Unlike the main characters in this movie, Judge Kerry Birmingham has never kidnapped a possibly supernatural Japanese girl. Except that one time. What a crazy spring break that was!
You haven't got a prayer.
Leave it to the Japanese: they've made horror freaky again, and there's no end in sight. The Americans may have thought they perfected the supernatural slasher, but Japan has perfected it and sent it back to us for our consumption and, as box office numbers already prove, to copy it for maximum demographic potential. Japan has a method of making horror, and it's all about the formula. Pray arrives on the heels of this wave, low budget horror with a slightly altered version of the familiar formula.
Facts of the Case
Young delinquents Mitsuru (Tetsuji Tamayama) and his girlfriend (Asami Mizukawa) kidnap a small girl in an attempt to ransom her in order to fund their criminal lifestyle. While they hide out in an abandoned grade school that happens to be the same one Mitsuru attended as a child, a phone call to the girl's parents reveals that their daughter can't be with them…she's been dead for a year! Things get worse from there as secrets and betrayals are revealed under the observing eyes of the strange, silent little girl.
Japanese horror has a few peculiar preoccupations, not the least of which is one that has proven a popular export to American remakes and rip-offs: creepy children. Japanese audiences are, by all indications, terrified at the prospect of creepy, somnambulant children. They just love 'em, it seems: from Ringu to Dark Water to Ju-on and their Western counterparts, Japanese movie monsters are apparently only of the stature of Jason Voorhies and Freddy Krueger if they're three-foot waifs wearing eyeliner.
Pray offers yet another take on this familiar device. While I generally can understand finding children creepy—all the hands and the running around, and the snot! Oh, the SNOT!—at this stage, as a genre trope, it needs to be particularly inventive to register in the glut of creepy children. Pray attempts to circumvent this by throwing in a few gangster-movie plot twists that should be familiar to fans of film noir (Dames! Am I right?) and a bit of gore to keep things ostensibly in the horror vein. What results is a messy, confusing mish-mash of genre clichés that assert themselves depending on the needs of the filmmakers.
It gives nothing away to say that the little girl is, of course, not what she seems. Her disappearance for lengthy stretches of the film isn't particularly obtrusive, her absence filled as it is by the cheap surprise-scares of Mitsuru's damn punk friends showing up and sequences where a running toilet is portrayed as a tool of supernatural dread (water being another exhausted staple of Japanese horror). Between Mitsuru's mounting anxiety and the confusing presence of a second, more proactively murderous supernatural entity, you'd think there'd be plenty going on, but it's all really rather dull. The movie goes to great lengths to build tension, but there are enough unrewarding build-ups and dubious scares that a sense of fear is never really evoked. By the time the film's climactic showdown comes around—a standoff that becomes an expository flashback played for poignancy, with piano-drenched score and everything—there's little but a sense of annoyed confusion, as if in its quest to be both Ju-on and Reservoir Dogs the movie has lost any coherence, orphaned by both genres it tried to incorporate. Horror fans will find the slasher aspect poorly realized, an afterthought of a plot that entails little beyond rubber severed hands covered in red corn syrup. Believe me when I say I have no biases against low-budget horror, but it seems we can't even count on the Japanese to give us proper murderous schoolgirls under a certain budget. The crime elements, the standard double-crosses and so on, come across as just half-baked schemes hatched by teenagers who watch too much TV.
For the most part, the acting is good, particularly among the several child actors who appear in the movie (they bring the creepy, and more). Tamayama, as the morose Mitsuru, does fine projecting angst and little else, sort of a less talented, Japenese Johnny Depp.
Sound and picture quality are surprisingly strong (the DTS track is a novel inclusion). The packaging misstates the running time of the film (it's 77 minutes, not 92). Of the special features, a brief making-of featurette highlights the low-budget efficiency of the Japanese shoot (where Tamayama evidently already enjoys a following) and the film festival interview segments are nice, but hardly in-depth. A bevy of trailers for Pray and other Tartan releases rounds out the extras.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's entirely possible that a different viewer might see the film's nonsensical turns as inventive plot twists, and its plodding, aimless pace an exercise in building atmosphere. That viewer, however, did not review this movie.
Pray loftily aims to tinge a standard slasher scenario with plot twists borrowed from film noir, but fails to do anything but service both of those genres badly, resulting in a weak, fractured movie that's hurt more by its watered-down identity crisis than its obvious low-budget roots.
Guilty as those damn punk teenagers.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
• Interview with Director Yuichi Sato and Actor Tetsuji Tamayama
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