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Director: Kevin Connor / J. Larry Carroll
Writers: Robert Suhosky / Tim Curnen
Cast: Edward Albert, Susan George, Doug McClure / Hiroshi Fujioka, John Calvin, Janet Julian
Year: 1982 / 1984
Length: 88 min / 81 min
Label: Scream Factory
Release Date: January 5, 2015
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 / 1.85:1
Audio: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0
Subtitles: English SDH
While the samurai film has its trappings as far back as the silent era, the genre received a major critical and populist push around and after WWII, when filmmakers like Kenji Mizoguchi and Akira Kurosawa began re-envisioning and expanding the form. While the fruits of their labor have been seen in countless films since, there are plenty of ways that the samurai film has been exploited for less artistic gain, and, for better or worse, the samurai film has become a genre that has exceeded it origins, becoming a staple in the Western canon. Two films that exemplify the Western view of Samurai cinema are 1982’s The House Where Evil Dwells and 1986’s Ghost Warrior aka Swordkill. While the films offer far different and even opposite depictions of samurai culture — one offering an American in Japan, the latter an ancient samurai in America — they have been combined and released as part of a special Blu-ray double feature from Shout! Factory’s genre cinema imprint Scream Factory.
Produced first in 1982, The House Where Evil Dwells is admittedly far more of a supernatural, haunted house film than it is concerned with samurai conventions; the kicker being that one of the spirits that haunts the house just happens to belong to an ancient samurai. The film opens in 19th century Japan to the events of a samurai killing his unfaithful wife and her lover, before committing seppuku. The film then cuts to contemporary Japan and follows the Fletchers, an American family relocated to Japan for work. The family are pleased when they find affordable housing, only to learn the hard way that the cost is far greater than they originally imagined. It turns out the Fletcher’s new domicile was the site of the grizzly murders that opened the film, and it is not long before the events begin to play out again.
At first glance The House Where Evil Dwells can be successfully described as Amityville Horror in Japan, but where Amityville builds a palpable sense of fear and dread, The House Where Evil Dwells is hardly concerned with atmosphere at all. Allegedly based on a novel by James Hardiman (although it’s difficult to find any information about this and I feel that this may have been a way to give a sense of legitimacy to the film) and written by Robert Suhosky (his sole writing credit), The House Where Evil Dwells has a the right elements for a travelogue-esque supernatural possession story, but never bothers to throw anything into the mix that gives it any sort of urgency. The film hits the familiar beats when you’d expect them and it’s only really novelty comes from the on-location shooting in Japan. Kevin Connor (of Motel Hell fame) competently shoots the film but it never once feels as lively it should. The best scene occurs when a mob of horseshoe crabs invade the family’s home, which offers the closest the film comes to earnest dread in its 88 minute runtime. Additionally, the score by Ken Thorne offers a nice ambient and creepy backdrop for the film, but does too often turn too goofy to be effective — in those moments, sounding more like a parody of a Japanese score than authentic.One of the biggest problems of the film is that it lacks charismatic leads. While Susan George and Edward Albert are both proficient actors, neither really deliver moving performances in this film. They are serviceable for the subpar script but one never gets too strongly connected to them, draining any sort of suspense from the film. Unlike Amityville, where viewers are strongly connected to the leads and do not want to see them harm each other, it could hardly be said that audiences will even care if the Fletchers make it out alive or not.
Beyond the film’s problems, The House Where Evil Dwells still manages to be worthy of a watch. Many of the film’s weaker aspects can be enjoyed in (at least) an ironic way. The effects are fine but unimpressive and the constant barrage of moaning from the house’s ghost becomes so frustratingly inept that it is worthy of a few chuckles. The film, however, does ramp up in the final act and offers the film’s first real truly entertaining moments, sadly it’s too little too late to really elevate the film above charming but forgettable remnant of the 80s obsession with Asian culture.Produced four years later, Ghost Warrior is a far more enjoyable romp. The sole directorial effort by Tourist Trap scribe J. Larry Carroll, and based on a script by Tim Curnen (probably best known for Forbidden World), Ghost Warrior follows a group of scientist who thaw and reanimate a frozen, 400 year-old samurai. After awakening, the samurai attempts to adapt to modern life but when he is accosted by one of the institution’s security guards, the samurai takes to the streets of LA and is met with conflict after conflict.
Produced by the Band’s Empire Pictures, Ghost Warrior is actually surprisingly lower key than one may expect. Following the opening sequence, which lavishly depicts the death of the samurai in great form, Ghost Warrior does take awhile to get into gear. The film is narrated poorly and in a quais-‘dear diary’ form by its lead Chris Welles (played by Janet Julian). The narration doesn’t really offer much to the film, with the exception of offering lofty, and mostly unneeded exposition. Beyond this narrative misstep, once the film does get going — about halfway through — it’s a charming little piece.Empire should be commended for hiring Japanese actor Hiroshi Fujioka in the titular role. Hiroshi Fujioka is probably the film’s strongest suit because the actor is actually well versed in samurai culture and swordplay, making his performance surprisingly believable. Fujioka may not be as accomplished as Toshiro Mifune — who he is jokingly mistaken as in the film, a rather humorous scene — but he is quite a presence in the film and keeps it interesting. Ghost Warrior is a bit tonally inconsistent — unsure where it wants to rest between its comedic and serious beats. It may not top-tier Empire but is entertaining enough to justify picking up this Blu-ray package, and should stand for numerous viewings.
As you may expect, the restorative work done on both of these films is not exhaustive. Empire films do tend to take good care of their prints and the transfer for Ghost Warrior is definitely serviceable. On the flipside, this is a purported new restoration of The House Where Evil Dwells and it looks surprisingly crisp and sharp, much more so than Ghost Warrior, which is a bit soft/dark.
No Extra Features are included in this disk.
While The House Where Evil Dwells leaves a lot to be desired, Ghost Warrior certainly picks up the slack. I’ve always been a big fan of Empire Pictures and, more often than not, I find their brand of cinema to work for me. Ghost Warrior is a relatively earnest attempt at creating a modern samurai flick but does sort of feel like a riff on Encino Man with samurai culture shoehorned in. While this isn’t one of the company’s strongest outputs, it’s certainly a worthwhile purchase for fans of samurai films, although don’t expect anything too authentic…you’ll surely be let down.