Honour, duty, and glorious death in the service of one’s Lord. These are the calling cards of the Samurai film genre and 13 Assassins has them all – in spades.
Set in the 1840s, 13 Assassins takes place with the feudal era of the Tokugawa Shogunate coming to a close in Japan, and with it, the age of the Samurai.
A portrait of cruelty
Enter Lord Naritsugu, the reigning Shogun’s younger brother, who threatens to destroy the empire with his cruelty and barbarism.
While a guest of a local clan, Naritsugu rapes a woman and then hangs around until her husband eventually shows up. The husband tries to console her, and ends up with Naritsugu’s sword through his chest for doing so. Not content with raping the woman and killing her husband in front of her, blood-soaked Naritsugu takes three massive – yet purposeful and measured – hacks to decapitate the already-dead husband. No smile, no menace, no feeling.
Elsewhere, peasants are starving and revolt against Naritsugu, who massacres every one of them, except the daughter of the leader, who he quadruple-amputates and keeps as a “plaything”, before eventually growing bored with her and casting her out.
The opening scene has a high level samurai lord named Mamiya committing hara-kiri (ritual suicide) in protest of this escalating pattern of madness from Naritsugu. Like the rest of the film, it is shot with painstaking detail and length. This scene could have been shot in half the time, but we’re made to watch the slow, deliberate actions of Mamiya, knowing what will come.
After the suicide, a great sign of disrespect to the would-be Shogun, Naritsugu gathers the remaining members of the Mamiya family – women and kids, mostly – ties them up in the courtyard and methodically shoots them all with arrows. Each member, forced to watch as their family is slowly butchered, knowing that eventually an arrow will pierce their body. While doing so, he calmly explains to his Chief Samurai, Hanbei, that “punishment is a master’s duty”, and that Samurai serve and die at their Lord’s pleasure.
Hanbei, who will not disobey his master, is powerless to stop the massacre of the Mamiya family. Naritsugu – played brilliantly by Gorô Inagaki – is unnervingly calm and level-headed during every brutal act he commits.
As the Shogun’s half-brother, Naritsugu’s heinous acts have thus far been covered up. It’s made clear that as the heir apparent to the Shogunate, Naritsugu will undoubtedly destroy Japan’s 200-year peace, and plunge it into war and chaos.
Conspiracy for the greater good
However, Mamiya’s suicide convinces the Shogun himself that something must be done. A samurai named Shinzaemon Shimada is selected by the Shogun Council to settle the matter. Quietly.
The plot may seem overly complicated at first, but with so much political intrigue fueling the movie, it’s necessary for the slow-burn-to-a-boil finish that 13 Assassins has in store.
The first 75 minutes of this movie could even be described as slow; that was my first impression. My second viewing (for this review), opened my eyes and allowed me to see how wrong I was. 13 Assassins isn’t slow, it’s methodical. Calculated. Precise. Nearly every scene adding a character, an element of plot, or building on ones already established. Each one advances the audience by a single step towards the end.
Honour, loyalty, and duty are reinforced at every opportunity, perhaps not more brilliantly than in the scene where Hanbei confronts Shinzaemon only days before they will meet in battle. Though never bluntly stated, each knows what the other hopes to accomplish, and that neither will allow the other to succeed. Even though Hanbei knows that Naritsugu will destroy Japan’s peace and bring suffering to all, he will defend his Lord at all costs – he is a Samurai, loyal to his Lord, and that is his duty.
Shinzaemon’s plan to save Japan from its own would-be ruler is to ambush Naritsugu as he travels through the Japanese countryside. With just a handful of men (12 hardened warriors, and one rather annoying peasant character who gets tacked on midway through), Shinzaemon plans to ambush the Shogun’s heir, and his army-like retainer of bodyguards lead by Hanbei, at a small village called Ochiai.
