Screenwriter, Yumeaki Hirayama is a bit warped. Aside from writing a few best-seller books in the last few years he has also been involved with the Cho Kowai series, which have proved to be fairly successful, low budget, straight to video releases. For the 2004 released Cursed he has ended up penning quite a script.
Nao Shingaki (Hiroko Sato) works menial day to day shifts at a seven-eleven convenience store. Not many customers pass by though due to the strange nature the store possesses with rumours rampant but not even the workers know of the dark secrets that the public seem all too aware of. The stores’ owners, Mr and Mrs Kitaura (Osamu Takahashi & Etsuyo Hirayama) forever watch diligently over Nao, from their little broom cupboard sized stock room, keeping close tabs in case she should suddenly decide to pinch something. During the night shift Komori (Takaaki Iwao) takes over, he has a little crush on Nao which seems to go unnoticed most of the time but he’s always willing to do her a favour if need be.
One day a representative of Kosmos Mart named Ryoko Kagami (Kyoko Akiba) turns up supposedly late for a meeting with the store owners, where she is to secure a deal on behalf of the huge franchise, which will see the store get a new face lift. Whilst doing a stock check she notices that the Kitaura’s are keeping out of date stock. This is just the beginning of strange on goings that sees a number of bizarre events taking place, the exhibiting of odd behavioural patterns and bizarre deaths that all share one thing in common - the store itself and the ground it sits on.
Cursed’s original title, ’Cho’ Kowai Hanashi A: Yami no Karasu roughly translates as “Super Scary Story: Crow of Darkness”. Perhaps a little long winded, it makes sense within the context of the film but all things considered I don’t find Cursed to be an entirely bad choice, after all the film takes place in what is an essentially cursed store, though the timing is a little off as there is bound to be some befuddlement over the title in light of Wes Craven‘s recent release (just check online retailers such as Amazon UK and you‘ll see what I mean).
So moving on then, it is quite refreshing to see a Japanese horror film that doesn’t take itself quite so seriously. While I generally maintain that horror films should be serious affairs if ever they’re to startle I can quickly concede to my belief in the case of Cursed, the reason being that director, Yoshihiro Hoshino has come up with a fine balance between said genre and one or two others. Here he injects into the film a surreal kind of humour, that takes place alongside its surreal horror, in turn making the film reminiscent of such recent classics as Uzumaki. This has all the hallmarks of a great comic piece and not since Uzumaki can I recall having quite so much fun with the material here, largely thanks to the loopy shop keepers and the charming work relationship between Nao and Komori. This is the strangest store you’re ever likely to see. Dante and Randall had their share of weird customers but none went quite so far as to try and swallow their heads, neither did crows pelt into the windows and nor did the owners ever show up and stare blankly at them. Even Ash won‘t have seen stranger things in his time. Yes, this is hell itself as the shop till will even nod to the first time round and it doesn’t seem likely that anyone will be able to escape the sterile interior of the place that stocks fine noodles and those groovy little trading toys you find a lot.
As a horror the film works exceedingly well, right from the pre-credit sequence we realise that this is going to be something special. Granted this sequence is a blatant rip off or simple nod/homage to 2000’s Final Destination but it’s executed splendidly and a lot more gruesomely than the unspecified scene. In accordance to traditional Japanese weirdness the film then picks up the pace and runs the gauntlet to supply sequence after sequence of unique, yet inspired moments that range from building up dramatic tension to simply delivering a nasty blow to the head. Indeed Hoshino’s influences are evident, from western film makers to some of Japans’ greatest modern masters, though for all intents this is a very home grown film. Shot digitally on beta cam the director has no trouble accommodating for his small budget as he rallies off trick shots that feature spookily elongated hallways, strange computer manipulated faces, faceless stalkers, dark alleyways and ghostly girlies. It would seem that Japan still haven’t quite found a way to work a whole lot differently with the ever recurring female spirit, who seems to crop up in many modern horror flicks these days, whether she be standing still with a blank, white expression or walking stiltedly, but it’s not to be a huge problem here as this particular figure makes a brief appearance, only made different by the fact that she resides in the unlikeliest of household appliances.
