A review requested by Andy P, with thanks for donating to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

"It's like a dream turned into imagery" is a sentiment that I confess to relying on much too lazily and much too often, but after seeing Horrors of Malformed Men, I might have to retire it. Because this is a dream-movie, if ever in my life I've seen one.

But that's nowhere near all it is, so let's try and contextualise the thing, and cycle back around. Released in 1969, Horrors of Malformed Men is considered either one of the earliest in the Toei Pinky Violence cycle of films, or one of the key progenitors of that cycle. Leading, naturally as you could want, to the question, "the Toei What What cycle?" Well for that, we need to step another step further back, to the way that different cultures associate colors with meanings. Speakers of English, in speaking of naughty language, naughty books, naughty movies, and so on, refer to such material as "blue" - the way I'm most familiar with it is in the phrase "working blue", which means a stand-up comic using smutty language and content for a laugh, usually with the implication that said comic is contemptible or at least lazy. Or, of course, we have "blue movies", an old-fashioned sort of way to say "pornography" (aided in popularity, no doubt, by Andy Warhol's groundbreaking porno Blue Movie). Nobody, apparently, knows why the hell we do this.

In Japan, in the '60s, they used the phrase pinku eiga - "pink movies" - to mean much the same thing. And here, at least, the etymology seems straightforward, referring to body parts, generally unseen in everyday activities, that are bright pink. Pink movies are a genre I am only slightly familiar with (when the time came, many years ago, to decide whether I wanted to learn more about Italian or Japanese smut films and exploitation, I decided to go with Italian, and now I have no idea what that seemed like a binary choice), but I gather that the term can be broadly applied to any film from the '60s onward to include any amount of female nudity, regardless of the rest of the plot; and the definitions get increasingly strict from there. In the '60s, pink films were largely the domain of low-tier studios and underground filmmakers (much as they were in the United States at the same time, though my sense is that Japanese sexploitation had much firmer legal standing than it did in the U.S.), but they made enough money that the bigger studios wanted to break in on that action, and Toei came first.

Toei's Pinky Violence films were a specific sub-set of pink films: they were nudity-filled stories of violence (not necessarily pornographic in any way at all), generally in the form of action films. But their initial foundation came in the form of films made in the pre-WWII tradition of ero guro nansensu - "erotic grotesque nonsense" - mostly by director Ishii Teruo, beginning in 1968 with the first film in his Joys of Torture series. I feel like just researching this review has put me on a half-dozen watchlists.

Ero guro doesn't seem to necessarily indicate any particular genre affiliation, though Ishii had particular affection for the work of Edogawa Rampo (a nom de plume of Hirai Taro, who based his pseudonym on the name of his own favorite author, Edgar Allan Poe), a mystery, thriller, and horror writer active primarily in the years just before and just after World War II. And that affection was borne out in the films Ishii made: Horrors of Malformed Men is, in fact, an adaptation of several Rampo stories. So a horror-mystery it is to be, and one of the most unrelenting that I've ever seen with my own eyes, no less; though it's pretty easy for a film to be mysterious when its primary interest is in leaving us absolutely no clue what the fuck is going on.

We can, however, lay out the basic arc of a plot, and it goes like this: Hirosuke (Yoshida Teruo) is cooling his heels in an insane asylum, where he ended up after accidentally murdering a woman in a circus act. He escapes, and attempts to find his childhood home, though with no memories stretching earlier than his time in the asylum, this proves virtually impossible. Until that fateful moment when he sees a news article reporting the death of Komoda Genzaburo, who looks identical to Hirosuke. Identical. All the way to having identical swastika-shaped scares on the soles of their feet. As anyone would do in that situation, he decides to fake his own death and present himself to the Komoda family as the resurrected Genzaburo. Once established in the dead man's life, Hirosuke starts to detect half-formed rumors about the island where Genzaburo's father Jogoro (Hijikata Tatsumi) is conducting God knows what experiments. Do recall, though, that the title of the film includes the words "malformed men", and you can probably start to guess at the sorts of things that might be going on there.

