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by Jay Seaver

"This isn't that hard."
2 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I am not one to yell at the screen during any sort of movie, but I've seldom seen one that merits asking just what the heck is WRONG with these people to quite such an extent. I mean, people's eyeballs are exploding and you know what to do to make that not happen, and it just involves not doing something. This isn't a difficult choice!

Now, certain people are going to see nothing in that paragraph but "eyeballs are exploding", and want to see the movie. That's totally reasonable. There are worse things to build a horror movie around, and this kind of basic J-horror, occupying the same cursed-woman territory as The Ring and The Grudge, has certainly been effective before. Before being driven into the ground as franchises (an admittedly quick process), those movies were top-notch thrillers, and this film's makers trying to capture that sense of unstoppable, spreading dread is a smart idea.

And this one gets off to a nice start, with a college girl telling a scary story to her friend Mizuki (Marie Iitoyo) before being alarmed by something only she can see. Elsewhere, another student (Yu Inaba) gets a frantic call from his brother Kazuto, saying "she's coming" before the line goes dead. The autopsy says it was a massive coronary event, which can sometimes put such pressure on the eye sockets that they burst, but Haruo finds that fishy, as does Mizuki, especially when they find Kazuto and Kana recently stayed at the same hot springs resort. A little detective work leads them and writer Mamiya to another scary story, about a woman with abnormally large eyes who kills anybody who finds out her name.

One would think that this would burn itself out quickly, but people just keep repeating "Shirai-san", a turn of events which is more likely to release howls of laughter than gasps as the movie goes on. This is probably no dumber than the average horror movie, especially in the early stages where nobody has any reason to believe in the supernatural, but you would think that an epidemic of people's eyes exploding out of nowhere would get people on their guard. It's frustrating, because Shirai is creepy enough, with director Hirotaka Adachi (using the name "Otsuichi" for this project) staging her in shadows and making little flickers of lights and bells carry a lot of weight as she moves closer, and the two young people investigating are easy to fall in with - not only do Yu Inaba and Marie Iitoyo have nice chemistry, but Adachi has them just aware enough of the perils of their situation without having them come off as self-referential.

Stare would probably work pretty well if it didn't feel half-baked, put into production before Adachi figured out how to make all of these events flow together. The filmmakers seem to be uncomfortably confident that they'll get to do a Stare 2, so many loose ends do they leave, and a late scene feels like the writers brainstorming the implications of this sort of situation more than a good place for the movie to go, sort of a thematic bookend to two kids in their twenties discussing social media like middle-aged screenwriters who have never actually used it. It's not even almost there most of the time; Iitoyo and Inaba and the crew seem to be doing the best they can from a rough draft.

It's worth noting that the movie had a 2020 copyright date on it, so maybe there's time for reshoots or to get to work on that sequel so that the pair feel like a whole if they're released in quick succession. I doubt it would be playing a festival if the studio didn't think it was ready, even if it clearly isn't.

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originally posted: 07/19/19 04:25:22
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Hirotaka Adachi

Written by
  Hirotaka Adachi

  Marie Iitoyo
  Yű Inaba

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