By Lesley Jacobs Solmonson
Once you’ve seen a Japanese horror film, you aren’t likely to forget it. Whether your formative experience is the violent, overtly sexual Onibaba from 1964, a modern ghost story like Ringu (The Ring), or the sadistic thriller Audition, you’ll find that Japan has a vivid – and frequently disquieting – take on the genre.
For the Japanese, horror equates with monsters in all their myriad forms, whether of the beastly, ghostly, or – perhaps the most disturbing of all – psychological variety. In the 1950s and 1960s, folklore-inspired ghost stories like Utsegu and Onibaba shared screen time with movies about kaiju, or “strange beasts”, usually symbolizing the deadly results of the Atomic Age. As a child, I was part of the generation that did “duck and cover” drills in school and was convinced that the world would end in a fiery inferno. As such, I consider Japanese monster movies like Godzilla and Gamera a formative part of my childhood, paralleling cheesy American flicks like the mutant ant fest Them! In fact, before I settled on The Orphanage as my film pick, I seriously toyed with choosing Attack of the Mushroom People, a beautifully shot but ultimately far too languid and sometimes silly flick about predatory fungus that scared the living daylights out of me as a kid. To this day, I do not trust mushrooms.
When mutated lizards and fairytale demons got tiresome, Japanese filmmakers embraced the Western obsession with the exploitation cinema of directors like Dario Argento, Jess Franco, and Herschell Gordon Lewis, moving toward a more graphic style that is still seen today. It began in the 1960s with the soft core-meets-fetish horror “pink films”, continued with the “pinky violence” of the 1970s (much like the American “roughies” which focused on abuse of women), and culminated in the “slasher eros” flicks of the 1980s, which pushed the envelope with elements of rape, murder, and mutilation. While this style took a back seat in the 1990s thanks to the ghost story films of Takashige Ichise (The Ring, The Grudge, Dark Water), recent fare has imbued the “gore-rotic” sub-genre with a distinctly post-modern aesthetic.
Probably more than any other country, Japan embraces the connection between horror and sex with often disturbing intensity. Torture, rape, graphic murder – all of them have their place within this sub-genre. Forget Freddy and Jason, Hostel and Devil’s Rejects. Films like Audition and Suicide Club possess their own unique brand of Grand Guignol horror. And that – if you haven’t been creeped out enough already — brings us to today’s grisly pick, courtesy of Barbara Crampton. If you’re a horror fan boy, Crampton needs no introduction. In films such as Chopping Mall and Puppetmaster, Barbara earned her moniker as a “scream queen,” but for us, she’s always been much more than that (also, we can’t attest to how much screaming she did on The Bold and the Beautiful or The Young and the Restless). Particularly in her H.P. Lovecraft collaborations with director Stuart Gordon – Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Castle Freak – Crampton imbued her characters with a real sense of style. She likes bold, brave women and, as such, her characters are strong, equal parts sweet and sultry, never stupid, and with a solid dose of kick-ass.
As Barbara is no stranger to pushing the boundaries of sex and violence on screen — in Re-Animator she was “stalked and defiled” (by a disembodied “head”, while lying naked and restrained on a lab table no less) while From Beyond had her “seduced by a force from another realm of existence” – it should come as no surprise that she has a keen eye for and appreciation of disturbing movies. Like her recommendation Cold Fish (2010), from Suicide Club director Shion Sono.
When Crampton describes Cold Fish as a film that is “scary, gory, mind and soul battering and one you probably have never heard of,” we knew it would be a perfect fit. None of our film choices so far could be considered true psychological horror films, which are often far more terrifying because they tap into the idea of “it could happen to me” and exploit the worst monster of all – man himself. As Barbara explained to us, “What I love about this movie is the ride it takes you on. The build is sure and steady and, much like a train wreck, it is impossible to look away. At the end you will be delighted by this movie’s mindful brilliance while questioning your own vulnerabilities. It’s truly an adult horror film – but you just may end up sleeping with that nightlight on…”
With regard to Cold Fish, Barbara cautions patience as the movie is 2 ½ hours long and takes a bit to get going (the movie could easily lose 45 mins, but trust us, it delivers in the end). If you are familiar with the movies of Canadian director Atom Egoyan, the film’s deliberate pacing and disconcerting style feel much the same. The story, in brief, centers on a chance encounter between two tropical fish store owners – the weak-willed dreamer Shamoto and the gregarious, manipulative Murata. Soon after Murata and his young wife Aiko suggest that Shamoto’s troubled daughter come work at their expansive shop, Shamoto and his new wife Taeko get sucked into the other couple’s dark world, exposing their own deep-seated fears. These are people who use violence and sex as a way to control and conquer their all-consuming inner demons. In these movies, the evil doesn’t haunt you like a ghost or crush your seaside village like Godzilla, it possesses you from within – and that is really scary. I can assure you that you will be absolutely gobsmacked by the combination of gruesome nastiness and the casually interspersed sexuality – like the lesbian finger puppet scene. Yes, you heard me right.
Even more intriguing in Cold Fish is the “capitalism creates the serial killer” ethos. As Murata says, “Sure I murder people, but I take care of myself.” Somehow, he equates his ability to not just survive, but thrive in the modern world with a “kill or be killed” philosophy. Further, his insistence that he can make anyone “invisible” resonates when seen in the context of a country of 127 million people where anonymity is the norm. In other words, we succeed or we disappear, much like the meek Shamoto, who truly lives a life of quiet desperation, at least at first.
Luckily, we found a perfect cocktail pairing for Cold Fish, a powerful – one might even say – challenging drink from an unimpeachable source, that being cocktail historian David Wondrich. Wondrich originally created this drink for the now-defunct Chickenbone Café in Brooklyn, but it has since been adopted by Esquire as their official Halloween drink. The Bone is a drink to be taken seriously, an elegant balance of strong, sour, sweet, and spicy. Perhaps Esquire explains it best in saying, “This is a cocktail for drinking.” And, like Barbara Crampton, it is classy, classic, and more than a bit titillating with just the right amount of heat.
Shake with ice and strain into a rocks glass
Featured Glassware: American Bar Cocktail Tumbler by Villeroy & Boch
To my mind, everything we’ve talked about today has a bit of an edge whether it’s the Grand Guignol tone of Cold Fish, the tough guy profile of The Bone, or the “only real men need apply” style of Barbara Crampton herself. In short – nothing today is for sissies.
Many thanks to Barbara Crampton for chatting with us and for picking such an interesting film. Next Halloween, she will be returning to her horror roots with Lionsgate’s You’re Next, and she just completed a role in Rob Zombie’s newest shock fest The Lords of Salem, which is rumored to return to Zombie’s Devil’s Rejects roots. In the meanwhile, you can follow her on Twitter @barbaracrampton.