Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman (Kuchisake-onna) (Shiraishi Koji, 2007, Japan)
Like most Asian horror films, Carved deals with an urban legend but, unlike many, this vengeful Japanese spirit can take a physical form. We start off with a montage of many characters explaining the slit-mouthed woman; supposedly a child may hear a faint voice asking "Am I pretty?" If the child were to turn they would encounter a woman with long hair wearing a white surgical style mask (as many people in Japan do to protect them from germs), she would then remove the mask to reveal both of her cheeks to be slit to the ears and either kidnap or kill you.
The film’s story focuses on Kyoko Yamashita, a teacher who not only has to deal with a new school, but she has a daughter who will not speak to her due to her abusive outbursts, and now an apparent urban legend is abducting students from her new school. After witnessing the abduction of one of her own students Mrs. Yamashita teams up with another teacher, Noboru Matsuzaki, who has an eerie connection to the slit-mouthed woman. This connection leads them to the next potential victim where they learn that they aren’t dealing with a person, but a body-jumping spirit. Their investigation eventually uncovers many hidden secrets in Matsuzaki’s life and leads to an incredible standoff in the film’s climax.
Carved takes its story from an actual urban legend which has existed in Japan since at least the ’70s, and brings it to vivid life with great visuals and strong characterizations. Eriko Sato (CutieHoney, 2004) leads the cast as Kyoko Yamashita the teacher dealing with her own abusive nature while trying to track a child murderer, and is ably backed by Haruhiko Kato (Kairo, 2001) as Noboru Matsuzaki and Miki Mizuno (Gamera: Attack of Legion, 1996) as the slit-mouthed woman. Director Shiraishi Koji (Ju-rei, 2004) injects his film with more of a western influence than most J-horror films which lends his vision some great slasher imagery which is quite rare in modern Japanese horror. Taking the supernatural urban legend theme popularized by Japanese horror and combining it with the possession theme lends Carved’s slit-mouthed woman an imposing character presence more akin to Candyman (1992) than Sadako from The Ring (1998, AKA Ringu). A fairly somber piece of filmmaking featuring a harsh criticism and depiction of child abuse along with some quality jump scares and plenty of atmosphere make Carved a creepy treat. Available on DVD from Tartan.
Dudes (Penelope Spheeris, 1987, U.S.)
Three N.Y.C. punks (Flea, Jon Cryer, and Daniel Roebuck) get sick of the city grind and decide to head west on a road trip to L.A. While the boys meet some colorful characters along the way, the fun comes to an end when they run into Missoula (Lee Ving) and his boys in the desert late one night and Milo (Flea) is killed by the "hunters." Now it’s time for Grant (Cryer) and Biscuit (Roebuck) to drop their apathetic attitudes and face reality in a world where they now have a purpose; to avenge their friend’s death lawfully or not. Grant finds his strength in the guise of a spirit cowboy while Biscuit taps into some unexplained Native American connection and with some help from local tow truck driver Jesse (Catherine Mary Stuart) they find the inner strength to pursue Missoula.
Dudes is a metaphysical punk-revenge-western-road movie that is certainly not like much if anything else you have seen and deserves to be revisited, as it largely seems to have been forgotten. Spheeris taps into her punk filmmaking past and brings us a combination of ludicrous and believable characters and story coincidences to deliver a memorable storytelling experience. Shot beautifully by Robert Richardson (Platoon, 1986, Django Unchained, 2012) the outdoor western locales look just as epic and expansive as any classic western while the interiors of both the New York and Western towns locations have a realistic familiarity to them which keep this film grounded even while characters are making unbelievably rash decisions such as a shootout in a movie theater.
The characters are wonderfully acted and memorable from the standouts of Jon Cryer’s Grant and Lee Ving as the ever menacing Missoula, to the great secondary characters like Daredelvis the Elvis impersonating rodeo clown who’s also a marriage counselor (amongst about a dozen other things). Dudes’s other standout being the films soundtrack from its opening appearance by The Vandals to tracks by bands from Jane’s Addiction to W.A.S.P.; it’s a pretty rocking movie overall. But now we come to the point where I tell you that this is yet another great little film without a DVD or Blu-Ray release, the best option for this one right now is to find an old VHS. I’d recommend you find a copy and enjoy one of those strange transition films of a director going from the indie scene to the majors while delivering everything that could be expected from a cult film that has enough depth to reward multiple viewings.
