J-Horror Anthology: Underworld is a DVD collecting six horror shorts (it seems to be most likely that these are episodes of a TV anthology series–or maybe two–but I haven’t been able to turn up any definitive evidence). Each of these “episodes of horror” runs from approximately 12 to 15 minutes apiece and features bookending host sequences featuring a narrator.
In Chain Mail, a pair of schoolgirls get their kicks by sending their fellow students text messages claiming to be from a recently deceased classmate…but the pranksters themselves start receiving messages from the dead girl, messages that are no hoax. Left Behind The Mountain tells the tale of a douche-y bachelor who meets single women through an internet-dating service and deserts them at a remote lover’s lane when they won’t put out, a pattern of behavior that eventually leads to his comeuppance. In the third story, Tattoo, a carefree and self-indulgent young woman gets inked by a mysterious artist, but this tattoo is hardly ordinary.
Viewfinder’s Memory is the tale of a trio of friends who meet a beautiful young woman while taking a vacation at the beach; romantic sparks fly between the lady and one of the friends, but a surprising secret is revealed when his mates record them with their video camera. A suicidal woman finds her attempts to end her own life thwarted at every turn in Guardian Angel. And the final story, Mortuary, is the tale of a hospital trainee who has a strange encounter with the grieving mother of a recently-deceased young boy.
I didn’t find any of these “six episodes of horror” to be particularly effective or enjoyable, let alone actually good. Chain Mail is poorly directed and features a climactic resolution that’s morally questionable, to say the least (apparently the ghost of a murder victim will forgive an accessory to her killing if a half-assed apology is made, especially if they used to be besties). Mountain and Tattoo are marred by poor characterization, painful overacting and production values that make Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace look sophisticated by comparison. (And keep in mind Darkplace is meant to look like it was made in the mid-’80s on a shoestring budget by an incompetent production staff.)
Viewfinder is pretty much the best of the lot, but cheap sentimentality and a climax that feels less like the natural progression of a story and more like a contrived coincidence meant to teach a character a “life lesson” kill any impact the story might have. Guardian features weak characterization and muddled storytelling, while Mortuary is insultingly predictable (it’s obvious that the mother is dead as well) and struggles to fill out its meager running time with compelling incident. The narration segments add nothing to the overall effect, coming off as stilted (and occasionally condescending–the “kids today with their mobile phones and text messages and internet” attitude of Chain Mail is the best example) and the English subs are very poorly translated, particularly in the early episodes.
I’m cutting Underworld a little bit of slack in the rating because I think there might be a possibility that some of my problems with it might be more a case of things getting lost in translation, culturally speaking, for me. (For examples, read my reviews of Judge and The Eye, or listen to my comments about Voodoo in podcast episode 12.) But I simply don’t believe there’s much here to satisfy even die-hard fans of Japanese horror, let alone casual fans.
My rating: 3 of 10.
Japan; in Japanese, with English subtitles. Six short films, 92 minutes total. Various directors.