31 Days of Halloween — Day 13: Onibaba (1964) — by Dr. Shock

onibabaEditor’s note: Dave “Dr. Shock” Becker is a host on Horror Movie Podcast and the Land of the Creeps horror podcast. He is also the mastermind behind DVDInfatuation.com, a movie review blog where he is watching and posting one review every day until he reaches at least 2,500 movie reviews. Follow Doc on Twitter: @DVDinfatuation.

It’s the mid-14th century, and Japan is in a state of civil war. Two battle-weary Samurais, separated from their compatriots, make their way through a thicket of tall reeds. One Samurai is badly injured, and the other is helping him navigate the difficult terrain. Suddenly, the two are tripped up, and before they can get back on their feet, both are struck by spears and killed. We assume the warriors were done in by the enemy, but that’s not the case. Instead, a middle-aged woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) appear on the scene. With her son Kichi (the daughter-in-law’s husband) off to war, the women, unable to maintain the family farm, now make a living by killing Samurai soldiers and selling their belongings to Ushi (Taiji Tonoyama), a peddler who pays them in rice (Ushi then turns around and sells the gear back to the army for a profit).

One night, as the ladies are eating supper, Hachi (Kei Satō) bursts into their hut, asking for food. A neighbor of theirs, Hachi was hauled off to war the same time as Kichi, and tells how the two of them slipped away during a ferocious battle. According to Hachi, Kichi did not survive the trip home. With her husband now dead, it isn’t long before Hachi turns his attention towards the daughter-in-law. The Mother, fearing she will be left all alone, tries desperately to keep them apart, but to no avail. The solution to her problem presents itself one evening when a passing Samurai (Jūkichi Uno), wearing a demon’s mask, forces the Woman to lead him through the swamp. Instead, she kills the Samurai and takes his mask, which she hopes to use to frighten her daughter-in-law into ending her romance with Hachi. But things don’t go according to plan…

Directed by Kaneto Shindo, Onibaba is a raw, uncompromising look at how war affects the lives of everyday people. With no man around to tend to their farm, the Mother and Daughter-in-law resort to murder to put food on the table. What’s truly chilling, though, is the dispassionate manner in which they carry out the task. Take, for instance, the opening scene, where they kill the two Samurai. When the deed is done, the women strip their victims of their armor and clothes. They then drag the near-naked bodies to a large hole in the ground, and toss them inside it. Never once do the ladies show remorse; for them, murder has become a way of life, and they approach it like any other job.

As a result of their extreme conditions, the characters in Onibaba have lost touch with their humanity, and at times act more like animals than people (when a dog wanders too close to their hut, the two women spring into action, chasing it down and beating it to death, then cooking it that night for dinner). As for the relationship that develops between Hachi and the Daughter-in-law, it’s purely sexual, and even the Mother offers herself to Hachi at one point, in the hopes he’ll choose her instead (there is nudity in the film, but never once is it presented in an erotic fashion). Pushed to their limits, every single character in Onibaba will do whatever it takes to survive, even if it means turning on one another.

There is talk of demons and hell at several intervals throughout Onibaba, but it’s the characters who are the real monsters. And it’s the war that drove them to it.

— Dr. Shock

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5 thoughts on “31 Days of Halloween — Day 13: Onibaba (1964) — by Dr. Shock


    Day 13 – The Hitcher (2007)

    As someone who was once a big fan of 1986’s The Hitcher, I can’t say I was thrilled with the news of a remake in 2007. Despite being released nearly a decade ago, this was the first time I had watched this version of The Hitcher. It’s funny how just the declaration of a movie being a remake can sometimes be enough to cause some to avoid it like the plague. And yet, I’m also the guy who went out and bought direct-to-video Hitcher 2 DVD as soon as it was released back in 2003. What’s truly different about a film that calls itself a sequel and a movie that considers itself to be a remake when they’re both really just re-telling the same story as the original? I can’t say this is the only time I’ve been content with a sequel, but had some absurd problem with a remake and I’m guessing there’s many others like me out there as well.

