Hirosuke (Teruo Yoshida) is a medical student that has been kidnapped and consigned to a run-down mental institution. Haunted by visions of a remote island, he soon finds himself framed for murder and on the run across Japan. After stumbling upon a death notice for a man that looks exactly like him, Hirosuke impersonates the deceased in the hopes of the man’s family leading him to the island he is compelled to seek.
One of the beautiful effects of the DVD/bluray era of home entertainment is the mass internationalisation of film distribution. The Internet made it easier than ever for people to purchase films from other countries, and the increased sales that came from an international audience has allowed all manner of cult, forgotten and obscure titles to get a home release.
Horrors of Malformed Men, by director Teruo Ishii, is a classic example. It is a horror film released in 1969 by the Toei Company, a studio best known for its animated and genre work. It’s a cheap film, and also a fairly haphazard one with weak scripting and shaky make-up effects laced all the way through. It ostensibly adapts a novel by 1920s horror author Edogawa Rampo (a pseudonym inspired by his favourite American author Edgar Allan Poe), but actually adapts elements of several in the most nonsensical of ways. The film begins as a murder mystery on the run, then becomes a haunted house story before spending the second half of the film as a queasily sexualised version of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau. Elements of exploitation cinema are prominent, particularly with the number of shots of naked breasts and the garish moments of blood and gore. To his credit Ishii pushes his film to an impressive extremity, running at full speed into a number of taboo subjects. Of course almost 50 years have passed since the film was made, so a lot of its shock value has been lost. In its historical context it is impressively deranged.
Ishii was best known as a director of 1970s soft-core erotica and seedy torture films, which began to dominate some cinemas as audiences flocked to American imports or stayed at home watching television. Here you can see him both embracing the necessity for partial nudity (the studios would demand it) and actively resisting it. There is a lot of partial nudity here, but given its horrific context none of it is particularly sexy.
The film carries visible echoes of the atomic bombs, with the titular ‘malformed men’ looking like a nightmare vision of post-nuclear mutations. The ace up the film’s sleeve is in its casting of butoh co-founder Tatsumi Hijikata as the villain Jogoro. Butoh is a post-war Japanese form of dance involving physical extremity and exaggerated movements, conceived as a deliberate contrast to western dance forms. By casting Hijikata’s own dance troupe as Jogoro’s tribe of surgically mutilated and mentally broken subjects, Ishii can make them particularly grotesque and disturbing to watch. Even now, after so many years, they are tremendously effective and brilliantly creepy.
Horrors of Malformed Men is a genuinely strange and transgressive work. It is cheap, and its story is weirdly awkward and abrupt – half of the plot is explained by a hitherto unannounced private detective in the middle of the climax. The imagery, however, sticks in the mind. It disturbs and repels in equal measure. Ishii takes limited resources and time, and turns it into fuel for nightmares.