Terror Underground: The Void (2016) and Marebito (2004)

I watched two movies last night: Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski’s The Void (2016) and Takashi Shimizu’s Marebito (2004). Both movies ultimately impressed me — neither of them are perfect, but both are worth watching if, like me, you’re a fan of weird horror and weird shit in general — but they also had this weird sense of twinning between them that became readily apparent as I watched Marebito right on the heels of finishing The Void.

There isn’t much in the actual story stuff of both movies to suggest any kind of overt connection. The Void is this fairly intense, deeply weird fusion of body horror and occult horror which, despite all the press that demands it be viewed through some kind of 80s horror revivalist lens, works best when viewed as ahistorically as possible. Comparisons to Carpenter honestly don’t make sense to me, aside from a climax that mirrors the climax from Prince of Darkness (a heavily underrated movie IMO) and maybe the overall conceit of a group of survivors thrown together by chance and defending themselves from a siege of seemingly unstoppable foes. You might say, “oh, that’s Assault on Precinct 13,” but that was an intensely naturalistic movie overall (and its own premise is swiped from the old western Rio Bravo).

Speaking of naturalism: The Void works best if you don’t view it with expectations of naturalism. There’s a veneer or a weird false darkness to the settings in the first half of the movie, both outside in a seemingly rural area and then inside a hospital which is eventually besieged by creepy cultists wearing white robes with black triangles painted on where the faces should be (echoes of Bill Cypher from Gravity Falls, which didn’t go away as the movie progressed; I had a lot of fun imagining that this was some kind of fanfiction of GF where the villain of The Void got his arcane powers via Bill’s influence).

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Do you have time to talk with us about our lord and savior, the Black Pyramid?

The seeming fakeness of the surface environments in the movie actually help to contribute to the overarching strangeness of the story: in a world devoid of recognizable everyday textures, it’s easier to imagine something weird and gross moving in. The artificiality of the movie thus becomes an ultimate strength of it.

Marebito is rigorously naturalistic, though, for the most part. We move from the intense, even theatrical performances of The Void to the blank numbness of the characters in Marebito, and by and large the textures of that world are the textures of our own (the textures of mid-00s Tokyo, anyway). It’s main character, Masuoka (played by Shinya Tsukamoto, the director of the mindmelting Tetsuo: The Iron Man), is unquestionably a disturbed individual, obsessed with videotaping everything and everyone, and he continually goes about his daily life with a video camera in his hand, perpetually recording. When given the opportunity, he would rather view life through the LCD screen on his camera than with his own eyes. He is someone for whom the image on the screen is realer than real life. A chance encounter with a man in the subway who takes his own life on camera — by plunging a knife into his right eye (ick) — causes Masuoka to fixate on the look of fear on that man’s face before he takes his life, which then makes him fixate on what could have possibly made him so afraid. This quest, then, takes Masuoka into the world(s) underneath modern Japan, and the modern world, and he brings someone, or something, with him on the way back up. Maybe.

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Disclaimer: that’s not juice in that bottle.

In all seriousness, Marebito is the kind of movie that provides at least three different alternate explanations for what’s happening onscreen, and of course they all conflict with each other in various ways. That said, for me, all possible explanations were fun or interesting to think about. Masuoka is a man unhinged and hallucinating everything, OR Masuoka discovers that there is another world inside the earth a la Shambala/Agartha/Hollow Earth Theory via Theosophical philosophy, OR Masuoka discovers a strange feral woman and tries to nurse her in his apartment, OR any other number of things. It’s all weird, really, and as Masuoka’s life and sense of control spirals out, it’s all very engrossing. Also, speaking for myself, I tend to be easily swayed by catnip such as what I described above.

In the movement, as I said before, from watching The Void to watching Marebito, my mind stuff kept telling me there was something pulling these two movies together in affect, something like a shared terror. I really felt this idea pushing its way through some membrane and to the surface as I watched Masuoka, camera in hand, descend through the layers of old, historical cities pressed together like strata beneath modern Tokyo, while the narration called to mind old ideas of subterranean worlds that were beneath our own, with their own sky, mountains, rivers, etc. The deeper Masuoka pressed beneath, paradoxically, the more his surroundings began to open up around him: vast webs of piping, large networks of tunnels, and ultimately an open-skied forest scene straight out of an early 20th century fantasy novel. These scenes carry a mixed sense of wonder and terror with them: the realization that things should not become bigger, wider, and more open the more you go down.

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That’s actually a key plot point in The Void too, though. Roughly halfway through the movie, several of our de facto heroes have to take a trip to the basement of the hospital where everyone is holed up and trying to avoid the cultists (who are a surprising non-factor in the movie once everyone decides to stay in the hospital; probably my biggest misgiving about the movie, viewing this as a missed opportunity for even more strangeness). The only nurse on staff that night tells our hero, the sheriff (maybe just officer? I forget; he’s basically an archetype anyway), that the basement should reach an end that she knows. But it doesn’t. This dark, vine-covered, grimy basement leads to a sub-basement through a particularly evil looking set of stairs, to the extent that concrete stairs can seem evil (to the directors’ credit: they know how to frame things in shot to make them as intrinsically creepy as possible). This opens up into an even bigger, labyrinthine complex under the hospital, surely three times as big as the building above or thereabouts, which is of course littered with all sorts of biological and moral horrors. How did this space get here? Who carved it out? Was it always here, under the hospital, under the proxy representative of health and wellness and order? No matter; it’s here, and all the characters can do is try to chart this new geography, governed by rules of physics not from our world, in an attempt to make it back (which goes as successfully as you might expect in a pessimistic cosmic horror creature feature).

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Also, there’s a fair bit of tentacles in the movie.

And as the movie goes on, the underground world begins to feel more expansive (it already feels more lived in, which is of course horrifying) than the world above the surface, with its constricting black sky that seems to shrink upon the hospital and its brittle props. Ultimately, too, the path to another world entirely, posed within the movie, is not a path of flight into and beyond the sky, but through a portal underground which opens out into a new sky altogether.

I realized this was the source of that weird feeling of twinning going on between the movies: a shared movement underground, and the shared perception of a geography under our surface geography but most definitely not of it, and not of anything that could be explained via consensus empirical reasoning. Both movies, in large part, capitalize on the strangeness of the underground passage and its intrinsic terror: that underneath the crust of the earth is another earth, or another world, independent from our own. Heaven for some (Marebito, until the end), Hell for others (The Void). As strange as things like Hollow Earth Theory are, and as obviously stupid as they are by standards of empirical reasoning, they nonetheless strike something inside us like a gong, if depicted in the right way, and afterwards we feel the vibrations of the sound move through us. Both movies, in their own way, strike that gong. These are also, in retrospect, the best portions of both movies, because they hit upon something elemental and surprisingly universal. I should learn from this for my own writing, the way older terrors can work through new means.

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