Reviewed by Johnny Butane
Starring Nikki Takei, Natalie Okamoto, Yoi Tanabe, Eiji Inoue, Daisuke Suzuki, Mark Ofuji
Directed by Jason Cuadrado
Don’t let the fairly generic poster art fool you like it did me. Even though I had done a story about this indie anthology a while back and had the screener next to me for months, I just never got around to checking it out until recently, thanks in no small part to that cover. I know it seems like an odd thing to keep one from watching something a director went out of his way to send out for review, but there was just nothing that grabbed me about it.
The movie itself, however, is a different story all together I’m happy to report. Tales From the Dead won’t win any awards for originality, but it does get major props for its execution, which across the board is exceptional and way more professional than it’s likely budget would indicate.
Within we have four separate stories, one of which is the interweaving tale of a woman who gets fed up with her husband and walks out the door, catching a ride from a perfect stranger. Said stranger is a beautiful young medium, a person who can communicate with the other side, who at first tells her passenger a tale to pass the time about something she witnessed firsthand when her and her sister were called to investigate a haunting.
The story involves a husband and wife whose son had gone missing for months, only to show up in the local hospital completely paralyzed with no identification. Ever since his parents brought him home, strange things have been happening around them, so our medium shows up to find out the source of the disturbances. What she learns is enough for her to realize the paralyzed boy is exactly where he deserves to be, for reasons I won’t get into because it’s a pretty nifty twist.
The next tale, in keeping with the film’s title, is something the medium was told about by the dead, about a cop who shows up to investigate a crime scene he seems to know just a bit too much about. The weakest of the three, this still has a pretty cool ending and some subtle makeup effects that only add to its effectiveness.
The third was my favorite of the bunch; the tale of a man who wishes for nothing but success and never feels good enough for those around him. One day, a stranger shows up offering to give him all the money he needs to be successful in exchange for the actual time he would spend in life trying to achieve success. It’s a pretty cool idea and was helped a lot by the excellent performances of the two leads, especially the man who makese the deal, Mark Ofuji.
Finally we’re shown the full story behind the wrap-around, why this girl gave this strange woman a ride in the first place and what really happened that fateful night. The best element of this tale, and be warned this is a bit of a spoiler, is the Black Widows Club: a gathering of women who have killed their husbands in various ways and now get together to revel in their womanly power. I dig the concept, and wouldn’t be surprised at all to find that a group like this actually exists.
So those are the tales from the dead, as it were, but what makes this anthology special? For starters, it was filmed entirely in Japanese with a full Japanese cast, though a non-Japanese speaking director shot it here in the U.S. While that’s an interesting trivia bit, it really has no bearing on the movie as a whole except for the fact that you wouldn’t know it by the performances, which are great across the board. It’s pretty impressive that someone who doesn’t speak a particular language could manage to pull off a film in that language so well.
But again, it’s more trivia than anything else; the fact remains that the script behind Tales From the Dead is smart and treats its audience like adults, never going for cheap scares at all but instead relying on that elusive element that used to make Asian films so effectively creepy; atmosphere. There’s a building sense of dread in each story, always unique to the tale, and that goes a long way to making sure it sits with the viewer after it’s over.
For me, its always encouraging seeing an indie film that doesn’t just try to be the next bloody gorefest (though I do appreciate those when they’re done right), and manages to weave morality tales into genuinely creepy and well-executed short tales. If only half the films coming out of Japan these days were this effective, maybe the whole J-horror trend wouldn’t have died so easily.
There’s no word on festival dates or any distribution for Tales From the Dead as of this writing, but rest assured as soon as we do hear more, you guys will know about it! For now you can check out the official Tales From the Dead site to learn more, and dig on the trailer below!
4 out of 5
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