Horrors of Malformed Men (1969)
By: Mr Intolerance on October 15, 2007  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Synapse Films (USA). Region 1, NTSC. 2.35:1 (16:9 enhanced). Japanese DD 2.0 Mono. English Subtitles. 99 minutes
The Movie
Director: Teruo Ishii
Starring: Teruo Yoshido, Tatsumi Hijikata, Minoru Ohki, Asao Koike, Yulie Kagawa, Teruko Yumi, Mitsuko Aoi
Screenplay: Teruo Ishii and Masahiro Kakefuda
Music: Masao Yagi
Country: Japan
AKA: Edogawa Rampo zenshu: kyofu kikei ningen
I must be missing something. Well, either that or those rat-bastard censorship types are right, and watching loads of video nasties actually does de-sensitise you. The cover of this late sixties video oddity states in no uncertain terms: "Banned for decades! The most notorious Japanese horror film EVER made!" Have people never seen Flower of Flesh and Blood, All Night Long 2: Atrocity, Red Room or Muzan-E? They're the kind of films people would run a mile from; this would just leave them scratching their heads in puzzlement. I just can't see why this film has the notoriety it does. I'm not saying it's a bad film – it's not, although it's no classic – I just don't get what would make peoples' hackles rise over this, I really don't.

This film was sold to me kind of as a riff on The Island of Doctor Moreau, a novel I've loved since I was a kid, but I just don't quite see it – that element is present, but it almost seems tangential to the main point of the story. I'm not saying that there isn't an island and that it's not peopled with "Malformed Men", as opposed to Moreau's 'manimals', but the Moreau element is not what's really prevalent to me; the basic plot, without wanting to reveal too much, is more to do with family relationships, revenge and madness.

Based on the writings of Edogawa Rampo, Japan's answer, rather obviously, to Edgar Allan Poe (say both names aloud – geddit?), I went in expecting weirdness (which I got in spades), and a labyrinthine, positively Byzantine plot (which I also got in spades), along with an undercurrent of dark, unsettling eroticism (also present, but bounded by the mores of the time), and the grotesque (see the previous, but further tempered by the limitations of special effects). There's also some surreal, if not downright absurd humour which, for the better part simply doesn't work.

So the story itself starts off as a mystery, briefly becomes a thriller, then a man undercover story, then a mad scientist story, a monster movie and rounds off in equal parts as a love story, a detective story, and finally a tragedy with a strong revenge vibe running throughout the films 99 minute run-time. The extraordinarily long exposition scene in the final act was equal parts Hercule Poirot insufferability, part Scooby Doo tie up every loose end in sight. The very final scene had me pissing myself laughing at its inanity.

It's not a cop-out on my part, but there's not too much I can reveal about the plot without giving away any of the ridiculously over-the-top twists. As it is, reading back over this I feel I may have said too much and given too much away. Hirosuke, a medical student, gets out of an asylum, and assumes the identity of a dead man in order to solve a mystery vision or dream that's been plaguing him – a vision of lord of the "Malformed Men" Jogoro Komoda being just plain damn weird on a beach and moving in a fashion I strongly suspect would have influenced Hideo Nakata in determining Sadako's movements in Ringu – a kind of bizarre expressionist- contortionist dance. It's an unsettling moment (repeated again in the film) and the one moment of real genius we get.

When the first couple of "Malformed Men" appear, it's difficult to suppress a laugh, to be honest. It's quite obvious that they share the same dentist as the cannibal extras from all those Italian films from the seventies: one of them is wearing false teeth that make him look like Goofy. The scene with the naked animalistic women being whipped by "Malformed Men" while crawling around on all fours, snarling and thrashing their hair around was effective, but brief – shots like this redeem the film a little, but not enough. Then there's the laboratory scene where the malformations look about as convincing as having painted people in clay or stuck wadded up balls of wet toilet paper on their faces. Chilling.

