Shocktober 2: ‘Ringu’ leads J-horror; comedic horror exists too

By Tom Von Malder | Oct 27, 2019
Photo by: Arrow Films The cursed videotape is watched in "Ringu 2."

Owls Head — Ringu Collection (Japan, 1998-2000, Arrow, 3 Blu-rays, NR, 385 min.). Of all the Japanese horror films, “Ringu” or “Ring” (1998, 95 min.) was the first to make a big impact in the United States and remains a classic of subtle chills. Directed by Hideo Nakata, based on the 1991 novel by Koji Suzuki, the film has a journalist (Nanako Matsushima as Reiko Asakawa) investigate urban-legend style reports of a cursed videotape that causes anyone who watches it to do a week later. One of the four victims she initially learns about, who were found with their faces contorted in terror, is her niece. The film neatly enfolds traditional Japanese folklore with contemporary anxieties about the spread of technology.

Modern horror devotees may be put off by the film’s steady pace, which makes much of the film more a mystery than a horror film, but it contains several lasting horror images. Some younger viewers may be perplexed by the technology, since Blu-ray and DVD have made VHS videocassettes a thing of the past. An important element of the four films is the ability to make a copy of the cursed videotape. Also prevalent are Polaroid cameras, with their instant print out of photos. If one has watched the cursed videotape, photos taken of the person grow more and more distorted as the seven days pass.

Eventually helping Reiko on her quest is her ex-husband (Hiroyuki Sanada as Ryuji Takayama), a university professor. Their search becomes a bit more desperate when they realize their child (Rikiya Otaka as Yoichi Asakawa) has seen the videotape and his seven-day clock is running. Ryuji’s assistant and apparent lover (Miki Nakatani as Mai Takano) appears late and plays big roles in the two sequels.

The classic ending is so creepy and the film spawned an American remake by director Gore Verbinksi (2002) as well as dozens of sequels and copycat films for two decades.

As usual, Arrow also offers a very good array of extras for each film. For “Ringu,” there is audio commentary by film historian David Kalat, author of “J-Horror: The Definitive Guide to The Ring, The Grudge and Beyond.” Best of the featurettes is a look at “The Ring Legacy” (27:34), which discusses the remakes and sequels, as well as the original trio of novels. There also is a video interview with author-critic Kat Ellinger on director Nakata (21:12), plus a video essay on the evolution of the series by author-critic Alexander Heller-Nicholas (24:56), the complete Sadako video (50 secs.) and an image gallery.

There were, in fact, two sequels to the original film, but with different directors. Filmed back-to-back with the original was “Spiral” (1998, 97 min.), directed by Joji Lida, based on Suuzuki’s follow-up book, and featuring several of the same actors. This sequel did not do very well in theaters and Nakata went on to make his own sequel. Thus, “Spiral” is often referred to as the “lost sequel.”

“Spiral” is a direct sequel, picking up with the police investigation into a key death at the end of the first film, with Dr. Mitsuo Ando (Koichi Sato) having to perform the autopsy of one who attended medical school with him. When we first meet Dr. Ando, he is a dark place, trying unsuccessfully to commit suicide. Helping the investigation is Mai Takano (Nakatani).

This film broadens the supernatural elements, specifically attributing the powers of reading minds and predicting the future to Ryuji Takayama (Sanada of “Avengers: Endgame,” TV’s “The Last Ship” and “Helix”). Dr. Ando also appears to talk to two dead people, although one turns out to be a dream sequence. Even Mai is attributed to being able to read a person’s thoughts when she touches someone.

The film tries to provide a scientific explanation – smallpox – but also throws in three sex scenes, however brief. It also seems that a notebook now can spread the virus as well. It all gets very confusing towards the end.

The sole bonus feature is an archival interview with Suzuki on his books, “The Psychology of Fear” (25:11; in Japanese with subtitles).

