Cult (2013)

Since I had just watched the movie Occult, I decided to watch another one of Kōji Shiraishi's films: the very similarly-titled but quite different film Cult.

This is one that I don't think I will have as much to say about as Occult. I found out after watching it that the movie was made in a three-part film series that featured the films of two other directors, with this being the second one in it, and after watching this it kind of explains a lot about the film. Much like Occult and Noroi, Cult is a story about evil apocalyptic cults summoning creatures who appear as very abstract and shitty-looking (but in a good way) special effects (he seems to really like representing evil as worms), and it's done through the framing device of found footage. Like Noroi, the main characters in the movie are the idols who are featured in the found footage documentary as the audience's guides for descending into the paranormal.

These three films feel like they exist on a spectrum of distancing, with Cult being the one that is most like a conventional horror movie where the audience is most able to suspend their disbelief, compared to Occult which is just full of bizarre metatextual elements, and then Noroi which strikes a balance between the two. This is evidenced in how the directors of the found footage film within the film itself are essentially non-characters. The found footage aspects of the film are in fact almost irrelevant; it's a useful device for creating tension by having in the logic of the film reasons for showing or concealing certain things, but this is a purely mechanical function. Compare this to Noroi where the documentary that becomes found footage serves as part of the plot itself (the film is found within the film itself (so who is making the film about the found footage? very unusual isn't it)), or Occult where within the found footage of the film there is also a film that is sent forward in time from another dimension and is shown in the found footage film. Cult doesn't have anything like this going on and you could almost forget this framing device watching it. And as I said, this is also very evident in the main characters, because while in Noroi the people making the documentary are major characters in the film, and in Occult the director is not only arguably the main character but also is a fictionalized version of Shiraishi, the main characters of Cult exist entirely within the fiction of the film. Nothing about them, or any of the major characters, allows them to travel between our world and that of the film – ironic considering that one of the characters in the film is said to be someone who has traveled between worlds, which is why she is chosen by the cult in the film to be used in summoning a god.

Cult's plot also has the most conventional traits of an occult horror film, again comparing it to Noroi and Occult which have a whole lot more weirdness going on. A good deal of the film's plot centers around exorcism, with Shinto(?)(I don't know very much about Japanese religions, sorry) priests being important characters for the early parts of it, characters becoming possessed by entities ("demons") that can be removed, a house that is being haunted by these entities and where most of the plot takes place, an evil cult behind all this, etc. In fact, it's so conventional compared to Shiraishi's other two films that there is a fairly unambiguous battle between good and evil throughout, first with the priests and then with the character Tanaka AKA Mr. Neo, who is the real star of the show. He feels like a character straight out of an anime: He wears an all black suit, has bleached blonde hair, is young and arrogant but also an incredibly gifted psychic, and he wears a black leather glove on his left hand because it's how he directs his powers and can touch things humans cannot touch. I might even go so far as to say that he is LITERALLY me. And he, even more so than the idol characters, places the movie very squarely in the realm of the audience's subconscious by being so much of an archetype character that it's very much something you expect to watch in a movie. But then again, it's so blatant, so ridiculous, that it almost feels even like winking at the audience a bit and turning even that on its head.

I'd love to know what the background was for making this film, because as I said before, it was made as part of a three-part series with the other films being by two different directors. So it was probably something that had a fair amount of studio control, and that's probably why this feels more conventional than the other two Shiraishi films. I suspect that Shiraishi was forced by the producers to do something that had to play better to a normal audience and so he included this Mr. Neo character as a kind of joke. Either way, it's great fun to watch and not a bad movie, just not as compelling on its own as the other two movies.