Bloodbath at Ochiai
What follows is a whirlwind of choreographed chaos and death. The viewer is treated to a 45-minute onslaught of intense and claustrophobic fighting as Shinzaemon’s assassins strike fast and retreat; ducking down alleys and through buildings in an effort to make their lives count. Ochiai’s various booby-traps – sliding bamboo walls and rampaging, flaming oxen (literally cows set on fire) – divide and damage Hanbei’s troops.
Naritsugu’s retainers doggedly pursue and fight bravely, but they are clearly no match for the assassins’ skill and dedication; numbers are their only advantage – but numbers they have. One by one the assassins – injured, exhausted and overwhelmed – begin to fall. With the fighting so chaotic, it is almost impossible to tell who is truly winning.
Forty-five minutes is a long time for a cinematic battle to take place, and it is not without its flaws. The sounds are repetitive, consisting mostly of screaming and the various stabbing/slashing noises katanas make when they come in contact with the human body. While the fighting starts to feel drawn out at a few points, there is enough individual badassery on the part of a few of the Assassins to make it watchable, and the length creates an uncertain tension as to which way the battle could swing.
Without spoiling the outcome of this vicious battle (which has to be seen, even if just to appreciate the scale of such a cinematic undertaking), it is somewhat anti-climatic. It makes sense, so I don’t have a big issue with it logistically, but you’re just left wanting more – even after 45 minutes of near-relentless bloodletting.
It may have taken me some time to truly appreciate the details so carefully crafted by filmmaker Takashi Miike, but I loved this film.
Vampire Circus (1972)
When a sinister travelling carnival called the Circus of Night comes to the weary and plague-stricken town of Schtettel, the townsfolk, haunted by memories of their former vampire lord, must once again take up arms against the creatures of the night and break the curse put on their hamlet.
It’ll take a man from the past — Albert Muller, who lost his wife to the vampire Count Mitterhaus —and a boy from the present — Anton Kersch — to stop the old evil from rising again.
If the Universal monster movies defined the first golden age of horror cinema, it was Hammer Films that ushered in the second.
Hammer’s unmistakable style of period settings, classic monsters, and buxom babes epitomized the silver age of horror, which was was well into its winter years by the time Vampire Circus hit theatres. By 1972, a new generation of fans and filmmakers were already trading in old world classics drafted from literature and legend for masked killers or deamonic possessions.
Vampire Circus is a late holdout from that silver age, when lush gothic atmosphere, imposing actors, and a pair of prosthetic fangs were what movie nightmares were made of.
The film starts off where any good Hammer flick should —in the past. A vague, medieval past, somewhere in Germanic Europe.
A long cinematic intro sets the Gothic scene, paints some back story, and introduces us to the evil Count Mitterhaus. Unlike its Universal ancestor Dracula (1931), there’s no slow-building mystery in Vampire Circus. No dark suggestions that the count may not be what he seems, no subtle hints at his true nature. They just hit you over the head with it: he’s a vampire who likes to drink children’s blood. Next question.
The villagers, led by schoolteacher Albert Muller, rise up and slay Mitterhaus. He curses their children, they burn his castle, yadda yadda yadda. It’s an enjoyable primer that really gets one in the horror state of mind.
Visually, Hammer displays an uncanny nack for nailing that vaguely historical setting, in a comic book kind of way.
The film watches like an ancient, blood-stained tapestry, lightly faded with the passing of years. Colours are deep and rich, with costumes just a little too prim and perfect for your average dark age bourgeois village. The town of Schtettel is like something out of Balzac’s Droll Stories; distantly rooted in reality, but dripping with that idealized fairy tale quality.
Though Schtettel is ripe and rotting with contagious plague (so much so that the surrounding townships have set up an armed road block around it), it seems to have no shortage of beautiful young women with flawless skin and teeth, and of course, low cut dresses. Partial nudity was often just as much a part of the Hammer formula as a haunting atmosphere, or Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee were. After all, boobs put butts in seats.
