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Tuesday, Nov. 16, 1999


Something familiar this way comes

Horror movies evoke strong reactions: fear, loathing -- or a firm refusal to take the genre seriously. Yes, even sterner-minded cinephiles will admit to liking a "Psycho" or "Silence of the Lambs," but their attitude is often one of dismissal: horror flicks as sick video kicks for slacked-jawed teenage boys. But what Japanese producers have discovered is that horror, done right, will also sell a lot of movie tickets to under-25s of both sexes -- and make big piles of yen that might have otherwise gone to Hollywood.

The avatar of the current horror boom is Masato Hara, the urbane president of Asmik Ace, who spent much of his career importing European art films with impeccable festival credentials and producing films with the likes of Akira Kurosawa ("Ran") and Nagisa Oshima ("Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence"). Though he hasn't abandoned the high road entirely (his recent credits include "Ame Agaru [When the Rain Lifts]," a period drama with a script by Kurosawa), he has become the local industry's leading purveyor of shocks and thrills with his "Ring" series, whose McGuffin is a video that kills anyone who watches it. The first two installments -- "Ring (The Ring)" and "Rasen (The Spiral)" -- became a must-see event for the loose-sock set following their release on a double bill in January 1998 and "Ring" has since become a hit in much of Asia.

Hara's latest fright fest is "Kuroi Ie (The Black House)," a film whose story of a deadly insurance scam echoes recent headlines, but was actually conceived three years ago, from a best-selling novel of the same title by Yusuke Kishi. The director, Yoshimitsu Morita, also helmed "Shitsurakuen," the drama of adulterous middle-aged love that was the biggest live-action domestic film of 1997, and "Keiho," a dark psycho-thriller that was screened in competition at the 1999 Berlin Film Festival. The cast, headed by Shinobu Otake, Masaaki Uchino and Masahiko Nishimura, includes some of the most highly regarded and hardest-working actors in Japan. In short, this movie is no drive-in quickie.

Instead it is Morita's attempt to challenge several cherished genre conventions, made with his characteristic polish and inventiveness. In its third act, however, it recycles too many genre cliches, including the weariest of all -- the killer who never says "die" -- to deliver the chills it promised in its first two.

The best horror directors, it is said, have a streak of sadism in their souls. Morita seems to have gotten most of his inspiration for "Kuroi Ie" from the video library. He does, though, succeed in exposing the abominations that lurk beneath the banalities of everyday routine -- or everyday madness.

Instead of the usual zaftig young woman with a glass-shattering scream, his victim/hero is a mild-mannered insurance adjuster named Wakatsuki (Masaaki Uchino) who lives in Kanazawa (a castle town on the Sea of Japan whose various historical landmarks never appear on the screen). He also lives for his job, which involves investigating suspicious claims.

One would think that, after years of dealing with every known variety of insurance scammer, Wakatsuki would have grown a hide of steel, but he still gets the shakes when confronted by the violent and the dubiously sane, who appear in his seedy-looking office with disturbing frequency. (The film's atmospherics are excellent -- Wakatsuki's office, which looks as though no one has moved a gray steel desk since 1975, has exactly the right air of sagging profits and quiet desperation.)

The shakes get worse when he receives a call from a woman (Shinobu Otake) who wants to know, with disconcerting straightforwardness, whether his company pays on a life insurance policy if the cause of death is suicide. Wakatsuki tries to dissuade her from taking her own life, but she cuts him off and heads, with a weird smile on her face, for a bowling alley, where she proceeds to roll strike after strike with grim efficiency.

Soon after Wakatsuki is called to the home of a client named Shigenori Komoda (Masahiko Nishimura), who looks, with his fish-eyed stare, as menacingly deranged as his house looks creepily ramshackle. Invited inside, Wakatsuki gets the shock of his life when he discovers, behind the fusuma, Komoda's teenage son dangling from the end of a rope.

Komoda, as Wakatsuki learns in the subsequent investigation, is the husband of the woman who called him from the bowling alley. He also filed, under another name, a claim for a thumb that went missing in a factory accident -- a claim that got him blacklisted when investigators suspected its phoniness. Could Komoda have killed his son for an insurance check? With another policy out on his wife Sachiko, could he be planning her murder as well?

In trying to answer to these questions, Wakatsuki enlists the help of his psychologist girlfriend (Misato Tanaka), who in turn introduces him to a criminal psychiatrist (Kenichi Katsura). Seeming to be missing a screw or two himself, the shrink tells Wakatsuki that, after examining their school essays, he believes both Komoda and Sachiko to be dangerous psychopaths -- with Sachiko potentially the more deadly of the two.

Suffice it to say that the shrink, to his undoing, is right on both counts and that, from pursuer, Wakatsuki becomes a terrified prey. The object is to reverse the usual horror film roles, with the male lead becoming the hysterical shrieker, the female lead, the glinty-eyed stalker. Masaaki Uchino, who starred in Morita's cyber-love story "Haru," and Shinobu Otake, who is among the most versatile of actresses, in Japan or elsewhere, bring off this switch without overly straining the film's credibility.

Otake's Sachiko is scarifyingly implacable while exuding a disconcerting sexual heat. One begins to understand what drove Komoda around the bend: a twisted passion for the agent of his own destruction.

But for all Morita's attempts to jazz the climax with bizarre twists, including the appearance of a yellow bowl ball as an instrument of terror, "Kuroi Ie" ends as little more than a slasher pic with ambitions. And for all her talents, the diminutive Otake lacks a truly scarifying presence. In prepping for the role, perhaps she should have invested in platform shoes, a blonde dye job and a few sessions at a tanning salon. A psychotic Shibuya-gyaru with a kitchen knife -- the mind reels.

"Kuroi Ie" is playing at Shibuya Shochiku Central and other theaters.

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