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” dénoue­ment 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.