Guimoon: The Lightless Door (귀문, Sim Deok-geun, 2021)

A collection of lost souls find themselves trapped between this world and the next in Sim Deok-geun’s eerie haunted house horror, Guimoon: The Lightless Door (귀문, Guimoon). On a literal quest to exorcise his demons, the hero traverses an impossible and elliptical passage attempting to atone for his sins while freeing others from a similar burden yet finally finds himself becoming his quarry as kind of jailor or perhaps guardian spirit making sure that doors which should never be opened remain forever closed not least to the morbidly curious. 

Do-jin’s (Kim Kang-woo) troubles begin when he casts off his destiny as a shaman leaving his ageing mother to battle a powerful spirit said to belong to a mass killer who suddenly snapped one day and murdered all the guests at small community centre. When the building is torn down, workers discover a body bricked up in the walls which seems almost untouched. Do-jin’s mother is brought in to exorcise the evil spirits but is finally overpowered, a dark presence causing her to stab herself in the neck. Overcome with guilt and apparently “harassed” by his mother’s ghost, Do-jin resolves to atone by releasing each of the spirits killed by the murderous custodian and solving the mystery of the body in the walls in the hope of releasing his mother’s soul so that she can move on to the afterlife and stop nagging him from beyond the grave. 

The “Guimoon” is a kind of portal open on the turn of the year by the lunar calendar. Dojin intends to venture through it assuming it will be easy enough to nix a few ghosts and then come home but soon finds himself lost in a world of uncertain time and forever looping corridors. He meant to travel to the afterlife of 1990, but his world is soon disrupted by the arrival of three university students from 1996 who really shouldn’t be here. Armed with a video camera, they are dead set on crafting their own found footage horror in the hope of winning a competition so one of them won’t have to drop out of school. For the students, this world is “real”. They entered it voluntarily and as far as they are concerned are wandering round a derelict building, not really believing it to be “cursed” or haunted in any way. But for Do-jin it’s a liminal and unreal space he has entered for a specific purpose and from which he hopes to expel those who should have left long before. 

Yet even in trying to solve the mystery, Do-jin concentrates his efforts on Seok-ho (Jang Jae-ho), the shovel-wielding custodian, taking a kind of register of the other guests while knowing little about them. He soon discovers that Seok-ho may not quite be the boogeyman he first thought him to be, realising that his sudden descent into homicidal mania may not have been of his own volition. The solution he edges towards hints at the ironically named community centre as a nexus of trauma, a nightmare world created by an entity trying to escape its suffering and finding empowerment in taking control of its oppressors. 

“I was always here” one of the lonely souls proclaims, while Do-jin and the students find themselves locked in, prevented from leaving by a literal absence of exits. While the students eventually turn against each other, seeking escape by submitting themselves the malicious evil of the entity haunting the centre, Do-jin does his best to complete his quest of vanquishing the ghosts with his shaman’s dagger but is eventually brought to a cruel realisation in a maddening series of loops and repetitions which only lead towards a door which should never be opened. In some ways frustratingly oblique, Sim Deok-geun’s eerie meta horror is an exercise in found footage psychology in which the lost wander lonely corridors while searching for an elusive truth they may already know but have perhaps forgotten. On a night between two worlds lit by a blood red moon, Do-jin ventures into a labyrinth to save his mother’s soul but comes to realise that if you walk through the door between life and death you may discover that there is no exit from existential torment.


Guimoon: The Lightless Door screened as part of this year’s London Korean Film Festival.

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Vampire Moth (吸血蛾, Nobuo Nakagawa, 1956)

“You’ve become an evil beast that sucks blood!” intones ace detective Kindaichi, though just as his later The Lady Vampire featured no lady vampires, there is no literal bloodsucker involved in Noburu Nakagawa’s Vampire Moth (吸血蛾, Kyuketsuga). Inspired by one of Seishi Yokomizo’s mysteries featuring his iconic detective here played by the rather suave Ryo Ikebe cutting a very noirish figure in contrast to the famously disheveled eccentric from the original novels, the film is for a time at least a werewolf movie though as usual the villain turns out to be post-war greed and amorality. 

This is perhaps rammed home in the open sequence as the camera pans around the neon-lit nighttime city before entering a small cabaret bar where a fashion competition is currently in progress. A note of discord is immediately introduced by a white-haired grumpy old man (Eijiro Tono) sitting in the front row who appears to be in an incredibly bad mood, later exclaiming that the winning design by rising star Fumiyo Asaji (Asami Kuji) does not seem very original to him. Some of the models later complain about the strange spectator who’s evidently come to several other shows and has begun to creep them out. Meanwhile, an aloof, conservatively dressed woman brushes past them. Fumiyo’s assistant Toru (Ichiro Arishima) explains that she is Tazuko Kusakata (Chieko Nakakita) who had been the previous number one before Fumiyo returned to Japan after an extended stay in France. The real drama begins however with the arrival of a masked man with a box for Fumiyo who reveals his wolf-like face to Toru in an effort to convince him to deliver it. After opening the box and finding an apple with a few distinctive bite marks on the outside, Fumiyo promptly collapses.  

From the introduction of the three loose “suspects” an ominous atmosphere takes hold in the certainty that something untoward is about to happen. Soon enough some of the models start getting bumped off in quite bizarre and unpleasant ways. The first girl’s body is shipped back to the studio in a mannequin box which later leaks blood, while the gang are then delivered a cake with the next victim’s name on it in pretty icing with a butterfly moth motif above. There may not be any vampires, but there are certainly moths. The old creepy guy is revealed to be a moth specialist living a giant gothic mansion with a butterfly room in the middle full of specimens nailed to boards. His front door even has a moth motif above it like a coat of arms, while a butterfly mural lies behind it in the hallway. The killer places a decorative moth on each of his victims to cover their modesty which would seem to indicate the grumpy professor but, once he finally arrives, Kindaichi isn’t quite so sure. 

Though this is technically a Kindaichi mystery and he does finally get to unmask the criminal, he is not actually in it very much and as previously mentioned is nothing like later incarnations of the famous detective such as that of Kon Ichikawa’s series of Kindaichi movies released throughout the 1970s. In a common B-movie motif, the main detective work falls to a male and female team in dogged reporter Kawase (Minoru Chiaki) and intrepid model Yumiko (Kyoko Anzai) who eventually succeed in digging up clues at the creepy mansion while simultaneously stumbling across a subplot involving plagiarism in the world of fashion with Tazuko implying that Fumiyo stole her winning outfit from another designer and then passed it off as her own thereby robbing Tazuko of her rightful place as the best designer in Japan. Partly because of all this stress and the vast amounts of money apparently needed to sustain a career in the fashion industry, Fumiyo’s well-meaning boyfriend wants her to abandon the profession but also admits that asking her to give up fashion would be like asking her to give up her life. 

Nakagawa ramps up the tension with a series of elegantly presented reversals, making us think we’re witnessing the killer stalking Fumiyo before pulling back to reveal it’s someone else or presenting the same scene of a masked man ominously peering out from behind a tree. The presence of the “wolf man” links back to a Japanese traveller who supposedly fell victim to a supernatural curse in France described as being akin to possession by a fox in Japanese mythology causing the infected person to gain wolf-like characteristics, become violent, and eventually be consumed by an overwhelming desire for human flesh, but perhaps also hints at the sense of voracious greed that has overtaken the killer and caused them to abandon their sense of of humanity in favour of material riches. Filled with a sense of the gothic along with noirish dread in Nakagawa’s foggy, kilted angles eventually giving way to an atmospheric chase sequence strongly recalling that of The Third Man, The Vampire Moth presents a banal evil with palpable anxiety yet suggests justice will be done to those who however briefly stray from the path. 


Sweet Home (スウィートホーム, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 1989)

A documentary film crew hoping to discover long-hidden frescos by an artist with a tragic history find themselves on a quest to resurrect the traditional family in unlikely horror comedy Sweet Home (スウィートホーム). Written and directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, the film shares many of the hallmarks of his later career in his preoccupation with what lurks in the shadows, yet produced by Juzo Itami who also stars and apparently reshot some scenes himself it also mines a deep seam of ironic humour harking back to classic serials and contemporary kids adventures in the same way as Hiruko the Goblin among others would do just a few years later. 

This strain of irony is perceptible in the opening scenes in which producer Akiko (Nobuko Miyamoto) appears in an elegant ’40s-style outfit more in keeping with an archeological dig than a haunted house adventure, her later attire strongly recalling that seen in Indiana Jones. The gang are waiting by their military-style jeep seemingly in the middle of a sandstorm while chief producer Kazuo (Shingo Yamashiro) is busy at the municipal office trying to get permission to enter the Mamiya Mansion which has been shut up for the last 30 years since the death of legendary artist Ichiro Mamiya who is the subject of their documentary. A diffident man as his daughter jokes, Kazuo finds it difficult to make headway until a slightly more cynical employee takes over the negotiations and hands over the key with the rationale that they’ll either find out the house isn’t haunted after all in which case they can turn it into a museum, or that they’ll get some tidy publicity out of the horrifying deaths of all concerned. 

A western-style gothic mansion, the house is itself as imposing as it is ominous even without swirling mists or hovering gloom. Once inside the crew find what they’re looking for, a beautiful fresco with the title “home sweet home” painted in a corner. All we’re told about Ichiro is that he died in the house, but when all is said and done he, like Kazuo, is not terribly important and it is not his death which has cursed the mansion but that of his wife. The sweet home the couple had dreamed of was coming to fruition with the long-awaited birth of a child whose life was to inspire frescos on the remaining walls only tragedy struck. As a toddler the child somehow climbed into the furnace and was burnt alive when his unknowing mother ignited it. She then went mad, kidnapping other children and apparently burning them so her child would not be lonely before eventually throwing herself in too.

Perhaps uncomfortably, Sweet Home leans in to the kind of maternal questioning common to the genre as it considers the formation of a new family in the awkward romance between the shy widower Kazuo who has brought his teenage daughter Emi (Nokko) along on the job, and capable producer Akiko who is repeatedly questioned about marriage, children, and the reasons she currently has neither of them. Keying in to the terror of the house, Emi reveals that as she grows older the memories of her birth mother begin to fade to the extent that she can barely make out her outline, envisioning her merely as an indistinct light. She is prepared to accept Akiko as second mother, offering her the dress which her own mother used to wear only for Akiko to diffidently refuse on the grounds that the dress should be worn by Emi as her mother would have wanted perhaps hinting at the way Emi often treats her father as a clueless child in need of mothering himself. 

