Vampire Clay (2017) by Soichi Umezawa

A group of art students begin to notice strange occurrences at their rural studio. After working with sculpting clay dug up nearby they begin to be attacked by the clay, which takes on various forms. It seems to have a craving for blood grows stronger with each victim it devours.

“Vampire Clay” has a small cast and is set almost entirely in the single location of the art studio. The lack of complexity in the story is more than made up for with the creativity of the concept and the numerous opportunities it affords for shocking body horror moments. The use of physical effects, sculpted monsters, blood and gore, are well done. The film is tongue-in-cheek and unlikely to prove scary to those familiar with the genre, although there are a couple of moments that are either creepy or unpleasant enough to send a shiver down your spine. The film is helped enormously by some expert direction by Soichi Umezawa. There is a clear understanding of horror tropes, with lingering shots managing to build tension despite showing very little. The film tips over from creeping terror into outrageous special-effects-led monster movie at times, before going completely overboard in its final moments, and it is fun to see a creative team that clearly did not feel restrained by their budget. The cast are a mixed bag, but the central performances are engaging. With any film of this type, you are aware early on you are going to lose a high percentage of them by the end. The story is well told when we finally reach the exposition scenes intended to explain away the phenomenon. It gives just enough information to tie things together without burdening the film with an unnecessarily complex reasoning. The score is effective in setting the tone, with everything from operatic vocal wailing to an industrial soundtrack of synthesizers and clanging pipes. Not to mention the occasional jazz style songs that play somewhat unexpectedly at times.

A fairly standard supernatural horror story that is far better than it has any right to be. Great use of practical effects, editing and music, combine to produce something that is highly entertaining. The film actually finds time for character moments and there is a subplot running throughout regarding the artist’s endeavors to get into prestigious art schools. This theme of jealous revenge is not fully expanded on but it doesn’t really matter. A silly B-movie horror that showcases the creativity of the team behind it.

Demon City Shinjuku (1988) by Yoshiaki Kawajiri

Following a cataclysmic battle with the demon Rebi Ra (Kiyoshi Kobayashi), warrior Genichiro (Banjo Ginga) is defeated and an earthquake separates Shinjuku from the rest of the world. It becomes a place infested with monsters, abandoned by humans, and largely forgotten. Ten years later, Genichiro’s son, Kyoya Izayoi (Hideyuki Hori) is called upon to challenge the demon. The President of the Federation’s daughter Sayaka Rama (Hiromi Tsuru) enters the city and the two must fight their way to the heart of it, meeting friends and foes along the way.

“Demon City Shinjuku” is based on a 1982 novel by Hideyuki Kikuchi. The film, directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, is replete with monsters and martial arts, while the story is a typical fantasy narrative. Our main character is a wise-cracking playboy prompted to his quest by a spirit guide, he falls for the beautiful princess and they set out to defeat a dark lord. The story is rarely surprising, but on the plus side it is never pretentious. The designs of the demons are good for the most part and the horror elements are well done. Likewise, the deserted city of Shinjuku is atmospheric. The soundtrack is packed with amped up electronica to compliment the action and the headache inducing strobe lighting effects similarly are in keeping with the frenetic pace of the film.

The film ends with a reference to the myth of Pandora’s Box but this is as deep as the film gets. The character of Sayaka overcomes several obstacles through love and purity, in contrast to the horrors of the monster world. An interesting subtext, but one that the film never expands upon. Despite a lack of character depth or surprises in the story, the film works as a cheesy action flick with a couple of good one-liners, some exciting fight scenes, interesting monster design work and solid animation. If you’re feeling nostalgic for the 1980’s or looking for something that is engaging without being overly taxing, then this could be the film for you.

Spiral (2000) by Higuchinsky

As Kirie (Eriko Hatsune) is on her way to school she notices her friend Shuichi’s father apparently fixated on the spiral pattern of a snail shell. The man’s interest in spirals soon becomes an obsession and Kirie begins to see other occurrences of this phenomenon. At first thinking it a ridiculous oddity, she soon becomes worried and terror begins to set in when several people die in gruesome circumstances related to the spiral pattern.

“Spiral” is based on the manga “Uzumaki” by horror master Junji Ito, with a screenplay by Takao Niita. Director Higuchinsky creates a strange and disturbing experience that blends several genres, from blackly comic thrills to grotesque body horror, to the psychological terror of avant-garde arthouse films. The cinematography by Gen Kobayashi is in a washed out tone that heightens the sense of unreality. The film feels staged or dated in a way that is unsettling, almost as though it is happening in a parallel world where everything is ever so slightly off-kilter. The story is compelling, despite the unbelievable premise, and the grotesque nature of the deaths is genuinely shocking. The script is simple yet effective in showing everything but explaining nothing, leaving the meaning entirely up to the imagination of the viewer. Eriko Hatsune as Kirie and Fhi Fan as Shuichi, are charismatic and do a great job with the material, playing things completely straight throughout increasingly bizarre occurrences. Keiichi Suzuki and Tetsuro Kashibuchi create a score that complements the odd, dreamlike sensibilities of the story, limping from comic accompaniment to dark oppressive tones.

