While his movies have occasionally exhausted viewers, no one has ever accused Takashi Miike of boring them. Thus it’s fitting, perhaps, that a filmmaker so compulsively prolific and diverse should now be able to check that box off the list of haven’t-done-yets. Hopefully “Over Your Dead Body” will be his first and last such achievement. Its potentially good idea — actors rehearsing the classic supernatural tale “Yotsuya kaidan” find their roles spilling into real life — never sparks, and so the film registers as just a handsome, rather tedious formal exercise. Miike fans will doubtless find their way to this disappointment via home formats, but it’s hard to imagine the pic resonating outside Japan, where it at least has the advantage of riffing on a widely known story.
Indeed, what began as a Kabuki play by Tsuruya Nanboku IV nearly 200 years ago has been filmed more than 30 times. Here, modern actors are preparing for a production on a spectacular revolving set that provides most of otherwise deliberately austere pic’s visual interest. In the play, an unemployed samurai seduces a lovesick innocent and murders her disapproving father in order to inherit his estate; unsuspecting, she marries him and bears him a child. But when he catches the eye of a wealthy man’s indulged granddaughter, he takes up their sinister offer to relieve him of his current circumstances in order to marry the younger woman. Only with her dying breath realizing the depth of her husband’s cruelty, the wife returns as a spirit to exact a ghastly revenge on him and his new bride.
Most of “Over Your Dead Body” (a rather crass English-language title unreflective of the film’s relative humorlessness) consists of those rehearsal scenes, which, despite their striking theatrical production design, merely retell a much-told tale in competent fashion. So the burden of interest falls on the modern backstage drama, in which famed leading lady Miyuke (Ko Shibasaki) is duly having an affair with her leading man, Lousuke (Ebizo Ichikawa, a Kabuki thesp whose few film appearances include Miike’s 2011 “Hara-kiri: Death of a Samurai”). They’re practically living together, but he’s clearly a cad, just like the character he’s currently playing. Inevitably, he begins cheating on Miyuke with the very actress (Miho Nakanishi) playing her stage usurper.
Of course, art eventually imitates life in a late-breaking flood of gory horror, some of it possibly dreamt or hallucinated by the latter-day Casanova. Pic remains enervated and uninvolving, however, this over-the-top nastiness carrying none of the charge that worst-scenario violence did after an even longer, slower buildup in Miike’s best-known horror opus, “Audition.” Nor does it sport the glee of his more campily exploitative exercises in outre violence.
There’s a dull, diagrammed feeling to “Over Your Dead Body,” which seems to have originated from an idea that the helmer had already lost interest in by the time of filming. He seems juiced only by the impressive compositions those painterly stage designs allow. Adding to the stillborn feel is an ending in which one character turns out not to be dead after all — something that makes absolutely no sense, given what we’ve already been graphically shown, and here there’s no hint of supernatural doings.
Performances are solid under the chilly circumstances, and tech/design aspects are strong within a claustrophobic concept that limits events to just a handful of settings.