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Saturday, September 17, 2011

HIGANJIMA (EQUINOX ISLAND) -- Movie Review by Porfle

You know how a fruitcake is colorful and tastes pretty good, but you don't really enjoy eating it that much?  That's kind of what it's like to watch HIGANJIMA (EQUINOX ISLAND)  (2009), a Japanese manga-based horror film by Korean director Tae-gyun Kim. 

At first I thought this might be a kids' movie because the alternate English title, "Escape From Vampire Island", reminded me of ESCAPE FROM WITCH MOUNTAIN.  And at times it does seem a little on the juvenile side, albeit with a lot more geysers of blood than Uncle Walt was known to use.  It's more action-fantasy than scare flick--in fact, it isn't scary at all, with the island's drone vampires resembling a bunch of hunched-over geezers with red eyes and fangs and behaving a bit like the winged monkeys in THE WIZARD OF OZ

The creepiest scene is the pretitles one, in which some poor shlub in a blood-splattered business suit is terrorized by vampires in an abandoned building on the island until a mysterious swordsman named Atsushi (Dai Watanabe) steps in and kills them.  It's an atmospheric sequence with effective gore (Atsushi smashes the vampires' heads in with a log) and some nice CGI-rendered settings.

After that, we're transported to the city where Atsushi's younger brother Akira (Hideo Ishiguro) runs with his gang of high-spirited urban pals.  They're the usual types: Ken, the older leader; Yuki, the girl Akira loves but who has a crush on Ken; Pon, the simpleminded misfit; Nishiyama, the nerdy brainiac; and Kato, the overweight clown (played by stand-up comic Masaya Handa).  The early scenes of them knocking around in the streets are mercifully brief.

One day, a beautiful and mysterious woman named Rei (Asami Mizukawa) appears and tells Akira she knows the location of his long-missing brother Atsushi, arranging for him and his friends to travel to the island.  As it turns out, even Rei's ulterior motives have ulterior motives, and the kids find themselves surrounded by vampires.  The vamps prove pretty ineffectual here, easily beaten back by a bunch of gangly inner-city kids despite all their scary grimacing and hopping around. 

The real menace turns out to be vampire king Miyabi (Kôji Yamamoto), although he isn't scary either.  He's more of a white-faced, nattily-dressed dandy who seems terminally pleased with himself than an object of fear.  He is pretty unbeatable, though, as reunited brothers Akira and Atsushi discover in their bloody clashes with him.  Atsushi's band of underground freedom fighters get into the act, with Akira getting a crash "anti-vampire" course and being transformed into a sword-slingin' warrior in about two hours.  This sets up their climactic assault on Miyabi's lair (an actual Japanese army fortress from WWII) to rescue a captive Yuki.

The action scenes are fairly exciting for the most part although a little repetitive.  About midway through the film the shaky-cam gets progressively worse for some reason, to the point of noticeable annoyance.  By the final minutes, however, this problem seems to give way to some nicely-staged action with Akira and the vampire fighters taking on a giant reptilian beast which guards Miyabi's inner sanctum.  This creature is a direct descendant of both the dragon in DRAGONSLAYER and the queen alien in ALIENS, and the CGI effects here run from good to sketchy. 

The best thing about the movie for me is Genki, an albino bat-girl who swoops around causing trouble while giggling girlishly through it all.  The makeup and SPFX used to create her, along with Kazuko Sakagami's quirky performance, make her a fun character whose demise comes all too soon.  Later, the final clash between Miyabi and brothers Akira and Atsushi in the vampire king's exploding fortress provides the film's bloodiest and most suspenseful action setpiece. 

HIGANJIMA (EQUINOX ISLAND) is fairly well-made and has a reasonable amount of entertaining action and carnage, but it lags in spots and just doesn't come together nearly as well as it should have.  With these ingredients, it could've been as much pure, exhilarating fun as BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA or as scary as any number of Asian horror flicks, but as it is, it's a fruitcake.


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