Curse, Death & Spirit
Running time: 65 min.
Reviewed by Bob Turnbull
When diving deep into a director's past work there's always an element of risk. Early efforts can be short of confidence, crammed full of film school techniques and be too heavy-handed with the actors. This can lead to rather turgid affairs. Of course, depending how much you subscribe to the Auteur Theory, you may find anything by your favorite helmer to be of interest. Early low-budget horror films (old pink films in the case of many Japanese directors of a certain vintage), made for TV movies or even commercials can give interesting background and context for future work. Themes they return to over and over may surface for the first time in their short films or feature debuts and this can give clues to gaining better understanding across all their work. So you never quite know what you're going to get...
In the case of Hideo Nakata, the DVD entitled "Curse, Death &Spirit" provides three short horror films (each around twenty minutes long) that he made for TV in the early 90s. The word "film" might be stretching it somewhat since all three clearly have the look of a made for TV project from 20 years ago: the look of all the shorts is flat, colours are either drained or way over saturated and the special effects are hardly "special". Those qualities alone don't make these shorts bad, of course, but they sure don't help improve matters. In any case, there are plenty of other reasons why none of these stories work.
The first of the three is called "The Cursed Doll" and is based around a large doll that seems to possess the spirit of a family's eldest daughter who died many years previous in a fire. After the remaining daughter (now a teenager) finds the doll, it begins haunting her and distracting her from just about everything else. The appearances of the doll are unfortunately laughable by today's standards as each one has that shimmery feel of an overlaid video segment and movement is obviously done by moving that segment of the doll within the main frame. It's perhaps not fair to complain about that since it was a good twenty years ago, but there's not the slightest bit of a chill when the doll moves or appears. Combine this with flat acting and zero tension or atmosphere (though a few closeups of the doll are slightly creepy) and you have the worst short of the bunch.
That's not to say that things improve dramatically as the second one starts. The acting reaches a low point in "The Spirit Of The Dead" as a young boy encounters a spirit while on a camping trip with his mother, her friend and her friend's two kids. The boy's father has recently passed away and he was the only one to see his spirit moving off to (what appears to be) heaven. When the boy encounters a female spirit in the woods, this time it's slightly more malevolent as it wishes to steal him away for herself. One of the few well-realized moments of the series comes one night in the tent when the mother wakes up to see the disembodied head of the female spirit rising out of the floor of the tent to gaze upon the boy. Unfortunately, even this moment is shortly ruined by the strange decision to make the spirit's face almost clown-like in its eagerness to take the boy. The children are fine in the story, but the adults provide no more than what appears to be a simple command of basic stage direction.
The final tale is easily the best and is likely where most people interested in Nakata's back catalog may find some relevance. "The Haunted Inn" actually shows some focus on pace and building tension as three teenage girls go off for a weekend of relaxation away from home. Though the effects are no better in this story, Nakata seems to have figured out that he can still create some horror without having to rely on the limits of technology - a creative use of lighting, music, camera angles and makeup can work wonders. Though that doesn't quite happen here (music is definitely a weak spot in all three shorts), once one of the girls releases a spirit from its home in a trifold mirror and uses some old left over nail polish, there is finally a semblance of actual dread to be had.
For those who have a strong interest in Hideo Nakata's career and rise to being one of the better known current day Japanese directors, this set of three films might be of interest. Otherwise, there's really nothing to be gained from watching any of it.
Read more from Bob Turnbull at his blog.