Nevertheless, it’s the dress of maternity that Akiko must finally put on in order to claim the maternal space in venturing back into the haunted house in order to save Emi from becoming another playmate for Mrs Mamiya’s child. Rather than Kazuo, who proves rather ineffectual, she is guided by a weird old man, Yamamura (Juzo Itami), from the petrol station who apparently knows all about fighting ghosts but bluntly tells her she has no chance of success because she is not a mother herself and cannot understand the pain of a mother who has lost a child nor the magnetic pull between a childless mother and motherless child. In order to defeat the vengeful spirit, Akiko must fully embrace the role of the mother, easing the spirit’s pain with maternal compassion in returning to her what was lost. Her child restored to her, the spirit takes on the appearance of the Holy Mother ascending to Heaven bathed in golden light lifting the shadowy gloom that cursed the house. 

Even so there is something insidious in the fact that as Yamamura says if you attempt to fight shadow with light all you get is more of the same, the crew trapped in the house with no means of defence against the encroaching darkness. This unknown, shadowy sense of threat, of being swallowed by darkness, is a key harbinger of a Kurosawa’s signature style as well as a clear evocation of the gothic dread focused on the house with the ironic failure of the “sweet home” dream which is in essence what Akiko, Kazuo, and an Emi are chasing as they try to escape the haunted mansion. Ironically enough, Sweet Home has become best remembered for fathering a video game which eventually led to the Resident Evil series while Kurosawa himself has all but rejected the film claiming Itami’s later interventions undercut his directorial vision. Featuring effects work by Dick Smith, the horror is visceral and disturbing at one point a man’s face melting, his skin slipping from his bones, while the score is cheerfully whimsical in keeping with the absurd lightness of tone that recalls classic teen adventures before heading into the fable-like conclusion in which Akiko must wrest her surrogate child from a vengeful spirit through maternal exchange. Having served its purpose the mansion implodes, freeing not only the spirits trapped inside but the new family now freed of the weight of traditional mores to embrace their new connection founded on love and empathy rather than duty or convention.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Cracked (ภาพหวาด, Surapong Plearnsang, 2022)

The traumatic past comes back to haunt a widowed single mother in Surapong Plearnsang’s eerie supernatural horror, Cracked (ภาพหวาด). A Singapore-South Korea-Taiwan-Thailand co-production, Cracked is adapted from an unproduced Korean screenplay and finds its heroine dealing with an inheritance both literal and spiritual following the death of her estranged father while she herself is filled with anxiety trying to find the money for an operation her daughter desperately needs to avoid losing her sight. 

In any case, the young Ruja (Chayanit Chansangavej) had been told “if we pretend not to see them, they cannot hurt us” which doesn’t sound like particularly good advice to begin with but perhaps fuels her reluctance to revisit the hidden past. Now living in New York with her young daughter Rachel (Nutthatcha Padovan), she is shocked when an old friend of her father’s, Wichai (Sahajak Boonthanakit), tracks her down and insists she return to Thailand her father having died. In addition to his giant gothic mansion seemingly inhabited only by a maid, her father has also left behind two famous paintings titled “A Painting of a Beauty 1 & 2” for which Wichai has found a buyer but needs Ruja’s consent. Ruja thinks the paintings are creepy anyway the recent history that the smaller was previously owned by a man who killed his entire family and then himself not withstanding and wants them gone as soon as possible especially if they raise enough to pay for Rachel’s medical treatment, but Wichai wants to have them restored first, his son conveniently enough being an art restorer. 

Ruja’s reluctance to look at the paintings is echoed in the instructions her mother had given her about unseeing the things that frighten her, yet being back in the house re-awakens a series of traumatic memories as she looks back on the way her father treated her mother from the perspective of an adult woman with a child of her own. Meanwhile, Rachel is keen to explore later explaining that she hasn’t been wandering off alone but in the company of a woman with a red scarf which is how she runs into Tim (Nichkhun Horvejkul), Wichai’s kind-hearted art restorer son. The problem is that the more Ruja is forced to look at the paintings the more they seem to decay, cracking so badly that the paint begins to fall away exposing a secondary painting below and a truth that Ruja did not want to witness. 

In a sense she’s been made to pay for her father’s transgressions, but also for her mother’s refusal to oppose them along with her discrimination towards another family she regarded as part of a “ghost-worshipping hill tribe”. Having been told to unsee Ruja is punished for the act of looking away, and perhaps also for having left and trying to make a new life for herself abroad having on some level forgotten what happened to her in the house and what she saw in her father’s studio. Surapong Plearnsang’s production design reflects her fractured viewpoint in the overlay between the broken window she peeks through and the hole in the painting while lending the paintings themselves an eerie disquiet painted as we later discover with violence and darkness by her already corrupted father later himself falling victim to a curse. 

