It’s usually easy to spot a horror film. Perhaps more than any other genre, horror is the cinematic category of films that most studiously follows its own conventions and rules. Even many of the most original and daring horror films of all time – from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to Alien to The Shining – all subscribe to a particular dogma of cinematography, sound design, and atmosphere that easily facilitates their identification into the genre while remaining unquestionably unique in approach. Whether through the primal shrieks of a cannibal family, the glistening black skin of a mysterious beast, or the simple blood-chilling image of two identical twins at the end of a long hallway, all of these films are more or less forthcoming in their membership to the horror genre.
This isn’t the case for all horror films, obviously, and it most certainly isn’t the case for Takashi Miike‘s Audition. Widely recognized for giving inspiration to notoriously gore-hungry filmmakers Eli Roth and Rob Zombie (as well as the critically unpopular but often unfairly maligned “torture porn” subgenre), Audition is a work that not only doesn’t announce itself as horror, but begins under the light and benign charade of a charming melodrama. The film begins in tragedy: Shigeharu Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) has just lost his wife to an unnamed ailment. Many years later, Aoyama’s son Shigehiko (Tetsu Sawaki) implores his father to look for a new wife. After discussing the issue at length with his film producer friend Yasuhisa (Jun Kunimura), Aoyama decides to sit in on auditions for a fake movie, where he will get the chance to meet hundreds of beautiful women in the hope of selecting one to be his new partner.
After hearing hundreds of auditions, the woman that Aoyama has been most eager to meet finally arrives. To the middle-aged bachelor, Asami Yamazaki (Eihi Shiina) is perfect: mild-mannered, softly spoken, and most of all, very very gorgeous. Aoyama is smitten by her and eagerly asks her to dinner, to which she effortlessly agrees. The two seem to hit it off immediately, and it doesn’t take long for Aoyama to become convinced that she’s the one. It’s only around this time, no less than halfway through, that the film finally starts to unravel and show its true colors.
Before breaking down almost entirely into something just short of a nightmare, Miike leaves us with one crucial, unmissable clue that something is unutterably, horribly wrong. At the advice of his friend, Aoyama stops calling Asami for a few days, in order to not rush into this new and exciting relationship. When he finally calls her back, the film suddenly and violently breaks its established point-of-view, tearing us away from Aoyama for just one scene to show Asami sitting with her back arched uncannily forward near the telephone. As she listens to Aoyama’s excuse for not calling her, her long black hair obscures everything but her mouth, as a terrible, wide grin grows across her otherwise blank face.
There are other, more subtle clues that something is off with Asami and this almost too perfect arrangement – Miike gradually alters the temporal and spacial coherency of his narrative through editing, breaking the 180 degree rule and skipping across different but similar scenes to give the film an almost imperceptibly disorienting quality, ultimately leaving the audience with a pit of dread in their stomachs that something truly horrifying is about to transpire.
It’s this continuous, unnerving descent into psychosis and violence where I think Audition draws its greatest strength. The label of “elevated horror” that’s popped up on social media the past couple of years surrounding the work of independent directors such as Ari Aster and Robert Eggers is commonly met with disdain from many genre enthusiasts, who predominately view the term as both a condescending misnomer implying a lack of substance in the genre and a badge of overpraise for the films that receive it. To me, the hostility to this term seems to be partially rooted in a resistance to the kinds of horror films that receive it, ones that are so restrained in their formalism, atmosphere, and pacing that their approach is sometimes criticized as pretentious and antagonistic to its own genre. And yet, if Audition had come out today, I can’t help but feel that – as a film that largely withholds the traditional cues of its genre, there’s a good chance it would have been lumped into this “elevated horror” craze.
That is, of course, until the film finally reaches its destination and embraces the blood-and-other bodily-fluids-soaked solution to its maddening puzzle box of a narrative. There’s a reason the film was particularly influential to the gore-interested filmmakers in the west, after all, and while Miike doesn’t gloat in grossing his audience out, he certainly takes his time. If you’ve made it this far without seeing Audition, I won’t spoil the delightfully uncomfortable spectacle of its final act except that it’s a sequence of images and sounds you won’t likely soon forget – it is well worth seeking out for one particularly shocking montage in particular.
Ultimately, I think Audition has maintained such a legendary reputation over the past two decades not because it takes its time, nor that it suddenly explodes into sickening bodily ruin, but because it unites those two modes of horror filmmaking to elegant heights. There are plenty of horror films that have succeeded by sustaining a disorienting, uncanny atmosphere (Don’t Look Now and The Shining are the first two that come to mind), and there are certainly plenty that succeed in rendering the grossest extremes of corporal anguish (two favorites of mine in this category are the New French Extremity films Inside and In My Skin). Yet it’s hard to deny that the enduring power of Audition is in its ability to effortlessly operate on both wavelengths, and for that reason above all it remains one of the most effectively unnerving exercises in fear to come out in the last 25 years.