Once considered a fad consigned to the dustbin of Hollywood history, 3-D now looks about as likely to fade away as color and sound. It’s waning with the box-office failure of crappy conversions from 2-D, yes, but the six 3-D films that have grossed $1 billion or more worldwide suggest that the mass audience likes the format itself just fine. It has its doubters, though, most prominently critic Roger Ebert, who has complained that 3-D glasses dim the picture, while adding little to the illusion of depth that 2-D films already provide.
The first Japanese live-action feature made in the format, Takashi Shimizu’s 2009 “Senritsu Meikyu 3D (The Shock Labyrinth 3D),” pretty much proved Ebert’s points: Interior scenes were often eye-strainingly murky, while the primitive 3-D amplified everything from the bad acting to the cheesy effects.
Now Shimizu, who earned his horrormeister rep with his “Juon (The Grudge)” franchise, including two Hollywood remakes, is back with “Rabbit Horror 3D (Tormented),” a shocker featuring a new version of the bunny that appeared in “The Shock Labyrinth 3D,” in a story partly inspired by “Alice in Wonderland” and partly by “The Little Mermaid,” minus the prince.
The cast, headed by the always-good Hikari Mitsushima, is a great improvement over the previous film’s, as is the strikingly lurid cinematography by Christopher Doyle. But coming out of the screening room I again had the feeling that the 3-D had dampened the shocks more than it had amped them. In contrast to the immersive alien world of James Cameron’s “Avatar,” still the 3-D gold standard, Shimizu’s house of horrors is as obviously artificial as the pop-up books the heroine’s father (Teruyuki Kagawa) so obsessively makes. And once again I felt as though I had been peering at the film through a keyhole rather than watching it, an experience both hypnotic and draining.
The film begins disturbingly enough, with a young boy brutally killing a pet rabbit on the grounds of his elementary school as his older sister looks on in blood-spattered shock. The boy, Daigo (Takeru Shibuya), and his sister, Kiriko (Mitsushima), share the same father, a writer of children’s books, but were born of different mothers, both now dead. Traumatized in childhood, Kiriko is mute, while Daigo wrestles with inner demons-and sometimes loses.
One day, while Daigo and Kiriko are watching a 3-D horror movie at a local multiplex (the irony!), a plush toy bunny leaps off the screen and into Daigo’s hands. Despite Kiriko’s protests, he takes it home. Soon after, he enters a closet by the stairway and falls down a shaft into a bizarre amusement park presided over by a sinister giant rabbit (which, Godzilla-like, is a guy in a rabbit suit). Welcome to hell, Shimizu style.
From this point, as Alice might say, the story becomes curiouser and curiouser, as the rabbit invades the real world, including, in one scary sequence, Daigo’s school. Is it simply after revenge? Not quite, as we see when Kiriko suffers a breakdown and her disturbed mind frees long-suppressed memories.
As usual with Shimizu, the story does not follow a linear path, moving instead between eras and worlds. Also, standard J-horror devices, from long-haired female ghosts to gushers of prop blood, are conspicuous by their absence. Instead “Rabbit Horror 3D” is a horror fantasy reminiscent of the “Child’s Play” films, in which an evil doll wreaks havoc. But whereas humanlike dolls are inherently creepy, plush toy bunnies, even ones with gaping red mouths, are not.
After her triumph as the heartless-tease-cum-murder-victim in last year’s “Akunin (Villain)”, Mitsushima has become the go-to girl for dark, tragic, rather thankless parts. The role of Kiriko certainly fits that description, though Mitsushima brings all her considerable skill and commitment to bear. Unlike other actresses in horror movies who demonstrate their fear by exercising their lungs, she does it mostly with her eyes — those big windows into a gentle, troubled, terrified soul.
But her efforts, as well as those of the rest of the excellent cast, can’t overcome the View-Master diorama atmospherics. Also, the big final reveal feels somewhat arbitrary and abrupt, as though the producers, their meager 3-D budget exhausted, had to wrap up the action at 83 minutes — about 30 sooner than usual.
Or maybe it was just me, spaced out after falling down too many 3-D rabbit holes.