Sweet Home (1989) Review

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Sweet Home (1989)

~Review by Grawlix (May 2019)

Tankmage pointed me towards this one since he featured the NES game based on it with a lengthy guide, review, etc. It’s an interesting choice for my first Japanese horror movie review for the site. See, I’ve watched quite a bit of Japanese horror over the years, but the vast majority of those are from 1998 or later. This is because back around 2000 or so I became aware of a certain Japanese thriller that was gaining a reputation for its singular use of atmosphere and ambience to conjure up feelings of dread and unease that horror movies on the whole had gone far too long without. This, of course, was The Ring. It was around this time that I was pretty deep into my exploration of Asian cinema already (mostly Hong Kong action), or so I’d thought anyway, and was irked to discover this entire genre of flicks that had apparently escaped my notice. Desperate to fill this void, I threw myself into the deep end, watching all manner of Rings, Grudges, Curses, Pulses, Dark Waters, you name it, not to mention a detour into the truly depraved world of Takashi Miike movies. It was a wild ride, but one unfortunate side effect of watching so many of these sort of movies in quick succession, besides the fact that they tend to somewhat blur together in my mind, is that The Ring set something of a template for the future of Japanese horror, a lot of the movies that came after it seemed hesitant to deviate too far from it. Thus, my idea of Japanese horror was shaped by the then common structure of a runtime consisting of about 90% slow build-up followed by 10% of payoff, that may or may not have been worth the wait. Even today, though I’ve seen plenty of Asian horror since then that bucks this trend, I still feel a certain amount of trepidation whenever I go to watch another one against the possibility that I may well be wading into 80 or so minutes of moody slog before the movie finally decides to get to the point.

Thankfully, though, Sweet Home is not this kind of movie. Since The Ring was still ten years off at this point, Sweet Home instead seems to draw its primary inspiration from the popular foreign (read: American) films of its day, mainly Poltergeist and The Amityville Horror and their sequels though at its best it manages to recall The Shining. It’s not the most original effort, mostly riding the newly resurgent haunted house trend of the day, but certain decisions made in casting and staffing manage to elevate it above its peers.

In terms of plot, things are pretty basic. A five-person TV documentary crew decides to investigate a creepy mansion, the last known abode of Ichiro Mamiya, a reclusive painter famous for his frescoes. Inside the mansion, they duly find the frescoes, but also discover hints of an ancient tragedy, as well as certain malevolent forces that clearly aren’t ready to let go of the past.

As I mentioned, the somewhat unorthodox decisions in casting and crew are what set this movie apart.

Shingo Yamashiro stars as Kazuo Hoshino, the pragmatic and straight-laced director of the crew. Kazuo essentially serves as the straight man who tries to keep the group focused and calm, a progressively more difficult task as things begin to deteriorate. Yamashiro was something of an old hand at this type of pulpy cinema having starred in several of the Battles without Honor or Humanity series of yakuza films, among many others, and occasionally dabbling in directing softcore porn, back when that was fashionable in Japan. He ably, if unobtrusively holds things down here, in a role that, in many ways, was written to be boring.

Nokko (Nobuko Yamada) plays, Emi Hoshino, Kazuo’s teenaged daughter, on break from school. Nokko is not an actress, but a musician, the lead singer of the pop-rock band Rebecca (which the credits go out of their way to point out. Ironic, since less than two years later the band would be dissolved and Nokko would embark on a solo career.) Sweet Home was her only proper film role and I’d love to know what the process was that brought her into it. If her videos are any indication, she seemed to have cultivated something of a ingenue-esque stage persona (even if it looked like she dressed from Madonna’s closet) and she seems to have carried that over to her character in the film. She starts off kind of annoying, getting startled easily and nagging her single dad about maybe dating Akiko, another member of the crew. But as the story develops, her role becomes considerably more substantial and Nokko capably (and surprisingly) rises to the challenge.

Ichiro Furidate plays Ryo, the cameraman. Furidate technically isn’t an actor either, rather he is a “talent”, a uniquely Japanese form of general-purpose celebrity that usually functions as a TV announcer or commentator. His character is something of a goofball here, cracking lame jokes and artlessly hitting on the female members of the crew, an approach that I suspect wasn’t all that different from the one he used in his “talent”-ing duties. It’s all a red herring, though. When the plot turns and things get real his prior antics stand in stark contrast to what he becomes.

