Ghost Theater (2015)

Longer version of piece published by Sight & Sound as part of coverage of the Cult programme at the London Film Festival 2015

Ring (1998) and Dark Water (2002) made Hideo Nakata synonymous with the J-horror movement at its very peak. Both films were remade in American versions that undid much of the originals’ uncanniness by overexplaining everything that had once been so understated – and eventually Nakata, having made a very odd, very Japanese sequel to Ring in 1999, would helm the rather more conventional ‘remake’ The Ring 2 (2005) in America. Since then, though he has remained fairly prolific, his star has fallen along with J-horror’s. Yet if his latest, Ghost Theater, revisits the haunted doll of his video anthology Curse, Death & Spirit (1992) and the behind-the-scenes terror of his feature debut Don’t Look Up (1996), sadly it does not represent a return to form.

Budding actress Sara Mizuki (Haruka Shimazaki) lands a part in a new play dramatising the vampiric outrages committed against young girls by Countess Elisabeth Bathory, only to find that a life-size doll on set has its own ghostly designs on the youthful cast. Buried somewhere in here are some interesting themes: the jealous rivalries that can exist between women, the impossible idealisations that are expected from actors, and the parasitic predations of an industry that uses, abuses and discards its doll-like performers. Yet one of the play’s key lines, rehearsed over and over again, goes, “It. Is. Laughable.”, and unfortunately the same could be said of the film, exsanguinated of all subtlety by its bludgeoning narrative repetitions, its ridiculously melodramatic score, and a doll which we see on the move just too many times for its creepiness to linger. Here overstatement leads to underfrightment. If you want to see horror and metatheatre blended to unnerving, dizzying effect by a Japanese master who has been making films since the early Nineties, better to watch Takashi Miike’s Over Your Dead Body (2014) instead.

Anton Bitel