Thursday, September 6, 2012

Psycho Killer Glamour, Qu'est Que C'est?

This weekend led to a strange double header of disturbing other words, I watched a couple of weird movies that were oddly linked.

I had heard for years about Satoshi Kon's Perfect Blue (1997), but even after seeing the director's bizarre hallucinogenic assault Paprika (2006), I still hadn't exactly sought it out.  I suppose there was something to the idea that a psychological thriller in an animated film that was just over an hour in length that created some form of cognitive distaste in me.   Not that I didn't believe that very serious and intense subjects couldn't be carried by animation as I was in my early teens when I first witnessed Akira (1988).  At the same time, I think it's that very tie to the spectacle of science fiction, of which Perfect Blue has none, that made other animated films more desirable to me.

Now having seen it, I feel like, in the words of Fred Sanford, a big dummy.

Perfect Blue is a wonderfully animated and disturbing ride into loss of identity and psychosis.  The story concerns a young pop singer, who decides to ditch her cutesy J-pop world to become a serious actress.  The move rankles many of her devoted male fanbase, one of whom maintains a blog where he posts as her.  At this point, I'm reluctant to describe anymore of the plot as the movie does a great job of layering hallucination and reality in a way to keep you guessing as to what you're seeing and what's really happening.  It's also remarkably prescient about on-line impostors and celebrity stalking, which  existed before now but which really came to its own in the past decade.

Many Japanese directors excel at this form of psychological thriller, taking it to deeper and darker places than most anywhere else.  This film reminded me of an animated version of one of my favorite Japanese films, Sogo Ishii's Angel Dust (1994).  I still remember sitting bolt still in the theater being hammered by this movie when the cutesy couple behind me left because the girlfriend couldn't take it anymore.  Of course, this direction of Japanese cinema became more popular during the horror wave that followed, such as The Ring (1998) and The Grudge (2002), and while I found some gems, their sacrifice of well-developed story (or in some cases, a story that made any kind of sense) for unrelenting atmosphere always left me a touch meh.  (Another worth seeking out is the Korean film A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), which gives the illusion of being another J-horror knock-off when it takes a serious turn for the, to put it delicately, batshit nuts, and becomes a fantastic psychological thriller.)

Oddly enough, the Japanese tend to have the same soft spot for Italian genre cinema that I do. Many of the best widescreen transfers of Spaghetti Westerns (the Japanese call them "Macaroni Westerns") came from Japanese disks.  And much like their fellow gonzo Japanese filmmakers, the Italians also knew went to ratchet up the crazy and the killer.  Slasher movies around the world owe a debt to the Italian 'Giallo', their 60's-70's (and a few in the 80's) thriller genre with a high and bloody body count.  The great difference is that the Giallos tended to have beautiful casts in exotic locations doing fabulous things while getting knocked off, rather than a bunch of stupid teens in some remote cabin in some scary woods.

A very late entry into the genre, Lamberto Bava's Delirium (1987) stars the voluptuous Serena Grandi as a former nude model who now runs a very successful men's magazine when her models start dying at the hands of an obsessed killer who photographs the corpses in front of her old centerfolds.  Now, as usual for the genre, the set-up alone is more than enough excuse to have plenty of beautiful people and a multitude of bared breasts (but being European, it always comes off less sleazy than the usual American Bikini Beach III wet T-shirt competition).  Add in the operatic craziness of one of the best synth-meets-metal scores since Goblin by Simon Boswell...and you're there!

Like I said, the Giallos had pretty well run their course by the time this one came along, and while it has all of the usual tropes, it still managed to keep me guessing.  Part of the fun in most of the best of these is figuring out who the killer is, because nearly every character outside the main character has some sort of sordid or sleazy or shady side that points to them, and there's usually always one moment that frames them in a creepy light. Then there's always the balance of the way too obvious to the way too uninvolved: the voyeuristic disabled kid next door is way too obvious, but the weird photographer hasn't had enough screentime to be a fulfilling killer...see how it works?  Once the killer was revealed, I almost slapped myself for not figuring it out based on earlier clues.

Bava, son of the horror maestro Mario Bava, seems to be having fun and the big tie-in to Perfect Blue above, other than the rash of stabbings, was his inventive use of seeing the victims from the killer's POV where they appeared as grotesque monstrosities.  I wanted more of it, simply for the sheer creativeness, but the effect waned as the story progressed.  Still and all, for a night of silly and tastefully sleazy fun, you could do a whole lot worse.  That's what made them a great pair of thrill: take Pefect Blue straight, and Delirium as the lighter chaser.