Judge Adam Arseneau never sle...zzzzzzzz
Blurring the lines between dream and reality.
Like Nightmare on Elm Street by way of David Lynch, Nightmare Detective, a fairly by-the-books horror with some introspective lingering metaphors and creepy cinematography, is the latest cinematic composition of horror by crazed Japanese auteur Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man).
Also, a very silly title if you think about it. It sounds like a Scooby-Doo episode.
Facts of the Case
A rash of strange and unexplained suicides have plagued the city, and newly transferred detective Keiko Kirishima (Japanese pop singer Hitomi) has been assigned to the case. Strangely, all the victims appear to have been suicidal, having called suicide hotlines and found like-minded death-seekers online prior to their death, but the grisly state of their bodies suggests foul play.
As the police investigate, they discover that prior to their deaths all the victims were speaking with a mysterious individual on their cell phones, listed only as "0" (or zero, played by director Shinya Tsukamoto). Whatever this person is doing to the victims, they seem to kill themselves in a frighteningly gory fashion when they fall asleep after speaking to him. The police try and contact 0 with grisly results.
Instructed to pursue the case from a spiritual angle, Kirishima enlists the help of a peculiar man, a self-proclaimed nightmare detective (the eerie Ryuhei Matsuda, Taboo) who has the ability to enter people's dreams and see inside their head. Unfortunately, the gift also leaves him prone to catching the thoughts of people around him constantly, leaving him socially withdrawn and reclusive. As Kirishima puts herself directly into harm's way, the hunters of the mysterious 0 soon realize they themselves have become his next target…
A surprising stab at straightforward J-horror, Nightmare Detective feels somewhat below the skill level of Shinya Tsukamoto at first glance. He is, after all, director usually working on a wholly other plane of existence than his contemporaries. Yet one can certainly see the appeal here for the esoteric director, as the film certainly dabbles in one of Tsukamoto's favorite places: the connection between man and technology. It bears more than a few similarities to some other notable horror films, like One Missed Call and A Nightmare on Elm Street, and in a sense bridges the gap between the psychological dread of Japanese horror with the knife-wielding murder-you-in-your-dreams style of North American horror, at least thematically. In doing so, the film is surprisingly accessible, at least for a Shinya Tsukamoto film. Make no mistake; in any sane world, Nightmare Detective would be completely bonkers.
It is important to remember that for the Japanese (and this is stereotyping for the sake of a critical examination), a movie about a killer cell phone or VHS tape is less stupid than it is in North America. The English remake of One Missed Call just painfully discovered this fact, but I digress. For a culture obsessed with technology, gadgets, phones, and all manner of electronic conveniences, but also a culture whose roots lay in the spiritual and old-fashioned, the modern experience of being Japanese is rather schizophrenic. They have a fierce cultural imperative to succeed, where men are expected to succeed at school, take corporate jobs, and work eighty hours a week until they retire with no objection, and leaving little room for negotiation. For a nation so split between the old and the new, the obsession with progress and new technology personifies both the success and decline of a nation, and brings with it a pervasive malaise of spirit and self-loathing. It is no coincidence that Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the developed world. The cell phone might not literally be able literally to kill you, but for the working Japanese, in many ways, it already has. Ooh, scary.
For us cinema-goers, the effect is visible in the current evocation of Japanese horror, with a lot of films focusing on blending the old and new: technological devices that have ghosts in them, or get possessed, or have old folk spirits dwelling within, usually in the form of girls with long black hair in the style of Cousin It from The Addams Family (called yurei in Japanese). Or in the case of Nightmare Detective…a gigantic fleshy knife-wielding zombie that looks straight out of the Resident Evil videogame. Same idea, believe it or not! Without spoiling the film, the monster is as much metaphor as it is material, transmitting itself over the telephone from its creator to the victim as a function of their own reduced state as a human being.
As pick-me-ups go, Nightmare Detective frankly is kind of a downer, obsessed with the weird, depressed self-loathing nature of humanity. The more the Nightmare Detective hears the voices in the heads around him and delves into the dreams of his customers, the more he confirms his deepest suspicions about the true nature of humanity—we all suck. The hapless victims are individuals who seek suicide but lack the confidence to go through with it, so the evil monster fulfills their desire. Ironically, this is not limited to the depressed, because as it turns out, everyone in the film secretly yearns for death, whether they fully realize it or not.
