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Innocent Curse
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by Jay Seaver

"Creepy kids just going through the motions."
1 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Takashi Shimizu may not entirely be a one-trick pony, but he spent the early portion of his career performing that one trick an awful lot, and while he may have done some more interesting things in the years since his direct involvement with the "Grudge" franchise ended ten years ago, they haven't made nearly the same splash internationally. It certainly makes "Innocent Curse" look like a sad case, though - a lot of the same creepy-kid shtick but terribly diminished returns, as a viewer is likely to feel less scared than sad for the people involved.

He doesn't seem to be messing around as things start, as an angry, abusive mother locks her daughter Runa out on the balcony and screams that if she'd rather be with her father, she might as well jump - only to have Runa mysteriously vanish and reappear, singing a strange song. Three days later, neighbor Yuri (Momoko Tanabe) discover's the mother's body, and when reporter Shunya Ezaki (Arioka Daiki) interviews her, Yuri's high-school classmates inform him of the legend of "Tommy's Curse", which has these sort of temporary disappearances and violent deaths. While Shunya's boss tells him to let go of such silliness, his girlfriend Naomi Harada (Mugi Kadowaki) is seeing reflections of her own abusive childhood in Ren (Haruto Nakano), a kid at the preschool where she works whose mother has just not shown up to pick him up. She takes him in, unaware that letting him call her "mommy" may be enough to make her the target of the pied-piper figure (Hideaki Takizawa) appearing to these abused and neglected children and their parents.

Child abuse is a repulsive-enough real-world horror that building a horror movie around it can seem like base exploitation from one side and like it diminishes something genuinely ugly from the other, and Innocent Curse has moments that do both. To Shimizu's credit, that opening scene with its anger hitting the soundtrack even before the studio logo has finished is legitimately ugly, as is a later one which lays forth the nastiness of a character we'd seen as mostly sympathetic. Far too often, though, it's reduced to a mere plot device, something that we know has happened to kids but which doesn't bring out the really visceral anger that it could. It's a poor match for the often silly parts of the script, as Shimizu and his collaborators never really twist the things that come from a kid's imagination into something truly nightmarish.

Part of the problem is that, compared to some of Shimizu's other movies, this one looks and feels cheap, for lack of a better word. Maybe going after obvious atmospherics in the lighting or set decoration was a deliberate choice, to make it feel like this is something that could happen right next door rather than in that creepy place off in the shadows, but it winds up feeling like a blandly generic setting rather than an invasion of the familiar, and when the movie does head into more fantastical locations, they look slapped together, and not in a way that says they came from a pre-schooler's head. The make-up work seems rushed, whether trying to indicate abuse or eeriness, and it's just impossible to take the villain's seriously; the main villain looks like a cosplayer who has tried really hard but hasn't quite got it, and what creepiness a certain doll has mostly vanishes with the rear shots of a small person in a costume trying to convince us it can run. There are a couple of neat shots toward the end, but it feels like they had to save a very small effects budget for something that was ultimately very minor.

The cast at least seems to give as much as they're asked, but not a whole lot more. To be sure, it's not exactly Arioko Daiki's fault that when Shunya is introduced, it looks like he's interviewing Yuri for the school paper rather than something professional, but it's a hard first impression to shake. He and Mugi Kadowaki are pleasant enough together as Shunya and Naomi and work well together without needing any sort of manufactured conflict, but they seem kind of dull left on their own. Hideaki Takizawa doesn't put enough personality underneath the goofy costume to create a great horror villain, and though Haruto Nakano and the other kids avoid child-actor preciousness, they never actually accomplish the task of making a bunch of four-year-olds scary, which is a heck of a lot to ask of elementary-school children.

Sure, it's something Shimizu has done before, but here, it seems like his heart isn't in it or he doesn't have the resources to do what he needs. The result is not just something far less than frightening, it's disheartening.

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originally posted: 07/30/17 00:59:50
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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