In its heyday in the late 1990s and early 2000s, J-horror offered audiences genuine chills mixed with over-the-top gore-fests that verged on comedy. Hideo Nakata’s 1998 Ringu was arguably the star of the genre, with its quiet sense of creeping dread and the truly frightening image of the vengeful Sadako crawling out of a television screen. Other films with a similarly eerie atmosphere (Nakata’s Dark Water, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse and Cure) made J-horror a worldwide and frequently re-made phenomenon.
Unfortunately, Gekijorei (Ghost Theater) bears little resemblance to any of the best of the J-horror genre, or for that matter to any of Nakata’s best films. It plays like a parody but lacks self-awareness. It’s bad, but not quite bad enough to be amusing. In its overuse of shrieking reaction shots, sudden thunderclaps, and high-pitched choral music, it feels more like the type of movie that ardent J-horror fans were trying to avoid fifteen years ago.
Gekijorei is ostensibly a remake of Nakata’s first full-length feature, 1996’s Joyûrei (Ghost Actress, also known as Don’t Look Up). Viewed today, that film feels like a workshop for what would become the much more polished Ringu. There’s haunted media (this time a haunted reel of film featuring an actress who died under mysterious circumstances) and a malevolent female presence with long, black hair. With Gekijorei, Nakata sets the story during rehearsals for a play, and the malevolence comes in the form of a life-sized doll that resembles the unsettling female robot from the recent Sayonara.
There’s not much point in going into the plot of Gekjiorei. It involves a young actress (AKB48 member Haruka Shimazaki) trying to succeed, rehearsals for a play about a countess who bathes in the blood of young virgins to stay eternally youthful, and the aforementioned doll that quickly begins offing members of the cast and crew. Everyone is playing a type (tyrannical director, saintly ingenue, bitchy leading lady), and the real-world problems that provided an intriguing subtext in the best J-horror films are essentially absent. By the halfway mark the film is mostly shrieking actresses, over-the-top reaction shots, and a series of typically bad decisions, and if you can’t see the conclusion coming a mile away then you’ve clearly never seen a movie, let alone a horror film.
It’s become commonplace to cast pop idols in leading roles in mainstream Japanese films. Nakata’s done it before with 2013’s Kuroyuri Danchi (The Complex), which starred another AKB48 member, Atsuko Maeda. The problem, though, as W. David Marx and others have written about, is that idols are frequently chosen and promoted not in spite of but because of their lack of talent. The idea that they’re trying very hard but aren’t especially good at acting / singing / dancing makes them more relatable. Which is fine for their legions of fans, but it hardly seems fair to expect the same idols to carry a film. When you’ve spent years cultivating an image of mediocrity, you can’t simply transform into a competent actress.
At the same time, Haruka Shimazaki and her costars have very, very little to work with. They speak lines that have been spoken hundreds of times before (“The doll is dangerous!” “You’re crazy!”) and do their best to look terrified when there’s not much to be scared of. The murderous doll moves slowly and jerkily and doesn’t seem like a genuine threat to anyone, resulting in a lot of shots of characters moving very slowly away from it while they scream. If they ran fast, there wouldn’t be a movie.
More than anything, Gekijorei isn’t the least bit scary. I saw it in a half-empty theater on a weekend afternoon and never heard a single gasp or witnessed anyone covering their eyes. Granted, when every potentially scary moment is dramatically announced with screeching choral music or ominous cello, there’s not much chance to be shocked.
The film will come and go like so many other low-risk ventures of the last few years, a pale shadow of J-horror in its prime. Which wouldn’t matter, except that it’s a symptom of something sadder: an unwillingness on the part of producers to create or support genuinely affecting material, and a willingness on the part of audiences to consume bland, derivative films as long as they feature fresh-faced pop stars.
I’d love to see a horror film that offered a pointed critique of Japan’s monolithic jimusho keiretsu system that circulates “actors” into a series of nearly identical television and film appearances. But that’s not likely to happen, because to criticize the system is to be blacklisted by it. Gekijorei did miss a chance for a delightful bit of subtext, though, given that the play-within-the-film depicts the story of a woman obsessed with eternal youth who’s jealous of the perfection a life-sized doll. Which sounds…familiar.