There are plenty of frightened faces but not a single scare in “Ghost Theater,” another dud from horror-meister Hideo Nakata (“The Ring,” “Dark Water”), whose helming and production standards have sunk to the level of any hack director in Nipponese TV. Revolving around a theater troupe haunted by an evil mannequin that saps them of their life force, the film could be renamed “Doll About Eve” with its creaky and vacuous tale of rivalrous actresses. The film’s complete lack of mystery, tension and gore becomes an unwitting metaphor for J-horror, a doddering genre that’s desperate for fresh blood. The pic has been sold to Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei, where its tameness will suit the region’s censorship laws on horror; elsewhere, poor word of mouth will go viral.
“Ghost Theater” is billed as a remake of Nakata’s 1996 horror-thriller, “Don’t Look Up” (already remade in Hollywood by Hong Kong maverick Fruit Chan), but the only thing the two films have in common is a malevolent female entity that hates rising actresses. It’s not that phantoms of the opera, stage, movie set or even toilet are done-to-death horror concepts; any old chestnut can be revived or reinvented through fresh film language and strong technique, as in James Wan’s take on haunted-house tropes in “The Conjuring “and the “Insidious” movies. Unfortunately, the rewrite by scribes Junya Kato and Ryuta Miyake (who co-penned Nakata’s “The Complex”) has a rail-thin plot that could barely sustain an hour-long telefilm, absent any intriguing twists or even a good cheap shock.
The prologue shows two schoolgirls driven to convulsions by a moving mannequin. Their father (Ikuji Nakamura) tries to destroy the doll, but only manages to decapitate it before the police arrest him on suspicion of murder. Twenty years later, the doll’s head resurfaces on the shelves of a theater prop room and fished out for a new production “Whimper of Fresh Blood” — based on the life of Hungarian countess Elisabeth Bathory (1560-1614), who murdered hundreds of peasant girls, supposedly to bathe in their virgin blood as an anti-aging tonic.
Sara (AKB48 member Haruka Shimazaki), a driven actress who until now has been typecast as corpses, gets a small part in the play. Strange things happen when the doll’s head is reattached to a wooden body and brought onstage as Elisabeth’s alter ego. Bitchy leading lady Aoi (Riho Takada) starts to forget her lines after allegedly seeing the doll blink, and soon, both she and state assistant Eriko behave as though possessed, mumbling the words “gimme, gimme, gimme” like diehard ABBA fans. When Aoi’s role is suddenly up for grabs, Sara, an uber-understudy who’s memorized every character’s lines, gets the big break she’s been waiting for, but blinking dolls are less of a threat to her than they are to an equally ambitious supporting actress, Kaori (Rika Adachi).
Consisting mostly of dress rehearsals in which the same lines are repeated ad nauseum, “Ghost Theater” is a drearily extended master class in ham acting, although the cast’s giggle-worthy expressions of fear and surprise at least provide some distraction from the flat narration. This is exacerbated by reaction-shot overkill, even when there’s nothing to react to. As a sleazebag director-playwright, Mantaro Koichi has none of Vincent Gallo’s Gallic lewdness in “Black Swan.” And as propmaster Izumi, Keita Machida demonstrates a protective attitude toward the doll that hints promisingly at a sort of fetishistic psycho role (like Spalding in “American Horror Story: Coven”), but alas, the character becomes increasingly functional and vapid.
As for the theme of female rivalry, these Eve Harringtons simply aren’t catty enough. The best that prima donna Aoi can do is throw a tantrum followed by polite bows and an order for Sara to take care of her costume, and the other actresses don’t even need to stab each other in the back to get their coveted roles. In stereotypical Japanese fashion, one character finds time to apologize even as the doll is giving her the kiss of death.
Tech credits are astoundingly poor. The sound design, which mainly consists of thunder, rain and deafening booms, couldn’t be more hackneyed, while the sloppily composed cinematography, dull lighting and characterless set achieve little in the way of chilling atmosphere. As for the doll, it’s so clunky and expressionless that it must rank as the least threatening ghoul in a horror film. Moving like a robot that hasn’t been properly recharged, the doll turns the finale into grand farce, as its human victims run at a speed that it could technically never catch up with. Gimme Chucky any day.