“Pray” – A.J. Hakari

When a movie like Pray announces the first major plot twist within the first five minutes, it usually means one of two things: either the film is skillful enough to back the revelation up with a tight story, or it’s merely the first in a long line of such turns in the plot that’ll be thrown our way. Unfortunately, this Japanese “New Generation” thriller falls into the latter category, not so much a “bad” movie in the traditional sense of the word but definitely disappointing in how it settles for being a low-key horror flick that tries compensating for its thematic shortcomings by piling on one tiring plot turn after another.

In dire need of some quick cash, desperate young lovers Mitsuru (Tetsuji Tamayama) and Maki (Asami Mizukawa) kidnap a young girl and hold her for ransom. The crime itself is pulled off without a hitch, and the pair hides out in an abandoned elementary school while they plot their next move. But the creepiness begins after Maki calls the girl’s family to make demands and learns a shocking discovery: the girl has apparently been dead for a year. At first the idea seems too bizarre and unlikely, but Mitsuru and Maki come to think it might be true as the little tyke keeps disappearing and popping up all over the school. The situation turns even more weird after the arrival of three accomplices, when a supernatural force dwelling within the school starts to take its revenge on the kids one by one.

In short, Pray is a movie with a potentially effective premise but no clue where the story should go or how to tell it. At a running time below the 80-minute mark, the film has quite a bit to say and not much time to say it in, so, like a dad who forgot to buy presents until Christmas Eve, the film bides its time by rushing through the motions of touching upon its various themes and undertones, barely delving into any subject for much longer, and tying it all up with a plot chock-full of elements recycled from other, similar Japanese horror opuses. In the end, you are left with only socks for Christmas, and the wrapping paper doesn’t even look all that great.

Granted, Pray has a corker of a premise. The film begins intriguingly enough, drawing the viewer in on the “what the…” factor induced by the early plot twists and always maintaining interest by making viewers wonder what’s going to happen next. But Pray dawdles around and wastes time resorting to one too many red herrings and “gotcha!” fake-out scares to keep the audience awake. The performances are decent enough, especially Tamayama’s convincing turn as the increasingly-confused Mitsuru, but the characters end up undermined by a story that has them wandering around a dark building and waiting to be killed. The fact that Pray barely touches upon a goldmine of dramatic themes, from confronting sins of the past to dredging up repressed childhood memories, serves to make matters worse. While viewers are subjected to a sub-par horror movie, they are also exposed to brief traces of the chilling masterpiece the movie might have been.

Pray isn’t a bad movie like She’s the Man and Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector are bad (in which cases, the driving premise is so lame, there’s nowhere for these films to go but down the tubes). Rather, Pray disappoints in the same manner as High Tension does. In both movies, the viewer is promised a horror genre Space Mountain experience, only to end up on something similar to the It’s a Small World ride. Although occasionally atmospheric and sporadically creepy, Pray results in a letdown for anyone looking to get the pants scared off them.

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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