‘Out of Mind’ and ‘Ugetsu’

Those last couple of movies were a bit too much. It’s time to take a breather, slow the pace down a bit and take a look at a couple of more thoughtful, less violent films.

Out of Mind: The Stories of H. P. Lovecraft

Out of Mind: The Stories of H. P. Lovecraft (1998) — Directed by Raymond Saint-Jean. Starring Art Kitching, Christopher Heyerdahl, Peter Farbridge, Pierre LeBlanc, Michael Sinelnikoff.

Thanks to a close friend I have recently become acquainted with the great author of weird fiction, H. P. Lovecraft. It may be a surprise that I took this long, being the fan of horror that I claim to be, but I was intimidated by his dense prose. Yet I managed to overcome that notion and discovered that slowing down and working my way through his complex style is a rewarding experience. He is now one of my favorite authors. Unfortunately movies based upon his fiction are generally terrible.

Out of Mind: The Stories of H. P. Lovecraft is one of the exceptions, though it is not a straight retelling of any one of Lovecraft’s stories. Instead it is a unique, enthralling exploration of Lovecraft and some of the themes of his work, in particular his fascination with dreams. Nearly every character in the film is taken from his tales and woven together into a dreamlike narrative that is aptly regarded as one of the best of the Lovecraft-based films.

Randolph Carter (Art Kitching) receives an unexpected inheritance from George Angell, an uncle he never knew existed. It is an ancient book that fans of Lovecraft will immediately recognize as the Necronomicon, a fictional grimoire written in Damascus by the “mad Arab” Abdul Alhazred, follower of Yog-Sothoth and Cthulhu. In Lovecraft’s tales few copies of this book are known to still exist and the ones that do are kept locked away because of the dangerous nature of its contents.

Carter begins exploring the book and discovers tucked away amongst the pages of strange characters and ominous sketches an envelope addressed to Professor Henry Armitage, a photo of a man he will soon discover to be H. P. Lovecraft, and another old photograph of a man who looks a lot like Carter himself. All of this is strange enough but after reading out loud the strange, foreign text written on the back of the picture, Carter begins having strange dreams of himself dressed in an old-fashioned suit and in a time where his dress is most definitely not old-fashioned. There he encounters a man he recognizes as his friend Blake (Peter Farbridge) but who now seems to be a mad scientist type named Harley Warren. And this Warren fellow refers to Carter as George Angell. Funny how dreams work… It grows stranger from there as the world of Carter’s dreams overlap with his waking life. It is not giving too much away to reveal that by the end of the film Carter meets Lovecraft in the woods where they have a brief discussion and the question arises, who is dreaming of whom?

In between scenes of the narrative we are treated to Christopher Heyerdahl’s amazing performance as H. P. Lovecraft who stiffly sits behind a desk and speaks to the camera. There is no existing film of Lovecraft that I’m aware of so I’m not sure what Heyerdahl bases his performance on beyond a knowledge of the author’s writings and his New England roots. But the rigid posture, the accent, and the clipped cadence in his delivery are everything I imagine Lovecraft to be. The dialogue in these sequences apparently comes from Lovecraft’s letters, of which it is estimated he wrote nearly 100,000. I’ve never read any of them but now I’m beginning to think I should to appreciate the insight he provides into the themes and ideas in his work.

It’s a complex and fascinating little film that doesn’t require knowledge or appreciation of Lovecraft to enjoy but it caters to fans by including references to the life and works of the great author. I picked up on some of them but I’m sure there are others I missed. Regardless of some of these references going above the heads of Lovecraft newcomers, it could still serve as a good introduction to those with a passing curiosity of one of the greatest authors of horror and weird fiction to have ever lived.

And you can watch it for free right here:

Ugetsu

Ugetsu (1953) — Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. Starring Masayuki Mori, Mitsuko Mito, Machiko Kyō, Kinuyo Tanaka, Eitaro Ozawa.

