Judge David Johnson is afraid this title is more apt than it should be.
You think being bound to a wheelchair exempts you from torture? Ha! Think again.
For a young man named Yasu, the title of this Texas Chainsaw Massacre-influenced Japanese gore film succinctly describes his rough couple of days with a few wacky relatives, and possibly this reviewer's rough couple of hours with this wacky movie.
Facts of the Case
Yasu (Hirohito Honda) is just trying to lead an ordinary life. He wants to be an ordinary kid—wheelchair or not—surrounded by a loving family. But when some super-freaky relatives move in, his life changes dramatically.
The relatives in question are Chiyo and Yuki, a pale old woman and her granddaughter, a wafer-thin mute. The two were left homeless after their previous host family had been savagely killed via bludgeoning and eyeball-sucking-out from a bug.
Yasu is skeptical of the two houseguests, but no one else in his family is (surprise, surprise). However, when he is first left alone with the new squatters, his suspicions are realized. And thus begins the relentless torture of Yasu…
He's taken for a ride in his wheelchair by Yuki and pushed way too fast, almost into a collision with a car.
He has a bowl of earthworms dumped on his lap.
He gets Tabasco sauce thrown into his face.
He's fed beetles.
(Meanwhile, a journalist has been heavily researching the mysterious murders that displaced Chiyo and her granddaughter. As he unearths the facts surrounding the enigmatic old woman, he slowly begins to put together the mystery behind her and her loony family. And, cue some more torture:)
His tooth is forcibly removed with pliers.
His chest is used as a dartboard.
His genitals are electrocuted with a taser.
Eventually, the torture, the deranged family members, the reporters, and the convoluted truth collide together in an overlong sequence ripped directly from the Tobe Hooper playbook.
I feel like I'm walking on the clichéd eggshells here. Would you think me an awful person if I told you this movie was hilarious? You probably would, and maybe you're justified.
"What's so frickin' funny about a kid in a wheelchair getting tortured?!" you ask, angrily.
Well, in theory, nothing at all. It's abhorrent! But in practice, a' la Living Hell, it's…er…zany.
Look, I work in Human Services, and despite the fact I'm very sensitive to the life of those with disabilities, I know ludicrous, over-the-top scenes bolstered by ham-fisted over-acting when I see it.
When the movie first began, there was some chance of frightening stuff. I've long maintained the scariest characters in horror movies are odd-looking little girls (see: The Ring, The Shining), but when Living Hell got rolling, I was ready to add pasty-looking-grannies-that-move-at-fast-speeds to the list. And the granddaughter certainly fell into the former category.
But as the movie progressed and the torture scenes grew more and more preposterous, the granny morphed into a comical character. I mean, seriously, what am I supposed to do with a scene depicting an old lady zapping a kid's private parts or throwing hot sauce in his face or chewing on beetles, all with a straight face?! Add to that Yasu's overacted, wide-mouthed, huge-eyed screams every time and the bizarreness of it all, frankly, becomes funny.
Much of the problem is Yasu, goofily portrayed, doesn't have too much characterization supporting him, so there isn't as much empathy for the character when he gets a lapful of earthworms. And his facial gesticulations make him downright cartoonish.
The worst part of the movie is the pacing. Basically, you've got these outrageous sequences with Yasu and his current bout of bodily assault, flanked by long, long chunks of exposition. Perhaps director Shugo Fujii, later in his career, discovered a more effective way of communicating exposition besides having people just talk to each other endlessly, but he didn't find it with this movie. Basically, here's the breakdown of Living Hell:
TORTURE-TORTURE-TALKING-TORTURE-TALKING-TORTURE-TALKING-TORTURE-TORTURE-TALKING-CRAZY FAMILY SEQUENCE-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING-TALKING
The movie's technical merits are adequate enough. A widescreen transfer that holds up okay, though some scenes struggle in the dark. The 2.0 "Digital" mix does its duty and not much else.
Subversive Cinema really piled on the extras though. A director's biography, trailers, and some storyboards are some of the more uninteresting fare. Deleted scenes (which are pretty useless unless you speak Japanese—there are no subtitles!), a director's commentary where Fujii offers infrequent insight into the shoot, and four bonus short films from the director are the meatier stuff. This last feature is especially noteworthy, as these little atmospheric pieces total over an hour of extra viewing material. Not bad, Subversive Cinema. Not bad at all.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The movie does sport a few okay twists, which, unfortunately get lost in a sea of garrulousness at the end.
This is a movie that sounds horrible and disturbing on paper but, in action, played out as a twisted SNL skit.
Guilty for…for…I don't know, for loitering in my DVD player for 104 minutes.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Subversive Cinema
• Director's commentary
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