Genocide (1968)

It would be a reductive understatement to point out that the people of Japan were emotionally & spiritually fucked up by the events of World War II—particularly the US’s deployment of the atom bomb—but that was still my foremost thought while watching the 1968 eco horror Genocide (aka War of the Insects). Nature striking back against humanity’s nuclear ills had already been a cinematic fixation dating over a decade prior to films like Godzilla & Them!, but there was something exceptionally troubled about the tones & emotions of Genocide that taps into an even deeper well of ugly post-War fallout than even those superior works. Opening with images of a mushroom cloud and mixing discussions of Hiroshima, Auschwitz, and military men’s PTSD with real-life war footage throughout, Genocide feels more like a cold-sweat nightmare about nuclear fallout than it does a proper feature film. There’s nothing unique to it in a thematic sense (as it often plays like a Mothra film with increased sex & violence), but there is a soul-deep discomfort to it psychologically that breaks through that familiarity.

A military airplane transporting an H-Bomb is downed on a Japanese island when attacked from the outside by a swarm of insects and from the inside by a solder suffering PTSD flashbacks. Western military men & Eastern Block spies race each other to recover the bomb first while two simultaneous mysteries develop around its disappearance: a murder trial involving a local man’s affair with a white tourist & the scientific explanation for the actual murderers responsible – poisonous bugs. It appears that all the insects of the world have joined forces to end humanity as retribution for inventing the atomic bomb. Their mission is accelerated by a mad-scientist Holocaust survivor who is blinded by her hatred of mankind due the torture she & her family suffered. None of these storylines cohere into a satisfactory, purposeful statement on the evils of War, but they do reflect a general psychological hurt across Japanese culture in their own jumbled, disoriented way. Genocide is a panicked nightmare of an eco horror where the killer bugs themselves are almost an afterthought in the face of humanity’s own colossal fuckups.

I don’t know that this picture is fully satisfying as a horror film. It does its best to unnerve the audience with the small-scale scares it can muster on what had to be a limited budget: model airplanes catching fire, Phase IV-style closeups of insect pincers pulling at flesh, nasty makeup work on victims’ festering wounds, a solitary psychedelic sequence of someone tripping on bug venom, etc. The real menace here is more deeply rooted in the psychological fallout of the War than the threat posed by the bugs, however. The way the insects organize, swarm, and gnaw flesh is never quite as eerie as the moment when they sing the word “genocide, genocide, genocide,” to torment their human foes. Genocide saturates the air in post-War Japan, as it’s presented here, to the point where Nature whispers it back to us in a creepy sing-song nursery rhyme. No matter where else the film may stumble in establishing a horrific mood (most notably in its limited scale and its occasionally shortsighted race & gender politics), that direct vocalization of a nation’s subliminal hurt is genuinely, impressively chilling.

-Brandon Ledet

Phoenix (2015)

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I’ve been putting off watching Phoenix, despite it appearing on many Best of 2015 lists, due to the grim nature of its pedigree as a Holocaust survivor’s tale. Its recent appearance on Netflix’s streaming service made watching the film too convenient to avoid, though, so I finally bit the bullet. It turns out my apprehension was far from unfounded. Phoenix is a rather grim slowburner about an Auschwitz survivor trying to piece her life back together in a post-war Germany. It’s a frustrating film & not a fun watch by any means, but it is most certainly worth the emotional effort. By telling a very specific, limited-scope story about a handful of people trying to recreate a way of life that’s been lost forever, Phoenix captures an aspect of war’s toll that a lot of films often overlook. Instead of portraying the heroes & villains who fight it out on the battlefield, it’s much more concerned with the men & women who are left to sift through the rubble, both literal & metaphorical.

Despite loved ones’ insistence that she move to Palestine to help establish a Jewish state, a Holocaust survivor moves back to Germany to find her husband. Left horrifically scarred by concentration camp atrocities (and initially wearing a bandage that recalls the women of Goodnight Mommy & Eyes Without a Face), she undergoes plastic surgery that normalizes, but forever alters her appearance. She looks similar, but not quite identical, to her pre-war self, just as the state of her homeland has been forever transformed. With her entire family dead or missing, she tries to re-establish her relationship with a husband who treats her like a total stranger due to her change in appearance. Instead of telling him outright who she is, she allows him to slowly get the picture, perhaps in a bid to prove to herself that her pre-war self still exists in some way, that her identity didn’t perish forever in Auschwitz. The problem is that her husband has also been forever altered by the war & the romance she’s trying to recapture is no different from the bombed-out buildings & ripped to shreds Germany that serve as haunting reminders of their past.

Again, Phoenix is far from light entertainment. My own Best of 2015 list doesn’t include anything too comparable to the film in terms of emotional severity (except maybe The Diary of a Teenage Girl or Felt), but that’s more an indication of my personal inclination for over-the-top absurdity than it is of Phoenix’s quality. This is a really tight, surprisingly understated drama with one of the most satisfying final scenes in recent memory. Its use of the song “Speak Low”, which includes the haunting lyrics “Love is a spark lost in the dark too soon,” is especially commendable, as it’s incorporated several times throughout the film with great tonal & narrative consequence. If you’re looking for a solid, grim drama with an emotionally tender gut punch at its conclusion, this film is highly recommendable. It’s not the kind of experience I put myself through often, but I’m glad I put in the effort here.

-Brandon Ledet