    The easy difference between the original Hitcher and the remake is the fact that it starts off with two main characters. Jim Halsey is immediately joined by his college girlfriend, Grace Andrews. Interestingly enough, this initial plot difference makes the 2007 Hitcher be more comparable to 2003’s The Hitcher 2 which saw Jim return to the scene of his first dealings with John Ryder with his girlfriend, Maggie. Another similarity between The Hitcher 2 and the remake is that despite both of them starting off with Jim as the main character, all focus is shifted towards the girlfriend particularly once Jim dies in both films. So in theory, one could say 2007’s The Hitcher is a remake of both the 1986 film and it’s 2003 sequel, picking and choosing what to borrow from each.

    One of the big things I gained with my latest rewatch of the original The Hitcher is that the film is both greatly helped and slightly hurt by the fact that so much of the film centers on Jim being alone. The remake allowed me to see if my theory works out in that adding a full time partner takes away a good deal of the drama. For the first third of the film, I was prepared to eat crow. Not only did having the extra person there work, but it may have actually upped the drama. The initial scene with John Ryder being picked up was pretty great. The two parts I especially liked was Jim having to deal with the realization that he picked up a potentially dangerous man while Grace is blissfully unaware in the backseat due to her listening to her MP3 player. The drama continued to amp up when instead of Ryder holding a knife against Jim, he holds it against Grace. Unless you hate your significant other, changes are it’s going to affect you a little more seeing them in danger than yourself.

    The problem is that this blowing my expectations out of the water film quickly goes downhill. The longer the film goes on, the clearer it becomes that they’re missing everything that made the original work. We’re not given that early line of “I want you to stop me.” by Ryder to set off this bizarre game of cat and mouse. Ryder’s motivations aren’t clearly defined and frankly, the viewer is just left to come up with their own theories for why this man is randomly going after this couple. Then there’s the Hollywood effect. Everyone in this film is just too damn pretty. Sorry C. Thomas Howell, but you had that perfect look of dirt and clear paranoia on your face that naturally made you suspicious to anyone you came across. It’s why John’s game of making everyone think Jim was a guilty killer actually worked for awhile. You take one look at C. Thomas Howell in the middle of the original Hitcher and you can believe that he’s been up to no good. Zachary Knighton (Jim) and Sophia Bush (Grace) do not have that same look. The scene where they get busted at the diner for seemingly be responsible for the family’s death seemed absurd to me. They didn’t do a single thing that made them seem suspicious and yet the police immediately bust in as if they saw the couple kill the entire family. Even Sean Bean as Ryder lacks that rough look that the original Ryder, Rutger Hauer, had. Bean doesn’t look like a psychopath, which loses a lot of it’s value.

    The problems continue with the lack of a clear bond and game of cat and mouse. There’s a suspenseful diner scene in the original where Ryder supplies Jim with bullets to load his gun as a part of the whole “Ryder is suicidal” sub-plot. Here, it’s never really addressed until the end when Bean’s Ryder randomly blurts out to Grace that he wants to die. Bullshit. At no time did I ever get the impression that Bean’s Ryder wanted to die. It’s all about the actions. Hauer’s Ryder showed that he wanted to die by supplying Jim with bullets, Bean’s just claims it at the end and we’re supposed to buy into it. The lack of a strange bond is also disappointing. With the original being a coming of age tale (With Ryder oddly being responsible for Jim’s growth), that’s never there for the remake. By the end of the film, Grace didn’t have any actual growth. We didn’t even get to see Grace going out of her way to hunt down Ryder, instead Ryder just happens to gain his freedom by killing the police in the vehicle when Grace was in the car behind them. Lastly, a major element of the original movie was the sense of isolation. This was captured by nice looking landscapes showing the vast area and how Jim truly had no where to go. We don’t really get those classic visuals in the remake. It further lessens impact of the entire story.

    While I’ve never had a problem with Zachary Knighton’s acting before (Where is Netflix bringing Happy Endings back from the dead?) I thought he was just awful here. It was physically painful watching Knighton try and project emotions, especially any time he had tears in his eyes. It got to the point where I would have preferred either killing Jim off immediately as a surprise twist or doing a full gender swap with Grace being alone for the entire trip in the Jim Halsey role. The rest of the acting is just okay. No one is overly believable or stands out.

