Thursday 15 October 2015

Ghost Theatre

Oh Hell, Dolly!

Ghost Theatre (aka Gekijô Rei aka Ghost Theater)
2015 Japan
Directed by Hideo Nakata
Seen at the London Film Festival 10th October 2015

“Wow. Just saw the new film from the director of the original 
Ringu and Dark Water at London Film Festival. Just wow!”
 Tweet from NUTS4R2, 10th October 2015

I think I’ve only seen three Hideo Nakata movies before this one... the original Ringu and its sequel (not the one based on the second book, Spiral, but the sequel called Ringu 2... which is actually a better film than Spiral, I think), plus the original version of Dark Water. I’d enjoyed them all and they really got me into the whole, modern Japanese Horror genre (or J-Horror as it’s bizarrely known) at the time of their release.

When I saw his name pop up again in this year’s London Film Festival programme with the UK premiere of his new movie Ghost Theatre, I expected another dark and terrifying horror film from a man who really knows how to scare the pants off his audience. So I took a punt on it and, to be honest, although the film really isn’t that scary compared to the illustrious works I mention above, what we have here is something far better...

The film opens strongly with an alley and two buildings on a night during a heavy rain storm. The scene looks like it might have been shot in a studio but that just adds to the whole look and feel of the thing, to be honest. As we look in a room we see a teenage girl staring into the eyes of a life sized mannequin. When we are taken further into the scene, we realise the mannequin, which seems to have very human eyes behind the hollowed out sockets, has fixed her in its stare. We then follow the girl’s sister, who is looking for her. After she finds her sibling dead on the ground, she looks around at the mannequin, which shifts its position slightly, also fixing her in it’s deadly stare. Then the father turns up, finds his two dead daughters and rushes the mannequin back across the alley and into his workshop... for it is he, it transpires later, who made this classic abomination. He starts to dismember his creation, finishing by severing the head. However, before he can end his work, as he is about to light the gasoline he has poured all over the dummy, the police stop him and this prologue, which the audience will return to later in the movie in a couple of different flashback formats, is finished for the time being.

We then jump twenty or so years into the future to the present day and catch up to the lead character, a young actress whose name I can’t remember (and the IMDB is of absolutely no help with movies like this). She is fed up with playing the equivalent of “second corpse on the left” in a string of J-Horror movies, so she goes to see her agent, who promptly sends her off to audition for a new play by an acclaimed director which... and classic horror fans will love the introduction of this element... is about the original ‘Countess Dracula’ herself, Elizabeth Bathory. Most horrorphiles will know the story of the real life Countess who was supposed to have murdered a fair few teen girls in her time (she did) and bathed in their blood to prolong her own life (more debatable). She’s inspired many film-makers and there have been probably a dozen films about her at least, over the years (two of them that include her as a character are reviewed by me here and here).

So our teenage heroine goes to the audition and wins a minor role. The main role goes to a more well known, bullying actress and, yeah, we then get the usual jealousy of the new talent and rivalry going on before the director has to replace the lead with our heroine... at least for a while. Here’s the thing though... in the play, Elizabeth Bathory is struggling with her acts of violence and being influenced or acting against the wishes of the voice of a lifesized mannequin which she hears in her head... her madness imbuing the doll with her own evil. Now, when the props people in the movie were looking to find a decent head to buy to go on the dummy they have made... well, guess which mannequin head they happen to stumble across? Death ensues as various people in the cast and crew are killed by the unsettling mannequin in its new body and, luckily, our heroine's unwillingness to sleep with her new director means she’s fired before the third act... so she and her new romantic interest in the form of a prop boy can go and find out the back story behind the mannequin and try to make it back to a full dress rehearsal in time before the un-living doll can kill everyone in the theatre.

The deaths inflicted by the dummy in question actually harken back to the deaths in this director’s Ringu in some ways... in that the dummy doesn’t have to actually do anything other than be fairly close to its victim in order, as it it transpires here, to suck out the living energy and leave her victims as dead, waxy husks of corpses... each stolen soul getting her closer to being a flesh and blood creature rather than the hollow shell she starts out as. And that’s the basic plot of this one... without, I hope, revealing too much. The nice thing about that, of course, is that the murderous shenanigans of the creature are also a metaphor for the Elizabeth Bathory character, in essence, so it’s a neat little trick the writer has performed here. Perhaps it’s a case of... I never metatextual I didn’t like.

