One Missed CallReviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 09/13/05 15:11:13
And now, the Asian Horror Checklist: Ominous deaths foretold by sinister, unexplainable warnings from beyond? Check. Floating lady ghost with long, tangled, flowing black hair that looks like it’s underwater? Check. Dependence on chillingly empty settings, usually lit in odd colors? Check. A mystery that must be solved in order to stop the killings, most likely involving a gruesome murder? Check.There is very little in “One Missed Call” that we have not seen before. And yet it works, partly because the formula is simply so strong that it’s you’d have to work doubly hard to break it, partly because the person in the director’s chair knows how to make a good frightfest. That person is Takashi Miike, who’s hit it big in cult circles with a variety pack of titles - among them are “Audition,” “Ichi the Killer,” and “The Happiness of the Katakuris” - that share the common link of unflinching, unbearable violence; his works are infamous for crossing boundaries in intentionally uncomfortable ways.
But Miike, for all his defenders and detractors, isn’t just a gorehound. Perhaps to prove this, his “One Missed Call” finds the filmmaker stepping back a few paces, offering what is perhaps his least graphic, most mainstream effort to date. You still get your typical horror movie trappings, to be sure, but it’s a more subdued work. Imagine the delicate touch it took to create “Audition” applied to a formulaic ghost yarn.
The hook here is that somebody gets a call from their own cell phone, with date and time reading as coming from two days in the future. The call is the sound of the person’s moment of death. And when she dies, someone else gets a call. And so on and so on, just like that, um, what’s that game called when a message keeps getting passed from person to person?
But I kid. The screenplay, by Yasushi Akimoto and Minako Daira, refuses to budge from the Japanese ghost flick playbook. The first third or so of the film chronicles the phone calls, which come in rapid succession, each one piling on a new surprise. The second act slows down to follow the effects of one particular waiting game, which is mixed in part with an investigation to uncover just who’s behind all this. The third and final chapter focuses entirely on this investigation, which predictably reveals the murdered girl (this is no spoiler - it’s always a girl in “J-Horror”) and then tries to figure out how to undo the curse.
So yes, it’s all old hat by now. And yet it works wonders in the getting-under-your-skin department, making every familiar turn of the plot instantly forgivable. The opening act is a whopper, to be sure, a skillfully planned series of freak-outs. The writers are smart enough to juggle shock thrills with slow, steady moodiness. It’s this moodiness that ultimately takes over, and despite some obvious moments (our heroes wind up in an abandoned hospital, eventually coming face to face with a zombie!), these quieter scenes are the ones that make the biggest impact. For all its by-the-numbers set-ups, the ultimate revelation of the mystery is so disturbing that there are no need for overanxious shock tactics.
While the screenplay’s heaviest moments come in the final few scenes, it’s sharpest comes right in the middle. Turning abruptly (and I do mean abruptly) from ghost story to biting satire, the plot finds itself centered squarely upon, of all things, a television show that intends to broadcast live one call recipient’s final moments. Here, the film suddenly becomes an indictment on the ruthlessness and heartlessness of mass media. None of this has any place in this film, and yet it’s such a surprising piece of bravado smack in the center of an otherwise conventional story.
I wish, of course, that the rest of the movie would contain some of the savage bite that’s on display in its middle. But I’m also content with what we get, thanks mostly to Miike’s cinematic know-how. Yes, he’s a splatter man, the go-to guy for bloody excess, but - and this is most evident in the film’s final act - watch how he handles the film’s spookiest moments. Consider the scene in which somebody (a ghost?) seems to be hiding in the cupboard. Miike presents this moment with great restraint, allowing the simple notion of an unknown someone else to create its own tension. No big moments, not even a note of musical accompaniment. It’s just this small bit of ghost business, all on its own, no frills. And it works.
The cast also earns points for the film, with performances that actually manage to sell the ridiculousness of it all. Kou Shibasaki and Shin’ichi Tsutsumi keep everything moving forward as our intrepid heroes forced to unlock the mystery, and the gang of supporting players all keep the lunacy well within realistic bounds. But above all, watch for Anna Nagata as the poor girl who must wait to discover her fate on live TV; there’s a pain in her body language that’s more effective than all the death scenes combined.
It’s a terrific performance, one that underscores why the Asian Horror boom has been so successful over the past few years. These movies, more often than not, prefer to focus on the emotional side of horrific events. Ghosts are born of tragedy in the real world; the threat of inescapable death creates more tragedy. While “One Missed Call” does not tackle these issues as compellingly as some of its counterparts in the genre, it still tackles them - something Hollywood fare rarely bothers to do.And so it says something about a genre when even one of its lesser, more predictable efforts still manages to come across a winner. This is a formula, but it is a formula that works.
|© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.|