“Ghost Train” – A.J. Hakari

It’s almost too tempting to brand the recent wave of Asian horror pictures as Ringu ripoffs. I’d like to think that not all of these flicks are liberally borrowing something from Hideo Nakata’s ghostly trendsetter, but the more movies I see, the more it seems to be the case. At least something like Ghost Train attempts in its opening scenes to carve out its own storytelling territory, to put its own spin on a formula that, in just a few short years, has been played to the bone and beyond. The further it progresses, though, the more it can’t resist but bend to the will of that beckoning call, shifting in no time at all from an atmospheric little ditty to one of the most erratic and schizophrenic horror movies in recent memory.


While most of her schoolmates are concerned with boys and parties, Nana (Erika Sawajiri) is a mature young woman looking forward to getting a good college education. When her mother enters the hospital for an extended stay, Nana is saddled with the responsibility of watching over her younger sister, Noriko (Sayuri Honda). But after Noriko decides to pay her mom a visit in the hospital, she mysteriously vanishes from a nearby train station. The only clue to her disappearance is a train pass that Nana previously saw in the hands of a boy who also disappeared without a trace. Nana doesn’t want to believe that the supernatural is involved, but that possibility becomes all the more probable when she runs into two others who’ve also had ghostly encounters. Fellow student Kanae (Chinatsu Wakatsuki) received a bracelet that doesn’t want to come off, and conductor Shunichi (Shun Oguri) swears he saw a woman’s body on the train tracks. Together, this trio dives headfirst into investigating the source of their otherworldly troubles, with results more terrifying than they could’ve ever imagined.


As I mentioned before, Ghost Train actually gets off to a fairly decent start. Rather than adopt the “urban legend” premise shared by everything from Ringu to Ju-On, Ghost Train establishes a true mystery at its core: the characters have no clue what’s going on, and neither do we, and for a while, the vicarious investigation does a swell job of wrapping viewers up in the action. But after boosting your confidence with its opening scenes, Ghost Train proceeds to do everything in its power to make sure that not a trace of those good vibes are left by the ending credits. The flick quickly devolves into a lifeless excuse for a horror movie, replete with predictable scares, laughable CG imagery, and absolutely tactless storytelling; you’ll know what I mean about the latter when a character shows up in the 11th hour that the movie expects us to have known all along. Occasionally, something kind of creepy will happen (such as when you can barely see something lurking in the shadows), but mostly, you the viewers are stuck watching the characters wander their way towards the film’s sloppy denouement.


Characterizations aren’t one of the movie’s strongest suits, either. Instead of a responsible but emotionally fragile young lady being put through the wringer, our heroine turns out to be the Japanese version of Nancy Drew. Sawajiri is cute as a button, but the often robotic way in which she delivers her dialogue doesn’t exactly convince us of the mental anguish she’s going through, having to deal with both a sick mother and now a sister who may have been abducted by a ghost. The same goes for Wakatsuki, who’s way too perky in the face of a supernatural force of evil and whose desire for a true friend is one of the film’s more random and useless subplots. The best turns come from Honda, who performs brightly as the spry Noriko, and Oguri, who plays a determined sadsack to at least better effect than some of his castmates do in their parts.


The one thing I’ll grant Ghost Train is that its characters aren’t a bunch of imbeciles. It’s a relief to, for once, see a group of people tackling the supernatural on a trial-and-error basis, as opposed to being flat-out told not to do the one thing that will spell their respective dooms, only to go ahead and do it anyway. But there’s no mystery about what a stinker Ghost Train is, with those unfortunate enough to slide the flick into their DVD players being the most doomed of them all.


Rating: ★½☆☆


-A.J. Hakari


Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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