Director: Teruo Ishii
Synapse Films

Director Teruo Ishii died in August of 2005 at the age of 81. For a man who directed more films than years lived (around 87), it is refreshing to finally have easier access to his more eccentric films available on DVD. In 2005 Panik House entertainment released the wildly exotic and erotic FEMALE YAKUZA TALE: INQUISITION & TORTURE (Yasagure anego den: sokatsu rinchi, 1973) as part of its Pinky Violence Collection. Followed in 2006 with the release of two of his last films, SCREWED (Neji-shiki, 1998) and BLIND BEAST vs KILLER DWARF (Moju tai Issunboshi, 2001), which like HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN is based on the writings of Edogawa Rampo. Just this year Discotek Media released BLIND WOMAN'S CURSE (Kaidan nobori ryu, 1970), a precursor to the string of Pinky Violence features that would gain in popularity throughout the early 1970s. However, none of these titles come close to the cult status or mesmerizing yet grotesque imagery of HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN (Edogawa Rampo Zenshu: Kyofu kikei ningen, 1969). The story of a doctor whose isolated paradise for the deformed and ridiculed makes the “Island Of Dr. Moreau” look like a weekend at Martha’s Vineyard.

Hirosuke Hitomi (Teruo Yoshida) finds himself on the run after escaping from a mental institution. Unaware of his past, Hitomi is driven only by a small collection of memories from his youth, a children’s lullaby and the distinct image of a rocky island coastline. During a train ride, Hitomi notices a newspaper article regarding the recent passing of Genzaburou, a young married man who is head of the Komoda family and his spitting image. Hitomi's curiosity is further fueled while receiving a massage from an elderly blind woman, who while tending to the soles of his feet, notices a scar in the shape of a swastika. This marking is identical to one found on the sole of the late Genzaburou. With the coincidences stacking up and after being informed that the island from his memories is within eyesight of the Komoda family home, Hitomi heads to the cemetery where Genzaburou has been laid to rest. After leaving enough evidence to lead the authorities to believe that he has committed suicide, Hitomi digs up Genzaburou and trades places with him. Once the shock of his return subsides, Hitomi slowly begins to learn from his new wife and staff about his apparent doppelganger and the island of which Genzaburou’s father Jogoro (Tatsumi Hijikata) calls home. After two of his maids are accosted while taking a bath by a pair of deformed men, Hitomi demands to be taken to the island to see his father, despite opposition from his staff. Upon his arrival, Hitomi comes face to face with the rocky island coast from his memories. However, he is also about to be confronted by his malformed and demented father, the island's hideous and disturbing creations and, for better or worse, the answers to his past.

HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN is an amalgamation of several stories from mystery and horror writer Edogawa Rampo, whose macabre tales have served as inspiration for such cult classic as Yasuzo Masumura's BLIND BEAST (Moju, 1969) and Kinji Fukasaku's Black Lizard (Kurotokage, 1968). Teruo Ishii had initially suggested that a string of films be made based on Edogawa Rampo’s library, but instead took a handful of his works, such as “The Strange Tale of Panorama Island” and “The Human Chair”, to flesh out would eventually become HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN.

Filled with scenes both dreamlike and grotesque, followed by others that border on slapstick, HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN feels of close kinship to the films of Luis Buñuel and Alejandro Jodorowsky. Those unfamiliar with a little arthouse in their horror should find HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN a welcome find and surprisingly assessable. Teruo Yoshida plays the film's protagonist, whose inner dialogues provide narration throughout the film, relatively straight, allowing the audience an everyday man with which to identify with. Though bizarre and surreal scenes are numerous, those that single themselves out and haunt your mind days after viewing all have one thing in common, Tatsumi Hijikata. Tatsumi's (an avant-garde artist and founder of the butoh movement in Japan) performance as the island's father and caretaker is not one that is easily forgotten. The scene in which Tatsumi contorts and writhes over the jagged island coastline is as intriguing as it is disturbing. A haunting score by Masao Yagi only adds to the surreal feeling portrayed. Tatsumi Hijikata would work again with Teruo Ishii, the following year, playing the hunchback in BLIND WOMAN'S CURSE. From its titillating beginning, taking place in a prison cell surrounded by a dozen or so topless women, to its mind bending firework display of an ending, HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN is a cinematic experience that is not to be missed.

Having never been released on any commercial format, anywhere, Synapse Films should be applauded for the love and care that was obviously put into bringing one of cult cinema's most notorious holy grails to the masses. Preserving its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN is presented in a new, fully restored, anamorphic widescreen transfer that was mastered in high-definition from the original Toei's vault elements. While there are several tiny white grains that pop from time to time, they are never distracting and overall the image is clear and colors bright. At least one reel change is noticeable as marked by a set of cigarette burns about 40 minutes in. The Japanese language audio, in Dolby Digital Mono 2.0, is strong and is accompanied by newly-translated, removable English subtitles.

The audio commentary by film critic Mark Schilling touches more on the collective works of Teruo Ishii, and the man himself, than it does on the film being presented. Fans of Teruo Ishii (of which I include myself) are sure to find it an interesting and insightful look into a director whose most accomplished films are final seeing respectable releases. Other extras include, "Ishii in Italia" which documents the directors’ 2003 visit to the Far East Film Festival. "Malformed Memories" features interviews with directors Shinya Tsukamoto (TETSUO THE IRON MAN) and Minour Kawasaki (THE CALAMARI WRESTLER) as they discuss how HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN, as well as several other of Ishii's films, impacted and influenced them. The original Japanese theatrical trailer, a poster gallery, and biographies of Edogawa Rampo and Teruo Ishii round out the special features. Pull out liner notes by Patrick Macias, Tomo Machiyama and Jasper Sharp, discuss the film further as well as writer Rampo. The DVD cover itself is reversible, with an illustrative cover by Wes Benscoter on one side and the original Japanese poster on the other. A special mention should be made for the disc's animated opening menu which sets a perfect tone for the film and this release as a whole.

It was almost a year ago that Panik House Entertainment announced that it would be releasing HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN on DVD, along with several other films from the Toei vaults, in partnership with Synapse Films. To the respect and adulation of many an Asian film fan, Synapse has since stepped up to release what has easily become one of the top cult releases of the year. Wild, perverse and mesmerizing, this release is highly recommended. Recently Synapse announced the November 2007 release of a trio of Toei titles, originally to be released from Panik House. What is being touted as the LEGENDS OF THE POISONOUS SEDUCTRESS series, FEMALE DEMON OHYAKU, QUICK-DRAW OKATSU and OKATSU THE FUGITIVE are sure to give Pinky Violence fans much to be thankful for this season.
(Jason McElreath)