Many self-consciously “weird” motion pictures expend energy and time establishing a stable sense of cinematic self that they will only then destabilize later on, tweaking the style several notches south of sanity as the film progresses. Horrors of Malformed Men lathers the surrealistic absurdity on thick from the first shot. It introduces us immediately to a thoroughly dismembered reality, a cinematic hall of mirrors that finds us wandering into a B-movie and discovering a metaphor for Japan’s mid-century dreams of paternal control, familial destiny, and authoritarian anxiety, all (appropriately) malformed into a kaleidoscopic nightmare. The subject of the cinematic allegory? Deluded men working at any cost to recreate their lineage and preserve the fragile illusion of a linear, biologically-sanctioned family hierarchy.
In reality, though, Horrors of Malformed Men has already deceived me. “Discovering a metaphor,” I wrote, but Horrors of Malformed Men is too slippery to cleanly metaphorize, and too playfully deceitful to simply allegorize; either of those terms would enervate the film’s demented energy. The film works because it’s less an encapsulation of a theme than a poetic evocation of a mindscape. It also thoroughly dismisses the obvious compulsion to domesticate its difference by applying some trivializing “dream” narrative filter to everything; it certainly feels like a dream, but primarily and possibly only because it does not explain itself as one. It’s a crazed dispatch from a director that plays like a country experiencing the mid-century as a fugue state. The film discharges the psychic tremors of a ruptured nation that disorient the very formal fabric of the film.
Psychic tremors that are immediately apparent, mind you, turning the film less into a narrative than a dismembered lurch through thematically-synchronous scenes. Initially, we meet Hirosuke (Teruo Yoshida) in an asylum, apparently the result of his having murdered someone. But the only ounce of leftover memory from before the asylum takes the form of flickering images of malformed people and ominous cliffsides he otherwise has no knowledge of. Upon his release, he realizes that his appearance is identical (right down to swastika-shaped tattoos on their feet) to Genzaburo Komoda, the recently deceased son of mad scientist figure Jogoro (Tatsumi Hijikata), the latter currently busy running a suspicious island off the coast of Japan where he apparently experiments on human beings. Faking his own suicide, Hirosuke develops the bright idea of imitating the son (pretending that he hadn’t died in the process) and ingratiating himself into the family’s life, only to discover that his attempts to ease his way into the lineage of a maniacal dynasty is significantly less appealing than he initially expected.
The bastard offspring of director Teruo Ishii (and co-writer Masehiro Kakefuda) and short story writer Edogawa Rampo, 1969’s Horrors of Malformed Men feels like it has many parents. Appropriately so, at that: while the narrative certainly delves into the horrors of single patriarchs run amok, it also evokes the tortured interweaving of maniacal fathers and unnatural offspring inducing a chaos no single author, be it father or director, could control. That obviously begs historical comparisons to English-language horror of the 19th-century persuasion, with Shelley’s famous demonic inflection on the sins of the (would-be) father never far from memory. (Although, it must be mentioned, Rampo’s main influence is an American from the era, his namesake, Edgar Allen Poe.)
Of course, Hirosuke’s perspective also destabilizes the obvious Victorian and proto-Victorian horror inspirations, turning the film less into a metaphor for men playing God, demanding rationalist self-mastery, and into a tragic attempt by a traumatized nation to either resurrect a sense of social control (in totalitarian fashion) or to anarchically let loose in a secluded space, overturning even the barest semblance of social order. (Of course, it’s still as easy as it was in The Island of Dr. Moreau and Frankenstein to read the psychological turmoil of the authoritarian creator-figure into the material: the film’s thoroughly incoherent, haphazardly stitched together texture makes no bones about the way in which Ishii has stitched, Frankenstein-like, several of Rampo’s stories together like demented offspring of another mind he’s adapting to his needs.)
It’s the, ahem, malformed nature of the film, then, that really hits you; the creature designs (of which there are many) shock. But it’s the thoroughly off-kilter, appropriately disfigured stylistic texture of the flow of images that rattle the mind, as though the film has had its bones broken, lacking a traditional skeletal structure around which to string its scenes, left flopping around with the fluidity and tenuous stability of cartilage. The designs are terrific, by all means, although the film relies on them to a considerably lesser extent than one might expect. Well before the story engages in its play of contorted identities and gothic doubles, it’s already folded its story over so many times that it can’t meaningfully register as a narrative in earnest.
More importantly, the most malformed corporeal being on screen isn’t any of Jogoro’s creations, but the monster Hijikata himself essays, the monster Jogoro has turned himself into. (Isn’t it always, though?) In fact, the film takes much of its entire sensibility from Hijikata, and in particular his physical motion, adapted from or at least corollary to the Butoh dance style that Hijikata (only tenuously an actor) created in real life. The fluid, amorphous style, corollary to Western modern dance’s emphasis on contorted limbs flagellating the body but totally opposite to its angularity and jerkiness, bestows Jogoro with a molten-ness, like his limbs are only barely skeletalized, refusing to latch into place or solidify in any way. The film also participates in this motion, its undulating editing rhythms essaying a maddened dance of the damned.
Compared to one positively delirium-inducing close-up on Hijikata (in a moment that seems a premonition of that infamous Bob scene in Twin Peaks), our big introduction to his creations keeps the ostensible “malformed men” in wide-angles, the better to construe them not as flesh-and-blood specimens for us to inspect but as impressionistic figments we confront only as enigmas, figures that could not possibly be being currently realized in front of us. These beasts can’t but also conjure the aftershock of a damaged nation, a trembling memory of twenty-five years before that the film underscores in the swastika scars themselves, which obviously echo Mengele’s own experiments on the human body and psyche.
That said, if Hijikata teetering ever-closer to adopting the familial mantle of a mad scientist obviously evokes the Nazi experiments, the film’s physically scarred souls and psychically scarred editing (as though it can only confront its story traumatically) also evoke the devastation the US wrought upon Japan in the war. Released in 1969, the film evokes a broadly-defined mid-century that never quite put the pieces back together again, although its less a diagnosis of that period than the still-convulsing corpse, still writing into the 21st century. That the titular figure isn’t the malformed men but the abstract emotional sense of confronting those men (which is to say, the “horrors” of malformation broadly, be it national or personal) allows it to lodge itself in the brain still today.