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Japanese Horror Fest at American Cinematheque

Event Date & Time: Black Cats and Haunted Castles
Location: Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood

The American Cinematheque’s Festival of Fantasy, Horror and Science-Fiction Films ended week’s ago, so what’s left to do for Halloween? A series of classic Japanese horror films from the 1960s and 1970s. Called “Black Cats and Haunted Castles,” the series of seven films runs from October 29-31 at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.

The rational for “Black Cats and Haunted Castles” is that there has been a recent upsurge of interest in Japanese horror, thanks to films like JU-ON and DARK WATER that are being remade in America. However, if you go to these films expecting the sort of surreal nightmares you saw in JU-ON, you’re likely to be disappointed. Classic Japanese horror films tend to feature qualities one associates more with the art house than with mainstream horror films. The films tend to have period settings, and there is an emphasis on visual beauty, a measured pace, and an attempt to build suspense slowly. Overall, if one were to make comparisons, the effect is somewhat more similar to RING.

The series events are:

BLACK CAT IN THE FOREST (1968 – a murdered woman and her daughter-in-law return as avenging cat-ghost vampire) and PORTRAIT OF HELL (1969 – Hell materializes on Earth when an arrogant lord commissions a painting of paradise and begins lusting after his daughter). Double bill, October 29 @ 7:30pm

KWAIDAN (1964) – the classic anthology films, featuring four supernatural episodes. October 30 @ 5pm
BLIND BEAST (1969 – a sightless sculptor kidnaps a model and introduces her to his forest full of giant female body parts) and HELL (1961 – a theology student led astray eventually winds up in hell). Double bill, October 30 @ 8:30pm

THE MASSEUR’S CURSE (1970 – a murdered masseur rises from a swampy grave) and THE HAUNTED CASTLE (1969 – an example of Japan’s many “cat-ghost” films, in which a woman returns from the dead to seek revenge on guilty samurai). Double bill, October 31 @ 5pm.

All of these films are available on video and/or DVD, but keep in mind that Japanese filmmakers often made excellent use of the widescreen frame in way that really pays off when you see their work in theatres. And at a time when most occidental  horror films were modestly budgeted efforts shot in standard format, their Japanese counterparts were treated like high-class productions worthy of lavish treatment.

KWAIDAN is easily the most famous of the set, having been a staple on the art house circuit for decades. It’s pacing may seem slow for the tastes of modern audiences, but its use of color and imagery is quite impressive, even startling at times. A couple of the episodes even provided inspiration for sequences in John Milius’s misguided CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982): in one scene Conan encounters a witch in an isolated mountaintop retreat; in another, the barbarian is painted with tattooed symbols to protect him from ghosts. Unfortunately, the film was often shorn of one of its episodes when released in the states, so this is an opportunity to see the complete version on the big screen.

Overall, these classic Japanese horror films might not be your cup of blood if you’re only interested in high-tech, contemporary horror, but for fans interested in art house films, classic horror films, or the golden age of Japanese Cinema, this is a must-see event.

UPDATE: I just want to add a short note for the benefit of those not familiar with American Cinematheque. Although the organization programs a good deal of foreign and art house fare, they are not art film snobs by any means, and their schedule frequently includes horror, science-fiction, fantasy, and cult films.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.