Original director Nakata’s sequel, “Ringu 2” (1999, 95 min.), begins with Sadako’s body being found in the well (the well gives another meaning to the “Ring” title). As in the other sequel, Reiko Asakawa and her son are missing initially. This time, Mia Takano (Nakatani) goes to Reiko’s TV studio, where assistant editor Okazaki (Yurei Yanagi) takes up the task of tracking down the cursed videocassette. While he finds the distorted photo of the four dead teenagers from the first film, a doctor tries to pass it off as “spirit photography.”

The fourth film here, “Ringu 0” (2000, 98 min.), is mostly a prequel, telling Sadako Yamamura’s (Yukie Nakama) story. It was directed by Norio Tsuruta (2 “Madam Marmalade” films, “Scarecrow”). An interview with Sadako’s teacher, reveals that 14 children in a class photo with Sadako drowned. A further flashback tells Sadako’s life in Tokyo as part of a theatre troupe, where she is not well liked, except by sound engineer Hiroshi Toyama (Seiichi Tanabe of multiple current Japanese mini-series). Sadako has a rival in Aiko Hazuki (Kaoru Okunuki), who dies mysteriously, allowing Sadako to have the lead role.

The film pushes the idea that intention can become a living thing, which harks back to ESP experiments with Sadako’s mother. The film’s ending seems to conflict with the portions of Sadako’s backstory we learned in the previous three films. Nonetheless, the actual theatrical performance that goes awry is the highlight.

The excellent extra is a video essay by author-critic Jasper Sharp on J-horror in general (37:29); he covers a lot of films. There also are some behind-the-scenes views (21:32) and six deleted scenes (7:06). First pressings of the set come with a 60-page booklet with new writings about the films. Grade: Ringu 4 stars; Spiral 2 stars; Ringu 3 stars; Ringu 0 3 stars; extras 3.75stars

Rating guide: 5 stars = classic; 4 stars = excellent; 3 stars = good; 2 stars = fair; dog = skip it

An American Werewolf in London (1981, Arrow Blu-ray, R, 97 min.). After making the highly successful “Animal House” and “The Blues Brothers, writer-director John Landis turned to his pet project, a script he wrote in 1969 when he was 19. The tale is of two friends – David Naughton (then of the Dr Pepper commercials, later of “Detroit Rock City”) as David Kessler and Griffin Dunne (“After Hours,” “Dallas Buyers Club”) as Jack Goodman – touring Northern England, when they are attacked by a werewolf on the moors. Jack is killed – but not gone from the film – while David is injured and fated to turn into a werewolf himself.

The film opens with plenty of humor and the strangeness of the two lads’ greeting at the Slaughtered Lamb pub. The film quickly turns horrific with the werewolf attack. The film then leaps forward three weeks to when David regains consciousness and is under the care of Nurse Alex Price (Jenny Agutter of “Logan’s Run,” “Child Play 2”) and Dr. J.S. Hirsch (John Woodvine of TV’s “The Crown,” “Coronation Street”).

The humor returns as dead friend Jack keeps showing up to give David advice – only each time he appears, his condition is much worse. The highlight of the film is David’s first transformation into a werewolf – done practically and in full daylight – which won Rick Baker an Academy Award for Best Makeup. (It was the first of Baker’s 12 Oscar nominations and the first time the category was included in the Oscars. Baker also has won for “Harry and the Hendersons,” “Ed Wood,” “The Nutty Professor,” “Men in Black,” “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and 2011’s “The Wolfman.”)

David’s second transformation takes place in a Piccadilly Circus porno theater (the only change from the original 1969 script, as back then that section of London had children theaters). This leads to a great action sequence. The soundtrack features several songs about the moon.

