[Review] The Haunted Swordsman (Portland Horror Film Festival): Supernatural Stop-Motion Masterpiece Sees a Samurai Make a Perilous Quest

A ronin who failed to protect his deceased shogun is on a quest to avenge that master’s death in director Kevin McTurk’s brilliant, beautiful stop-motion short The Haunted Swordsman. This is gorgeous animation artistry that must be seen to be believed.

The Swordsman (voiced by Jason Scott Lee) is accompanied on his journey by The Navigator, a one-eyed, talking severed head (voiced by James Hong). The pair encounter an Onibaba witch (voiced by Franka Potente), The Black Monk (voiced by Christopher Lloyd), and a grotesque messenger from the shogun’s killer, The Eater of Souls. 

All of the characters and creatures are superbly designed, with some truly macabre looks for the supernatural entities. McTurk, whose excellent previous shorts The Mill at Caulder’s End and The Narrative of Victor Karloch are reviewed here — lovingly brings this bizarre world to life so well that it is easy to forget we are watching a stop-motion effort. The mythologically rich screenplay is from Tab Murphy, who has written such another animated fare as Batman: Year One and Superman/Batman: Apocalypse, and the Disney films Tarzan and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The world through which The Swordsman and The Navigator traverse is a bizarre one, dark and bleak, with death possible at practically every step — until the short’s end, when the next step of the duo’s journey begins on a brighter — perhaps deceptively so — terrain. It seems that viewers are joining The Swordsman somewhere between the beginning and wherever the end may be of his journey, and The Haunted Swordsman is designed to leave viewers yearning for more. With such a breathtaking, jaw-dropping, striking proof of concept here, this tale cries out to be made into a fully fleshed-out feature film.

The Haunted Swordsman screened as part of Portland Horror Film Festival’s virtual edition, which ran June 10 and June 17–21. 

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Joseph Perry
Joseph Perry fell in love with horror films as a preschooler when he first saw the Gill-Man swim across the TV screen in "The Creature from The Black Lagoon" and Mothra battle Godzilla in "Godzilla Vs. The Thing.” His education in fright fare continued with TV series such as "The Twilight Zone" and "Outer Limits," along with legendary northern California horror host Bob Wilkins’ "Creature Features." His love for silver age and golden age comic books, including horror titles from Gold Key, Dell, and Marvel started around age 5.

He is a contributing writer for the "Phantom of the Movies VideoScope" and “Drive-In Asylum” print magazines and the websites Horror Fuel, Diabolique Magazine, The Scariest Things, B&S About Movies, and When It Was Cool. He is a co-host of the "Uphill Both Ways" pop culture nostalgia podcast and also writes for its website. Joseph occasionally proudly co-writes articles with his son Cohen Perry, who is a film critic in his own right.

A former northern Californian and Oregonian, Joseph has been teaching, writing, and living in South Korea since 2008.