DEATH GAME (15)1 Disc (Distributor: MVM Entertainment) Running time: 102 minutes approx.
With the promise of a short term but very well paying job, ten willing volunteers find themselves driven to a remote location where they learn they are to participate in a seven day psychological experiment in the guise of a detective game, with a huge cash prize awaiting the winner. They are to be secluded under surveillance in a hi-tech building, the aptly named Paranoia House, with just two rules to be adhered to: 1) No-one must leave their room after 22:00pm and 2) the game ends when either the time limit expires or there are two survivors. To oversee their movements is a ceiling mounted robot called Guard who has the power to terminate anyone who breaks the rules. The true horror of what the group have signed up for is revealed when one person is found dead the next morning.
Having dabbled in Hollywood for the past few years, the man who effectively kick-started the J-Horror movement with the seminal Ringu in 1998, Hideo Nakata, returns to his native Japan for this adaptation of the novel The Incite Mill - 7 Day Death Game by Honobu Yonezawa, (also the film's title in Japan). The genesis of the project was to mark the 50th anniversary of the Horipro management company, with the main cast all being on their books. It takes the best elements of Saw, Battle Royale and Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians (which it openly references) and sets them in a Big Brother type environment.
Of the leads the most familiar faces are likely to be Battle Royale and Death Note heartthrob Tatsuya Fujiwara as freelancer Yuki Satoshihisa and Haruka Ayase of Ichi and Cyborg She fame as secretary Shoko Suwamei. Completing the line-up of lab rats are web designer Biyoru Sekimizu (Satomi Ishihara), medical student Takehiro Osako (Tsuyoshi Abe), his nail artist girlfriend Wakana Tachibana (Aya Hirayama), jobless Munehiro Nishino (Masanori Ishii), student Maki Setsuzin (TakurOhno), shady Sousuke Iwai (Shinji Takeda), housewife Sawako Fuchi (Nagisa Katahira) and bankrupt boss Yoshi Ando (Kinya Kita ji).
It should come as little surprise that this dream opportunity is all in aid of a reality TV show but the "stars" don't realise this until very late into the game. And naturally all of the participants have their own reasons for accepting the job from plain greed to raising the finds for personal and altruistic reasons. After the first fatality the group are tasked with discerning who the culprit is, a task made a little easier by virtue of everyone having a weapon locked away in a chest in their rooms which can only be opened by their personal pass card. The first victim was shot so they look for the one with a gun. Easy right? As per the rules, if someone is suspected, it is put to a vote and if the majority agrees, the suspect is deemed guilty and Guard comes to take them away. But what if that person didn't know they had a gun nor had a valid motive to kill someone? That is where the fun begins as the initial bond of trust is broken and the Paranoia House begins to live up to its name.
Those with a keen eye and even keener brain can probably work out much of the direction early on and indeed the true motives of one of the characters while the ending is never really in doubt. However it does throw in a few surprises to keep the viewer double guessing themselves, allow with touches of taut drama and a drop of gore for good measure. Nakata hasn't lost his touch when it comes to storytelling and creating tension and suspense, but his ability to scare the bejesus out of his audience seems to have faded somewhat since his time in Tinsel Town. In fact, it would seem that Nakata has brought some "bad Habits" back with him from the US as the familiar chilling J-horror atmosphere, of which Nakata was a pioneer, is somewhat lacking, replaced by something more sterile and distant for the viewer.
Arguably the few moments of unease we do get are provided by the ceiling mounted Guard, a bulbous security camera with arms that patrols the corridors with a menacing glint in its single lens, signalling trouble for anyone should the light turn from green to red. With a mini arsenal hidden within those arms, including giant clamps for carrying the corpses, not breaking the ten o'clock curfew is a prudent move for all of the house guests - well, the ones that are left that is.
Despite being saddle with overly typical tropes, such as the superficial bimbo, the taciturn loner, the forthright doctor and the mother hen, the cast commit themselves to making their characters as believable as possible while keeping their true intentions hidden until the right time, rather than allow occasional drops in their facade to telegraph to the audience which direction they are headed. Tatsuya Fujiwara may seem to over do it a bit as the nervy coward of the group who trusts everyone to easily, presumably as he's had plenty of practice since it's been his signature role ever since the might Battle Royale in 2000. Haruka Ayase sadly doesn't get to do much more than look like she's about to cry but, as we learn, there is a reason for this.
Death Game is a competent and perfectly acceptable romp, which engages the viewer from beginning to end, but unfortunately it will falter in the eyes of many for not being to live up to the lofty reputation the name Hideo Nakata brings to this title. Still, it's infinitely more entertaining than the real Big Brother!
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