A 1964 Japanese film promises Hell.
When described in broad strokes, the story of writer/director Kaneto Shindô's Onibaba would sound very familiar to any horror fan: people living in the countryside kill anyone who wanders into their territory, stealing their belongings and disposing of the corpses. What sets this film apart from horror movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, and many others, is the fact that it's set in 14th century Japan.
With a young man off fighting in a civil war being waged between the supporters of an emperor based out of Mount Yoshino and another based out of Kyoto, his wife and mother are struggling to survive. They're so desperate that they begin killing people in the reed field near their shack, stealing their belongings to sell and dumping the bodies into a deep pit.
They soon learn that the man they've been waiting for has died in battle. A man who lives nearby does return from the war, however, and his presence is soon threatening to tear the women apart. He begins an affair with the younger woman, which makes the older woman both jealous and worried that she'll lose her companion. She won't survive if the younger girl abandons her.
Enter a samurai wearing a demon mask...
Describe Onibaba in the horror movie way demonstrated in the opening paragraph, and I'd be eager to watch it. Describe it as a historical drama about two women struggling to survive in 14h century Japan and it's something I might not ever feel like getting around to watching. For most of its running time, its genre status is highly debatable, but it is strange and violent enough to give it an off-setting horror edge.
It is an extremely dark film. The civil war is said to be destroying the country to such a degree that it almost feels apocalyptic, and indeed there is talk of apocalyptic happenings, like a horse giving birth to a calf and the sun turning black. Crops are failing, there was frost and hail in mid-summer. The world is ending, six hundred years ago.
And yet the story's biggest concern is who's having sex.
The black and white cinematography adds to the effectiveness of the film's cold, dark tone, and the reed field setting is very impressive on the screen. It definitely provides the artistic eye candy.
Onibaba is certainly more interesting than I expected it to be, and while it's probably not a movie I'll be revisiting many times, I was glad to have seen it this time.