Revitalizing the nature of the genre with unique interpretations of a supernatural world intimately connected with the seemingly concrete existence of the everyday, Asian horror cinema brought a new level of thematic maturity, emotional depth, and intellectual resonance to our field. Finding new ways to express timeless motifs, Japanese thrillers like Ringu -- and such Korean imitations as Phone -- allow audiences to see threats both physical and psychic in ways as darkly beautiful as they are horrifying. Playing out grand tragedies against symbols of supernatural fear and internal responsibility, these films question Man's perception of himself and the possibly illusory nature of existence, illuminating the spiritual Otherworld with a sensibility soaked in the horrific heritage of folklore. Prayer Beads (2004), a new 2 disc horror anthology achieves this symbiosis of the supernatural and psychological within a frame context that reinterprets the old tropes of the folklore tradition with intelligent storytelling and inspired direction. Revolving around a frame gimmick rooted in Asian culture (and unique to Western filmgoers), this compilation of nine atmospheric supernatural nightmares are each represented by individual prayer beads -- one bead for each half hour tale of superstitious terror, guilt, and spectral tragedy. This inventive revision of the classical frame-structure and its individual stories are both graphic and moody, spilling blood one moment and shadows the next.
From its origins in cross-comparative mythology to its subsequent refinement as literary fiction the ghost story has terrified and challenges audiences most effectively through the miracle of the screen. Disturbing us with evidence of our mortality, descending into macabre possibilities of what the after-life may hold for us, supernatural themes also question the heart of existence itself. Exploring the spectral depths of archetypal cultural fears, the complexities of the shadowy human heart, and anxieties of the unknown, supernatural cinema reflects both the universal terrors of culture and the intimate anxieties of individual characters. Devoted not only to evoking the pleasant terrors of ghostly manifestations Prayer Beads is also intent on treating their subject matter and characters more seriously than is often the habit of the genre, approaching both the lost souls of a decidedly convincing Otherworld as well as those lost souls walking, sleeping, eating, and sleepwalking lives of banal chaos - those who are dead and longing to reach out to the living and those who, though alive, are unable to respond to their own hearts. Panic and pathos are displayed in equal measure, and while a minimal budget obviously cheapens the technical savvy of the features, it does nothing to really distract from the enjoyment of the alienated men and women whose own darkness of soul make them receptacles of rage, misery, and melancholy. "Prayer Beads," the first episode, features a pregnant widow haunted by the dead -- a spirit that also cheated on her with her best friend. A twisted love triangle with a surprisingly effective cast, this ghost story surpasses the simplicity of its minimal plot and relies on mood for effectiveness. Eroticism and black humor meet flesh-crawling special effects in "Vending Machine Woman," an original mingling of supernatural possession and the nature of greed/hunger. "It's Me" manages to be touching without resorting to pure sentimentality, evoking awe and sadness as a con artist struggles to recall who/what he is, while "Real" is a sci-fi attack on the integrity of the medical profession -- something already quite corrupt. "Mushroom Hunting" brings us squarely into the realm of traditional folklore, merging witchcraft and forebodings of doom with unfeeling commerce -- the cliché ending of this somewhat lessons the effect of what was an otherwise dream-like exercise of mood. "Eddie" is a stand out episode, merging science fiction themes with a rift of "It's A Good Life" thrown in, revolving around a boy thought to cause horrible accidents and the deceitful nature of appearances. The other three stories continue this generally successful marriage of traditional themes with modern sentiment.
Finding fresh, evocative, emotionally disturbing forms for mysterious elements of the unknown that both plague and fascinate us, Prayer Beads entertains with its 'spook show' surface mentality and desire to get under the skin at the same time that it wages a cultural exorcism, analyzing within its visually stunning imagery and themes those menacing mysteries of night-time existence. This modern revision of the traditional anthology film scares as much through suggestion and what it leaves unsaid as it does through graphic imagery. The stories occasionally lack satisfying character depth or fully developed plots but even the weaker episodes resonate with passion. Similar to the effects of nightmares, which carry their own sense of twisted logic, these dark wonders of shock evoke the terror of the unbelievable not so much through invading reality as by subverting it all together.
The directors of these vignettes are practiced surgeons of fear, knowing just where to separate flesh from bone, nerve from muscle. They successfully separate the banal everyday appearance of surface reality from the nightmarishly evocative, using the unknown as their scalpel, and the lives of everyday men and women as their canvas. The world, if but for a brief time (sometimes very brief!), is transformed into a secret geography of nightmare. Managing to succeed as rapid-fire "shock 'em!" vignettes, these examples of cinematic meta-fiction lend the impression that they are larger, more complexly plotted tragedies. Cross-cultural nightmares plucked from the fertile dark minds of such storytellers as Hirokatsu Kihara and Ichiro Nakayama, these neurotic nightmares weave raw kernels of truth into their fantasies.
Prayer Beads is offered in 1.85:1. The quality is sharp and picture is clear, without any noticeable distortions such as grain or soft imagery. Audio is just as proficient, featured in 2.0 Stereo with optional subtitles. Extras include a trailer and still gallery.
Review by William P. Simmons
|Released by Dark Sky|
|Region 1 - NTSC|
|see main review|