Fantasia 2019 Review: STARE Can’t Keep Your Eyes Open

Another J-horror entry struggles to breathe new life into the genre.

After Sadako went out with a whimper, I thought “Well on the bright side, J-horror can only go up from here.” And in some ways, Hirotaka Adachi’s Stare is an improvement from the straight-faced laziness of Ringu’s latest sequel. But not by much. Aside from a few good jokes and tongue-in-cheek performances, Stare is still a by-the-numbers horror film, where too much of the story is spent watching characters perfunctorily investigate a curse that any viewer who’s passingly familiar with J-horror scenarios already understands.

Stare revolves around the spread of a scary story. Every version of the story involves an encounter with Shirai-san, a ghostly woman with gigantic, blood-saturated eyes, and the story ends with the promise that the listeners of the story will encounter her next. So of course, anyone who hears the story and learns Shirai’s name is soon visited by her, where she then murders them via telekinetic eye-gouging. After you’ve heard the story, there’s only one way to survive, and it’s by beating Shirai-san at a staring contest.

That’s the gist of Stare: it’s Ring with staring contests. But the film fails to meet the promise of even that unambitious concept. The rules of the deadly staring contests are messy and unclear. Some characters die instantly after blinking, while others are given several chances to close their eyes and look away. It doesn’t even seem like the win-state for humans was thought all the way through; Shirai-san is a demon with no eyelids who constantly stares at her victims, so it’s basically impossible to beat her in a straight staring match. The filmmakers remedy this with an expository dump, where we learn the only way to win is by staring until Shirai just… gets bored and leaves. What decides if she gets bored? Nobody knows! Sometimes she gives up because it’s been several hours and the sun is starting to rise. Other times, it only takes a few seconds and a passing train to get her to shoo.

The lack of clarity or consistency with the rules of the staring contest leaves those scenes utterly devoid of tension, but fortunately there aren’t that many of them. Unfortunately, the bulk of the remaining screen time is still eaten up by characters learning about the curse one by one and expositing to each other, my least favorite horror trope.

So nothing interesting is done with the staring contest premise, but how scary is the villain at least? The film’s marketing wants to sell Shirai-san as the chilling new J-horror icon that’ll put Sadako and Kayako in the old news bin, but honestly, Shirai just another creepy ghost girl with comically huge eyes and smeared lipstick. She also rings a bell to announce her appearance, so I guess she’s courteous. “Nightmare-inducing” is far from the phrase I’d use to describe her, though.

I feel confident in saying the horror plot of Stare can go in the garbage, but then that leaves the characters and some subplots which I actually found endearing. Marie Iitoyo and Yu Inaba play the main couple in the film, two geeks who start out as strangers but grow closer as the bodies start to stack up. This familiar type of movie romance doesn’t follow the usual beats though; there are fun moments where they chastely and pragmatically discuss the logistics of dating during supernatural murder times. Inaba’s character in particular shows a level of genre savviness that I haven’t really seen in a curse movie before. Early into the film, he spells out the film’s premise in one of the funniest lines. While laughing, I felt so relieved because I thought this meant the movie wouldn’t go through the motions of investigating the curse. Boy was I wrong.

Aside from a couple self-aware lines and fun performances, Stare doesn’t have what it takes to not feel totally bland. If my life was at stake to watch this film with my full attention, I’m not sure I’d survive past the second act.