Ghosts in the Machine
When it comes to horror flicks, getting an audience to jump can be accomplished by pretty much anyone with a camera. (Mix a spring-loaded cat, a half-clad WB star, a maniac at the edge of the frame, and loud music. Repeat as needed.) Genuine unease, however—the kind of lingering vibe that has you checking the closets at night—is a much rarer bird. Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) has been twanging this particular nerve for close to a decade, delivering a series of techno-horror films that resonate spookily into the wee hours. Currently attracting some long-delayed attention for the upcoming American remake of his 2001 modem-equipped apocalyptic ghost story Pulse, his back catalog (all available on DVD) reveals an admirably sustained exploration of the evil that men do, whether in response to exterior or interior demons. Kurosawa's dreamlike narrative style may not always tie together on first viewing (and in a few instances, even a third or fourth), but that clammy feeling persists.
Beginning his career with a series of shot-on-video yakuza potboilers, the director first attracted attention stateside for his masterful 1997 hypno-horror film Cure, in which a burned-out police detective (Kurosawa regular Koji Yakusho) investigates a series of thrill-killings by seemingly unrelated folks. Soon, he zeros in on an amnesiac drifter who can apparently incite murder with the flick of a lighter. The procedural backdrop and killer/investigator bond owes an undeniable debt to both Se7en and The Silence of the Lambs, but the distinctive combination of long-lensed mayhem and ever-mounting subaudible rumblings set it apart. Depending on your interpretation, the final shot is either baffling, freakier than hell, or an awesomely sick joke.
2000's Séance, meanwhile, may be the closest the director has come to traditional J-horror, in which longhaired female specters (here a kidnapped girl accidentally murdered by her intended saviors) keep popping up in the darnedest places. The difference, though, is that the filmmaker's ghosts (as evidenced in the later Pulse) aren't malevolent so much as mournful, causing mayhem almost as a byproduct. Although the basic narrative is predictable, Kurosawa's dream logic keeps things caroming off into unexpected angles. The moment where the wigged-out protagonist (Yakusho, again) comes across his doppelgänger sitting in a patio chair and proceeds to burn it to a crisp makes absolutely no rational sense, yet somehow feels of a tonal piece with the rest of the story.
Then there's 1999's Charisma, a genuinely nutso film depicting the love affair between a village and a poisonous tree. (In an interview on the DVD's extras, Kurosawa admits with refreshing candor that even he doesn't know what the hell it means.) Even at its most baffling, though, the director's talent for creating sustained tension out of seemingly mundane elements shines through.
Bright Future (2003): Bored Tokyo punks inadvertently release a plague of killer jellyfish.
Doppelgänger (2003): Man discovers evil twin, engages in all sorts of seriously trippy shit. Also features a scene-stealing performance by a dancing robot chair.