The suggestion is that Ruja’s only escape lies in burning the past and creating a new history to pass down to her daughter free of the traumatic legacy inherited from her parents. “We only have each other now” she reminds Rachel, promising to protect her with her life while preparing to leave the eerie forest behind. Echoing the gothic in its creepy old mansion and obsession with corrupted legacy, Cracked is equal parts psycho chiller as Ruja tries to work through her buried trauma while assaulted by genuine supernatural forces of malevolence wanting her to pay for her parents’ transgressions aided by a more corporeal assistant seemingly hellbent on vengeance. Filled with a sense of dread not to mention extensive snake symbolism, Surapong Plearnsang’s haunted house creeper sends its conflicted heroine into the past hoping to fix the future only to discover that it’s not enough to paper over the cracks of an incomplete history, only by stripping the veneer and exposing the ugly truth below will you ever be free. 


Cracked screened as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Medium (ร่างทรง, Banjong Pisanthanakun, 2021)

A young woman finds herself caught between the contradictions of the modern Thailand in Banjong Pisanthanakun’s eerie forest-bound supernatural folk horror, The Medium (ร่างทรง). Produced by The Wailing’s Na Hong-jin and based on his original story, Banjong Pisanthanakun’s shamanistic drama is in many ways an exploration of the vagaries of faith but also of the price to be paid for abandoning the traditions of your nation and the slowly mounting karmic debt that visits itself solely on the young. 

A documentary film crew exploring indigenous religious practice has settled on shamaness Nim (Sawanee Utoomma) as a subject, getting her to provide a brief explanation of the area’s animist beliefs. According to her, there are good spirits and bad, those who protect and those intent on causing harm. As a conduit of the goddess Ba Yan, the local protective deity, she is able to intervene when the villagers need her help though only, she is keen to point out, where the problem stems from something “unseen”. She takes no money for her services, though sometimes people bring gifts, and is clear that she cannot treat conventional illnesses such as cancer only those a direct result of supernatural manipulation. 

Nim had not originally wanted to become a shamaness and at one point attempted to take her own life in order to escape it, but claims that after deciding to accept Ba Yan everything changed for the better and she’s since grown to like it because it allows her to help people as well as affording her a special status in the village. A maternal deity, Ba Yan only seeks female hosts and the original target had been Nim’s older sister Noi (Sirani Yankittikan) who went so far as to convert to Christianity in order to reject her. According to older brother Manit (Yasaka Chaisorn), the sisters have never got on, a degree of animosity between them obvious on attending the funeral of Noi’s husband Wiroj (Prapruttam Khumchat). Wiroj, however, a had traumatic family history of his own, his ancestors apparently having committed a terrible crime, while his grandfather was stoned to death by his employees, and his father burned his factory down for the insurance money later taking his own life. The couple’s son Mac (Poon Mitpakdee) was also tragically killed in a motorcycle accident some time previously.  

All of this might explain why Nim’s 20-something niece Mink (Narilya Gulmongkolpech) seems to be behaving strangely at the funeral, having too much to drink and kicking off at an uncle for supposedly insulting her. Witnessing other strange events, Nim starts to suspect that Mink is beginning to awaken as a shamaness and that Ba Yan is looking to move on, but whatever it is that’s troubling Mink may not be as benevolent as the protective deity. The clash between the sisters comes to represent a clash between tradition and modernity, ritualistic animist religion and Western Christianity, as mediated through the body of Mink a young urbanised woman working at a recruitment centre who thinks all this shaman stuff is backward and superstitious. Interviewed by the documentary crew she rolls her eyes and recalls a story of a so-called Doraemon Shaman who is compelled to sing the theme tune to the famous children’s cartoon about a blue robot cat from the future on entering a trance. 

As the film progresses, a series of questions arises in relation to the dubious ethics of the documentary film crew particularly in their decision to continue following Mink as her mental health deteriorates. Later events imply they did not edit this footage themselves, but the decision to film the aftermath of a suicide attempt seems unjustifiable as does the inclusion of CCTV footage featuring clearly recognisable people engaging in acts of intimacy even if admittedly in public places. 

In any case, the central question is how much faith you can have in things you can’t see, Noi ironically asking Nim how she knows Ba Yan is with her if they’ve never “met” while simultaneously refusing to ask herself the same question in regards to her Christian faith. Then again, we can’t be sure if Noi’s faith is “genuine” or solely a way of rejecting her traditional beliefs in order to shrug off the burden of shamanism. Even Nim finally admits that she no longer feels certain that she really is possessed by Ba Yan and not the victim of localised hysteria. Her final conclusion is that Mink’s illness is a result of Noi’s rejection of shamanism and only by convincing her to finally accept the goddess can they gain her assistance in freeing Mink from the ancestral curse and bad karma that have apparently made her a magnet for evil spirits. 

Having originally believed the spiritual pollution lay firmly in the present generation with the suggestion of an uncomfortable taboo, Nim later realises she’s been tricked and the problems lie far in the distant past if exacerbated by the karmic debts accrued by Wiroj’s immediate forbears. Noi’s reluctance to listen to her guidance, however, eventually leads to a series of escalating consequences, further bearing out the message that it was her own betrayal of her traditional beliefs that laid a spiritual trap for her daughter. Capturing a sense of eeriness in the Thai forests,  Banjong Pisanthanakun leans heavily into a sense of spiritual confusion and existential dread asking some key questions about the nature of faith, the costs of sophistication, and effects of failing to deal with the legacies of historical trauma while raising a sense of palpable evil in its demonic trickery. 


