‘Temple’: Film Review

Temple -Still 2 -Publicity -H 2017
Courtesy of Screen Media Films
Best left to the truly faithful.

‘You’re Next’ screenwriter Simon Barrett takes a shot at J-horror in Michael Barrett’s Japan-set feature.

Methodically establishing himself as a recognizable brand among horror filmmakers, producer and screenwriter Simon Barrett has contributed to some memorable independent features, particularly in partnership with director Adam Wingard. Their slyly subversive collaborations on Blair Witch, You’re Next and the V/H/S anthology films have consistently grabbed the attention of horror fans over the past half-dozen years.

So when an under-the-radar Barrett-scripted feature turns up, expectations may run high, but Temple comes off as more of a half-hearted attempt at exploiting typical J-horror themes than an actual homage to the Japanese genre. The film will probably transit theaters so quickly that few may notice before it hits digital platforms, particularly with anticipation running high for Barrett’s adaptation of Kim Jee-woon’s mercilessly chilling Korean serial killer thriller I Saw The Devil, which Wingard is also slated to direct. 

In his debut feature-directing effort, cinematographer Michael Barrett (Ted) would have done well to observe how his screenwriter’s previous films have relied on compelling plot development to create tension, instead of essentially dropping his characters into situations without adequate setup. So what we get here is unconvincing university student Kate (Natalia Warner), who’s visiting Japan for a tour of traditional temples while supposedly working on her comparative religion thesis.

She’s brought along her boyfriend James (Brandon Sklenar) and best childhood friend Christopher (Logan Huffman), who’s recovering from a breakdown following his brother’s recent violent death. At an obscure souvenir shop in the provincial city of Oyama, Chris discovers a strange personal notebook with a handwritten account of an isolated forest temple protected by a shape-shifting spirit that’s half woman and half fox. Naturally, Kate insists on visiting it, despite receiving admonishments that the temple is cursed. After making their way to a remote mountain village, residents tell them about a group of six second-grade boys who vanished in the temple’s vicinity nearly 50 years ago.

Once they arrive at the shrine following repeated warnings that their safety depends on returning to the village before nightfall, the trio carelessly lingers while Kate snaps photos of the picturesque wooden building. As Chris checks out the hand-carved devotional statues inside the temple, he slips (or gets pulled) through the floorboards, landing injured on the ground level. Clearly they won’t be getting back to the village before dark, but after they retrieve Chris and settle in to spend an uncomfortable night, strange sights and sounds lead them to question whether they’re alone in the mysterious forest or if something is actually hunting them in the shadows beyond their makeshift fire.

The first indications that something supernatural may be at work, even before the group’s arrival at the temple, involve Chris’ interactions with a 9-year-old Japanese boy who may or may not be a figment of his unstable psychological state, or perhaps something worse. When the boy disappears at a critical juncture and the threat level escalates with the manifestation of the temple’s fox-woman guardian, it’s clear that expectations for a sensible plot are pretty much a lost cause. These inconsistencies only emphasize that the filmmakers can’t decide if the narrative's central tragedy represents a haunting, a case of demon possession or a straight-up crime of passion, as Chris’ fixation on Kate intensifies.

The actors appear as confused as the filmmakers, drifting about their scenes asking obvious questions and uttering pointless observations. Director Barrett and DP Cory Geryak attempt to conjure some atmosphere from drifting mountain mists, creepy locations and conventional J-horror shocks, but it’s all such a tangentially connected mix of elements that the film never entirely coheres.

Production companies: Industrial Entertainment, Genre Project Inc., Crow Island Films, Koji Productions
: Screen Media Films

Cast: Logan Huffman, Natalia Warner, Brandon Sklenar, Takenaka Naoto, Uchida Asahi
Director-screenwriter: Simon Barrett
Producers: Eric Bassett, Neal Edelstein, Shinya Egawa, Mike Macari
Director of photography: Cory Geryak
Editors: Micah Stuart, Sean Valla
Music: Edmund Butt

78 minutes