The prospect of Takashi Shimizu, that great auteur of Japan’s proud Kwaidan tradition, ending up at the helm of a theme park-based movie shot in 3D, at first thought sounds like an awful joke. The sedately unfolding curse terrors and ghostly pale-faced spirits habitually found populating Japanese horror films since the late-90s might no longer seem such fresh or beguiling fare in an ever moving genre, but surely such gross-sounding commercial drivel is anathema to the man who crafted the complex, dread-filled haunted universe of “Ju-on” and its North American partner “The Grudge”? As it turns out, “Shock Labyrinth” (preceded by the definite article in the trailer and in the film’s titles sequence) is far from being a tacky commercial sell-out. Shimizu’s handling of the 3-D process happens to be that of a consummate artist, and this could indeed be the most effective use I’ve ever seen made of the traditional stereoscopic 3-D process in a comparatively low budget setting. The quality and depth of image Shimizu achieves is consistently rendered and largely avoids the gimmicky ‘pop-up book’ look that so often mars such films, and there is a dreamy hallucinatory quality to it that has great relevance to the movie’s essential themes: the camera panning through the spiralling staircase imagery and patrolling the long narrow corridors in which the director predominantly locates events are perfect devices for drawing the eye into a vividly realised space of nightmares and unearthed memories, and the way Shimizu constructs an ethereal space for the past to mix with the present in line with the disjointed narrative is beautifully done.
Having said that, I can’t claim to be a fan of being compelled to give myself a splitting headache and turn myself boss-eyed, even for the artistry of three-dimensional composition Shimizu proves himself capable of creating here. I ended up watching the film in its 2-D version first (less visually effective but much easier to actually concentrate on the film) and then skipped through the 3-D version afterwards for the main set-pieces. This is a problem, because in its 2-D form the film is easier to watch but not particularly compelling or original, while in the 3-D version its derivative thematic tropes are undoubtedly given a hefty boost by Shimizu’s intelligent and consistent handling of a thematically relevant 3-D visual language – yet I find the process virtually unwatchable for any length of time greater than fifteen minutes!
The story of “Shock Labyrinth” dwells in what is in many ways standard Kwaidan territory: fear of insanity, survivor guilt, isolation, repression and revenge are the themes, and while the walk-through Haunted Hospital attraction at the world renowned Fuji-Q Highland theme park might seem at first blush like a dreadfully shoehorned-in element, this nevertheless does feel like an authentic Shimizu film that deals in the same kind of unrationalisable, psychological horror and subconscious dread as the director’s esteemed “Ju-on” franchise, and is built around a similarly eccentric twisty structure.
The protagonists are a group of teenage childhood friends, with their story – after an rather abstract preamble -- really kicking off from the point when Ken (Yuya Yagira) returns to his home town and to his old friends for the first time since he was a little boy, after having been taken away by his father many years previously, to recover from the then-recent death of his mother. He meets up with Mikoto (Ryo Katsuji) and the two teenagers drive to the home of their blind childhood friend Rin (Ai Maeda) only to find that she has a visitor: the pale, bruised and scared figure of Yuki (Misako Renbutsu). This wouldn’t be quite so shocking if Yuki hadn’t disappeared without trace ten years previously when the friends were all little children who had been taken on a day out with their parents to the previously mentioned theme park. Stranger still, Yuki – who was always a few years older than the rest – still looks exactly the same as she did back then.
The trio drive to Yuki’s home where her mother and sister still live -- Yuki’s bedroom preserved as it was when she disappeared. Yuki’s mother, now insane with grief, treats one of Yuki’s old stuffed toys – a creepy-looking rabbit – as though it were itself her long-missing child, and her troubled sister Myia (Erina Mizuno), is unwilling to accept the evident truth that Yuki has indeed reappeared alive. Yuki has an accident and falls down the stairs while at her old home, and the group (now including an unwilling Myia) drive through the storm-lashed night to find a hospital to treat the unconscious girl. The first one they come upon turns out to be apparently deserted. Yuki becomes conscious though, and disappears into its labyrinthine corridors. As the gang split up to try and find her, Ken especially can’t help feeling they’ve all been here before. Strange reminders occur of the event that led to Yuki’s original disappearance ten years ago: a scrawled note on a wall here, a child’s balloon floating through the corridors there. Gradually the gang realise that the hospital layout is exactly the same as that of the Haunted Hospital attraction at Fuji-Q theme park -- the attraction they sneaked in to ten years ago, and from which Yuki never emerged … until tonight.
Have they been led here then by Yuki’s spirit as part of her ghostly revenge, or is something even more bizarre and imponderable going on?
