Friday, January 27, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Twilight Syndrome: Dead Go Round (2008)

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.

Seven Japanese teen archetypes find themselves in front of a stage in a small, picturesque amusement park. A clown appears on stage and explains to them that they among all gamers who have beat the newest incarnation of the Twilight Syndrome games have been chosen to test out the games' famous designer's newest work.

In fact, the new game has already started, and our young heroes find themselves suddenly alone in the park with only the clown to lead them into a rather silly game of finding game cartridges hidden away in balloons across the area. But why does the clown know as much about their personal backgrounds as he does? And why is he mocking the participants with that knowledge more cruelly than seems appropriate under the circumstances?

Things become clearer when the first of the kids is declared a loser and murdered in a silly yet unpleasant manner. This is going to be a game of life and death, and only one of the players will be allowed to go home. Until then, there's a number of other balloon oriented death games with macabre details to play, the nastier (and giggling like a baby) brother of the floating balloons from The Prisoner to conquer, and the truth about the game to find out. Let's just hope none of the kids gets the idea to help him- or herself to the pole position by Battle Royale means.

Dead Go Round (or "Deadly-Go-Round", as the fansubs I watched it with call the film much more sensibly) is one of two unrelated direct-to-DVD movies produced to cross-market the new game in the venerable Twilight Syndrome series of videogames - of which unfortunately no part has ever made it onto Western markets - by pretending that game is actually pretty dangerous and by shaking a Nintendo DS into the audience's faces as often as possible. Given this (probably sad) state of affairs, the only fact-like things I know about the games is that beloved design-eccentric Suda-51 made some of his earliest experiences as a game designer with them, and that they seem to concern the encounters of Japanese teenagers with real life urban myths. Which sounds rather like games I'd very much like to play.

My lack of knowledge regarding the games makes it impossible for me to say if there's any continuity of characters or plot between them and the film, but I rather suspect not.

Dead Go Round was directed and probably written by Mari Asato, who has been operating in the world of ultra-cheap DVD horror for a few years now (her film after this was one of the new direct-to-DVD Ju-On films), and who does a very commendable job here.

I didn't find anything commendable in the film's first fifteen minutes, though. The first encounter with the movie hurls the viewer into the world of incredibly clichéd characters and dubious acting, and confronts her with the sort of silly high-concept plot set-up that is at once much too familiar and just pretty damn annoying, with the expected character types acting as expected. After the introductory part is done, and the first blood has flown, the film becomes increasingly interesting. The situations the characters find themselves in turn gleefully strange, and the characters stop acting like horror movie fodder; the "wrong" teenagers die first, and - while I wouldn't exactly call it unconventional - the character development in the survivors is not as predictable as the movie's beginning (that now seems consciously designed to blindside the viewer) made one expect.

The film also turns out to be less cynical as most other movies of the "handful of characters in dangerous situation" genre. Although she acknowledges and understands its existence, Asato treats egotism not as the natural state of human beings in danger. In its place steps a (never cloying, because it's done matter-of-factly and without sweeping melodramatic gestures) solidarity between exactly those geeky characters who would only be allowed to sacrifice themselves for the "normal" ones in other movie. There's a subtle emphasis on the concept of female friendship to find here, too, that reminds me a lot of X-Cross, Kenta Fukasaku's only good film, as does Dead Go Round's gleeful embrace of the absurdity of its own concept.

Embracing gleeful absurdity is a must for a film like this, which has to live with some obvious, budget-caused flaws. The actors are never again as bad as they were in the beginning, but they're not exactly brilliant, either, so Asato needs to keep her movie's speed up to distract her viewers from the flaws in their performances. The special effects - what there is of them - are frankly ridiculous, but Asato doesn't go the way of shamefully hiding them away from view and instead tries to get her (and our) money's worth out of them by using her ridiculously cheap effects to show things that are absurd enough in their basic conception to just eclipse their intensely fake looks by virtue of being just plain weird.

Even better, the film's wallowing in its own absurdity (let me quote its best piece of dialogue - "The clowns. They can smell my blood." - as an example) never descends into the nether realm of the barely ironic, wink-wink, nudge-nudge, aren't I funny. Asato seems much more interested in using the absurd with the sort of knowing delight that doesn't need irony to distance herself from her own film. "Look", the director seems to say, "isn't this awesome?". And it surely is.

Of course, if you're only going to love serious movies about serious grown-up people going through serious divorces or seriously falling in love with other people half their age, and just can't abide films that are serious about their silliness, you won't have much fun with Dead Go Round. This is, after all, a cheaply made little horror movie based on a videogame, and it won't deny what it is. Yet it is also a film in the tradition of those cult movies that don't take their low position in the cinematic food chain as an excuse for laziness. There's a place for cleverness and fun down here at the bottom, and Dead Go Round has built its amusement park right there.

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