Review: St John’s Wort (2001)

Directed by:
Cast: ,

Not available in Australia on DVD (to our knowledge)

Okay, the World Movies precis runs thus: “Based on, and playing like, the hugely popular Japanese video game, a terrifying horror film that uses interactive video, animation and computer graphics to horrifying effect.” Not entirely true, but not entirely false either. Walk with me through the film…

For starters, the main story, that of a girl exploring a house left to her by her painter father, is reflected not-quite-faithfully in the video game being designed by a group of her friends. As Nami and her friend (sorry, can’t remember his name) drive into a countryside made surreal by frequent and arbitrary colour changes, the two remaining designers work on visuals for the game. Tension builds nicely at this point, as flashes of nightmare (or memory?) interrupt the drive: a gradual slide into madness seems to be the aim here, and it works fairly well.

Genre cliches are used to good effect, too: the isolated house in the woods, backlit by the nightmare sky, simply screams atmosphere. Similarly, when Nami receives the keys from the caretaker, we get a glimpse of the caretaker’s hand, and hear his voice (although filtered through the medium of the game), but we never see his face. Once the friends enter the house, and start exploring, we find paintings by the father: obscure, ominous works, obviously not the work of someone who skips about the fields carolling gaily.

One genre cliche, however, annoys the hell out of me: digital video. There’s nothing more annoying, to me at least, than having to squint into the gloom to make out what’s going on. Unless, of course, it is having to contend with the nausea induced by the sodding cameraman waving the camera around as if he’s trying to get a child to eat dinner (“It’s an aeroplane! Brrrrr…”).

I was also disappointed that more use was not made of the theme of the title. Almost the first words spoken, by a character in the game, are “St John’s Wort”. This is explained, a little later, during the walk through the garden surrounding the house. The entire garden is carpeted with small yellow flowers: “St John’s Wort,” says Nami’s friend. “It’s revenge, in the language of flowers.” The idea of having a garden full of revenge sent a shiver or two down my spine. The discovery by Nami, some time later, of a small yellow flower in each portrait of her missing sister, drove the shiver one stage higher. Alas, the promised denoument failed to happen, and the storyline of the garden full of revenge just petered out.

I’ve also got a minor quibble with the computer-savviness of the protagonists: I’m sure any geek worth his or her salt (why salt? Why not chocolate?) would gurgle in indignation at the idea of just downloading any old files from any old source. Hey, I’m happy with rampant cyber-infection, how about you? But then it’s a common genre convention for the teens in any horror flick to ignore the obvious dangers, in the same manner as a pantomime character: “Look out behind youoooo,” we shout. “Don’t download those files from a possible barking nutcase!” Of course they don’t listen: if they did, it would be a pretty sad horror film, wouldn’t it?

Overall, then, the film offers some tension and some scares, but fails to live up to its promise. But then, as a Japanese horror, it will get measured against Ring, and that’s a damned intimidating yardstick for any film, so it’s not surprising that it falls short.Worth a look, and rewarding enough, provided you don’t expect a major jewel in the Japanese horror crown.

6.5 small yellow flowers out of 10.
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