So many words to get us to the point where I have to politely turn to you all, and ask, what the absolute, actual fuck? Which shouldn't be misunderstood as in any way a condemnation of the movie. It's been a long time since I watched a horror movie as dynamic and pure in its surrealism as Horrors of Malformed Men, which I have surely misdescribed in that big long plot synopsis. It looks like I've basically said, "oh, it starts to get weird when he takes over Genzaburo's life, or anyway when he spots Genzaburo's picture", and that's quite inaccurate. ItΒ  starts to get weird with the very first shot, before we've gotten our first look at Hirosuke, when all we get to see is the activity in the asylum.

Quite a hell of a thing it is: the opening scene displays the abuse suffered by the female inmates at this sex-segregated establishment, and this means, of course, only one thing: watching topless women getting whipped. If I had to give a simple yes/no vote on the matter, I'd call it sexploitation; yet damned odd sexploitation it is. I think it would take a singularly resolute pervert to get off on this footage, which has a stately, ritualistic quality to the movement of the actors and the camera alike. It is, as nearly as it's anything, something of a ballet of punishment. There's a formal rigidity that turns it into something other than human; I hesitate to put it any other way.

There's a lot of dance-like movement in the film, and that has a lot to do with its mad scientist father-villain: Hijikata was only rarely a film actor, instead making his name as a choreographer, and the creator of the butoh style of dance. And once you know that, huge chunks of Horrors of Malformed Men click into place; in terms of what they are, if not hardly what they mean. Butoh is a style of slow, heavily controlled, fluid movements; I'm no dance expert, so the closest I can come is to call it a "watery" form of dance, in which the human body is used with maximum flexibility and constant motion. Throw a little make-up on there, and you have the stuff of excellent body horror, as it turns out; the deformed men of the title, a horrifying echo of the mutations and broken bodies of extreme radiation, are unsettling enough as it is (the film's make-up effects are too cheap to remain effective after a half-century of gore films, but the make-up designs go straight to your bowels without stopping at your brain first), but whenever they move with the superhuman motion of butoh, a little thing clicked in my brain, and I simply could process what I was looking at any more.

The body horror dancing, used sparingly but effectively, intensifies the bucketloads of body horror already on display and promised by the title, while adding a layer of "no, this can't be"-ness - the only thing I can compare it to in all of Western horror is the moment in the opening scene of Michele Soavi's StageFright when the killer owl-monster starts dancing, triggering a very similar sense of "whaaaaaat is haaaaaappening" mystification. Only Soavi keeps it up for about 30 seconds; Ishii makes a whole damn movie this way. Oh, not the dancing. He knows enough not to overuse that. But if it's not the dancing, it's the use of stark monochromatic lighting and/or tinting to blanket flashbacks in a sheet of bright color; it's the use of make-up to do all kinds of weird shit, with grotesque human deformities registering as by far the least outrΓ© (the gold-plated chair-woman, apparently taken from a Ramp story, is probably where I was the most befogged, but not for want of competition). Sometimes is all of these things mixed together in stately, pageant-like tableaux that are sufficiently stable as compositions to anchor the film to some kind of stable element, however briefly.

The effect of all this... I almost suspect it's not possible to generalise, but it's sure as hell an effect, all right. It might not be the same effect for all people; I'm confident it's not the same effect across cultures. For myself, the effect is of supreme disorientation; it's tense, it's disgusting, it's upsetting, and all that, but mostly it's just impossible to put your foot right at any point across the film's 99 minutes, with nothing but Yoshida's deliberately square, mirthless performance to provide any kind of frame of reference. It's an experiment in film-as-psychological-state, and that state is not a pleasant one; calling it a "dream" is an easy shorthand, but I think the film is more a waking nightmare than a sleeping one. It is an attempt to induce the feeling of knowing that things are wrong and dangerous, and knowing that you can't solve them. If that sounds like it's not a very uplifting fun time at the movies, well, surely nobody walks into a film titled Horrors of Malformed Men anticipating a light romp. What the film has on offer, though, is not just the intensity of its emotions, but an endless array of creative images: creative at the level of content, at the level of composition, at the level of lighting and color texture. And that's exciting and exhilarating even as the film makes you feel - made me feel, which is all I should really say about it - like you're on a tilt-a-whirl with a full stomach. It's an astonishing film, maybe a great one, and certainly a hard one to recommend; but the annals of art horror would be greatly impoverished without it.