Hisaaki Nagaoka, the man behind the slasher film Slaughter Island, gets a bit more cerebral with The Roommate, a film that follows two pretty young women, an office worker named Ayako and a bar maid named Tamaki (Midori Tahara and Sayori Shiozaki,), who, through various twists of fate, wind up living together as roommates. When the film begins, this seems like a pretty ideal arrangement. The two get along remarkably well and soon move from simply roommates to the best of friends. Their relationship grows very quickly and they're comfortable sharing not just a living space, but possessions as well. The fact that the nosy woman next door sticks her nose in their business doesn't seem to upset them all that much, though Ayako's father is obviously curious about what his daughter is up to. The girls, however, simply want to be left alone.
Things start to get strange fairly early on, however, as their relationship again moves to the next level and their friendship becomes more than just plutonic and stranger still when one of the girls becomes possessed by some sort of demonic entity. As her behavior becomes increasingly more erratic, it becomes obvious that she's being used by this force to satiate its blood lust by killing innocent people.
The Roommate is fairly deliberate in pacing and structure and it isn't the fastest moving film ever made, but it does work towards building some good, palpable tension by taking this route. We get to know Ayako and Tamaki well enough during the first half of the movie that when things start to really hit the fan in the later half, we care about them and as such want to see how their plight ends and where it takes them. The movie isn't without fault - some of the slower parts are just that... slow - but some good foreshadowing and ominous imagery help to make up for that. This isn't a film that will have you shrieking with terror, but it is creepy enough in its last half that it'll at least provide a few well deserved shivers.
Midori Tahara and Sayori Shiozaki, both quite attractive young women, are well cast in this picture. We have no problem buying them as roommates or friends and when the plutonic becomes the romantic, it isn't such a stretch that it takes us out of the film. Instead, this angle feels like the next logical progression in their feelings for one another. Nagaoka likely takes the film in this direction not so much for its titillation factor but instead to give the more macabre and unnerving aspects of the story more weight. Because we know these two care about one another on many different levels, it makes the impending violence more real and more effective which, when dealing with supernatural elements as this film does, is important to its effectiveness.
Despite what the cover art may want you to think, The Roommate isn't all that bloody or even really all that violent. There are some murder set pieces but most of the actual carnage takes place outside of the camera's point of view. This could have been an effort to finish the film on a low budget (effects work costs money, obviously) or it could have been a 'less is more' approach on the part of the director - it's hard to say. The film doesn't necessarily suffer for the lack of gore, however, as the performances make up for it along with some help from the more clever aspects of the script. The film may not be an unsung classic, and at times it feels like it borrows a bit too much from other recent Japanese horror pictures, but it succeeds in getting enough right that it turns out to be a pretty entertaining way to kill seventy-five minutes.
The Roommate arrives on DVD in a non-anamorphic 1.85.1 widescreen transfer that appears to be the picture's original aspect ratio. On top of that, the transfer is interlaced. On the plus side, the source material used for the transfer is quite clean meaning that the image is free of print damage, dirt and debris. There aren't any problems with mpeg compression artifacts or edge enhancement though color reproduction leans towards the dark side of the spectrum and sometimes things are a little bit murky looking. All in all, the transfer is watchable enough, but it's nothing to write home about.
The Japanese language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track on this disc is pretty basic but it gets the job done. There isn't a whole lot of channel separation but the levels are well balanced and there are no problems with irritating hiss or distortion worth noting. Optional English language options are included, though some bizarre and awkward phrasings make them less than idea even if the clear white font is easy to read.
The best extra on this disc is a twenty-one minute behind the scenes featurette that is presented in Japanese with English subtitles. Much of the material here is simple behind on set footage but some interesting interviews with the cast and crew members do provide a welcome context for the material. It could have gone more in-depth than it does and maybe elaborated on the director's intentions a bit more than it does, but the featurette does shed some light on the making of the picture and for that reason it's worth checking out.
Rounding out the extras are a trailer for the feature, trailers for Slaughter Island and Scream Girls (all the trailers are in Japanese with English subtitles), a still gallery, a promo gallery for other Cinema Epoch DVD releases, static menus and chapter selection.
Sexual tension and the supernatural collide with some great atmosphere and nice cinematography to make The Roommate worth a look for fans of Japanese horror. Yes, there are moments that might remind you of other, better known films with a similar slant but there's enough here that's original and intriguing to redeem the picture. Cinema Epoch's DVD isn't much to write home about and is unfortunately non-anamorphic, but genre buffs might want to check this out even if it's not an essential purchase. Rent it.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.