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Over Your Dead Body
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by Jay Seaver

"Probably not nearly so good as the classic it piggybacks on."
3 stars

SCREENED AT FANTASTIC FEST 2014: In addition to his film work, Takashi Miike has directed a few stage productions, experience that he likely dipped into for "Over Your Dead Body" ("Kuime" in Japanese). At times, I kind of wish that was where the film stayed; it has all the material for an intriguing backstage drama and the diversion into horror is kind of all over the place.

The play being staged is Yotsuya Kaiden, a classic kabuki tale of a poor samurai scheming to improve his position, even if it involves shedding a wife who has brought him as far as she can. Kosuke Hasegawa (Ebizo Ickikawa) plays Iemon the samurai on the stage, co-starring with real-life girlfriend Miyuki Goto (Kou Shibasaki) as Iwa. Given the drama between rehearsals - another cast member, Miyuki's married former boyfriend Jun (Hideaki Ito), would like to start an affair; the young actress (Miho Nakanishi) playing a supporting role is the type who professes her desire to follow in Miyuki's footsteps and then does so by sleeping with Kosuke; and cheerful stage assistant Kayo (Hitomi Katayama) knows every part just in case someone needs her to fill in - it's no wonder that the supernatural themes of the play seem to be bleeding into the world around Miyuki.

If there's one thing you can count on from Miike, it's that he will go to weird places and present what he finds in a memorable way, and that's certainly the case here. It's just that, as is often the case, he, writer Kikumi Yamagishi, and the film itself go to so many different strange places that the story starts to seem random once the supernatural becomes involved. Strict rules aren't necessary but not having every scare pulling in different directions would probably help, and while there's there's a clear connection between the creepy dolls and the movie's most obviously horrific sequence, childlessness doesn't seem to be the strong motivator for Miyuki that it is for Iwa, and some of the other moments just feel random. The individual results are certainly disgusting in memorable ways, at least.

Perhaps unfairly, this wouldn't have really seemed like a problem if Miike was still where he was ten years ago, cranking out a movie every two or three months and crashing hard into the limits of his budgets but still somehow doing all he could to provide a good home for the really messed-up thing that the audience was going to remember. Now that he has the resources to make complete movies, the obvious explanation that allows us to discard any disappointment around the crazy bits isn't there, and the whole doesn't impress so much.

Meanwhile, watching how how the cast members of the play are coming to resemble their roles is going quite well, with Kou Shibasaki especially excellent in the "Iwa" role on and off the stage even before she starts descending into genuine madness - there's a propriety to Miyuki that doesn't get near stiffness unless someone pushed too hard. Ebizo Ichikawa, meanwhile, makes Kosuke properly abrasive but not so much so that moments when he becomes the potential victim aren't suspenseful. Miho Nakanishi slips right into her part as well.

One also hopes that this was a real production, because it looks downright amazing, even considering that it's in a rehearsal space with production staff watching from low desks. That's actually a kind of nifty visual parallel to samurai toiling for their shogun. Miyuki's well-appointed kitchen rivals it in eye-candy, helping define her as a person separate from her role. I would have been happy with either the play itself or the movie about the cast built on top of it; the horror, alas, may not be one layer too much, but it sometimes seems to take the place of what could make the rest of the movie great rather than good.

It's quite possible that this works much better for its local audience, or at least those familiar with "Yotsuya Kaiden". Otherwise, "Over Your Dead Body" is a fair horror movie attached to a more than passable backstage drama, and it's too bad that the two pieces didn't come together as well as they could have.

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originally posted: 10/10/14 12:11:25
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantastic Fest For more in the 2014 Fantastic Fest series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 AFI Fest For more in the 2014 AFI Fest series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Stanley Film Festival For more in the 2015 Stanley Film Festival series, click here.

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