Temple. 2017. Directed by Michael Barrett. Screenplay by Simon Barrett.
Starring Naoto Takenaka, Asahi Uchida, Logan Huffman, Brandon Sklenar, & Natalia Warner.
Absurda/Hemisphere Motion Picture Partners/Hooked Digital Media/Toneplus Animation Studios
Not Rated. 78 minutes.
Ever since Dead Birds I’ve been ready and willing to give Simon Barrett’s writing a chance, at all times. No writer is perfect, what I dig about his screenplays is that he’s always looking for a way to change up genre conventions. It doesn’t always have to be something that changes the game, but his writing seeks to do things differently, even if it comes in a familiar package.
Temple takes the Americans abroad sub-genre of horror and energises it, opting to spend a good deal of time honouring the Japanese culture in which the story is steeped. More than that director Michael Barrett chooses building a creepy atmosphere over trying to go for constant jump scares or half-assed effects. Instead of stealing from J-horror, the Barretts do a fine job showing its influence on them, as well as presenting a horror metaphor for the dangers of white people not listening to other races and cultures, choosing to appropriate and disrespect.
Sure, it’s still a good old fashioned haunted house-style horror that takes place in a Japanese temple, where white Americans are tortured by spirits about which they were warned by the locals. Yet behind it all there’s still a more poignantly terrifying purpose to the horror, standing here in 2017 looking back at some of the cultural movie flubs we’ve seen as of late, plus over the past few
yearsdecades. And along the way you’ll find a few creepy creeps to satisfy the urge.
A dark, ominous opener hints at a terror lurking in the titular temple. A book of folk tales covered in blood. Then the credits off further bad omens, mentions of missing children and a monk and other creepy bits.
Then automatically we’re not with a bunch of white characters traipsing through the Japanese landscape and culture. Rather, we’re right in there with Japanese characters, speaking Japanese, and already the film feels aimed in the appropriate direction; at least aligned on the basics. We do soon get into the white American characters, but straight out the gate the story feels like one more concerned with the consequences of white people messing around in other cultures, without proper respect. Judging by the state of the first white guy we see, they’ve paid a price.
The biggest theme is respect for other cultures and races, their customs, beliefs, and traditions. Above all else the message comes: listen to the Japanese when they tell you about their homeland, THEIR folk tales so on (a larger idea is to listen to any people when they speak of their culture). It’s only respect, it isn’t hard. And perhaps, like in Temple, following the local advice might save your life.
Barrett subverts genre conventions here in the way of the archetypal warning about the cursed land. Usually – say, in something like Friday the 13th – the person warning is deemed insane, such as aptly named Crazy Ralph warning that Camp Crystal Lake has “got a death curse.” Then there’s The Hills Have Eyes, particularly in the remake, where a complicit gas station owner ushers victims to a valley of mutants, only later to regret his decisions. Temple gives us a couple Japanese men in a bar, one a patron and the other the bartender, urging politely over drinks that the temple the Americans seek is an “unlucky place” and suggestions local lore says the place will “make you sick” as in sick of mind. Thus, horror trope’s of a warning messenger becomes a cultural warning: respect the Japanese folklore, or beware what you find and what becomes of you.
It isn’t all an exercise in culturally conscious horror. We do get our fair share of genre imagery, some evoking J-horror, other bits are all-American. For instance, there’s a dose of creepy kid stuff we’ve all seen before in The Grudge, et cetera. Kind of boring, honestly. Better than this are moments using shadow, a technique that Asian horror in general isn’t adverse to. It’s just much more effective than the kid stuff.
The best, most horrific scenes involve things that aren’t necessarily influenced by Asian horror movies. Like a weird moment when one character stumbles, drunk, across a woman with strange, horn-like protrusions coming from her head. Or when another character feels a hand creeping up to his face, the long, ugly fingers reminiscent of Pumpkinhead. Maybe the best of all is the recurring image of Chris (Logan Huffman) behind a plastic tent, disfigured yet to what extent we’re unable to see exactly, making it all the more eerie.
Near the end there’s an unexpected escape: violent, chaotic, the energy feeling dangerous in the film’s dying moments. The following scene gives us a mysterious, chilling finish that left Father Son Holy Gore wanting, in a hugely positive sense. Doesn’t need a sequel necessarily, though leaves me curious. Just throwing it out there.
Not every horror must reinvent the wheel, because when spun correctly – and with horrific vigour – the horror wheel works just damn fine! And Temple‘s a fun, freaky movie that doesn’t have to jump scare its viewer to perpetually fake, manufactured fright (don’t get me wrong: jump scares CAN be good when used properly). Instead, characters and story work their magic to leave the viewer uneasy at many turns.
There are much worse ways to spend just over an hour and a half. Plus, Etsuko Egawa – one of the artists who created the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters – provides special effects artistry to enjoy throughout. The Barretts offer a horror movie, in a day and age of cultural insensitivity, that isn’t perfect, yet is a great example of how to do an Americans travelling abroad sub-genre flick that doesn’t fumble around in Asian culture (ahemThe Forestahem) simply for fumbling’s sake.
Love it or not, this is more than just a decent slice of horror, it’s a step in the right direction for an industry sick with problems of systemic, bullshit racism in terms of how it chooses to tell the stories it tells.