Saturday, February 11, 2023

Mirages Are About to Appear: Ox-Head Village (2023) Review [Screambox Original]

Director: Takashi Shimizu

Notable Cast: Koki, Riku Hagiwara, Keiko Horiuchi, Rinka Otani, Haruka Imou, Akaji Maro, Satoru Matsuo, Fumiya Takahashi, Naoki Tanaka, Satoru Date, Riko


At just over the fifteen-minute mark in Takashi Shimizu’s latest horror flick, Ox-Head Village, our leading lady and her “not-boyfriend” go to a smaller seaside town looking to investigate a viral video.  An announcement over a loudspeaker is made, “the mirages are about to appear.” Everyone skitters to the water’s edge to see the mirages and Kanon, the lead character of this story played by Koki, starts to see the forms of people on the water. Ghostly people.


Although this would seem like the first ghostly images to start off a horror film, we’re already fifteen minutes into a Shimizu story. That means we’ve already seen plenty of visual trickery, ghostly images, and classic unnerving subtle spook work. Unattached hands, vague visages of oxen's head, and a minor case of doppelganger reflections. By the time these ‘mirages’ show up, Ox-Head Village has already been littering the landscape with classic J-horror visuals and tones. You’re damn right, it’s a Shimizu film. 


The first fifteen minutes of Ox-Head Village is a stark reminder of why the previously appointed sub-genre of J-Horror, an entire tone and style that Shimizu helped establish with his Ju-On (Grudge) films, can be so damn compelling. This third part of his “Village Trilogy,” which includes Howling Village and Suicide Forest Village, is Shimizu going back to the well that has kept him a staple of the haunted genre for decades. It’s also the best one of the trilogy. 


It’s no Marebito or Ju-On: The Grudge, but Ox-Head Village is definitely one of his best in a long, long time. It’s a film crammed full of ghastly shocks, spooks, and seething concepts around sins of the past, present, and possible future. It provides that reminder of why Shimizu is so good at blurring lines between reality, nightmare, and the realms of life, death, and the purgatorial states in between. 


The obstacle that this auteur-lite director has always faced is whether or not the story he’s telling actually aligns with his style or the concepts he’s dabbling in. With Ox-Head Village (and so many other J-horror films) much of the plot is saved for the mystery on hand. Kanon and her “not boyfriend,” Ren, find this viral video about a haunted facility. The girls in the video go to scare their friend Shion, also played by Koki, and she suddenly disappears after a potentially deadly elevator accident. Intrigued by the idea, they set off toward the titular rural community to investigate Kanon’s doppelganger. Naturally, the plot becomes increasingly convoluted as it goes, introducing the audience to entire cult rituals, plenty of ox-head-wearing kids, and a family secret that will possibly haunt everyone for eternity. 


You know. The usual. 


While the script with its increasingly complex plot and secondary characters that fade in and out of relevance do become a smidge trope laden by the final act, it’s the hazy sense of time, reality, and cognizant narrative that carry Ox-Head Village on and throughout. Yes, many of the scares might be fairly run-of-the-mill for the genre, but there are a handful of these horror sequences that truly do inspire some shock. The use of an elevator shaft sequence in the opening sets the tone nicely, there’s a fantastic reveal of a ghost in repetition around a splashing puddle of water, and the finale features one of Shimizu’s classic dream-like sequences that pushes the blur button on reality. If you wanted to see a dozen kids running around with ox heads, you’ve got your wish. 


If anything, it is the pacing of the film that ends up being the biggest hurdle to leap over. Ox-Head Village comes out with all the J-horror spooks blazing, it ends in a creepy chase sequence that seemingly navigates multiple periods of time and features just enough cannibalism to snare a few gags in the audience, but the middle mystery portion ends up slowing the pacing down quite a bit. It’s spattered with a few solid kills, including a second (!) elevator demise that pops with a jarring crunch, but it is incredibly heavy on the detectiving (yes, I know that’s not a word) to keep up the energy. Not that this is unusual for one of Shimizu’s newer horror films, but it’s something to keep in mind. 


In the end, like the previously mentioned mirages in that early sequence, Ox-Head Village toys admirably with the perception of its audience. While Shimizu has frequently revisited this concept and stylistic approach in his horror films, most of his more recent output has not found the balance as this film manages to create. There are some solid performances, particularly from Koki, and many of the ghost scares and ethereal tone changes easily make up for the patchy script work and lower budget constraints. For this “Village Trilogy,” Ox-Head Village finds the best balance and manages to reaffirm why Shimizu still has some savvy in him. 


Written By Matt Malpica Reifschneider

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