Siamese twins, a woman who eats man eating crabs, an imposter for a dead men, circus abductions, poison administered via the ceiling--can you have all these things in one movie that still reasonably holds together? 1969's Horrors of Malformed Men (江戸川乱歩全集 恐怖奇形人間) has all these things and more. Produced just at the beginning of the proliferation of exploitation film in Japan, the film has some kink, too, though it often feels out of place. But mainly the film succeeds for how it introduces strangeness in a way that feels simultaneously reasonable and disorientating, very like a dream.
The film starts with a young man, Hirosuke (Teruo Yoshida), locked in a cell being menaced by mad topless women with a collapsible pocket knife. It turns out he's also an inmate here, a medical student who was committed for unknown reasons--he clearly doesn't feel like he belongs.
He's haunted by dreams of a rocky beach with a strangely gesticulating man with long hair. The man is played by Tatsumi Hijikata, the creator of a dance performance art called Butoh and the strange gestures seen in the film are presumably part of this art. There's something both animalistic and robotic about him--it's no wonder Hirosuke can't decide if the man is human.
Hirosuke eventually escapes after hearing a woman outside singing the song from his dream. One thing leads to another and Hirosuke's implicated in a circus murder, sees an obituary for someone who looks exactly like him in a paper on the train, and goes to a remote seaside town to assume the influential dead man's identity. The rapidity with which strange events occur in itself suggests something's not quite right and I found myself wondering if Hirosuke really deserved to be in the mad house.
This all takes a back seat, though, to tension surrounding Hirosuke's attempts to live as the dead man, fooling his wife, mistress, and household servants. And then a new mystery develops as the women are beset first by snakes and then by strange, deformed men in the bath.
I wonder if these scenes were originally set in the bath in the source novel. This is another film based on a book by Edogawa Rampo and his famous detective, Kogoro Akechi, eventually shows up played by Minoru Oki. But it feels almost like an afterthought.
There's some post modern humour here and there, like a scene where three people who discover a dead body deliberately sabotage their characters as if to show up the inevitably artificial quality of film. Despite this and some gratuitous nudity, the film has some really effective subtext about identity and guilt. And not all the kinky stuff is a detour--Hirosuke discovers the strange man is the leader of a secret society of deformed men and beautiful women who engage in weird body paint performance art.