Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Corpse Party (2015)

Original title: コープスパーティ

During a nightly cleaning session, a group of classmates (among them Rina Ikoma, Ryosuke Ikeoka and Nozomi Maeda) from the last term of a Japanese high school decide to perform a ritual called “Sachiko Happily Ever After”. Apparently, a couple of decades ago, the high school was a primary school shaken by a series of murders (with a bit of mutilation on the dead bodies) of little girls committed by its janitor. Said Sachiko is the only of the killer’s supposed victims whose body was never found. Rumour holds it she is now the building’s protective spirit.

Well, the charming little folk ritual doesn’t work out as lovely and friendly as hoped, for once it is finished, the ground opens up beneath the feet of the kids and their one lone teacher, and transports them into an in-between realm that looks like a ruined and lost version of the original primary school. It is – of course – a haunted place, and soon the kids have to fight off the undead janitor and his trusty axe and a couple of angry child ghosts. You know how kids get when they can’t find their tongues.

One of the pleasant peculiarities of Japanese pop culture is its willingness to prop surprising things up into becoming multi-media franchises, apparently without a filter that only allows the most corporate cultural artefacts to spawn dozens of children. Case in point is the Corpse Party live action movie here, whose franchise got going with a doujin videogame (a Japanese indie game, basically) made as old-school as it gets by a single guy (hopefully in his bedroom), and now spans half a dozen different games, two live action movies, an anime show and who knows what else. Now, because this sort of thing in Japan isn’t exclusively a big mainstream concern like US superheroes, the resulting products aren’t all glossy high budget projects.

Masafumi Yamada’s neat little horror film was clearly shot on the cheap, with only the most basic locations (helped along by the fact the whole tale takes place in a single haunted school), young and probably cheap actors, and the general air of a low budget affair.

This isn’t a work of cerebral horror, but rather a fun macabre romp that mostly lives from Yamada’s ability to always move the plot along nicely, and the perfect lack of shame the film shows when it comes to the gruesome and the goofily macabre. Characterisations are basic - they are in fact less complex than in the game this is based on – but not quite without substance thanks to the way Yamada handles them. Apart from the ghosts, the kids are of course also victims of their hormones and the way those tend to make messy situations even messier. Even though none of the character development resulting is exactly deep, thematically rich, or original, the film’s minimalist style actually makes it more convincing, keeping things clear and simple instead simple-minded or too twisty. The main actors are pretty okay, too, particularly once the worst actors have been killed off early.

The film’s approach to horror is interesting: this is certainly not a Ringu or Ju-On-style film mixing the subtle with some pants-wettingly horrifying set pieces, but a more modest endeavour that really isn’t too involved in horror exploring the human condition but in macabre fun. Unexpectedly, though, this doesn’t mean Corpse Party is only a series of jump scares. Masafumi goes for a broader approach, with some ridiculous yet awesome gore (Japanese teenagers in the movie’s world apparently pop like really mushy grapes) as well as classic creepy child behaviour and proper macabre Japanese horror weirdness. A personal favourite among the last is the moment when one of the male kids creepily starts photographing the mushed up mass hanging on a wall that once was one of his friends (already maggotty after five minutes, of course) and then gets a call from her in which she tells him to stop looking at her insides.

Despite this at its core being a film about a handful of characters in various pairings wandering through an empty school building, encountering various supernatural stuff and freaking out, watching it, I never had the feeling of watching a film wasting my time on non-existent production values. Yamada has always something of interest happening, keeping a degree of suspense going, from time to time surprising an old horror hand like myself with which old trope he’s going to dig up next, and generally turning Corpse Party into a fun macabre time.

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