Throughout this review I've been thinking a lot obviously of the famous Brechtian "distancing effect" AKA alienating the audience (few know this because I haven't even written about it but I am a noted Bertolt Brecht appreciator) because I had neglected to mention in Occult and was thinking about it while watching Cult that I mentioned the special effects of Shiraishi's films but didn't elaborate more on my thoughts on them. I was especially thinking of them in this movie because the thing that lead to me deciding to watch more of Shiraishi's other films was, while looking for an image from Noroi to accompany a shitpost on fedi, finding a post on Twitter screencapping the imagery from his films. And that's one thing I'll give this movie, it has some really quite bizarre and unsettling imagery, sparse as it may be (and not as utterly amazingly creepy as Ju-On, the gold standard in my opinion for a movie that can get by entirely on having the most disturbing imagery possible). Again, comparing this to Noroi and Occult, from what I remember of Noroi (as I said in the Occult review I haven't seen it in a few years but am clearly due for a rewatch) its imagery strikes a balance between the abstract and the palpably eerie, whereas Occult is mostly very abstract, and Cult is mostly very palpably creepy. Strange elongated silhouette figures, worms, heads with tentacles coming out of them, spikes coming out of mouths – lots of great stuff. But it's still presented by making use of pretty bad-looking digital special effects, which is another staple of Shiraishi's films (the three I've mentioned at least), which to me has the distinct effect of alienating the audience in a way that feels like part of a running thread in his horror films of commenting on the nature of film and reality.

Most viewers will probably not look at it this way at all and just see a bad special effect and think it's cheap, and I think that special effects are something that probably gets so much attention in the world of filmmaking (especially very mainstream films) because it's the most superficial hook for a film. It's like the shiny object you can dangle in front of the audience, the thing that gets them to suspend their disbelief. That's not to say special effects aren't important for the sake of giving a little style to the subtance, but I think special effects can also be effective in the exact opposite way by being shitty depending on how they're utilized. They can give the film a comedic quality obviously, which is usually unintentional, or they can give it an uncanny quality (less common). David Lynch's works often use intentionally bad special effects towards both ends. Even Eraserhead, which has some absolutely incredible practical special effects, has some effects that just look very off (I'm thinking specifically of the Lady in the Radiator's face, which has extremely obvious prosthetic cheeks) and are a weird stark contrast to things like the Baby. Famously, Lynch also has refused to ever say how the Baby in Eraserhead was created, giving cryptic answers about "finding it nearby", which further adds a metatextual element to the use of special effects in his films where the uncannily real-looking is said to be from our reality while the reality of the film has certain effects that break with its language and seem to pass between worlds (fire walk with me) into ours.

But I'm not going to go off on a longer tangent about Lynch or I'll be here until the sun comes up. It's very clear from Shiraishi's works that he has an interest in talking about this passing between the film's world and ours, with his use of found footage almost functioning like creating a portal to explore this. It's possible that his bad looking digital special effects are a product of budget limitations, or maybe because it's just flashier to say that a film is using some cool new computer technologies to make effects, but to me the effect of the special effects in his films is to punctuate the language his films create of passing between worlds. The literal progression of the film as a series of images with a certain duration between their showing is suddenly interrupted by the point of the film, the horror itself, which as an audience we expect to either see something that looks real so that we will still forget that we're watching a film, or we expect to not see anything at all and have the horror be an absence of anything specific to be afraid of. But Shiraishi's films, even Cult with its much more conventionally creepy imagery, are not only defined by existing ambiguously between two worlds but also seem to deliberately force the horrifying entities through the screen into our world by reminding us that we are in fact watching a movie, and yet we're still afraid of what we're seeing. Because this is the trick, the crime, the sin of the director that Shiraishi explores more in Occult: To not only show the horror but to make it real through the act of recording it and showing it to the world – creating fear in the audience for something that doesn't exist, which hyperstitionally makes the horror real.

As usual I'll end this with whether or not I recommend watching this. As I said it's not the most interesting of his films that I've seen. Most audiences would probably prefer this over Noroi, definitely over Occult, but I doubt those are the kinds of people who read the movie blog of a niche internet weirdo. But it's still fun to watch and definitely interesting to compare to his other films. I would say even that it's helped me to gain a better grasp of his other works. So I'd recommend giving it a watch.

Created: 2023-03-26 Sun 06:27

Last updated: 2024-03-05 Tue 22:36