Like many of the best werewolf stories Der Samurai mixes horror, mythology and sexuality together to create a violent and primal insight into the human psyche and its perceived Other. But don’t let me deceive you, this is not a traditional werewolf narrative but rather a dream-like horror film which is heavily steeped in folklore with its grandmothers, wolves and themes of innocence and transformation. Its title is misleading but there is just enough bloody violence for it to appeal to those who want to see beheadings and gore, its primary draw though is its creative and impressively realised spin on the werewolf legend.
The film follows a young policeman who’s beat covers the small East German town which he grew up in. It’s the kind of place where little happens of note, where everybody knows everybody else and your secrets don’t really stay secret for long. Our hero’s primary concern at the beginning of the film is the presence of a wolf that’s living in the woods on the outskirts of town, but the wolf is not the only thing the cop will find when he starts digging into the wood’s depths. Out there exists a cross-dressing man who, with his blond hair, his pristine white dress and the katana which he wields, appears out of the darkness like a Freudian fever dream version of The Bride from Kill Bill. Now if this all sounds a little bizarre in the cold light of day, that’s because it is. But when you’re in the film’s heady grasp it convincingly and creatively blurs the worlds of symbolism and reality in front of your eyes.
Now I don’t want to say any more about the film’s plot as this is far better experienced when you have no idea where the film is going to take you. It’s rare to have such faith in a film, particularly an indie one, but from the moment the impressive visuals hit the screen and the plot began to sketch itself out I was happy to completely relax into the hands of the director and just see where the film took me. This is all particularly impressive given that I understand the film is ‘simply’ a master thesis project. If that is true then I have to take my hat off to writer/director Till Kleinert because you would never know that the production was a thesis project nor that it was a grassroots crowdfunded horror either. It’s not a perfect film, but it is a very well produced, thought out and entertaining one which is miles better than most of its contemporaries.
One of the most fun things about Der Samurai is the way it cohesively blends its different elements together. At times it is a slasher flick, at others it is a meditative horror that gets under your skin rather than using jump scares and occasionally it’s even a somewhat Lynchian take on human repression. Creative story telling devices are nicely mixed into more conventional narrative and all of the different threads are pulled neatly together into a slick final package. Der Samurai is both whimsical and serious, savagely entertaining and intellectually sound and it’s one of the must see indie horror films this year.
What is the film’s greatest strength? It’s a tie between Kleinert’s direction and Hanslmayr’s cinematography.
Its greatest weakness? It’s a funny weakness to put but I am going to say it’s the title. I think it’s too misleading and could harm the film’s chances a little.
Would I see it again? Certainly, I really want to revisit this one sometime soon.
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