This year’s Fantasia Festival has brought much-needed rejuvenation to J-horror sub-genre. Opening with the return of a frightening horror icon in the underwhelming Sadako, Hirotaka Adachi makes his own attempt to resurrect the genre with Stare, which also had its world premiere at Fantasia. It succeeds as a refreshing new addition to J-horror as it joins the ranks of the classics that came before it. Using the same tropes, Stare introduces us to a new legend – the haunting Shirai-san; a woman with abnormally large eyes who will follow and kill anyone who knows her name.
The film opens with the kind of beautiful cinematography you’d expect to find in a modern drama. Mizuki and Kana are seated having dinner in a restaurant as Kana recounts an eerie story about a wedding. Shortly after, there’s a subtle lighting change which casts a dark shadow over Kana’s face. She puts down her cutlery and hears the chime of a bell. She stands and stares out of a window, her face struck with horror. Kana suffers a violent death – her eyeballs literally exploding out of her sockets – which happens in public. Mizuki soon crosses paths with Haruo, whose brother Kazuto, a friend of Kana’s, died in the same manner. Knowing their deaths to be unusual – especially as they both heard them say “stay away” before they died – the pair’s investigation leads them to discover a new legend.
The curse itself works well as it’s passed on in the form of a scary story where Shirai-san’s name is revealed to the listener. The way the storyteller recounts the legend is very gripping as it’s told in short sentences with the aid of simple but captivating hand movements. You really feel drawn into this tale. “If she catches you, you die” is reminiscent of It Follows (2014), where it feels like there’s no escape. The scary story is something that can be repeated to friends in real life, which I can only assume horror fanatics will begin to tell at sleepovers under the chilling glow of a flashlight.
Each frame in Stare looks like it was crafted carefully in order to create not only a pleasing-looking film but also effective horror imagery. It’s a film that relies on visual storytelling as it puts its cinematography and makeup effects to great use. Shirai-san is terrifying despite us only seeing her in the shadows before we eventually see her face. Her appearances are often shrouded in a suspenseful score. We don’t always know which part of her we’ll see first – will it be her hand touching someone’s else’s, the bell she chimes, or perhaps her gruesome face? But when she appears properly, she usually begins at a fair distance from her victims: she starts crouched in the darkness and rises slowly, commencing her staring game before following her victims until she kills them. While the deaths are that of a psychic-link, the gore element of the exploding eyeballs adds something new to this familiar ghost story – one which still continues to celebrate the haunting image of the Yūrei or Onryō.
Most of Stare‘s plot follows Mizuki and Kazuto trying to uncover the mystery behind the curse to put a stop to the increasing rate of mysterious deaths. This may grow tiresome for those familiar with the format of J-horror, but this is a fresh curse that remains intriguing for its audience. Whilst slowly paced, the film never gets boring. There are many layers to the characters and the curse that make us only want to know more about them. There’s also a romance developing between the two protagonists that doesn’t take over the entire story. The fact Shirai-san can strike in both daylight and in public places makes it scarier – it’s great to see more filmmakers allow for horror to take place during both day and night as this messes with our expectations. Nowhere is safe. And now you know Shirai-san’s name, neither are you.