Nightmare Elevator -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
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NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

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BUSAN, South Korea -- "Nightmare Elevator" employs the ultra-minimalist set-up of four strangers trapped in an elevator to make a mystery-black comedy that literally takes the audience for a ride. Working from a fist-tight screenplay in three acts, each act is a reversal of preconceptions and expectations, and calls for a change in acting mode, which the four leads deliver effortlessly. High concept and low budget requirements make this desirable stuff for a remake, whether for screen, TV or theater.

One reason why Japanese cinema consistently produces high quality work is the vast pool of literature available for adaptation. "Nightmare Elevator," adapted from a bestseller by Hanta Kinoshita, is one example. TV veteran/first-time screen director Keisuke Horibe acquits himself well by adopting a functional approach. He elucidates the mathematical plot without any artistic claptrap.

The first 45 minutes of "Nightmare" is confined within the titular elevator, with the briefest, most elliptical of flashbacks. Jun Ogawa (Takumi Saito), a handsome and suave salaryman is roused from unconsciousness, and told there's been an elevator disorder by three strangers. They are Tominaga (Masaaki Uchino), dressed and speaking loudly like an Osaka gangster, a jogger Makihara (Fuyuki Moto) and Kaoru (Aimi Satsukawa), a doll-like Gothic Lolita.

Ogawa loses control when he finds out that no one's cell phone is working. His wife Manami has just called to say she's gone into labor. He recalls in flashback his promise to never leave her side in need, or else he'd swallow 100 needles as penance. "One will do," she said. Whether his hysteria springs from concern for Manami, or from fear of divine retribution arouses curiosity.

This is just the first of many revelations. Firstly, none of them are the building's occupants. Secondly, all of them have a reason for going there, but are reluctant to divulge why. Eventually, the jogger, who claims to have psychic powers, makes them spill the beans. The next two acts are unpredictable changes of scenes which alter our perceptions. The film smoothly segues into black comedy territory where everything that could go wrong does, or does it really?

The characters' lack of mobility is compensated by fast-paced and juicy dialogue that accelerates tension. The confined space poses a challenge to cinematography, but D.O.P. Kou Kitanobu comes up with a variety of camera angles and P.O.V.s that forestalls monotony. Costumes heighten theatricality through the strong, clashing color palette of lime green, beige, black and red-and-black. Three quick flashes of gore effects by Yoshihiro Nishimura of "Tokyo Gore Police" fame add that macabre touch like icing on the cake.

Pusan International Film Festival -- Asia Film Market Screening

Sales: Nikkatsu Corp.
Production: Nikkatsu Corp., Smoke
Cast: Masaaki Uchino,Takumi Saito, Aimi Satsukawa, Fuyuki Moto
Director-screenwriter: Keisuke Horibe
Screenwriter: Kenichi Suzuki
Producers: Naoki Sato, Yasushi Udagawa
Executive producer: Kiyoshi Baba
Director of photography: Kou Kitanobu
Art director: Nobuhiro Isoda
Editor: Kouichi Kitanobu
No rating, 105 minutes