Goopy Gore, Killer Kotatsu, and the End of the World: Three Films from Jôji Iida

Cyclops (1987)

There are a good amount of direct-to-video horror shorts that were made in Japan in the '80s, and Cyclops is one of the better ones even though the story is almost incomprehensible. 

Takamori (Kazuhiro Sano) is obsessed with birth defects specifically "cyclopia" where the two eyes fuse together in the womb to form one single eye. Though it is extremely rare, it can be caused by the mother being exposed to toxins in the environment. Takamori seems to believe that humans with cyclopia are the next step of evolution for humanity, and he participates in highly illegal and unscrupulous research to unlock the secrets of the mutation. Takamori's sister Miyuki (Mayumi Hasegawa) has attracted the attention of one of his colleagues, a tall and intimidating sunglasses wearing dude, who seems to be hiding something sinister.

Honestly, the story becomes very convoluted early on and keeps adding new bizarre information as it goes along. Thanks to the short runtime, this doesn't become too much of an issue because the climax comes quickly, and the last twenty minutes is so jam-packed with sloppy and sticky body horror that thoughts of the plodding first half melt away (like everyone's faces). Cyclops feels like an homage the disgusting body transformation sequence of Cronenberg's The Fly (1987) with some extra sci-fi lore hastily tacked on. It's a gooey good time, just don't try to figure out what the hell is going on for the first thirty minutes.

Battle Heater: Kotatsu (1989)

Battle Heater shows its hand right at the beginning when depicting a car crash with obvious low-budget model work and having that model subsequently be ran over by the real car. That sets the tone for the rest of the film as a goofy horror-comedy that isn't taking anything seriously. Even the title of the film gets in on the fun--a priest who feels an evil energy coming from the apartment building (which is also the main setting of the story) is crushed by a meteorite (!) that has the title emblazoned on the side. 

The story begins in a junkyard where Furuichi (Pappara Kawai) and Hama (Akira Emoto), two electronic repairmen, are rifling through the trash to look for usable spare parts. Furuichi finds a kotatsu, a small table with a heater attached underneath, in the pile. Elated, Furuichi drags it back to his apartment to ward off the chill of winter. Unbeknownst to him, the kotatsu is possessed by an evil demon with a taste for human flesh. Only Furuichi and Hama can stop the ravenous kotatsu from sucking all the electricity from the building and eating all of the residents.

Although it is apparent that the film was working with a low budget, the creature effects and gore are top notch. The soundtrack is rad too, the majority of it is from punk band Bafuko Slump, who also stars in the film! Battle Heater suffers a bit from a jumbled and chaotic narrtive that makes it hard to follow at times, but fortunately the wacky cast of characters brings the viewer back into the story. Several of the apartment dwellers have their own side stories going on outside of the man-eating kotatsu--the most amusing being the married woman and her lover who have murdered her husband and are trying to unsuccessfully dispose of his body.

Battle Heater almost feels like a parody, jumping back and forth between the monster attacking people and ridiculous situations. The kotatsu seems to have an insatiable hunger for voltage, sending its fanged plug out like a snake searching for unprotected outlets. Once it reaches its full power it is a formidable force, with a huge maw and the ability to "walk" around on two of its table legs to munch on whoever it pleases. The climax of the movie is a sight to behold, and makes up for all the parts in the middle where it drags a bit. Definitely a film that should be on anyone's list who loves '80s era creature features.

Dragon Head (2003)

Dragon Head (based on a manga of the same name) doesn't waste any time getting to the action: within the first ten minutes of the film there is a horrific bullet train crash that involves a bunch of young students on their way home to Tokyo from a field trip in Kyoto. There are only three survivors after the accident: Nobuo (Takayuki Yamada), an unpopular bullied student, Teru (Satoshi Tsumabuki) an unassuming average young man, and Ako (Sayaka Kanda), a skittish girl. Nobuo immediately loses his mind in the aftermath, brutally beating to death a seriously injured teacher for not stopping the bullies from harassing him and terrorizing Teru and Ako. The first third of the film plays out like a miniature Lord of the Flies situation. 

Once Teru and Ako escape Nobuo's clutches, the film begins in earnest. After climbing their way out of the collapsed subway station they discover that the surface has been changed irrevocably by some sort of natural disaster and is completely blanketed in white and grey ash. Every building is in ruins and the remaining populace is shell shocked and listless. Food and water is in short supply and the duo have to figure out a way to survive in this new harsh environment.

The look of the decimated countryside is excellent, it appears to be a mixture of real sets, models, matte paintings, and CG compositing work. It truly feels overwhelming and hopeless as the two students trudge their way through the ash looking for safety. The other wanderers and pockets of humanity they encounter are either curled up in a corner waiting to die or aggressively violent, out to take what supplies they can get by any means necessary. 

There is not one single moment of respite the entire film, just staggering despair. The world is so hopeless that Teru and Ako come upon two children who have been lobotomized by their deceased surgeon father, an act of mercy in his eyes, because they will live without the ability to feel the horror of their new living situation. It's a bleak narrative, and brings to mind films like Threads (1984). It's difficult not to draw parallels between this situation and the terror of the nuclear bombing of Japan in WWII.

Perhaps the closest thing to hope in Dragon Head is the two protagonists will to survive no matter what. No matter how bad it gets, they turn to each other for support, bolstering each other's spirits with love and compassion. Even though the film ends on an ambiguous note, the viewer can take solace in the fact that even though the world has crumbled away around them, Teru and Ako might make it through as long as they stay together.

--Michelle Kisner