Urban legends make their way onto video store shelves with an uninspired frequency. Take the legend of Bloody Mary who has seen her cult encourage films as surprisingly excellent as CANDYMAN and as uneventful as the recent DEAD MARY. It seems that cinema has always had an eye gouged-out for exploiting not only our darkest fears and deadliest realities, but also those secret tales of puppies in the microwave and razor blade sabotaged snack foods that permeates suburbia’s perfectly manicured pretenses.
In the late 70’s, in Japan, a new urban legend was forming on the lips of school children all across the land. A ghostly woman adorned in a white trench coat, her facial features hidden behind a surgical mask was approaching youth everywhere with a fatal question, “Am I Pretty?”. The answer that rolled across their tongues brought out the fury of the woman, who immediately removed her mask to reveal an ear-to-ear grin of ghastly measure, before murdering the unsuspecting children. Thus, the legend of The Slit-Mouthed Woman was born. So effective this tale of terror became, studies showed some 99% of Japanese school children knew of her fateful tale. It would seem that this legend was ripe for box-office plunder and so we have a new genre entry.
Director Kôji Shiraishi (JU-REI) and screenwriter Naoyuki Yokota have brought the torment of the Slit-Mouthed Woman Stateside as CARVED—a somewhat straightforward retelling of the urban legend’s return to the streets of Japan. However, the explanation that the filmmakers employ for the creation of the character and her motivation is somewhat less clear—at least in terms of its intentions.
The story revolves around a pair of grade school teachers, Ms. Yamashita (Eriko Sato) and Mr. Matsuzaki (Haruhiko Katô) as they try to uncover the mystery of the Slit-Mouthed Woman and save the lives of several of their kidnapped students. As Yamashita and Matsuzaki delve deeper into the recent events, Matsuzaki must look further into his murky past to find the fatal connection between himself and the horribly disfigured woman.
Shiraishi and Yokota seem determined to chalk the legend of the Slit-Mouthed Woman up to a simple case of child abuse. This aspect of the film is—for lack of a better phrase is—beaten into the viewers psyche in a series of stark flashbacks which feature a mother pummeling her children. While I can see the need for this back story, what I can’t fathom about the filmmakers thought process is the need to make all of the other mothers in this film subject to fits of violence against their offspring. It seems overtly misogynistic to have every female character hiding a secret shame for no other purpose than defining a link between the murderous lead character and her poor victims. In fact, the film itself seems to show utter distain for parenting across the board. Yet it offers no justifiable reason for the actions of either the films protagonists or The Slit-Mouthed Woman. Perhaps the filmmakers can lay claim that their production further serves to remind viewers that violence begets violence. But, if that is the intention then I still argue that the film fails, as it also offers no solution for breaking the cycle.
In terms of sheer horror, even the J-horror set is going to have a hard time getting into this one. The film is without the stylish trappings of more accessible Asian horror flicks and the main villains biggest moment is the reveal of her gaping jaw—a scene that will induce fans of Takashi Miike’s ICHI THE KILLER—to roll their eyes. All that is left after the creepy cut marks is a couple of stabbings and a—thankfully—off-screen child murder.
CARVED seemed to have a lot to offer from the outset, but the final product is hamstrung with an uninspired killer, precious little blood and gore, flat cinematography and a fairly disturbing number of little children being smacked around, even for a genre film. It’s a shame that the film fails so badly. The subject matter seems ripe for a solid suspense thriller that takes a children’s tale and turns it into an adult-sized nightmare. Unfortunately what Shiraishi and Yokota gave us was a Saturday morning screamfest that was light on everything that makes the genre work.