Kaidan (2007) review

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This remake of a traditional Japanese legend suggests a 1960s Hammer film: the same old story, spiced up with color, more action, and blood.

This period costume drama, from the director of the masterpiece RING, is a deliberate attempt to move away from the tropes of modern J-Horror cinema in favor of a more traditional approach to the supernatural. The generic title KAIDAN (literally Japanese for “ghosts story”) may suggest a remake of the well-known 1964 anthology KWAIDAN* (inspired by Lafadio Hearn’s famous collection of Japanese folk tales), but in fact this is a new version of THE GHOST STORY OF KASANE SWAMP (Kaidan Kasane-Ga-Fuchi), a famous legend that has been filmed many times in Japan, most notably by director Nobuo Nakagawa in 1957. In relation to his black-and-white oldie, Hideo Nakata’s remake comes across a little bit like a 1960s Hammer film: the same basic story, spiced up with color photography, more action, and the occasional spatter of blood.
KAIDAN begins with a prologue (featuring a narrator who is occasionally glimpsed, telling us the story) about a humble man who is murdered by a samurai while trying to collect a debt. The samurai later goes mad, murders his wife, and commits suicide. Decades later, the son of the samurai and the daughter of the murdered man meet in Edo and, without knowing the connection between their families, fall in love. Unfortunately, the relationship is cursed. Rui falls ill and Shinkiji, believing himself responsible for his lover’s misfortune, plans to run away. Rui appears to Shinkiji and warns that she will not stop him, but she will kill any other woman he marries; the warning takes on an added ominous tone when Shinkiji learns that, at the time she was visiting him, Rui had already passed away. Rui flees to his family village with one of Rui’s students. Along the way, Shinkiji has a vision of Rui attacking him; while defending himself, he kills his travelling companion. Shinkiji meets another woman, who falls in love with him; after initially turning down her family’s offer of marriage, he changes his mind, hoping to break the curse, but Rui’s vengeful ghost is not so easily dissuaded.
Nakata’s strength as a director of J-Horror was always his relatively straight-forward approach, which allowed the stories to develop their tension without being over-hyped with extraneous flourishes. This worked superbly in RING, which the script’s built-in time-lock, but it works less well in this period setting, with an old-fashioned story that is somewhat episodic in structure.
The prologue (the only sequence that recalls KWAIDAN, with its deliberately artificial production design and its plot details revealed mostly through narration) launches KAIDAN with a strong beginning, but the first act slow to a stand-still as Rui and Shinkiji fall in love. Satoko Okudera’s screenplay (based on Encho Sanyutei’s story) never involves us fully in the doomed love affair, so we are never invested in the ensuing tragedy. Nakata exacerbates the problem with his slow pacing of the material: instead of being swept up by the passion of the lovers, you are likely to find yourself nodding off as you wait for the supernatural thrills to finally kick in.
When the finally do, they are almost worth the wait. The revelation that Rui was a ghost when she appeared to Shinkiji with her warning is a standard trope in traditional Japanese ghost stories, but it remains effective (there is an especially nice “jump scare,” involving a hand that appears suddenly from a corner of the frame, proving . Later scenes of Shinkiji battling with ghosts who turn out to be human beings (whom he kills, thinking they are Rui) recall Nakagawa’s approach to supernatural manifestations; although not quite as effective, they benefit from the occasional judicious use of computer-generated imagery. Especially memorable is the spirit who emerges – head downward – from a churning lake of water that has replaced a room’s ceiling. (It’s as if Nagata is trying to prove that the water imagery he used in his American effort,THE RING 2, really can work if done right.)
As much as KAIDAN‘s final act improves upon what preceded, it ultimately lets the viewer down. Shinkiji – at first a sympathetic, doomed figure – loses audience empathy as he repeats his same mistake and over. No doubt the idea is to show the curse taking its toll upon him morally, as the horrors he has suffered turn him into something of a monster himself (in seeing what happened to him, we get some understanding of how his father could have gone mad with fatal results). Unfortunately, these sequences go on past the point that we stop caring. When the curse is finally fulfilled, we feel more relief than regret.
There is a pretty decent final battle, with Shinkiji fending off the posse come to arrest him for his latest homicide. In the tradition of move climax’s, he can’t go down easily, so this simple tobacco salesman is suddenly handling himself like a skilled warrior. Fortunately, the actor’s performance sells the scene; he looks just as surprised as anybody, and we have to assume the curse is still at work, perhaps imbuing him with his father’s skill.

The ghost of Rui appears at the conclusion.
The ghost of Rui appears at the conclusion.

KAIDAN ends on a particularly haunting image – which, ironically, borders on the absurd in its surreal combination of horror, beauty, pathos, and romance. It’s an excellent example of the power of a good visual, providing a satisfactory denouement  to the emotional turmoil of the tragic tale’s otherwise downbeat and unsatisfying ending.
Although KAIDAN must be gauged an overall disappointment from the director who delivered the seminal masterpiece RING, it does have redeeming features. The story is too slow for fans of modern J-Horror, but those with a taste for a more traditional approach should find the film interesting an interesting pastiche of older classics. And truth be told, even with its pacing problems, this KAIDAN is nowhere near as tedious as the 1964 alleged classic KWAIDAN.
KAIDAN (“Ghost Story,” 2007). Directed by Hideo Nakata. Screenplay by Satoko Okudera, story by Encho Sanyutei. Cast: Kumiko Aso, Takaaki Enoki, Reona Hirota, Teisui Ichiryusai, Mao Inoue, tae Kimura, Taigi Kobayashi, Hitomi Kuroki, Ken Mitsuishi.
FOOTNOTE:

  • Regarding the difference between “kaidan” and “kwaidan,” the latter appears to be a variant spelling unique to Lafcadio Hearn’s collection of stories.

Big Man Japan: DVD Review

BIG MAN JAPAN is built around a funny concept, vaguely akin to HANCOCK: its title character is a superhero who is a bit of a loser. Of course, being a Japanese superhero, he periodically grows to enormous size (courtesy of electricity applied to his nipples) and confronts monsters attacking urban areas around the country, often with hilariously deadpan results. Unfortunately, the concept is not enough to sustain the entire film; in fact, the gambit ultimately backfires, the humor at times turning to tedium.
Filmed in a documentary style, BIG MAN JAPAN alternates between computer-generated monster battles and long interview segments in which Daisato (director Hitoshi Matsumoto) comes across as just some guy doing a job, with nothing particularly interesting to say, barely able to formulate answers to the questions he is being asked. This leads to some interminably long stretches of screen-time while viewers eagerly await the next monster to arrive, each one preceded by a narration that matter-of-factly expostulates upon the new foe’s characteristics (“Such are the features of the Strangling Monster).
There is much to enjoy, espeically for fans of Japanese giant monster movies and superhero television shows of an earlier era. BIG MAN JAPAN makes it clear that Daisato is a remnant of a once-proud tradition that has fallen on hard times; the public isn’t proud of him, and his televised exploits are relegated to late-night hours when no one is viewing (until he gets badly beaten – and the ratings jump).
There is also a weird and pretty much inexplicable switcheroo near the conclusion. A title card tells us that we are going to a live broadcast of Big Man Japan’s latest battle, and suddenly the CGI is gone, replaced by live-action miniatures and suit-mation, with deliberately bad fight choreography (described repeatedly by one of the partipants as “crappy”). It’s a fun nod to ULTRAMAN and similar shows (the obvious antecedents for BIG MAN JAPAN), but the sudden stylistic switch comes so far out of left field that it leaves viewers baffled.
Those seeking understanding of the processes that went into this decision are not likely to find it on Magnet Releasing’s DVD. The widescreen transfer and the Japanese audio track (in Dolby 5.1 and Dolby 2.0) are good, and there are options for English or Spanish subtitles, but the bonus features are, frankly, boring and uninformative, consisting of Deleted Scenes and “Making of Big Man Japan.”
Although the title “Making of Big Man Japan” suggests a documentary, what we get is more like a series of B-roll vignettes, spliced together, with the camera sitting in on development meetings or watching the cast and crew take the finished film to Cannes. You can watch the making-of with an additional audio commentary, but this provides little information. For example, BIG MAN JAPAN’s last-minute switch from CGI to live-action is mentioned but not really discussed (we are told there were some discussions or arguments about the decision, but not the substance of those arguments).
The Deleted Scenes are somewhat misnamed; a more appropriate moniker would be “Extended Scenes.” At over an hour in length, they are enough to try the patience of all but the most dedicated kaiju fan, but combined with the “Making of Big Man Japan,” they are informative on one level: we learn that first-time director Hitoshi Matsumoto seemed unwilling to yell “Cut,” resulting in takes that run for twenty minutes of aimless question-and-answer dialogue. Two or three minutes of this stuff was more than enough in the final cut of the film; viewed at full length, the scenes seem merely interminable.
However, there is one brief but memorable shot of an actress in a bizarre prosthetic, suggesting that her breasts have been electrocuted with jumper cables from a car battery. How this would have fit into the film, we cannot say, except to presume she was trying to become Big Woman Japan.
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Wasting Away – Horror Film Review

