Horrors of Malformed Men (Japan, 1969)
As Matango demonstrated earlier this month, viewing a familiar story through the lens of another culture can turn it into something new, strange and wonderful. In the case of Horrors of Malformed Men, the story is, partly at least, that of The Island of Doctor Moreau, but the interpretation is very different and uniquely Japanese.
The direct basis for Horrors of Malformed Men is a handful of stories by the Japanese mystery and horror writer known as Edogawa Ranpo (real name Tarō Hirai). Ranpo was hugely influenced by western genre writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, going so far as to take his pen name from a Japanese rendering of “Edgar Allan Poe”. Perhaps the strangest inclusion in the script is a throwaway scene that borrows from his story The Human Chair, where a character constructs a special chair that allows him to hide within and enjoy the erotic sensation of people sitting on him.
The convoluted, borderline-surrealist story of Horrors of Malformed Men follows Hirosuke Hitomi, a medical student in Tokyo who has been committed to a psychiatric hospital without understanding why. After killing a fellow patient in self-defence and escaping from the hospital, he encounters a young circus performer who seems to know something of Hitomi’s mysterious past, setting him on the path to an isolated coastal town and a strange island off its shore. Stealing the identity of a dead man who is Hitomi’s doppelgänger, down to the swastika carved on his foot, Hitomi tries to uncover the truth of his past, leading him to a strange island where his mad scientist father is creating surgical monstrosities.
The Moreau theme is inverted in Horrors of Malformed Men — instead of creating men out of beasts, Hitomi’s father, maddened by mockery of his own birth defect, has created a community in his own image, full of men and women mutilated in bizarre ways. More than that, the island has a culture which is part dictatorship, part performance art and part sadomasochistic nightmare. It is filled with creations and rituals that straddle the line between entrancing and repellent.
Horrors of Malformed Men is an uneven film, with sudden shifts in tone and style that often work to its favour, but are sometimes detrimental. When Hitomi steals the identity of his doppelgänger, we spend twenty minutes watching him settle into this new life and the intrigues it brings with it. While this segment is not dull, it lacks the vivid lunacy of the rest of the film, and drags us back down to earth. Similarly, a large part of the denouement is taken up with exposition and flashbacks, explaining many of the strange incidental details of the story, details that may have been stronger had they been left to the imagination of the viewer.
The strongest parts of the film are those that show us life on the island and the lunacy of Hitomi’s father. The father himself looks and moves like a prototype of the evil spirit Bob from Twin Peaks, and, while more a caricature than a character, is never less than a compelling presence. The scenes of life on the island could be lifted from a Jodorowsky film, with their mix of beauty, horror and naked transgression.
The conclusion of Horrors of Malformed Men is poignant, funny and bizarre in a combination that seems to be unique to Japanese cinema. Much of the rest of the film also mingles these elements, but they are brought together for a climax that will have most viewers either laughing hysterically or watching in open-mouthed amazement.
The subject matter and complete disregard for the sensitivities of its audience can make Horrors of Malformed Men uncomfortable viewing in places. There is an exploitative feeling to parts, especially with regard to congenital deformity and the treatment of female patients in the psychiatric hospital. But it is not the role of horror cinema to be sensitive. We watch horror because it makes us feel difficult emotions in a controlled way, and the transgressions on screen here evoke these emotions exquisitely.