The Devil’s Backbone (2001, Guillermo Del Toro)

Set in a Communist-friendly haunted orphanage towards the end of the Spanish Civil War, but surprisingly, all deaths and horror in the movie come from twisted, selfish young Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega of Abre Los Ojos and Transsiberian) raised at the orphanage and now after its hidden gold, not from ghosts or General Franco’s men. He’s sleeping with one-legged Marisa Peredes (star of The Flower of My Secret) every night (she runs the place with older boyfriend Federico Luppi, the moral vampire in Cronos), stealing keys from her chain to try getting into the safe. When the orphanage is to be abandoned because the war is lost, he loses his shit and blows everything up, killing most of the movie’s characters except young viewer-surrogate Carlos. The ghost of a kid he’d killed the previous year has warned about this (“many of you will die”), but doesn’t try to stop it, only wants to drag Jacinto into the murky depths.

Guillermo’s movie between Mimic and Blade 2, a solid haunted orphanage movie but not as great as I’d heard it would be. Some nice details which are more rich and mysterious than the ghost: an unexploded bomb in the middle of the courtyard, the titular backbone, the orphanage selling aged embalming fluid in town as liquor, gold stored in a hollow leg.

M. Kermode:

It is a film about repression that celebrates, albeit in heartbreaking fashion, the irrepressibility of the innocent human spirit. This duality also underpins Pan’s Labyrinth, a fable about a young girl’s exploration of an underworld. Both films balance political tensions with a feud between fantasy and reality, between the way the world seems and the way it is. And both counterpose the recurrent fairy-tale motif of choice against the specter of fascism — the ultimate lack of choice.

Ghostbusters (1984, Ivan Reitman)

Not as packed with things as most movies are. It’s a comedy but the jokes don’t come fast and furious, and it’s an action movie but not full of action scenes. A pretty laid-back film. More movies should have theme songs. Good to see again in theaters.

Mekong Hotel (2012, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

I’d heard that A.W. had gone horror with this new mid-length film. Not really – it’s a slow-moving movie where a few hotel residents coexist with flesh-eating ghosts, or perhaps everyone in the movie is a ghost since the hotel feels abandoned, even when they are around. I found it overall less exciting/entrancing than his other movies.

Featuring Jen and Tong from Uncle Boonmee, with more talk of borders and immigrants, and discussion of last year’s major flooding in Thailand. I like the music, a long stretch of solo acoustic guitar. We see the musician at the beginning, and again near the middle (an intermission?). A.W. seems to want scenes to last after their meaningful dialogue has ended, because he’ll fade out conversations and let us listen to the guitar for a minute while the actors keep talking, unheard.

When the movie seems to have a story near the beginning, Tong (yes, same character name) is telling a girl called Phon that his dog seems to have been partly devoured by a pob (ghost). Phon and her mom Jen are revealed to be pobs. A guy named Masato sees his friend eaten by Jen, but he might have been dreaming this.

Later, Masato is a ghost himself, talking to Phon as if a lifetime has passed since the previous few scenes – then he’s wearing a machine on his head that allows his spirit to travel outside his body. It ends with an overlong shot of jet-skis on the river. I’m missing something major since this was nominated for a “best documentary” award.

AW with the guitarist, giving credence to the documentary theory:

E. Kohn:

According to the director, Mekong Hotel takes its inspiration from a story Weerasethakul originally wrote for a movie called Ecstasy Garden… [which] involved an alien vampire ghost who also happens to be the mother of a young woman unaware of her supernatural lineage… the mother’s appetite gets the best of her and she devours her kin in the midst of the younger woman’s romancing of a local teen boy. Mekong Hotel sort of follows this trajectory without exactly spelling it out; The movie contains scenes of rehearsals for Ecstasy Garden in the bedrooms and balcony of the titular hotel in northeastern Thailand.

Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983, Raoul Ruiz)

It’s hard to say exactly what happens in this movie, but with its focus on sailors and murders, identity, riches and secret tasks with time limits, and the now-familiar (but still exciting) camera moves and framing tricks, bizarre storytelling and wordplay, it fits in well with City of Pirates and Manuel on the Island of Wonders.

Takes place on a single night (7/25/58, the day Thurston Moore was born) with flashbacks. A student kills his mentor, then meets a sailor on the street who offers the student a job on his ship in exchange for three Danish crowns. They sit in a mirrored lounge lit up like a carnival as the sailor tells his story.

