Review for The Guard From Underground
“I don’t think you’re gonna like them too much!” That’s what the personification of Third Window Films, Adam Torel told me when he sent me the check discs for Door 1 and 2, and this, The Guard From Underground. I will review anything that Third Window Films puts out, and such is the standard of this boutique label’s output, that like or dislike it, I will invariably find something to appreciate about a film, so that warning came as something of a surprise.
These are after all, the first two of three films from The Directors’ Company Collection that TWF are putting out this year (Typhoon Club is coming in November). Formed in 1982, and existing until 1992, The Directors’ Company was a means by which up and coming Japanese film directors could experiment, explore and create outside of the Japanese monolithic studio system, and over the course of those 10 years, became the proving grounds for directors like Kazuhiko Hasegawa, Sōgo Ishii, Kazuyuki Izutsu, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Kazuki Ōmori, Shinji Sōmai among others. Surely these are films that are worthy of attention.
Then I looked at the blurb and saw that The Guard From Underground, Door and Door 2 are horror movies. I’ve been reviewing Third Window Films releases since the original Kamikaze Girls (recent Blu-ray re-release if you missed it the first time), and Memories of Matsuko DVDs. I think Adam knows that I’ve become a little set in my cinematic genre preferences. On the other hand, TWF did release Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Eye of the Spider and Serpent’s Path, and I did appreciate his Bright Future. Maybe The Guard From Underground will un-stick those genre preferences...
Akiko Narushima is starting work at a new company, switching from the world of museum curation to the art sales department of a conglomerate. This new department has been set up to invest in pieces of classic and modern art, although the head of department, Kurome has a strictly financial mindset to the job. But Akiko should have listened to the warnings of the taxi driver who delivered her to the workplace. The day she starts work, the building also gets a new security guard, Fujimaru. As the taxi driver was saying, a former sumo wrestler named Fujimaru murdered two people, but was judged innocent due to temporary insanity. Guess which Fujimaru is the new security guard... If only Akiko paid attention.
The Guard From Underground has had an extensive restoration, and it shows in the 1.85:1 widescreen 1080p transfer on this disc, clear and sharp with rich, consistent colours. The detail levels are good, and the presentation is properly filmic, with a subtle level of film grain. There are no signs of age or print damage, and I also saw no signs of compression. You get a DTS-HD MA 2.0 Stereo Japanese track, which offers just enough immersion through Prologic to enhance the spooky atmosphere. The dialogue is clear, and the optional English subtitles are accurately timed and free of typos. I didn’t think much of the music though, overwrought and unsubtle, and sounding like it had come out of a MIDI chip on a PC soundcard; which given the film’s 1992 vintage, is entirely possible.
The disc boots to an animated menu, and you’ll find the following extras.
Audio commentary with Tom Mes
Interview with director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (30:06)
Interview with producer Takashi Ikoma (35:07)
Theatrical Trailer (1:37)
Lesson learned... Always trust Adam. At least when it comes to The Guard From Underground, he was spot on, predicting my reaction to the film. That isn’t to say that this isn’t worth your time. After all, Kiyoshi Kurosawa would go on to direct some classic j-horror, most notably The Pulse. What’s really of interest here is that as a 1992 film, The Guard From Underground actually predates the j-horror fad of the late nineties and early 2000s, and as one of the last films from The Directors’ Company, this was something of a passion project for Kurosawa, who had seen some US slasher horror, and wanted to translate that genre for Japanese audiences. This film really is less of the creepy j-horror that Western audiences would come to obsess about, and really is more of a slasher flick. And it’s in this respect that I find it hard to enjoy the film.
Long before the Scream parodies were made, the slasher movie had already outlived its relevance. It’s a genre that is replete with clichés and tropes, and in making The Guard From Underground, Kurosawa imported those clichés wholesale. From the blatant foreshadowing with the taxi driver at the start of the film, to the stupidity of the film’s protagonists (seriously, when you tell someone not to open a door, unless she hears the secret knock, and she just opens the door anyway, she deserves to be sardined). You have to wonder just who would hire a convicted murderer as a security guard, but when you see the indolent imbecile running this company’s HR department, that question answers itself.
The film’s antagonist also follows the ‘force of nature’ trope that most slasher movie villains adhere to. These are relentless killers that always keep on coming no matter what, and alas for my interest levels, lack for personality and style; Fujimaru is particularly monotonous here. John Ryder in The Hitcher is always my benchmark for horror villains, and very few approach his horrifying panache. Fujimaru falls way short, interesting really only in the brutal manner he despatches his victims, and a little in his insistence that his victims ‘understand him’.
An interesting aspect of the film is the way it depicts salaryman culture during Japan’s bubble economy. You get to experience the obnoxiousness of the people who work for the company, creeps and weirdoes most of them, and how they relate to each other, such that you might wind up rooting for the bad guy, at least at the start of the film. Narushima’s direct superior is an out and out pervert, but more interesting is the head of security, who takes Fujimaru under his wing at first. Having his own beef with people in the company, he briefly thinks he can use Fujimaru as a tool of retribution, before quickly being faced with the prospect of having grabbed a tiger by the tail.
Still an unbroken streak; The Guard From Underground is another TWF release that has something to appreciate; the take on salaryman culture, and the Japanese interpretation of a Hollywood staple genre. But it is probably my least favourite Hollywood genre, and for me, The Guard From Underground is just too silly to enjoy. I am sure your mileage will vary, and you’ll know if this film is in your wheelhouse. Third Window Films’ presentation of the film is impeccable as always.
The Guard From Underground can be bought from TWF’s distributor, Arrow Films, from Terracotta, and from mainstream retailers.