Masahiro Okano, Shigehito Kawata, Naoki Kusumoto, Toshikatsu Kubo
Cast: Joe Odagiri, Naota Takenaka, Masa Endo, Masaya Kato
Story: PRAYER BEADS is a nine-episode horror series. Each 30 minute episode stands on its own (in spite of a lame attempt to tie them all together in the last one), and each will be dealt with separately.
A pregnant woman, a psychologically unhinged friend and her missing husband, apparitions in their darkened apartment, mysterious connections between them all and the culminating zombie revenge are elements of this concoction.
I've always hated the phrase 'not bad for its kind', but it just sums up this episode perfectly: while not original or deep in any way, at least it tries to be as scary as possible with its limited means and déjà vu elements, and ends up as one of the creepiest episodes of this series.
EPISODE TWO: VENDING MACHINE WOMAN (director/writer Shigehito Kawata)
This is what happens when a young pair goes on a vacation unprepared: not only have they not checked on the place in advance, but even worse, they're going there with no soft drinks whatsoever. So, when the girl is thirsty in the middle of the night, her beau has no alternative but to go to a creepy shack several miles down the road through the woods, and take a few cans of queasy juice from a wending machine nearby. The effects of this juice, however, lead to a wonderfully extravagant conclusion.
This is a favorite episode among many, and I can see why: the isolated setting is creepy, and the outré ending is reminiscent of some crazy stories of early Stephen King, where weirdness awaits you just off the beaten path, with no rhyme or reason. It also features the series' most elaborate physical effect: it is a bit on the cheap, rubbery side, but is still quite effective in its merging of the organic and mechanic, sort of like a poor man's David Cronenberg meets a poor man's Screaming Mad George.
Young thugs intend to extort some money from an old lady. But, in Japanese horrors, old ladies are not to be fooled with! Besides, who is observing the criminal behind the closet door?
For my money, this was an endurance test, a bore-fest with a predictable twist not worth waiting for.
EPISODE FOUR: REAL (director Masahiro Okano)
A respected surgeon (Masayo Kato, from GOZU, AGITATOR, SAMURAI RESURRECTION…) suffers from headaches which make him untrustworthy and unbalanced in the middle of an operation. So, this man of science goes to a comic-book-creepy guy who wears a cloak and hides his face even in his living room, and accepts a mysterious "cure" with a side-effect or two. That's when he really enters the world of pain…
I have a weak spot for downward-spiral LSD-trips, so this portrait of a madman as a young surgeon had its moments (i.e. his visions), but was mostly dull and uninvolving in the remaining part, and lacks a real punch.
EPISODE FIVE: MUSHROOM HUNTING (director/writer Masahiro Okano)
An otaku boy meets a nice girl meets a date-rape jock over the internet. What do they do on their first encounter in real life? Why, they go to the woods for some mushroom hunting, of course. And what do they do when a comic-book-creepy guy (cloak, rags, hidden face and all) warns them not to proceed any further, or at least not to enter a witch's cabin? Well, of course they continue until they come to a cabin where a creepy old woman offers some nice mushroom soup. They were asking for it!
Other than being completely silly, unbelievable and trashy, this episode is quite passable. The acting is somewhat better than the usual (low) standards of this series, while mushrooms grown from human bodies are always a nice thing to see.
EPISODE SIX: EDDIE (director Toshikatsu Kubo)
It begins like a precursor of Korean THE HOST: in a river, under the bridge, there is a creature, and a bunch of spectators (and even a TV crew) are crowded on the bank. However, the said creature is a cute, seal-like thingee with those big sad-puppy eyes. How could it be dangerous? And what's a little telekinetic boy doing there?
You can never go wrong with giant vagina-monsters, and this episode proves this time-worn truth once again. OK, they are CGI, and rather poor CGI at that, but hell, it's giant vagina-monsters anyway, rampaging on the river bank and exploding all over the place. What else could you possibly want from your entertainment? Perhaps more money and physical creature effects instead of CGI, but… beggars can't be choosers!
EPISODE SEVEN: ECHOES (director/writer Naoki Kusumoto)
An old man and his wife exert a revenge on the men responsible for abducting their grand-daughter and selling her to the hospital for body parts. Is this a subtle satire on the underbelly of Japanese health-care system, unrivalled even by Michael Moore's SICKO, or just an excuse for some cheap CGI body-damage effects? You decide!
Once again, I wish they went with practical effects instead of (very poor) CGI! I mean, come on, guys, it's XXI century, and if you cannot make Joe Odagiri (BUGMASTER, SHINOBI, BLACK KISS, AZUMI) explode better than John Cassavetes did full three decades ago, in de Palma's THE FURY, you should bow your heads in shame! The story is dull and unconvincing on too many levels, even for this kind of Tales from the Crypt scenario.
EPISODE EIGHT: CAT’S PAW (director/writer Masahiro Okano)
A bullied boy (is there any other kind, except for bullies?) receives an unexpected help from an internet portal and a fuzzy cat-like creature through anime enactments of his three wishes.
Stylistically different at least in the sense that half of its running time is actually animated, this is a variation of the classic 'be careful what you wish for…' story, W.W. Jacobs' MONKEY'S PAW. We've seen millions of variations on the theme, including one on THE SIMPSONS, so why not an anime one?
EPISODE NINE: APARTMENT (director Masahiro Okano)
EPISODE NINE: APARTMENT (director Masahiro Okano)
What starts as a grueling family dinner from Hell ends up as a mess of a very different and silly kind.
There are two completely disjointed halves here: in the first one, a psychotic father torments his wife and two kids; in the second one Mr. Okano tries to include visual references to all previous episodes, regardless of the fact that none of that makes any sense, and so 'wraps up' this series in a haphazard way.
All in all, PRAYER BEADS is a decent, though not too inspired attempt to make a Japanese version of TALES FROM THE CRYPT (without the Crypt Keeper foolishness). It means it's trashy, cheap, clichéd, unconvincing and mostly dull, over-reliant on special effects (Masahiro Okano's real profession), with occasional flashes of inspiration scattered here and there. It is very low on atmosphere, mood and scares; when it attempts something of the kind, it ends up being silly, comic-book-like in the worst, most dated sense (think EC comics of the '50s as the paragon). Obviously shot on video, its visuals are workmanlike, bland, often banal or downright ugly, more appropriate for the SCHOOLGIRL IN CEMENT kind of snuff-like horrors than to something that's supposed to be scary. Nevertheless, there's quite enough for undiscriminating viewers to enjoy here, so if you feel like some low-brow horror fun for the whole family, go for it!