Student and sailor:

In Valparaiso a compulsive liar called The Blindman offers people jobs on a ship that had already left town. The sailor finds the ship anyway and gets hired on, says farewell to his family (cameo by Diogo Doria of Non and Inquietude as his sister’s fiancee). He soon discovers that it’s a ship of the dead, but the movie doesn’t linger on this fact, as you normally would, just shows off certain details, like how his shipmates can suicide into the ocean then show up onboard the next day as if nothing had happened.

A murdered liar:

The sailor has no name – his mates call him The Other. At different ports he meets a prostitute, a French consul who tends to a brilliant underage doctor, a couple of thieves, a stripper, a man in Dakar (Mostefa Djadjam, director of Borders). These become his family, and when he wins big at cards, he buys a bar and sends for them all. Most are fine, but “the kid from Tampico had drowned. The black had died 10 years before we met.”

“She appeared in every glass I emptied”

“Those writers have already written your story. They spent their lives writing it,” a boy tells him, with a cutaway to RL Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

The sailor still needs the three crowns to settle a debt, which he gets from the student, who then beats him to death on the pier, apologizing all the way (“please excuse my slightly unusual reaction”). One or both of them ends up on the ship. “You always need a living sailor on a ship full of dead. That was me.”

imdb says” Based on the southern Chilean island of Chiloé’s myth of “Caleuche”, or The Ship of the Dead.

The sailor is Jean-Bernard Guillard of at least three more Ruiz movies. Shot by his Stolen Painting cinematographer Sacha Vierny, who also shot Resnais’s early films and would spend the next decade or so with Greenaway. 25 years later, Ruiz made another ghost-ship story called Litoral – there’s not much about it online.

Coincidentally, H. Ford just wrote an extensive article for Senses of Cinema:

By foregrounding narrative and the spinning of tales throughout, highlighted by the entertaining and wryly humourous voiceover in particular, Ruiz creates a story characterised by a lack of causal logic and that features the confounding of rational explanations, frequent absurdity and repetition.

When it comes to visual language, this film shows Ruiz at his zenith. And this despite – or because of – a very small budget, with the extensive visual effects apparently improvised using “found” materials (such as shooting through drinking and eye glasses) by the director and his magician-like cinematographer, Sacha Vierny… Nearly every shot in Three Crowns of the Sailor is a remarkable and often virtuosic construction that is somehow entirely familiar and right, all of a piece rather than eccentric or weird. The images masterfully utilise both soft or out-of-focus and frequent Citizen Kane-style deep focus shots in which objects in the foreground of the frame are treated with equal clarity as characters conversing much further back. The overall result is an increasingly delirious aesthetic brew that seems like it is the only possible choice for visualising this story and world.

Adding to its aesthetic interest is that no single shot appears to be repeated. As so often when clearly invested in a project, Ruiz makes you realise how visually uninventive most other directors’ work is.

Kuroneko (1968, Kaneto Shindo)

From the start it’s got similarly great cinematography and sound-effect-punctuated music as Onibaba, so this is already a winner. It’s another sometimes-erotic ghost story featuring a woman and her daughter-in-law left behind when the men all go to war – was this a running theme in Shindo’s movies? But this time the son/husband returns, and the women themselves don’t fare so well.

Gintoki’s mother (Nobuko Otowa, Shindo’s main mother figure in Onibaba, Naked Island and Mother) and young wife (Kiwako Taichi of the 24th Zatoichi movie) are raped and killed by soldiers, their house burned to the ground, the only witness their black cat.

A year or two later, soldier Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura of Double Suicide) is sent by his boss to defeat the vengeful feline spirits that have been killing his compatriots – the girl luring them to a phantom house in the woods, serving up hot love after the mother serves hot tea. Then the men appear the next morning with their throats torn out.

Gintoki as a ragged warrior, displaying the head of an enemy warlord:

He cleans up nice:

When Gintoki visits the house and discovers the identity of the spirits, he travels to the forest night after night to spend time with them. The wife breaks her vow to drink the blood of all samurai, spending a few nights of love with her husband before disappearing to hell. Mom keeps going out and killing guys though, and Lord Raiko (Kei Sato, Hachi in Onibaba) is demanding results, so Gintoki finally attacks his mother, cutting off her arm, and brings the arm to Raiko as proof of his triumph. But ghost-mom retrieves her cat-arm, and Gintoki goes somewhat insane trying to catch her, falls dead in the ruins of their old house as snow begins to fall and a cat meows.

The visual effects are more complicated than Onibaba‘s. The mother’s hair twitches like a cat’s tail (can the girls turn into cats?), and the movie shows us the unreality of their forest home via a split-screen sky in constant motion through the trees, so that they always seem to be moving while standing still.

