My favorite horror movie of all time is probably Robert Wise’s 1963 film “The Haunting.” Wise and took Shirley Jackson’s classic 1959 novel “The Haunting of Hill House” about a group of paranormal investigators plagued by spirits in an old mansion and with the help of his cinematographer Davis Boulton delivered a truly bone-chilling experience using only light, shadows, camera angles and sound effects. It’s probably the best example of how you can scare the living hell out of an audience without filling the screen with expensive special effects. Shinya Tsukamoto, who’s directed his fair share of horrific films, goes for this simple is better formula with his 2005 film “Haze”, a grisly but thought-provoking 40-minute picture that nearly gets ruined by a little too many shadows and gloom in its first two thirds.
A man (played once again by Tsukamoto himself) wakes up in a dank, cramped and nearly pitch black space. Is it a cell? A coffin? A tunnel? We’re just as confused as he is and we watch as a sharp object in the darkness slices into his belly. Wounded, disoriented and afraid for his life he proceeds to explore this subterranean prison often pulling himself through crevices by his fingernails and in one exceptionally uncomfortable sequence is forced to scrape his teeth along a rusty pipe that’s pressed up against his face. Eventually he finds others in the darkness, equally terrified captives who are quickly sliced into pieces by an unseen threshing device. One person survives, a woman (Kaori Fujii), but her appearance raises more questions than it answers.
Tsukamoto rose to fame with such low budget films as “The Phantom of Regular Size” and “Tetsuo the Iron Man” dark Cronenberg-esque visions in which Tsukamoto was forced to work with whatever meager resources he had at hand; but as his reputation grew so did his budgets and the stylistic breadth of his films. You only need to watch “Tetsuo” and “Nightmare Detective” back to back to see what I mean. “Haze” though is a return to those leaner, D.I.Y. and experimental early days, but for some it may prove to be a bit too experimental.
As I mentioned before “Haze” isn’t a film that relies on special effects to get under our skins. Tsukamoto unleashes fears that live in the most primitive areas of brains: the fear of the dark, of being trapped in confined spaces. It’s a smart move, but at times he goes a bit too far, not in terms of content, but in execution. There are long sequences in “Haze” where nearly nothing is visible on screen and the only thing we can hear is Tsukamoto’s panicked breathing. A couple of minutes of this scattered through the film would have been astoundingly effective, but as these sequences stretched on I almost felt like I was watching a conceptual art piece instead of a horror movie. Some people have clued into this and made some brilliant screening choices with “Haze”, ones that make these potentially frustrating sequences come to life. I was speaking with Lee Threlkeld who runs the Underground Cinema in Luton, England and he made the bold move of projecting “Haze” on the ceiling of a large room with the audience lying on the floor, a fantastic decision because instead of sitting on a couch trying to figure out what’s going on onscreen the viewers get a taste of laying on a hard surface amongst a group of other frightened bodies.
If all of “Haze” was murky footage and ragged breathing it would have been a dismal failure, but the ending that Tsukamoto uses (and which I won't give away here), although equally obtuse, does take us out of the dark and creates a light, airy and almost heavenly counterpart to the hellish predicament of the first two thirds. That’s not to say that the dread ends after the 30-minute mark. What happens in the light is just as or more disturbing than what happened in the dark, mostly because we can finally see clearly what’s going on. If you can make it through that darkness with the main character “Haze” ends up rewarding you with a horrific if minimalist vision of Heaven and Hell.