In Vampire Circus’ case, none of the racier scenes feel too tacked on, and all serve some plot purpose of another. There’s plenty of sexuality to the film, but only a few scenes depicting actual sex.
Then there’s the gore factor. First and foremost, this is a Gothic tale, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for a little of the red stuff.
Compared to horror movies of even just a few years later (Texas Chainsaw Massacre came out in ’74), Vampire Circus’ dainty neck wounds may seem quaint, but there remains something very powerful about watching a vampire’s elongated canines tearing into the flesh of an innocent. It’s an old visual that conjures up a primal human fear, no matter how many times you’ve seen it.
But what’s a plunging neckline or a little blood on your collar without that Gothic Hammer atmosphere? With its crumbling castle, creepy village, deep dark woods, and sinister carnival, Vampire Circus is satisfyingly heavy on the old world eeriness.
Plot wise, the travelling carnival gimmick gives that old vampires vs. villagers tale some new colour, but never does it stray too far form the basic pillars of the genre. If you’re worried this is one of those embarrassingly dated ’70s contemporized horror films with psychedelic music and hippies (I’m looking at you Dracula A.D. 1972), breathe easy, this one’s a classic.
Forty years on, some of the visual effects are forgivably dated, and the blood is that too-bright shade of red paint you see in a lot of earlier colour movies. But no film studio does men in frilly shirts with fangs better. And I mean that in (almost) all seriousness.
Perhaps the best-aged visual is the “glowing cross” effect. When a cross-shaped object nears a vampire in the film, it glows the kind of deep red of a sword in a forge, or an element on an old stove, to modernize it. It’s an almost magical effect.
The Circus of Night itself is made up of a few creepy caravan tents, a handful of animals, and the performers. There’s a pair of vampirac twins, who are bound by ethereal forces to feel one another’s pain, the swarthy gypsy boy who transforms into a black panther, and the mystical caravan matriarch hiding a dark secret. Each night they perform bizarre, supernatural feasts to the delight and wonder of the townsfolk.
The carnival also features a silent strongman (played by Darth Vader himself, David Prowse), and perhaps the most horrifying of the bunch, a clown-makeup-ed dwarf who heralds the arrival of the circus.
Played by British actor Skip Martin, Michael the dwarf is small in stature, but big in presence. He is not a creature of the night, merely a man in league with evil. Without fang prosthetics or buckets of blood on his face, Martin manages to out-creep every vampire in the picture. There’s just something sinister about the knowing smile he gives the carnival’s unsuspecting patrons, or the way he plays with the town’s children, that conjures up dark tales from the Brothers Grimm.
John Moulder-Brown’s performance as Anton Kersch, the film’s boy-hero, is much less thrilling. His frail, boyish looks seem out of place in a hardened medieval town battling the supernatural, making him one of the least convincing vampire slayers to make it to the silver screen. It’s a bit of a stake in the heart for an otherwise fine horror flick.
Laurence Payne, on the other hand, fits right in as the level-headed but reluctant leader Albert Muller. He’s the only guy in town with enough sense to fight the plague with science, and enough courage to step up and take on the vampires with his bare hands. All stoic expressions and steeled will, he’s not quite a Cushing, nor a Lee, but Payne is undoubtedly still among the great commanding male Hammer leads.
Though most of the film is well paced, the finale feels a little rushed. Just when you’re at the point of salivating for that final showdown between the forces of good and evil, things are over before they begin, and the entire cast starts dropping likes flies. Including Count Mitterhaus. When a dark lord of the night goes into a supernatural sleep for 15 years, you just except him to have a little more fight in him when he awakens.
Even so, this is one of the best traditional vampire flicks out there that doesn’t directly involve the Dracula character. It does all the classic stuff right, dipping its toes into just enough new territory to avoid going stale. This film is horror at its most Hammer; a macabre period piece steeped in classic concepts, with a splash of boobs and butts, blood and guts.
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