The Best Horror Movie of 1965: Kwaidan

Movies Features horror movies
The Best Horror Movie of 1965: Kwaidan

This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.

The Year

Overall, the horror film crop for 1965 feels perhaps slightly less notable than the last few landmark years, but there’s certainly no shortage of movies to recommend. In particular, this is a year with some notable thrillers that are a bit difficult to parse with the usual “is it horror?” question, a scenario that will persist through the back half of this decade. With some films, like The Collector, we’re compelled to give an automatic “yes” on content alone. With others, like Bette Davis in The Nanny, it’s a case of a film feeling fairly close to the horror genre, but not quite being all of the way there.

One film that inarguably qualifies on this front is Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, a much-praised psychological thriller that follows Carole, a woman disgusted by the sexual advances of the men in her life as she cloisters herself in her sister’s apartment, withdraws from reality and slowly descends into madness. Using the foundations of the apartment itself as a physical metaphor for the mental condition of its protagonist, Repulsion otherwise offers few obvious indications of what is going through the minds of its characters, seeming to view humanity and modern relationships with the same sort of disgust that Carole feels whenever another man tries to force himself on her. A persistent theme seems to be the inability to cope with life’s many failures—or whether it’s easier to simply acquiesce to them.

The British market is also still pumping out horror films in 1965, with the likes of Fanatic from Hammer, but a new studio has arisen that will give Hammer a run for its money: Amicus Productions. Some Amicus films, like this year’s The Skull starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, are very much in the mold of classic Hammer period pieces, but the studio simultaneously differentiated itself via experimentation with star-studded horror anthologies, like this year’s Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors. These films, which also included the likes of The House That Dripped Blood and Tales From the Crypt, were usually built around a humorous central framing device and took place in the present day, giving them a more contemporary (but often no less cheesy) flair. Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors again brings Cushing and Lee together, but it’s Cushing who steals the show as the beautifully costumed “Dr. Terror,” who delivers a series of Tarot card-themed scary stories to his fellow passengers on a train car that may or may not be bound for hell. It’s one of Cushing’s most macabrely gregarious performances, as the guy seems to be having the time of his life in the role of omniscient storyteller. It’s a fitting performance for a corner of the genre that revolves more around having fun than achieving genuine fear.

1965 Honorable Mentions: Repulsion, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, The Collector, The Skull, Planet of the Vampires, Fanatic

The Film: Kwaidan
Director: Masaki Kobayashi

Kwaidan was released in its homeland of Japan with an unusually serious degree of pomp and circumstance—a quartet of ghost stories (the title is a transliteration of “Kaidan,” which literally means those words) that could boast a big budget and the intensely detailed production design to match. It won prizes at Cannes, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and essentially did everything you never see a “horror movie” do in modern cinema, becoming a touchstone along the way for the rare instances in which horror films have been treated with real a real sense of gravitas. And fittingly so: Kwaidan is a textural and visual masterpiece that treats each of its tales with the dignity of Shakespearean tragedy.

Or, as Paste’s own Dom Sinacola wrote in our list of the 100 best horror films of all time, which includes Kwaidan in its top 20:

Ghost stories don’t get much more gorgeous than the four in Masaki Kobayashi’s sprawling Kwaidan. Between two acerbically political and widely lauded samurai epics, Hara-kiri (1962) and Samurai Rebellion (1967), Kobayashi led what was then Japan’s most expensive cinematic production ever, an anthology film with its parts loosely connected by Lafcadio Hearn’s collection of Japanese folk tales and Kobayashi’s intuitive penchant for surreal, sweepingly lush sets.

In “The Black Hair,” a selfish, impoverished ronin (Rentaro Mikuni) abandons his wife to marry into wealth, only to realize he made a dire mistake, plunging him into a gothic nightmare of decay and regret. “The Woman of the Snow” follows a craftsman (the always welcome Tatsuya Nakadai) doomed to have everything he loves stolen from him by a patient bureaucratic specter. The movie-unto-itself, “Hoichi the Earless,” pits the titular blind monk musician (Katsua Nakamura) against a family of ghosts, forcing the bard to recite—in hushed, heartbreaking passages on the biwa—the story of their wartime demise. Rapt with indelible images (most well known, perhaps, is Hoichi’s skin completely covered in the script of The Heart Sutra to ward off the ghosts’ influence), “Hoichi the Earless” is both deeply unnerving and quietly tragic, wrung with the sadness of Kobayashi’s admission that only forces beyond our control hold the keys to our fates. The fourth, and by far the weirdest, entry, “In a Cup of Tea,” is a tale within a tale, purposely unfinished because the writer (Osamu Takizawa) who’s writing about a samurai (Noboru Nakaya) who keeps seeing an unfamiliar man (Kei Sato) in his cup of tea is in turn attacked by the malicious spirits he’s conjuring. From these disparate fairy tales, plenty of fodder for campfires, Kobayashi creates a mythos for his country’s haunted past: We are nothing if not the pawns of all those to come before.

The legacy of Kwaidan has lived on through the decades, as other horror anthologies have often repeated its highlights, occasionally in full. Perhaps most notable was 1990’s Tales From the Darkside: The Movie, which copies “The Woman of the Snow” almost verbatim, only stopping to transplant the location from feudal Japan to urban America. It likely goes without saying that it ultimately lacks the frosty intimacy of the former.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin