Back in 1992, long before Hideo Nakata (Ringu, Dark Water) set his stylized sights on the international film stage, He, like so many other directors, cut his teeth on the small screen with a series of short tales of terror. Originally produced for Japanese television, AsianVision and Urban-Vision Home Entertainment have compiled three of Nakata’s early works into a new collection – Curse, Death & Spirit.
The trilogy is comprised of small 20-minute episodes, each told as a tale by one of the surviving characters. The first thing that you have to understand is that the look and feel of this work is directly related to when and for what purpose it was originally shot. This is television, and not the high brow, arty, cinematic television that so many of you now associate with the likes of CSI, Angel or even Tales from the Crypt. This is more akin to watching a three-camera shoot with a plot line involving ghosts and goblins. So, before you sit down to take in the collection, consider what Will and Grace would look like if Stephen King wrote it.
Leading off the disc is the chronicle of The Cursed Doll, a fairly straightforward tale of a teenage girl who is haunted by the ghostly presence of an old family doll. This is arguably the strongest segment of the anthology. Aside from the awful special effects and the unintentionally comedic “doll attack sequence”, the episode actually manages to offer up a few chills and a strong storyline before the also slightly amusing closing sequence.
The second entry is easily the dullest and most obvious. The Spirit of the Dead follows the saga of a recent widow and her sister who takes her son and his two cousins on a camping trip in an effort to reconnect with the world after suffering a sudden and dreadful loss. Once arriving at the picturesque campground, the son finds himself the unwilling focus of a female apparition who is looking for her own lost child. From the opening sequence to the final frame, The Spirit of the Dead is as paint-by-numbers as they come. Unoriginal and uninteresting, the episode fails to even muster the slightest interest in the fate of the family, the only thing it really made me want to see was someone beating the crap out of two of the obnoxious brats that tagged along for the trip. Alas, that did not happen so the episode was a bust.
The final sequence held the greatest deal of promise, but unfortunately it too fails to deliver. The Haunted Inn is the account of three teenage girls who take a trip to a traditional Japanese inn only to find themselves trapped into reliving the tragedy that took place there many years before. Conceptually this sounded to me like a winning story. The reality is that with only 20 minutes to flesh out three distinct characters, a ghost story and an epilogue, this episode was doomed from the get go. What certainly could have made for a fascinating feature is glossed over so quickly that the final revelation has absolutely no emotional resolution whatsoever. I really found this segment to be a disappointment and a regrettable ending to a monotonous series. In fact, all the stories offered some possibility of what Nakata would later achieve but their amateurish execution only tore that potential into tiny shreds of hope.
Curse, Death & Spirit is not the greatest catastrophe to arrive on video store shelves; in fact the series serves, at minimum, as an interesting historical document for the career of one of Japan’s most prominent and respected genre filmmakers. But a curious spectacle still does not make for solid filmmaking, superior story telling and swift entertainment. The proof of that is clear, as two of the three installments in this collection suffered immeasurable from their truncated running times and poor character development. I’ll admit that well-rounded characterizations are hardly the hallmark of Horror films but to build an aura of suspense and force the audience to choose some avenue to identify with, genre filmmakers must have the luxury of time. Curse Death & Sprit may still serve a more noble cause, if by nothing other than to illustrate the inherent failings of half hour horror-thons.