Ugetsu is not my usual Halloween Horror Movie Marathon fare. It is a black and white Japanese film shot in 1953 by Kenji Mizoguchi, a director I knew nothing about until seeing this film but thanks to Wikipedia I can get up to speed, more or less. He was apparently quite prolific though a good portion of his earlier films have been lost. By the time of his death he was acknowledged as one of the masters of Japanese cinema, ranked right beside Ozu and Kurosawa. Now that I’ve seen his beautiful film Ugetsu I can certainly understand why.

Set in 16th century Japan Ugetsu tells the tale of two couples, neighbors in a small farming village who must contend with the civil war that threatens to descend upon their small town. Rather than fearing for their lives the men of these couples see the war as an opportunity to pursue their own ambitions. Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) plans to sell his pottery in the city market (apparently people are eager to buy rice bowls at wartime… that’s news to me) and Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa) sees the war as a chance to fulfill his dream of becoming a samurai warrior. Their wives are not too fond of their husbands’ one track minds. Tobei’s wife Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) is furious with Tobei for potentially abandoning her for his childish fantasies. Genjuro’s wife Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) appreciates his desire to provide for her and their son but there are more pressing concerns, the most urgent one being the soldiers who will soon sweep through the village. They need to get outta town!

As expected the soldiers burst upon the town forcing the couples to flee to the hills along with the other villagers. Undeterred by this development Genjuro and Tobei decide to press on to the city market. The two families come back down from the hills, avoiding the army by traveling across a lake towards their destination. But, in one of the most beautifully shot sequences of the film, another boat mysteriously appears in the fog. In it is a dying man who urges them to turn back due to the threat of pirates. Only partially heeding the warning, Genjuro takes his wife and son back to shore. Tobei’s wife Ohama (Mitsuko Mito) opts to remain with her husband.

In the marketplace, Genjuro’s wares are selling fast. Tobei takes off and at last becomes the samurai he’s always dreamed of but that success comes at a terrible price for Ohama, one I will not reveal here. Meanwhile a striking noblewoman, Lady Wasaka (Machiko Kyō) and her servant purchase a large amount of Genjuro’s pottery. They ask him to deliver the goods to her home, the nearby Kutsuki mansion. That evening he arrives at the mansion, which looks aged and uncared for on the outside but beautiful enough on the inside. Soon Lady Wasaka professes her love for Genjuro (this pottery must be really fantastic) and demands that he marry her. He is so enchanted by the beautiful woman that he finds it difficult to resist. But what is the nature of the the mysterious Lady Wasaka?

This sure doesn’t sound like much of a horror movie but I came across it in the 333 Films to Scare You to Death book I’ve mentioned before. The tale of Lady Wasaka is the ghost story portion of the film that allows us to count Ugetsu as a horror film and it is surprisingly creepy. As the Lady Wasaka dances and sings to celebrate her marriage to Genjuro a male voice comes out of nowhere to accompany her. She explains that is her father, singing in approval of the betrothal. We see a shot of the helmet of the late warrior and it is an ominous, eerie shot. As the story plays out the revelation about the mansion and its inhabitants is obvious but no less effective. And there is another spirit whose revelation is tragic and poignant.

Ugetsu’s black and white cinematography is lovely. Much of the camera movement consists of slow tracking shots that are apparently typical of cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa’s style. This motion is meant to replicate a type of Japanese scroll painting called emakimono. It’s an effective method of slowing down the pace of the narrative and putting the audience in a thoughtful or contemplative mood as the movie almost literally unfurls on the screen. One might expect this to bog down the pacing but it does not. I found the style beautifully hypnotizing.

I loved this film and I look forward to revisiting it in the future. If you’re looking for gore or extreme scares you might want to skip it, though you’d miss a major milestone of world cinema. But if you’re weary of the fast-paced editing that’s become common in much of today’s filmmaking, Ugetsu is a refreshing break.

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