The film’s strength lies in never fully explaining what is happening, or why, with several possible interpretations swirling around. The spirals provoke a dangerous obsession in those who are afflicted and this is the most simplistic reading of the plot: as a straightforward morality tale on the dangers of obsession causing people to lose sight of their lives and become so consumed that it finally kills them. There is also a darker reading related to mental health issues, particularly depression and anxiety leading to a decent into an increasingly troubling, pessimistic, and all-consuming world view. The idea of the spiral, particularly a downward spiral, bring to mind primal fears such as these, and for this reason the film grows more unsettling when picking apart the potential themes. This will appeal to fans of over-the-top horror and psychological horror alike, with a unique story that draws you in to contemplating the significance of the spirals along with the characters.

Pulse (2001) by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Ryosuke Kawashima (Haruhiko Kato) has recently bought a computer to get connected to the Internet. When he turns it on he is taken to a peculiar and disturbing website that seems to show people sitting alone in rooms and a message asking if he would like to see a ghost. He asks at the university computer department if they have any idea what is happening. Computing teacher Harue Karasawa (Koyuki) attempts to help him. Another student tells him that there is a theory that the spirits of the dead, having becoming too numerous, have begun to pass over into the world of the living. In a parallel story, Michi (Kumiko Aso), an employee at a flower shop, is also made aware of this unusual phenomenon when she goes to find their co-worker who has been missing for several days. The appearance of these figures, both on computers screens, and in the world, grow increasingly frequent and events threaten to overwhelm those involved.

Written and directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, “Pulse” takes inspiration from traditional ghost stories. Many of the scares in the film revolve around eerie happenings, such as dark figures appearing or disappearing suddenly. The music by Takefumi Haketa is disturbing, representing the howls of disturbed spirits. The sets used also give the impression of an old-fashioned ghost story, with abandoned buildings, and even a laboratory packed with various leads and devices. “Pulse” transposes these elements onto the modern world of computers and the internet, using techniques such as image manipulation and the idea that the screen may not be as much of a barrier as people think.

The film underscores its ghost story thrills with a deeply disturbing sub-strata of existential angst and fear of isolation. The concept of the Internet as a tool to connect individuals, but which will actually result in them becoming ever more distant from one another is interesting. Throughout the film there is a clear separation between the living and the dead. Kawashima is a young man who utterly rejects the notion of ghosts. He is forced through these occurrences to confront his fear of death. The character of Harue fears being left alone. The finale of the film is unexpected, bringing the story full circle to the opening narration, and making us question our assumptions of what has gone before. There is discussion in the film about the difference between life and death, about the imperceptible line between the two. Enough space is left for interpretation although as with much of the film it seems to be more about thematic exploration that any literal interpretation of events.

Creepy (2016)

A retired police officer, Koichi Takakura (Hidetoshi Nishijima) working as a lecturer is brought back into his old job when he learns of a mysterious unsolved crime. The crime involves the disappearance of three members of a family, leaving only a young daughter. Takakura has recently moved into a new house with his wife Yasuko (Yuko Takeuchi) and their dog. When the couple make a courtesy visit to their neighbour they meet the unusual figure of Masayuki Nishino (Teruyuki Kagawa). The man seems unusual, but the two ignore it. However, his behaviour soon leads Takakura to suspect that Nishino may not be all that he seems.

The film is based on a book by Yutaka Maekawa with a screenplay by director Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Chihiro Ikeda. The plot begins as a simple crime mystery but morphs into a psychological horror. It is clear early on in the film that Nishino is a suspicious character, and this is made explicit before too long. From there the film becomes a nightmarish situation for Takakura as he faces his greatest fear: of being helpless or unable to stop terrible things happening. Kurosawa creates a tension throughout the film using uncomfortable scenarios, particularly between Nishino and Yasuko. The blend of traditional detective drama and horror is subtle yet engaging with an unexpected twist partway through. Hidetoshi Nishijima and Yuko Takeuchi are believable as a couple with relationship troubles bubbling under the surface. Teruyuki Kagawa is impressively sinister as Nishino, often needing no more than a look or a word to give off a sense of uncertainty about his motivations.

“Creepy” transforms a typical detective story into something that plays on primal fears in a way that is unique and highly unnerving. In the opening scenes of the film Takakura allows a man under interrogation to escape and he subsequently commits a murder. This failure haunts him throughout the film. It is a feeling of powerlessness that is terrifying. The film manipulates many events to this end which may lead to accusations of plot holes and unbelievable scenarios. Understanding that the film’s focus is not on the surface level investigation, but on exploring Takakura’s own psyche is key to fully comprehending what is happening. When Nishino begins hitting on Yasuko and invites her to his house, it is representative of the atavistic fear of Takakura that he may lose his wife. This dynamic is brought back again later in the film when she is asked to choose between the two men. The film essentially becomes a struggle for dominance and control. One man appears to be losing his power to control his life and events surrounding him, while the other seems able to commit almost any act without consequence. There is also a dark undercurrent of inexplicable evil, reminiscent of other Kurosawa films such as “Cure”. Takakura tells his students that there are several kinds of killer; and that sometimes there is no explanation for their crimes. This is the most horrifying thought of all: that there are things out there that we cannot understand and therefore cannot control. An interesting take on the detective thriller genre with more going on just under the surface.