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Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2004
Flickers in the dead of night
The older I get, the harder I am to scare -- with horror movies at least. After a certain age, real life, including medical bills, school fees and Fox News, becomes scary enough -- and the celluloid variety of shock becomes more tiresome.
I've had enough chain saws, claw hands and hockey masks to last a lifetime. But several Japanese directors, such Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Hideo Nakata and Hiroshi Shimizu, have given me a new kind of creeps that have nothing to do with implacable madmen chasing shrieking teenage girls, and everything to do with unquiet dreams, fugitive fears the logical mind can't comprehend and stories that have the ring of inner truth or actual experience, however incredible.
I'm not the only one -- the films of these horrormeisters, under the label J-Horror, have spread far and wide outside Japan, more by word of mouth than any clever PR campaign. If the new anthology "Kaidan Shinmimibukuro" is any indication, there is a new generation of directors already coming up, each trying to outshock the other: The J-Horror farm team.
The eight films in this compilation, by seven different directors, are based on stories collected by Hirokatsu Kihara and Ichiro Nakayama around Japan from ordinary folks who have had uncanny experiences. The films are part of a series of 84 that were broadcast on the BS-1 satellite channel and later collected on DVD.
Where the best J-Horror films, such as Kurosawa's "Kairo," Nakata's "Ring" and Shimizu's "Juon," spend much screen time on atmospherics (psychological as well as physical), the shorts of "Kaidan" get right down to business. The scares are accordingly not as deep, but the results are mostly entertaining: J-Horror lite.
The best is the first: Akio Yoshida's story of security guards on night patrol at an abandoned building. Their short-fused supervisor (Naoto Takenaka) can't understand why they keep turning in strange reports (basically nothing to report -- except for one woman in kimono) and quitting soon after. Finally, the supervisor fills in himself, working with a phlegmatic guard who stoutly refuses to accept the reality of the spooks that haunt the place, even when they drape their clammy hands all over him. The supervisor, however, is not as strong-minded.
Takenaka and the rest of the cast give this material just the right comic spin: enough to let us in on the joke, without descending into elbow-in-the-ribs slapstick. Also, the details, from the grainy, dim light to the moldy trash scattered on the floor, are creep-inducing. (Take it from one who once patrolled those long empty corridors at night, with nothing more than a flashlight, a badge and an overactive imagination.)
Scarier in a more primal way is Kosuke Suzuki's segment about a woman who dreams she is being crushed by a strange man sitting on her chest. Straining desperately, she shakes him off -- and wakes to see him sitting on her young son, a devilish leer on his face. Suzuki doesn't try to overembellish this tale -- telling it instead much the way the dreamer probably dreamt it. Though only on screen for moments, Kazuki Kitamura is the embodiment of pitiless evil as the succubus -- and in a white flower-patterned shirt yet.
Silliest is Keisuke Toshima's piece about three OLs driving along a lonely mountain road at night -- and finding themselves hopelessly lost. Resting near a spooky old shrine, they hear a weird sound and one, puffing on a cigarette, literally goes up in smoke. The remaining two run for their lives, but can't easily shake the tobacco curse. While a comforting thought for those of us choking on secondhand smoke in Doutor's, the film's premise is not only absurd, but executed with the subtlety of a zap-the-baddies arcade game. The actresses playing the OLs are all quite good, and Yasue Saito -- star of the neglected SF gem "Dimension Travelers" -- has the best scream.
Saddest is Shunichi Hirano's segment about a mother (Setsuko Karasuma) who, driven mad by the death of her teenage son, tends faithfully to his ghost. There is little in the way of suspense -- the first shot of the boy's shadow through a shoji hints that he is no longer one of the living -- but Karasuma, playing the epitome of kimonoed devotion, ladles on the pathos, until her end comes as something of a relief.
The two segments set in schools are like the it-happened-to-the-cousin-of-a-friend tales kids tell to pass the time during boring lunch hours, while Kosuke Suzuki's story -- his second in the film -- of a jilted bride taking revenge on her unwitting rival lacks punch, despite a choking pair of white-gloved hands and a face floating between them.
The best campfire story is Keita Amemiya's short about a young man who is house-sitting his rich uncle's luxurious apartment. A beer-drinking, TV-watching paradise save for one condition -- he must answer whenever a ghostly female voice calls his name. If he fails, the uncle warns, the consequences will be severe. Naturally, the doofus invites a girl over for the night and, naturally, the voice, which only he can hear, pipes up at the wrong moment. This story is best told by two people -- one the narrator and one, well, why not leave that to your imagination?