Filmmaker Takashi Shimizu is best known for creating the Ju-On: The Grudge franchise in Japan; he also directed the first two American films in the Grudge series. Other films of his that made it stateside include Resurrection, which like The Grudge focuses on a specific location where something awful has happened—a place brimming with such psychic anguish that people who come into contact with it decades later experience similar horrors in their own lives. Shimizu’s latest to get an American release, Howling Village, explores similar themes and makes full use of the director and co-writer’s (Daisuke Hosaka also co-wrote) fondness for infusing dread into every frame.
As Howling Village begins, we’re plunged right into the movie’s Very Bad Place, following Yuma (Ryota Bando) and Akina (Rinka Otani), a young couple who are determined to investigate a local legend and sneak into “Japan’s scariest spirit spot.” Their giggling sense of daring, captured found-footage style in the movie’s opening moments, soon turns to shrieking terror when the village—abandoned for 70 years and only accessible via an appropriately gloomy tunnel—proves to be... shall we say... not so abandoned. The teens emerge traumatized; much like anyone who entered the house in The Grudge, and find they’ve been cursed by a supernatural malevolence that won’t stay contained.
The central character in Howling Village is Yuma’s level-headed older sider, Kanata (Ayaka Miyoshi). She’s a psychologist whose ESP gifts have been dormant since childhood (“When you were small, you used to see weird things and say weird things,” Yuma reminds her), but they awaken as she’s working with a particular patient, a young boy who’s also unusually sensitive. Kanata is therefore uniquely suited to figure out what’s haunting Yuma and Akina, a task that becomes more urgent when someone suddenly perishes, and then both of Kanata’s brothers, including a precocious youngest sibling, disappear while poking around on a return visit to Howling Village. (Again, much like The Grudge house, people just can’t resist returning to a place it’s very clear they should be staying far, far away from.)
Howling Village plants the seeds of its larger mystery early on—Kanata’s surly father mutters about the “tainted blood” on his wife’s side, and he’s also curiously unsurprised by the deceased’s autopsy report, which notes they died from a cause that makes no sense given the circumstances. Kanata eventually uncovers the truth with some supernatural assistance, in particular a ghost who somehow has access to a film recording of Howling Village’s demise (as well as a projector to show it on!)—a story choice that feels more than a little lazy, to be honest.
Still, the dark reasons behind Howling Village’s fierce hunger for vengeance, as well as Kanata’s own troubled family tree, are undeniably disturbing—sure, it’s loaded with macabre enhancements, but its core story about the subjugation of a rural community by cruel, greedy rich folks isn’t at all a far-fetched scenario. Howling Village also speaks to the importance of not turning your back on your personal history, no matter how unpleasant it might be, and how trauma that’s “sealed away,” to cite a song that reoccurs throughout the film, has a way of seeping through generations.
In its last act, Howling Village makes a valiant effort to pile on the big scares, even introducing a new sinister wrinkle that comes up way too late in the movie for the script to have much time to make sense of it. It also does that frustrating thing where characters stand stock-still and stare at danger rather than sensibly fleeing for their lives. (At the same time, the movie also wants to wrap up its story with a sense of peace and closure for its restless spirits.) It’s unfortunate because while there’s nothing in Howling Village that’s as outright terrifying as The Grudge, its different elements—the urban legend that’s actually true; its fondness for the creepy, “Wait, what did I just see?” school of fright; a main character who has to open her third eye to play detective—are intriguing, and could have come together better to make a more potent final result.
Howling Village arrives in select theaters on August 13, on-demand August 17, and on Blu-ray September 14.
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