The plot is not what makes the film a really good time at the movies, however. It’s the way the material is treated. For starters, we have a really strong lead teenager demonstrating a startling amount of screen presence in her performance. It doesn’t hurt that she’s really cute but the character is also shown to be fairly intelligent (about as much as you can get away with in these kinds of movies, anyway, if you need to play by ‘horror rules’) and she is a positive force on the narrative drive, giving the audience someone they can identify with.

Perhaps more important than that, though, is the way the movie is shot. It looks just like an old Italian giallo in the way it’s been presented and you can almost feel the ghost of Mario Bava lurking just off to the side of the sets. The colour schemes used are all bright and Bavaesque with some seriously beautiful purple lighting moments in the movie... especially near the start. The compositions make a lot of using vertical lines to split up the space into sections and to physically separate people and elements in a shot but Nakata also utilises a load of diagonal lines throughout the film and pairs these with the verticals. Quite often he will shift or accentuate the perspective within a shot by having, say, the bare frame of a theatrical set in the mid-ground and slanting backwards diagonally... then using the placement of people both in front and behind that diagonally protruding frame to direct the eye into the focus of the shot and... well it’s all just really spectacular. I’ve always liked Nakata to a degree but my respect for him as a filmmaker has gone up even more after seeing what he does in this movie. It’s truly spectacular.

How he shoots the mannequin is interesting too. He starts off quite subtly by just showing the ‘alive’ eyeballs and a few shifts of movement when we see the full body of the original dummy. Later on, when the second incarnation of the dummy starts causing trouble for the human characters in the film, he pulls back for a long time from showing the full figure of the dummy moving and, instead, just concentrates on a stare, a hand of maybe just a shot of the feet walking. This works quite well because, by the end of the film he shifts into high gear, showing everything for a sustained period of time, and it feels a little more climactic in contrast to the way he’s held back over the course of the build up.

There’s not a great deal of blood and gore but when the director does feel the need to deliver he certainly gives it a go, such as when the main protagonist is left alone with the mannequin’s head at one point and the head starts bleeding, covering a whole table top in crimson. And right near the end of the movie, after the director has really let rip on the larger than life element of the concept, just when you think you’ve seen it all, he offers up one character stabbing the dummy and he resorts to a good old Japanese standard... started off by Akira Kurosawa in the end scene of Sanjuro and leaving an indelible mark on the history of violent, Japanese cinema ever since... the big arterial spray of blood. I think it’s done pretty much tongue in cheek here too, to be honest... after a lot of good taste shown throughout the movie, this final stab and bleed shot is so over the top in its intensity, covering the face of the lead actress almost completely, that it’s pretty much treated like the punchline to a joke which the audience to this kind of genre offering are all in on. It did get a big laugh at the screening I was at, I can say that much.

The whole feel of the ‘over the top-ness’ of the final act, coupled with the Elisabeth Bathory theme and the beautiful colours and rich compositions, reminded me a lot of the whole grand guignol type of entertainment of the end of the late 19th/early 20th Century. Indeed, the theatricality of the milieu and even the subject matter also lends itself to the original translation of Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol to some extent, which translates literally as The Theatre Of The Big Puppet, it would seem. I’m guessing the whole look and feel of this allusion wasn’t lost on Nakata and he played up to it in this movie... at least I hope he did. Whether he did or not, though, it’s a masterpiece of that kind of turn of the century chicanery as filtered through such cinematic artists as Mario Bava and the direct lineage through to Dario Argento in terms of its giallo like vibes... even though it’s not a giallo in itself and is firmly a horror movie.

And that’s really about all I’ve got to say about Ghost Theatre. Great performances, inventive sets and shot designs, editing which doesn’t confuse and an appropriate score all make up a truly rich visual feast of a horror movie which, while not scary in any way, is truly a masterpiece of the genre... at least, as far as I’m concerned, it is. The director wasn’t here for the screening and I don’t know if this is going to be getting any kind of distribution in this country either as a cinema release or on home video. However, I will be hunting this one down to watch again because the idea of a Blu Ray of this movie is pretty mouth watering. If you’re into horror movies and have an appreciation of the history of the genre, then you should really seek this one out and give it a look. I’m so glad I did.

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