What happened to Hideo Nakata? The one-time king of J-horror crowned for his seminal 1998 shocker “The Ring” has since had a bumpy professional ride, with critics, including myself, lambastting much of his post-“Ring” output.

His latest, “The Forbidden Play,” is a halfway return to form. Based on a novel by Karma Shimizu, the film begins with jokey touches, but its take on its intricately scripted story about a vengeful spirit with murky motives becomes fearsomely serious. At certain points, I wasn’t sure which movie I was watching: a winking meta exercise or a hardcore horror.

Nakata might have been better advised to play it straight from start to finish, but that would have wasted the comic talents of his lead, Kanna Hashimoto, playing a fearless TV director whom we first meet recording a real-life bar fight for a show called “Street Scoop Camera.”