SLAY YOUR PRAYERS

TEMPLE (15)

Director: Michael Barrett

Screenplay: Simon Barrett

Starring: Naoto TakenakaAsahi UchidaLogan Huffman

Review: David Stephens

November 19, 2019

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Apart from all the American remakes of J-Horror like “The Ring” and “The Grudge” (and other far less successful efforts), Eastern lore has gradually infiltrated US genre cinema in other ways. Major theatrical releases like “The Forest” (which dealt with the infamous legend of the Suicide Forest at Mount Fuji) and “Wish Upon” (with its cursed oriental music-box), are based on Far-Eastern horror themes. Couple that with the inherent fear that a lot of Americans (and us Brits as well) have of foreign lands and strange customs, and you have an idea why films like “Temple” exist. The directorial debut of cinematographer Michael Barrett, it was written by Simon Barrett who previously scripted the films “You’re Next”, “The Guest”, and “Blair Witch” for Adam Wingard. Based around the concept of a forbidden temple in Japan, and 3 US travellers who seek it out, it’s now available to watch on DVD and VOD in both the UK and US. So YGROY puts on our Sunday best and prepares to pray for some good scares…

It starts with a party of Japanese Police, searching for someone/something in the darkness of a forest. They find a burnt-out campfire and a dropped camcorder (no, it’s not a found-footage film … although it initially looks like it might turn into one), and then one of them chances on a bloody scene in the nearby small Temple. We then find the police questioning an injured male in a mobile ICU unit (?!). He’s an American, and as they show him some of the footage on the camcorder, the narrative flashes back 5 days. Young US student Kate (Natalie Warner) is studying overseas religion and plans a trip to Tokyo with her instantly-recognisably-douche-bag boyfriend James (Brandon Sklenar). She also decides to bring along her male BFF Christopher (Logan Huffman from “Final Girl”), as he’s a sensitive dude and in need of some downtime after a family tragedy. Also, Chris speaks Japanese and takes lots of photos and film … which is super-handy for her. Once they reach Japan they move on from Tokyo to the more rural areas outside the city, and find an intriguing journal in a small shop. It details the existence of a (very) small temple at a nearby remote mountainside village and the legends around it. Despite the shop-keeper going wide-eyed and weak-kneed and EVERY person they meet telling them not to go there … they go there. Because they’re tourists and they know better than people who actually live in the country y’all. Of course, it’s a very bad idea …

“Temple” has had a very bad rap from reviews and online reactions so far, and a lot of it has been aimed at scriptwriter Simon Barrett, who did such good work with Wingard previously (although we’ll generously ignore the “Blair Witch” sequel to some extent). But if you do a little bit of detective work online (NB: Thanks to the “Shock Waves Horror Movie Club” Facebook group for that), you can find a disclaimer from Barrett written in 2015. In it, he states that this project is from an early first draft based on some 2nd party ideas, and that he sold it in 2012. Since then he has had no involvement with it despite his name being prominently used and changes being presumably made. Good to know, because “Temple” is unfortunately pretty disappointing…

Starting with the good stuff first, because we’re glass-half-full kinda guys here. The premise and early scenes of the film are quite promising. It could have been a light supernaturally-skewed version of “Hostel”, with US innocents abroad falling foul of Japanese spooks with their naivety and disrespect of inherent culture. All of the locations look great and authentic, from Tokyo to the beautiful Yamanashi province in Japan, where Michael Barrett’s camera experience works as an advantage. There’s no evidence of “white-washing” (as throwaway as that term has now become), with the dialogue split realistically between English and Japanese, and the rural characters only being able to communicate in their native language with Chris. Beyond that however, it gets a little less impressive …

It takes a large amount of build-up before the three travellers get anywhere near the titular location, as it’s nearly two-thirds into the running time before they start to approach it. And prior to this, all supporting characters have been warning them off and telling them to keep away. It raises the expectations into something that the film ultimately can’t bring to the table. The whole mythology is muddled and confusing as well. Is the Temple cursed because of a shape-shifting fox-demon, a Freddy Krueger-esque Monk, or the spirits of dead children? (*Shrugs shoulders*).

We barely get any “scares” before the final act, with just some character-appears-from-nowhere jumps and a hint of the supernatural. But when we do get the expected horror scenes, they’re pretty uninspiring and unoriginal. In fact they’re spread across 3 sequences that feel dreadfully generic and contain the usual genre tropes and clichés that you might be expecting … along with a snatch of unconvincing cheap CGI.

Perhaps it might have been a more positive experience if more time had been spent on structuring the backstory, and less on the slightly-dull melodrama going on between the three leads. All the actors are okay in their roles (especially an endearingly laidback Hoffman), but the character beats are often misjudged. James might as well have “Douche Bag” tattooed on his forehead (speaking of friendship: “I’ve never had that kind of a relationship with a woman”), but would he really openly cheat on his girlfriend in front of her BFF that he’s only just met? Chris mostly comes across as a nice guy throughout the film … apart from one dumb moment where he secretly films his companions’ boinking in night vision, which feels like a major mis-step only there to provide a cheap jump-scare. It makes it difficult to invest in the characters when they act that way. Especially when Kate picks the stupidest moment to discuss something personal…

To be fair, the sub-plot set in the police investigation room is a pretty neat way to book-end the story and provide the framing narrative, but like the rest of plot it doesn’t seem to know how to follow through on its premise or end properly. So there are some obvious plot developments and many of the actions/motives of the antagonists and protagonists are simply left hanging with no real resolution or explanation, so the whole thing just feels unsatisfying to genre fans.

It’s a shame because in school report terms, it started with “most likely to succeed”, but ended full term with “could have done much better”. Genre fans will perhaps get a kick out of the location work and some of the mythos, but most people will be disappointed by the end result and the missed opportunity. Temple of Gloom…

DVD Extras: Your prayer for bonus material goes unanswered. Only a trailer.

“Temple” starts out with a promising scenario and some creepy ideas, and the locations look great. But unfortunately there’s barely any actual horror to speak of, and the scare sequences that are in place are very generic and unoriginal. It veers from “Dawson’s Creek” drama to an ineffectual and lazy take on J-Horror. Good as a travelogue, not so much as a scary movie…
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