Tuesday, 19 September 2006

Haunted Apartments 怪談新耳袋: 幽霊マンション(2006)

J-horror enters its camp phase

At first glance, Haunted Apartments comes late in a field dominated by Takashige Ichise, who gave us films like The Ring, Ju-on, the J-horror Theatre series, and their legion of crawling long-haired females and mewing children with the skin tone of washed concrete. What new things can the Japanese say on the subject of horror, now that 8 years have passed since Sadako and her crazy upside down eye haunted our television screens? Surely not the “Tales of Terror” franchise, a made-for-TV horror movie (never screened in Singapore), which had as much hits and misses in its short stories. Yet Haunted Apartments, its first proper cinematic follow-up, is an unexpected improvement over the anthology.

The title of the movie is descriptive of what appears to be the director’s intentions for the first half of the movie. Haunted Apartments, after all, is the simplest and most straightforward title for a horror movie. It’s like giving your movie titles like "Serial Killer", "Romantic Comedy", "War Movie", "Cop Show" and so on. And for the first half, Akio Yoshida does just what we expect, taking time to build up a standard, not particularly imaginative J-horror film set in a set of run-down apartment block that might have come from Dark Waters.

The new tenants to the haunted apartments is a father-daughter team who are escaping or recovering from a recent family tragedy. While moving in and meeting their neighbours for the first time, they should have paid attention to the signs of impending trouble and run away. You know, signs like seeing a uniformed girl with long hair obscuring all facial features standing at a balcony. Who disappears mysteriously. Or the uncomfortable body language of their friendly neighbours, who seem too eager to welcome them and yet simultaneously on a hair’s edge from breaking out into hysteria over something. Or the ominous old couple who quietly remind young Aiko of the arcane rules of the apartment: never mention the name of the daughter of the first landlord, and always come back before midnight – because everyone else who broke the rules died mysteriously or suffered horribly. And no, no one is allowed to leave unless they are the oldest residents and someone moves in. And before you know it, the haunting begins, with the standard ghost terrorises person sleeping in bed routine.

It’s not until the middle of the movie that you feel something strange and unexpected happens. All of a sudden, the slightly creepy performances veer into what feels like a parody of typical horror movie performances, with the desperate neighbours hamming it up as Really Desperate Neighbours, complete with over the top expressions that seem to kick in just as they recount their previous run-ins with the apartment ghost. Gradually, the bizarreness piles up, with moments of unexpected satire and social commentary about cutthroat modern society seeping in.

It will be then that you realise Akio Yoshida has pulled a fast one on us, and what promised to be a humdrum J-horror film has become a twisted horror comedy that skewers various national horror film conventions. We run into a race against time to find the body of the daughter of the first landlord in order to break the curse (The Ring), a group of mindless zombies and a superstitious pitch-fork wielding neighbourhood committee (American classic horror), and a really pointless and ridiculous last minute twist in the plot involving a social taboo, which serves to make the plot over-complicated to the point of incomprehensibility (Korean horror, any of the Yeogo Goedam series).

Rarely attempted, the Japanese horror comedy might be just the best thing for the J-horror genre, as Haunted Apartment neatly demonstrates that the straight approach to horror has run its course and run dry of truly spooky ghosts to serve up scares. I certainly appreciate the subversive turn of the film, as well as the sense of pulp horror fun it evokes, with its delicious roasting of familiar horror film tropes. For one, the parody is done in a clever and subtle style similar to Tobe Hooper’s handling of Mortuary.

One only feels that the director should have made Haunted Apartments a parody from the beginning instead of halfway through the film. As it stands, this film is not a very frightening horror movie. When we compare it to great Japanese horror comedies like The Happiness of the Katakuris and Gozu – both from Takashi Miike – as well as Atsushi Muroga’s Junk, do we realise that Haunted Apartments is not bizarre, surreal, outright funny or twisted enough. Even then, Haunted Apartments is a good place to introduce audiences accustomed to the tired J-horror aesthetic to a far superior brand of horror comedy.

First published at incinemas on 21 September 2006

No comments: