Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins is a remake of Eiichi Kodo's 1963 jidaigeki of the same name, and bears the same relation to real people and events that The Exorcist does. I haven't seen the earlier version, but in addition to Miike's style, the previous work of scenarist Daisuke Tengan (e.g., Audition for Miike and Dr. Akagi for Shôhei Imamura, the writer's father) suggests that the film probably has its own unique qualities to offer. The story is simple, perfectly rendered and universal. At the tail end of the Edo period, when peace more or less prevailed and the samurai didn't have much to do, Lord Naritsugu, the despotic younger brother of the Shogun, is about to be promoted to a higher position that sets a path to his eventual rule. Not wishing to undermine the shogunate and bring chaos to the land by openly challenging the selection of Naritsugu, Sir Doi brings examples of the Lord's malevolent nature to the samurai Shinzaemon to convince him of the necessity of assassination.
Depicting evil as erotic brutality is where Miike really shines: An emaciated woman, missing all of her limbs after being kept as Naritsugu's play thing, explains what happened to her family by writing with a pen in her mouth -- for he removed her tongue, too. Miike shows her writhing and humming in pain while she cries blood and mucus just to get two words down, "total massacre." The other example is told in flashback by a man who's lost his son and daughter-in-law due to the Lord beheading the former in front of the latter just after he's raped her, which results in her slitting her own throat in anguish. Shinzaemon is convinced, trembling with the possibility of facing a noble death that he thought would be denied him. With eleven other cohorts (the titular thirteenth will join them on the road), he plans their suicide mission to stop Naritsugu from returning home to assume his new position.
Following last week's release of Kelly Reichardt's languorous westerner Meek's Cutoff, we get Jim Mickle's not quite as languorous (or, even, as) post-apocalyptic vampire film Stake Land. It has more visceral violence (and vampires, of course) than the former, but enough contemplative wide shots of trudging through dull colored landscapes to capture the imagination of the average boring-film cineaste -- the kind who uses terms like poetic realism and lyricism, and, when reaching for the sublime, suggests Terrence Malick (or, if really wanting to prove his or her bona fides, Tarr, Tarkovsky, or Bresson). Vampire films aren't exactly made for this type (excepting maybe Carl Dreyer's Vampyr), but Mickle tries by -- according to many reviews that dealt with his supposed literary precedents -- grafting the subgenre onto Cormac McCarthy's sci-fi bildungsroman The Road, an ideologically boring version of growing up after the apocalypse. To wit:
- Now, it's perfectly true that the story of Stake Land is strikingly similar to that of The Road, the post-apocalyptic Cormac McCarthy novel that reached the screen last year by way of Aussie filmmaker John Hillcoat (except with that film's portentous, minimalist allegory replaced with an actual story). -- Andrew O'Hehir, Salon
- Fans of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road will find much to enjoy in this sombre and nerve-wracking post-apocalyptic horror film[.] -- Bruce Jones, The New Yorker
- Add vicious, voracious bloodsuckers to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and you have Stake Land[.] -- Maitland McDonagh, Film Journal International
Where Mickle's film fails is in its overreliance on the generic contrivances of plot, which I guess is what some of the critics are getting at with their use of the Malick meme:
- The Terrence Malick approach may be novel, but it probably isn't right for this material -- or at least not in the hands of this director. -- Josh Bell, filmcritic.com
- An odd, ambitious and only partially successful fusion of Terrence Malick poetics and 28 Days Later viscera[.] -- Scott Tobias, WNYC
- It’s an ambitious hybrid, grafting the ethereal, landscape-driven, light-infused beauty and naïf narration associated with Terrence Malick onto a tale in which struggle against supernatural forces is just one challenge of coming of age[.] -- Karina Longworth, The Village Voice
Personally, with the exception of Badlands, I've not found Malick's works to be anything more than kitsch with some fetching tableaux. (He's begun two of his four extant feature lengths with twaddle about the beauty of savages living undisturbed by the sea, for example.) In place of Stake Land failing to live up to a vampire film directed by Malick (or McCarthy's novel), I'd suggest it fails to live up to its most obvious source material, Richard Matheson's I Am Legend. The story is set in Matheson's world with its zombie/vampire hybrids, only moved westward and in a time just prior to his novel when more humans were still alive. Matheson's book doesn't have any more of a plot than The Road, focusing instead on the daily routines of its protagonist, Robert Neville, trying to stay alive. There's an entire chapter (the best one, in fact) devoted to Neville's earning the trust of a dog, the only other non-vampire still alive in New York. Unfortunately, Matheson is filed in the horror section, McCarthy in literature, so mentioning the former doesn't carry as much cultural capital. Though both authors convey how routinization serves to constitute and retain a sense of humanity, no one asks what The Road loses by taking out the vampires (e.g., Matheson's dialectic between racial ideology and genetics in the allegorical struggle between the last remaining man against a new race). Likewise, I don't expect to see any critics wondering how much better Malick's films might be if scripted by Matheson. Stake Land was in the position to ask such questions, but reverts to another man against monster plot, which it manages to diminish further by giving it a personal revenge twist, saying not much about man, monster or the boy having to grow up in this milieu.
In Dan Clowes' Death-Ray, the titular hero doesn't discover a greater sense of responsibility with his newfound powers (à la Peter Parker), only a fascistic resolve in settling petty grievances. James Gunn uses a similar approach in critiquing the superhero costume in Super. His heroes, The Crimson Bolt and Boltie, aren't super-powered, just a couple of individuals who wear masks and deliver vigilante justice -- in a word, sociopaths. Just like Batman, the mask is used to disguise a personal revenge motive: a drug dealer has wooed away The Bolt's wife not through some mind-control apparatus, but because the dealer is better looking and his life more enticing than the hero's secret identity as a fry cook. The film takes every right turn, mixing pathos and humor, demented fantasy and realistic violence, convention and critique into one of the best dark comedies about the depressing nature of fanboy fetishism we're likely to get. Much better than Suckerpunch.