A naked man crawls across a desolate Martian landscape in search of a desert oasis, all the while remembering a violent rape in flashback. An ancient Japanese town is haunted by the shocking deaths of several local women whose faces and skulls have been burned away. Each possesses a mysterious hand mirror made by a local man obsessed with creating the perfect mirror. The wife of a war hero devotes her life to the care and feeding of her soldier husband, who has returned from the war badly disfigured, missing both arms and legs. A beautiful stage actress is pursued by a young man who dreams of intimacy but is plagued with a fear of germs and crawling bugs.
These stories unfold in their own time, each creating a sumptuous, fully realized world. In Rampo Noir, the opening night film for SF's Another Hole in the Head film festival, the grotesque and the exquisite blur in an orgy of surrealism and -- almost gothic -- horror. You don't have to be a horror aficionado to enjoy Rampo Noir, which is a collection of four stories by Edogawa Rampo (a transliteration of Edgar Allan Poe and the nom de plume of Taro Hirai), "the author who established the foundations of modern Japanese mystery and horror novels." Four of Japan's top directors adapted the work to screen, each adopting a different camera style, tempo and color palette to express the twisted psychological dramas that unfold.
Mars's Canal explodes on screen, fast and rythmic, it builds up a sense of frustrated rage and desolation. Mirror Hell is stately, told as an old-fashioned noir detective story. It immediately grounds the film with a more traditional approach to storytelling, but in double. The director uses the kinds of camera angles one might expect in classic noir, but shoots them through mirrors, doubling the action -- like sending a Japanese Sam Spade through a kaleidoscope. It's clever and lovely and a bit brittle and chilly, like the surface of a mirror. Caterpiller juxtaposes moments of pure filmic poetry (brilliant animated butterfly wings, a sequence viewed through a camera obscura), which express the ache of a "war hero's wife," who lost her "normal" life when she became the constant caregiver to her wounded soldier husband. But the ache twists into sadism and the filmmaking erupts with frenzied, violent action, reminiscent of the chilling Audition. Finally, Crawling Bugs captures the feel of a stage set, all bright colors and spotlights. The story moves back and forth in time, inside and out of a young man's head. A plague of germs and itching bugs preoccupies his thoughts while he tries to figure out a way to stop his one true love (the actress he has kidnapped and murdered) from decomposing.
Rampo Noir is a brilliant start to the festival. However, I was able to view a few other selections from the fest's one week run (June 8 - June 15), which I thought were mediocre (Blood Deep, Dark Remains). Even though I am a big fan of horror films (Carrie, The Birds and Dario Argento's Deep Red fall neatly in my all-time top ten), I am not a true member of this festival's target audience. I looked over the schedule, trying to find a number of films to review and discovered that the line-up is chiefly populated with "chop em ups." Films that make earlier versions of the psycho-killer-with-a-knife (or chainsaw) -- Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th -- look like Disney. The violence in them is brutal, agonizing, graphic and sadistic. I just don't have the stomach for such chop suey. I thought Italian horror master, Dario Argento was extreme. I mean, when someone dies in one of his films, they've been killed several times over, dragged down the street and mashed into a pulp, but all in brilliant Italian primary colors! Many of the recent offerings (Hostel, Saw, et al) are like Dario Argento in a blender, and I don't think viscera is that interesting to watch, nor the dismantling of the human body onscreen -- in various creative ways -- that compelling. That said, I've heard some great things about The Butcher Brothers' film The Hamiltons, which screens June 12.
But Rampo Noir is an entirely different beast. Go see it. It will satisfy a horror fan's thirst for blood, a noir fan's need for twisty psychological states, and an experimental film fan's hunger for anything that brings the camera inside the story and really pushes the medium's descriptive power to dazzle the eye and bewitch the mind.