The film is not, however, utterly strange from its very beginning. The first part of Horrors of Malformed Men is essentially a mystery relating the protagonist's efforts to uncover the source of the peculiar, uncertain memories that are plaguing him. The director's focus on Hirosuke's psychological state is, admittedly, emphasized by numerous odd images he inserts into the narrative, which do give the film a certain dream-like quality, but these do not take it outside the range of ordinary experience. Instead, they heighten the narrative's emotional intensity.
Even after Hirosuke begins his impersonation of his deceased look-alike, the film remains essentially realistic in tone. The director does still conjure up a sense of weirdness, but, again, this only serves to increase the emotivity of his story, specifically, the tension he evokes in his portrayal of the risks the hero is taking in pretending to be another man. The viewer is, in fact, almost certain to find himself concerned about Hirosuke as the man lives another person's life, in that individual's home, amongst his family, and to discover himself feeling anxious as he watches how Hirosuke both mimics the original's behaviors and habits and strives to maintain the relationships the other formed with the various members of the household, including both the dead man's widow and his mistress. The worries so produced are further enhanced by Ishii's revelation that there is someone in the house with murderous intentions, which soon have lethal consequences.
As good as these parts of Horrors of Malformed Men are, the movie is at its best once Hirosuke arrives on the island where Jogoro lives. The story then transforms into a passionate, hideous, and cruel nightmare.
Ishii throws one outlandish image after another onto the screen. He conjures up a fantastic universe inhabited by disfigured freaks, balletic fiends, and beings that mingle animal features with those of humans. The viewer is confronted with a beautiful woman and a warped, mutilated monster who have been joined together back to back, a snaggletoothed demon, women who have each been surgically joined at the crotch to a goat, and so on and so on. What is more, there is not a scene in which these creatures appear that is not gorgeously staged, impressively lit (whether eerily or simply strangely), and performed as though it were some hellish but lovely dance.
Enthralling as all these beings are, it is Jogoro himself, with his webbed fingers, endless contortions, weird, stylized speech, and the line of white paint drawn down his nose, who is the most captivating horror of the island. The man is a hideous joy to watch, and the repeated sequences of his lurching over heaps of boulders, hobbling down a hillside, and creeping across a beach are distinctly unsettling. All of these sequences are, at once, revolting and beautiful. In fact, their very loveliness is so surprising, and so disconcerting, that it makes their ugliness even more intensely felt than it would otherwise have been.
Such elements are horrific, but the most disturbing portions of the film are those in which Jogoro relates his family's past. In some of these, for instance, the viewer is shown how that man's beautiful wife, after having committed adultery, was chained in a cave by her husband with her lover's corpse and forced to survive by eating the crabs that were feeding on the dead man's body. Additionally, Ishii exposes an incestuous love, murderous plots, and acts of utter weirdness, such as how one of Jogoro's henchmen once encased himself in a chair so that the woman with whom he was infatuated would rub against him whenever she sat upon it. These scenes are, at once, vile, repugnant, and fascinating.
Horrors of Malformed Men really is a singular movie. It is quite unlike anything I have seen before. It is stylish, disturbing, and memorable.
Review by Keith Allen
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