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The Guard from Underground   B-

Artsmagic DVD

Year Released: 1992
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Writer: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Cast: Mikako Kuno, Yutaka Matsuhige, Hatsunori Hasegawa, Ren Osugi, Kanta Ogaka, Yoshiko Yura.

Review by Jim Harper

Given his growing popularity in the west, it's surprising that Kiyoshi Kurosawa's earlier films haven't been picked up for distribution. Like many directors, Kurosawa worked in a variety of different genres during the early part of his career, turning out at least one pinku eiga (porn film), a big-budget haunted-house movie, a series of straight-to-video yakuza films, and The Guard from Underground (Jigoku no keibîn), a slasher movie. That might sound a million miles from his recent horror films, the bleakly terrifying Cure (1997) and Pulse (2001), but all of Kurosawa's stylistic trademarks can be seen in the earlier film, even if they're not quite as well developed as they would be in later years.

Kurosawa's appreciation of Tobe Hooper is well-documented, and it's easy to spot in this film. On a couple of occasions he manages to evoke the same atmosphere of claustrophobic brutality as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), but only for brief periods, and no attempt is made to sustain that mood. One scene in particular is a definite homage to Hooper's most famous film, and it's done so smoothly that it had me grinning like a loon. Like all good slasher movies, The Guard from Underground is influenced by John Carpenter's Halloween (1978). Several shots of the killer have only part of his body visible -- for example, his head is cut off by the top of the screen -- much like the early shots of Michael Myers. Like Carpenter, Kurosawa makes sure his actors use the full width of the screen rather than remaining stuck to the central area.

Many of Kurosawa's favored stylistic devices are present, although not as prominently as his later works. He still avoids facial close-ups and favors static setups, often with a definite background/foreground bisection. The nature of the material makes it necessary to resort to traditional camera angles and movements, particularly for the chase scenes, and Kurosawa handles these well, despite the apparent absence of a Steadicam. Predictably, The Guard from Underground is a very violent film, although there is a definite escalation from the initial killings, which are relatively bloodless, to the extremely cruel final murder.

The Guard from Underground is interesting as a historical film, charting the early days of one of Japanese cinema's most unique talents, but it also works very well as a "straight" horror film. The knowledge that Kurosawa had worked with and consumed conventional horror techniques before going on to develop his own unique version makes you respect the man even further. There's definitely a market for these early films; the sooner someone gets them onto DVD the better.

A word on the title: The Guard from Underground is a suspect translation. More appropriate is Thomas Weisser's Security Guard from Hell. I believe the difficulties arose from translating jigoku, the Japanese word for hell, as underworld, which was then twisted into underground.

Review published 06.06.2004.

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