It’s staggering to think about how many movies come out every single year, especially when you factor in the numerous straight-to-VOD releases that are being pumped into the home media system like so much sludge into a feeding trough. Yes, this can be a way for upstart artists to get their personal and groundbreaking work out to a larger audience but for every one of those films there’s at least a dozen more that are cynical cash-grabs whose only purpose is to make some money with as little financial (and creative) investment as possible. So the question here becomes ‘is Ouija Japan one of those rare exceptions of groundbreaking art made by an earnest and passionate filmmaker, or is it indistinguishable from the rest of the muck clogging up our on-demand queues?’
Ouija Japan tells the story of Karen (Ariel Sekiya) an American transplant living in Japan who has only been in the country with her husband for the last six months and is still struggling to fit in. When an interpretation misunderstanding results in her agreeing to join a group of her co-workers on a weekend getaway to a remote village she sees it as an opportunity to strengthen her connection to them and hopefully start to fit in. When the group decides to use a game of Kokkuri-san (essentially Japanese Ouija) to disrespect the fox deity that is worshiped in the village, they soon find themselves unwitting participants in a deadly game which can have only one winner.
Now, I know that movies take an incredible amount of work to make and I have no doubt that everyone involved is really trying but when the end result looks like a bunch of teenagers tried to remake Battle Royale on an iPhone it’s time to put away the participation trophy. To its credit, the fact that players in the survival game need to use their smartphones to fully participate and unlock real-world power-ups is a novel idea that modernizes the concept a bit but is nowhere near enough to counterbalance the flaws, of which there are many. Sure, the lighting is flat, the script is pedestrian, and every aspect of the film has an inherent cheapness to it, but nothing quite compares to the voice work on display here.
In what seems like a last-minute attempt to ingratiate the film with Western audiences the Japanese actors speak about half their lines in English. This would have been perfectly fine had they been fluent in both but their tenuous grasp on the language makes the stilted acting go from awkward to downright painful. While the dual languages do factor into the story, the filmmakers would have been far better served finding a script work-around instead and sparing the actors (and the audience) this unnecessary struggle. Additionally, some actors appear to have their dialogue fully recorded in ADR which is no better as it creates an almost cartoonish disconnect between the characters and the lines themselves.
At the end of the day, what it really comes down to is that modern viewers have a plethora of options for entertainment. For a horror title to stand out amongst the literally hundreds of other choices that are packed in with any given streaming service at no extra charge there really has to be something there that makes it worth the investment of our precious time. In the case of Ouija Japan it’s not even a question of a lack of resources since I have seen better filmmakers do far more with significantly less. Amateurish production values can be overlooked if there is a compelling soul to the film and brilliance from at least one aspect shining through. Here there is just a fundamental lack of creativity, originality, and technical ability but then again that does exemplify the difference between art and a product, between the gems…..and the muck.
Availability: Upcoming Release
Film will release on Blu-ray and Amazon Prime on 10/19/21.
Imagine just how many lives could have been spared in horror movies had outsiders simply heeded the warnings of the Crazy Ralphs of the world and stayed the hell out of cursed areas. Although, that would be significantly less fun for the audience who has signed up for the twisted pleasure of watching at least most of the stubbornly disbelieving travelers be eviscerated in gruesome and (hopefully) creative ways. It really doesn’t need to be a case of either/or, though. I would like to see more characters take the threat seriously but still be unable to escape so that the inciting incident can occur and the fun can begin. Demigod opts to tread down the more well-worn trail to set up the conflict but we’ll see if it can rise above its conventional structure to bring a compelling and original story to light.
Upon receiving news of her estranged grandfather Karl’s passing, Robin (Rachel Nichols) heads to his now vacant home in the Black Forest of Germany to tend to his affairs, bringing her husband Leo (Yohance Myles) along for the ride. Once there, they encounter Arthur (director/co-writer Miles Doleac), an eccentric hunter and former friend of Karl’s who warns them about the supernatural presence that resides in the woods. Before long the three find themselves (along with several other unfortunate locals) embroiled in a desperate fight for survival against an ancient evil that lurks within the woods and the coven of witches that summoned him.
The lesson would seem to be “trust the locals and get the hell out while you can” but since Arthur finds himself in the exact same predicament as the outsider couple despite having intimate knowledge of the dangers that lurk in the woods, it turns out that it doesn’t matter after all. This feels less like an intentional choice by Doleac and more of an oversight, especially as it is far from the only inconsistency we witness in the film. That’s not to say that there isn’t still a lot to like about this movie and, despite the predictable set-up, there is a lot of tension to be had and a story that is compelling enough to grab your attention.
The experience of watching it is pretty much the definition of a mixed bag as the film will hit high points that are undone by low points which repeat the cycle to ultimately land somewhere in the middle. The visual style of the film itself is a good example of this as the overall quality falls within the flat look we’ve come to expect from low-budget digital only to be broken up by a strikingly creative shot or a very well executed special effect. The end result settles in the area of “good” but a more aggressively abstract filmmaking style, acting that is brilliant rather than fine, and a storyline whose tension didn’t peter out towards the end due to some unnecessarily long-winded speeches could have bumped it to the category of “great”.
The part that sticks out more than any other however is the look of the demigod himself. It’s hard to have a convincingly scary monster on an independent budget and Doleac wisely opts to shoot around the creature throughout most of the film offering glimpses rather than full-on shots. Unfortunately, he chooses to abandon this practice towards the end of the film letting the audience come face-to-face with the sheer terror of a sensibly-priced Halloween mask (and yes the red, laser eyes hurt more than they help). Still, the end result is a film with some effectively bloody kills and a few solid stretches of genuine tension so, while it may not be a masterpiece, it’s a decent enough way to spend an hour and a half.
Availability: Upcoming Release
Film is being released in select theaters and on VOD on 10/15/21.
Coming in at a scant six minutes and forty seconds, The Visitor packs a lot into its short runtime. The story follows an unnamed writer who leaves behind his wife for the weekend to go to their country house and finish his book but encounters something very strange upon his arrival. One thing that immediately pops out about this film is director Mark Palgy’s choice to overlay a pulsating score over the entire runtime in place of any sound effects or audible dialogue. It’s a bold choice, especially since there is a significant amount of dialogue in the film which is instead conveyed through subtitles. This unconventional decision could have easily gone south, but in this case it works wonderfully and imbues the short with a life and energy that complements the visuals.
The 70s-style grain works well to contribute to the subtly surreal quality of the film which sometimes gives way to fully psychedelic imagery and bold color palettes reminiscent of Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy. The only minor gripe I have is that it briefly plays into a convention I see entirely too much where a character experiences something that would be utterly mind-shattering but regards it with little more than a mild incredulity. Still, this is an excellent film with high production values in every aspect from the aerial shots and the production company logos to the special effects and the camera work. It very much succeeds as a stand-alone short but could also definitely be expanded into a feature that brings the simple yet chilling story to a global scale.