Once-maverick Japanese director Takashi Miike (“Audition”, “Ichi the Killer”, “Visitor Q”) has pulled off his most shocking feat yet: turning in a boring, illogical, and utterly derivative horror film. Miike fans (I count myself as one, generally) will be sorely disappointed by his entry into the bloated “scary ghost girls with lots of hair” subgenre, and even those unfamiliar with his work will likely pick up on the fact that this guy simply has no grasp on conventional genre filmmaking – however reflexive this exercise may be. Watching “One Missed Call” is sort of like watching a performance artist do a bad Elvis impersonation: the fact that it’s “commentary” doesn’t alone make it entertaining. In the end you’d have been much better off rewatching your faded copy of Live in Vegas and making your own judgements.
The premise is actually brilliant: a group of “teens” start getting voicemail messages from their future selves that alert them of when they are going to die (the messages feature their own voices, then some screaming), based on the date and time of the call (the calls also have their own distinct – and very creepy – ringtone). It’s a genius idea, really – though the technical requirements of the setup (namely, that the victim will need to be on the phone at the exact moment of his/her death in order to complete the call) is burdensome, and in fact only enforced when it is convenient (um, apparently a previous victim drowned while swimming… why do I doubt that she was chatting on the phone at the time?). The investigation into the calls of course leads to a creepy girl-ghost who had a history of violent behavior and blah blah blah – you can guess the rest.
It’s ironic (I hope it was intentional, at least on some level) that one of the taglines for “One Missed Call” is “Ring…Ring…Ring…”, because the film is obviously trying to be just that. Exchange a videotape for a cell phone and the story’s all there: apparently, a malicious little dead girl who was killed by her mother is now for some reason killing random teenagers through an electronic device that spreads like a virus from one victim to the next (using the address book of the dead person’s phone). We’re given a brief setup (we are basically told that these are college kids and that the girl with the random fear of peepholes is likely our hero – if only because she has at least one discernable character feature that can then later resurface at a crucial moment), and then the action kicks in. Or rather, twitches in – given that Miike has used such deft shorthand in opening the film, you’d think he has something really interesting to get to. Instead, we slog through several seemingly endless scenes of teenage girls checking their voicemail while we peer at them from around corners.
Yes, it is as boring as it sounds.
People do start dying eventually (thank goodness), but the death scenes are so oddly shot that they’re more frustrating than scary. Take Yoko’s tumble off a train bridge, for example. We hear the sound of the crossing signal in the background (which was also audible in the voicemail that predicted her death), and she utters the words that were in her ghostly voicemail – while unbeknownst to her, some unseen force starts snapping the wires in the chainlink fence. Two schoolgirls sit mere yards away. Creepy, right? Suddenly we SWOOP in on Yoko (for no other reason than to give the dolly grip something to do that day), and next thing you know she’s bouncing in between the bottom of the bridge and the top of a fast-moving train. Now, if you’re going to show us some things that the character can’t or doesn’t see, can’t you show us everything? These “ignore the man behind the curtain” tricks are both disorienting and annoying, and when done consistently are obvious attempts to obscure the identity of the killer, which shoots the movie in the foot later on.
Even the smoke-and-mirror attempts at maintaining some sort of internal logic go out the window once things really get cooking, though. After a few more deaths (including an agonizingly protracted tangent involving one victim’s abduction by a live television show, of all things), heroine Yumi and her newfound mentor, Yamashita-san (his sister was also a victim) close in on the dysfunctional family who they believe spawned the curse, which leads to a red-herring of a finale that completely negates the logic that has been established thus far – requiring time to actually move backward later on in order to get things back on-track. That’s the equivalent of the screenwriter erasing pages of script AFTER they have already been shot and viewed, or those old Bugs Bunny cartoons where the illustrator redraws the world around the characters just to piss them off. So now we have a ghost who can not only hack into wireless networks at will, but can actually break the space-time continuum – oh wait – there’s another twist that reveals that the killer ghost can suddenly actually possess other people. Okey-doke. Where’s my drink…
Despite blatantly ripping off (homaging? Eh…) both “The Ring” and “The Grudge” at every turn (it’s all here: the killer hair, the floating zombie-ghosts, the cracking crab-walk, the grey skin, the ripped-up photographs, the videotape evidence, the domestic abuse, the upstairs closet of horrors), “One Missed Call” does have a few things to add to the genre – the only question is whether you’ll be awake to notice them. For one, lead girl Yumi is spectacularly scarred, emotionally – it’s not often we come across a heroine who has this much baggage and is able to actually use it against her attacker (in one of the better scenes, Yumi speaks to a zombie in a way that only a child of abuse could speak to an abusive parent). The recurring image of a large piece of hard candy falling out of each victim’s mouth is interesting and has a nice payoff in the end, and the reaction of the other students when the calls start to spread is pretty hilarious (they wisely delete their numbers from the cursed girl’s phone). The more Miike-like elements (an elevator to hell is an interesting set-piece, even if it makes no sense; the live TV scene is at least refreshingly manic compared to the rest of the film, even if it seems like something from a different movie entirely), while like breaths of fresh air, only reinforce just how lifeless the rest of the movie it by comparison.
The film rallies a bit in the end, but by then the damage has been done by a crushingly dull first hour and too many derivative elements to simply dismiss (unlike the occasional patches of pitch-dark humor, which are too fleeting to suggest flat-out parody). While Miike’s skewed vision may bring some emotional complexity to a tired genre, without a strong framework of suspense and scares to hold up the embellishments, the film collapses (the fact that the only genuine suspense in the entire film happens in the last 30 seconds feels more like a slap in the face than anything else). Here’s to hoping he goes back to his old tricks, and leaves ripping off the Japanese ghost genre to the Americans.