Interestingly enough, the "Malformed Men" were actually an experimental "butoh" dance troupe led by actor Tatsumi Hijikata, who plays Jogoro – their leader in the film as well as in real life. According to one of the essays accompanying the film ("Freaks in the Head: Four Decades of Malformed Men" by Patrick Macias and Tomohiro Machiyama), "butoh" was initially an embarrassment to the Japanese – a primitive and degrading art form plumbing new depths, deriving movements from the contortions of the handicapped and mentally ill. In that regard, people's discomfort levels in relation to the film start to make a little more sense.

On that note, I actually find that the story around the film is a bit more interesting than the film itself. It was never shown outside Japan until the Far East Film Festival in 2003, and that surprisingly (given its lack of extreme or gratuitous sex or violence) it was banned for a substantial amount of time, until a rare print surfaced and the film began to finally find its audience – looking at some of the films that pass Eirin (the classifying body in Japan), this is flat out amazing. Without even hitting the later depths of Guts of a Beauty, or Naked Blood, or any of the films I mentioned in my introduction, Japanese cinema at the time was a lot more transgressive than its Western counterpart (some of the more lurid Mondo films – Addio Zio Tom leaps to mind - are notable exceptions); this is really very mild. All I can think is that people were offended by the "Malformed Men" – altered by medical science to be deliberately made into freaks and monsters, representing that the mentally ill and the handicapped were inhuman monsters to be feared. If it was done in the utterly reprehensible and exploitative way as Tod Browning did in Freaks, I could probably understand it, but these aren't the real deal – a) they're just bad make up jobs, and b) Jogoro states quite explicity how awfully society treats the "malformed". Knee-jerk reaction by PC conservatives? That's my best bet – and yet another reason to shoot any censor you see on sight.
A good, but not great, restoration job has been done here, but I think I've been spoiled by better transfers on better films. Sill, good enough for what we get here.
Oddly too loud at times, distorting occasionally – this could have been equalised in a much better fashion. I get the point that at times it's meant to reiterate the absurd or surreal parts of the narrative, but honestly, it gets a bit much.
Extra Features
There's an audio commentary track with film critic Mark Schilling – I have little to no interest in enduring these tracks unless they're made by the director, and maybe the stars of the film – while Teruo Ishii is no longer with us, some of the actors surely must be? A featurette called Malformed Memories is also present and accounted for, featuring interviews with directors Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man) and Minoru Kawasaki (The Calamari Wrestler) – sporadically interesting, but no big deal, as is Ishii in Italia, footage from the director's 2003 trip to the Far East Film Festival. Besides that, there's the original theatrical trailer, a poster gallery, and text biographies of Teruo Ishii and Edogawa Rampo. Oh, and the liner notes are pretty interesting; a collection of brief essays by Patrick Macias, Tomo Machiyama and Jasper Sharpe, both on the film itself and Rampo's work on film in general. A good package, all up, for completists. You also get reversible artwork, which is good, because the original Japanese artwork is great, but Synapse's new artwork is pretty awful, and more than slightly misleading, with its intimations of cannibalism.
The Verdict
Worth a watch if you like Japanese cinema, which I do, and not just the horror stuff, but I think that your money could be better spent elsewhere, than buying this at full price. If you're buying this film based on its misplaced notoriety, you may well be disappointed - don't expect a freak-show of Browning-like proportions, or over the top violence. As an interesting cinema curio, it bears a watch, but I don't think you'll be pulling Horrors of Malformed Men off the shelf too many times. It's not that I didn't enjoy the film after a fashion (I just re-read this review and it does seem a little harsh), but it's currently being hyped as some lost genre classic, and it's not. Like the films I've seen by Jodorowsky and Pasolini (with the quite notable exceptions of Santa Sangre and Salo, respectively), it was a kind of unsatisfying film, hyped beyond its rather obvious limitations, and relying on occasionally confronting images to shock its audience into submission.
Movie Score
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