Don't Look Up is an utterly forgettable latecomer to the J-horror party. It features the unholy trinity of bad acting, a lackluster story and shoddy direction. Of those sins, the last one bothers me the most since the film represents a major step back for director Fruit Chan. Coming from the Hong Kong indie scene, he gave horror fans something to chew on with his fiendish entry in the Three...Extremes anthology called Dumplings. Based on his work there, I felt certain of 2 things: 1) Fruit Chan had talent to spare and 2) Fruit Chan was a sick, sick man. Don't Look Up does a pretty good job of erasing most of my good will and makes me wonder if Dumplings was just a fluke.
You know you're in for a bumpy ride when a movie opens with endless text that just spews back-story in your general direction. It's even worse when you realize, in retrospect, that the absurdly expository opening text is more interesting than the film that follows it. In any case, the film tells us of a poor gypsy girl named Matya who was tortured and killed by Romanian villagers because her face bore the mark of the devil. According to legend, Matya's mother made a pact with a gypsy demon that allowed her to pick any man for herself as long as she gave birth to the devil's child. With Matya's murder, the demon placed a curse on the village. Matya's spirit would haunt the village until the sordid details of her death were revealed and she was reborn via another woman carrying the demon's seed. In 1928, a Hungarian director named Bela Olt began to film Matya's tale. Unfortunately the film remains unfinished since Olt disappeared.
The first proper scene of the film shows Olt (Eli Roth) in action. He is shooting with his leading lady, Lila Kis (Rachael Murphy) when he notices something strange. When he goes outside to investigate, things go horribly wrong for Olt just as all of this is revealed to be a vision assaulting Marcus (Reshad Strik) in the present day. If it's any consolation, Marcus puts his visions, dead Hungarian directors and all, to good use. He directs horror movies and uses his visions to come up with concepts that will thrill audiences. His current object of obsession is a still image from Olt's unfinished film. The pull of the photograph is so strong that he decides to film his next movie in the same village where Olt vanished.
As Marcus descends upon Transylvania with his cast and crew, the film slowly sets itself up as a supernatural slasher with Matya as the spectral boogey(wo)man. Things start to go wrong on the creaky and dilapidated set, immediately putting the crew on edge. They start hearing the strange sobs of an unseen woman and are alarmed by unusually aggressive swarms of flies. Then they start dying. Some deaths look like filming mishaps as large lights crush people while others take swan dives off scaffolding. In the midst of all this, Marcus continues to have visions of the mayhem unfolding around him while his producer Josh (Henry Thomas) tries to keep the bottom line in check. It's only a matter of time before visions begin to meld with reality, forcing Marcus to play a role in some demonic plan that is just out of his grasp.
I called this film forgettable but it bears repeating. There just isn't much originality on display here. Chan, in collaboration with screenwriter Brian Cox (not that Brian Cox), seems to have assembled this film using the bargain bin of J-horror clichés. There are a number of sequences that are eerily reminiscent of Hideo Nakata's Ring. Oddly, this makes some sense since Nakata directed the 1996 film that Don't Look Up is based on. Nakata's film turned out to be his dry run for Ring just a few years later. To be fair, Chan's film is not a shot-for-shot remake since some new elements have been incorporated into the story. One notable addition is the fact that our lead now has visions rather than simply being a terrified director. This element doesn't really add much since Marcus hardly ever acts on his visions. In fact, I was truly stumped as to how he could be so calm after seeing his crew dying in horrible ways in his mind's eye.
As far as the performances go, only Henry Thomas as the money-minded producer and Kevin Corrigan as an irritable lighting guy seem to put in any effort at all. I take that back. Reshad Strik puts in a lot of effort as Marcus. In fact, at times he strains so hard that he manages the impossible task of being wild-eyed and wooden at the same time. Since the human element of the film isn't particularly compelling, Chan at least delivers on some loopy gore effects late in the game. We get a few forked tongues, some lopped off tumors and my favorite, the standing births. I feel the need to explain that last one. Chan confirms what I (and I'm going to guess a lot of men) have always believed. While babies may be cute little buggers, the physical process of delivering them is more horrific than anything filmmakers can conjure up. This doesn't stop Chan from trying his hardest. He gives us multiple scenes where babies are delivered by women who insist on doing so while standing up. Watching child emerge from mother (with an assist by gravity) in gory, goopy detail just made me think of some sort of perverse Cirque du Soleil act. Great, now I'm going to have that image stuck in my head.
The widescreen image was presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. I found the image to be fairly clear and free of defects. The color palette remained sedate except for the gore effects which insisted on splashing around a bit of the red stuff. Altogether, this was a more than adequate presentation of the material.
The English audio was presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital and 2.0 Stereo tracks. I chose to view the film with the 5.1 surround sound mix and found it be clear and free of defects. In addition, the rear surrounds were put to good use during the numerous scenes which featured buzzing flies and crying babies. English SDH subtitles were available.
First up, we have a Trailer (2:46) for the film. This is followed by a featurette on the Making of Don't Look Up (32:51). It features interviews with the cast and crew including Eli Roth, Henry Thomas and Kevin Corrigan. We also get to hear from Chan and Cox about how they were inspired by Hideo Nakata's original film. The cinematographer Poon Hang Sang discusses the finer points of making a Universal studio lot look like a Romanian village. A few of the special effects are also deconstructed and analyzed. The final extra consists of Behind the Scenes Footage (20:50) which is really just B-Roll footage showing the filming of a few different stunts.
Maybe his creative juices were running dry. Maybe he thought an updated Hideo Nakata film didn't need much of a personal imprint to be successful. No matter the reason, Don't Look Up represents a real misstep for Fruit Chan. For his American debut, he has given us a clichéd story with a miscast lead performance. Some late-in-the-game gore sequences feel like course correction by Chan but they prove to be too little and just seem out of place. If you want to watch Chan do horror right, just watch Dumplings again. Skip It.