The Medium screened as part of this year’s BFI London Film Festival and will stream exclusively on Shudder in the US, Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand from Oct. 14.

Teaser trailer (English subtitles)

No. 76 Horror Bookstore: Tin of Fear (76号恐怖書店之恐懼罐頭, David Chuang & Hung Tzu-peng, 2020)

The first in a potential franchise, David Chuang & Hung Tzu-peng’s chilling anthology 76 Horror Bookstore: Tin of Fear (76号恐怖書店之恐懼罐頭, 76-Hào Kǒngbù Shūdiàn zhī Kǒngjù Guàntou) adapts four short stories from the online novel series of the same name. Somewhat interconnected and featuring some of the same cast, the four episodes each present a different kind of horror but all featuring a rather grisly spin from the secrets contained in the grim apartment building of the first instalment to the heartbreaking familial drama of the last as a collection of contemporary lost souls attempt to make sense of life, death, and that which exists somewhere in between. 

Titled “Rent”, the first chapter sees single mother Miss Ho (Esther Huang) leave her young son behind to travel to Taipei hoping to earn money through sex work in order to buy a house in which they can live together. Unfortunately, however, her city existence is even grimmer than expected, inhabiting a rundown apartment block overseen by an extremely creepy landlord (Lai Hao-Zhe) who informs her that the previous tenant, whose belongings are still in the room, abruptly disappeared without trace. “When your son grows up, he’ll be able to protect you” the landlord adds in rather sexist fashion finally getting round to fixing the lock on her door while singing unsettling nursery rhymes about slow rats getting eaten alive. Gradually Miss Ho becomes aware that the building is home to a dark secret connected with the sad fate of one particular family who apparently attempted to resist the urban renewal programme but ironically finds that her own victory lies in a sense with complicity. 

Meanwhile, in Hunger a convict (Joe Chang Shu-Wei) wakes up on the outside after a traumatic episode only to discover that in this version of reality food has been declared illegal. The clerk at a convenience store (Troy Liu Tzu-Chuan) reacts to his polite request for sustenance with shear horror as if he’d just asked him where he might be able to find the weapons grade plutonium or high grade explosives. A strangely dressed man hanging round outside explains that there’s no more food for another 76 days, but he can supply him with some tins for a small fee. Gesturing at the sign inside the store which is currently counting down to a ghost festival might have clued the man in on where he might be if only he had his thinking cap on, but sure enough he finds himself trapped in a purgatorial hellscape and eventually faced with an ironic confrontation as he resolutely fails to take the opportunity to overcome his baser instincts. 

Shifting into teen supernatural romance, Hide and Seek takes a less grisly though no less cruel turn as a bunch of kids head out on an adventure to celebrate the 18th birthday of Xiaoqi (Eric Lin Hui-Ming). Best friend Shaohua (Troy Liu Tzu-Chuan) has organised a camping trip to a supposedly haunted former dormitory yet the conflict here is of a more ordinary kind in that both the boys had unwittingly intended to declare their love to the same girl. Nevertheless, as the haunted house adventure proceeds Xiaoqi begins to to wonder who is haunting who, unwittingly forced into a delayed confession of his repressed emotion. 

Something similar befalls Hsin-chieh (Annie Ting-ni), the 30-something heroine of final instalment Taxi who has recently discovered she is pregnant and is subsequently consumed with maternal anxiety that reflects the loss of each of her parents in very different circumstances along with a possible sacrifice of independence and individual identity. Nagged by the aunt who raised her and seemingly cajoled by her perfectly pleasant, vaguely supportive boyfriend Ah-Shu (Wang Wei), Hsin-chieh leans towards an abortion, ending the relationship and getting a flat of her own but soon finds herself haunted by a creepy little girl and a host of other strange goings on until finally forced to face the legacy of abandonment in order to make peace with the traumatic past, ending a painful cycle of guilt and retribution in a bloody confluence of death and rebirth. Filled with surreal and nightmarish imagery, Taxi is at heart all about forgiveness and moving forward, a fitting end these four gloomy tales of supernatural harassment and guilty consciences finding at least a ray of hope in new life unburdened by fear or shame.


No. 76 Horror Bookstore: Tin of Fear streams in the US March 27 – 31 as part of the 12th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Lovely Devils (可愛い悪魔, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1982)

Until fairly recently, the work of Nobuhiko Obayashi had been largely unappreciated in the Anglosphere where he is associated most closely with his debut film House which was itself somewhat grudgingly respected as a “crazy” midnight movie. He was however surprisingly prolific and especially so for a director working through the difficult 1980s in a 60-year career which ended only with his death after a protracted illness itself ironically announced on the day his final film, Labyrinth of Cinema, should have opened in Japanese cinemas had it not been postponed in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Produced for television in the same year as I am You You Are Me, Lovely Devils (可愛い悪魔, Kawaii Akuma) is among those which Obayashi did not script for himself but is penned by Machiko Nasu and apparently inspired by The Bad Seed though Obayashi later revised the script to remove traces of the original work unwilling to create a simple homage. 

