Fantasia Review: Stare

J-horror finds unexpected new tension in the "long hair ghost" genre

When you think of Japanese horror, the first image that creeps to mind is the yūrei: the long-haired woman, a spirit of implacable, blind vengeance who hides a terrible secret behind a waterfall of flat, black tresses. And at this point, it feels like the genre has been done to death.

Whether it's Sadako in the Ring films, Kayako in The Grudge, or their heirs like the slit-mouthed woman in Carved, it's been such a constant for decades that there doesn't feel like there should be anything fresh to say. But then, everyone says that about zombies, and every year there is some new revenant that stirs the soil in new and fascinating ways.

So it is with Stare, the latest from master of the morbid Hirotaka Adachi, under his pen name Otsuichi. Fresh off his run writing the Ultraman Geed tokusatsu superhero TV series, the author of breakout horror anthology collection Goth takes all the classic elements of the genre – a transmitted curse, grisly and mysterious deaths, tense stalking scenes, and a supernatural force in white – and executes them with style and efficiency. But then there's a little something extra that pushes Stare right into your line of sight.

The set-up is the standard mystery. Mizuk (Marie Iitoyo) is traumatized after her friend drops dead right in front of her, the victim of a heart attack so massive that her eyeballs literally explode due to the spike in blood pressure. She soon finds that others have suffered the same fate, and with Harou, (Yû Inaba), who lost his brother to the same bizarre death, she tries to find the connection and the cause.

Otsuichi doesn't dawdle: striking a foreboding mood from the first frames, he launches his investigators down their path quickly. He understands that the audience doesn't need handholding, or equivocation on whether there is something uncanny at play, and the hunters never indulge in delaying denial about what it is that's murdering people. They grasp that it's a ghost, there's a curse, and it's their task to make sure there aren't any more victims.

All this is executed with a rare efficiency, but what makes Stare all the more fascinating is that Otsuichi knows all the other cinematic hauntings, and makes sure that every convention is both adhered to and modified. He also keeps the characters deeply sympathetic – meaning, in a truly ingenious twist, that the spirit can use their own emotions and connections against them. True, he can be a little mawkish (mainly in the score, burdened with some piano power ballad moments that just don't fit). Yet it's in the final act that Otsuichi brings something so simple, so brilliantly new, to the form, that Stare will definitely earn your viewing.

Fantasia Festival in Montreal runs through Aug. 1. We'll be running reviews to give you a first glimpse at some of the underground and genre titles you'll be seeing in the months ahead.

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Fantasia 2019, Stare, Hirotaka Adachi, Otsuichi, Marie Iitoyo, Yû Inaba

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