Film Review: Rokuroku: The Promise of the Witch

Japanese ghouls come to live in this inventive, chilling horror offering.
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At Montreal’s Fantastia Film Festival, you never know quite what you’re going to get. Much of it is horror and genre, with a lot of films that can only be categorized as “just plain wacky.” (Gintama, a film that screened there last year, had a scene where a man painted mayonnaise on a tree. Also: JoJo hair.) Asian films have a heavy presence at the fest, too, including those that aren’t horror or genre, which is how you get last year’s festival standout Bad Genius  (incomprehensibly tossed straight to iTunes) or this year’s coming-of-age gem Amiko. At Fantasia, people meow at the screen (it’s a thing), booze and poutine (oh, Canada) flow freely, and taking chances with what you see can result in some pleasant discoveries.

Fantasia is a mad bastard of a film festival, is what I’m trying to say, and a mad bastard of a film festival deserves a mad bastard of a film. That movie is Rokuroku: The Promise of the Witch.

Yudai Yamaguchi directs this kinda-sorta-quasi anthology horror film in which a bunch of yokai—monsters out of Japanese folklore—terrorize a town. Mostly self-contained stories of, say, a one-legged umbrella demon called a karakasa tormenting a man driving at home on a dark and stormy night are interspersed with the overarching story of a woman named Izumi. Izumi’s grandfather sees demons. No one around him believes that he does, but ah-hah, the audience knows better. One day, out of the blue, Izumi is contacted by her old friend Mika, . Her meeting with Mika—again, dotted throughout with stories of increasing demonic activity in the area—dredges forth from the depths of their memories a particularly frightening encounter from their childhood.

And at the center of everything—a creepy hotel and room 666.

Rokuroku is a bit hard to get a handle on at first. The visual effects aren’t polished in a way that viewers of big-budget blockbusters have some to expect. They’re janky and, well, weird-looking, calling to mind the somewhat plastic-y, stiff efforts of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. Further, it’s not quite clear—at least to Western audiences not familiar with Japanese folklore—who all these demons are and how all their stories are supposed to fit together. Or are they supposed to fit together? What’s the deal with the hotel? In what order are all these stories taking place? That giant head rolling down the hallway, tormenting a poor office worker: what the fuck?

As the threads come together in their loose fashion, though, the vague sense of disquiet and the unnatural appearance of the demons themselves make Rokuroku more and more creepy. You never quite know where you stand, what’s going to happen, or what it’s going to look like when it does, and that’s an intoxicating thing when you’ve been on a diet of cheap, quick, and for the most part identical horror movies as of late. Rokuroku: You can’t look away. It’s the best kind of bonkers.