Rampo: First Blood

Like a flaming banana fired from the trunk of an invisible elephant, this movie aims to surprise.

HORROR OF MALFORMED MEN. The very title speaks of subtlety amounting to minimalism, a tentative approach to the human emotions predicated upon the finest nuance and most delicate art of suggestion.

I stumbled upon this after mentioning to Fiona, once again, that it would be nice if we could work our way through all the films illustrated within Dennis Gifford’s big green book, A Pictorial History of Horror Movies. A romantic idea, since we both spent our respective childhoods engrossed in its pages, thinking that we’d never see ANY of these films, with the exception of a few Hammer and Universal staples. Matter of fact, I personally am uncertain if Gifford had seen half this stuff — his text mainly concentrates on the familiar few.

The modern age, with its Amazon and its bittorrents, suddenly offers new access to world cinema, practically erasing the concepts of rarity and inaccessibility. And so i find and, within hours, am watching, an apparently notorious but largely obscure and forgotten japsploitation epic of the ’60s.

Beginning in a sexy asylum full of comely lunatics, the flick swiftly genre-shifts from the ever-popular psychiatric porno into a SPELLBOUND-esque Hitchcock thriller, only more demented. Our escaped amnesiac hero (who insists, via V.O., that he’s sane) follows a trail of bizarro clues to find his true identity. Adopting a series of nutty disguises — a beard, which he apparently grows overnight; an eye-patch, which I always find helps stop people noticing you — discovers the recent death of his doppelganger, and resolves to assume the corpse’s identity, in the hopes of convincing the family that he was buried alive and resurrected. This seems reasonable enough, given that both men have a swastika carved into the heel of one foot, and that the dead man’s father has webbed fingers and runs a private island for the care of malformed men.

There’s some business with our hero trying to maintain his disguise, even dutifully shagging the dead man’s wife and mistress, and it’s not too interesting, to be honest — the movie, having sacrificed credence in the name of raw hallucinogenic sensation around about the one minute mark, can’t really generate any suspense out of the crazy hero’s imposture in a crazy house full of crazy people. But once we get to the island, we’re back into a clinically deranged stratosphere of overwhelming nonsense, where the sight of a half-naked woman tied to a goat’s arse is a mere taster for the sensations to come in this “perfect society”. Given the Dr. Moreau flavour of the insular set-up (except the Japanese Moreau doesn’t turn animals into “humans”, but instead turns normal “babies and old people” into mutant freaks) it seems likely Richard Stanley has seen this — reinventing Moreau from whip-wielding white bwana to white-robed cult leader getting lugged around in a litter is a move anticipated by this psychotic mastur-piece.

Having spent its first two-thirds in the non-Cartesian realms of Poe, Argento or Jodorowsky, the story now attempts to wrap itself up in a manner satisfying to the most logical fan of fair-play detective stories, which seems a wasted effort since any golden-age mystery fan has presumably fled for the hills beating themselves in the face with a Nero Wolfe collection around about act one. As a sop to the perverted, we get a green-tinged flashback in which a starving woman must feast on the crabs devouring her decomposing lover, so all is not lost.

This massed narrative closure also includes details like a drop of poison being run down a thread from the rafters of a house into a sleeping person’s mouth, as seen in James Bond’s Japanese adventure, YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, already filmed at this point (1969). Director Teruo Ishii, who was directing until 2001 (last film: BLIND BEAST VS KILLER DWARF, a grudge match I’d pay good money to see) clearly has a delirious-if-incoherent sense of style and a complete lack of scruples, which always makes for an entertaining dinner companion, and he’s helped by a script that sometimes feels like a compendium of all Troma Productions’ titles, past and future, randomly shuffled in a dirty trough. The result has the hypnopompic poetry of a madman’s grocery list.

No doubt much of the malfeasance is down to the source novel by Edogawa Rampo, whose nom-de-plume can best be understood by saying it rapidly in a fake Japanese accent (think Colonel Saito in BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI). If that doesn’t work, think of the author of The Raven, but sit down first or you may start chuckling uncontrollably and before you know it end up like this guy:

“I want you to build a statue of a horse-headed god to protect this island. It will have three heads and eleven tails. It is to be be crowned with a living horse’s head. It has been my dream for thirty years. Use living human flesh to build it. There will never be a greater challenge for a medical graduate.”

You know something? He’s not wrong!

8 Responses to “Rampo: First Blood”

  1. Arthur S. Says:

    The stills look interesting.

    I’d like to check it out. It sounds like Lynch, avant-la-lettre. Since I dislike Lynch, apres le temps, in general I’d check it out.

  2. There’s about ten minutes of sublime and offensive weirdness in the middle, an overall nonsensical but intriguing plot, bad bald-head wigs, and a ludicrous climax — what’s not to like? I’d say it’s more like Jodorowsky than Lynch, although Ishii uses Butoh dancers rather than actual freaks.

    If you’ve seen any version of Jigoku (Ishii made the most recent remake) or can envisage a Coffin Joe movie made in Japan, that would give you a good picture of it.

  3. Schroeder might well do something interesting with Rampo. Part of the challenge seems to be to create a completely unreal movie-world where weirdness can happen without issues of plausibility arising.

  4. Elements of this film bring to mind Fuller’s Shock Corridor, but I’d say his nymphos pale by comparison.

  5. Ishii’s nymphos are sexier, it’s true. But Fuller’s film is much the smarter, a cunning political movie disguised as a dopey thriller.

  6. The film’s sporadic surreal imagery is kinda nullified by the ridiculous amount of unsubtle exposition… it’s like a cheesy British cop show whereby everything MUST be explained at the end and the audience can go “a-HA, so that’s what happened! Damn, you had me fooled.” Heh.

    I did love it when the younger brother kept repeating, in protest: “I don’t want to make malformed men.”

  7. Yes, the summing-up is a bit of a drag, although the detective starting to explain things that we didn’t even know or care had happened was amusing. But at least we get the great firework suicide bit afterwards.

    I wonder which specific offensive element, or combination of elements, got the film banned in Japan?

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