[KURONEKO aka BLACK CAT - (1968) - Directed by Kaneto Shindo - Widescreen Presentation] From the director of 'Onibaba' and 'The Island', this genuinely creepy, atmospheric (and somewhat obscure) classic finally gets a stateside release; even more blessed are we that it's getting the Criterion treatment. Riding the critical wave after 'Onibaba' was released, Kaneto Shindo, along with Kiyomi Kuroda, whose award-winning cinematography sets the tone for this film, brilliantly delivers the chills with an underlying tragic story of lost love and revenge, and its Chiaroscuro/Noir visuals are nothing short of breathtaking.
In feudal Japan, a warring group of marauding Samurai seeking food emerge from the dense forest when they come across a house that should have what they require. Upon entering the house, they find it indeed has what they want and a whole lot more...it has women as well. The inhabitants, an elderly woman and her young daughter-in-law are both subjected to continuous sexual assault as each Samurai takes his turn while others plunder the women's food stocks. After the Samurai have satiated their appetites, they leave the women, now unconscious, for dead and set fire to their home as they flee. When the fire eventually burns out, all we see are the burned and battered bodies of the women amid the ruins and their vulnerable black kitten as it licks their charred bodies, a dark and grisly moment captured purrrfectly.
Later on, one night a Samurai approaches on horseback and is met by the spectral vision of a woman, who tells him she is too frightened to make her journey home because she has to pass the Bamboo Grove, which is a known haven for bandits and highwaymen. The Samurai agrees to accompany her to her home, where he is plied with sake. The woman then proceeds to seduce the Samurai before brutally attacking him, devouring his throat and sucking his blood...for we then learn that the two women are in fact Bakeneko, newly embodied catlike vampire spirits of the dead women murdered by the Samurai, who have made a pact with the evil spirits, granting them restored life on the condition that they murder all Samurai who pass their way. These nightmarish acts continue until a young man victorious in war is hired to hunt down the vampires, but he soon realizes to his horror that these creatures are the vengeful souls of his mother and wife who died while he was off at war. He is now torn between his lord, who orders him to rid the forest of ghosts or else he will be killed, and his mother and wife's ethereal forms whom he loves and couldn't possibly fathom killing.
Though it may not sound like it, this film is rife with indelible, grotesque imagery that will stay with you forever, yet maintains a Kabuki play arthouse quality right through to the tense final moments. The swamp location is a perfect setting for the film to take place and director Shindo takes full advantage of it, especially during the scenes where the younger of the two women is leading the stray, egotistical Samurai to their inevitable deaths. If you enjoyed 'Onibaba', 'Kwaidan', or even the more recent 'Kaidan' (a modern retelling of this type of flick), you're certain to appreciate this one. Let this 'Black Cat' cross your path and your luck's bound to be good...