Opening our preview of Mayhem Film Festival highlights with a look at an extraordinary and forgotten Japanese study in obsession and psychosis.
Despite being 35 years old, Banmei Takahashi’s movie Door is only now having any sort of release in the West, playing at film festivals across Europe and America where it is being hyped as a ‘lost’ movie – a film that vanished as soon as it was made and has just been rediscovered. This isn’t entirely correct – the film was released in Japan in May 1988 and did well enough to spawn a couple of sequels – one of them a softcore Pink Film rehash of the original. Like many films from Japan’s Director’s Company, the film does seem to have become entangled in a messy rights situation that has kept it out of circulation for many years, and that has probably meant that few critics outside the more clued-in Japanophiles knew anything about it. Nevertheless, the suggestion that this film vanished from sight, unseen by anyone until the remastered version emerged late last year, seems a bit of an exaggeration. Buried and forgotten rather than lost, perhaps. But if it puts bums on seats, fair enough. I’m not going to argue the point.
You may have seen Door described as a ‘home invasion’ film and, rather pedantically, I’m going to argue with that too. There is a home invasion aspect to the film, but pointing it out is arguably a tad spoilery. The narrative is actually closer to the obsessive stalker films of the 1980s and 1990s, everything from Fatal Attraction to The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, though this feels much more intense and twisted. It’s also more unnervingly authentic than those films, dealing as it does with a rapidly spiralling situation that comes out of nowhere. American stalker movies were always the counterpoint to slasher films, usually with crazy women who target either men who have wronged them in some way – a one-night-stand that they expected to mean more, for instance – and their families. While these films presented the women as unhinged and ultimately monstrous, they also played with the idea that the man involved was also guilty – his own actions brought this on himself and others. Real-life stalker cases are more ambiguous – not only are women arguably more likely to be victims than men (though this is a crime that certainly affects every gender, sexuality and social status), but stalkers are often only loosely associated with their victims… if they are associated at all.
In this story, housewife Yasuko (Keiko Takahashi) living in a tower block with a workaholic husband and a remarkably annoying child finds herself dealing with a constant barrage of cold-calling salesmen trying to flog insurance and the like. Her patience runs out when Yamakawa (Daijirô Tsutsumi), an especially persistent language class pusher, opens her unlocked door in order to push literature at her. Unsurprisingly, she takes badly to this and slams the door shut on his hand, injuring his fingers in the process. At first, this feels like it is simply a comic moment in a story that seems to be shaping up as a satirical commentary about the way scammers, cold callers and unwanted sales bumpf pollute our lives. Yamakawa does not take rejection well though. His response starts out as vindictive and frustrated – kicking at her door, more out of anger than in any expectation that it will open, and then painting lurid graffiti across it. He also leaves a jizz-soaked handkerchief in her mailbox. Things get progressively worse, however, as he sees what she looks like and develops an obsession. Like many stalkers, hers quickly finds out everything about her – where her son goes to school, where her husband works and how often he is away overnight. He spies on her in private moments and taunts her on the phone. And then, when her dreadful son sneaks out to play with friends, she runs after him, forgetting to lock the front door in the process…
Door often feels like a masterclass in building tension, allowing Yasuko to do just enough stupid things that you find yourself shouting in frustration at her, developing the level of threat consistently while making it ambiguous enough to only ever seem a genuine danger to her (and the viewer). In a moment that mirrors real life far too depressingly, her attempts to report the harassment to the police fall on deaf ears because no significant crime has been committed and she has no idea what the stalker’s name is or who he works for. Her husband fails to take it at all seriously (he is spectacularly useless throughout the film) and her son is little more than a spoiled brat who you half expect to join forces with his mother’s assailant during the final act.
And so we come to the ‘home invasion’ aspect. Yes, Yamakawa does get into the flat and the film’s final act is a relentless series of battles between the pair of them – not all physical, we should say. As assailants go, he’s pretty incompetent and Yasuko gives as good as she gets as the pair battle it out. This might be the only film where you will see an umbrella used in self-defence against a chainsaw (the latter weapon being rather clumsily telegraphed at the start of the film) and things become remarkably intense as you wait to see just how much injury someone can sustain before they give in. That and just what part the child will play in events.
Takahashi brings an impressive visual style to a film that might have otherwise been a bit cramped, taking place as it does primarily in one location. The two leads are impressive – Takahashi, dressed to the nines in classic Eighties fashion, effectively portrays the ennui of the housewife and the terror of the victim, while Tsutsumi is convincingly creepy. He doesn’t look like a monster – he’s a good-looking smooth-talker, but you are never in any doubt about his madness. Speaking of madness – the film’s score by Gôji Tsuno is very much of the period, perky and bouncy and wildly inappropriate much of the time. I imagine – and hope – that this is a deliberate bit of distraction.
Door is a distinctly odd film – blackly funny in parts, intensely bleak in others, awash with the sort of graphically gory violence and suburban realism that was still a part of Japanese horror in those pre-supernatural days. It has deeply uncomfortable moments of sexual terrorism that viewers might still find heavy going today and knows exactly how to push the viewer to the edge of their patience as characters do stupid and frustrating things that are never quite beyond the realms of realistic possibility (I mean, who hasn’t run out leaving their keys behind at least once?). I can only imagine what the sexploitation sequel must be like though.
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