Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"A host of good performances, most notably from young Marie Iitoyo, make the fear real and infectious." | Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

The premise is simple; the delivery is where the power of Otsuichi's chiller lies. In the best tradition of ghost stories, it's not about what one sees but what one imagines - what slips into the space between imagination and reality.

Few cultures have achieved the crossover between ancient folklore and modern urban legend as effectively as the Japanese. Marrying that rich legacy with imported Victorian Gothic has given Japanese cinema something special, and Stare is a fine example of it. It starts, like many such a tale, with the sharing of a story. Somebody walking alone through a forest at night hears footsteps behind them. It's a woman. "I'm going to kill you because you know my name," she says. The telling of the tale involves performing a series of actions; it ends by involving the listener. Is the woman going to come for them too?

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Teenagers scare each other with stories like this all the time, all over the world. But when two young people discover that they both had friends who knew the story and that both those friends died mysteriously because their eyeballs exploded, the situation begins to look more sinister. Fearful that they too are doomed to die in this way, they set out learn everything they can about the mysterious woman. Where did her story originate? What does she want? Is there any way they can defend themselves against her? It turns out that there is one thing. She can only move when she can't be seen, her steps detectable because of the leper's bell she wears. In order to keep her at bay, no matter how terrified one is, one cannot look away: one has to stare.

After some meandering scenes about the young characters' social lives whose relevance takes a while to become clear, Otsuichi's film finds its rhythm and approaches its subject with a conviction that makes it hard to avoid being sucked in. The smoothly paced, utterly rational way in which the central mystery is explored makes the supernatural seem like a perfectly ordinary part of the world and the conclusions that the protagonists reach about the spirit hunting them are all the more disturbing for the logic behind them. A host of good performances, most notably from young Marie Iitoyo, make the fear real and infectious. if you hear a bell ring outside the cinema as you leave, you're likely to be looking over your shoulder all the way home.

One of the most impressive selections at this year's Fantasia International Film Festival, Stare is an excellent example of how keeping it simple lies at the heart of truly effective horror. No doubt some viewers will be so horrified by the thought of exploding eyeballs that they don't go to see it in the first place, but Otsuichi understands that the thought of this is more horrible than the reality, using such imagery sparingly and, curiously, without it ever seeming gratuitous. He's much less interested in gore than in psychological terror. It's there that his creation will get you if you lose your nerve and press your eyes shut.

Reviewed on: 18 Jul 2019
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A young woman begins to investigate after her friend joins those mysteriously found dead with their eyeballs exploded.

Director: Otsuichi

Writer: Otsuichi

Starring: Marie Iitoyo

Year: 2019

Runtime: 98 minutes

Country: Japan


Fantasia 2019

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