People being tortured in movies is nothing new. Even mainstream movies don’t flinch at allowing the hero to kick some bad guys ass when the ends justify the means. When Batman whomps on The Joker in The Dark Knight we don’t mind because Batman is trying to save innocent lives and if he’s got to kick some pasty white ass to do it, it’s no biggie.
But when torture isn’t for laughs it’s usually confined to clumsy “horror” flicks like the Saw and Hostel splatterthons. Watching dumb teenagers and nobodies die in gruesome ways just doesn’t entertain me. These are gross-out movies where the “kills” are the only thing that matters. Story, plot, acting, dialogue, characterization and just plain common sense all go out the window in these flicks. The only reason to see another Saw sequel is the sick pleasure of watching someone’s arm ripped off .
I hope the trend of taking Japanese horror movies and adapting them into neutered PG-13 garbage like The Ring, Dark Water, One Missed Call and Pulse skips Takashi Miike’s Audition. The hacks of Hollywood lean on special effects for scares. Other filmmakers lacking the budget find ways of horrify you instead.
The description of Audition from IMDB.com sounds like the kind of “describe the movie in 25 words or less” pitch an agent makes to a producer over lunch in an upscale L.A. eatery:
Widower takes an offer to screen girls at a special audition, arranged for him by a friend to find him a new wife. The one he fancies is not who she appears to be after all…
“Sounds kinda of bland, but if we can get Cruise to play the widower, Rogan or Black as the nerdy friend and Diaz as the girl who is not what she appears to be, we might make a few bucks,” the producer might reply. Audition, a 1999 film by Miike, is one of the scariest films I have ever seen and deserves its place on TIME’s top 25 horror films. It’s not that Audition would be hard to remake for American audiences. It’s more that it’s just too weird and far too dark for mainstream movie audiences. Most scary movies are content if they can get you to jump in your seat. Audition buzzes in your head leaving you feeling uneasy for days after in a “Did I really see that?” kind of way.
The bland premise of Audition belies its unsettling creepy execution. Miike is famed for his unsparing approach to gory violence and upsetting themes. He shares with the Canadian director David Cronenberg a fondness for making audiences “watch the unwatchable.” Cronenberg has moved slightly closer to the mainstream in later years, but has never been fully embraced by or been totally accepted by the mainstream. Miike, as a foreign filmmaker, is even more of a loose cannon than Cronenberg and remains decidedly outside of the Hollywood system, perhaps after witnessing how John Woo’s reputation diminished instead of flourished when he started cashing fat checks from American studios.
I watched Audition one night when I still had the Independent Film Channel (IFC) and it thoroughly freaked me out. Miike tells a seemingly simple story of a guyabusing his position as a producer to score with willing young women. Then he meets one woman who is not only beautiful, but confident, and falls for her hard. Awww….true love. Ain’t that sweet? Uh no. Miike turns the simple premise from the vaguely unsettling to the absolute “HOLY SHIT!”
There used to be a video store in Columbus with the strange name of Aardvark Video, but the oddball name fit with the movies they stocked which featured everything from foreign films listed by country and director to documentaries and obscure cult flicks. Any Blockbuster Video can carry 50 copies of Transformers 2. It takes a speciality shop like Aardvark to feature the hard-to-find/harder to watch flicks such as Man Bites Dog, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Men Behind the Sun . Movies like Audition were made to be found on the lowest shelf in the darkest corner of dimly lit stores like Aardvark so you could discover them, take them home and have your mind throughly screwed by their subversive stories. All the more shame that while Netflix, cable and streaming video online will still offer a means to watch movies, it’s more likely to favor the big, bloated Hollywood blockbuster than the ballsy and gutsier smaller film.
Audition isn’t the type of movie you admire as much as you congratulate yourself from being able to watch all of it without peeking through your hand covering your eyes. Unlike Irreversible, which I’ve written of as a throughly depressing experience, Audition takes the time to get you interested in the characters before dropping them into hell. (SPOILER ALERT!) If you don’t mind having your head fucked with Audition is worth the watch. IF you can get through an unnecessarily disgusting vomit scene and a helpless, paralyzed man having his foot sawed off with a thin wire by a woman giggling like a schoolgirl. This isn’t one of those movies you can invite a bunch of the boys over to watch while slamming pizza and brews. Miike has something to say about how older men exploit naive younger girls, the myth of the compliant and meek Japanese woman, and the anticipation/fear men have how intimacy can turn into emasculation. He just expresses it in a crazy way.
I get it why people give unsettling movies a wide berth. Most of us would prefer to leave a movie feeling mildly entertained instead of shaken and stirred. An Iron Man 2, Toy Story 3 or Shrek 4 are perfectly acceptable fare, but they don’t challenge the viewer, don’t offer a single twist or turn and the happy ending is assured. There’s no ambition and little risk involved in the bulk of movies churned out by Hollywood. There’s no mystery or sense of adventure to any of it. What makes Audition a movie I enjoyed to some twisted degree is I have an appreciation for something different that doesn’t take the well-worn path of least resistance to the safest conclusion.
I want to be challenged every so often and Audition provides an ample one with genuinely well-made filmmaking, a throughly bizarre execution and its scary as all get-out too. It makes a welcome departure from the relentless onslaught of lazy sequels, lame super heroes and safe as milk sludge usually offered up as must-sees. God bless Audition’s mean, black little heart.