'Creepy': Berlin Review

Creepy still 2 - H 2016
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
A bit out of control.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa returns from auteurist chores to the classic horror that made him a cult name.

The good news for fans of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s early psychological J-horror is that the master is back with all his signature tropes intact: the haunted houses and scary atmosphere; the hypnotic evil-doer who forces others to do his unholy bidding; the good detective going insane over a case that hits too close to home; his mentally unstable wife; and a disappointing ending. As a matter of fact, Creepy feels an awful lot like the director’s 1997 cult horror piece Cure, with the caveat that there’s more smoke than fire in the mind-games featured here, and one can see the ending coming from a very long way off.

Still, this is prime real estate for midnight madness sidebars, and the tale holds viewers in its grip for much of its 130-minute running time. An ace cast adds almost too much depth, and one can sense the actors shimmying into their genre roles with difficulty. Add in the director’s following, and the Shochiku release should have little trouble raising the temperature of the horror market.

Dapper and broodingly cool, police detective Koichi Takakura (Hidetoshi Nishijima) is called in to interview a brash young serial killer at headquarters. He is excited to talk to “the perfect psychopath.” But the youth escapes and sows panic in the building, leading to a promisingly dynamic opening sequence.

A year later the action resumes: Koichi has retired from the force and is teaching his specialty, criminal psychology, to college students. He and his wife, Yasuko (Yuko Takeuchi, an early victim in the classic Ring), are moving into a new house in the suburbs to start a new life. The only problem is the neighbors … .

The screenplay, which Kurosawa co-wrote with Chihiro Ikeda, based on Yutaka Maekawa’s novel, is quite intricate and laden with intriguing twists. Not quite satisfied with academic life, Koichi becomes curious about an unsolved missing-persons case in a nearby town. Rather surprisingly, his former assistant Nogami (Masahiro Higashide) turns up, requesting him to informally investigate.

A father, mother and son mysteriously disappeared from their house six years ago, leaving their junior high daughter Saki behind. Like so many characters in Kurosawa films, Saki has some serious memory problems and has blanked out on what exactly happened. But Koichi is ready to browbeat her to find out.

Meanwhile, back home, hausfrau Yasuko patiently tries to break the ice with the weirdo next door, Mr. Nishino (Tokyo Sonata's Teruyuki Kagawa), probably the film’s title character, and certainly its best. Though he makes it abundantly clear he doesn’t want company, Yasuko insists — rather hilariously — on bringing over her home cooking in an attempt to overcome his “lack of social skills.” The audience knows better. Not only does Nishino have a schoolgirl daughter who proclaims, “He’s not my father, he’s a total stranger” to Koichi, he also has an invalid wife who is seen about as often as Norman Bates’ mother.

All of these ingredients should come together in a mouth-watering finale, but such is not the case; in fact, the film becomes more obvious and less psychological as it goes on. Kurosawa is not a gore lover, and there is nothing to cringe over when things heat up. On the other hand, the last-reel revelations, awkwardly doled out as the victims multiply uncontrollably, are more repulsive than scary.

Koichi’s status as a reliable hero is never totally cast in doubt, as happens to the detective-hero in Cure, but there are moments when he loses control. Nishijima, who starred in Kurosawa’s License to Live and played the tortured cineaste in Amir Naderi’s Cut, continually hints at a deeper dimension to the detective who has thrown in the towel. He seems to be heading for an identity crisis in a Kafkaesque scene where he is hauled into police headquarters. Admittedly, his story about the bad things happening to his wife and neighbor is too wild to make sense, but the film chooses not to go there. 

A saving grace is the tongue-in-cheek humor that keeps popping up at unexpected moments. When Koichi instructs his class on the three types of psycho-killers — organized, disorganized and mixed characteristics — one can hear the college-prof director having a laugh.

Ambience also plays a major role, and Akiko Ashizawa’s lighting keeps a cloud of gloom hanging over every shot. The cluttered, claustrophobic houses with their narrow entranceways and low ceilings suggest the characters’ repressed desires, in much the same way their junky backyards pockmarked with abandoned appliances and overgrown chain fences remind us of some unresolved issues in the attic. But the nearest the film comes to identifying the source of all this psycho-cinema is Yasuko’s involuntary confession of dissatisfaction with her marriage  — too little, too late.

Production companies: Shochiku Co., Asmik Ace Entertainment
Cast: Hidetoshi Nishijima, Yuko Takeuchi, Teruyuki Kagawa, Haruna Kawaguchi, Masahiro Higashide
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Screenplay: Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Chihiro Ikeda based on a novel by Yutaka Maekawa

Director of photography: Akiko Ashizawa
Production designer: Norfumi Ataka
Editor: Koichi Takahashi
Music: Yuri Habuka
World sales: Shochiku Co.

Not rated, 130 minutes