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Tales Of Terror

directors: various

165 minutes (15) 2004
Odeon DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
A compilation of short (five-minute) programme fillers that originally aired on Japanese TV, Tales Of Terror was produced and partially directed by such names as Takashi Shimizu (Ju-on), Norio Tsuruta (Ring 0) and Hiroshi Takahashi (Ring 2), who teamed up with "13 other of the hottest up-and-coming directors in Japan to push the boundaries of modern horror." The result quite frankly is rather a mixed bag, aggravated by the severe creative compromises obviously placed on the makers by running time and budget, but which never the less will provide a modest sketchbook for many of the concerns of new Asian horror.

There are 33 stories spread across the two discs on offer, and one suspects that they represent by turn what was a season one and a season two, as there is a slight change in quality and staging from one set to another. On disc one, stories in a modern setting predominate, the five-minutes per story pattern firmly adhered to. Viewers of such films as Hideo Nakata's Dark Water, and so on will find a familiarity of tone in the parade of rootless citizens in modern flats on offer here, the spectral children, or the episode set in and around a haunted lift - even if none of the situations are so scarily memorable as their cinematic counterparts.

The second disc brings a growing flexibility and quality as, although still mostly confined within a straitjacket length, a couple of stories spread themselves more generously over two, or even three segments, this while locations tend to be less austerely modern, sometimes venturing outside on location or set in older, more atmospheric interiors. There are also a couple of monologues done straight to camera, and even one bravely filmed in black and white.

Out of the 33 stories, perhaps four or five really make any great impact, although nowhere is there huge originality. The strict running time continually mitigates against any slow build up of suspense, so essential to this type of work and while the acting is never less than adequate, never is there breadth enough to establish real characterisation. But having said that, among the more successful episodes is Take Good Care Of Him, which injects a rare note of grisly humour into proceedings as a self centred man visits the dying mother of a colleague. Another is Getting Closer, a tale that owes a lot to the influence of Ring (dark haired female spooks, flickering eerie TV screens and all), but which considerably ramps up the tension in its short time by a striking use of jump-cuts within a key scene, allowing its central nightmare to be repeated over and over. In The Fox And The Bath, also from disc two, external location shooting and a strong central lead makes for an intriguing - if typically abrupt - tale, when a land developer 'crosses over' into a mysterious bath house. The three-parter on offer here about a door-rapping poltergeist, although reasonably entertaining, is ultimately an odd choice for such special treatment, sadly being neither consistent nor really gripping enough to sustain the extra time allotted.

All of the stories centre on spirits and the spirit world, or ghosts, with no real monsters or any gore. More often or not the apparitions or haunted mechanical devices offer up supernatural menace rather than actual bodily harm. The segments are all shot on what looks like HD video, and the medium offers up its characteristic advantages and drawbacks - notably that depth of field is limited and some warmth is lost in favour of a clean immediacy and increased economies of production. Special effects are limited, surprisingly so, given the extent and versatility of digital technology these days and, because of this, to these eyes at least often the presentations come across as much older in production years than they apparently are. Ironically, one of the most memorable effects that is attempted - that of a suicidal male who suddenly exhibits a snake-like neck in the aftermath of his demise - creates one of the biggest, inadvertent, laughs as a scared onlooker reports blithely on sight that "It was then I realised he had died by hanging himself."

The finest story here is probably Ichiro Nakayama's Covering The 1000 Tales, in which a journalist is sent to listen to the stories of the recently dead, a claustrophobic telling and one, for all of its characteristic brevity, rich in premonition and doom. This is also one of the very few to command a reasonably sized cast and it manages to pack several mini/ personal histories to great effect into the usual five minutes. The spirit world is treated matter-of-factly for once and there's a real, growing, frisson of alarm in a calm retelling of personal calamities often entirely missed by other contributions in the series.

Such a compilation as this works best if watched in short bursts apart, just as the stories were presumably aired originally. As a continuous viewing experience, the rapid starting and finishing is a distraction, as is the similarity of many of the actors and plotting, in which lazy narrative clichés grow painfully apparent story by story. Too often a supernatural menace is faced, only to be temporarily resolved, before it then overwhelmingly reasserts itself in the closing few seconds. Worse, the several tales that end inconclusively frequently do so too abruptly to be frightening, and are instead merely frustrating. Some do invite a subtle, worrying reconsideration of events as the makers intended, but others just appear to cut off in mid flow as the creative guillotine of five minutes descends.

Completists, and keen fans of Japanese horror will probably want this set but, for the general viewer, any real recommendation must necessarily be muted. Too short to be involving, and too much of a cheap TV production to be worth more than a single viewing, the Tales Of Terror franchise has also reappeared as a feature film, Tales Of Terror From Tokyo And All Over Japan: The Movie (aka: Kaidan Shin Mimibukuro: gekijô-ban, 2005) but with different stories. The current DVD set - at least the discs reviewed here - contains no extras either, which would have been useful to put the show in context.
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