HOWLING VILLAGE is a Satisfying Slice of Japanese Horror

J-Horror pioneer Takashi Shimizu’s latest is an unsettling blend of folktale terrors

As a teen, the J-Horror movement of the mid-2000s helped me cut my teeth on both horror films and international cinema in general. Spurred on by a double-feature of Gore Verbinski’s The Ring and Hideo Nakata’s original Ring, this cinematic shock to the system was one that taught me that there’s nothing more universal in film than a scream of absolute terror. What followed, though, was a fascinating exploration of what other cultures found terrifying. It was an experience that broadened my horizons of what horror could do–and in the case of Ring’s low-scale, high-tension dread, just how little was needed to scare the pants off of a viewer like me. What truly changed the game for me, though, was Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on series–which introduced me to an unstoppable force of terror that was freed from the trappings of a chronological story with a tidy ending. What impacted me the most, though, was how Shimizu rejected the idea that horror antagonists had to be tangible entities that could eventually be overcome with the right amount of exposition and goodwill. In Ju-on, the Grudge could get you anytime, anywhere — be it in the cursed house itself or in the comfort of your own bed. All of those horror rules and boundaries instilled in me by Universal monster movies were smashed to the tune of Kayako Saeki’s echoing death rattle–and it was amazing.

But as quickly as it began, J-Horror fizzled out as its instantly iconic tropes fell victim to inevitable self-parody and repetition. A feedback loop of originals and remakes reverberated on a global scale, with Asia-based production companies churning out films in the hopes of getting picked up abroad for an on-the-cheap remake. Takashi Shimizu still managed to direct some of the genre’s better standouts of the latter half of the decade–notably 2005’s Reincarnation, the slow-burning odd-film-out of the slasher-filled Eight Films to Die For series. Even then, Shimizu’s output also fell by the wayside stateside. The one-two punch of Shock Labyrinth 3D and Tormented (Rabbit Horror) received little coverage, and his last English-language film 7500 was pulled from its release date before it could hit theaters. It’s as if the careers of Shimizu, Nakata, and their fellow filmmakers fell victim to a similar curse as the ones in their films.

This makes the stateside release of Howling Village a surprising and welcome one–what’s more, it’s easily Takashi Shimizu’s best film in years. It’s a fresh, chilling take on the tropes and styles of multiple horror subgenres beyond just the ghost films Shimizu is predominantly known for. Blending elements of folk horror and creature features alongside a familiar vengeful ghost story, Howling Village is a spooky, suspenseful mystery that provides plenty of chills for any horror fan.

Howling Village follows Kanede (Ayaka Miyoshi), a child psychologist at her local hospital grieving the sudden suicide of her brother Yuma’s girlfriend, Akina. Before her death, though, both Yuma and Akina visited a mysterious phone booth reported to link its visitors to Inunaki Mura/“Howling Village”–a long-lost abandoned mountain town demarcated by a cavernous, boarded-up tunnel marked with a sign warning that “beyond this point, the Constitution and laws of Japan no longer apply.” When both Yuma and their youngest brother Kota vanish after their own attempts to find out what exactly drove Akina to suicide, Kanede is driven to uncover the truth about Howling Village–and her family’s direct bloodline to their own demise.

Howling Village sees Shimizu return to a genre that brought him international fame, but here he paints on a much broader horror canvas. While the film kicks off from its urban legend origins, Shimizu quickly lends Howling Village a kitchen sink approach to terrifying its audience. There are ashen-faced specters akin to Ju-on, here distorted and flickering as if ripped from phantom 8mm film; Shimizu’s established love for time distortion comes into play to reckon with the real Howling Village’s presence at the bottom of a dam; the creepy village and the closely-guarded secrets by the inhabitants within simultaneously recall Silent Hill, Deliverance, and The Wicker Man; a bit of surreal body horror arises as victims drown without being anywhere near water; and playing up the “Inu” part of “Inunaki Village,” Shimizu throws in a bit of werewolf mythos with its own Omen-inspired backstory. The film’s skill, though, isn’t in the wide array of subgenres Howling Village is able to work into its plot–but in how balanced and natural each of these elements are in service of Shimizu’s story.

While the film can be slightly chaotic as each of these elements converge on one another, each piece of horror feels like its own exploration into the possibilities provided by the ever-changing details of its original urban legend. Where many a horror franchise has taken liberties with its original film by injecting new, left-field elements and dismissing others–it’s fun to see how Howling Village accepts each of the different permutations of a popular myth as equally true. As a result, Shimizu lends Howling Village a thrilling degree of spontaneity to a genre that, no matter the subject, can feel all too familiar to veteran horror audiences.

There’s an impressive deal of technical skill at work throughout Howling Village as well–with great care given to the film’s cinematography by Jun Fukumoto and production design by Keiko Matsunaga. Far flung from the concrete and neon of Japan’s big cities, Shimizu and team play up the lush forestry and foreboding mists that thrive in the rural countryside. Full of mountain vistas and cavernous woods, the settings of Howling Village would feel pastoral if they weren’t infused with so much dread. The Village itself is wonderfully creepy–a malevolent maze of shadows and crumbling wooden architecture, where anything could jump out of the shadows.

What sets Howling Village apart in Shimizu’s filmography, though, is how the staccato jump-scare shocks of Ju-on have found a calmer, patient rhythm here. The film is very much a supernatural mystery, where plentiful horror elements are to be found but none of which overwhelm the sinister and sincere familial investigation at its core. Much of the scares work because of how they emotionally impact the film’s characters–notably in an exposition-laden film screening towards the film’s midpoint. As Kanede finally learns the brutal history behind Howling Village’s demise, the scene climaxes with her standing in front of the screen, the screaming villagers branded upon her–and eventually flowing from her to flood the room with ghosts. To someone just tuning in, the scene is creepy enough–but because of how Kanede’s journey has built up to this point, such frights are imbued with an unsettling and tender sense of grief and guilt. It’s a natural progression of the ideas pursued in my personal non-Ju-on Shimizu favorite, Reincarnation–where true terror can arise from realizing how closely linked we are to a past we feel no connection to, and how the vengeful spirit of forgotten ghosts feels more justified than not by the film’s conclusion.

Howling Village debuts in limited theatrical release August 13th and VOD on August 17th courtesy of Dread.

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