Friday, December 16, 2016

Past Misdeeds: Don't Look Up (1996)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

Director Toshio Murai (Yurei Yanagi) is shooting what looks like a stylish, old-fashioned melodrama on a very tight schedule, but doesn't seem to have much of a problem coping with the latter.

Something about the dailies of the first day of shooting isn't right, though. At one point, the face of the movie's lead actress Hitomi (Yasuyo Shirashima) is suddenly superimposed with the face of another actress, then the whole film disappears and turns into an older movie, complete with a long-haired woman lurking in the background. Obviously, the film stock they are using are outtakes that were supposed to be thrown out, but somehow landed in the wrong place. Murai thinks he remembers the film from his childhood, but apart from asking someone working in the studio's archive to take a look at it, he just shrugs and continues his work.

Not completely surprisingly, the filming seems to be haunted now. It's mostly minor things, like people having the feeling of someone standing behind them, voices that might just be in someone's imagination, a shadowy long-haired woman standing in the distance or lurking at the ceiling of the studio, and some only vaguely defined past sometimes seem to take hold of the present. At least Murai and Hitomi are beginning to feel decidedly uncomfortable, but there's not much they can do.

Then Saori (Kei Ishibashi), the actress playing Hitomi's sister in the movie, falls to her death in what might have been an accident or might be down to supernatural interference.

Although there's enough footage of Saori to finish the film without major problems, the shooting has to stop for some re-writes. Murai - now more frightened than he'd care to admit - uses the time to do some more research, but what he finds out is neither reassuring nor helpful in the long run. The actress in the film snippets he saw fell to her death in the same studio lot he is making his own movie in and what's even more disquieting, her film was never finished, so there's no way he could have seen it as a boy.

Still, somehow, the dead actress and her last film touch the present like a malevolent echo.

This is the Hideo Nakata's first long-form film, and possibly his first one not made for television (the English-speaking Internet at least says so, my eyes suggest it to be a cable TV movie like Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Seance). Watching it after his later masterpiece Ringu, parts of Don't Look Up seem like sketches of ideas Nakata would realize more fully in his later, higher budgeted and more concentrated movie. There's the mix of very traditionally styled ghosts with a very contemporary world, the concept of haunted media, as well as the directionless malevolence of Nakata's ghosts, who are so enraged by the things that happened to them in life that they have become creatures of pure wrath.

Nakata doesn't explain his dead actress as precisely as he would later do with Sadako, though. The audience never learns what exactly the reasons for her death were, how it was connected with the film she was starring in and how and why she latched onto Murai when he was a child. Friends of exposition and explanations of the inexplicable will certainly be infuriated. Although I agree that a few more concrete explanations would actually help Don't Look Up become more effective as a horror film and would enrich it on a thematic level by virtue of making its themes just a little less vague, I don't think this is a big problem for this particular movie. After all, a central part of the philosophy of horror directors like Nakata and Shimizu have popularized is that the supernatural isn't completely explicable or understandable, and that the slow seeping of ghosts into our world is terrible not just for what the ghosts do, but for the entry of the truly unexplainable and alien (and therefore wrong in a sense that has in my eyes clear parallels to Lovecraft) into a logical and orderly world.

This early in his career, Nakata is already quite brilliant when it comes to characterization through incidental detail and small gestures and in creating a creepy mood through the slightest occurrences. The best moments here, be it in the characterization or the attack of the supernatural are small, a little blurred and insinuate much more than the economical director is ever willing to explicate. However - as in his later work - Nakata isn't a director who unwilling to show something terrifying when he thinks it is more appropriate and effective than just insinuating it.

The director is also already a master of planting hints about the larger picture of his movie in small details. There's some clever - and rather disquieting - stuff going on with dialogue about looking up and looking down, for example.

Although the connection is never explained, Nakata left me with a feeling that there was something beyond vague parallels and the location that connects Murai, the old film, the actress and the new film, something that (and it could just be my excitable imagination speaking here, but who cares?) might just be too terrible to actually explain.

Quite unlike in Nakata's later films (and I'm just pretending the US The Ring 2 has never happened), Don't Look Up's moments of outright horror are unfortunately the moments when the film is at its weakest. Frankly, when seen clearly, the ghost looks just too much like a girl in pale make-up to be as frightening and strange as she should be (I wouldn't be surprised when this is what gave birth to the by now clichéd jerky movements of Sadako in Ringu), so that the scenes that should be the pay-off to a long and creepy build-up are a bit disappointing.

Still, I didn't mind this on paper quite distracting problem much when watching Don't Look Up. Nakata has a way of getting at the (my?) imagination that isn't disturbed by some blunders when it comes to more concrete frights. The subtleties and small fears evoked aren't going away again just because ten minutes of the more shouty stuff aren't as good as they could be.

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