B&W, 1965, 80 mins. 28 secs.
Directed by Hajime Satô
Starring Kô Nishimura, Yûko Kusunoki, Harold Conway, Shinjirô Ebara, Masumi Harukawa, Yoko Hayama, Kazuo Katô, Takeshi Katô
Mondo Macabro (Blu-ray) (US RA HD) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
An early and very wild horror entry from Japanese studio Toei, the much sought-after Gothic gumbo House of Terrors (better known theatrically and on the video gray market under the far superior and more accurate title, The Ghost of the Hunchback) draws inspiration from just about every Western horror hit of the '60s to that point including the Roger Corman Poe films, Italian period chillers, William Castle, Edgar Wallace mysteries, and especially Robert Wise's The Haunting right down to its ghostly buckling doors. Packed with surprisingly potent jump scares and atmosphere galore, it's a real treat for horror fans that's languished in obscurity for far too long.
When her husband dies while committed to a mental hospital, Yoshie (Kusunoki) is troubled by a dream of his passing at the same time. An attorney shows up informing her that she's inherited a villa mysteriously purchased by her late spouse a month before his commitment, so of course she drives out to spend some time there in the countryside. There she finds a strange hunchback caretaker (Nishimura) and some very aggressive crows, but that's just the start of the uncanny incidents tied to her husband's madness and the house's long homicidal history. Thanks to uncanny screams and reenactments of past atrocities carried out by shadows on the wall, she turns to her in-laws and lawyer for help -- but the gathering of guests turns out to have a body count as the house's secrets come to light.
The relative obscurity of this film is surprising given how much mayhem it delivers and the pedigree of its director, Hajime Satô, who scored a big international hit with Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell for Shochiku three years later (not to mention The Golden Bat and Terror Beneath the Sea). The plot isn't exactly the most coherent as it shifts gear several times on the way to a poetic supernatural finale, but there's always so much going on you won't worry about how much it all ties together. That includes a show-stopping seance scene that still packs a jolt, plus lots of reliable standbys like flickering candles, fog, and cobwebs to make this perfect late night viewing.
Seeing this film before the much-needed 2022 Blu-ray from Mondo Macabro was quite a challenge, with the only previous option being an Italian-dubbed source that amusingly takes its title from the translator's name for the house, Satan's Pit. The Blu-ray is quite a revelation by comparison with a fresh 2K remaster that looks very nice with solid detail throughout and only very minor element damage here and there. Shot in Toeiscope, it exhibits the usual quirks of that format including some "CinemaScope mumps" in a few shots that are inherent in the format. The DTS-HD MA 2.0 Japanese mono track is also in fine condition and comes with accurate English subtitles, which are obviously a big step up from the radically rewritten fansubs we've had before. Midnight Eye's Tom Mes provides a thorough audio commentary starting off with notes on the film's scant availability before this and then going into the director's history, the haunted house tropes in the story, and some of the Japanese cultural references that would have resonated with local audiences. In "Hunchback, Pit or House?" (3m47s), Patrick Macias, author of TokyoScope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion, delivers a quick video intro to the film citing its strong Western influences and its "odd duck" status within Japanese horror cinema. Macias also appears in "Silent Waves" (3m43s), a pocket-sized overview of Toei's horror films (also included on Mondo Macabro's simultaneous release of A Haunted Turkish Bathhouse) covering their '60s contributions, Wolfguy, TV franchises like Kamen Rider, and the Ju-on series. The lengthy Italian trailer and main titles are also included with English subtitles.
Reviewed on January 2, 2023