Eko Eko Azarak: Wizard of Darkness (1995)
COMPANY: Tsuburaya Eizo
RUNTIME: 82 mins
PLOT: A mysterious new transfer student shows up at a high school where people have recently started dying. That night, when 13 students are staying late in the school, they get trapped in their school with unseen magical forces killing them off one-by-one, and it's up to Misa Kuroi, the mysterious new girl, to protect them and put a stop to the supernatural events.
REVIEW: Let me start this by saying that Eko Eko Azarak: Wizard of Darkness is a Japanese movie, and not one with an English Dub available for it, so if you're not the kind of person that likes to read subtitles while watching a movie then I'm telling you up front - this movie isn't for you. But if having to read subtitles doesn't faze you, then by all means, continue on.
I wasn't too sure what to expect when I first popped this movie in. I love all horror movies, no matter what country they're originally from, and some of the more well-known Asian horror movies, I've really enjoyed, such as Ringu (The Ring), Ju-On (The Grudge), Kairo (Pulse), and Chakushin Ari (One Missed Call) to name some. However this was a movie I had heard zip on before being told about it, and upon looking online I saw that it was a rather nearly-unheard of low budget affair and thus I didn't really know what to expect from it (though I did notice that it seems to have a small cult following).
It starts off with a scene of robed figures in some dim candle-lit room, chanting while doing bad things to a voodoo doll, inter-cut with a woman running and screaming through the streets at night, complete with overly-dramatic and cheesy 'intense' music. In pure Omen-fashion, an 'accident' occurs that results in a thick steel girder falling on her and crushing her head just as one of the robed figures slams a knife down onto the head of the voodoo doll. It's later revealed in the movie that this was the 5th person to mysteriously die in the last several nights, and one of the students pieces together with a map that if you join the areas where they died, it forms a giant pentagram and smack dab in the middle is their high school. These students instantly start casting suspicion on the mysterious new student, Misa Kuroi who seems to know a thing or two about magic. As the movie goes on, they discover a plot to resurrect Lucifer, in which after the pentagram of sacrifices is complete, thirteen more sacrifices are needed within the giant pentagram in order to complete the spell. It’s not long before twelve of the students are magically trapped in the school for the night with Misa, and things go from already-bad to terrifying. Not including the deaths (I'll get to those later), they're pursued by a handful of other creepy supernatural situations that includes, but is not limited to, an invisible barrier surrounding the school that prevents them from leaving, doors slamming open and shut on their own, a student getting possessed, geysers of water shooting up out of the toilet and bathroom sinks, and a number written on the chalkboard that seems to count down on its own as each person dies.
Of the roster of the 'main' 12 or so students, a few of them get decent characterization that lifts them up a bit from the others, but most are virtually ignored and regulated to forgettable background characters that get just one or two lines, if even that, and are then offed and due to that, it's very easy to get all the various characters confused and mixed up, but it's also a bit understandable considering that the movie is barely 80 minutes, so there's far too little time to waste on giving so many people decent characterization. Of the few that do get characterization, only one or two of those actually have you care about what happens to them and the other couple you almost want to see get killed due to their level of annoyance or unlikable personalities. Even Misa herself, the title character, seems to only have minimum characterization, but I'm willing to forgive that seeing as how much of the movie is shown to us through the point-of-view of the students thrust into a situation they can't comprehend, and so we mostly see Misa through their eyes and she purposely stays distant from them as this is 'just another job' for her and she doesn't want to get attached to anyone (something that despite her attempt, she fails at), because people who get close to her end up dying. But don't get me wrong, when the character does show emotion and freaks out a little, it really shows that the actress has some good acting chops and really can do a range of emotions, so when the character is being a bit monotone or distant, it's not due to the fault of the actress but the way the character was purposely-written.
One of the other female students that gets a bit of characterization as it turns out, is in 'a relationship' with a female teacher, but nothing whatsoever is done with this in the movie other then to have a really pointless, out-of-nowhere 5 minute-long lesbian sex scene, and then that 'sub plot', if it can be called that, is dropped again shortly after. Now I like my lesbian sex scenes as much as the next straight guy (The one in Bitch Slap is the stuff of legends), but I also like a coherent story. If I want pointless lesbian sex scenes that has nothing to do with the story or the characters, I'd rent a porno (I hear Lord of the Thongs is available). It wouldn't even be that bad if they continued injecting that aspect of the plot throughout the rest of the movie so it wouldn't have been so pointless, but they don't – it gets mentioned by a couple characters near the beginning as a rumor, it gets confirmed to us by way of the random sex scene, there's one line about it a scene or two later, and then nothing else is ever said or shown on the matter for the rest of the movie. And it goes on way too long. I think at least 5 minutes is the runtime on that scene, and it got a bit tedious and was probably the first and only time I've wanted to out and out skip a sex scene in a movie.
Another annoying aspect is that after getting trapped in the school, despite seeing with their own eyes that when someone goes off alone they get killed, several times in the movie various students still keep wanting to go off on their own or separate from the group because they think that Misa, after they find out she's a witch and people have died at all her old schools, is the one doing the black magic spells (despite the fact that she's been there with them the entire time and thus they saw with their own eyes that it can't be her). They end up leaving to go out on their own in a huff, and it makes no sense at all considering everything that's happened and continues to happen in the movie. And this doesn't happen just once, nor even twice. Oh no, it happens three times. Though one of those times, Misa isn't the one being accused and instead it's one of the other students but still, it's the exact same plot device used three separate times, and all three times it makes no sense other then to serve the script when it reaches a point where it's been several minutes without a gory death and the movie needs another, so it has to separate one or two people from the pack.
Adding to the whole 'random things happen for no reason other then to serve the script' argument, near the beginning of the movie, it's established that a bunch of other people in the school seem to dabble in real magic and treats it as if it's a normal regular occurrence that everyone dabbles in it. It made no sense, especially since once again it's pretty much completely dropped after the first few scenes of it, and it served no purpose other then to make just about everyone a suspect when the shit hits the fan.
The movie also tries too hard to make the viewer think early-on that Misa may be the one responsible, when she obviously isn't since she's portrayed as the hero of the movie in all the advertisements, previews, and even on the front cover. She IS a witch, yes, but she's a good witch that uses black magic to hunt evil witches and put a stop to their dastardly plans. Although that's pretty much void for 95% of the movie as due to a curse caused by the hidden evil witches, she's drained of all her powers for the majority of the flick, making me wonder why they even bothered to add the interesting-but-hardly-used subplot of her having magical powers.
And speaking of the evil witches – the beginning scene showed an entire group of evil hooded witches, yet come the end there's far less then that (to reveal how many would reveal how many of the main characters are in fact evil, but for the purpose of the rest of this review I'll refer to the killer(s) as a single entity), and there's no explanation given as to what happened to all the rest – one can assume they're all still out there somewhere, free to continue their evil witch ways; after that initial first scene, they're never seen nor heard-tell of again, so they seem to be a loose plot thread completely dropped from the movie after the first three minutes. Just one more in a long list of plot threads introduced in the movie only to be dropped and forgotten about.
Now up to this point I've been mostly harsh on the movie, and you may think I didn't like it, and while it's true that it's a far cry from perfect and it has quite a lot of glaring faults – overall I really did enjoy it. While most of the movie is done with oldskool practical effects, with the result being some nice and creepy visuals, there is two or three CGI shots present, and while one of the major ones looked pretty goofy and cheesy as a character starts disintegrating like sand and gets blown away, the other - a giant CGI Lucifer - actually looked pretty good.
The death scenes as well, despite some looking very cheesy in a low budget 90's kind of way, were really intense and were well-done with the practical effects, and thankfully it didn't hold back on the drippy red stuff. There are plenty of awesome and inventive death scenes to be found in this movie, with my personal favorite being this one scene were five students are all offed at once while trapped in a classroom and we witness the entire thing from outside the room, hearing their screams and panicked cries as the lights inside the room flicker on and off rapidly and large amounts of blood occasionally splash and smear against the foggy windows, leaving it entirely up to our imaginations as to exactly how they were being mutilated. Luckily we do see most of the movie's deaths on-screen, but when there's even just one horrifying scene like that where it happens off-screen and it's up to our own imaginations as to what happened, well that's more terrifying then anything that could have been shown.
Which leads into one of my favorite aspects of the movie and the thing it does the best – the director of this flick understands and knows how to do really good creepy atmosphere. Right from the opening seconds of the movie to when the credits role at the end, there's an uneasy feeling about everything that just eats away inside of you, just below the surface, and it crescendos during the thick of the movie as people are being offed left, right, and center, but even after the baddie of the day is defeated and Lucifer is back in Hell, that uneasy feeling still lingers. A lot of different aspects contribute to that, the first being the entire idea of black magic; It means someone can kill you and do nasty things to you from a far distance, while in the safety and comfort of pretty much anywhere, and there's not a damn thing you can do about it. They can strike whenever, and do whatever to you and you're 100% helpless to stop it; it's just a matter of waiting until it happens. Another contributing factor is the setting; I always enjoy it when horror movies take place inside a dark and creepy school. It's one of my personal favorite horror movie settings and works even better in those huge Japanese academy kind of schools.
