevertheless remains an important building block in boundary-pushing Japanese cinema, and it must have been truly baffling to people who saw back when it first came out. Without it, there may very well be no Tetsuo: The Iron Man, no Audition, and no Ichi the Killer (or a lot of Takashi Miike's work, come to think of it). While it definitely won't appeal to all (or even most) tastes, Horrors of Malformed Men remains essential viewing for both scholars of Asian horror history and cult film fans with a taste for the bizarre.