EXPECTATIONS: A return to form for horror director Hideo Nakata.
REVIEW: Director Hideo Nakata has been long-anointed as a Master of Horror due to the wildly successful film, Ringu (1998). His film(s) including the latter and its sequels/prequels had started a massive wave of Asian horror films and remakes for many years to come. He also had good films post-Ringu like Chaos (2000) and Dark Water (2002). But his recent work has been very problematic and some were quite abysmal. Films like the British film Chatroom (2010) and the sequel to the remake, The Ring Two (2005) were laughably bad and even his native work like The Incite Mill (2010), L: Change the World (2008) and Monsterz (2014) were mostly seen as disappointments. But he ventured back to horror with The Complex (2013) and while it wasn’t a triumph, it was, in this reviewer’s opinion, an entertaining film that was reminiscent to 90’s horror, with a great lead performance from former AKB48/rising actress Atsuko Maeda. Now, Nakata remakes his own work, the 1996 horror film, Don’t Look Up, to create Ghost Theater. Is Ghost Theater a return to form for the man who was once known as a Master of Horror?
The film starts off with a prologue that shows two schoolgirls being scared out of their minds by a moving mannequin. Their father (Ikuji Nakamura) tries to destroy the doll, but only manages to decapitate it before the police arrest him on suspicion of murder. AKB48 member Haruka Shimazaki stars as Sara, an aspiring actress who wants her big break after working small roles like a cadaver in a TV crime show or recently, a corpses in a crime scene. She goes to an audition for a small role in a stage play of “The Whimper of Fresh Blood”, to be directed by renowned director, Gota Nishikino (Mantaro Koichi). Sara captures the attention of the cast and crew (positively and negatively) and she is cast. The lead actresses Aoi (Riho Takada) and Kaori (Rika Adachi) look down on Sara but that’s the least of Sara’s problems. One day, a female crew member is mysteriously found dead after acting possessed and Aoi is found unconscious, after seeing the mannequin supposedly winking at her. Having memorized all of Aoi’s lines, Sara is, in a serendipitous fashion, cast in one of the lead roles. It is only later in the rehearsals of the play, does things get more malicious and spooky, to the point of the possibility that the production is cursed.
Oh boy, where do I start with this film? Well, I will give the film credit for this. This film did scared me and shocked me. Of how incredibly bad it was. Seriously, this was both one of the most disappointing AND one of the most unintentionally hilarious movies I’ve seen this year. Let me start off with the acting. Every single actor in this film acts as if William Shatner was their acting teacher in teaching them how to look scared. All of the actors are hamming it up in their expressions of fear to the point that it would seem like it is their last role of their careers. This kind of acting would pay off big in kaiju/monster films but in a horror film like this, it just comes off as laughable. It’s not entirely the actors’ fault, as Haruka Shimazaki does fine as Sara. But when the characters are not developed much as all, the actors become are lifeless, particularly Riho Takada and Rika Adachi, who play Sara’s rivals. You figure that the two would ham it up at those moments of jealousy, but nope. Most of the fault goes to director Nakata. His overuse of reaction shots to supposedly offer scares only offers a 180 approach to complete and utter hilarity. Even the reaction shots are used when the actors are reacting at nothing! There’s a scene where characters are possessed and they spout out the word(s) “Gimme!” over and over. It’s supposed to be scary, but it comes off sounding like a zombie cheerleader squad. It’s as laughable as it sounds.
Speaking of Hideo Nakata’s direction, everything from his talent in his use of sound, his assured storytelling, his way of wringing suspense and tension through eerie visuals and the power of suggestion are all absent in this film. Everything is just plain assaultive and cheap. The sets, the lighting and the cinematography (which tries to emulate a giallo film) never offer a minuscule amount of spooky atmosphere and the sound design, I swear, could’ve came from old film stock and it is used in the most unsubtle way. Like sounds of rain or thunder utilized in Ghost Theater could’ve only come from films in the 50’s, and that’s not a compliment.
Speaking of cheap, the main villain, which is a mannequin. You can’t say dolls cannot be scary (Chucky is a great example) but in the case of Ghost Theater, this has to be the least scary antagonist in a horror film in a long time. The look and movement of the mannequin will elicit more passive shrugs and amused loud chuckles than gasps. Maybe gasps of air before chuckling again. It moves like a malfunctioning robot with little power left in it. Hell, its movement adds to the unintentional hilarity in the climax when the characters are too damn slow to outrun the damn thing. And the storytelling (or the script) is incredibly boring. Filmed within the same sets for the majority of the movie, and set within the same dress rehearsals, repeating the same lines over and over, alongside the droning narration, it becomes incredibly tedious. Until the hammy acting starts up again.
Now are there any positives besides the unintentionally farcical humour and Haruka Shimazaki? Not much. The music, from Mamoru Oshii collaboator, Kenji Kawai, is fine on its own merit, but does very little for the film. The story itself had tons of potential to become a great film, with elements of giallo for atmosphere and gore, the Black Swan influence for psychological trauma, or a whodunnit mystery on who is causing the murders. But unfortunately, that’s all it is. Ideas without proper execution. Instead, we get the nadir of Japanese horror.
Admittedly, this film was one unintentionally hilarious experience to witness (the reaction shots from the actors can’t be taken seriously), so for lovers of so-bad-it’s-good cinema, it can be a worthwhile experience. But on the other hand, it’s just so sad to see such a director stoop so low after knowing what promise he used to have. If you want a sure impression of the film, watch the trailer. It’s a pretty accurate impression of the film, if you ask me. As much I hate to say it, this film is pure unadulterated dogsh–
Haruka Shimazaki gives a fine, if unimpressive, performance as Sara, the lead
Many moments of unintentional hilarity, thanks to Nakata’s blunt direction and the hammy performances of the actors
Kenji Kawai’s score is fine on its own, but not the way it is utilized in the film
Cheap production values from the sets to the lighting and the cinematography
Nakata’s direction is so assaultive, that no suspense, tension or scares can be found
The acting, for the most part, is terrible or worse, lifeless
The storytelling is boring, with droning narration and many scenes of repetition (rehearsals of the same lines happen over and over)
The antagonist is laughably stupid in appearance as well as execution
SCORE: 3/10 (The nadir of Hideo Nakata’s career.)
Cast: Haruka Shimazaki, Mantaro Koichi, Rika Adachi, Riho Takada, Keita Machida, Ikuji Nakamura
Director: Hideo Nakata
Screenwriter(s): Junya Kato, Ryuta Miyake