Thursday, January 9, 2014

SyFy vs. The Mynd: Grave Halloween (2013)

Maiko (Kaitlyn Leeb, taking part in the long tradition in American casting direction not knowing the difference between Japan and China) has come to Japan to lay her Japanese birth mother she hasn't seen since she was four to rest. That's easier said than done, because Maiko's mother committed suicide somewhere in Aokigahara Forest aka Suicide Forest, with her body not found. Thoughtful mother has at least provided Maiko with personal items needed for a ceremony to be held at her dead body on October 31st to hinder her spirit from becoming a yurei. So all Maiko has to do is to find her mother's dead body. Because this is a thing you shouldn't do alone, and a horror film of this type without people to kill off would be quite difficult to pull off, Maiko is accompanied by her friends Amber (Cassi Thomson) and Terry (Dejan Loyola) who are of course shooting a documentary about the whole she-bang.

There's also a last minute cameraman replacement for Maiko to romance and a trio of jerks around, so there's a lot of meat for the ghosts to disperse of. Things do start off rather well for Maiko and the meat, with a helpful Japanese gentleman (the rather inevitable Hiro Kanagawa) suddenly turning up to assist. Alas, the situation deteriorates quickly, and soon, forest rules are broken and ghosts get grumpy.

Steven R. Monroe is another of the handful of regular SyFy Original directors who make films for the channel as well as for the home video market, and whose SyFy films are generally - and rather counter-intuitively - better than their theoretically more personal non-TV work.

Grave Halloween is a pretty entertaining example of the "people stumble through woods; terrible things happen" type of horror movie. To get entertainment out of it, one of course needs to give the film some leeway, for British Columbia where this was shot and Japan look nothing alike, and - as is par for the course for SyFy films good and bad - originality lives elsewhere. What does live in the movie are a bunch of well-placed shock effects, a competent SyFy interpretation of Japanese ghost lore, and mostly sympathetic characters – apart from the jerks – who often act rather rationally. At least I did find myself thinking "you know what, that's actually a sensible idea, poor doomed character" more than once, which is more than I can say about many other movies.

I also thought that the film's version of Japanese culture and myth was surprisingly well done. While it's surely not authentic, it seems at the very least born of actual interest and probably even a bit of research, and lacks the "gosh, look at the exotic orient and its strange customs" vibe I rather expected going in. I unfairly expected, now that I think about it, because many of the last few years' SyFy films were actually trying to put a bit of effort into their view of cultures beyond the US. Perhaps this could be the start of a new mini-trend, and soon, we'll see SyFy interpretations of yokai, too? I'd love to see a karakasa-kozō SyFy movie, and really who in possession of a soul wouldn't?

All in all, Grave Halloween is rather typical of the good but not great kind of SyFy movie, the sort of film that makes for a fun enough time while you're watching it but lacks that little something that would turn it from an entertaining time into the sort of thing I'd ramble on about for double the length I just did.

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