Structurally Cursed is well paced. Its narrative appears a little jilted to begin with as early on there’s little indication of where it’s going. As events proceed and customers come and go we find the film heading in several directions as it focuses on each customer accordingly after they’ve shopped. From here the story comes together as we now begin to realise that although every customer bears no relation to the former or next, they’re simply victims of an evil shop where explanations are far too few. These strangers shouldn’t make us sympathetic toward them as no attempts are made to introduce them as important parts of society. But that isn’t the point. Hoshino’s intentions evidently are not to present fleshed out characters but to place the everyday citizen in an inescapable situation. There is no why or questions as to whether or not they deserve it, they just happen. Remarkably however is that despite sharing little time with each victim the film manages to do the impossible, just when we think it possibly couldn’t carry itself beyond its horror façade. Horror quickly becomes drama and as the tension fades its poignancy heightens as each separated sequence is then intercut to the beautiful piano arrangement of J.S Bach. Quite a departure from the rest of the intriguing and suitably alarming, experimentalist score. Ordinarily this might pose a problem for a film that tackles several genres but Hoshino seems fully aware of what it is he’s trying to accomplish here.
In her debut (movie) feature, beautiful young model Hiroko Sato takes charge amongst a crowd of enjoyable actors and is definitely a face to look out for, with her cute looks and a knack of showing curious emotions, though the only face anyone is likely to immediately recognise is that of Susumu Terashima playing Ryoko’s boss, Mr. Tejima - an actor who has fine presence whenever he’s on screen, despite it being somewhat brief here. Cursed works even better thanks to its supporting players, with Osamu Takahashi & Etsuyo Hirayama being suitably offbeat and creepy, with the victim cast coping well under the strain. Each actor makes this movie look like it was a lot of fun to shoot, a good job all round.
Screen Entertainment bring us Cursed on a less than stellar disc but for the time being with the only other option being the Hong Kong DVD folk shall have to make do. Considering the import disc has the option of DTS that may well be enough to sway interested parties.
The menu screens are animated but in my opinion they give away a few neat scenes, so try not to pay too much attention and just get on with hitting that play button.
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and is enhanced for wide screen televisions. Filmed on digital beta cam Cursed seems to have been tape sourced as there is a lot of low-level noise, though that is likely inherent to the master but it does affect grey and black levels, which aren‘t quite as strong as they perhaps should be. Macro-blocking is highly evident, even from the screen grabs provided, though if it’s any consolation it doesn’t look quite so bad on a television.
For sound we get a Japanese 2.0 track which holds up remarkably well. The score is very eerie and has a certain amount of originality, with its strange bell sounds, ringing and wails, which come through very loud at certain times and add that little bit of extra fear to some of the stalker scenes and moments of madness that often penetrate. It would be great to hear how this does sound in 5.1 or higher but I’m willing to bet that 2.0 is its original track, in which case it functions more than adequately.
English subtitles are made available and these are optional, but marred by some ropey grammar
There’s not a whole lot here for the taking, just the original theatrical trailer. I advise anyone reading this to avoid the trailer until having seen the film as it contains major spoilers and may affect your enjoyment.
There are also trailers for upcoming or now available Screen Entertainment titles. Those on offer to watch are Turkey Shoot, Intruder, Aquanoid, Maniacal, Thirst, Strange Behaviour, Patrick, Switch Killer, Butchered, The Attendant, Creepozoids, Cannibal Dead: The Ghouls, Boneyard, Hell’s Highway, Vampires vs. Zombies, Nightmares Come at Night and Chupacabra. I had quite a blast watching these trailers, most of which are hilariously awful. Looks like quite a list to look out for in future.
Somehow this little Japanese gem slipped me by and I’m so very pleased to have caught up with it. Cursed is a fresh horror tale that offers enough nasty moments to satisfy but also manages to deliver some wonderful comedy and fine moments of dramatic reflection. Screen Entertainment has done a satisfactory job in releasing the film on DVD for the first time in the west.