A decade or so ago, J-horror (Japanese horror) was a hot genre worldwide. Thinking they had a sure-fire box-office formula — implacable ghosts scaring the bejesus out of attractive women — filmmakers mass-produced sequels, spinoffs and knock-offs, to mostly diminishing returns.
The career of Hideo Nakata, who directed the “Ring” (“Ringu”), the 1998 film that ignited the J-horror boom, exemplifies this bumpy trajectory. After being acclaimed as the “King of J-horror” for “Ring” and other domestic shockers, Nakata went to Hollywood, where he made the indifferently received “The Ring Two” and struggled to get other projects into production. Returning to Japan, he directed commercial thrillers with supernatural elements, as well as “The Complex” (“Kuroyuri Danchi,” 2013), a film in his signature J-horror style starring former AKB48 girl group leader Atsuko Maeda. It screened widely abroad, but critical reaction was mixed.
Nakata is now back with “Ghost Theater” (“Gekijorei”), an insinuatingly effective, if hardly innovative, shocker modeled on “Don’t Look Up” (“Joyurei”), Nakata’s first theatrical film. Released in 1996, “Don’t Look Up” had a story about a tyro director filming a WWII drama with two young actresses. But when a ghost appears in the rushes, things start going haywire.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||99 mins|
In “Ghost Theater” the action has been transferred to a theater where an imperious director (Mantaro Koichi) is rehearsing a play based on the life of a 16th-century Hungarian countess/serial killer. In the play, Countess Elizabeth drinks the blood of young women to remain beautiful, but complains to a life-sized doll that she is still doomed to grow old, while the doll, with its porcelain complexion, remains eternally youthful.
When the gorgeous-but-nervous Aoi (Riho Takada) keeps blowing her lines as Elizabeth, hardworking bit player Sara (Haruka Shimazaki) feeds them to her — and earns Aoi’s wrath for her trouble. Then Aoi is knocked unconscious in a fall, and Sara is cast to replace her. Thrilled at first, she soon realizes that the doll is the malevolent force behind Aoi’s accident, as well as the earlier death of a theater seamstress. The prop man in charge of the doll (Keita Machida of the pop group Exile) is sympathetic to her fears, but the director is not. Sara needs to convince him and the others to stop the play before the doll brings disaster on them all.
Taken in isolation, none of this is new. Creepy dolls are a horror staple, while the film’s theme of female showbiz rivalry goes back to “All About Eve” (1950) and beyond. For that matter, the casting of a pop idol as the lead is not so novel. Where Maeda led, Shimazaki follows.
But two decades after “Don’t Look Up,” which showed promise but was patchily made, Nakata has become an accomplished horror craftsman who can induce chills with minimal means — the sudden crick of an inanimate neck or the menacing flare of glass eyes — with no need for throat-grabbing shocks.
Also, Nakata gives ample (arguably, excessive) weight to the film’s nonhorror elements, starting with Sara’s struggle to make it — not easy when the other actors in the play were her audition rivals and the director is a sadist.
As Sara, Haruka Shimazaki becomes the latest AKB48 member after Maeda and Yuko Oshima (“Pale Moon,” or “Kami no Tsuki”) to make a successful transition to the big screen, while shedding her adorable idol persona. But like her character, Shimazaki had to win the role in an audition and, as Sara, she exhibits the sterling work ethic that was doubtless behind her real-life AKB48 rise.
That is, Shimazaki is playing herself, in a sense. But when the doll reveals its true murderous colors, Shimazaki’s performance of terror goes beyond standard horror-movie hysterics. Knowing that she is the one sane person in the room, Sara becomes desperate not to look deluded to the others, at the very moment she is going batty with fear.
That, to my mind, is horror. The “J” has nothing to do with it.