Japanese horror movies have various ways of making you squirm, shiver or watch the screen through your fingers. But sooner or later most scares of the spook-house variety become annoying. How many more times do I want to see a ghostly hand surging from a tub of bloody water to grab an unsuspecting wrist? How about . . . never?
And yet, done properly, the uncanny never fails to give me the creeps. Unlike shocks, which are momentary, certain Victorian-era photos and paintings, intended to evoke feelings of pathos, instead open creaking doors to the darker, spookier chambers of my mind that always seem to have been there. Cue the closing zoom-in of “The Shining.”
A visual and emotional touchstone in Mari Asato’s new horror film “Gekijoban Rei: Zero (Fatal Frame),” as well as a case in point, is John Everett Millais’ well-known painting, “Ophelia.”
The title subject of this mid-Victorian masterpiece — the tragic heroine of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” — floats slowly down a quiet stream to her watery grave, her pale hands raised in supplication and perhaps, relief. With its delicate, wispy, funeral-flower atmospherics, the painting is a standing invitation to cross that final bar. Personally, it gives me the heebie-jeebies.
Asato, a horror veteran whose previous film, “Bilocation,” premiered at last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, creates an “Ophelia” world in rural Japan. Some of her images, with their skin-crawling ethereal loveliness, filtered through the soughing trees or stained-glass windows, could have come from the brush of Millais himself — or his Japanese ghost.
There is, thankfully, not a single jack-in-the-box scare in the entire film.
Working from a novel by Eiji Otsuka, which is in turn based on a popular series of video games, Asato builds her fright effects more from whispered rumors, girlish crushes and the nebulous border between dreams and reality, the living and the dead.
Some of this is familiar from the many local shockers featuring teenage girls (which local shockers don’t feature teenage girls?), but Asato either avoids or finesses standard genre tropes. Also, her insights into troubled adolescent psyches ring true, though her setting — an exclusive Catholic girls school plunked into the middle of the mountains — is a complete fantasy.
Her heroine, Aya (Ayami Nakajo), is a strikingly pretty student living in the school’s 19th-century-Gothic-style dormitory who has a disturbing vision — or is it a memory? — of her double drowning in a murky pool. Her response to this trauma is to shut herself in her room for days on end, upsetting and worrying her many friends and admirers.
Then one of Aya’s fervent fans, Kasumi (Kasumi Yamaya), vanishes while on a walk with her friend Michi (Aoi Morikawa). Looking like an intelligent pixie with her cute face, short hair and big, searching eyes, Michi becomes convinced that Aya has something to do with this disappearance, especially after she finds Aya’s white-faced, otherworldly photo in Kasumi’s room. Or is it the doppelganger’s?
Not long after, this ghostly Aya look-alike appears before Michi in class, while the other students ignore her presence. Bending down, she whispers into Michi’s ear: “Please release me from this curse.” The doppelganger (if that is indeed what it is) vanishes and soon after other girls seem to be disappearing into the ether.
What is the source of the curse? Perhaps a school tradition that students are vulnerable to bewitchment at midnight — the zero hour — offers a clue. (The school’s nuns, as well as its young male gardener, are evidently immune.)
The story is reminiscent of “The Crucible,” Arthur Miller’s 1953 play about the Salem witch trials. But instead of a Millerian study of how vulnerable adolescent minds can fall victim to unreasonable fears, the film becomes a supernatural whodunit, with the identities of the perpetrators being all too predictable, if their methods are not.
Even so, “Fatal Frame” gets a lot right, beginning with its casting of real, if unknown teens, instead of the usual name actors a decade or so older than their characters. Morikawa is a stand-out as Michi, playing her as a hypersensitive bundle of determination and fear, with the latter finally winning out. Model-turned-actress Nakajo has less to do as Aya, but is nonetheless a commanding presence in her doppelganger mode.
Watching her float down from the apse in the school chapel to fell her classmates, like an otherworldly scythe swishing through ripe wheat, I felt a chill that banished the summer blahs. Not quite down to zero degrees, but close enough.
Fun fact: Born in Okinawa in 1976, Mari Asato studied under two masters of horror: director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (“Cure”) and scriptwriter Hiroshi Takahashi (“Ring”). Since making her feature debut in 2004 with “Dokuritsu Shojo Gurentai (Girls For Independence),” she has worked almost exclusively in the horror genre.