Japanese horror game series Fatal Frame is one of my personal favorites. So despite disliking horror movies in general, I went to see the new Fatal Frame live-action theatrical film. And while never scream-inducingly scary, its amazing atmosphere makes it one of the creepiest movies I have ever seen.
[Note: this review contains minor spoilers for the movie such as the basic plot setup and conflict. It, however, spoils far less than the movie trailer which pretty much spoils the entire movie and should thus be watched by no one.]
Fatal Frame revolves around the mysterious disappearance of several girls at an all-girls Catholic boarding school in Japan. It mainly follows Michi, a girl with a love for photography who discovers a captivating photo of Aya, the school's most popular girl. She and all those who have seen and become enraptured with the photo are haunted by the spirit of Aya—despite the fact Aya is supposed to be alive and well, though locked in her room. Soon, those girls who have seen the photo begin to disappear one by one and Michi fears it's only a matter of time till she joins them.
The best aspect of this movie is the way in which it is told. Rather than focusing solely on Michi, we are constantly shown the story through many viewpoints other than her own. Often, these characters seem to have no connection to the ghost and the disappearances. They include a former graduate of the school who dresses in the lolita fashion style, a pair of morticians, a crippled and mentally challenged groundskeeper, and an elementary school boy walking around the neighboring town photographing ghosts with a Camera Obscura. Yet, as the story moves along, all these plots intertwine to expose the dark truth that has been shrouded in mystery.
A large portion of the story revolves around being a lesbian in Japan. Aya is lusted after (largely due to her amazing singing voice) by a large number of the girls at the school. Yet in the ultra-conservative environment of a Catholic girls' school, any realization of such a relationship is forbidden and would be harshly punished. Thus, the girls at the school practice a series of innocent-seeming rituals as they dream of living out their secret—and often unrequited—loves.
But more than the modern look at being lesbian in Japan, the story of Fatal Frame also explores what it was like to be lesbian in Meiji Era Japan and the rituals that formed to bind two people who could never marry—those whose love would always be seen as an aberration to be destroyed.
Fatal Frame is not a scary movie—though it is an intensely creepy and atmospheric one. There are no copious amounts of gore or horribly violent deaths. Moreover, there is not a single jump scare in the whole movie. Rather the movie relies on clever cinematography to permeate the film with a tense, creepy aura that makes it seem as if something terrifying could happen at any moment. There are many long, lingering shots with no cuts where a character is doing something as simple as brushing her teeth in the mirror or combing her hair in her room. Yet you know, just know that something is going to happen as the tension builds and builds. The film also plays with keeping most of its creepiest moments unfocused in the background—i.e., is that just a dark blurry shadow in the background or is it the ghost silently watching the characters? Moreover, while the film takes place mostly in broad daylight, it still manages to remain unsettling with practically every shot—a feat many horror films could not hope to accomplish.
If one were to explain the Fatal Frame game series to a friend, it would probably be described as “a horror game where you take photos of ghosts to destroy them.” However, there is a distinct lack of ghost killing via camera in the film. In fact, exactly zero ghosts are dispersed with the Camera Obscura in the film. Yes, the Camera Obscura exists and is seen in Fatal Frame several times, but it is never used as a weapon against ghosts.
Yet, despite this, the film feels very much like any other Fatal Frame story despite the missing key component. This is mainly because all the other components of a Fatal Frame narrative are present. Photography remains a major theme in the film and there are secret rituals that are uncovered—one of which was severely botched, causing the whole haunting situation. Moreover, there are several more mundane murders which only make the situation worse. So with the appearance of ghosts and various characters being spirited away, every other major staple of the game series is touched upon in just the right way.
Fatal Frame is a film very much worthy of the Fatal Frame name—despite the surprising lack of ghost killing cameras. It's got ghosts, rituals, murder, and everything else you'd expect from such a film. Moreover, it is a film that builds fear through clever camera work and creepy situations, rather than simple jump scares. If you are a fan of Fatal Frame or Japanese horror in general, this is most certainly a film to watch.
Gekijoban Zero was released in Japanese theaters on September 27, 2014. There is currently no word on a Western release (though Singapore will be getting the film October 23, 2014).
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