Prayer Beads (2004)


I'll prelude this review with a confession that many of you have likely voiced recently: these days I'm almost totally burned out on Japanese horror - at least as far as new product is concerned. You know how it is: when you discover a particular source of art or entertainment so far outside the realm of conventional, mass-produced fare that you feel like you found a hidden vein of gold... to horror fans, Far-East finds like Audition or Ringu had that kind of rare value. Then, over about a decade, big corporate conglomerates got their talons on the latest trend that ?the kids seem to like? and suddenly your rare treasure that was once only available in gray-market bootlegs with Dutch subtitles is in the hands of just about everyone. So when everyone's got tons of gold, it isn't really worth much anymore, is it?

Given the above situation, when this DVD set arrived, my expectations were a mite low, and I girded my loins in bitter anticipation of four-plus hours of crawling black-haired ghost girls and cursed electronic gizmos that I'd seen a hundred times before.

So imagine my surprise when I discovered this slick Asian spin on the horror anthology TV series is ten tons o' fun. Sure, it's more than a bit cheesy, and yes, there's the occasional drippy ghost woman, haunted cell phone and teenage girls in sailor uniforms (actually, I'm totally fine with that part). But most of the episodes in this nine-chapter series benefit from an enthusiastic approach, some truly stunning visuals (shot-on-video format notwithstanding) and some unique twists on old material.

The nine episodes are not thematically linked, and the stories are not connected either (except for the final episode... well, kinda... more on that below). After a bouncy animated title sequence (set to music that reminds me of Amazing Stories), each story is introduced by the individual prayer bead which corresponds to it. Not being familiar with the spiritual or allegorical significance of these beads, I saw no thematic connection (other than each is given a number), and every chapter has a unique stylistic signature.

The first episode, oddly enough titled ?Prayer Beads? (for reasons I never quite figured out), adheres closest to the basic tenets of what we now consider ?conventional? J-Horror, and involves a pregnant woman whose creepy best friend is tormented by the disappearance of her husband... or is she? The standard supernatural revenge plot ? complete with black hair creeping out of bathtubs and text messages from beyond ? is carried out with lots of gloomy-doomy atmosphere and builds to a gruesome climax, but I still felt like I'd seen it all before.

The next installment, ?Vending Machine Woman,? kicks the series back into high gear with the tale of a bickering young couple whose wilderness getaway turns from inconvenient to comically horrible in the time it takes to finish a can of questionable fruit juice. It's a Cronenbergian nightmare which culminates in a sticky-gross ending that'll make you think twice before kicking that defective snack machine in your office break area.

Episode three, ?It's Me,? is a so-so tale of a scam gone bad when two con-men pick the wrong old lady as their next victim. It's basically wasabi-flavored Tales from the Crypt material, but it does contain one of the series' biggest shock moments...

?Real? is a nearly plotless tale of a surgeon who seeks unconventional help for chronic headaches and winds up addicted to a hallucinogenic substance (it makes him see worms crawling out of people's body cavities) which leads him down the path to madness. With a little work, this tale could have taken on a certain Lovecraftian edge, but it's so under-written that it falls flat.

?Mushroom Hunting? is a decent supernatural fairytale with a twist, about a trio of teens who meet online and, oddly, decide their first outing will be a mushroom hunt in a remote forest. Ignoring the warnings of a blind hermit (as kids usually do in these tales), they visit the cottage of an old lady who seems a mite too hospitable... and whose resemblance to the witch from Hansel and Gretel is entirely coincidental. Anyone who saw Attack of the Mushroom People knows you really shouldn't accept fungi from strangers.

Chapter six, ?Eddie,? revolves around a boy whose paranormal abilities are akin to the kid in The Twilight Zone who kept sending people he didn't like to the cornfield. In short, don't piss him off - especially if you are a cute seal-like creature named Eddie who may in fact be something much more dangerous. Bad CGI aside, this is one of the more touching tales in the series, and the central dynamic of the boy and his grandfather feels heartbreakingly real.

Almost out of place in its subtlety (that is, until the blood-drenched climax) is ?Echoes,? a moody piece with limited dialogue and a slow, tension-filled pace. The writing and performances are superb in this tale of an elderly couple who use their psychic powers to solve their granddaughter's murder ? and exact revenge on her killer. It's definitely the standout in the series, and would actually have worked well expanded to feature-length.

My second favorite, ?Cat's Paw,? gets high marks for sheer audacity in adapting the classic horror tale ?The Monkey's Paw? with the modern twist of an obnoxious cutesy-poo anime character named Nyanta, who grants a persecuted boy three wishes in the cartoon world... wishes which take much grislier form in reality. Anyone who thinks those squeaky-voiced anthropomorphic animals in Japanese cartoons are kinda creepy will see their nightmares come alive here, and the result is grim and hilarious at the same time.

The final chapter, ?Apartment,? works well for a while: its seemingly mundane tale of tensions within a middle-class family escalates to a violent climax and the usual twist ending... but the filmmakers unwisely chose not to end it there. Instead, they attempt to tie all the threads from each of the preceding episodes into one big apocalyptic knot, which ultimately serves no purpose other than to heighten the sense of doom that most of the episodes achieve just fine on their own.

Overall, Prayer Beads is more hit than miss, and well worth a look. Dark Sky packages the entire series in a two-disc set: presented in letterboxed widescreen, the transfer is a bit on the wonky side, with some pretty blocky artifacts during some of the low-lit scenes and some digital drop-outs that look like they may have existed on the source tape. The stereo soundtrack is serviceable, but a bit muddy in some of the quieter scenes; removable English subtitles are available, and are well-done. Nothing much in the way of extras ? a trailer and still gallery is the extent of it.

While some of the material needs a bit of polish, the colorful imagery, inventive direction and effective editing make Prayer Beads a fun spook-show experience, and over its 4? hour span, it's seldom boring ? which for a TV show is saying a lot.