Similar in tone to Obayashi’s later The Deserted City, Lovely Devils is at heart a twisted gothic romance cautioning against the dangers of an excessive thirst for love. In ‘70s Japan, a wedding takes place at small church during which 5-year-old Alice, niece to Koji (Hiroyuki Watanabe) the groom, becomes overly attached to the veil of the bride, Fuyuko (Nao Asuka), and in the manner of entitled small children everywhere demands to be given it. Fuyuko tries to explain that she plans to hang on to the veil for the rest of her life as a keepsake and is sure that Alice will have an even prettier one of her own someday, but Alice creepily asks if that means she can have it when Fuyuko dies and, wanting to bring an end to the matter, she unwisely agrees. While everyone is busy assembling for the wedding photos in the garden, Fuyuko violently tumbles out of an upstairs window, her broken body landing on the patio below only to be met by Alice excited about collecting her veil. 

Meanwhile, at the same time in Vienna, Fuyuko’s exchange student sister Ryoko (Kumiko Akiyoshi) is in the middle of a difficult breakup with her local boyfriend Johann in which she, perhaps understandably, tells him to go die only to see him get hit by a car on his way out of her apartment. Overcome with guilt and grief in believing that she somehow killed Johann by wishing for his death, Ryoko goes quietly mad until her landlady contacts Koji who comes to bring her home and places her into a mental institution run by a convent in which the resident psychologist, Dr. Tsukahara (Toru Minegishi), is also a priest. After three years, Ryoko seems to be sufficiently recovered and so Koji asks his sister Keiko (Miyoko Akaza) to take her in as a governess to the now eight-year-old Alice (Tina Jackson). 

The central irony is that Ryoko is almost certainly not guilty of psychically killing Johann just someone who bitterly regrets saying something unkind in anger and having fate ironically follow through, where as Alice is definitely “demonic” and, as is later pointed out, a child who cannot discern right from wrong. In the liner notes for a later release for the film, Obayashi likened the figure of Alice who commits a series of murders with no conceptual understanding that it’s morally wrong to kill to that of himself as a thoroughly militarist boy in wartime who thought that Japan was just and everything outside Japan “bad”. Alice sees something she wants and has to have it. If someone else has it and won’t give it to her, they have to go (sometimes in quite elaborate ways). Ryoko’s battle is against the commonly held belief that eight-year-old girls are innocent angels, no one in their right mind (Ryoko has just been released from a psychiatric institution following a breakdown after all) would believe Alice capable of violent murder and especially not on the grounds that she simply wanted something trivial like a veil or a doll and was unable to accept that she could not have it. 

Later, Alice’s fragile, chain-smoking, dipsomaniac mother Keiko who always suspected there was something not quite right with her little girl attributes this extreme possessiveness to having discovered the body of her father after he unexpectedly hanged himself in their family home (it does not seem to occur to Keiko that perhaps he is merely the first victim, his ornate quill pen one of Alice’s favourite trophies). She thinks that lack of paternal love has made her seek attachment and permanence in objects but also dangerously in her uncle Koji whom she sees both as a surrogate paternal figure and as an incestuous love interest. It is also somewhat unfortunate that the actress playing Alice and the character herself is half-Japanese playing into an uncomfortable stereotype in gothic horror that posits these demonic qualities and romantic perversions as essentially an extension of foreignness, but in any case Obayashi leans in deep with the wedding imagery as Koji returns to rescue Ryoko in the white suit from his wedding firstly on her release from the hospital on which she too wears a white lace dress, and then subsequently with the still eight-year-old Alice who is dressed much the same only with the addition of an Edwardian-style sun hat to complete the look.  

It’s this final juxtaposition which pushes Ryoko towards accepting her imprisonment as a “criminal of love”, seeing herself and Alice as two of the same as if she really had caused Johann’s death through an excessive desire for a love he had but refused to give her in the same way Alice kills “out of a longing and thirst for love” sublimated into the acquisition of objects. Conjuring an intense and heady atmosphere of gothic unease with the remote country mansion and wandering ghostly brides, Obayashi once again plays with psychedelic surrealism with his romantic painted backdrops and characteristic use of colourplay particularly in flashback as Keiko recalls a sepia-tinged memory of the time they were “almost too happy”. Boasting high production values despite its TV movie genesis, Lovely Devils is defiantly an Obayashi production filled with his wistful sense of loss and nostalgia but also a deep darkness in its mildly disturbing, unconventional conclusion. 


The Queen of Black Magic (Ratu Ilmu Hitam, Kimo Stamboel, 2019)

“I’m not here just to punish you, I’m here to create hell” the vengeful tormentor at the centre of Kimo Stamboel’s contemporary remake of the 1981 classic The Queen of Black Magic (Ratu Ilmu Hitam) cooly intones. Reminding her victims that not to know is also a sin, the shadowy villainess has come she says to create hell on Earth because she is uncertain that mortal transgressions will be suitably punished after death and means to ensure those who have sinned suffer accordingly. Quite literally trapped in the space of their trauma, the heroes attempt to find a way out of their guilt and shame but are perhaps confronted as much by themselves as by a witch hellbent on justice as they try to find escape from the traumatic past. 

Hanif (Ario Bayu) and his wife Nadya (Hannah Al Rashid) have foregone their planned holiday to Bali to visit the man who ran the orphanage where Hanif spent much of his childhood who is now apparently close to death. This comes as a surprise to their three children who hadn’t realised their father was adopted or really ever thought about kids who don’t have parents, and though they are perhaps annoyed to have missed out on their holiday they are also a little excited to be going somewhere so unusual. Unfortunately however, the family’s cheerful mood is broken when they hit what they assume is a deer on their way to the orphanage casting an air of foreboding over their journey. 