Bonus features are numerous and extraordinary. There are two audio commentaries: one by Paul Davis, author of “Beware the Moon”; and the other by Naughton and Dunne, who give many an anecdote about making the film. Two terrific features are the new “Mark of the Beast,” about the legacy of Universal’s horror films, with much information on all the films and Lon Chaney Jr., who played wolfman Larry Talbot in the films (77 min.); and Davis’s documentary film, “Beware the Moon,” which visits locations used in the film, including the pub, and has interviews with those involved, including Landis (97 min.). In the first feature, we learn how screenwriter Curt Siodmak created most of the elements of werewolf lore for “The Wolf Man” in 1941, including wolf bane, the full moon for transformations, silver bullets and use of a pentagram.

Other extras include a new interview with Landis (11:41); Wares of the Wolf, which looks at some existing artifacts, a Nazi werewolf head; David’s puffer North Face jacket and the first transformation head (7:58); a Jim Spera video essay on the werewolf in history and what he sees as this film’s Jewish subtext (11:26); a discussion of the film by Covin Hardy and Simon Ward (11:26); a brief making-of (4:54) a solid interview with Landis (18:19); a piece of Baker (11:13, an archival interview with Baker (7:30) and video of the process of creating David’s “copy” hand and arm for the transformation scene (10:59); outtakes (3:07); a Piccadilly Circus storyboard featurette (2:27); and six image galleries. Grade: film 3.75 stars; extras 4.5 stars

The Prey (1979-80, but released 1984, Arrow, 2 Blu-rays, NR, 102 min., 277 min.). Arrow also does an amazing job with this “lost” slasher film, even if the film comes nowhere near the quality of “An American Werewolf in London.” In fact, this 2-disc set presents three versions of the film: director Edwin Scott Brown’s original 80-minute version, the 95-minute international version (with added gypsy flashbacks not filmed or approved by Brown) and a new composite version that lasts 102 minutes. The presentation is a new 2K restoration from the recently unearthed original camera negatives.

In the composite version, the film opens with a 1948 fire that destroyed a gypsy camp in the North Port, Keen Wild, with many being killed. After the opening credits, it is 1980 in the same woods and a married couple who are camping are killed. Throughout the film, and especially the first third, there are lots of nature shots, featuring many of the critters and insects living in the woods. The main story follows three young adult couples who hike into North Port, Keen Wild.

The bad guy, who is supposed to be the sole survivor of the 1948 fire, has an axe and, for really unexplained reasons, kills everyone he comes across. The viewer knows when he is around because there is a heartbeat sound on the soundtrack. In a flashback that was added after Brown shot the film, there is a 1948 love affair between one of the gypsies and a local, married woman, which leads to the locals setting fire to the gypsy camp.

Another character is forest ranger Mark O’Brien (Jackson Bostwick), who, for some unknown reason, plays a song on the banjo while alone in his cabin and also tells the awful wide-mouthed frog joke to a baby deer. He does not eventually do much better in fighting the “monster.”

There is no real horror until the 94-minute mark and the killer is not seen for another three minutes. Two of the men are killed while repelling down a mountain, but Brown missed a great opportunity to have the one on top’s body go flying down past the one on the rope. Perhaps it was too hard a stunt to accomplish on the limited budget. Oh yes, while everyone is out and about in the woods, they ignore the buzzards flying overhead.

The first disc contains the original version and most of the extras, which include new interviews with actress Debbie Thureson (Nancy) (27 min.), actress Lori Letham (Bobbie) of “Bloody Birthday,” “Return to Horror High” (13:45), Gayle Gannis (Gail) of “Hot Moves” (11:49), Bostwick, who went on to the lead in TV’s “Captain Marvel”) (18:20), and Carel Struycken (the monster) of TV’s “Twin Peaks” (7:13). Each one talks about their career and their memories of making the movie. Ewan Cant and Thureson revisit the original shooting locations in Idyllwild, Calif. (13:58).

