Editor’s Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on July 14, 2006, and we’re proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.


It’s just not a 2000s genre-film festival (see the first part of this report here) with a Japanese zombie flick or two, and Montreal’s Fantasia obliges with a pair of ‘em on Wednesday. Tokyo Zombie was written (based on the manga by Yusaku Hanakuma) and directed by Sakichi Sato, who scripted Ichi the Killer and Gozu for Takashi Miike, and carries over the straight-faced-absurdist style from some of the latter’s features. Our heroes are a pair of working-class joes (the Dead or Alive films’ Sho Aikawa and a big-Afro’d Tadanobu Asano) who have nothing better to do on the job than practice martial arts—until toxic waste at a nearby dump begins resurrecting the dead. So begins a series of confrontations resulting in the expected gore as well as body-part-and-corpse slapstick, played with an unemphatic, realistic approach by Sato that makes many of the setpieces all the funnier.

The best part of the movie, however, is the unforced chemistry between Asano (as the dim aspiring fighting champ) and Aikawa (as his older-and-somewhat-wiser mentor). Even when the ghouls aren’t around, the duo effortlessly carry the film and engage our interest. Then the movie takes a turn at around the 50-minute mark that throws an entirely new spin into the story—and the film stops dead. The next 20 minutes or so lack all the comic charm of what has gone before, but fortunately, Sato rallies to get things back on track for the final reels. Even with that lengthy dead spot, Tokyo Zombie is a worthwhile entry in the growing roster of Asian living-dead adventures.

That trend is now joined by Thailand with SARS Wars, which falls into the category of completely out-of-control, anything-goes horror/comedies that Far East filmmakers have been so fond of. Director Taweewat Wantha and the film’s five writers use the topical titular disease as a simple MacGuffin to launch an insane mélange of zombie flesheating, bloody slapstick, spoofy superheroics and multiple in-references to other movies (including itself). The setting is an apartment block where the virulent SARS No. 4 strain turns most of the residents into hungry ghouls, and aspiring warrior Khun tries to rescue a girl who has been kidnapped by a gang whose disguises include a goofy bear suit and—well, it wouldn’t be fair to tell. This kind of humor is intrinsically hit-and-miss, and SARS Wars hits more often than it misses, though it’s undoubtedly better viewed with an enthusiastic theater crowd (like that at Fantasia, which, um, eats it up) than on DVD.

Getting more serious—deadly serious—we come to Ils (Them, pictured above), by French filmmaking team David Moreau and Xavier Palud. It’s a sign of the times, I guess, that these up-and-comers have received more press attention for the U.S. remakes they’ve been attached to (Last House on the Left and The Eye) on the strength of this film than for Ils itself, but that oughta change after the movie begins its international release in France next week. Eschewing any urge to create a show-offy calling card, Moreau and Palud go right back to horror basics, focusing on the terrorization of couple Clementine (Bloody Mallory’s Olivia Bonamy) and Lucas (Michael Cohen) by mysterious attackers in their expansive, remote rural house. That’s all there really is to the story, and that’s all Moreau and Palud need; like the aliens in the old Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” they demonstrate that all they need are some flashing lights, odd noises and objects apparently moving on their own to throw an audience into a panic.

There’s the lingering suggestion that the unseen tormentors (who also claim a mother and daughter in a scary prologue) may be supernatural in nature, and the tease is effectively sustained through almost all of the running time. The revelation of who “them” are both satisfies and adds an extra level of chill, though the film’s coda isn’t really necessary, and the movie would pack an even stronger final punch if it ended a couple of minutes before it does. But Ils announces a pair of strong new talents on the horror scene, who are really too good to be consigned to rehashing other filmmakers’ work for their next projects.

Thursday gives me a chance to revisit White of the Eye, the 1987 psychothriller by the late director Donald Cammell, whose screening here ties in with the launch of FAB Press and authors Rebecca and Sam Umland’s book Donald Cammell: A Life on the Wild Side. I haven’t seen the film since its initial release back in my youth and was anxious for a chance to reappraise it (especially since the gorgeous print shown here looks far superior than the one I caught back in the ’80s). And I must say that I appreciate its stylistic virtuosity more on second viewing, as Cammell creates remarkable images (some utilizing breathtaking Arizona locations) paired with eclectic sound/musical choices.

What still doesn’t quite work for me is the film’s drama, centering on a couple (David Keith and Cathy Moriarty, both very good) whose existing tensions are exacerbated by the fact that the husband is a serial killer. I find the movie more engaging on an aesthetic level than on an emotional one, as Cammell’s stylistics don’t always translate to involvement in the storyline. Or maybe I’m still missing something, and someday the film will get a proper DVD release (it’s still MIA on U.S. disc) to allow for yet another re-viewing.

Returning to comic horrors, Frostbite represents Sweden’s entry in another crowded subgenre, the vampire film. Directed by Anders Banke and scripted by Daniel Ojanlatva, it’s certainly not lacking for ambition, weaving a plot that involves WWII Nazi soldiers (in an extensive prologue), teen partiers, a doctor engaged in unorthodox activities at a local hospital, a meet-the-parents dinner gone wrong, hapless police, a drug that causes vampirism and the abuse of small furry animals (none of whom, according to the end credits, were actually harmed—in fact, we’re told they were treated better than the cast and crew!). It all takes place during a period when the country receives no sunlight for over a month, though perhaps wisely, not much is made of this 30 Days of Night-esque device.

The cast (including a lovely young actress named Grete Havneskold, who plays the girl most likely to survive) attacks the material with enthusiasm, and Banke’s heart is clearly in the right place, even if his camera sometimes isn’t; there’s often a static feel to his staging and shooting. What does work here is a series of clever and often hilarious sight gags that take off on assorted clichés of the bloodsucker genre, and had the audience spontaneously applauding more than once. Frostbite is better in parts than as a whole, but is worth a look for the big laughs in generates in the midst of its pokey pacing.

The night’s last film is a major event: Strange Circus, the new movie from Suicide Club’s Sion Sono, with the Japanese cult filmmaker in attendance. Fantasia’s Mitch Davis and Sono himself introduce the movie with the promise of transgression and perversion, and Circus certainly delivers, spinning the tale of a young girl who is both a forced witness to and on the receiving end of her father’s sexual aggressiveness. The presentation of these activities is kept just on the right side of the border between legitimately disturbing and exploitation, and the story eventually gives way to an examination of how this terrible childhood impacts on the heroine’s adulthood, all shot through with remarkable, gorgeous/terrible visuals.

Like White of the Eye, though, Circus strikes me as exquisitely filmed but dramatically remote. The longer it goes on, the more emotionally obscure it becomes, and it leads to a climax that’s loaded with physical and psychological torment, but also takes about 20 drawn-out, overplayed minutes to deliver exposition that could have efficiently been covered in five. Strange this circus is, yet its carnival of grotesqueries ultimately falls victim to the law of diminishing returns.

TO BE CONTINUED

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