[30 November 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
In China, it’s like Halloween. The 15th night of the seventh month is reserved for the dead. Ancient tradition holds that, on this occasion, the spirits of those who’ve departed pass through the gates of purgatory and mingle with their loved ones left behind on Earth. Through ritual and respect, they are appeased and head back into the afterlife. Thus the Ghost Festival finds its folklore and a new horror anthology from Facets, entitled Visits, finds a foundation. Dealing with a specific part of the mythology centering on hungry, or vengeful spirits, four Asian directors with differing approaches provide a quartet of fright films proposing to make your spine shiver and your nerves rattle - that is, if they don’t bore you to death first.
Framed by a disc jockey promising a series of sensational holiday horror fare, the first tale, entitled 1413 centers on two young girls, a suicide pact gone sour, and the truth behind the untimely death of the unsettled specter. Waiting for Them has an unlucky in love businesswoman upset over the despondent phone calls of a friend. When she finally finds her wondering the street, she seems unusually connected to the supernatural realm. A young filmmaker hopes to capture a scary ritual known as the Nodding Scoop…and gets much more than he or his gal pals bargained for, while a psychotic security guard stalks a pretty apartment dweller, unaware of her own sinister secret in Anybody Home.
While all four films have something going for them, nary a single one stands out as special or suspenseful. They all suffer from incomplete ideas and half-baked realization of same. If one had to pick a worthwhile installment amongst the otherwise mediocre material, the final segment would score strongly. Until the last act mistake of switching the point of view from surveillance cameras to standard cinema, Anybody Home makes for some quasi—creepy silent storytelling. We never fully understand the motives of the security guard, and can only speculate as to what he reacts to once he’s inside the victims home and looking in her freezer. Of course, the entire set-up suggests something unholy and awful, but when director Ho Yuhang decides to switch gears and go back to a standard shooting style, we instantly loose interest. Add in a lengthy, unexplained flashback and a weird, anticlimactic ending, and even Anybody Home suffers.
In fact, it’s safe to say that all of Visits is stunted by a long standing, second class association with the already dead genre of J-Horror. From the obsession with suicide (1413) to the notion of pissed off phantoms taking their afterlife anger out on the living (Nodding Scoop), each episode here feels lifted from a better, more original inspiration. Even Waiting for Them, which wants to put a fresh, frightening spin on self-discovery and female empowerment treads so lightly and statically that you frequently wonder if the actors are actually moving. Indeed, this mind-numbingly dull effort argues for James Lee’s ineffectualness as a filmmaker.
Yet even when a director tries for something novel, like Ng Tian Hann and his caught on tape terror show Nodding Scoop, the conventions of the genre do him in. We need to have ghosts, girls under attack, and a clueless cad for a hero who ends up making multiple mistakes before succumbing to the spirit’s evil advances. The whole narrative is knotted around itself, unclear from the moment we learn that our novice filmmaker has hired two babes to be his on camera (and off screen) talent. While the occasional glimpses of the unhappy spook make the opening moments fun, the finale falls flat. Indeed, what we need more than anything else is a sense of clarity. We don’t mind enigmatic moments and unexplained fears. But without details - or an attempt to offer said - we become frustrated.
Indeed, Visits is an overall aggravating experience. 1413 seems to wrap up its obvious mystery before it even begins, and the red herring married boyfriend in Waiting never pays off at all. It’s the same for Anybody Home. Why take several minutes putting us through the cat and mouse of the security guards personal surveillance only to have the storyline shift over into something completely different…and underwhelming? While the sole bonus feature argues for the effectiveness of the short film format, nothing about Visits supports this theory. All four mini-features would have benefited from a longer length, as well as a few rewrites, an expansion of themes, and a revisit to the Western way of delivering the shivers. The closest we get to effective macabre is a bit of bloodshed.
Of course, it’s not Visits fault that it took nearly four years to get to American audiences. While a previous DVD version of this title was released by an unknown company back in 2006, this will be the first exposure for many to this irritating title. Since it was made, the entire Asian fright flick fad has peaked, petered out, and grown passé. It’s now the stuff of spoof, not serious scary moviemaking. Yet there are occasional attempts to revive the format, with Hollywood still working through its One Missed Call contracts before finally putting the genre to bed forever. It would be nice to say that Visits could jumpstart, or at the very least reinvigorate an already DOA medium. At this point in the game however, the type is no longer viable, and this film is far from strong enough to overcome such odds.