M. McDonagh:

Gintoki’s psychologically charged cat-and-mouse game with the spectral women is Kuroneko’s darkly seductive heart. He both recognizes Shige and Yone and knows they aren’t the Shige and Yone he left behind; given the place and time, it seems entirely reasonable for him to suspect they’re demons who’ve cruelly appropriated the appearance of the most important women in his life. That said, the newly minted samurai understands how much a few years can change a person. The ghost women, meanwhile, are wrestling with their own dilemma: they know perfectly well that under the warrior finery, their guest is Hachi, and wish they didn’t. There’s no real winning here, just infinite degrees of losing—losing one’s soul, life, honor, or humanity.

Buy from Amazon:
Kuroneko (Criterion Blu-ray)

Sweet Home (1989, Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

A middling haunted-house movie, with none of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s post-Cure style of evil lurking in the offscreen space. Some inspired moments, and some cinematic plot points (living shadows, a slide melting under a projector bulb, an actor melting in much the same way). Apparently the movie is most famous for having spawned a “survival horror” Nintendo game which inspired the Resident Evil series. Also the last time Juzo Itami (Japanese New Wave actor, more recently in Grass Labyrinth) appeared as an actor, having already turned to directing with Tampopo and a few others. I assumed that he played Old Man Exposition, the local crank who helps out at the end, but no that was Tsutomu Yamazaki, an actor in Tampopo, so I don’t know where Itami showed up.

not Juzo Itami:

A TV production talks their way into the long-abandoned mansion of a dead artist to document the murals he’d painted on his walls. Widower Kazuo (Shingo Yamashiro of some Kinji Fukasaku movies) is the show’s producer. He brings along his daughter Emi (pop singer Nokko – in her mid-20’s, but I bought her performance as a middle-schooler) and show director Akiko (Nobuko Miyamoto, also of Tampopo) – our family-unit heroes, which leaves the other two (driver/cameraman/comic relief Taguchi and melodramatic on-air personality Asuka) to be murdered by ghosts.

L-R: Asuka, Taguchi, surrogate mom, actual dad, “child”:

And murdered they are, with surprisingly good, goopy gore effects. First Asuka turns into a ghost, yelling “give me back my baby” then digging up an actual baby coffin. Then the shadows come to life, so they all have to hide in patches of light. Taguchi doesn’t make it, gets burned clean in half and Asuka finishes him with a wrench shortly before an axe falls on her head.

Akiko vs. furnace:

Old Man Exposition comes to the house and walks into the furnace to rescue Emi, kidnapped by ghosts. But either he fails or she’s kidnapped again, and her dad gives up, leaving Akiko to rescue the girl, proving herself a worthy wife/mother figure. I did like the evil-mother monster who fights her with lightning there at the end.

Manuel on the Island of Wonders (1985, Raoul Ruiz)

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“A tourist.”

I was planning to watch this anyway, but not as a memorial screening. Low-quality copy of this three-episode miniseries. You can see through the dubbed videotape murk and the MPEG blocks that much of the lighting and composition is probably wonderful (and the music score too good to be consigned to a lost TV-movie) – hope there will be an official release some day. This shows no compromise to the commercial requirements of television, just as twisty as the great City of Pirates, and similarly featuring featuring ships, pirate ghosts, islands, children, plot paradoxes and murder.

Part 1: Manoel’s Destinies

A narrator sets up the time-travel theme right away.
“I’m called ‘long ago.’ This story took place in the past, but I’m sure it will happen again soon. That’s why I chose to tell it to you in the present.”

Seven-year-old Manoel is on his way to school the morning after his family’s jewelry was stolen in the night, when he hears whispered voices, sidetracks into a courtyard and meets himself, six years older. Older Manoel says six years ago he was on his way to school, sidetracked into the courtyard and met a fisherman in a cave, went boating with him, came home and his life changed. His parents’ hopes in their son were shattered, his mother died, and he went off to work after dropping out of school. But he sidetracked into a courtyard, met the fisherman again, and boated backwards through time, retrieved his family’s jewels from the sea, and met his seven-year-old self.

So, young Manoel continues to school, follows the advice of older Manoel, becomes an extreme overachiever, and a few years later his father dies. So he visits the fisherman, goes back and yells his young self. “This time he chooses caution: he must ignore the fisherman’s call, but he mustn’t succeed at school.” At the end of the day, his parents are fine, but the townspeople find a dead boy on the beach: older Manoel.

