Neatly balanced between genuine J-horror and J-horror pastiche, cult fave Sion Sono’s “Exte,” is surprisingly ungoryand almost mainstream in its appeal, its victims gushing hair instead of blood. Long, black tresses, a secondary motif of J-horror, take center stage, both in the vocation of Sono’s hairdresser-in-training heroine and as supernatural instruments of lethal revenge. Though lacking the visceral creepiness of Sono’s signature “Suicide Club,” “Exte” is nevertheless a hoot. Tonally shifting with each motley strand of its braided storyline, pic proves gleefully over-the-top while satisfyingly character-invested.
The corpse of a young woman — cut up so her organs could be harvested — is discovered in a freight car amid a sea of that most acceptable of repurposed body parts, hair. The cadaver is then abducted by Yamazaki (Ren Osugi), a mad, capering morgue attendant with a hatred of women and a fetish for hair, whereupon it produces wave upon wave of murderous locks from every orifice and incision, which Yamazaki peddles to beauty salons as hair extensions — “extes,” for short.
Slavish conformity to fads usually signals imminent demise in a Sono film, and, sure enough, everyone who dons an exte dies a spectacularly hirsute death.
Meanwhile, on the home front, Sono paints a surreally cheerful picture of normality. Glowing heroine Yuko (Chiaki Kuriyama, of “Ju-on” and “Kill Bill” fame) cheerfully tools around town on her bicycle, greeting all she passes on her way to the Gilles de Rais salon (nothing like the name of a medieval serial killer to lend cachet), where she happily snips, colors and curls in apprenticeship.
Enter Yuko’s older, sadistic sister Kiyomi (Tsugumi), the terror of Yuko’s childhood, who has found a new target for child abuse in her own quivering, unnaturally subservient daughter, Mami (Miku Sato).
The ensuing struggle between good sister and evil sister for control of the little girl runs parallel to the saga of the rampant hair extensions — crisscrossing at various points through the clownish antics of exte supplier Yamazaki, who’s drawn to the gorgeous long, straight hair of Yuko and her look-alike niece.
The overt links between plotlines are oftentimes flimsy in Sono’s films, yet “Exte” floats on an elemental tide of unleashed feminine power. Indeed, aside from Yamazaki and a bumbling cop duo, femme-centered pic cavalierly dispenses with males altogether.
From garish images of the first woman being manhandled by knife-wielding doctors to Yoko and Mami’s hairy rebirth as de facto mother and child, some mysterious force of female empowerment is secretly operative.
Tech credits are first-rate, Hiroo Yanagida’s bright lensing is a welcome contrast to recent horror’s fetid dankness.