Horrors of Malformed Men

Studio: Arrow Video

Sep 24, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

A man wakes up in an asylum, trapped in a cell full of half-naked women of all ages, repeatedly ducking a blade as one woman swipes at him with a knife, cackling. He remembers nothing of his past, other than he was a medical student. He escapes after accidentally murdering a man, only to wind up in a circus, where he picks up a clue that he might have come from a specific region of the Japanese coast. After appearing to accidentally murder another person, he heads south in search for truth behind his identity. On the train down, he notices the obituary of a prominent nobleman in the area – most notably because the man is his exact doppelganger. And so naturally, he desecrates the man’s grave, steals the corpse’s clothes, and passes himself off as the late nobleman returned from the dead. As he successfully infiltrates the aristocratic family, he gradually uncovers the horrible truth about where he came from.  

And that, believe it or not, is where the movie really gets weird. Released in 1969, Horrors of Malformed Men was the work of prolific Japanese exploitation director Teruo Ishii. While the first half of the movie is downright bizarre, the second is where the movie devolves into psychedelic nightmare. It’s difficult to explain too much without spoiling the central mystery, but our protagonist finds himself on an island inhabited by mostly non-verbal humans with widely varied deformities – the “malformed men” of the film’s title – who perform for him in disturbing ways. The most prominent of them was played by famed avant garde choreographer Tatsumi Hijikata, whose body twists and contorts in ways that feel extremely unnatural and unsettling. Rather than depict any traditional deformities, Ishii had his malformed men done up and heavy theatrical makeup and costuming – the effect is far more performance art than Cronenberg-ian.

According to the essay which opens the thick booklet in Arrow Video’s new Blu-ray edition, studio Toei recalled all existent prints of Horrors of Malformed Men shortly after its release, which meant it went unseen for almost half a century. That would explain why this superbly strange piece of cinema doesn’t have as big a cult following as it perhaps deserves; had it been more available, it’s easy to imagine this being passed around by the same film fans who leapt at offerings like Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain or Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man.   

As Ishii passed away roughly a decade before the film found its way to wide release, the director wasn’t able to directly participate in any of the bonus features. Instead, there are two full-length commentaries by historians to piece together as much info about this unusual film as possible. Two more bonus features have fellow Japanese filmmakers discussing Ishii’s work and legacy, and there’s a short home video of the director visiting an Italian film festival before his death. Recommended to only the truly adventurous, Horrors of Malformed Men is a film that should be seen by anyone interested in cinema’s weirdest artifacts.



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