Mmmm, can you smell it in the air? Pumpkin-flavored-everything, that crisp fall breeze and fresh apple pie – it’s October alright. Along with those distinctive fall treats comes a never-ending shipment of horror movies waiting to be reviewed, with Grave Halloween being my inaugural kickoff of what purists deem the official horror movie season. Coming to you from the producer of Embrace Of The Vampire (ugh) and the director of I Spit On Your Grave 2 (double ugh), this SyFy original (AHHH) was picked up for reasons unknown by Anchor Bay, almost a full year after its silver screen premiere. If you find yourself wandering around the “Suicide Forest,” don’t say I didn’t warn you – and watch out for evil Geisha ghosts!
Kaitlyn Leeb plays Maiko, a girl looking to uncover the truth about her mother’s suicide. Accompanied by some of her filmmaker friends, who obviously record the adventure documentary-style, Maiko sets out to explore a wooded area known as the “Suicide Forest” in hopes of finding answers. In proper haunted fashion, Maiko starts seeing a figure stalking her group as the bodies of dead souls start making their presence known. Is giving Maiko’s mother a proper burial worth the lives of her and her friends? Of course, if Maiko can even find her way out of the confusing maze of trees that is.
Did I mention that Grave Halloween takes place in Japan? The “Suicide Forest” is actually a real landmark named Aokigahara, laying at the Northwest base of Mt. Fuji. But this is an American movie, so characters end up being disrespectful exchange students who ignore the advice of a mysterious local drifter and act like a bunch of snobbish dillweeds who don’t respect the dead. It’s not the whole “foolish tourist” angle that frustrates though, because college kids spending a semester abroad is perfectly rational, yet it’s director Steven R. Monroe’s decision to not subtitle ANYTHING that causes confusion. Entire conversations happen between the few Japanese characters who pop-in for a bit part that go completely unacknowledged, while the American characters read Japanese text on signs without translating anything. This makes the Japanese setting feel cheap and useless, playing off ancient curses only for aesthetic pleasures that muddle an already weak script.
Monroe’s strong suit is gore and he does manage to get pretty gruesome given an obvious made-for-TV budget. A few characters suffer broken bones that protrude grotesquely from their skin, and limbs are severed with plenty of blood being sprayed, but other unfortunate deaths feel disconnected by their animated nature. Most memorably I can recall a swarm of insects flying directly out of a dying girl’s mouth into the face of her hopeful savior, creating an out-of-touch moment where CG bugs ruin any aspect of horror. The same can be said for a few fake blood-splatters that don’t favor practical effects, cheesing up the screen in true SyFy fashion. Although, there’s one specific shot where a tree starts bleeding, and even though its inclusion makes little sense, Monroe does manage a few seconds of artful horror – a very sparse “few.”
The rest of Grave Halloween is a lurching mess, spending an eternity running about the same lush forest setting with absolutely no changes of pace. I’ll admit the scenery sets quite a stage for filmmakers, but spending an hour and a half looking at the same trees over and over again wastes every bit of natural beauty on a lame repetition factor. Alternate realities are introduced to suggest the forest is alive, never letting victims escape, and the ghosts of suicidal Japanese souls attempt to strike fear through random pop-ups, but Ryan W. Smith’s story simply boils down to running Americans and clumsy falls continuing on a wasteful loop.
In one of the most climatic scenes of Grave Halloween, Maiko is forced to watch her friend Kyle (Graham Wardle) fight off a malicious spirit, a battle captured both with and without the spirit on camera. There are brief glimpses from Kyle’s POV, showing the spirit wringing his neck, yet from Maiko’s POV, all we see is actor Graham Wardle flailing around while pretending to be mauled by a vengeful spirit. What should be bleak and destructive is laughable and poorly implemented, carrying on for what seems like an eternity. The same can be said for Grave Halloween as a whole, a drawn-out ghost story that wastes a prime location on generic “thrills,” poor horror implementation and a bunch of sequences that I’m sure sounded like a good idea at the time. You’ll definitely want to avoid Aokigahara this Halloween, unfortunately for all the wrong reasons.
If you can't make me petrified of a place called the "Suicide Forest," you've got some explaining to do.