Pray (US - DVD R1)
Hang onto your hats, Gabe Powers has seen another Japanese horror movie...
Two down-and-out twenty-somethings get the idea to kidnap a little girl and ransom her for cash. The loose-canon male leader, Mitsuru, decides they should hold-up in his old grade school, now left abandoned. No one will look for them there, and the phone reception is great. When his partner and girlfriend Maki makes the ransom call she's told that the girl they kidnapped has been dead for over a year, and with that news, the little girl disappears.
Pray is another in the never-ending line of interchangeable scary ghost-girl, J-horror movies. The protagonists must discover the malevolent ghost's motives and accomplices, and not trust each other, especially when their numbers increase with the arrival of some other friends looking for their part of the score. This particular movie sets itself apart by concerning itself with two seemingly unrelated plots, crammed into its incredibly brief running time. True to the sub-genre, things end rather open ended, but in this case the finale is particularly maddening as it has a lot more explaining to do. Instead of being cryptic it smacks of laziness.
Not that I'm complaining about the brief run time, if anything, Pray has pace. I never found myself bored while watching it, and it moved from one predictable twist to another with the greatest of ease. If I were to compare it to any other genre it'd have to be the made-for-TV horror type ( Tales from the Crypt, Monsters, Friday the 13th, Masters of Horror, etc.). Everything feels truncated, short on funds, and creatively hindered. The filmmakers and actors are anything but amateur, but there have been some all-star casts and crews making TV horror flicks in the past.
Gore-hounds will probably be disappointed, as like most films in the interchangeable scary-ghost-girl Japanese horror genre, Pray relies more on atmosphere than violence. There is plenty of blood, but it's nothing that pushes the limits of the American 'R' rating. The problem is that the atmosphere doesn't really do its job either, and there is a definite lack of creepiness of fear throughout. Director Sato has created an air of dread, but never real fear. There are a lot of the usual ‘it's behind you’ moments, to the point where they start to feel more like a Scary Movie style spoof.
The emotional ending, well one of them, is effectively touching, even though the script hasn't given us much of a reason to care. Once the revelation comes around, my first reaction was to laugh, but as the scene progressed I found myself moved. This was really because of the actor's effectively emotional performance (I won't tell you which actor of course, that might give away some of the 'twists'). This scene is really the film's saving grace, and the only thing that puts it a head of all the other interchangeable scary-ghost-girl J-horror flicks already available every where you freaking look.
I understand that Pray was meant to be a dark film, but this DVD presentation is pretty jarring. Detail is sparse, and highlights are at times so subtle that entire scenes are washed in grey. These dark scenes are also pretty grainy. The disc is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen and is anamorphically enhanced. I can't find very much information on the film's origins, but as I watched it I became more and more convinced it was made for TV, or at least a straight-to-video release. The framing is basically OK, but there were a few shots that made me suspect that the film had been cropped. Whether the darkness is due to faulty authoring or film stock isn't known, but this isn't the easiest to watch film. The fact that I didn't notice very many compression issues leads me to think that the film, and not the DVD, is to be blamed here.
The scary ghost-girl, J-horror formula lends itself very well to aggressive surround tracks. Often the spooky atmosphere can be more credited to a quality soundtrack, filled with eerie sounds floating throughout the rear speakers and startlingly aggressive chord strikes during a scare. Unfortunately Pray isn't really all that aggressive. Perhaps if there'd been a little more kick to its soundtrack it would've successfully crawled under my skin. Tartan does its best with what it has, and there are a few standout surround effects, but nothing to shake a contorted, longhaired young female at.
I was unable to tell much of a difference between the DTS and Dolby Digital tracks, but both had cantered dialogue and a decent amount of separation and bass.
I'm afraid there's not much here. We have a press pack disguised as a ‘Making of’ featurette, which is followed by equally promotion skewed interviews and a few trailers. Nothing here to really sink ones teeth into, but I do thank the DVD reviewing Gods that I didn’t have to sit though another meandering commentary track with a participant that sounds like he or she would much rather be fishing.
I'm just not feeling this one. It's not a bad film, and the ending is refreshingly bittersweet, but in the end it's just another in the never-ending line of interchangeable scary ghost-girl, J-horror movies. This one's really for genre completists only.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 11th April 2006
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: DTS 5.1 Japanese, Dolby Digital 5.1 Japanese
Extras: 'Making of' Featurette, Interviews with Director and Lead Actor, Theatrical Trailer, Tartan Trailer Reel
Easter Egg: No
Director: Yuchi Sato
Cast: Tetsuji Tamayama, Asami Mizukawa
Length: 92 minutes