Haunted School (1995)

Class: Staff
Author: Anthony Romero
Score: (1.5/5)
August 23rd, 2006 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

Made before the highly successful Ring (1998) made the horror genre so "over represented" in Japan, Haunted School is aimed toward appeasing a far younger audience then the genre is normally associated with. Unfortunately, the movie has no middle ground as director Hideyuki Hirayama abandons the older audience as he panders to his intended crowd. The biggest problems with this production, though, are its oversimplified plot, lack of interesting characters, poor acting and extremely lackluster production values as the feature as a whole is fairly weak.

In terms of the story, the movie starts off on the day of graduation for an elementary school in Japan. During the excitement, a group of kids playing before class manage to accidentally destroy a nearby statue on campus, as they flee before anyone might accuse them. The rest of the school day ends up progressing without a hitch though, as the students are soon let out to enjoy their summer vacation. Unfortunately, one by one, five students during the after school hours end up finding their way to the adjacent condemned school building, each lured by a different means. To make matters worse, each is unable to leave the premises while increasingly odd events begin to transpire around them. Eventually, one of the younger teachers, Shinji Komukai, gets involved as he helps Kazuo Chiba conduct a search for his brother and the other missing students while trying to understand exactly what is going on at the nearby condemned schoolhouse.

As is fairly evident, the story itself is pretty simple without a great deal of setup. This, along with the fact that the scares are very mild, works well to pander to the production's young audience. Unfortunately, the pacing here is very slow, as the movie tends to outstay its welcome long before the credits begin to role. The movie's heavy use of slow motion without any type of reason as to why it's implemented so often, unless the director felt it actually heightened the fear factor, doesn't help this aspect either. The movie also tends to suffer due to the fact that it never lives up to its eerie start, where a strange voice calling itself "Mary" continues to prank call the school at night as she announces where she is each time, such as across the street, in front of the school and eventually on the premises itself. Instead of going for these type of scares or atmosphere, the movie is more about focusing on the bizarre as each room in the condemned structure seems to have a different angle to it, like the sunset inspired room with the “witch” or the upside-down classroom, which is probably one of the better concepts. Sadly, what this movie lacks is an interesting climax, which here is merely the arachnid creature kind of stumbling around while trying to act menacing to the group of kids. The creature itself ends up being trapped behind a weak looking fence that the kids quickly toss up, which is where he stays as the movie tends to forget about him despite the fact that he is only about ten or so feet away still.

In regards to character development, the movie tends to fall fairly short here. To the scriptwriter's credit, the film does set itself aside more than 20 minutes at the start for the simple purpose of fleshing out its characters. This does work to make the kids stand out a little, as one gets a basic sense for some of them like the two troublemakers (Shota Segawa and Kensuke Nakamura) for example. Unfortunately, though, this time does little to flesh out them out into complex characters or ones that the audience will care for, let alone like. As for the two more prominent “adult” characters, they don't fare much better. There is some back-story to the teacher Komukai about him being bullied into trapping a girl in a school room when he was a student there, prompting her to job out of the window to escape (although the film is quick to point out, to reassure the audience, that she did survive the fall). He says this was a traumatic experience for him during his youth, as one can imagine, yet the film does little to work with this element of the character, beyond it giving him courage to jump near the end when they believe they have discovered a possible exit from the condemned building.

The other more prominent “adult” character is Kensuke Nakamura's mother, who ends up being incredibly annoying for almost every second she is on screen. It's pretty unclear too what reaction exactly the writing had intended for the character to evoke from the audience. If it was, in fact, to make her seem like a “cool parent” as she runs her own motorcycle shop and openly mocks the teacher by calling him a coward among other things, then the writing has failed miserably as she comes off as simply a mean spirited and uncaring person here. The number of horrible lines and ideas she provides during the film is also just jaw dropping, such as scrutinizing the teacher's idea to call the police for help or how she abandons Kazuo Chiba after telling him it's his responsibility because that's “what love [for his brother] is all about” (yeah, great advice). She does end up bringing her ragtag biker gang back to the school just before the climax, although it fails to achieve that “here comes the cavalry” sense that the writing was likely going for. To make matters even worse, they don't really do anything, as the biker gang just seems to stand around for the most part and only end up helping to search for the broken object on the school's campus. In fact, the whole thing plays out more like an excuse to bring on possible family or friends of the staff and have them just stand around on screen for extended lengths of time.

In terms of the acting, it's pretty poor, although since most of the cast is made up of child stars I suppose that's not too surprising. For what it's worth, at least none of the performances are “cringe worthy,” even the instantly love struck Shota Segawa who tends to give the worst performance of the young cast. As for some of the older actors in the film, they don't manage to do anything noteworthy with the material they have been given. Hironobu Nomura as the young teacher Komukai is given the most screen time of the non-child stars, yet Nomura manages to give a fairly inadequate performance. He seems to have the most trouble trying to capture the more comedic elements of his character, like trying to play a straight face while there is a ghost right behind him; consequently, this makes these sequences fall flat as Nomura plays them too over the top to be credible.

As far as the production values are concerned, there isn't much to praise here. Special effects, for example, are fairly adequate at best. Some of the stuff, like the “anatomy model” coming to life with organs pulsing, is done well, while other things like the arachnid creature could have been created to much better effect. The claymation featured here is also fairly poor, as in general the SFX crew has fairly mixed results in bringing the huge number of oddities seen in the movie to life. On the upside, the green screen work is done fairly well here, although it's also used very sparingly through out the production. As for the feature's music, it's conducted by Fuji-Yama who, sadly, constructs are a very poor soundtrack for the film. There are really only a couple of worthwhile themes here, like the opening cue and the main title. His end credit piece, which uses heavy violin work and sounds like it was plucked out of a video game, is kind of catchy too, or at least until the children start singing. However, that's about it as the rest of the score is fairly poor and tacky for most of the film's duration. I wouldn't be surprised, given that the first few themes are pleasant, that Fuji-Yama had to rush to complete the rest of the soundtrack; however, since I haven't heard his work before, it could be just as likely that the first few themes were a fluke success for him.

In closing, Haunted School is a pretty forgettable film from every angle. The movie might appeal to a younger audience, but there is little to entertain adults here. For whatever reason, though, the movie was a relative hit at the box office, and spawned three theatrical sequels and a spin off television show, an impressive feat for any film one can be sure.