Part 2: The Picnic of Dreams

More tense-twisting from the narrator, and Manoel’s class is on a field trip, literally to a field, where the teacher wants them to attempt to fall asleep and dream a hospital, which might become real. This doesn’t work, and Manoel walks through the dream forest and meets a large man who talks to trees.

The giant takes a coin from Manoel, and with it they swap bodies. Now Manoel in the man’s body must reclaim the coin, breaks into his own house at night and grabs it from his piggybank. A more straightforward story than the other parts.

Part 3: The Little Chess Champion

After his mother dies (guess he failed to save her through time-travel) Manoel is sent to live with his aunt, who lives with her son and two nephews in a museum. “The staff had moved out because of ghosts.”

Manoel plays violent games with the servant’s sons Pedro and Paulo, and visits the funhouse on Elephant Island with his cousins and a mysterious sea captain – but that may have been a dream. He meets seven-year-old Marylina, a genetically-engineered super-child who’s now the world chess champion and has a fiancee named Rock who has exchanged brains with a famed pianist.

There’s levitation, shadow plays, and my favorite visual effect, a bit of perspective-play with a hand coming through a keyhole. The captain takes Pedro into the shadow world, so Manoel visits the chess girl for help. But she and her fiancee have been discovering secret codes hidden in the structures of things. My favorite: “The Eiffel Tower is an iron code that translates French body odor into perfume.” The Captain comes and steals more children into his shadow world. It’s a completely insane episode.

The Captain and his demise:

“Now after all these years, when I remember my childhood, I think these things were just my imagination.”

This has played in different forms (a four-episode version, a theatrical film) in different places, including at Cannes. The acting credits are listed without character names, but someone figured out that Teresa Madruga (of Joao Monteiro’s Silvestre) plays Manoel’s mother. Fernando Heitor and Diogo Doria (an Oliveira regular, also in Love Torn in Dream) may play his father and teacher. The rest is a mystery to me.

F. Daly:

Writing or filming for children can sometimes bring a person straight to the source of their art. Having to perceptibly adapt their style confronts them with what must be included. Manoel leaves us with the essential Ruiz, the audio-visual companion to his extraordinary book Poetics of Cinema. Its dizzying narrative fold-over-fold methodology creates a labyrinthine temporal structure.

Also watched a TV episode called Exiles from 1988, which provides a nice career summary, focusing on Ruiz’s relationship with Chile and identity as an exile within his film stories.

The Great Man:

And something called Screen Pioneers (episode 3) from 1985 – an eccentric biography program, purporting to be from the future (like Time Trumpet) looking back on our present, and on this semi-unknown character named Raoul Ruiz. Written by Michael Powell expert Ian Christie – I’ve listened to some of his Criterion audio commentaries.
It’s only ten minutes long, plays like an extended intro to…

Return of a Library Lover (1983)

A first-person travel essay about Ruiz’s first return to Chile in ten years. Everything seems the same as when he left (it’s first-person narrated), except he notices a single pink book is missing from his shelf, a book he decides holds “the key to what happened on that night of Pinochet’s coup.” He interviews friends (including a “renowned library constructor”), and checks the bars. He talks to a bookseller. “I deduced that he couldn’t speak Spanish anymore and constantly had to check his own subtitles and translate them laboriously back.” What started out as a personal slideshow has turned into a full-fledged Ruiz movie. The book is discovered at the end, by contemporary Chilean poet Juan Uribe Echevarria.

My favorite line, a casual, matter-of-fact note on subjective memory: “Apart from having shrunk a little, the house was still intact.”

“From the Mayans I’ve inherited the knack of changing my childhood
just as one changes one’s native country.”

Finisterrae (2010, Sergio Caballero)

Saw some screen shots from this movie and decided I must watch it immediately. Then I found out there are seemingly unrelated films named Finisterrae and Finis Terrae (“ends of the earth” in Latin) and decided I must watch them both. And they were both pretty spectacular, but I can’t pretend that I found any similarities beyond the titles.

Forest of ears:

Two ghosts (played by men wearing sheets) go on a journey. I did not like the high pitched noise produced by the forest of ears, but I liked every other single thing. There are Garrel references, spoken credits, very nice music by Jimi Tenor (also “Ghost Rider” by Suicide), a hippie joke, and it’s all super-quirky in a high-art-film sort of way. Seems like the kind of thing that’s made just for viewers like me, but could fall right on its face if not done perfectly, like that sad attempt at a cult movie, Buckaroo Banzai. But I fell for this one completely, and I’m not the only one; Rotterdam gave it an award a couple days after I watched it.