Ride The Pink Horse (Robert Montgomery, 1947, U.S.)
Robert Montgomery directs this little-seen film noir and also stars as Lucky Gagin, a mysterious man who arrives in a small border town looking to settle a score with an even more mysterious man named Frank Hugo. With help from a couple locals like Pila, a Native American girl in town for the fiesta, and Pancho, the local carousel operator, and armed with some inside information from a federal agent named Retz and Hugo’s girlfriend, Lucky Gagin, attempts to blackmail the man who killed his best friend. All this while staying alive, staying out of Federal prison, and delivering snappy dialogue as it seems Lucky has a cancelled check from Hugo to a politician, implicating Hugo in a political scandal so, naturally, both Hugo and Retz are after Lucky to acquire this evidence for themselves.
This film may not be high on noir style but more than makes up for that in story and character and will have you glued to the screen in anticipation of what’s going to happen in the finale. The no-frills cinematography works fine as the dirty southwestern desert town settings stand out from the usual inner city alleyways and offices that films noir are usually set in. What makes this film notable, besides it being Robert Montgomery’s directorial follow-up to the same year’s Lady In The Lake (1947), or being scripted by Ben Hecht (Notorious, 1946) and Charles Lederer (The Thing From Another World, 1951), is the characters and story itself. You are confronted with a story set in a multi-cultural part of the country where the viewer is confronted with numerous scenes of characters speaking in un-subtitled Spanish, even the final scene of the film is in un-subtitled Spanish (something which may be better explained in the Dorothy B. Hughes source novel of the same name). Now, if that weren’t off-putting enough the film displays the same flagrant anti-patriotic attitude that would get Sam Peckinpah in trouble four years later with Pick-Up On South Street (1953). Not to take anything away from Peckinpah but the infamous conversation between a criminal and a federal agent containing the line "Don’t waive your flag at me" comes right out of this film when Lucky is first confronted by Retz about giving the feds whatever evidence Lucky has against Hugo.
Ride the Pink Horse seems to have never had an official home video release but is well worth tracking down if you are a noir aficionado or are simply a fan of obscure cinema and deserves to be seen by more film fans. From what I can tell it pops up on channels such as TCM and AMC from time to time but the source print for this review was a DVDr I made from a VHS transferred from a college’s 16mm print.
A Labor Of Love (Robert Flaxman and Daniel Goldman, 1976, U.S.)
A Labor Of Love is a fascinating and intimate documentary about Henri Charr and his film crew attempting to make a personal drama titled The Last Affair in 1976 Chicago. The twist being that right before principal photography began the film’s backers have insisted they include hardcore sex scenes in to make more money at the box office. This decision turns the set of their personal drama into a scene of major confusion as actors have performance issues, actresses suddenly don’t want to do what they agreed to, and technical issues delay filming. SPOILER As if all that wasn’t enough in the end we find out that when all is said and done the film gets released without the sex scenes the producers insisted upon. END SPOILER
This is a beautifully personal and up close look at independent film making during the ’70s and is a wonderful story of its own from its opening black screen accompanied only by the whirring of a film camera to its closing text crawl. Flaxman and Goldman managed to create a rapport with both the cast and crew while managing to capture some truly candid moments. Gems of information are found in the on-camera interviews with people between shots but the most interesting points are recorded while Charr is instructing his actors. We get an inside perspective as the filmmakers were able to convince Charr to wear a wireless microphone throughout the entire filming process, allowing them to capture everything from on-set direction to intimate conversations with nervous or angry cast members.
I highly recommend this documentary for aspiring filmmakers and film fans who appreciate seeing the behind the scenes trials of independent filmmaking. Considering the aforementioned fate of the film it almost stands as a great "un-making of" documentary and could be viewed alongside Demon Lover Diary (1980). A Labor of Love documents exactly what the title suggests in more ways than are immediately obvious. Unlike most of what I’ve written about in this issue, this film is actually available on DVD from Vinegar Syndrome Films.