At first I had the identity of the killer written under negative things due to how horribly predictable and lame it was, but then the movie pulled a fast one over on me and completely changed it's tune with one last twist that I admit, I did not see coming but I did really love and made me enjoy the reveal of the killer way more then before. This is also probably one of the times I've seen villains come the closest to winning, before having victory snatched from their grasp. The movie genuinely had me thinking that the bad guy was actually going to win in this one because I just didn't see any possible way for Misa to get out of her...um...predicament (if it can be called that). Suffice to say, she does, but even after seeing the movie multiple times I'm still a bit confused on exactly what happened in that scene and how Misa got herself out of it.
To hammer in the point that this isn't some feel-good happy-ending kind of movie, and the final contribution to the never-ending uneasiness you feel while watching (and this constitutes MAJOR SPOILER territory so you may want to skip this paragraph if you haven't seen the movie yet but you plan to, and you're against that sort of thing): No one survives except Misa. Not one single person. It was a nice and unexpected change of pace from how movies like this normally end, where at least one or two others are saved and walk off together into the sunset, having a good 'ol laugh. Even in the end, after Misa regains her powers, stops the bad guy, and saves the day - even after her tough exterior is finally broken away and she starts to become genuine friends with some of these people during their night of terror together – she is the sole survivor, after just having had to watch those she didn't want to get close to but did, die in front of her eyes, further re-instating just exactly why she shouldn't allow herself to become close to anyone. Even in the face of victory, there's a depressing, lonely, and even cold atmosphere surrounding it and the movie ends with Misa walking away down the road towards her next assignment, leaving as mysteriously as she appeared...once again alone.
Those final moments show us, more then anything else in the movie, exactly just the kind of life Misa has to live and why she has to be so cold and distant and not get close to anyone. And if anyone is still unsatisfied with the level of characterization for her in this movie and they want more, well fear not as you can just move on to the second movie, Eko Eko Azarak 2: Birth of the Wizard, since it's a prequel about Misa's discovery of her powers and the events that began her journey down this path, and the Misa in that movie is very much a different version of the character, from before her life was tipped upside down and what she thought she knew of the world was shattered - back when she was just another innocent teenager with no worries in the world.
The musical score is mostly really good as well. There are a couple times it's way overly-dramatic to the point of laugh-out-loud cheese, but most of the time it's somber and dreary, and very fitting for the tone of the movie. The haunting main theme especially drives that point home, and is a perfect match for the character of Misa, portraying in music everything that makes that character who she is.
Even though this film was fairly low budget and a bit on the cheesy side at times, and aspects of the script really annoyed me, it’s still overall a pretty enjoyable B-movie from Japan, that has a great gloomy atmosphere about it, with awesome gory death scenes, and some really well-executed scenes of supernatural-happenings to satisfy any lover of the genre. Even most of the negative aspects seem to bother me less and less upon repeat viewings and the movie just gets better each time I watch it. If I had to quickly describe this movie in one sentence to a possible interested-party, it would probably be this: Picture a feature-length, R-Rated, episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that centers around Willow instead of Buffy, mixed with a really dark adult version of Harry Potter.
7/10 rooms in the Psych Ward
Now, I want to take a minute to talk about the Special Features found on this DVD, just because I was incredibly impressed by them. For a movie that you'd find in the $4.99 bin at Wal-Mart, if you can even find it at all, they certainly put some good effort into the features. Alongside the theatrical trailer we have Making Of, which while I normally skip those these days since they're all pretty much the same, I really dug this one because you get a good look at the difference in cultures between America and Japan, and the things Japan does differently when making a movie compared to America (In one shot in particular, we see everyone doing a quick religious ceremony before they start filming for the day), but not everything is different as we also get to see plenty of footage of the cast goofing around and having just plain ol' fun while making the movie, and of course we're privy to how they pulled off some of the more elaborate special effects and death scenes.
After that we have footage from the World Film Premier with all the main cast and crew in attendance and answering press and fan questions alike, and again it seemed like everyone was really enjoying being there – both those who made the movie and those that were there to view it. It seemed like even before the movie came out there was a large and eager fanbase for it in Japan. Finally we have a decent-length retrospective Sit-Down Interview with the female director and the main actress who played Misa Kuroi as they remember back on the entire experience and give lots of insightful information and plenty of funny behind-the-scenes stories, during which we learn that the the annoying barely-there lesbian 'sub plot' and the out-of-nowhere pointless lesbian sex scene was only put in because the Company Suits forced the director to include that and she almost walked away from the movie in defiance, but ultimately didn't. Also included are stories of some pretty creepy mysterious going-ons that seemed to plague the filming, especially around the times that the lead actress had to cite the main Eko Eko Azarak chant (which, like all the magical incantations present in the movie, is a real Pagan chant). Over all, I'd say this retrospective interview was better and more informative then most Commentary tracks tend to be.
All in all, this DVD has a full set of really interesting features, all of which are subtitled, that I had a blast going through, and felt deserved its own little section here to be mentioned in.