From a Texas Frightmare Weekend Experience, there is an audience reaction track to the director’s cut version, plus a Q&A with Lethin, Struycken and Bostwick (17:05). There is a new audio commentary by Cant and Amanda Reyes for the director’s cut, plus a new audio commentary by producer Summer Brown, who also co-wrote the script with husband Edwin, and an interview with director Brown set over the film. Disc two, which contains the international and composite versions, also has 45:48 of outtakes, with no sound. Grade: film 2 stars; extras 3.75 stars

Killer Nun (Italy, 1979, Arrow Blu-ray, NR, 88 min.). Who knew that there was a subgenre of film called nunsploitation? Well, there is and this is a prime example, made by writer-director Giulio Berruti (writer of “The Devil Witch,” “The Long Arm of the Godfather”). Anita Ekberg (“La Dolce Vita”) plays Sister Gertrude, a ward supervisor at a church-run hospital who has become a morphine addict, after surgery to remove a cancerous tumor. Sister Gertrude has bad habits (sorry, I could not help myself), including sneaking into town to pick up men for anonymous sex. The one time shown occurs standing up in a hallway.

The film contains lowbrow humor – at least three male patients early on are quite randy – and some nudity, with most of the latter belonging to Sister Mathieu (Paola Morra of “Behind Covent Walls,” another example of nunsploitation), who has lesbian desires for Sister Gertrude, her roommate. People start dying as the mystery and madness deepens, but the murders are never completely shown, leading one to believe a lot of red herrings are being flung about, and so it proves, as the killer is not revealed until the final scene.

One of the best bits involves patient Pierre who needs crutches to get around, but is locked in the basement without them by the killer and must struggle up a flight of stairs. Joe Dallesandro (Andy Warhol-produced/Paul Morrissey-directed “Heat,” “Flesh,” “Lonesome Cowboys,” “Trash” and the horror films “Flesh for Frankenstein,” “Blood for Dracula”) is asked to do almost nothing as replacement Dr. Patrick Roland.

One might just check on the release for its extras, which include both English and Italian versions and a new audio commentary by Italian genre film connoisseurs Adrian J. Smith and David Flint. Most interesting is Kat Ellinger’s video essay on nunsploitation giallo in the 1970s and 1980s, possibly sparked by Ken Russell’s “The Devils” (29:19). There also are new interviews with director Berruti (51:51), editor Mario Giacco (20:31) and actress Ileana Fraja (Florence) (23:47), each in Italian with English subtitles. Finally, there is an image gallery. Grade: film 2.75 stars; extras 3.5 stars

Satanic Panic (RLJE, Blu-ray or standard DVD, NR, 88 min.). Occasionally there is a horror film based on humor and this one sure tries hard to be funny as it has a pizza delivery girl encounter a coven of Satanists who live behind the mansion halls in an upscale part of town. The delivery girl is Sam Craft (continuing a long line of female horror protagonists who shorten their name to a male version), who is played by Hayler Griffith. An amusing bit of casting has Rebecca Romijn playing coven leader Danica Ross and Romijn’s real-life husband, Jerry O’Connell, playing movie husband Samuel, who is not around for too long. That is unfortunate as any film, and particularly this one, could always use more Jerry O’Connell.

Directed by Chelsea Stardust (“Marco Polo,” “Slay Per View”), with a script by Ted Geoghagen (story) and Grady Hendrix (story and screenplay), the film has Sam get involved with the cult, when she goes back to demand a tip, after delivering five pizzas. It turns out to be the same night that the cult is about to do a ritual to summon the demon Baphomet. They need a virgin, however, and Danica’s daughter has spoiled things by making sure she no longer is qualified. Happenstance for the cult is that Sam happens to be a virgin, although Samuel humorously tries to “save her” by their having sex.

When Sam eventually escapes, she runs to a house with a babysitter and two evil kids. However, she rescues Danica’s daughter (Ruby Modine as Judi) and together they try to combat the coven. The film is uneven and should have been much better. Some of the special effects are suitably gross and there are laugh-out-loud moments. Romijn’s Danica is effectively icy and makes for a good villain.

