Pray (2005)

Starring Katsuya Kobayashi, Fumiyo Kohinata, Asami Mizukawa

Directed by Yuichi Sato

It’s pretty rare that a horror film comes out of Japan these days and actually manages to impress me, which says something about just how far gone the market that was once considered the future of horror really is. So when Tartan announced they would be putting out the Japanese film Pray) on DVD here in the States this April, I have to say I wasn’t all that excited.

It seems more and more that Japanese horror is just a re-tread of itself, telling the same stories of revenge from beyond the grave in slightly different settings and with slightly different actors. So I wasn’t sure what was so special about Pray that Tartan would put it out here, but thankfully I was able to find out and can let you know guys know ahead of time.

The story starts off with a guy and a girl on their way to an undisclosed location with their newest acquisition: a little girl they kidnapped for the purpose of collecting a ransom. Neither of them seem particularly nefarious; the girl in particular is concerned for the child’s well being, but they’re desperate for the money they’ve demanded of her parents, and desperate times always equal desperate measures.

They end up at an abandoned elementary school, where they make the call to the girl’s parents, and the first of many twists comes into play; the parents tell them that their daughter has been dead for exactly one year. Of course, when they go to check on her, the girl is gone, and suddenly neither one of them knows what to think about the situation at hand. Did they somehow kidnap a ghost, or is the truth much stranger than that?

As is usually the case with the Japanese, it’s a bit of both.

I really don’t want to say much else about what Prayer is about because part of my enjoyment of the film stemmed from the many plot layers that kept being peeled back to reveal more and more truth to the events unfolding. First-time (feature) director Sato has a great eye for not only utilizing the one location the movie takes place in to its fullest potential, but also for keeping things moving along at a nice clip for the most part.

At one point, and this is after some very strange stuff has already happened to other characters, one of the co-conspirators is wandering the halls and hears a noise in the bathroom. As the little girl is still missing, he decides to go in; but the entire shot is from one angle, that of the bathroom door. So you see the character enter the bathroom a bit cautiously, trying not to make too much noise, and the door shuts. For a while there is no noise, then suddenly a horrible screaming, and the character comes running out and off camera. New scene.

It’s this kind of setup and pacing that kept my attention for its all too brief running time of an hour and 20 minutes. I know it may not sound like much from my brief synopsis, but trust me when I say that the less you know about Pray, the more you’re likely to enjoy it. Twists and turns abound, and just when you think you have an idea of how it all might end, something new comes along to mess with your expectations.

Yes, there are ghosts present, but another small blessing is that none of them crawl along menacingly or have a lot of long black hair covering their faces. It’s a welcome respite in a time when so much Asian horror feels like it’s just repeating itself over and over, with nary an original idea among them.

There are some minor issues, such as the characters doing things that don’t make much sense, especially the lead female who sees some very disturbing things and still finds a good reason to wander the halls of the school alone, but they’re forgivable. The ending was also a bit of a conundrum, though I can’t be sure if this was intentional in order to give one last twist to viewer expectations or just a matter of bad execution.

I’m glad Tartan is giving fans a chance to see Pray, and I hope they’ll give it a good push promotion-wise as the April release date looms. Too often they seem to acquire movies and release them too far under the radar, keeping what is already a decidedly niche market even more hidden away from horror fans at large. There have been some improvements in their marketing strategies such as the recent push with Marebito and R-Point, and hopefully that will continue for films like Pray.

4 out of 5

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Johnny Butane