Films That Haunt Me: ONIBABA

Today’s film is one that every horror fan has seen referenced, even if they did not realize it. We all recognize the nightmare-inducing demon face from “The Exorcist” – but what inspired William Friedkin to design that horrific makeup? For this, and for many other reasons, we can find endless macabre genius in ONIBABA.

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Translating more or less as “Demon Woman,” this Japanese classic follows in the footsteps of its contemporaries – weaving a fable-like morality tale set during the wars of feudal Japan. This one finds a destitute mother and daughter duo who survive by robbing half-dead samurai and hiding their bodies in a pit near their house. When the daughter falls in love with a stranger who lives nearby, the mother must find a way to keep her precious asset. She manages to steal a horrific demon mask off a dying soldier and uses it to scare her daughter away from her lover… but she doesn’t know that the mask is cursed.

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Like many of the films that haunt me, this one requires patience and attention – but these are rewarded monstrously as the film crescendos to its climax. The almost lulling atmosphere of the first half, composed of swaying reeds and the tense fraying of a mother-daughter relationship, sets a dreamy tone that is shattered by the horror of what comes. This transition from quiet and peaceful to violent and nightmarish is highly effective. The film takes on a liminal aspect, as if the characters are in limbo, waiting in the reeds; then hell is unleashed in full force.

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William Friedkin sites this as one of the scariest movies he’s ever seen, and used the disturbing mask as inspiration for his own Pazuzu’s face. That goes to show the power of the imagery in the latter half. Watching the mask float out of the night, rising above the daughter gone to meet her lover, is unreasonably shocking. Like a nightmare, the film constructs itself so that the viewer only recalls specific moments – and the appearance of the mask, then learning what it truly means, is one of the things that will never leave my mind. It’s pure, poetic horror.

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In addition to this, there is a magnificent human story that supports the imagery – a tale of survival and jealousy. The mother-daughter tension is palpable and subtle, justifying the nasty things that happen later on. As all the best horror films are, “Onibaba” begins as a drama and moves into terror as the story escalates. Because of this, it will test some viewers’ patience; but those who stick with it will be rewarded with a thunderbolt of an ending. It really plays out like a fable, but the final moral is dirtied by the humanness of the characters. That is what lends it its brilliance.

As a family drama, a survival thriller, or a pure demonic horror, this film succeeds on many levels, and cements itself as iconic. Watch it, and enter this liminal world of murder and death. Perhaps, after the credits roll, “Onibaba” will follow you back.

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