Veteran cinematographer-turned-first-time-director Michael Barrett (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) and in-demand screenwriter Simon Barrett (You’re Next, The Guest, Blair Witch) combine scary forces with Temple, a U.S.-Japanese co-production that pays homage to Japanese horror films, particularly those about ancient demons and terrifying children. In it, three American tourists—Logan Huffman as Christopher, Natalia Warner as Kate, and Brandon Tyler Sklenar as James)—arrive in Japan to seek out a legendary temple hidden in the jungle. They are repeatedly warned against their makeshift adventure, but you know Americans; when do they ever listen? By the time they reach the temple, it’s evening so they decide to spend the night. And as you’d expect, nothing bad happens.
Barrett (the writer) is usually quite good at pacing his scares, and since Temple clocks in at less than 80 minutes, I really can’t fault the film for not moving things along. And coming from the photography side of things, Barrett (the director) certainly makes the most of the jungle setting and ancient ruins, especially at night. There is extra intrigue thanks to a passive-aggressive love triangle—James and Kate are a couple; Christopher is her oldest friend who has always held a torch for her—and there’s a chance that at least one of our American friends is mentally unstable, so being in the presence of an unstable spirit world isn’t going to help matters.
As with many Japanese ghost stories, the logic gets a little fuzzy and the dots don’t always connect in a way that feels like a full resolution. But the atmosphere, production design and minimal but effective makeup effects all contribute to a fairly satisfying creep show. The entire story is set inside the framework of an investigation by Japanese authorities talking to a survivor who is so badly injured, we can’t quite tell which one it is until the end, only adding to the mystery and tension. I almost wish the film had been less of a sketch and more of a fully formed idea, giving the characters more room to develop and the temple’s legends more color and depth. Still, what’s here has a handful of worthy moments of terror and intrigue, and if you’re a horror junkie, it’s a chance to see some truly talented filmmakers stretch their wings in the genre.
The film opens today at Facets Cinémathèque.