Series creator Mick Garris has always maintained Masters of Horror [MOH] was designed to be a venue for international directors to explore short-form horror with no restrictions besides practical costs and scheduling. Enfant terrible Takashi Miike's lone episode, Imprint, showed the level of conviction Garris has in letting idiosyncratic directors ‘do their thing' in spite of pushing the boundaries of the show's home network, Showtime.
On the one hand, it's a highly supportive environment any filmmaker would relish, particularly in TV, but the downside is letting idiosyncrasies bloom to the point where the final result is a meandering narrative – a problem that's rightly applicable to this feature-length edit of Norio Tsuruta's Dream Cruise, based on a story by Kôji Suzuki (author of the water-logged Ringu series and Dark Water / Honogurai mizu no soko kara).
As Garris explains on the DVD commentary track, like Imprint, Dream Cruise was a co-production with Japan's Kadokawa, a move that simultaneously kept costs low while giving local crews total freedom in crafting a complete episode. Part of the deal was letting director Norio Tsuruta (Yogen / Premonition) craft a feature length version for the Japanese market, while a 58 min. edit was aired on Showtime (a version currently unavailable on home video).
The longer version is a bonus for Tsuruta's fans, but it's also a real mixed bag, filled with bogus shocks and unbearably slow scenes clearly designed to pad the episode to feature length. While Tsuruta maintains it's his part of his personal style, from the making-of featurette, one feels there's a bit of defensive spin involved, because the director expresses his awareness that his pacing has been branded by some as outmoded; Dream Cruise has its potent shock sequences, but they're nestled between a lot of pretentious nonsense.
The commentary track, though, is a wonderful examination of the final product, with creator Mick Garris, actor Daniel Gillies (Spider-Man 2, Captivity), and moderator Perry Martin – all of whom had never seen the long edit before. It's an excellent example of how objectivity can be muddied by the good vibes of a unique filmmaking experience; no one sees the flaws within Dream Cruise, but as a discussion on shooting in Japan, the track provides an illuminating examination of western filmmakers and actors plunged into a fascinating culture. It's a great companion piece to the making-of featurette (itself filled with many behind-the-scenes vignettes and interviews), and helps contextualize some of Tsuruta's creative decisions, particularly the pacing of each actor's delivery.
Gillies details how he was able to bridge the language barrier by building his character's background via myriad questions, which the director patiently absorbed and clarified, but one also sees Gillies' frustration in the making-of featurette when the actor is trying to understand why physical movements, facial reactions, and dialogue delivery are often dragged out to completely unnatural timing.
In Dream Cruise, Gillies has to deal with a particularly unique conflict: reacting to the horror and shock from a slowly advancing ghost on the small ship by moving almost in exaggerated pantomime; from a western angle, the natural filmic reaction would be to fight like hell, or get off the boat fast.
Another flaw lies in the portrayal of the cuckolded husband (Ryo Ishibashi, who lost his feet and dignity in Miike's twisted Audition). His behaviour is one-sided and explicitly menacing towards Jack Miller (Gillies), a young business agent who's betrayed a sacred trust by boffing beautiful wife/hood ornament Yuri (Blindness' Yoshino Kimura,). When Jack shrugs off Yuri's suspicions of her husband's potential desire to exact a bit of revenge, it negates the suspicion and unease director Suzuki's been building for Jack in the episode's first third, and makes his character look, well, stupid.
The making-of featurette also examines the challenges of the Japanese cast and crew as dialogue written in Japanese was translated for an English language episode, and the directed in Japanese; it sorta works, but the performances, when subjected to Tsuruta's lethargic pacing, are very, very strange; Gillies plays Jack with great reserve and low-level emoting, whereas Ishibashi broods with bubbling rage or erupts with cackling Anglo catch-phrases; and Kimura, while initially sympathetic, becomes spastic in her emotional reactions.
The episode's assets include atmospheric photography, a moody score by Kôji Endô' (Audition), and some chilling visual effects for the vengeful ghost, and there's also one lively sequence that has Jack trying to remove a determined severed hand from his leg while Yuri is slowly drowning in a locked loo, but it's a rare, punchy sequence in an otherwise meandering, dull narrative that at least moved with more purpose in the 58 min. broadcast edit.
Unlike prior bare bones DVD releases of J-horror, there's a decent level of information that dissects the significance of ghosts in Japanese culture (some nicely explained by director Tsuruta), as well as comparing the function of horror, and how it's distinctively experienced by western and Japanese audiences.
This title is available separately, and in a life-sized skull that houses the complete Second Season of Masters of Horror which includes "The Black Cat," "The Damned Thing," "Dream Cruise," "Family," 'Pelts," "Pro-Life," "Right to Die," "The Screwfly Solution," "Sounds Like," "Valerie on the Stairs," "The V Word," "The Washingtonians," and "We All Scream for Ice Cream."
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan