Director Hideo Nakata has long been anointed the title “Master of Horror” due to the wildly successful Ring (1998), which, along with its sequels/prequels started a massive wave of Asian horror films and their Hollywood remakes. He also had good films post-Ring like Chaos (2000) and Dark Water (2002). Unfortunately, his recent work has been very problematic – films like the UK production Chatroom (2010) and sequel to the remake The Ring Two (2005) were laughably bad while even native works 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 exactly a triumph, it was, in this reviewer’s opinion, an entertaining film that was reminiscent of 1990s Japanese 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 this a return to form for the man who was once known as a “Master of Horror”?
Ghost Theater 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 undertaking 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. Lead actresses Aoi (Riho Takada) and Kaori (Rika Adachi) look down on Sara, but that’s the least of the newcomer’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 – it did scare and shock me. By 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 instructing them in how to look scared. 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 Shimazaki does fine as Sara. But when the characters are not developed, the actors become are lifeless, particularly Takada and Adachi as 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 that prompts 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 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, particularly the sounds of rain or thunder, could have been taken from films of the 1950s. And that’s not a compliment.
Speaking of cheap, the main villain 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 is incredibly boring. Filmed within the same sets for the majority of the running time, and set within the same dress rehearsals, repeating the same lines over and over, alongside the droning narration, it becomes incredibly tedious. That is until the hammy acting starts up again.
Now are there any positives besides the unintentionally farcical humour and Shimazaki? Not really. The music, from frequent Mamoru Oshii collaboator Kenji Kawai, is fine on its own, 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 (2010) influence for psychological trauma, and a whodunnit mystery concerning who is responsible for the murders. But unfortunately, it’s a case of good ideas without proper execution, so we’re left with a 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 could be a worthwhile experience. But still, it’s just so sad to see such a director stoop so low after knowing what promise he used to have.
This review has been cross-posted at Film-Momatic Reviews.