Maiko (Kaitlyn Leeb), an American studying at an international school in her birth-land of Japan, brings some documentary filmmaker friends along on a search for the body of her late mother in the notorious Suicide Forest. She plans to perform a ritual to lay her soul to rest which Amber (Cassi Thomson) aims to capture on film with the aid of jittery sound technician Terry (Dejan Loyola) and resourceful cameraman Kyle (Graham Wardle). With only a creepy old man (Hiro Kanagawa) for a guide, the friends soon find themselves lost and disoriented in the sinister woods while the arrival of some obnoxious pranksters stir the spirits of the dead to enact a terrible vengeance.
We have had American remakes of seminal J-horror films, notably The Ring (2002) and The Grudge (2004), but the Canadian produced Grave Halloween stands as an out-and-out pastiche of the distinctively Japanese sub-genre. Scripter Ryan W. Smith, whose roots lie in comedy theatre and children's television, lifts such familiar motifs as the ubiquitous long-haired ghost girl and the curse sprung from a personal family tragedy. He melds these with tropes drawn from the equally familiar American tradition of teens lost in the woods stories, e.g. The Blair Witch Project (1999). Happily, despite the presence of a video camera, Steven R. Monroe - a prolific DTV horror director who segued into theatrical features with his remake of I Spit on Your Grave (2010) - admirably refrains from flogging the found-footage horse for the umpteenth time. Instead Grave Halloween serves a mash-up of sorts of both Asian and American horror traditions that is occasionally awkward, whenever the plot diverts back to the antics of three dumb college kids serving solely as monster fodder, but not uninteresting.
Made for the SyFy Channel (quite why they changed their name from the Sci-Fi Channel remains a mystery for the ages) the film is never especially disturbing but raises the odd chill. Though mildly bloody, the muted gore and lack of nudity normally included for exploitation fans leaves this a fair spooky slumber party movie for younger teenagers which is likely what it was intended to be. On a thematic level the film does echo some J-horror movies with its preoccupation with exorcising past pain, cyclical curses and a heroine so intent on revisiting a past best left alone she inadvertently seals her friends' doom. Unfortunately the film establishes a set of rules from the outset it then fails to adhere to. The malevolent spirits torment innocent bystanders along with those callous or stupid enough to rob from the dead, which somewhat muddles the message. It also fails to clarify exactly why the ghost of someone that killed themselves in despair would care so much about a wristwatch?
Despite solid performances from the ensemble cast, including Australian singer-actress Cassi Thomson who appears opposite Nicolas Cage in Biblical-themed apocalyptic thriller Left Behind (2014), only Maiko proves a compelling character. Strongly played by the remarkably beautiful Kaitlyn Leeb (best known as the three-breasted hooker in Total Recall (2012), among the few areas where the remake improved on the original) she is established as an appreciably intelligent and thoughtful heroine who respects and understands traditional rituals of the dead. Yet the plot undercuts all this for the sake of a sucker punch that does not add up. At least Monroe pulls off the scenes where victims disappear into some kind of ghost dimension before they die in a nicely disorientating fashion. The finale is visceral and exciting though spoiled by the inclusion of yet another logic-straining "gotcha!" Chalk that up as a sop to the more mainstream dumb horror tradition.