AUGUST 11, 2012
Here's a new one: a J-horror film shot entirely in Los Angeles, by a non-Japanese speaking director (who also wrote the script). Tales From The Dead probably won't win over too many hardcore fans of Asian horror, as it is noticeably more accessible and traditional than they might be accustomed to (I'd stop short of saying "dumbed down", however), but for those new to the genre it's a terrific place to start, helping ease you into their ghost-heavy and somewhat convoluted stories. You don't show Cure or Ju-On to someone whose most challenging horror viewing has been Saw IV.
As with all anthology films, the stories were a mixed lot, though thankfully there were no outright stinkers. The odd thing was that the first and fourth stories tie directly into the film's wraparound, whereas the middle two had no relation to each other or anything else. I've seen a few where the 3rd (or final) story played into the wraparound - Tales From The Hood being a terrific example - but never the first unless they ALL did. It makes the 2nd story kind of jarring, as a viewer might be inclined to look for a connection to the framing device when one didn't exist.
Anyway, the first was about a pair of ghost psychics who help solve a mystery of a young man who has been left catatonic by some event that happened months before. This one has the most traditional scare moments, including the J-horror staple of someone seeing a ghost in a video, so it can feel a bit too familiar at times. But the twist is solid and satisfying, which mostly made up for the rather humdrum haunting elements.
The next also had some ghost stuff, but the story was more fun, like an old campfire tale of sorts. A detective is called to investigate a homicide in a motel room, and butts heads with the other officers while battling a cough. The twist isn't too surprising, but I still like the karmic nature of the story, particularly with regards to the source of his cough (we get some cool FX shots at the end too). And it involves one of my favorite modern horror plot devices - someone calling a cell phone to tell them about a new discovery only to realize that the phone they're calling is in the room.
The third was probably the best, which is interesting as it's also the least horrific in nature. A man who is down on his luck is saved from certain death by a man who offers him a reversal in fortune - he will pay him for his time. So like he will be given a nice stack of cash, but time will jump ahead while everyone in his life moves on without him. How much time he loses and what the stranger does with that time is best kept a secret, and it strikes a fine balance between being unnerving and rather melancholy. In fact I was kind of bummed it was reduced to an anthology story - it's a concept that might lend itself nicely to a feature (and no, Click doesn't count), or at least an hour long "Masters of Horror" type entry, rather than a 25 minute piece in the middle of a movie.
The final story is so brief it's basically an afterthought, serving only to reinforce the connection to the wraparound scenes that most folks probably would have figured out after the first story. It's also in black & white like the wraparounds (the others are in color), which further separates it from the others. Not sure why the filmmaker used this particular aesthetic - I can see wanting to differentiate between the framing scenes and the stories, but why monochrome? Different color timing would have sufficed, especially considering the horrendous quality of the Netflix stream. It looked so bad on my TV that I had to watch the rest on my PC so that it was only being stretched about half the amount (and no, it wasn't my connection - I had "full bars" according to their quality meter, and the 14 year old episode of X-Files I watched after looked terrific). The stream will be disappearing soon, hopefully if it's replaced it will be with a version that's less of an eye-strain.
As for the wraparounds themselves, eh. The inspiration is clearly from Twilight Zone: The Movie, with the two folks driving down a dark road and such, though I liked the idea of the stories being told by the driver to pass the time (in Zone the stories were just being told by Burgess Meredith's unseen narrator, basically). Again, the first story pretty much tells us everything we need to know about the nature of these segments (they also tip their hand too early with a minor subplot about some tea), so the others just boil down to "And that's why I told that story, now let me tell you this one". Basically, if you're watching the movie and want to get a soda or something, wait until one of these scenes in between stories 2 and 3, or 3 and 4, and don't worry about pausing - you won't miss a damn thing.
Overall, it's an enjoyable anthology that (thankfully) has only a few traces of the usual incoherence and puzzling nature of most J-horror tales, sullied more by the terrible transfer (the subs are a blurry mess) than the content of the film itself. None of the segments really blew me away, but they all had their merits and were paced just right. Recommended for anthology fans seeking something a bit different, but (again) J-horror fans might find it a bit too "American" for their liking.
What say you?