Judge William Lee has never been mistaken for a brain surgeon.
Something has gone very wrong.
Do you remember, a decade or more ago, when Japanese horror movies were the hot ticket? Hiroshi Takahashi certainly does since he helped kick off the J-Horror wave as the screenwriter of Ringu. He tries to elicit further goose bumps with The Sylvian Experiments, which he wrote and directed. The movie was originally titled Kyôfu (which translates approximately as "fear") in Japan. There is an effectively creepy atmosphere, especially early on, but the movie is ultimately a narrative mess.
Husband and wife neuroscientists discover a 16mm film documenting a dangerous experiment on the part of the human brain called the sylvian fissure. Activating this part of the brain seems to cause hallucinations akin to astral projection and maybe something far more sinister. The couple's young daughters happen to see the film too and they become entranced by a blinding white light that will follow them during their adolescence. Years later, Kaori (Mina Fujii) returns home to search for her missing sister who disappeared with three others. Death-obsessed Miyuki (Yuri Nakamura) has been admitted to a medical lab where their mother (Nagisa Katahira) is secretly researching the sylvian fissure on human guinea pigs. "You're going to see what humans can't," she promises. "The reality of the world beyond our world."
The Sylvian Experiments is most enjoyable when it plays with body horror, surreal imagery, and ghoulish-looking girls. A few squirm-inducing scenes of surgical gore may placate viewers looking for something a bit bloodier. The mad scientist mother is a nice touch but the character isn't given much more to do aside from delivering lines about her vaguely crazy scheme and then waiting for her comeuppance. Early on, the movie even toys with what is reality and what is imagined and this could have been an intriguing mystery if it was handled in a consistent and logical manner. Unfortunately, at about the halfway point, the movie's storytelling jumps off the tracks with scenes that may or may not be really happening, flashbacks that might be truthful or not, and weird things that could be dangerous or just hallucinations. As it careens into the final act, the movie is practically incomprehensible. Maybe the story really does fit together neatly but having seen where it ends up, I'm not interested in putting in the extra brainpower to figure out this mess.
A big problem with the movie is that the rules of this world are never fully established. If just some people have had their sylvian fissure stroked, why does it seem everyone can see their hallucinations? How does a film camera capture the tripped out visions that only the test subjects should be able to see in their minds? The ominous glowing force that menaces the protagonists is never explained but is rendered disappointingly as a cheap-looking CGI effect. It seemed like the fate of the world was at stake sometimes but in the end I'm not sure which side won?
The picture quality is fairly mediocre on this DVD release. The colors are drained, possibly intentionally so, resulting in a sickly pall for much of the movie. Skin tones look unnaturally pale unless the scene is given a particular colorcast. Darker scenes are soft and noticeably grainy. A standard 5.1 audio mix doesn't justify the effort but the dialogue is clear, a handful of directional effects can be heard and the generically spooky music works well enough.
Memorable examples of the J-Horror genre crossed old-fashioned ghouls with anxiety over modern technology. This was a marriage of the classic unknowns we were afraid of and the subversion of common everyday things we thought we understood. There isn't much that makes sense in The Sylvian Experiments and consequently it's hard to get a grasp on what's at stake. Without a story that gets under your skin, it's just an exercise in style.
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