Though it appears Hanif has been “open” with his wife about his past, the same is not necessarily true for his “brothers” Anton (Tanta Ginting) and Jefri (Miller Khan) who have also brought their partners to meet Mr. Bandi (Yayu A.W. Unru), Jefri’s wife Lina (Salvita Decorte) complaining that she knew nothing about any of this until they were already in the car on their way over. Far from a happy reunion, however, the brief sojourn at the orphanage begins to highlight the strain on each of the familial relationships, Lina apparently experiencing a kind of body dysmorphia and preoccupied with her weight while Anton’s wife Eva (Imelda Therinne) is constantly applying moisturiser to guard against a mysterious rash she was convinced was down to flesh eating bacteria but others feel is simply “dry skin”. These will however be the least of their worries as the men vaguely hint on voicing their anxiety that Mr. Bandi’s biological children may sell the estate to developers unsure of “what they’ll uncover”.

This perhaps implies that the now grown up men know more than they’re willing to admit about the dark secrets the orphanage hides, something which Hanif has in any case not shared with his wife who has only a rosy picture of his childhood with Mr. Bandi who eyes her with nervous suspicion even on his death bed. Nevertheless, the men have each been drawn back to the source of their trauma and now find themselves unable to escape without a reckoning, recalling a similar occasion that they tried to run only to find themselves mysteriously brought back as if by some supernatural force. There are indeed dark, other worldly forces in play but also a healthy dose of patriarchal violence, entrenched misogyny, abuse of power, and as the villainess had hinted a wilful tendency not to see especially when it comes protecting the most vulnerable members of society, children without parents who are easily manipulated in the knowledge that, as Hanif originally puts it, they would otherwise die abandoned. 

Justifying a particularly ironic part of her revenge plan, the witch reveals that the orphans may in fact be better off dead than raised by a man like Bandi, something which Hanif himself echoes if not quite with the same intent. Creating her hell, she forces her prey to harm themselves and each other with a variety of weapons ranging from kitchen knives, scythes, and comparatively more modern projectile weapons to insects literally choking the guilty from the inside. The orphanage itself is a place out of time, frozen as it was during Hanif’s childhood, one of the two orphans to have remained behind as mystified by Hanif’s inquisitive son Haqi’s (Muzakki Ramdhan) references to such things as “the internet”, “wi-fi” and “streaming” as he is by the “scary” VHS tape she shows him featuring actual footage of his father and a mysterious figure of legend. Yet even in realising they have allowed themselves to serve poor masters, deceived by a man they trusted, there is a sense the men at least, absent from the final frames, may never be able to free themselves from their guilt, forever haunted by the spectre of those they have unwittingly harmed. An eerie, gory, dread-propelled voyage through human cruelty to supernatural retribution, Queen of Black Magic positions the evil that men do ahead of that performed by vengeful witches looking for spiritual justice as its misused heroes attempt to find accommodation at least with the traumatic past.  


The Queen of Black Magic is available to stream via Shudder in the US, Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand from 28th January.

Trailer (English subtitles)

The Closet (클로젯, Kim Kwang-bin, 2020)

Parents in Korean horror films are often uniquely flawed but go to great lengths to redeem themselves through saving their children from supernatural peril. This much is true for the narcissistic hero of Kim Kwang-bin’s grief-stricken ghost story, The Closet (클로젯). The title, perhaps in contrast to its first implications, has a poignant quality as it represents in one sense a place of safety for children trying to protect themselves from the things that frighten them but of course it is no safe place and only leaves them trapped, vulnerable, and traumatised by a world of adult cruelty they are far too innocent to understand. 

Architect Sang-won (Ha Jung-woo) lost his wife in a car accident in which he was driving. He has just bought a large house in the country where it’s quiet and the air is clean to help his young daughter Ina (Heo Yool) recover from her trauma, but his decision is causing trouble in his professional life because his firm prefer their architects to be onsite during in builds and Sang-won obviously needs to be with Ina until he can find a nanny. Ina is generally avoidant around her father, something which probably isn’t helped by her overhearing him blame all his problems on her while arguing with work on the phone, but her personality undergoes an abrupt change after she opens the closet door in her new bedroom, rendering her suddenly cheerful while carrying around a strange doll. 

Sang-won’s first concern is the manky old toy which irritates him because he’d gone to trouble to buy Ina a fancy limited edition doll as a present which she hasn’t played with. Ina is probably ageing out of dolls, and doubtless not that impressed with the supposed pedigree of her father’s gift seeing as neither is she old enough to appreciate a purely decorative present, but in any case Sang-won’s gesture was largely for himself as he proves flagging up how much trouble he went to to get it without, it seems, thinking about what Ina might actually like. When the accident happened, Sang-won was having a minor argument with his wife because he hadn’t made it to Ina’s school concert. He was faintly dismissive, superficially apologetic but clearly unrepentant in choosing his career over his family. Still traumatised over his role in the accident, Sang-won fails to connect with his daughter out of a mix of emotional unavailability, guilt, and intense resentment.

