If Sam Raimi and Yoshihiro Nishimura were to have a cursed Wiccan baby, it might look something like Yudai Yamaguchi’s Rokuroku: The Promise of the Witch. This should make sense to those familiar with Nishimura, who did the special effects on Yamaguchi’s 2005 film Meatball Machine before going on to direct the sequel himself, Meatball Machine Kodoku, which was released in 2017. All three films feature wonderfully creative and over-the-top practical effects which help amp up the movies’ theatrical nature, gleefully guiding viewers to their seats if for no other reason than to see someone lose their head in the bloodiest, most imaginative way possible. Yamaguchi’s latest will surely not disappoint.
In a world where movies like Hereditary and A Quiet Place have directors Ari Aster and John Krasinski scrambling to label their successes “elevated horror”, it’s nice to see a film like Rokuroku: The Promise of the Witch lean so hard into all of the wickedly wacky camp that the genre has to offer. A kind of heavy expectation has been quietly looming over indie horror for quite some time now, and it calls for moody, metaphorical slow burn thrillers, deeming everything else that doesn’t fit inside this shrinking box as surfaced and obsolete. But whoever said that horror can only be one thing? And why is there still a negative connotation attached to scary movies that rely on playful gore gags to gain a wider audience? Luckily, Yamaguchi is one of the few remaining genre filmmakers who refuses to take himself too seriously, and this reviewer is here for it.
Our story begins with Izumi, a sweet local Japanese girl who is currently trying to help her mother calm down her grandfather as he goes on one of his famous rants, screaming “Damn you!” at the living room window, shaking his decorated walking stick at the dark and dreadful absolute nothing that waits for him outside. Izumi and her mother have clearly been struggling with his dementia for a while, as this scene comes across as more of a routine than a sudden cause for alarm, but these two ladies will soon learn just how dead right this seemingly delusional man of the house has been all along. They’ll learn when the witch comes for them.
Peering out from the balcony of a hotel that doesn’t exist, the witch sports long, slick black hair and a thousand-mile-long empty gaze, but human isn’t the only form she can take. Whether it be giant sea urchin with hands for teeth, a boulder-sized round rolling face, or an Evil Dead 2 Henrietta-look-a-like, this spirit comes for everyone who catches her eye, like a Medusa-inspired Okiku set on maliciously murdering anyone who dare return her stare. The film follows the witch as she torments and destroys a variety of victims, ranging from an overworked businesswoman stuck after hours at her office building nearby, a lone fisherman cursing the kids playing near his favorite squatting spot, or an art student who can’t help but cut class – they are all but prey to her, and she devours them just like a wild animal on the hunt for harmless souls.
However, the witch wants something a little more from Izumi. After her friend Mika calls her up out of the blue and Izumi agrees to meet the girl with whom she used to share a sandbox, the pair finds themselves the newfound targets of the witch, a creature who is making herself known more and more to the ladies, especially after she finally successfully offs Izumi’s loving grandfather in his very own backyard. Now, the duo who never truly found the strength to stay united through the years must ban together to defeat the demon who comes to claim what Izumi promised her many moons ago, that sacred secret whispered in her ear, an agreement which not even the likes of time and space could render irrelevant.
From a scene featuring a one-legged, bright yellow raincoat-clad witch bouncing down the street like a kid on a pogo stick chasing a petrified toy, to a hotel that moans and screams its way up into the clouds, Rokuroku: The Promise of the Witch never shies away from an opportunity to unabashedly showcase the ridiculous and the absurd in the most extreme fashion possible. Although it is admittedly quite annoying that the movie never actually ponies up and reveals to the audience what exactly it is that Izumi has promised to the witch – we learn that her friend Mika promised her baby, but never find out what Izumi offered up to the priestess all those moons ago – the film itself still serves as a refreshing return to the world of playfully giddy gore gags that we loved so much during the 1980s. A sight, to say the least, that has become quite rare in the modern cinematic world where only the most serious and methodical scary movies survive. This film is wild, and well worth your time, if you’re on the hunt for something a little more light-hearted than the family unit gone askew angle currently flooding the genre gates.