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by Jay Seaver

"It's in their blood."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2009 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Atmosphere can get you pretty far in horror, and it doesn't even have to be overtly dark or gothic. "Orochi", for instance, is about as good-looking and glossy as they come, but still manages to send the occasional chill down the spine. It needs all the atmosphere it can get, because its story doesn't have the great, visceral hook needed for true thrills.

It starts with Orochi (Mitsuki Tanimura) telling us about herself - she's a supernatural entity that looks like a young girl that passes through the world to observe humanity. On this night, she comes to the house of movie star Aoi Monzen (Yoshino Kimura) for shelter from the rain, and observes some strange things: Tensions between children Kazuza and Risa, noises from a locked attic, creepy and grim-faced servant Saijo (Kyusaku Shimada). After she leaves, finds herself entering hibernation years early. When she awakes, she returns to the Monzen house, where Kazuza (Kimura again) has followed in her mother's footsteps, while Risa (Noriko Nakagoshi) tends to her needs and that of Aoi, who is now the one hidden in the attic, as the women in the family suffer under a curse. Orochi takes a job as a maid under the name Yoshiko, and soon comes to think of that human guise as her actual self...

The Orochi character comes from a series by famed horror-comic creator Kazuo Umezu, and that may be why she serves as our narrator even though seems too alien and unearthly to be the obvious choice for the job - if that's how the comics went, then screenwriter Hiroshi Takahashi's hands are somewhat tied. The story it is adapted from, "Blood" (the film's title is given as "Orochi - Blood" in some places), is apparently the final entry in the "Orochi cycle", meaning that fans of the source material would know Orochi's powers and characteristics before she becomes directly involved in the story. Takahashi and director Norio Tsuruta take this familiarity somewhat for granted, although Umezu is popular enough in Japan that this may not be an issue there.

That baggage is eventually overcome, which is good, because the story of the Monzens is well worth it. There's bits of Sunset Boulevard and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in its DNA, but its mid-20th-century Japan setting has the audience parsing every word the Monzens utter for slights, criticisms, and self-serving intent behind the polite and proper façade. There's cruelty to how this curse strikes those whose prosperity is so tied to their appearance (or hubris in how the family is drawn to show business). Family secrets will, of course, rear their ugly heads by the time credits roll. Even without Orochi, there would be tension and horror to the story, and once the audience sees what's going on with her and the Monzens, she fits into it perfectly.

Because the gore and jump moments are relatively restrained, this tension must be generated by the three main actresses (playing four or five roles, depending whether or not one considers Orochi and Yoshiko different characters). Mitsuki Tanimura is eerily inhuman as Orochi, looking and sounding like she's observing the other characters with detached interest and comfortable wielding her psychic powers. Her strong Orochi voice-over takes a bit away from her performance as Yoshiko; there are hints that she has become this meek orphan girl, but Orochi's voice is too strong. Noriko Nakagoshi channels a certain character type almost flawlessly as Risa, outwardly selfless enough that it wouldn't be hard to believe her, but putting just the right emphasis on certain words and favoring the audience with certain looks that we realize she's maybe not quite so happy as she could be. And Yoshino Kimura pulls off her dual role with style, giving Aoi a vanity that dovetails nicely with her calculated manipulation and Kazuza the graciousness that comes of living a privileged life until that privilege is threatened.

And the movie does pick up a bit when that threat appears - Kazuza is not far from her 29th birthday, which is about when the change occurs. The movie is eerie to start with, from the emptiness of the beautiful Monzen mansion to the score to the almost obsessive perfection of the period hair and fashion. Tsuruta and company do hit us with some unnerving bits, notably a young Risa echoing Aoi in projecting a scene where Aoi's age is about to show and just about any scene with the thoroughly creepy butler Saijo (Kyusaku Shimada). The finale, while not nearly as manic as the last big-screen adaptation of Umezu's comics (last year's Akanbo Shojo, aka Tamami), it does a bang-up job of both releasing pent-up tension and cranking the sense of immediate danger up. There's some effectively targeted blood and guts, just when the movie needs it.

The only real weakness of the movie is that Orochi's otherworldliness leaves a bit of a void in terms of characters the audience can latch on to; every character is steeped in some strange mythology. The filmmakers overcome it, though, and the atmosphere gives them a heck of a head start.

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originally posted: 08/26/09 12:25:28
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Fantasia Festival For more in the 2009 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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