The extras are minimal: a mostly clips making-of (6:29); a look at Sam and Judi (5 min.); and a look at the first-time director, although Stardust has worked on many horror films (3:26). Grade: film2.5 stars; extras 1.25 stars

Anna and the Apocalypse (Orion/Cinedigm DVD, R, 93 min.). Unfortunately, there is no way to describe this film without giving away the biggest surprise. If you just like horror comedy, just watch the film … especially if you also like “High School Musical.”

Oops, there goes the spoiler. When I watched the film originally on EPIX, I knew nothing about it, so it was a total surprise when the cast broke out in song for the “Hollywood Ending” production number in the school auditorium. And the songs in this zombie Christmas musical are very good, written by Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly. (The 13-track soundtrack CD is available from Interscope/Orion Records.)

Anna Shepherd (Ella Hunt of “The More You Ignore Me”) is an adventurous high school senior who wants to take a gap year before college to see the world outside her home in Scotland; however, she has an overprotective dad (Mark Benton as Tony Shepherd). After school, she works in a bowling alley with her best friend John (Malcolm Cumming), who has feelings for her that he hides. The two are friends with lovebirds Chris Wise (Christopher Leveaux) and Lisa (Marli Siu). The school’s resident activist is Steph North (Sarah Swire), an American student who has just been dumped by her girlfriend and whose parents have left her alone for Christmas. The other key student is Nick (Ben Wiggins of EPIX’s “Pennyworth,” “Mary Queen of Scots”).

When the zombie apocalypse hits the town of Little Haven and Anna and John run across their first zombie, they take refuge in the bowling alley, along with Chris and Steph. Meanwhile, Anna’s father and other performers in the school’s Christmas show, along with audience, hunker down at the school. Much of the film has Anna and her friends trying to reach her father and others at the school, where uptight Principal Savage (Paul Kaye) has taken control.

The songs, mostly pop, are very good and, at times, a bit bizarre. Standouts are “Hollywood Ending,” which foreshadows the occurrences in this film: not everybody gets out alive and the viewer’s heart will be broken once, if not twice. “Human Voice” is a lovely ballad. In “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now,” Principal Savage chides students for tweeting their every empty thought. Ben and a group of bullies kill zombies as they belt out “Soldier at War.” Lisa’s Christmas show performance, “It’s That Time of Year,” is filled with double entendres, and midway through the song, six shirtless men in red shorts and suspenders flank her.

The sole extra is behind-the-scenes looks at the actors, the songs and a semi-tribute to the late Ryan McHenry, who made the original “Zombie Musical” short and wrote this film, before passing away (25:35). Grade: film 3.5 stars; extra 2.25 stars

Legend of the Demon Cat (China, 2017, Well Go USA Blu-ray, NR, 120 min.). This film, directed by Kaige Chen (“Farewell My Concubine”), has elements of fantasy, horror and humor, as well as gorgeous sets and costumes, recalling his earlier film. At the 2018 Asian Film Awards, the film won for Best Supporting Actress (Yuqi Zhang), Best Costume Designer (Tongsun Chen), Best Production Designer (Nan Tu, Wei Lu) and Best Visual Effects (Notio Ishii), while Chen was nominated as Best Director and the film was nominated for Best Picture.

The film is set in the Imperial Court of the Tang Dynasty, during a time when a general’s wife is possessed by an ancient demon. The duo of an eccentric poet (Xuan Huang of “The Great Wall” as Bai Letian) and a dutiful monk from Japan (Shota Sometani as Kukai), who also is an exorcist, unravel the dark mystery behind the death 30 years earlier of a beautiful courtesan, Lady Yang, who was loved from afar by another poet. The demon has a form of a black cat, which is deadly at times and can talk. The film has an extensive flashback to the Feast of Great Happiness, which celebrated Lady Yang.

