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Sweet Home   B

Toho Co.

Year Released: 1989
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Writer: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Cast: Nobuko Miyamoto, Nokko, Shingo Yamashiro, Fukumi Kuroda, Ichiro Furutachi, Juzo Itami.

Review by Jim Harper

Thanks to the offbeat serial-killer movie Cure (1997) and nerve-shredding ghost story Pulse (2001), Kiyoshi Kurosawa is recognized as one of Japan's premier exponents of the fear film. His long association with horror began in 1989, with Sweet Home, a big-budget haunted-house film inspired by The Haunting (1963) and Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist (1982). The pulsing soundtrack and eye-catching special effects are a long way from the subtle, metaphysical terrors of his later works, but it's still a superior horror film that deserves a wider audience.

A television crew -- the producer, Kazuo (Ichiro Furutachi), his daughter Emi (Nokko), his assistant Akiko (Nobuko Miyamoto), a cameraman, and the restorer/presenter -- enter the sprawling Mamiya mansion to film the restoration of a little-seen fresco painted by the artist who lived there decades before. They discover not one but several frescoes, including one that seems to depict the death of a young child in some kind of furnace. That night, the temperamental presenter wanders out into the grounds of the house and digs up a coffin containing the charred remains of an infant. It soon becomes apparent that the child's mother, although dead herself, has not left the house, and is still angered by her loss. When Emi is swallowed up by the house, Kazuo and Akiko are left to battle the twisted, angry spirit.

The most prominent aspect of Sweet Home is the special effects, provided by Hollywood effects maestro Dick Smith, who worked on The Exorcist (1973), Poltergeist III (1988), and the recent House on Haunted Hill (1999) remake. His effects here are gruesome and over the top, featuring regular mutilations, dismemberments and melting faces, but they're also good enough to compete with more expensive genre efforts from other countries.

Fortunately, the rest of the film is just as good as the special effects. Despite his later reputation for slow-burning atmospheric tales, Kurosawa shows himself fully capable of directing a fast-moving, sharply edited roller coaster of a film. It may not be terribly original, but the characters are engaging and the script is well written, providing an interesting variation on the traditional Japanese "vengeful female spirit" concept. The final third is fantastic, as Akiko takes on the role of surrogate mother, the only way she can hope to fight the grieving maternal demon that haunts the house. It's a hell of a lot more effective than the toothless Poltergeist, which fails to work up any sympathy for its cardboard cutout family tormented by a malevolent force that doesn't actually kill anyone. Comparisons with Poltergeist are surprisingly apt, because both films are big-budget projects overseen by well-known producers; in the case of Sweet Home, it's Juzo Itami, acclaimed director of The Funeral (1984) and Tampopo (1985). In a curious echo of the Hooper-Spielberg situation, some critics have suggested that Kurosawa, although listed as director, had little creative influence on the film and that most of the work was done by Itami.

Anyone looking for another Charisma is going to be sorely disappointed, but even when he's working within the limits of genre, Kurosawa is still a force to be reckoned with, and Sweet Home is a fine example of modern Japanese horror. Hopefully this will get picked up for a decent English-language DVD release soon, because it's a hidden gem.

Review published 08.10.2006.

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