Perhaps more than any other genre, horror has been at its most innovative on the lowest budget, and a historian of 1960s horror cinema might note that the decade began with Pyscho (1960) and ended with Night of the Living Dead (1968)—the former made by a Hollywood magnate scaling back, and the latter by a scrappy independent inventing a subgenre on a shoestring. Perhaps more than any other decade, the 1960s experimented with the boundaries of what a movie could be, and not just on the small end—the decade is dotted with behemoths where it’s nearly impossible to imagine the same pitch getting so deluxe a treatment today. Which brings us to the strange and wondrous Kwaidan (1964) by the great director Masaki Kobayashi.
Kwaidan is a omnibus of traditional ghost stories, four in total, each about a supernatural encounter in old Japan. There’s very little dialogue, with an omniscient narrator taking the lead. The pace is slow. Nothing ever really leaps out to startle you. There are few dramatic surprises, with the stories generally climaxing exactly how you’d expect them to. And the whole thing runs slightly over three hours long.
Obviously, this is not the most inviting method for those seeking a thrill. But Kwaidan did not come to thrill, but to haunt. At the time, it was one of the most expensive films ever made in Japan (not to mention an Oscar nominee), yet it’s not just interested in cinema as a modern, state-of-the-art medium, but in how cinema could best evoke much older (and quintessentially Japanese) forms of expression. The cinematic techniques are a model of precision and virtuosity. But this also may be the best cinema did at capturing the feeling of folklore, painting, or epic poetry.
Almost the whole thing takes place of lavish sets with unreal backdrops. When I say that Kwaidan is “strange”, a better word would perhaps be “alien”: the film is a trip to another world, and to see it on a big enough screen is to be immersed in a mythic past where the existence of spirits is taken as a given. Faces get paler and paler scene by scene; eyes watch down from the sky; a young man has Buddhist prayers painted on his body for protection. The ghosts in Kwaidan are a warning about the power of thoughts and ideas: memories you should be careful about obsessing over, secrets you should be careful about revealing, stories you should be careful about telling. And the film’s narrative coup is that it ends by bringing us back to the 20th century, with the spirits in hot pursuit.
Halloween Countdown is an annual, personal, and highly unoriginal tradition where I write fast, extemporaneous reviews of 20 prominent but random horror movies during the month of October.