DragonHead (2003)

DragonHead (2003)
Director: Jôji Iida - Starring: Sayaka, Satoshi Tsumabuki, Yoshimasa Kondo, Minori Terada, Kyusaku Shimada, & Takayuki Yamada.
Updated: 02-26-2006

An ambitious and pretty darn impressive mixture of a half-dozen different genre trappings, Joji Iida's Dragonhead is dark, spooky, exciting, and (given the wild premise) rather fascinating, indeed. Although clearly cobbled together from an eclectic array of cinematic influences, the director is able to forge just enough new ground to avoid creating a rip-off. Plus the special effects are really cool.

Dragonhead has the bleak intensity of an end-of-the-world disaster epic, the sand-swept unpleasantness of an apocalyptic adventure flick, the grim creativity of good science fiction, and just enough other-worldly creepiness to keep the horror fans entertained. It's a pretty bizarre movie, to be sure, but the adventurous genre-fans who aren't afraid of some wild concepts and two hours spent with subtitles will find a lot to like here.

The film opens on our main character, a teenager named Teru, who has just awakened on board a train. A train that's filled with rubble and lots of corpses. He chances upon a pair of survivor (but survivor of what?): an old classmate who's gone fairly kooky and is likely to kill anyone he comes across -- and a sweet-natured girl called Ako. Teru and Ako promise to stick together and find a way out of the collapsed train tunnel, although they've no idea what they'll find out there. (Still, it's gotta be better than a homicidal classmate who wears war-paint and carries a nasty spear.)

Eventually our lead couple does find their way out of their subterranean crypt -- and they quickly discover that there's little relief to be found on the surface. Something has happened to Japan, and it isn't pretty. As Tero and Ako make their way across the desolate landscape, they come across a few survivors (most of whom are 2 degrees away from the same insanity that infected spear-boy back in the tunnels) and a few pieces of the "what the HELL is going on?" puzzle.

I'll not spoil the surprises for you, but suffice to say that this particular armageddon was caused by A) human madness, B) infected space rocks from another universe, or C) a magnetic shift in the earth's core that is intent on causing massive earthquakes, explosions, and brand-new volcanoes. Or perhaps all of the above.

For all its disturbing end-of-the-world concepts and darkly staggering visual tricks, what makes Dragonhead most effective is its running subtext: That it might simple be easier to just lie down and die than to face the horrors of this corpse-laden new world. Along their travels Teru and Ako come across a pair of young twins who've been surgically altered so as not to experience emotions of any kind, and it's this ongoing theme that crystallizes in the flick's rather unpleasant finalé.

Dragonhead doesn't mind taking its time and doling out its intended mood, which means that some of you might want to reach for the FF button and get to the good stuff. But better to give the movie a fair shot to wrap you up in its twisty-turny narrative than to skip ahead. There are a few slow spots here and there, but after the full 120-minute experience of Dragonhead came to a close, I found myself quietly contemplative and more than a little impressed by the experience. It's not exactly a "happy" movie, but it's a fairly challenging and hypnotic one, all the same.

The film comes packaged as a 2-disc set from Media Blasters, and the second platter features an hour-long "making-of" featurette, as well as some photo galleries and theatrical trailers. You can watch the movie in its original Japanese (with English subtitles) or with an English dub track.

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