By Paula R. Stiles
Grave Halloween (2013). Director: Steven R. Monroe. Cast: Kaitlyn Leeb, Cassi Thomson, Graham Wardle. Country: Canada.
A young woman and a group of friends, who are doing a documentary, visit a forest in Japan (This is a real place called Aokigahara Forest, AKA the Sea of Trees or Suicide Forest, at the foot of Mount Fuji) where people go to commit suicide for reasons that remain not very clear, not least because they never seem to leave suicide notes or any other kind of explanation. Her mentally ill mother has killed herself and the girl must do a ritual to lay her spirit to rest. Once there, they quickly find themselves trapped by the angry spirits after some of her moronic friends desecrate a body. And then it all goes horribly wrong, in far too many ways.
On occasion, Syfy will air, even produce, a decent horror or science fiction film. I’m not talking about schlock like Sharknado, either, but series like Pumpkinhead and the later Prophecy films, miniseries Riverworld, or sardonic paean to apocalyptic conspiracy theories Stonehenge Apocalypse. You might also see something foreign and unusual like eerie New Zealand body-jumper flick The Ferryman, or some similarly-holiday-themed fare like All Souls Day: Dia de los Muertos.
Sadly, there is a much larger group of films that appear on Syfy where you have a good idea let down by incompentent execution. This film is in that latter group. You’ve got a great idea here (a literal wood of suicides evoking Dante’s Inferno), an unusual setting (rural Japan), a moody atmosphere, and some decent actors (notably, Hiro Kanagawa as a pivotal character). You even have a woman of color as the lead with a character conflict that quite easily passes the Bechdel Test, even in the inevitable flashback twist. What could go wrong?
I’ll tell you what could go wrong – the plot. It sucks. It’s the same old “Group of vapid, shallow teens get killed off, one by one” trope we’ve seen in a million slasher flicks, with the heroine reduced to an ineffectual Final Girl who can’t even save herself. It doesn’t help that every time she tries to warn someone, they continue to ignore her because of her Cassandra-like family history of instability, even in the face of really obvious signs of the paranormal.
Except that this isn’t a slasher flick – or it shouldn’t be. It’s a ghost story. About a young woman and her very troubled relationship with her crazy mother, both of whom grew up in, or at least adjacent to, a culture that has been known to fetishize suicide. How can you screw that up? It’s as if writers Ryan W. Smith and Sheldon Wilson came up with the idea, came up with the hook, did the research on the site in question (or at least watched the very-creepy documentary), and then couldn’t think of a thing to do for a story about it. So, they picked the same old American-centric teens-get-killed plot and went with it.
Just watch the real-life documentary, instead. Maybe you can write something better, something this idea deserves. I can’t see how you could write anything much worse.