Zero: The Movie (Japan 2014)

Rating: ****
Alternate Title: Fatal Frame
Review Date: 3/8/15
Director: Mari Asato
Cast: Ayami Nakajo, Aoi Morikawa

A superbly crafted horror film, loosely based on themes and ideas from the "Fatal Frame" video game series (known as "Zero" or "Project Zero" in Japan). I really hope this gets a domestic release, as the lack of subtitles makes it difficult to follow and obscures the rich narrative details. After looking at and kissing a haunting photograph of one of their classmates, several young girls at a Catholic school have visions of a ghost and mysteriously disappear. The ghost appears to resemble a girl named Aya (Ayami Nakajo), and she's accused of witchcraft and murder. Together, Aya and her friend Michi (Aoi Morikawa) decide to investigate the source of the supernatural disturbances and discover hidden evils at the school. It's always the ones you trust the most who have the most to hide...

While the film isn't directly related to any of the games in the series, it certainly captures the spirit and tone of those games. Sadly, there's no Himuro Mansion, but the Camera Obscura makes a surprise appearance and a variation of the binding ritual is a key element. Fans of the series will immediately recognize these references and they will freak you out. Japanese horror films excel at creating atmospheric tension, and this movie kept me constantly on edge without resorting to cheap scare tactics. It's the subtle details and nuances that generate fear and dread, and a cast of very capable young actresses sell that fear marvelously. What also struck me about the film is the cinematography, which is absolutely gorgeous. It's the best looking film I've seen come out of Japan in many years, and it has a very polished and professional looking aesthetic. This is what movies should look like (or rather what they used to look like, depending on your perspective), and it very much reminded me of a "filmmaker's film." The acting is excellent and the girls are wonderful to watch. The actresses are refreshingly and appropriately plain looking, which is a nice departure from the hyper-sexualized pop idol look that's popular these days. It's also nice to see a movie with such a predominantly female cast. There are literally only three male characters in the film, and they play very minor roles.

The pacing is deliberately slow, but the film is never boring. However, for that reason alone, I fear that the film won't get a proper domestic release. American audiences tend to have very different expectations when it comes to horror films, and this film works on a more psychological level rather than a visceral and adrenaline pumping one. Fans of female oriented J-Horror films like "Kokkuri" (1997), "Ring" (1998), "Dark Water" (2001), and "Ju-on" (2002) should be pleased. Additionally, Steven Spielberg bought the film rights to the game over ten years ago, and there have been recent rumors about a Hollywood version in the works. Whether that ever materializes, or if it blocks the import of this version remains to be seen.