Cataluña:

Hippie:

The ghosts are Russian, and I think they’re in Cataluña – not sure where Chile and Germany fit in. One rides a horse (later, a wheelchair) and they meet other animal friends: deer, an owl and various stuffed creatures in a museum exhibit where they spend the night. Sometimes their horse turns into a mechanical puppet, and sometimes he is on fire.

It might all make sense in some way, be a huge metaphor for some Spanish thing or other, but I didn’t get any of that. I focused on the surreal fun of it all, the and the beautifully composed images by Caballero and d.p. Edward Grau (also of A Single Man, who at age 30 has made more indelible images than I ever will).

After the ghost thing fizzles out, there is a frog princess story, then a moose or reindeer walking through a fancy house, and back to the museum animals. I would watch this again right now if I supposed that anyone I know would sit through it.

Kwaidan (1965, Masaki Kobayashi)

It’s been a pretty outstanding SHOCKtober over here. I did well to avoid the usual direct-to-video garbage of the last few years and watch stuff I’d actually heard would be good. So I figured I was due for a disappointment when I popped in Kwaidan, another period Japanese piece where everybody moves too slowly – another Ugetsu, in other words. But though it’s definitely true that everyone moves too slowly (and the more rich and upper-class, the slower they move) it’s an awesome looking movie, and even the stories I liked less were a pleasure to watch. I don’t know much about Kobayashi, but easily figured out that he had a background in painting. Watched the full-length version from Masters of Cinema.

1. The Black Hair
Rentaro Mikuni (The Burmese Harp, Vengeance Is Mine, Teshigahara’s Rikyu) is a samurai who has fallen on hard times. He has a good wife, Michiyo Aratama (Sword of Doom, The Human Condition, Ozu’s The End of Summer) but he “could not understand the value of love,” tells his wife “for men, advancement is the most important” and walks out on her, moves away and marries the daughter (Misako Watanabe of Youth of the Beast) of a rich man. But he finds himself unhappy, misses his first wife, so one day he throws it all away and returns to her, finding his property decrepit and run down, but her still sewing quietly in a corner. Or is she? After he pledges he’ll stay with her forever, she’s revealed to be a ghost. He ages about fifty years in the span of a minute, in a pretty awesome scene, then falls to the ground.

2. The Woman of the Snow
This one has the most remarkable images, which is good since I already know the story, first from Tales from the Darkside: The Movie but it also has similarities to The Crane Wife tale. A woodcutter (Tatsuya Nakadai, star of The Human Condition and The Face of Another, played the old king in Ran) is caught in a storm with an older man and witnesses a sort of Jack Frost woman freezing the man to death. She lets him live if he promises to never tell what he’s seen. Soon after, he meets a girl (Keiko Kishi of Early Spring, Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza), falls in love, gets married, has kids, and one day laughingly tells her about that day in the snow, at which point his wife turns back into the snow demon and leaves him, saying if their children ever have reason to complain about his parenting she will return and kill him. The sky is a series of colorfully painted backdrops, often with an eye in the middle, always watching the woodcutter.

3. Hoichi, The Earless
I assumed for a while that the subtitles had missed a letter in “Fearless,” but no. This was the longest and best story. Set in a monastery near the site of an ancient sea battle, with head priest Takashi Shimura (the older detective in Stray Dog and star of Ikiru) and blind errand boy Hoichi (Katsuo Nakamura of Demons, Sad Vacation). Ghosts of the defeated army appear at a shrine and send a warrior to fetch Hoichi to sing them the story of the sea battle. He secretly performs for them all week, until the priest finds out, and tells him he’s in great danger. The priests write scripture across Hoichi’s skin – but miss his ears. The warrior comes and can’t find the singer, “I will take these ears to my lord to prove his commands have been obeyed.” The ghosts leave, and from then on, people come from all over and pay to hear the famed Hoichi the Earless play his music.

4. In a Cup of Tea
Kan’emon Nakamura (Mizoguchi’s 47 Ronin and Miyamoto Musashi) is a very serious warrior, a guard I think. He sees another man’s smiling reflection in a cup of tea, but drinks it anyway. The ghost (Noboru Nakaya, husband of the Woman in the dunes) appears “in person” with his retainers, challenging the warrior, who finds he cannot fight them since they can disappear at will. But all this is a story being written by an author (Osamu Takizawa of Fires on the Plain) who goes missing until his reflection is seen inside a pot of water – the weirdest of the four stories, and a good one to end on. Kobayashi made 20-some other movies, all of which I must see immediately.

Buy from Amazon:
Kwaidan – Criterion DVD