For most of his life, Evan Dossey has generally avoided horror films. The genre makes him profoundly uncomfortable. This means he has enormous gaps in his cinematic knowledge. Each year, he asks friends and family which essential horror movies he needs to see in order to fill those gaps and spends the better part of October agonizing over them, tossing and turning over them … and writing about them. Once again, he’s sharing the month with those friends and family — letting them offer their own thoughts about the tales that terrify (or perhaps just titillate) them. This is our No Sleep October.
2020 sucks. It’s hard to argue otherwise!
It’s daunting to approach a celebration of horror as we collectively anticipate a culturally distressing October, which will culminate with the absence of our usual Halloween festivities due to the ongoing, uncontrolled pandemic. As such, No Sleep October may end up a smaller affair this year. Maybe that’s for the best.
I was personally at a loss when looking at my list of possible essays. None felt appropriate. For example, I watched — and adored — the original Fright Night for the first time recently. It’s fantastic, but what would I have to say about it aside from how cinematic nostalgia made the darkly lit 1980s suburbia set feel so comforting? Yawn. I contemplated the Hammer Films Dracula series, but I already reviewed Scars of Dracula (the best of them) a while ago. Blood + Breasts = Good, and Peter Cushing can get it, but that’s about all I have to say. Earlier this year I fell madly in love with Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm quintet, but our man Nick Rogers already laid claim to them for this project, and I always prefer reading his words to my own (but goddamn, what an incredible example of earnest, low-budget, group-of-friends franchise filmmaking with just the right mixture of sleaze, blood and heart)!
None of these inspired me beyond the general mental desolation that strikes every evening and afternoon as I try to navigate what the world looks like from the relative isolation of our current status quo. The political system seems to be crumbling, people continue to deny and obfuscate, and everyone seems to be an asshole now, including myself.
Don’t worry: I found my film.
Catastrophe 1999 (released in the West and henceforth referred to as Prophecies of Nostradamus) is a 1974 Toho-produced Japanese disaster film that leaves no possible horror unturned. The threats of pollution, climate change, radiation leaks, food shortages and nuclear war progressively annihilate humanity until nothing is left but bugs and mutant children. It was the third in a line of disaster movies produced by the famed production house at the tail end of the golden age of Japanese cinema, produced by none other than Tomoyuki Tanaka, maybe more recognizable for his relationship to Toho’s Godzilla franchise.
The graphic depiction of decaying cannibal mutants, the aftermath of nuclear strikes and other shockingly violent moments of terror resulted in Nostradamus being pulled from theaters with several minutes cut. To this day, it has never seen more than a VHS release in the 1980s; I had to find it on the Internet Archive, half dubbed and half subbed, grainy and barely watchable in moments.
That’s all academic. God, what a magnificent, offbeat, absolutely devastating film this is.
Director Toshio Masuda (of Tora! Tora! Tora! fame) opens in Japan 1853, as a nobleman named Genta Nishiyama declares himself a follower of the teachings of Nostradamus, the infamous and supposedly precognitive monk, which foresee Japan’s feudal period is soon coming to a close. Sure enough, Admiral Perry arrives shortly afterwards with ships that match the prophecy. Nishiyama is executed for heresy, but his wife and son escape, passing his books of prophecy through their lineage, who go on to predict the largest crises of the 20th Century.
Cut to 1999, where another Nishiyama Nishiyama is trying to sound alarm bells to Japan’s political elite about ongoing scientific disasters. Giant slugs are found in piles of trash, washed up on the shore. Children are being born with horrendous defects, if they survive at all; death rates are skyrocketing, as one-third of them die and nearly a quarter that are born are hopelessly deformed. Snow is appearing in Egypt. Icecaps are melting. A science team in Papua New Guinea fell out of contact, devoured by tribes of mutants. Plants are eating birds.
This is just the start. It continues, a mixture of documentary footage, special effects sequences and eerie narration (by either Nishiyama or a female narrator) explaining real-world crimes against our environment and / or the actions of people within the story. One refrain haunts the story as it moves forward, as the suicide rituals of the hopeless youths become more and more extreme. “The splendor of beautiful maidens,” the narrator intones, as women allow their husbands and boyfriends to drive them to some kind of freedom off seaside cliffs.
Naturally some of the concerns in Nostradamus are peak ’70s, but it’s not like 2020 isn’t reaping the results of our decision not to act significantly in the ensuing half-century. I referred to our failure some in my letter to Godzilla regarding his bout with Hedorah, which was released about three years prior to Nostradamus but feels like a sister project in tone and approach. Much of this story hinges on an ending where the politicians make an impassioned plea to the people of Japan about how everyone must band together to make positive changes to the trajectory of the world’s ruin.
It’s an optimistic ending, one that feels unnecessarily bright for a movie so unrelentingly bleak. I much prefer the moment only minutes before wherein one of the women leads, now dangerously pregnant in the apocalypse, dances hypnotically against the off-color backdrop of a tarnished ozone layer. The soul of things is busted and broken and nothing can be done to fix it, so we might as well gyrate weirdly against the irradiated skies of our shattered world.
Those iconoclastic moments set Nostradmus apart from similar disaster movies, which concern themselves with storytelling, characters and plot or whatever. Much of Masuda’s masterpiece is faux-documentary, told from the perspective of a man predicting worse and worse events while living through what he thought would be the end of the world. “It can only get worse and this hell is unending, but people seem to be adapting to doom just fine.” That’s the crushing sensibility you get from Nostradamus and it feels relatable now. Authentic. Certainly more honest than the ending to which Masuda pivots.
That isn’t to say that everything is lost in the real world. There are always spots of hope to be found. It would be navel-gazing and destructive to claim I don’t look at my son each day and see hope, and the future. But that doesn’t change the question: Why horror movies? Why now?
With Nostradamus, it seemed to click that the purpose of watching horror in horrible times is a matter of shifting perspective. One scene struck me: Dr. Nishiyama and his protege are standing on the top of a building, watching as the radiation in the sky causes reflections of the ground. A plane carrying nuclear missiles had exploded a little while earlier, frying a bunch of families on a countryside picnic. The younger man asks, with despair, if doomsday is unstoppable. “No,” Nishiyama says, “There are still things people can do.” Our political system — like that in Nostradamus — might be wildly ineffective at best and actively trying to kill us at worst (a fact as long as Republicans hold power). There are still things we can do. The end is here. But maybe we can, at the very least, dance in the face of it. We don’t have to give up, even if we can’t fix the damage already done. We’re all the dancing lady now.