One of the defining horror movie trends of the 2000’s was the J-Horror ghost story .  With flicks like Ringu and Ju-on, this subgenre of horror offered a psychologically driven, less visceral alternative to the splattery Saw/Hostel trend in the marketplace.  Said trend ultimately wore out its welcome but not until virtually every J-horror epic of note got a Hollywood remake, most of them middling-to-lousy.  By then, horror fans who splurged on the subgenre realized that, like the slasher movie, it had a reliable but limited set of elements – and if you aren’t careful with the formula, the results can be less than impressive.

Gurozuka is an example of J-horror from a later time in the cycle (2005 to be specific).  By then, the subgenre had a lot of codified elements and this film subscribes to them in a faithful manner: it’s built around the travails of Maki (Yoko Mitsuya) and Ai (Chisato Morishita), a pair of students trying to revive their school’s long-dormant cinema club by filming a new project with some friends.  Unfortunately, the situation isn’t ideal for artistic expression: spoiled starlet Natsuki (Yuko Kurosawa) is more introduced in doing a promo reel for herself than giving a performance and the adult supervisor Ms. Yoko (Yuko Ito) has brought her sullen, troubled friend/possible lover Takako (Nazomi Ando), whom no one likes, to “help.”

However, the biggest problem facing Maki and Ai is the fact that they are stepping on potentially haunted ground.  The project they seek to do is not only a horror film but a re-enactment of a previous student project that was rumored to end in death and insanity.  They’ve even brought a copy of the project to refer to – and after everyone watches it, strange things begin to happen.  First, the food disappears, followed quickly by some of the students.  Before their film shoot excursion ends, Maki and Ai are destined to find out the truth behind the tragedy that inspired their remake project.

The premise of Gurozuka is derivative but serviceable enough: the haunted videotape plot hook aligns the film with Ringu and all its cinematic children while there is a scene with a woodland totem that echoes The Blair Witch Project.  The cast gives competent, serious performances and director Yoichi Nishiyama is able to evoke a creepy yet intriguingly sterile atmosphere… and yet Gurozuka still has the stale feeling of an also-ran in the J-horror world.

The first problem is the film’s unwillingness to step outside its genre rules.  From the setup to the end credits, anyone who has a familiarity with J-horror can predict everything that will happen here.  There are no real shocks or surprises as the film quickly yet blandly moves from one stock scene to the next.  Even the obligatory “surprise” denouement is achingly predictable.

The other big problem here is that Gurozuka has a rather numb and joyless feel to it.  J-horror of the ghost story variety is typically subtle and austere in its approach but the makers of Gurozuka go perhaps a little too far in this direction.  Even when the shocks kick in, accompanied by annoyingly clattery music, they lack any kind of visceral thrill or spine-tingling effect.  It doesn’t help that Nishiyama has an annoying fondness for weak, American-style “jump scares” and does a poor job of crafting these bits.

In short, Gurozuka is a programmer in the J-horror world and one of the lesser ones, at that.  If you’re a diehard fan of this style, this film might cover enough of the basics to please you.  Everyone else will be probably be left feeling as numb as the film itself.