Saoirse’s Cult Corner #25: Cure (1997)

In this column, cult columnist Saoirse takes you on a biweekly jaunt through the obscure annals of the cult film world. We’ll touch on everything from Giallo to J-Horror to Wakaliwood & so much more. If it’s a low budget genre film, or even a big-budget flop with a dogged audience, or even an undiscovered gem, it belongs here. 

This week we look at Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s nerve shredding thriller, Cure.

What scares us as a society? What is it about being social creatures that instills fear in us. At their core, many horror films explore this idea. A film like A Nightmare on Elm Street takes the fear of not learning from our society’s mistakes, by covering up horror, and posits that as its own horror where evil self perpetuates. The most famous film by the director of this fortnight’s film, Pulse by Kiyoshi Kurosawa looks at social alienation, one of society’s biggest fears, in terms of its mediation through technology. It explores the way that technology only furthers the way Capitalism alienates us from our lives, and it does that in the form of ghosts. Kurosawa said he wanted it to feel like an alien invasion picture and it really captures that insidious way the technological mediation with reality has infested our lives. The third Kiyoshi Kurosawa I’ve seen, Creepy, explores the fear that the most dangerous killer you know, could be the guy next door, and he could be insidiously infesting your life. Cure explores a much more interesting fear, with much relevant and scary ramifications for society itself, running a much deeper fear… What if everyone has the capacity inside to become a killer, and more to the point, we each have the necessary motivation lurking in us, and even more to the point, afterwards, we’re all still the same normal people. 

Cure opens with a shocking montage, using the kind of weaponised and pointed editing that made some of the scares in Pulse so effective. We see flashing street lights in a tunnel, lighting a hand wrenching off some pipe from the wall as cars dive past, disjointedly bouncy music make this play out like a predestined, rehearsed dance. He walks into a dingy motel room and brutally murders a woman. We see police siren lights cutting through the gloom. We later find out from our main character, Kōji Yakusho’s troubled detective Kenichi Takabe, that this was a random hookup, and part of a string of individual murders that all leave the same gruesome handprint, an ‘x’ carved into the victim. This becomes the set up for a twisted and hair raising tale of mental anguish and deteriorating morality. 

Where to begin unpacking Cure. In the same way as George Sluizer’s masterpiece of a thriller Spoorloos or Ben Wheatley’s folk horror Kill List, there is something unsafe about Cure. The way the opening sequence works, with it’s the individual shots that next to each other feel like non-sequiturs but together paint a portrait of chaos, unsettling you, constantly wrong-footing you with a rhythm that  seemingly has no logic yet also seems to push on relentlessly towards some predetermined conclusion like the inevitable march of time itself, as all things go, so do people inevitably unravel, which seems to be the ultimate and nihilistic thesis of this film. This somewhat goes for the rest of the film, always taking you in strange directions that keep you guessing not just what’s happening but how you’re going to be shown it. We will go from a hellish montage, which is void of the establishing shots that normally ground so much of editing grammar and full of disjointed images, to one scene on a beach taking place entirely in a wide shot with the camera unassumingly yet in a flowing manor moving just as the characters do on the far side of a sand dune. This scene plays like it comes out of nowhere. An interesting mystery has been set up and now we are following these random people, one of whom has amnesia? Yet we see him slowly inveigle his way into the home of the man he finds on the beach, and before we know it tragedy has struck. Even though this man has his senses about him later, it is never revealed to us whether this man is putting on his amnesia or he is just some mephitic, supernatural force of nature, corruption sent straight from hell with no presence or memory, or if he is just the product of some tragic accident, in a way all three are true emotionally true depending on how literal or metaphorical you want to take the story. We have previously seen this man compulsively hypnotise people with a lighter he has, but the terror is increased threefold when he hypnotises someone merely with dripping water, at which point you wonder if this is hypnosis or these elements are just the medium for something darker and more spiritual. In this scene we see his process, he draws out the person, but more so sees into their heart, what they don’t reveal, what they hide. In this scene he draws out a female doctor’s rage at institutional sexism and points her towards murder with it. With hypnosis you can’t change someone’s moral compass, but what if already knew exactly what would motivate them to murder anyway? Here the film arrives at its most threatening thesis’ introduction, that we all hold these things inside us, and that maybe all it needs is someone to push us. Then, the thesis is tested. 

The test is our central detective Kenichi Takabe, whose wife is dealing with mental problems. She’s introduced telling the story of Bluebeard, and the ending, which seems to forebode terrible things, again adding to the sense of preordained mechanicalness that this film so potently holds. Takabe deftly avoids the villain’s attempts at manipulating him and putting him under, and then it is finally suggested after a scene of climactic intensity that maybe it’s worked, but it’s not explicitly said. You’re rooting for Takabe to make it through this and maybe he will, he seems fine, he’s not immediately killing anyone like other victims of our villain, but then he has a vision that suggests maybe his mind is ready to snap in twain like a twig. It’s one of the best scares in the whole movie and it’s only then that you realise quite what a horror show you have stumbled into under the guise of a serial killer thriller. It’s this moment in which you realise that the film’s mephitic energy has laid its steely hand on your neck, and is leading you to an inevitable and tragic and unavoidable conclusion. The rest of the film is just seeing it out, in this cat and mouse game where you feel there is an axe hanging above the cat, ready to drop at a preordained moment, and it’s harrowing. 

If you like Hana-bi but wish it was more like Kitano works such as Sonatine, and you’re a fan of Se7en and works of Takashi Miike like Gozu, Visitor Q, Shinjuku Triad Society, and Audition, then Cure will blow your fucking pants off. It is an immaculate and intricate thriller that acts as much like a sledgehammer to the skull as a sly knife to your lower left lung.

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