Director: Takashi Miike
Cast: Ryo Ishibashi, Eihi Shiina
The knife man cometh
In the final analysis, it all depends on how you define ‘terrifying’. Is it a short sharp shock, a scene of creeping tension, a moment of graphic horror, or a long, lingering look at something so utterly wrong, but so entirely believable, that it scars the soul? The climactic scene of Takashi’s masterpiece, ‘Audition’, has all of this and more – hence its proud placing at the very top of this prestigious list of horrors.
For its first hour, ‘Audition’ is almost a romantic comedy – albeit an oddly unsettling one. Almost on a whim, widowed businessman and loving dad Aoyama (Ishibashi) decides it’s time he sought another wife. But at his age, he doesn’t have time to mess around: he wants Miss Right, and right now. Luckily, his best pal is a moviemaker with a brilliant plan: invent a fake movie, put out a casting call and hold auditions for Aoyama’s blushing bride-to-be.
So far, so breezy – if this was Hollywood, we’d be well on our way to a happy ending. But this is Takashi’s world, where nothing ever ends well. So instead of chuckling along with Aoyama, we’re starting to question him. Isn’t this all a bit, well, creepy? And once the auditions begin, things begin to get ugly: women sing, dance, talk and strip, and our ‘hero’ watches with utter disdain – at least until the arrival of beautiful, young, submissive Asami (Shiina). She’s everything he’s looking for – talented, lonely, eager to please – and Aoyama is immediately smitten.
There’s no need to go into the details of what transpires over the course of Aoyama and Asami’s courtship – suffice it to say that nothing is as it seems, particularly the lady’s apparently giving nature. By the time the final conflict comes around, we’re already far from the film’s initial good-natured style: Miike has goosed us with a few nasty shocks – a flapping, severed tongue, a man with missing feet, a bag stuffed with something horribly alive – but then Aoyama returns home to find the house dark, a needle flicks into his neck, and it all goes hideously, unforgettably wrong…
It’s hard to say exactly which part of the ensuing nightmare is the most disturbing: is it the spiralling carousel dream sequence, with its vomit-drinking, its neon flashes and its horrifying glimpses into Asami’s secret past? Is it the brutal retribution which follows, a torture scene of overwhelming ferocity complete with severed limbs, agonised shrieks and Asami’s unbearable whisper as she slips sharp needles into places sharp needles should never, ever go: ‘kiri kiri kiri…’ (‘deeper, deeper…’). Or is it the fact that, deep down, we want this to happen, we recognise the full, hateful exploitation to which Asami (and, by extension, the entire female gender) has been subjected, and we want to see vengeance carried out?
Miike has never been able to replicate the overwhelming power of this staggeringly wrongheaded sequence – but that’s okay, neither has anyone else. But the climax of ‘Audition’ is exactly what horror cinema should be: shocking and unforgettable, yes, but also deeply responsible and passionately angry. This isn’t some pathetic parade of tawdry torture, this is real terror. And it never goes away. – Tom Huddleston