Facing potential humiliation at work on learning he’s been “paired” with a younger architect, Sang-won gets a random local woman to watch Ina, telling her he’ll be away for two months but will visit at weekends. With all of the craziness in the house the “nanny” quits and Ina goes mysteriously missing soon after. Sang-won goes to the police and then the media, but once they catch sight of his medication and mental health profile, he all but becomes a suspect in his daughter’s disappearance, some thinking he killed her and is covering it up and others pitying him as a madman who simply doesn’t remember having harmed his child. An exorcist (Kim Nam-gil), however, has another explanation and Sang-won, though originally sceptical, is forced to trust him because he is the only one who doesn’t think him guilty of murdering his little girl. 

As might be expected, Sang-won’s paternal failures are the root of all his problems. Not only did he neglect his family before the accident, but continues to reject his paternity while rendered a single parent, hoping to palm his daughter off on a nanny so he can go back to concentrating on his career. Questioned by the well-meaning but insensitive exorcist, Sang-won is forced to realise he knows nothing about his little girl. He has no idea if she likes K-pop or if she has any friends. Faced with her continued indifference, he was planning to send her away to an art therapy camp, throwing his hands up in the air and declaring fatherhood too difficult. As the exorcist points out, kids are smart and they know when they aren’t wanted. It’s precisely this feeling of insecurity which has invited in the supernatural. Sang-won will have to prove his paternal love if he truly wants to bring his daughter home. 

The grudge-bearing ghost, it seems, is trying to provide a refuge for all those other children bullied, mistreated, or neglected by the adults who were supposed to protect them, but all Sang-won can do is apologise on behalf of failed fathers everywhere which is, it has to be said, not much of a victory even if refocuses our attention on the true villainy which is sadly much more societal than it is supernatural. In any case, Sang-won doesn’t seem to have changed very much even if he’s had something of a humbling and been superficially restored as a “good” father rededicating himself to raising his daughter. The final sting, however, is perhaps a little on the flippant side even as it reminds us of the evils still lurking in the dark corners of our societies. 


International trailer (English subtitles)

Soul (Roh, Emir Ezwan, 2020)

“We’re now living in a dangerous time. Many people are desperate and feel unsafe” according to the beleaguered single-mother at the centre of Emir Ezwan’s slow burn folk horror Soul (Roh). The latest film produced by Malaysian powerhouse Kuman Pictures which specialises in low budget horror, Ezwan’s tale of supernatural dread situates itself in a world in which there is “always something evil around us” and existential threat may arrive in the most unexpected of forms. 

This a small family discovers to its cost when they come across a little girl (Putri Qaseh) wandering in the jungle and, as anyone would, take her into their home where they give her food and shelter while trying to find out where she’s come from and what might have happened to her. Unfortunately, however, after some ominous events, the girl tears apart one of their chickens and eats it raw before cursing them by issuing the prophecy that they will all be dead by the next full moon, thereafter slashing her own throat. The woman, Mak (Farah Ahmad), and her two children, daughter Along (Mhia Farhana) and son Angah (Harith Haziq), are obviously upset and afraid but have no idea what to do. They take the body further into the jungle and leave it there. After that more visitors arrive at their remote hut, a hunter with a spear and a milky eye (Namron), and a wise old woman, Tok (June Lojong), who always seems to be offering them advice only to remember that she has other important business to attend to before imparting it. 

Things only get worse for the woman and her children who, as far as we know, have done nothing wrong, only try to help a lost little girl. Living as they do on the edge of the forest, they are well acquainted with its duplicitous mysteries. “Never believe anything that you see or hear in the jungle” Mak cautions the children, scolding her hungry son who’d wanted to take a deer he and his sister found mysteriously hanging from a tree and bring it home to eat. Along fears a tiger, but logically someone put that deer there for a reason and might not be happy if someone walked off with it, though as far as the family knew they were the only ones nearby. Still they don’t seem to find anything odd in the sudden arrival of the old woman who tells them she’s come from across the river to gather herbs, warning them that there are bad vibes all round their house and something untoward is sure to befall them if they don’t take care. 

Caught between the wise woman and the vengeful man apparently hot on the trail of the little girl, the family has no idea who to believe or where to turn. The old woman tells Angah that he has no need to be afraid, evil is all around us but can only hurt through other humans which is why it’s better not to trust anyone. Yet supernatural threat is always lurking, waiting for an opportunity to strike. We have no power over you, it later confesses, all we had to do was whisper and you obeyed. Mak, alone with her children, is entirely cut off from the outside world. She has no idea what has happened in the village across the water, and no recourse to help outside of Tok and the power of prayer, something she is later accused of not having valued enough. She and her children are accidental bystanders in someone else’s spiritual battle, completely powerless and entirely at the mercy of those who selfishly pursue their own desires with little thought to the family’s lives. 

Ezwan conjures a deep atmosphere of existential dread as the darkness begins to seep out of the forest and engulf all around it. Mak warned the children that they shouldn’t go taking things out of the jungle, but despite the eerie superstitions of ghosts and ghost hunters she knew from her youth was all too easily tricked by something that walked out on its own and followed them home. There is darkness everywhere, and with darkness fire. “Your next life will be as eternal as your soul” the voice of darkness warns, make your choices wisely.


Soul is available to stream in Europe until July 4 as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)