According to legend, one Halloween night in the 1880s, the minister of Egg Hill Church in pastoral Pennsylvania poisoned his entire congregation with communion wine and then hung himself from the bell tower. This shrine nestled in a remote Japanese forest is sort of the Buddhist equivalent. It also has its share of dead children and a Buddhist priest who was possibly guilty, but very definitely lynched for the crimes. Ever since, it just radiates bad grudges, but three American tourists will seek it out anyway, to move the story along in Michael Barrett’s Temple (trailer here), which opens today in New York.
Christopher is still recovering from a nervous breakdown precipitated by his brother’s death, but he agreed to accompany Kate, the childhood platonic friend he has long carried a torch for, and her smug boyfriend James on their Japanese vacation. He ought to know better than to put himself in that position, but he has it bad for her. She should also know better than to inflict that kind of torture on him, but Christopher speaks Japanese, so he will be handy to have around.
Kate is researching Buddhist and Shinto shrines for her comparative religion thesis, so when they come across an evocative sketch of our titular temple in a second-hand book, she insists they find it. She will not be dissuaded when the proprietor freaks out at the sight of the journal, refusing to sell it to her. Christopher displays an appalling lack of intuition when he later returns to the store, only finding a mysterious little boy, who is ever so willing to sell him the volume—but to be fair, he is very drunk.
Even though random strangers try to warn Christopher off, the trio follows the clues laid out in the journal to a rustic mountain village. Much to Christopher’s surprise, but still not stirring any of his suspicions, they come across the same little boy. Of course, he will be happy to guide them to the temple in the morning, but the absolutely, positively must be back before sundown. No problem, right? Or maybe so, judging from the in media res opening that takes place in a high security mental hospital.
In demand horror scribe Simon Barrett (no relation to Michael) is credited with the screenplay, but he has essentially disavowed the film. It sounds like he just completed some piecemeal work-for-hire treatments way back when that bear only the vaguest resemblance to the final shooting script, but the truth is Temple is not so very far removed from his screenplay for the thoroughly conventional Blair Witch reboot. Michael Barrett and cinematographer Cory Geryak also shrewdly capitalize on the Japanese settings and imagery.
Naoto Takenaka is so awesomely grizzled and world-weary as Prof. Ryo, the headshrinker interrogating Christopher in the wrap-around segments, we wish the film were really about his investigation. By the same token, it is cool to see recognizable Japanese character actor Kanji Furutachi (After the Storm, Harmonium, Au Revoir L’été) as the Shinjuku bar patron who tries to convince Christopher to forget all about the temple. In contrast, the three Yanks are all competent on a professional level, but there is so little to distinguish them, you probably would not recognize them the next morning if you sat next to them on the subway.
Temple has a wonderfully picturesque sense of place and some nice atmospherics, but the characters’ relationship dynamics are just the same old stuff. Frankly, it could have used some Simon Barrett doctoring and polish, but much like the notorious cut of Dying of the Light re-edited without Paul Schrader’s involvement, Temple is far more watchable than its reputation suggests. Recommended as a future stream for those who dig Japanese-flavored horror without the standard issue j-horror tropes, Temple opens today (9/1) in New York, at the Cinema Village.