Kazuo Umezz’s Horror Theater: Volume 1 (DVD)

Good thing it’s not also a dinner party.

Horror Theater is a new Japanese series based on the work of Kazuo Umezz, a popular manga (a.k.a. comics) writer and artist. This debut volume, now on DVD thanks to Media Blasters’ Tokyo Shock label, contains the first two entries, House of Bugs and Diet.

In House of Bugs, a man cheating on his wife suspects his wife is similarly cheating. So, he asks his lover to spy on his wife and learn the truth. Meanwhile, upstairs in their house, we get fleeting glimpses of a room filled with gigantic cobwebs. Then, in Diet, a teen girl hopes to impress the boy of her dreams by going on a diet. Not all is as it appears, though, and there might be more to her weight worries than it seems.

What both of these short thrillers have in common, and what drives the suspense in both, is the question of perception. We’re shown a key moment or image from one character’s perspective, and then re-live it later through another character’s eyes. Seen the second time, we discover that what happened is not only wildly different from what we thought, and we better understand what’s really going on. The scares aren’t derived from supernatural evil, or from a dark and sinister mood, but from the surprise of having the rug pulled out from under you, plot-wise.

These little point-of-view twists are clever, but, unfortunately, they’re not quite enough to recommend this disc. The production values leave a lot to be desired. The sets, lighting, and camera work look like what we’re used to seeing on daytime soap operas, and not spine-tingling horror. Also, settle in and get comfortable before watching, because both shorts move along at a very slow pace. The creators want us to really get to know the characters, and we do, by following them around on their daily lives, hearing them chat with friends, and seeing them alone in their private moments. It’s only after we’ve learned about these people and their motivations that the plot brings us to a place where some freaky stuff happens. A lot of this is good—I’m a big advocate for plot and character development in horror—but a short as these two tales are, they still could have benefited from a few economical edits.

House of Bugs is easily the lesser of the two, thanks to some questionable directing tactics by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (Pulse (Kairo)). In many shots, the camera is all the way on the other side of the room from the actors, making them tiny on the screen. At other times, actors are right on extreme left or right of the screen, barely in the shot at all. If this is the director’s decision, then I guess I can’t fault him for it, but it’s tough to make any connection to these characters when the camera won’t let us see them.

Diet fares better, where director Tadafumi Ito is able to coax a few visually powerful moments out of the otherwise flat soap opera look of the overall series. This one also plays around with our perceptions on a more regular basis, so that we’re never sure if what we’re seeing on screen is actually what’s happening, and that keeps the story moving at a slightly quicker pace.

Although the cinematography leaves much to be desired, the DVD transfer does not, with sharp details and no defects to be seen. The stereo sound in mostly unimpressive, but does what it needs to. The two featurettes show day-to-day life on the set of both House of Bugs and Diet, while an interview with Umezz goes over the themes and ideas present behind both stories. The disc is rounded out by some footage from the Horror Theater world premiere and a few trailers.

If you’re already a fan of Japanese horror and you’re seeking something a little outside the norm, then this might be your ticket. Casual viewers, on the other hand, will want to check out some of the Japanese horror standards (such as Ringu, etc.) before moving on to this one.

The Verdict

Court is adjourned.

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