In WASTING AWAY, a tongue-in-cheek riff on RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, one of the characters has a penchant for creating weird food combinations, such as soft serve ice cream mixed with beer. Unfortunately, this culinary experiment hides the flavor of a toxic element that finds its way into the mix after a barrel falls off an army truck in transit. The four friends who eat the glowing green concoction die and turn into zombies; the joke is that they don’t realize they’re dead.

WASTING AWAY makes use of a clever visual gimmick: reality (in which the zombies are slow-moving corpses) is presented in black-and-white; meanwhile, the perception of the zombies (in which they see themselves as normal) is rendered in color.
For about fifteen minutes, WASTING AWAY gets a certain amount of mileage out of the concept of a confused quartet wandering the streets of Los Angeles at night, unsure why everyone they meet shrieks in terror and runs away – at accelerated speed. (The idea is that zombie brainwaves are slow, so the movements of normal people seem comparatively fast.) After that, the joke starts to wear out its welcome, and by midway point it becomes tedious.
WASTING AWAY looks good for its low-budget, but it has a slightly amateurish feel, as if a bunch of friends got together to showcase their talents. Scenes go on and on, so that each actor can do his shtick, and you find yourself wishing that someone in the editing room had had the nerve to say, “The routine’s not funny anymore; let’s move on.”
Even worse, as the story wears on, little uplifting, sentimental moments creep in – and creep in again – and they are presented as if we are supposed to take them seriously. Which is rather hard to do when one of the characters is reduced to a talking head carried about in a bowling ball bag (with holes cut out for the eyes, of course).
Still, there is at least one good line. When finally confronted with the realization that he is one of the walking dead, a characters says, “But I don’t feel like a zombie,” to which a cohort replies, “Idiots don’t feel stupid – but they are!”

NOTES

WASTING AWAY won the audience award at the 2007 Screamfest horror film fesival in Hollywood, but it still has not secured a distribution deal in the U.S.

WASTING AWAY (2007). Directed by Matthew Kohnen. Written by Matthew Kohnen & Sean Kohnen. Cast: Besty Beutler, Matthew Davis, Colby French, Kelly Huges, Ronald Kohnen, Joel McCrary, Jack Orend, Dominique Purdy, Richard Riehle, Julianna Robinson, Oren Skoog, Tony Snegoff, Tracey Walter.

Return to House on Haunted Hill – Horror Film Review

return-to-house-on-haunted-hill-2007RETURN TO HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL is a disappointing sequel to the surprisingly enjoyable 1999 remake of the 1958 William Castle production, starring Vincent Price. It’s hard to imagine what Castle and Price would have thought of this sequel (no, it’s pretty easy, actually; they would have hated it), but if you’ve ever wondered what RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK would have been like if Lucio Fulci had directed it, here’s your chance to find out: there’s almost enough blood to fill the gaping plot holes – and that’s saying something.
Sadly, this makes RETURN TO HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL sound more interesting than it actually is. The premise is that the horrible haunting from the first film was really the result of an ancient evil Baphomet statue stashed somewhere in the basement. Two rival factions return to “Hill House” (as it’s referenced in the dialogue – a nod to 1963’s THE HAUNTING), where they search for the multi-million dollar prize. Not only do they have to contend with each other; they also have to avoid the still-lingering spirits that haunt the place.
With its gore, nudity, and gratuitous lesbo scenes (not just girl on girl but girl on girl on girl!), the film resembles an exploitation filmmaker’s wet dream, and in a way it comes more authentically close to the true Grindhouse spirit than PLANET TERROR – for better or worse (and it’s mostly for the worse).
The most interesting thing about RETURN TO HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL is its gimmick. Shot as a direct-to-video effort, on disk the film offers a series of “branching” options that allow you to choose what the characters do at various points in the story. The filmmakers tout that there are 96 variations, which sounds like a lot unless you passed freshmen mathematics: since each choice doubles the possible variations, it only takes six options to reach 64 variations. The seventh option should have raised the total to 128, but one possible outcome of option #6 brings the film to an abrupt, unsatisfying ending (everybody kills each other) before the final option can be reached, thus limiting the number of variations.
Sadly, the film is barely worth perusing once – you’d have to be a real masochist – or a mathematician obsessed with variations – to want to go through RETURN TO HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL over and over again, exploring each and every permutation. Fortunately, there is at least one plus to the sequel: as the ghost of the sadistic Dr. Vannacut, Jeffrey Combs is given a tiny bit more to do (including a line or two of dialogue) than in the previous HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL.
RETURN TO HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (2007). Directed by Victor Garcia. Written by William Massa. Cast: Amanda Righetti, Cerina Vincent, Erik Palladino, Tom Riley, Andrew Lee Potts, Jeffrey Combs, Stven Pacey.

30 Days of Night: Blood Trails – Horror Review

30 DAYS OF NIGHT: BLOOD TRAILS is twenty-minute short subject compiled from Fearnet.com’s online webisode series, which acted as a kind of prologue to 30 DAYS OF NIGHT (2007). As a sop to FEARnet’s target audience, the heroes are Internet geeks who unravel a terrifying secret; unfortunately, they are also complete idiots who have taken few precautions and provided no self defense – even though they know they are up against blood-thirsty vampires. As a result, before they can reveal their discovery to the world, they all die bloody deaths – filmed with annoyingly shaky hand-held cameras, the footage juiced up with jerky cutting and loud noises. The story builds up to the big revelation that the vampires are planning an attack up north, where the sun won’t set for thirty days – which of course we already knew, so the whole things feels a bit pointless.

Paranormal Activity – Horror Film Review

PARANORMAL ACITIVITY presents itself as “found footage” shot by a couple who became the victims of a demonic entity. Nearly a decade after THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, the faux-documentary approach is a little tired, as is the attempt to pass this story off as “true” (including a closing title card dedicated to the “victims”).
Fortunately, once you get past the artistic contrivance, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY is frequently terrifying. The story – essentially a two-person character drama – focuses on Katie, who has been haunted all her life by some kind of spirit or demon. Her boyfriend Micah buys a camera hoping to substantiate her claim, but it rapidly becomes obvious that he is less interested in helping her than in documenting the phenomenon; if anything, the camera seems to aggravate the situation, as if the unseen demon is feeding off the attention focused on it; the haunting intensifies, eventually reaching lethal proportions.
One way in which PARANORMAL ACTIVITY’s allegedly true story betrays itself is the presentation of Katie and Michah: despite absolutely convincing performances, the couple are obviously movie people with no real life outside the events we see in their house. The camera never follows them outside; there are only fleeting references to life and work, and they seem to have absolutely no support group of friends or family to help out when things almost literally go to hell.
In spite of this, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY works because of the low-key approach to the scares, which start so simply and build up so incrementally that you believe every one of them as if they were actually happening. Sure, there are passages where you may find yourself wanting to yell at the characters for being so stupid, and one or two moments are unintentionally funny (as when a psychic investigator bails out in a panic, having barely entered the room), but that doesn’t diminish the icy hand you will feel climbing up your spine when the floorboards start to creek and shadows shift in the darkness.
Unfortuantely, since screening at the 2007 Screamfest in Hollywood, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY fell of the radar. DreamWorks purchased the rights, with the intention not to release the micro-budget independent the film but to remake it as a glossy Hollywood production. In order to protect their investment, the studio suppressed subsequent festival dates and shelved the movie. Too bad – the original deserves to be seen.
PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2007). Written and directed by Oren Peli. Cast: Amber Armstrong, Michael Bayouth, Katie Featherston, Mark Fredrichs, Randy McDowell, Tim Piper, Micah Sloat.


Dead End (2007) – Horror Film Review

DOOD EIND (a film from Amsterdam whose title translates into English as DEAD END) is about a group of friends out for an excursion in the forests of Scotland, where they run afoul of a pair of wild dogs and seek shelter in a nearby mansion. It turns out that the dogs were actually driving the friends into the house, which is a sort of deathtrap, haunted by malevolent spirits.
After brief scenes introducing the characters, the fear launches almost immediately, and the story seeks to keep the tension high from that point on as the characters struggle to escape from a house that is obviously eager to kill them. Unfortunately, the back story behind the haunting is unnecessarily convoluted (there are multiple ghosts with divergent agendas), and DEAD END shows no guilt about having one character suddenly display psychic abilities, just so she can see the flashbacks that will explain what’s going on.
By the time the ending rolls around, you will probably find yourself not caring much who lives or dies. Which is too bad, because the film has many remarkable moments that make you wish it had managed to come up with a better conclusion.
DEAD END (Dood Eind, 2007). Written and directed by Erwin van den Eshof, from an idea by Nick Jongerius. Cast: Everon jackson Hooi, Anniek Pheifer, Alwien Tulner, mads Wittermans, Aram van de Rest, Vicotria Koblenko, Micha Hulshof, Terence Schreurs.

Alone – Fant-Asia Horror Film Review

ALONE is an Asian import – not from the usual suspects Japan or Korea, but Thailand (technically, the film is partly set in Korea, but it is a Thai production). Although not a masterpiece, it is an intriguing tale told in a suitably spooky manner, offering evidence that, nearly a decade after the J-Horror wave launched with RING, there is still some life in supernatural horror movies from the Orient.

Pim is a married woman living in Korea, who returns to Thailand after her mother has a stroke. Home is definitely not where the heart is, however; Pim is haunted – either psychologically or literally – by the ghost of her deceased conjoined twin, who apparently resents Pim’s happy life alone, after the two of them had sworn to stay together forever.

The typical supernatural scares are executed with all effectiveness you could desire, but ALONE is essentially a study of Pim’s psychological deterioration. The plotting is slow (it takes forever for flashbacks to reveal things we have already guessed, such as that Pim insisted on being surgically separated from her twin in order to get married); fortunately, the script pulls off a great surprise twist near the end that not only casts more light on the proceedings but also helps make sense out of why Pim is so guilt-ridden. If one were to pick a point of comparison, the closest predecessor would be A TALE OF TWO SISTERS (which also played the game of “is the haunting real or imagined), but ALONE is much less cryptic in its storytelling.

If ALONE suffers from any obvious flaw, it is one fairly typical of ghost and/or haunted house movies: the lead character trues to go about her daily life, which is interrupted by the intrusion of the supernatural; consequently, the story has little forward momentum, relying on the ghostly manifestations to liven things up, until the characters are finally forced to take action in the last act. For those patient enough to sit through the protracted set-up, the pay-off is worthwhile.
Unfortunately, ALONE is not currently available in the U.S.
ALONE (Faet, 2007). Directed by Banjong Pisanthanakun &
Parkpoom Wongpoom. Screenplay by Aummaraporn Phandintong,
Banjong Pisanthanakun, Sopon Sukdapisit (as Sophon Sakdaphisit),
Parkpoom Wongpoom. Cast:
Marsha Wattanapanich … Pim / Ploy
Vittaya Wasukraipaisan … Vee (as Withaya Wasukraipaisan)
Ratchanoo Bunchootwong … Pim and Ploy’s Mother (as Ruchanu Boonchooduang)
Hatairat Egereff … Pim – age 15
Rutairat Egereff … Ploy – age 15
Namo Tongkumnerd … Vee – age 15 (as Namo Tonggamnerd)
Chutikan Vimuktananda … Pim – age 7
Chayakan Vimuktananda … Ploy – age 7

Big Man Japan – Kaiju Film Review

The Stench vs. The Pudge: A Stink Monster (Takayuki Haranishi, left) Makes Acquaintance with Ambivalent Hero Dai Nipponjin in BIG MAN JAPAN
The Stench vs. The Pudge: A Stink Monster (Takayuki Haranishi, left) makes acquaintance with ambivalent hero Dai Nipponjin (Hitoshi Matsumoto, right) in BIG MAN JAPAN

Welcome back to kaiju world: big, honkin’ monster attacks Japan, big, honkin’ hero comes around to kick butt. Only in this case, the hero, Dai Nipponjin (literally “Great Japanese”), is a pudgy, lumbering klutz with an electrified, fright wig hairdo that makes him look like a cross between Jim Belushi and Eraserhead. He’s reviled by the public (one person hilariously grouses that the national savior has “lost his edge”), and, off duty, lives as the hang-dog Daisato, an unmotivated schlub with cross-generational family problems and an insatiable appetite. Where’s Gojira when you really need him?
That Doesn't Look Like a Hunger for Adventure: Matsumoto as the un-embiggened Daisato
That Doesn't Look Like a Hunger for Adventure: Matsumoto as the un-embiggened Daisato

Director Hitoshi Matsumoto — who also stars in the title role and co-wrote with Mitsuyoshi Takasu — alternates BIG MAN JAPAN between mockumentary footage of Daisato’s travails as reluctant hero (the transformation scene, complete with gigantic Speedo, is one for the books), and surreal battle scenes that tease the line between rubber-suit tradition and visionary, cojones-out CG (my favorite adversary: the Strangling Monster (Haruka Unabara), a sort of ambulatory scallion with a comb-over). The feel is appealingly dead-pan, and the structure is loose, at times more resembling sketch comedy (Matsumoto — a self-proclaimed hyoi-geinin, or “spiritual entertainer” — got his start as part of a comedy duo). When that leads to sequences like those where Dai Nipponjin argues with a petulant “stink monster” (Takayuki Haranishi) or consoles an endearing/repulsive child monster (Ryunosuke Kamiki) — with disastrous results — that’s all to the good. It’s pretty damn funny, actually.
All of Japan is defenseless against the attack of a rampaging... uhhhhhh... a voracious... ummmmm... Hmmmm...
All of Japan is defenseless against the attack of a rampaging... uhhhhhh... a voracious... ummmmm... Hmmmm...

But it can also be a trap. When the film eventually devolves into a full-on satire of cheapjack kaiju television, you may be left wishing that Matsumoto had orchestrated a more emotionally satisfying finale for his protagonist, rather than leaving his audience wondering whether the director’s budget, patience, or both had just run out. Stay, in any case, for the closing credits, which answer in perhaps too-painful detail what happens when superhero teams get together for a nice family meal and post-battle analysis. You’ll never again dread Thanksgiving dinner.
BIG MAN JAPAN (Magnet, 2007; 113 mins. In Japanese with English subtitles.) Directed by Hitoshi Matsumoto. Cast: Hitoshi Matsumoto, Riki Takeuchi, UA (sic), Ryunosuke Kamiki.
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Adventures of Johnny Tao (2007) – Film Review

by Dan Persons

ADVENTURES OF JOHNNY TAO PosterNo, that title’s not a typo. It’s missing an article, maybe as a favor to multiplex managers who have to conserve marquee letters.
For that matter, I’m not sure what “Adventures” is doing in there either, since Johnny (Matthew Twining) doesn’t do all that much adventuring. The son of one-hit singing wonder Jimmy Dow (get it?), whose magic guitar hangs in the museum/shrine at the back of Johnny’s small-town gas station, the kid takes back seat in a number of the earlier fight sequences, while most of the kick-ass onus falls on agile actress Chris Yen, Read More