It’s hardly necessary to be well versed in the historical context and controversy surrounding the release—and subsequent 30+ year ban on director Teruo Ishii’s 1969 film THE HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN—to enjoy the film as a work of grotesque art. Still, it does add an additional dimension to the films wicked legacy.
Based on the 1926 novella Panorama-t? Kidan (The Strange Tale of the Panorama Island) by legendary Japanese cult writer Edogawa Rampo, THE HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN is director Teruo Ishii’s true masterwork. A workhorse filmmaker, who had already directed some 57 films over the course of his 15-year career—Ishii couldn’t have known that his latest project—shot for the notorious “Pinky Violence” studio Toei, was set to shock viewing audiences with it’s explicit sexuality, theatrical violence and an overall tonality and theme that mirrored the havoc caused decades earlier on foreign shores by Tod Browning’s 1932 film FREAKS.
The film unfolds its saga in an expressionistic flair that seems to meld the surreal and psychedelic images of the 1960’s with the stylings of ancient Noh Theater and the modern avant guarde Butoah movement. Indeed Ishii even cast the main villain of his film with the man most often cited as the father of Butoah: Tatsumi Hijikata.
That element of the fantastic is evident from the very first moments of the production. The tale opens within the confines of a jail cell, in a kind of interpretative dance where we see protagonist Hitomi (Teruo Yoshida) surrounded by a sea of writhing bare-chested women. Locked in a swirling vortex of flesh he squares off against one of the girls, brandishing a knife. The madness begins to spiral out of control, as the cold, mirrored steel of the blade penetrates Hitomi’s chest with a bloodless vigor. As one of the guards breaks up the melee, the reveal shows that the blade is only a retractable toy and Hitomi is sent back to his cell—admonished for playing pawn to the lunacy of the female prisoners.
In narrative fashion Hitomi begins to recount how he arrived within the confines of this hell and how, lacking in memory of his arrival—nothing more than an image burned into his brain—he must make his escape—desperate to find the ragged Oceanside cliffs that haunt his dreams. Once he makes his way free from his cell, he happens on a young circus performer who also shares the haunting memory of a lost lullaby. She helps direct him to a seaside village where, en route, he discovers that he shares an identical physical appearance with a recently deceased local heir.
After a visit with a local blind masseuse, he learns that he also shares a telling scar with the dead man. Desperate to follow his only lead toward uncovering his identity, Hitomi decides to assume the dead mans identity and enter into his family life. Once he arrives at the estate he quickly discovers that the clan is hiding many secrets, not the least of which regards what his estranged father is doing on the family’s secluded offshore island.
There is certainly plenty to offend delicate sensibilities before Hitomi reaches his father’s island. Up to this point, Ishii and Rampo have given us an operatic prison orgy of violence and nudity, insinuated lesbianism between housemaids, an affair between Hitomi as the heir, his wife and his lover. In addition, add to that the Fellini-esque atmosphere that surrounds the entirety of the film and it’s clear that audiences were already thrown off their guard before the island revelation occurs.
Taking a page out of H.G. Wells classics novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, Hitomi’s , father—played with otherworldly delight by Tatsumi Hijikata—has been conducting human experimentation, modification and mutilation with the goal of creating some kind of nightmare utopian society hellbent on storming the mainland and deforming the populace of normal citizens, creating a society of Malformed Men. In his maniacal quest to destroy all the perfect people, the island is inhabited by mostly naked women who act like dogs and fish, they growl and forage and frolic in the fields. Others live in cages desperate for food from their master’s hand. Some are painted in gold—like gilded hood ornaments lying spread eagle across the bow of the rowboats that serve as transportation around the island. Once the male/female Siamese twins show up, it’s crystal clear that we’re not in Kansas any more Toto!
On the island, viewers are treated to a barrage of garish imagery, color schemes and set designs and are overloaded by the film’s final Noir-ish climax, which breaks virtually every remaining taboo, including repeated accounts of incest, an unusual form of cannibalization and a fetishist that really defies explanation. It’s at this point that the film moves so far beyond the confines of reason that it nearly lampoons itself. It also works wonders for hammering home the carnival freakshow atmosphere of the overall production. When the final explosive finale comes raining down upon the island—it couldn’t be more satisfyingly clear that Ishii’s intentions are all in jest. It’s a rollercoaster ride of the bizarre that you’ll never want to end.
Despite all the infamy that surrounded the production, Teruo continued unabated with his career, never completely abandoning his love for the phantasmagorical works of Rampo. Just a few short years before his death in 2005, at age 81, Teruo translated BLIND BEAST VS. KILLER DWARF to the screen, capping off an extraordinary legacy of exploitation product. It seems a shame that the great director—who shot more that 80 films in his long and varied career—never lived to see the cult of his greatest film come to our shores. Still, it finally has, and those of you who proclaim yourselves devotees of alternative cinema to the highest degree of eccentricity will have a field day with this long overdue release.