Based on the 1926 novel The Strange Tale of Panorama Island by Edogawa Rampo — the so-called Edgar Allan Poe of Japan — as well as at least two Rampo short stories, “The Human Chair” (1925) and “The Walker in the Attic” (also 1925), and also conflating Rampo’s most famous detective character, Kogoro Akechi, the 1969 film Horrors of Malformed Men obviously has a lot of ground to cover. The picture was co-written by its director, genre favorite Teruo Ishii, an old fan of Rampo’s work in boys’ detective magazines in the 1920s, and so shocked and scandalized viewers upon its initial release that it has been a sort of taboo product ever since; indeed, the film has never been made available for home viewing in Japan! I suppose that given its central theme of willful and calculated human mutations, coming a scant 25 years after the atomic denouement of WW2, this feeling can be understandable. Still, for viewers today, the film will probably come as a genuine stunner.
In Horrors of Malformed Men, a medical student named Hitomi (an appealing performance by handsome Teruo Yoshida) escapes from a mental institution in the year 1925 (although it could just as easily be yesterday, based on what the viewer sees), with only a dim knowledge of who he is, or why a child’s lullaby keeps repeating itself in his mind, or why he keeps seeing visions of a mysterious-looking seacoast. His lot worsens when he is falsely accused of knifing a young girl (in a scene strangely reminiscent of a similar one in North by Northwest), and while on the run, and desperately searching for that bit of seacoast on Honshu’s 800-mile-long northern shore (!), notices the obituary for a man who he exactly resembles. He pretends to be that dead man, resurrected back to life, and ultimately goes to the island sanctuary of his look-alike’s father, a Dr. Moreau type of character. And once on that island, things start to get REALLY strange!
Shot on the Noto Peninsula, Horrors of Malformed Men is a film of impressive natural beauty, and, once on that darn island, dreamlike surrealism. Indeed, the film would have been a natural back in the early ’70s among the midnight-feature stoner crowd. It is easily as “trippy” as Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo, a favorite back then amongst that crowd, as well as Jess Franco’s Succubus, Jaromil Jires’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders and Michel Lemoine’s Seven Women for Satan (all films that SHOULD have been on the midnight circuit back when) … but unlike these films, and amazingly, its wild and crazy plot makes absolute, perfect sense by the picture’s conclusion! In a final summation, events are explained at a clip that rivals the rat-a-tat explications in The Big Sleep, accompanied by mono-tinted flashback sequences.
And, oh, is this film a strange one! Among the film’s many bits of weirdness are that freaky insane asylum opening; a snake decapitation; a 1/2 goat, 1/2 girl creature; a human torch sconce; a psychedelic, Cirque du Soleil-style dance number (put on for no apparent reason other than to flabbergast the viewer) performed by a gaggle of the island freaks; silver-painted women; a male/female Siamese twin combo; the eating of live crabs (and lots of them!); incest; the old poison-down-the-string trick (which viewers may recall from the 007 blowout You Only Live Twice); freeze frames; and other assorted mishegas. In the film’s single most arresting image, perhaps, Jagoro Kimodo, the creator of the island monstrosities, capers along the seashore, the waves crashing behind him. Kimodo is played in the film by Tatsumi Hijikata, the founder of the Butoh style of dance, and the stylized, spiderlike way that he scuttles along here is like something you may have never seen before.
Featuring exquisite camera work from Shigeru Akatsuka and a freaky-deaky score by Masao Yagi, and concluding with a beautifully symbolic fireworks/sunset display, Horrors of Malformed Men is a film that should linger long in the memory. Far from just another Dr. Moreau rip-off, it is a genuine work of cinematic art, a minor masterpiece, and should prove a real find for the jaded horror buff.
It is presented here on a great-looking DVD from Synapse, loaded with “extras.” In the most interesting, directors Shinya Tsukamoto and Minoru Kawasaki discuss the influence that Ishii and Rampo have had on their own work, while in another, we see Ishii himself — “the King of Cult” — present the film at the Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy in 2003 (two years before his death). A most generous DVD package, of a film that must be seen to be believed…