Ever hear of a "visual novel"? I hadn't, at least not until after I saw this film, which I had previously assumed to be based on some obscure Japanese computer game. But computer games are not always just computer games, and Otogiriso is less a first cousin to, say, Ms. Pacman or Super Mario Brothers or Grand Theft Auto than a distant relative of Leisure Suit Larry – a fact most obvious, perhaps, in a scene in which one of the characters in Otogiriso finds a key while closing a window that takes the protagonists further in their exploration. (I, for one, immediately thought of the ring that Larry finds while washing hands, one of many such found objects in the game that take Larry closer to his eternal quest for getting laid.)
A visual novel, for those not in the know, is (to quote Wikipedia) "an interactive fiction game featuring mostly static graphics [...] or occasionally live-action stills or video footage. As the name might suggest, they resemble mixed-media novels or tableau vivant stage plays." St John's Wort, as Otogiriso is entitled for the English-speaking word, is based on the 1992 visual novel created by Goro Nakajima, who is also listed as one of the co-writers of the film. In the game, a young dude and dudette get stuck in the middle of nowhere when their car gets hit by a tree felled by lightning and take refuge in a large deserted house. This basic setup reappears in the film as well: Kohei (Yôichirô Saitô of Karaoke Terror [2003 / trailer]) is creating a video game with two other twens based on the drawings of his ex-girlfriend Nami (Megumi Okina of The Grudge [2002 / trailer] and the remake of Shutter [2008 / trailer]), whom he joins to visit a house in the middle of nowhere she just inherited from a father she never met; when a tree felled by lightning falls upon their car, they are forced to spend the night in the mysterious mansion – where, unbeknownst to them, someone unknown is observing them the entire time. Assisted by the two twens back in the development office – despite the storm, their faultless and super-fast wireless connection never fails in streaming video in real time or in transferring massive amounts of digital data without a glitch – Kohei and Nami unravel the mystery of Nami's past and discover the grisly secrets and horrors of the house even as they are confronted by physical danger...
To say that St John's Wort is a slow-moving film would be an understatement, as the narrative truly unfolds at a snail's pace. Thus, those is search of fast-paced thrills and chills should steer clear, for more than anything else this deliberately paced film serves a continual flow of impressive and surreal colors and visuals that initially take some getting used to but eventually serve well to create and support an atmosphere of otherworldly dreadfulness.
Regrettably, though the noteworthy and unique computer-enhanced cinematography (by Kazuhiko Ogura) does eventually manage to fully draw the viewer into the nightmarish and eccentric world that it so uncompromisingly constructs, director Ten Shimoyama (of Shinobi [2005 / trailer] and Blood [2009 / trailer]) and his scriptwriters fumble tremendously on a narrative level and literally drop the ball at the film's initially almost Gothic resolution: the sudden, last-minute full reversion to the game-playing world not only destroys both the established mood and tension, but literally removes any fangs the story had slowly grown and replaces them with baby teeth. In seconds, the movie flips from being an interesting and depressing horror flick with artistic pretensions into being a total raspberry.
In short, St John's Wort is a slow-moving but visually astounding and creepy horror film with a linear, almost stereotypical narrative that seduces the viewer on an ocular level as it single-mindedly strolls towards an enjoyably Gothic resolution only to fully collapse into idiocy by the time the final credits roll. For a film that starts off with a hell of an attractive basket, St John's Wort ends up having no balls at all.
But damn, the visuals are sure some mighty fine eye candy.