I’ve been on something of a silent horror tangent lately,which has lead me to watching some really striking works of early cinematic achievement, but nothing comes close to the (literal) insanity on display in the Japanese film A Page of Madness. The film plays like a cold splash of water or an open-handed slap to the face. From the first frame on, its wild, chaotic mode of loose story telling and terrifying black & white cinematography feels entirely anachronistic for the time of its release. A whirlwind of rapid edits, bizarre imagery, and an oppressive absence of linear storytelling make A Page of Madness feel like a contemporary with, say, Eraserhead or Tetsuo: The Iron Man instead of a distant relic of horror cinema. It’s an early masterwork of disjointed, abstract filmmaking and it’s one that was nearly lost forever, considered unobtainable for nearly four decades before a salvageable (and significantly shortened) print was re-discovered.
A Page of Madness opens with a flood of, well, madness: storm water pours; train engines roar; a woman dances in a ceremonial gown on a set that is simultaneously ethereal & industrial. The film pulls back here to reveal its hand. The woman dances for no particular audience. She’s wearing a hospital gown, not a fine piece of luxurious fabric. She is a patient in a mental ward, not entirely sure of what place or time she occupies. The audience isn’t sure either. We’re introduced to her husband, who poses as a janitor at the hospital in hopes of setting her free. His attempts to make himself or their former life together recognizable to her are in vain. His attempts to stage a prison break ultimately end in ultraviolent futility. Everything else in between is up for interpretation as a tornado of screaming babies, wild dogs, creepy masks, and crosshatched jail cell bars tear across the screen. From beginning to end A Page of Madness is smeared, stretched, mirrored, sped-up, and doubled over. The result is downright maddening, like Häxan by way of Hausu.
This film is way more expressionistic & chaotic than what I’m used to from cinema’s silent era. It takes a very one-note, stubborn view of mental illness that lacks any semblance of modern nuance in the subject, but the play it gets out of interpreting its mental patients’ hallucinations in a visual language is awe-inspiring even by today’s standards. The overall aesthetic feels akin to turning on a flashlight in pitch black darkness only to be startled by the haunted house terrors lurking within. Very early on the film intentionally relates itself to jazz by throwing images of the then-young art’s instruments in with the rest of its kinetic collage, a very apt act of self-awareness. Its great feat is in the way it consistently disrupts your sense of location and temporal setting. Jail cells & external spaces bleed together, as do the past & present. It’s all delightfully, horrifyingly dizzying.
A lot of A Page of Madness‘s obfuscation is a likely result of its modernized form. When screened in Japan in the 1920s, the film was accompanied by live storytellers who would clarify characters’ inner dialogue & general intent in a way that’s missing when watching the film in your living room. Without that embellishment, the film’s total lack of intercut dialogue cards leaves the audience to drown without a lifeline. Its hypnotic soundtrack recalls a particularly noisy Xiu Xiu experiment stretched thin & hammered out of shape, which is not likely what original audiences experienced either. Also, the film’s missing footage might’ve softened its abstraction to a degree (although some historians suspect director Teinosuke Kinugasa himself might’ve shortened & sped up the film to enhance this effect once he re-discovered his lost print).
All of this speculation is ultimately meaningless, however. The version of A Page of Madness we do have today is immaculately abrasive & I wouldn’t change one confusing frame of it. I doubt any other silent horror I’ll watch will match its sheer memorability, but I’ll gladly welcome the challenge of any film that’s willing to try.