Juzo Itami plays Yamamura, a gas station attendant. Yamamura is not one of the main cast, but rather a side character who knows more than he lets on, kind of like Scatman Crothers’s Halloran from The Shining. Itami was an experienced actor and Sweet Home was his final role in front of the camera, but he became far better known for the ten films he directed (he’d completed his fourth when he appeared here); light, slice-of-life comedy/dramas that resonated particularly strongly with native audiences and hold not-insignificant followings abroad. Unfortunately, his movies also earned him a small but vocal minority of critics, namely the yakuza, who objected to their uncharitable portrayal in one of his films. Itami’s death in 1997, though technically ruled a suicide, is widely understood to be a yakuza hit (because there’s nothing like cold-blooded murder to rehabilitate one’s smudged reputation.)  Anyway, Itami is probably here because Sweet Home came from his production company. He may or may not have hopped into the director’s chair occasionally (which may or may not have been welcomed by credited director, Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira)). It’s a brief role, but still pretty memorable. Itami’s involvement is likely also the reason we have…

Nobuko Miyamoto, who plays Akiko, the no-nonsense producer of the crew and object of Kasuo’s mostly unrequited affection. Miyamoto was Itami’s wife and starred in all of his films, but this isn’t simply a case of bald-faced nepotism. She appears fresh off of a best actress win a year prior and her presence here in a comparatively lowbrow horror flick is still a real coup, regardless of how it came about. Of all the characters, she probably has the shortest arc, but it’s still a solid performance, and better than this type of film usually gets.

Fukumi Kuroda rounds out the main cast as Asuka, the art expert and on-screen reporter. She’s probably the most interesting character in the early-going. Feeling her age and shot at fame getting away from her, she sees the documentary as her big chance at breakthrough stardom. She also has to contend with Ryo’s fumbling advances, which help lighten things up before the horror elements really come to the fore. Kuroda has done most of her work on Japanese TV, but also occasionally appeared in Itami’s movies, which probably explains her role in this one.

There’s one more name in the credits that jumped out at me, and that’s Dick Smith, who handled makeup and special effects. His wasn’t a name that was immediately familiar to me, but it probably should’ve been since his career in Hollywood spanned some fifty years and he worked on a litany of classic films as a makeup man, probably the most significant of which, for the purposes of this review, was the Exorcist. He was nearing retirement when Sweet Home was in production, but his participation is nonetheless more significant than you might realize since Japanese film studios have a reputation for prioritizing native effects houses over foreign talent, regardless of the difference in experience and quality. With that said, their decision to enlist Smith here is was well justified as the makeup and gore effects (of which there are a surprising amount) are suitably hideous and unexpectedly graphic given the time period. There’s also some neat light and shadow effects that I’m not sure if Smith worked on (they seem a bit further out of his wheelhouse) but they help set the mood and offer a nice slow build to the supernatural elements before the big guns come out.

When it comes down to it, Sweet Home isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but I give it credit anyway for the many risks it took with its production that mostly paid off. The fish-out-of-water aspect of some of its cast works well in its favor and the non-actors really step up when the time comes. Likewise, the extra effort put into the effects pays off marvelously on the screen, to the point where I’d call it a real shame that more people likely haven’t seen them. The direction has its moments, and though it’s light on memorable flourishes, it doesn’t really need them. But overall, it’s an above average effort by all involved and perfect stormy-night viewing provided you don’t mind subtitles.

I haven’t played the game on which this was based, so I can’t really speak to how the two compare, but I did read that the programmers were given significant access to the film sets and the personal blessing of Itami (who also produced the game) and Kurosawa (who is listed as a supervisor) to make whatever changes they saw fit to make the game play better, which is a level of synergy that most game developers charged with making movie-based games these days would probably kill for.

Final Grade: B

No points for originality for this one, but if you put aside it’s derivative nature, Sweet Home is a solid example of haunted house horror that frequently exceeds expectations and maintains a intriguing legacy besides.


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