Syfy rolls out its original movies on Saturdays at 9:00 pm, and because it’s the month of Halloween, they had to take a break from their wildly successful horror-farces themed around sharks, and do something ghosty and scary. Their offering was Grave Halloween. Grave Halloween was a departure from most Syfy Originals, in that it wasn’t exactly bad. It was just disappointing.
The movie, well, most of it anyway, takes place in Japan’s Aokigahara Forest, on the flanks of Mt. Fuji. This lush, dense forest is also called the Suicide Forest, with scores of people going there to kill themselves each year. There are a number of theories about why, but none are definitive. This is all true; Syfy didn’t make it up. Seems like the perfect setting for a creepy, psychological horror movie, doesn’t it? And we can have all those seriously disturbing ghost images we’ve robbed from best-selling Asian horror movies; the bodies that don’t move like humans, the skittering movements; the bone-white eye make-up and dripping black eyeliner. Awesome!
As I said, most of the movie wasn’t even up to (or down to) Syfy’s usual bad standards. Parts of it were even good. Other parts tried to be. In fact, except for the story itself and the ending, it was pretty… well, except for setting it in Japan but filming in British Columbia, and using stock forest footage, or closeups of romanesco, to show us the vastness of the forest, it was pretty… well, except for stock two-note characters… aside from those few small problems, it was pretty good.
Rainforest, or brocoli?
In the interest of full disclosure, I have to acknowledge two things: 1) the night before I had gone on a ghost walk, and I was feeling kindly disposed to ghosts when I watching this movie and 2) I had recently read “Sea of Trees,” a horror story set in the Aokigahara Forest, written by Rachel Swirsky. There was no way anything produced by SyFy was going to match her story (unless they had chosen to buy the rights and had actually used her story… but this is SyFy, so that’s not going to happen).
In Grave Halloween, some American exchange students in Japan decide to film a documentary about the forest, in particular, one of their number, Meiko, who was adopted and raised in North America, and whose mother committed suicide in the forest. Meiko plans to go to the forest with a treasure box full of personal items that were her mother’s (at least, that’s what she’s been told they are) and conduct a burial ritual that will give her mother’s spirit peace. The ritual must be conducted on October 31. Grave Halloween, get it?
Meiko was sent these personal effects in the mail, along with a photograph of a tree with a note from her mother on the back. One tree. She is going to find this tree in an immense forest and conduct the ritual. Her friend Amber is going to film this as a documentary. Coming along are the goofy sound-guy and the hunky new kid who will run the camera. Three clueless insensitive male louts crash the party and make jokes about dead moms (because they’re bad! Bad!) and get sent away… but we haven’t seen the last of them.
Off into the forest they go. It’s a gorgeous British Columbian forest, and the film-makers enhanced the atmosphere, making it tranquil and frightening at the same time. They point out the Japanese signs posted everywhere imploring people to think of their families and stop before they end their lives. (Real signs, by the way.) Soon the “good” kids meet Jin, played by handsome character actor Hiro Kanagawa who agrees to guide them, while giving them stern Mr-Miyagi-style lectures (my favorite being, “Watch your step.”) He warns them not to steal from the dead — a bit of foreshadowing. It just seems like good advice in general though.
The three clueless louts show up and play a tasteless joke on the film-doc kids. This means seven kids in the evil forest, and shortly thereafter the countdown begins. The clueless louts get it first, but one by one… oh, spoiler alert. Or, wait, no… it’s not a spoiler. You’ve watched Syfy movies before, you know how it goes.
Also part of the movie; Mieko’s gorgeously filmed but basically incomprehensible dream/flashbacks about her mother, and a group of authoritative and scary law enforcement types (or maybe just park rangers) who cart out the bodies of suicides, stylistically wrapped in white sheets and knotted cord. Also part of the movie; those great creepy Asian-style ghosts we’re all terrified of. Could have done with a few more of those, actually.
Then it’s “Quick, let’s split up!” and “someone is not who he seems,” and “everything you thought you knew was a lie,” and “Oku-chan!”… and dropped/broken/missing cell phones, and no flashlights, or ones that don’t work… and then a big scary climax and a sad drop into the last few minutes, with the sole survivor… only, oh, no, no, no! Back into the forest with her! The End.
I may have missed a few important details, I’ll admit, because I was reading part of the time. Like, who sent Mieko the stuff they said was her mother’s? And how, exactly, did she find the tree? Did the moss eat Amber’s cell phone? And why does the Japanese police car say “Police” in English? Why is Mieko’s precious treasure box made in China, instead of Japan? And was it raining or not raining? And how, exactly, did Mieko find the tree?
There was a western-obvious ending to this movie that I would have liked, and that would be if Mieko discovers that she is, in fact, a ghost herself. That would tie up the “surprise! Here’s the part you don’t remember!” bit at the end. (And yes, I did get who the little girl was.) That’s probably just the ending I would have liked.
Stephen M. Monroe directed. He has a background in commercials and music videos, which explains the stylish good looks of the flick. He has a birthday one day after mine, so I like him. He’s also directed several SyFy Originals, so… I’m trying really hard to still like him. Ryan W Smith is the screenwriter. Smith plainly had a concept here. Trying to bring forward a concept as freighted with cultural significance as the suicide forest and turn it into a routine one-by-one-they-fall movie took a certain guts, if not necessarily good sense.
The movie gets raves for me about how it looked. I must say, though, that based on this outing, I won’t be waiting for Syfy Original’s “Japan-nado” any time soon.