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Schoolgirl Apocalypse
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by Jay Seaver

"Surprise! Not an exploitation flick!"
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2012 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Believe it or not, "Schoolgirl Apocalypse" is not the third Nobboru Iguchi film on the festival's program, or a similarly cheery exploitation picture from a filmmaker of like sensibilities. No, it's an often impressive bit of stripped-down sci-fi/horror that stumbles a bit when it tries to get fancy, but otherwise acquits itself very well.

Sakura (Higarino) is an average but hard-working high school student in a small Japanese village whose biggest worries are her English class and archery practice. Little does she know that the latter, at least, will soon come in handy, as something causes all the men in the area (in Japan? the world?) to become inarticulate and homicidal. Seeing her parents die after the madness takes hold in her father, she flees into the woods with little but her school uniform, English textbook, and kyudo bow, she attempts to lay low, though she encounters other survivors, including a mother in apparent denial about her son and ruthless teen Aoi (Mai Tsujimoto). And then there's the injured nurse with an oddly placid western boy (Max MacKenzie)...

Writer/director John Cairns is working on a tight enough budget that he can't really afford to do much that is terribly elaborate, but he handles the basics very well indeed: Though the movie's set pieces are generally small, they're vicious and tend to culminate in the sort of violence that looks more like a crime scene than a slain monster, and the tight focus on Sakura helps Cairns avoid any shortcomings that might come with depicting scale: It doesn't matter how widespread the mania is; so long as nothing within Sakura's reach is normal, it feels as if the whole world has turned against her.

Higarino does a fairly impressive job of portraying that - with Sakura spending much of the movie alone or under attack, it's a performance largely made through facial expression and body language. After the first-act terror, Higarino brings forth a specific sort of blankness, that of a person locked into a survival mode, although her guilt over this comes through as well. You can see how fear makes compassion and reason a bit of a struggle without much in the way of hand-wringing. Mai Tsujimoto, meanwhile, gives us an idea of what Sakura would be like with her conscience absent; Aoi seems to enjoy the fall of civilization, like it's an acceptable trade-off for nobody telling her what to do.

The one place where Schoolgirl Apocalypse falters is the animated segments, where the "Billy" character from Sakura's textbook becomes a hallucination with the scenes taking on the style of the book's illustrations. It's not a bad idea, and becomes an important part of the plot, but it causes Cairns to hit the limits of his resources hard. Good animation, or stylized live action would have worked, but this momentarily jolts the audience out of the movie in a way that some middling effects later on don't.

It's far from fatal, and it might work better on the streaming services where this movie will see the bulk of its plays. That's something like ten minutes out of the movie, anyway, which means that there's another hour or so where Cairns is able to work around his limitations well enough to make the sort of B-movie that's more "surprisingly smart" than campy.

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originally posted: 08/30/12 14:04:32
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2012 series, click here.

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Directed by
  John Cairns

Written by
  John Cairns

  Mai Tsujimoto
  Max Mackenzie

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