Director Hideo Nakata has never quite topped, or even equalled, his 1998 break-out horror Ring. The tale of a cursed video cassette and the brooding, black-haired emo spirit Sadako, spawned a genre icon, sequel (Ring 2), prequel (Ring 0), US remake (directed by Gore Verbinski), US remake sequel (directed by Nakata) and a golden-age of Asian horror from which the likes of Audition, The Grudge and The Eye emerged. Sixteen years later and Nakata returns with this insipid, supernatural pot-boiler that’s more similar, in quality, to his flaccid Ring follow-ups Dark Water and Chatroom than the mighty J-horror that made him.

Ghost Theater follows dotty, young actress Sara (Haruka Shimazaki) who lands a supporting role in major, new stage production “The Whimper of Fresh Blood”. Sara, who has an ability to swiftly memorise text, falls out with main star Aoi (Riho Takada) after reminding her of her lines then forms a frosty relationship with the rest of the cast as a result. Soon obligatory eerie incidents start occurring and Sara believes the events are linked to the mannequin with terrifying eyes which lives at the heart of their possibly cursed production.

Nakata hews the lurid, neon of Dario Argento with plot/ character fragments of Black Swan, the design of Georges Franju’s Eyes Without A Face and a soupcon of Scooby Doo but fails to pump life into his ham-fisted spectre story. Goblinesque ghost train music gilds the Giallo atmosphere but Ghost Theater lacks the necessary fear or edge, despite scary dolls often working wonders within the horror genre. James Wan’s The Conjuring, Saw and Dead Silence all featured efficiently scary toys while doe-eyed dolls injected supernatural tension into the likes of Poltergeist and Dead of Night and were practically played for laughs in the Puppet Master, Demonic Toys and Child’s Play franchises.

Jun’ya Kato and Ryuta Miyake’s screenplay (a retelling of Nakata’s 1996 horror Don’t Look Up) jostles some intriguing ideas but Nakata’s botched direction ruins Ghost Theater. There are some slightly unnerving moments but not the kind of bone-quaking terror a film like this requires. The possessed mannequin looks far too flimsy to be considered a threat, twitching into robo-Michael Jackson mode before rampaging like a rabid Pinocchio through the laugh-a-minute finale. Ghost Theater judders as a rickety ghost-train before skidding on its own chestnuts and collapsing into ridiculousness for the final act. It’s a botched trek through redundant terrain. While the hell circus vibe with a twisted carnival disposition instils an interesting mood, it renders the scares pitiable and Nakata fails to compensate with his clumsy, cumbersome baddie.

Ghost Theater
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Daniel Goodwin is a prevalent film writer for multiple websites including HeyUGuys, Scream Horror Magazine, Little White Lies, i-D and Dazed. After studying Film, Media and Cultural Studies at university and Creative Writing at the London School of Journalism, Daniel went on to work in TV production for Hat Trick Productions, So Television and The London Studios. He has also worked at the Home Office, in the private office of Hilary Benn MP and the Coroner's and Burials Department, as well as on the Movies on Pay TV market investigation for the Competition Commission.