Ghosts and the supernatural are the common themes in this anthology of Japanese horror stories, by Samurai Rebellion director Masaki Kobayashi. The tales: a samurai cruelly leaves his wife for another woman, and when he one day returns learns a shocking truth; a demon spares the life of a man as long as he promises to never tell anyone what happened, which leads to a bizarre tragedy (amusingly, another more gory and twisted adaptation of this story was in Tales From The Darkside, which I watched earlier in the month); a blind singer is taken to the underworld, where he sings a ballad about a fierce battle to the ghosts of those who died in the battle; a man is disturbed to find someone else's reflection when he looks into a cup of tea.
At 2 hours and 45 minutes, Kwaidan is very likely the longest horror film I've ever seen. That's probably too long for most casual fans, but there are rich rewards for those of us who appreciate measured, atmospheric films. It's not "scary" in the sense that it's intense or suspenseful or manic; no one is chased by a madman with a knife. These are quiet, deliberately paced stories of the strange and tragic, told in a highly stylized, theatrical fashion complete with elaborate but clearly unrealistic sets. They are less about plot or excitement than about the creation of mood through offbeat production design and cinematography, and its eerie, sparse sound design.
It teeters dangerously close to greatness, but I found myself a little disappointed by the final story, which is also the shortest. It has a memorable final image, but otherwise is kind of a silly drag. I might be a little too hard on the overall film just because of the sequence of stories. If it had come earlier, it might not have been such a big deal, but after nearly 3 hours it ends the film on an underwhelming note.