Skip’s Quips: ‘Tis the Season for ‘Kwaidan’

Blog Sketch 082813Those seeking atmosphere in their films this Halloween over the standard weapon-wielding-maniac-goes-amok choices would do well to consider watching Kwaidan, Masaki Kobayashi’s colorful, eerie anthology of Japanese ghost stories. Adapted from Lafcadio Hearn’s collection of supernatural tales, this 1964 masterpiece is one of a kind, with gorgeous painted backdrops, stylized performances and pointed commentary on human foibles.

No, it’s not your everyday Halloween fare. But Halloween doesn’t come every day, anyway, so why not try it?

Personally, I find the film one of the most beautiful ever made, with stunning cinematography, bizarre landscapes (check out the eyes looking out at humanity from the sky in the second story), a creepy, minimalist score by the great composer Toru Takemitsu, and one of the best battle scenes ever put on film, a brilliantly photographed sea contest fought by doomed samurai in the movie’s centerpiece, the tale of Hoichi the Earless.

I’m not gonna reveal the derivation of the latter story’s title, but you can rest assured it’s completely warranted.

Bear in mind this flick isn’t as traditionally scary as, say, John Carpenter’s original Halloween or Jacques Tourneur’s terrific evil-on-the-loose film Curse of the Demon. Kwaidan makes up for those issues, however, with a disturbing, ominous tone and an otherworldly feel only achieved by the greatest ghost stories. It’s also from first-rate source material; you may want to grab the book for more after viewing the film, in which case you’ll encounter tales of people without faces, priests who battle bodyless ghouls, and other subjects.

Check Kwaidan out. It’s not very well known, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t memorable. Halloween probably won’t be the same to you afterward.

Setter’s ‘Spectives: They’re Mumbling at You, Barbra!

Setter Drawing for Blog 082613You know, you don’t have to wait for Halloween to watch a scary movie.

I did it last night, turning out the lights to savor George Romero’s 1968 zombie flick Night of the Living Dead on TCM.

All right, I didn’t exactly savor it. It ain’t a cinema masterpiece. In fact, much of it is pretty silly—especially the eponymous undeadsters, whose knock-kneed, reach-out-and-grasp-someone attacks and circle-eyed makeup are barely more frightening than the jocular denizens of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion.

So why, then, do I still find this movie effective?

Well, the script’s tight, the camerawork’s claustrophobic, and the direction’s economical. But last night, I noticed a huge asset that hadn’t been clear to me before.

Its sound. Its muffled, low-tech sound.

Those hungry zombies chomping so zestfully on the purported pieces of people make a lot of subdued noise. And when they try to grab folks through the doors and the windows, you hardly hear any crashing. You do, however, hear a lot of natural-esque sound, of bumping, scratching, brushing and rustling.

And that’s what’s so effective. It’s rarely loud, with minimal (though requisite for the genre) screaming—making its impact all the more powerful. It feels real, despite the ludicrous premise and sometimes-amateurish acting. The sound makes the difference.

Few other horror movies take sound so seriously. Kwaidan is one, with its minimalist, crackling score by Toru Takemitsu. If horror these days is to remain fresh, it should take a frame out of these fearful reels. Loud smashes and bangs don’t always spark cinematic fright. But a softer, more judiciously used soundscape can—and, in turn, create an eerie atmosphere worthy of pre-Halloween watching.

In that light, I’m happy I turned up the volume on Night of the Living Dead.