Saturday, July 3, 2010

Tales From the Dead

“Tales From the Dead” has the unusual distinction of being a J-horror movie shot entirely in Los Angeles with local talent. It is an anthology of four ghost stories along the lines of “The Twilight Zone” and “Tales From the Crypt”, though the stories themselves bear the most striking resemblance to those that appear in “Tales From the Darkside”.

I’m a fan of horror anthology shows, but there are some common pitfalls that entrap even the best of them. Chief among these is the length. Many of them only have 30-minute episodes, a feature that makes it difficult to set up everything necessary to make a story successful. Weekly shows have the benefit continuity, of being able to build things up over time and establish the story for the episode this week on the back of work that has already been done. The foundation is already in place. However, anthology shows have to start from scratch with each new episode, establishing setting, characters, conflict, tension, etc., which, in half an hour, can be problematic. Some pull it off, but others do not, a lot depends on the writing. (See the third season of “Tales From the Darkside” as an example where there are more misses than hits.)

While “Tales From the Dead” is a full-length motion picture, it suffers from this same problem. Each individual story is too short to work on its own, and as a result they are woefully underdeveloped. It’s too bad, because all of the segments, especially the first one, have a lot of promise.

The film begins with Shoko’s (Nikki Takei) car breaking down on the side of a country road. Before long a car happens by and picks her up. The driver is a young goth-looking girl, Tamika (Leni Ito), who listens to loud heavy metal and claims to be able to communicate with the spirits of the dead. Shoko is understandably skeptical of Tamika’s abilities, so the younger girl recounts a collection of her interactions with the dead in order to sway Shoko.

The first story involves Tamika and her sister, Minami (Kiyoko Kamei), paranormal investigators for hire, helping a suburban couple understand the strange things that have been happening since their long lost son returned to them. The second story is a tale of desire and greed, a story told to Tamika by a spirit, in which a corrupt detective on the Yakuza’s dime receives repercussions from the spirit world for his misdeeds. In the third tale, a young man, a failure in all aspects of life, is talked into selling the one valuable commodity he possesses, his time, only to realize too late the horrific consequences of his choice.

Like each episode of “Tales From the Darkside”, each story in “Tales From the Dead” ends with a sadistic twist. As I implied earlier, the individual tales are too brief to stand alone, and lack any substance to make you care about them. Taken on their own, each chapter could have been fleshed out into a larger, more complete narrative. The basic themes and ideas are interesting, but aren’t developed in any meaningful way, and because of that, none of the stories are particularly compelling. The characters are flat and uni-dimensional; the twists are obvious, not earned, and seem to come only when the film needs to move on, tacked on instead of actually letting the stories resolve; they don’t last long enough to create any tension; and the spookiness isn’t all that spooky. The potential is there, but the filmmakers missed the mark.

The scenes that frame the tales, as Tamika and Shoko drive through the night, are forced and clunky, and you see it coming a mile away that the fourth story Tamika tells is going to be Shoko’s. She was apparently stuck in a loveless marriage, and part of a “black widow” club to boot. You can see where this is going, and the twist isn’t much of a twist.

All things considered, the acting is solid; there simply isn’t much meat in the characters for the actors to dig their teeth into.

Writer/director Jason Cuadrado has some interesting ideas for stories in “Tales From the Dead”, but squanders all of their potential trying to force them into a format that doesn’t really fit the material. In addition to that there are some attempts at being artsy that don’t work particularly well either. The framework with Shoko and Tamika is in black and white, while the stories are color, and there is constant, discordant piano tinkling that grates on your eardrums.

Instead of telling a compelling story, Cuadrado relies on tricks and cheap gimmicks, and “Tales From the Dead” never even comes close to fulfilling the promise that it has. Had he concentrated more on the narrative, and explored the fertile thematic grounds inherent in his stories, he could have made something special instead of something bland.

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