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Friday, Sept. 8, 2006
The spell is broken
Mummies are creepy, strange, fascinating -- and not only to 12-year-old boys with overactive imaginations. I realized this once, when, after wandering through nearly empty galleries in the Louvre, I came to The Mummy Room, which was crowded with dead Egyptians and live tourists. What did the mummies have that marble statues of dead Romans didn't?
The appeal to morbid curiosity, obviously -- but there's something more, including the thrill of seeing a human body preserved, however imperfectly, against the ravages of time. No dust to dust for this fellow, one thinks, with queasy admiration. At the same time, one wouldn't like being locked up alone at night with him and his bandaged mates. Not that they will rise out of their glass cases, but who knows what form the Mummy's Curse will take?
Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Loft" has a mummy as a centerpiece -- but the Japanese variety, not the more familiar Egyptian. Also, Kurosawa, who has been refining his unique brand of horror for nearly two decades, does the mummy movie differently as well, neither camping it up, nor piling on the special effects.
Instead, as is his wont, he gets the flesh creeping more through minimalist devices -- rattling plastic and dripping water being two of his favorites -- than rude shocks, though he doesn't avoid them altogether. Also, instead of ancient family manses with portraits of dead ancestors on the wall, his settings are mundane: a villa where a blocked writer (Miki Nakatani) comes to hammer out a novel and a university lab where a researcher (Etsushi Toyokawa) comes to dissect a 1,000-year-old female mummy that he dug up from a nearby swamp. Both are the sorts of places that can be found all over the country -- moldering piles that may have once symbolized modernity and prosperity, but now look and smell of age, neglect -- and restless ghosts.
In Kurosawa's best films -- "Cure," "Charisma" and "Kairo," these places become settings for what might be called Kurosawa World, where everyday logic flees and fear and dread are as pervasive -- and ordinary -- as air.
In "Loft," however, the spell of this world is broken, as what was once gripping becomes tiresome and absurd. This tendency was present in Kurosawa's "Doppelganger" (2003), which ended with a chase sequence just this side of the "Keystone Cops," but in "Loft" he jumps the shark -- that is, he mixes not just genres, but styles, chronologies and realities to muddled effect.
The story begins with the writer, Reiko (Nakatani), moving into the villa at the recommendation of Kishima (Hidetoshi Nishijima), her young, domineering editor. Soon after, she notices strange things going on, starting when the professor, Yoshioka (Toyokawa), carries what looks to be a corpse into the university lab next door, and continuing with glimpses of what looks to be a black-clad female ghost.
Reiko is understandably disturbed by these goings-on, which the film communicates through cuts that are less blatantly shocking than subtly unnerving. She looks from her second floor window at her new neighbor in what she (and we think) is safe anonymity -- until a cut to his scowling face -- and his eyes locked on hers -- makes us jump. When he strides angrily toward the villa, intent on God-knows-what, the rhythm of the editing becomes heart-stoppingly quick.
The normal reaction to these unsettling events would be to burn rubber to the nearest highway, but Reiko is not normal. We get our first clue when she vomits evil-looking brown goo and shrugs it off as she might a tummy upset. (Her doctor has told her that, despite the stomach eruptions, she is in good health, but still . . .) We get another when she invades the lab, finds the mummy and rips its plastic sheet off, indifferent to the horror that might lie beneath.
Then Yoshioka, afraid that visiting student researchers will discover that he has brought the mummy into the lab without proper permission, asks her to keep it until they leave. She not only agrees, but sleeps with it in her bedroom. Meanwhile, the aforementioned ghost turns up again and again -- at first in glimpses, then in full, looking for all the world like a living, breathing woman, with scary kohl-darkened eyes.
Reiko's dreams become even more bizarre than her waking reality, until it becomes hard to tell the two apart. Perhaps she is trapped in a horrid, unending nightmare?
The truth, however, is stranger, involving the past resident of the villa and Reiko's editor, as well as Yoshioka's obsession with the mummy -- and his growing love for Reiko. Eventually it becomes clear that Reiko and Yoshioka remain in their respective houses of horror not because they are trapped by forces beyond their control but because the plot -- and its attendant scares -- demand it. Finally, the various supernatural incursions become almost routine, while the two principals' tolerance of them becomes more tedious than incredible.
Humor might have helped, but it also might have popped the film's bubble completely. In any case, "Loft" deflates steadily from the second hour, despite Kurosawa's frantic efforts to pump it up, including tragic-love tropes straight from "Vertigo." But Hitchcock would have never allowed that stupid mummy to walk.