Despite the rehashed subject matter on both the Japanese (killer cell phones, yawn) and American horror fronts (a guy who kills you in your dreams, yawn) Nightmare Detective spins both elements together in a way that feels unique and vibrant. There isn't much to the writing or script per se—most of the thrills and shining moments come from the subtle way the direction, the camera angles, and the painfully tight close-ups make the viewer feel paranoid and anxious throughout. For Tsukamoto, these are shallow waters, but on the up side, he treads them with ease and perfect execution. The film is gory in the sense that we see plenty of gushing blood and spurting arteries, but most of the horror comes from dread, as the film works up and down the psychological root of suicide and depression, manifesting it into flesh.
Alas, the film is not a masterpiece. In catering to a comprehensible narrative the film has some absurd plot points and weak acting moments, with plenty of "why?" moments shouted at the protagonists on screen. In particular, hitomi, the J-pop singer turned actor gives her first cinematic performance here to mixed results. She looks the part, all slender and doe-eyed, and has great facial expression, but something about her mannerism feels…hammy. Admittedly, the subtle nuances of an actor's performances often get lost in the subtitling, but this one definitely smells porky to me. It is smarter than the average horror film, both North American and Japanese, with a deeply relevant and unsettling undertone of psychology and despair, but less profound than the normal standard of work one expects from this director.
Beautifully composed, the film is assembled from schizophrenically close-up shots, shaky handheld camera movements and quick edits. The film has a surreal element about its visuals, like a good Cronenberg or Lynch film, with even the most basic of static shots taking on otherworldly strangeness as odd shadows dance in the background. In terms of the transfer, black levels are okay, but a bit washed out and grainy, and colors are heavily stylized into being as dark and deep as possible, with even the most vibrant colors being toned down to either steely grays or deep blues. Overall it is a strong and sharp transfer with the only noticeable flaws being the telltale sign of grain at close examination, with no print damage or defects. It certainly matches the tone of the film, all dark and deep and utterly nightmarish.
Audio shines with two excellent 5.1 surround tracks, one in Japanese and the other in dubbed English. For once, we see equal treatment given to the native language and the dub, which is spectacular. While I generally avoid dubbed dialogue tracks, I recognize their value for many. Normally they get preferential treatment in foreign DVD releases, which irk me to no end, but not here! The two tracks sound virtually identical, with good bass response, strong center dialogue and fantastic use of rear channels and environmental effects. The sequences where the monster is running about are immersive and terrifying based solely on the crazy noises that emanate from your speakers.
Extras are thin but substantial—we get a theatrical trailer and a 55-minute "making of" documentary with cast and crew, including a surprisingly jolly Tsukamoto talking shop about his film. Subtitled in English, the feature is jammed with behind-the-scenes footage, and cast and crew interviews; it's of fantastic value to the viewer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Like all good horror movies, this one ends, and like many good horror movies, they never quite know how to do it. The climax of the film runs a solid 25 minutes and is half brilliance and half cheese in equal doses. It feels as if the film is trying its best to maintain a cohesive narrative and resist the natural inclination of the director to go metaphysical on us with nonlinear elements. Imagine taking a size twelve foot and cramming it into a size eight shoe (in the words of Parliament, you know that won't do).
By going the "normal" route, Nightmare Detective is arguably Shinya Tsukamoto's most approachable and mainstream film, but I am unsure if this is a good thing in the long run. Normal is not really what I go looking for when I sign up for his films.
A surprisingly enjoyable horror film, Nightmare Detective executes itself well—creeping, jumping and yelling "boo" at all the right moments. A bit psychological and a bit gory, the film delves into the dark nether regions of depression just enough to leave viewers feeling icky and unsettled—just like a good Shinya Tsukamoto film should.
While Nightmare Detective is far from being Shinya Tsukamoto's most brilliant or inspired work, it's executed well and sails through without any major crisis. After all, everyone needs a paycheck now and again.
Speaking of, I hear there's a sequel already on the way.
It nods off now and again, but this one is certainly no snooze.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Dimension Films
• The Making Of Nightmare Detective
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