The film is a visual feast, often gorgeous in its large set pieces, but the CGI cat is a bit tacky. The story is a bit hard to follow – especially as some characters share the same name – but becomes much clearer after the extended flashback. There are no bonus features. Grade: film 3.25 stars

The Haunting of Hill House, extended director’s cut (Netflix/Paramount, 3 Blu-rays or 4 DVDs, NR, 569 min.). The Netflix series goes back and forth between two timelines. In the past, it is when the Crain family moves into Hill House, so the father (Henry Thomas as Hugh Crain) can fix it up and flip it for a profit. The rest is some 30 years later in the present, when an unexpected event makes the family confront the forces of evil once again. We also see how the Crains successfully and unsuccessfully deal with the leftover pain of the events that forced them out of Hill House, when five were children.

This latter aspect is one of the series’ strengths, particularly as the horror elements are slow to creep in. Steven (Michiel Huisman of TV’s “Game of Thrones,” “Orphan Black”) has become a noted horror writer, specializing in haunted houses, while his siblings resent his “cashing in” on their pain. He also investigates reports of hauntings. Theo (Kate Siegel) – short for Theodora, note again the shortening of a female name to a male form – has become a child psychologist and picks up women in bars. Shirley is running a funeral home with her husband and lets Theo live in the guest house. It seems the twins, Nellie (Victoria Pedretti) and Luke (Oliver Jackson-Cohen of TV’s “Lark Rise to Candleford”), have had the worst time adjusting, with Luke in and out of drug rehab.

The horrors of the current time start small: visions of the dead, then an attack by a creeping corpse. In the past, the children also see visions and there are strange, large banging on the walls. One night, Hugh hustles the children into the car and they flee Hill House, leaving their mother (Carla Gugino as Olivia Crain) behind. At some point, Olivia is dead.

The series is written by Mike Flanagan (director of “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” “Oculus”), who also directs the episodes, based on Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel. While the paranormal is on the edges and sometimes at the forefront, the series is a fine exercise in psychological trauma, real and perceived terror, as it explores the life paths of the children through pivotal, formative moments.

The bonuses include extended director’s cuts, with audio commentary by Flanagan, for episodes “Steven Sees a Ghost,” “The Bent-Neck Lady” and “Silence Lay Steadily.” These episodes are about 15 minutes longer than the rest. Flanagan also does audio commentary on the “Two Storms” episode.” Flanagan, by the way, wrote and directed the upcoming “Doctor Sleep,” Stephen King’s follow-up to “The Shining.” Grade: season 3.73 stars; extras 2 stars

Supernatural: The Complete Fourteenth Season (Warner Bros., 3 Blu-rays or 5 DVDs, NR, 838 min.). In this unfortunately, next-to-last season for the veteran series, Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean Winchester (Jansen Ackles) have to deal with the results of the previous season’s activity on an Earth in a terrifying alternate reality. The two brothers have brought back with them more than a dozen hunters, including the alternate version of their old pal Bobby Singer (Jim Beaver). The archangel Michael also escaped and Dean has absorbed him in order to try to control him and stop him from destroying the world – only the mental barriers are weakening. The brothers and angel friend Castiel (Misha Collins) also are training Jack (Alexander Calvert), Lucifer’s son, but he has lost a lot of his angelic essence and his action of revenge against Lucifer results in an awful loss for the Winchesters.

The season featured the show’s 300th episode, “Homecoming,” which is great for two reasons. First, it brings back Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the brothers’ father, briefly brought forward in time for a very nice family reunion. The episode also shows much more of the often-referred-to, but seldom-seen town of Lebanon, focusing on a group of teenagers who are in awe of the Winchesters’ heroics. The brothers later have a showdown with God (Rob Benedict as His’ Chuck form), who wants to kill Jack. That sets up the events of season 15, which has just begun.

Extras include an in-depth look at episode 300 (19:18); five deleted scenes; a look at the Winchester mythology (24:51), including Lucifer/Nick’s choices and God playing an intellectual game; a funny gag reel (11:37); and the 2018 Comic Con panel (35:32), which, unlike some, actually discusses the events of the first few episodes of season 14. Grade: season 3.75 stars; extras 3 stars

 

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