"Versus," a mad little crime-horror jape from the young Japanese writer-director Ryuhei Kitamura, is one of those engagingly crazy genre films that horrifies some mainstream audiences as much as it delights B-movie aficionados. It's a cult movie that hasn't found its cult yet - but it will.
It's so absurdly gory that you can't take the violence seriously, even when the screen is awash in blood. (Kitamura isn't above blowing a huge hole through one of his characters and then taking his next shot right through the bloody cavity in the victim's chest.)
From the film's earliest scene, a samurai-era flashback featuring a warrior-zombie battle in a spooky forest, Kitamura never lets up for a second. That energy and propulsive speed remain when he cuts forward to the same forest in the present - where two escaped convicts, including the film's "hero," Prisoner KSC2-303 (Tak Sakaguchi), have fallen into the clutches of four menacing but rattle-brained yakuza, who have also kidnapped the movie's heroine (Chieko Misaka).
Sakaguchi is fun to watch as The Hero (who calls himself a feminist at one point, despite manhandling the heroine), and so are Misaka as the heroine and icy, surly Hideo Sakaki as the main villain. But it's Kenji Matsuda as one of the four wacko yakuza, the villain in the suit, who steals the picture. Matsuda gives one of those extravagantly hammy performances that enliven or redeem many a zippy little B, rolling his eyes and popping his tongue on every line like a mad-dog killer clown on amphetamines.
Fairly soon, we know that all is not well in this forest. Not only is the place full of corpses and graves from previous mob assassinations, and not only are people getting killed at a preposterous rate, but the victims all metamorphosize afterwards into ravenous, murderous zombies. After a while, almost everybody in the movie but the three main characters are crazy, dead or both - and most of them are packing heat and, seemingly, born to kill.
But that's not all. We soon learn the whole forest is portal 444 of a possible 666, which is why people keep returning to life (of a sort) here. It also seems the main characters - hero, heroine and villain - have been engaged in the same murderous ritual combats for centuries, repeating them over and over. In an odd way, these revelations, with the movie's humorous tone, keep the constant bloodletting from being as stomach-turning as you might expect. If nobody dies and everyone will be reincarnated, as a zombie or something else, why worry about violence or death?
The movie is outrageously stylish. Kitamura tilts and races his camera, swivels it around his characters, and shoots from outlandishly high and low angles. Every scene is electric and alive. The actors, especially Matsuda, push their roles to the limit. There isn't a moment in the film that's remotely real, but there also isn't a moment that isn't weirdly entertaining. For a low-budget ghost-yakuza thriller, "Versus" is a fairly impressive achievement. And we should remember that "Dead" directors often rise again. The same filmmakers who once crafted "Evil Dead" and "Dead Alive" (Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson) later made "Spider-Man" and "Lord of the Rings." If Kitamura had a major budget and an equally unrestrained cast, who knows what he might dig up?
Directed by Ryuhei Kitamura; written by Kitamura and Yudai Yamaguchi; photographed by Takumi Furuya; edited by Shuichi Kakesu; visual design by Masahiro Kawana; music by Nobuhiko Morino; special makeup effects by Susumu Nakatani; produced by Keishiro Shin. In Japanese, with English subtitles. A Napalm Films release; opens Friday at Facets Multimedia. Running time: 1:59. No MPAA rating (adult: language and extreme, graphic depictions of violence).
Hero (Prisoner KSC2-303) - Tak Sakaguchi
Head villain - Hideo Sakaki
Heroine - Chieko Misaka
Villain in suit - Kenji Matsuda
Villain with ponytail - Yuichiro Arai
Villain with beard - Minoru Matsumoto