Perhaps because it’s taken a few years to finally make it to DVD, the main narrative conceit at the heart of “Shock Labyrinth” has actually become almost as hackneyed as the ghostly, long-haired pale girl imagery of Japanese horror itself, not to mention Shimizu’s long-established disjointed, jumbled-up way of telling a story. The viewer will have little difficulty working out what is essentially going on here quite quickly, and will predict where the first hour is heading long before it gets there. This is why I’m not going to bend over backwards to avoid spoilers (so be warned!) for the rest of this review. Trust me; you would work it out anyway, long before you’re supposed to! Unfortunately, the main characters prove to be a little less savvy and take an age to catch up, which bogs the film down somewhat. Already beaten to the punch, then, by Christopher Smith’s far cleverer variation on similar themes,“Triangle”, which came out in the same year, “Shock Labyrinth’s” time paradox conundrum of a plot has since also long been eclipsed by the ‘timey wimey’ plotting style of Steven Moffat in “Doctor Who” and by the flashback/flash-forward, time traveling, ‘sideways’ alternative universe trickery characteristic of the latter seasons of “Lost”.
The events of the past and the present become entwined and influenced by each other in ironic ways and the hospital interior seems to turn into a timeless space (the hospital clock continually stuttering on and replaying the same second over and over). The main characters are isolated from all other humans while inside the hospital and, Intentionally or not, Shimizu also seems to have picked up a reference to Mario Bava’s “Lisa and the Devil”, with various caught-in-time characters appearing as mannequins (exhibits in the Haunted Hospital setting) at various points. This is where the director’s handling of the 3-D technique is at its most effective by establishing a vertigo-like depth of field with tracking shots through the deserted hospital’s strange, red-carpeted corridors, where the memories of the past are made real and the present projects itself into those once-forgotten events to determine their outcome. The middle section of the film rehearses the now familiar device of replaying the same events again and again from different perspectives to reveal what actually happened to Yuki ten years ago – the irony being that in discovering her fate her friends also inadvertently cause it. The final half-hour or so begins to go a bit crazy with striking surrealistic images leaping from the screen and a wild soundtrack of backwards noises, all in an attempt to gloss over the plot’s increasing incoherence once the main thrust of the narrative has been exposed. This being a Japanese horror film, there is no real attempt on the part of Shimizu to draw the time-twisting plot into an arc that actually makes much sense. We’re offered a not very convincing or consistent explanation at the end, but the film is perhaps best accepted on face value as an exercise in metaphor that explores the complexities of childhood guilt, the destructive effects on the psyche of the constant cognitive reliving of traumatic events from the past, and the powerlessness of individuals to control the vicissitudes of their own minds.
Chelsea Films bring “Shock Labyrinth” to UK DVD in a 2-disc edition featuring the 3-D version and a 3-D trailer on one disc and the film’s 2-D incarnation and all the extras on the other. The extras are quite thin but there is a fairly interesting interview with Takashi Shimizu that lasts for about 8 minutes and features the director in a variety of locations at the Fuji-Q theme park, talking about how he approached the use of 3-D from both a technical and an artistic standpoint. It’s a quirky interview, which ends with the director talking about his family while a theme park employee walks behind him with a placard announcing the park is just about to close, at which point the cameraman ups and leave with Shimizu still in mid-anecdote!
The “interviews” section also includes brief 4 minute interviews with the main cast members, who talk about their interpretations of their characters’ various motives and about their views on what is really going on in the film’s oblique narrative. The “Behind the Scenes” section consists of a series of short excerpts, the longest of which lasts little more than three minutes. “The Haunted House and Scary Dummies” (2.36) shows us some of the living dummy scenes from the climax of the film being shot, and the film’s make-up supervisor (who also appears prominently on-screen in the film) talking about the make-up process. “The Secrets of the Stereoscopic Camera” (3.23) features the film’s cinematographer explaining the technical difficulties inherent in attempting to shoot a film with 3-D equipment (almost as difficult, it turns out, as the practical difficulties of actually watching the freakin’ things!).
“Cast and Crew Fooling Around and Shooting Last Scenes” (3.33), is fairly self-explanatory, I think you’ll agree. “Venice Film Festival with Takashi Shimizu” (4.16) gives us the director on stage at a special competition for best 3-D film. The announcer gives a glowing speech about the winning entry, all about how it evokes childhood terrors with a classic mise-en-scene, etc. -- and the winner is …?
No, it’s not “Shock Labyrinth” it’s actually Joe Dante’s “The Hole”. It turns out Shimizu is just there to present the award and he looks charmingly star-struck by close proximity to the veteran director, whom he claims to be a huge fan of. “Press Conference and Opening Day” (2.42) is an inconsequential piece of footage of the cast speaking about the film in front of the premiere’s live audience while, finally, we get the 2-D version of the trailer to round things off.
“Shock Labyrinth” cannot lay claim to being an especially innovative piece of Japanese horror, nor is it a major step forward for its esteemed director. It does continue his knack of allying high-minded arthouse themes to popular cinematic genre movies in a manner previously accomplished so spectacularly by “Ju-on”, but never really bettered since. ‘I hope I’m not past my peak as a director,’ Shimizu wryly comments at one point during a segment of his interview conducted in a cable car lift taking him and his interviewer to the peak of Mount Fuji; “Shock Labyrinth” represents more a plateau than a descent, but it’s a plateau that towers still over most of his contemporaries, and most Japanese horror fans will get some enjoyment from the film; more so if they’re able to cope with the flimsy 3-D specs that are required to view it as it is truly meant to be seen.