    Ignoring the first twenty minutes that I already voiced some positive praise for, there’s not much more to like about this film. I dug the soundtrack featuring plenty of popular songs of that time period. I’m down for any movie that features some Nine Inch Nails for a long car chase. The remake also showed more than the original. We’re shown a far more bloody scene when Jim first stumbles onto the station wagon with the dead family. Likewise, when it came to Jim’s death via being ripped apart by the semi-truck, the previously left to your imagination death of Nash, is shown in gory detail as Knighton’s body explodes in the middle for the bloodiest shot of the movie. Seems like a fitting death for an awful performance by Knighton. Beyond that, you do get to see a lot of Sophia Bush, but you could just watch one of those wacky horror-like episodes of One Tree Hill to get plenty of Sophia Bush and a far more watchable video.

    Overall, I put off watching 2007’s The Hitcher for nearly a decade due to my low expectations. Finally watching it, I thought I had actually made a mistake and this was actually a good little movie after watching the first twenty or so minutes. However, my decade long expectations would eventually be realized as 2007’s The Hitcher fails at so much of what made the original work. Truthfully, I would have been less annoyed with this movie had it not conned me into thinking I would end up liking it with it’s first scene with John Ryder. This film isn’t anywhere near as good or memorable as the original. If you’re going to watch it, go into it with realistic expectations and preferably watching it for free, whether by flipping through the channels on cable or as part of whatever streaming service you’re subscribed.

    Rating: 3.5

  2. This is one I desperately need to revisit. It was one of the first old school Japanese horror movies I watched and I don’t think I was patient enough or familiar enough with Japanese culture to fully appreciate it back then, though I do remember it’s starkness and ominous mood being striking and disturbing.

    Doc, I’m always recommending these movies but if you haven’t seen them then I think you’d love Kwaidan (1964), The Ghost of Yotsuya (1959) and Kuroneko (1968). And knowing how open minded you are when it comes to cinema I’d also recommend Jigoku (1960) for the novelty of it’s pre-H.G Lewis gore, The Face of Another (1966) which isn’t quite a horror film but is exceptionally atmospheric (Woman in the Dunes is another one by the same filmmaker that it quite impressive too) and any of the Yokai Monsters movies which are generally lighthearted and aimed at children but still feature all kinds of crazy practical effect creatures and spooky goings on. Daimajin (1966) is another great supernatural monster period piece too. That period of 50’s and 60’s Japanese cinema is just so rich with beautifully crafted films. It seems like they treated the horror/monster genre just as respectfully as they would an art film.

  3. Day 13: Three… Extremes (2004)

    Rating: 7.5/10 (rental)

    — — — — — Contains spoilers — — — — —

    What I liked:
    – The quality of all three short films is extremely high, and their extended runtime (~30-45 mins. each) allows for much more character and story development.
    – “Dumplings” and “Cut” are both exceptional, with “Dumplings” being incredibly disturbing and “Cut” being disturbing and intense.
    – The three short films share the basic theme of extreme despair.

    What I didn’t like:
    – The lack of connective tissue between the three short films; they are literally just packaged together, one after the other.

  4. Day 13 – Soul Mate

    A melodramatic little film about a woman who moves into a country house after a failed suicide attempt. She soon realizes that she’s not alone in the house. Pretty straight forward setup, and I was onboard. It’s a slow one though, and as you soon find out it’s extremely light fair horror. It’s really more of a gothic love story, but there isn’t a lot of bite to it. It’s middle of the road for sure. Some of the acting is particularly weak it points, which is rough, but ultimately it’s not a total avoid. 4/5/10

  5. Day 13: The Collection (2012)
    Rating: 5/10

    This film is the sequel to The Collector (2009), and both films are directed by Marcus Dustan. Unfortunately, I found the Collection to be a disappointment. I really liked the home invasion scenario of the first film and found it to be very scary, but this sequel goes in a different direction and for me, it fell flat. I’ll have to give it another watch without comparing it to the The Collector.

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