Escaped asylum inmates, mistaken identity, resurrection from the grave, bizarre biological experiments, murder, incest, and a plot for world domination via freaks - the barest bones of a plot outline makes Horrors of Malformed Men, directed by Teruo Ishii, sound itself malformed - overstuffed with ingredients that can’t cohere. Surprisingly, the film maintains an integrity to its own oddity and perversity, never pausing for a moment to let a hint of self-awareness turn the proceedings into farce.
We meet our protagonist, Hirosuke Hitomi, in a woman’s cell of an insane asylum, where half-naked women dance around him and try to stab him. Later, he kills a man who breaks into his own cell to kill him, escapes the asylum, and tries to lay low, where he meets a circus girl he takes to liking. Whether he actually joins the circus and travels with them is unclear, but he keeps on the move until he finds, thanks to a masseuse with a convenient amount of exposition, that he looks exactly like Genzaburo Komoda, a rich man who had just died, right down to a swastika birth mark on his foot. Genzaburo's father happens to be a rich recluse living on a distant island. So, naturally, Hirosuke poses as the resurrected corpse of the rich man and beds his wife (and mistress). He feels enigmatically drawn to the island, which feels like something he saw in a recurring dream. Weirder still, his new house is periodically invaded in the night by bizarre-looking, cackling men. Eventually, after his "wife" dies mysteriously, Hirosuke goes to the island, and finds the source of the strange men - Genzaburo’s father, Jogoro, has been creating bizarre human monstrosities with his experiments, and is seeking to craft by hand an ideal freak society.
Jogoro is played by Tatsumi Hijikata, who was the founder of a stylized form of dance called “butoh." It involves eerie, often grotesque distortions of the body and odd, decidedly arrhythmic movements. The easiest touchstone for this strange style of movement for contemporary audiences would be the creepy stop-start arm twisting movements of Sadako, from the Japanese Ring. In the repeated dream sequence that haunts Hirosuke, Jogoro moves around the rocks on his island, employing an inhuman jerkiness of oddly controlled spasms. It’s downright eerie to watch a human body move like that. The Malformed Men of the title are also played by members of Hijikata's butoh troupe, and their odd movements mixed with the bizarre deforming make-up turns the last third of the film into a cascade of strange imagery and story points which do not let up... even after a detective springs to the fore to explain everything that's happened, itself a surreal juxtaposition to the cluster of madness that comes before.
Hijikata was a mostly fringe, underground figure who only appeared in a few commercial film projects, all of those directed by Teruo Ishii. Horrors of Malformed Men has a strange companion piece to Ishii's more genre-bound Blind Woman’s Curse. That was a comparatively straight-forward blend of horror and a pre-war yakuza story. With Horrors of Malformed Men, Teruo Ishii has eschewed any sort of genre boundaries. There is a lot of horror in Horrors of Malformed Men, but there’s thriller aspects, comedy, and plenty of unbounded surrealism.
The film is based on the writings of Edogawa Rampo, a Japanese mystery and horror writer of the early 20th century who was heavily influenced by Western writers, particularly Edgar Allen Poe. Horrors of Malformed Men is largely based on his work The Strange Tale of Panorama Island but with references to several other Rampo stories worked in. The Japanese title of the film includes the subtitle Edogawa Rampo Zenshu - "Edogawa Rampo's Collected Works".
What's unexpected is how coherent the incoherence is. Horrors of Malformed Men does not feel like random story elements thrown into a blender, but a nightmare concocted by a single driving personality. To call it "Lynchian" would be completely anachronistic, but might be a useful descriptor for finding an interested audience. The humor in the film is much more on the surface than David Lynch's more subdued quirks - there's a straight-out comedy scene with one Buddhist priest trying to trick another into carrying the supposedly dead body of Hirosuke out of the graveyard - but the feeling of bizarre otherworldliness is similar. It's the rare odd movie that is completely committed to its oddness, all the way through to a bizarre ending that has to be seen to be believed.
Horrors of Malformed Men has been released on Blu-ray by Arrow Video. For such an obscure movie, Arrow has put together a wealth of extras. There are two commentary tracks, one by Mark Schilling from an older release, and a newly recorded commentary by Tom Mes, which complement each other with the discussion of the history of the filmmaker and actors and the production itself. Also included are a trio of video extras - a 14-minute interview with screenwriter Masahiro Kakefuda, a 23 minute appreciation of Ishii by filmmakers Shinya Tsukamoto and Minoru Kawasaki, and a 14 minute documentary short of Ishii and Mark Shilling visiting the Far East Film Festival in Italy. In the booklet there are a trio of excellent background essays on the film, on Teruo Ishii, and Edogawa Rampo by Jasper Sharp, Tom Mes, and Grady Hendrix respectively.