October 23, 2013

Grave Halloween (2013)

"An American college student studying in Japan risks her own life to save the spirit of her dead mother, who killed herself in the notorious Suicide Forest."

Have you heard of Aokigahara Forest before? No? Me neither. Apparently, it's the trendy place to go if you want to commit suicide in Japan, and there's a famous book about it from the 1960s called "Black Sea of Trees" by Seichō Matsumoto. It's also the setting for Steven R. Monroe's vengeful ghost movie "Grave Halloween".

Since Hallowe'en is a Western custom, if you're now wondering what Japanese ghosts have to do with it, remember that this is a "Syfy Original" movie. Even the most tenuous links will suffice when Syfy are putting titles together for their "31 Days of Halloween" month. The Japanese may not celebrate Hallowe'en as such (although many of them are aware of it), but this movie is primarily about a group of American and Canadian exchange students who decide to film their investigation of the haunted Aokigahara Forest on Hallowe'en anyway. Additionally, it was all shot in Vancouver.

Director Steven R. Monroe is, of course, famous (or infamous) for the "I Spit on Your Grave" remake, its sequel, and nearly a dozen more cheap and nasty Syfy Channel movies. Basically, he's a professional director for hire rather than an auteur, but he usually manages to slip a nice bit of gore into his movies as a kind of trademark. Thus, "Grave Halloween" may surprise a few people with the level of gore in a made-for-TV movie. There's a stick through the throat, an "Evil Dead"-style pulling of arms and legs off, and a fairly realistic broken leg among the effects. Obviously, there's no swearing or nudity this time because "Grave Halloween" is another hypocritical MA-14.

Canadian Kaitlyn Leeb and a taller American guy.

Fans of Asian horror will certainly find something to enjoy in this movie even if it's only to ogle half-Chinese Kaitlyn Leeb (the three-breasted woman from the "Total Recall" remake). Her character, Maiko, is the one responsible for everyone going to the forest due to her birth-mother's suicide there and having received a mysterious box of trinkets through the mail which she wants to use for a Sadake (or blessing/atonement) ritual. If you aren't down with the kids who all seem to be obsessed with Japan these days, or have never heard of "Sadake" before, simply replace the word with Sudoku because it's only a MacGuffin. The students never get to perform their ritual or play Sudoku because they're too busy getting killed by long-haired ghosts!

Ignoring the Japanese elements, "Grave Halloween" is essentially a backwoods slasher which homages "The Evil Dead" and "The Blair Witch Project". Unlike the latter, however, it's not a found footage movie, just one that's quickly filmed with slightly shaky handycams. It's bickering "teenagers" getting bumped off, one by one, by various ghosts (some of which look a lot like zombies) with all the usual clichés and tropes.

The main actors are a mix of bit part players from American and Canadian TV, but they do okay in their poorly differentiated and two-dimensional roles. It's not worth mentioning their names because nobody has ever heard of them. One of the more obnoxious Americans says, "That's super comforting!" at 42 minutes in, and if you already know my feelings about this bloody annoying valley girl intensifier, you'll probably be surprised that I didn't switch the movie off right there and then. But I made it to the end (with my teeth-clenched in fury) just so that I could pan it some more.

Apart from being predictable, the worst thing about "Grave Halloween" is that the backstory is more interesting than the mystery which unfolds or the creepiness of the setting. The details about Japan, its laws and customs, and how ignorant gaijin (foreigners) often behave like disrepectful assholes (and deserve to be cursed) are spot-on, but for all the positives, too much relies on xenophobia. Maybe that's a good thing, though, if it keeps people away from the real Suicide Forest.

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