St. John’s Wort (2001) Movie Review

There have been a great many film adaptations of video games, the overwhelming majority of which have been cheap, unimaginative cash-ins on the product name. This is especially true in the horror genre, where fans have been afflicted with the vacuous “Resident Evil” and its equally lackluster sequel, neither of which made much effort to pay any more than lip service to the original games on which they are based. This is a shame, as we are now at a stage where many video games have successfully incorporated cinematic elements, with some even signing up famous actors and actresses to do voice and motion capture work.

“St. John’s Wort” is a different prospect, a film based on a popular Japanese video game (and novel by Shukei Nagasaka) which not only stays faithful to its source material, but also actually attempts to emulate it in terms of structure and narrative flow. This device, whilst by no means entirely successful, produces what amounts to an interesting little film with a handful of original ideas that make it worthwhile viewing for fans of Asian horror, or for the ‘survival horror’ genre of video games.

The actual plot of “St. John’s Wort” is very conventional. A young woman called Nami (Megumi Okina, from the original “Ju-on”) inherits a huge, decaying mansion from her mysterious painter father. Deciding to explore the house and learn more about her father, Nami takes along her ex-boyfriend, Kohei (Yoichiro Saito, “Tokyo Eyes”), who happens to be working on a new horror video game with some friends. Kohei is also a fan of Nami’s father’s dark, grotesque paintings, and decides that the mansion would make an ideal setting for the game. To this end, he brings along his video camera, transmitting footage back to his friends who are gathered together, watching as he and Nami progress through the house. Of course, creepy things start to happen, as a sinister caretaker stalks the couple, and Nami gradually discovers the shocking secret behind her father’s work.

The most interesting thing about “St. John’s Wort” is the way in which director Shimoyama Ten treats the proceedings as if they were a video game. The plot largely progresses in the same way that a game would, for example, by the characters searching rooms, finding keys, discovering secret passages, and so on. Some scenes will be immediately recognizable to fans of games such as “Resident Evil” and “Silent Hill” and this gives the film a nice atmosphere that is both familiar and, in filmic terms, quite original.

This impression is accentuated by the way the mansion is studied by Kohei’s friends, who use his transmitted footage to gradually draw up a map. Ten also throws in some other video game touches, such as flashing up information on the screen and making full use of the digital video format. His direction in general is very imaginative, using a palette of bizarre, often psychedelic colors to give the film a quite unique look. He also uses a variety of shots from sources such as CCTV, Kohei’s camera, and computer imagery to keep things interesting, and to further the voyeuristic atmosphere.

Unfortunately the main problem with “St. John’s Wort” is the fact that, whilst such a systematic style of plotting works perfectly well in actual videogames, when employed in a film it makes for a rather slow, ponderous pace. As the couple moves systematically from room to room, facing obstacle after obstacle that block their explorations, the viewer cannot help but feel exasperated at the sameness of it all. Matters are not helped by the fact that there’s not a great deal of action in the film in terms of visceral carnage or actual scares, and Ten seems happy enough to let things drift along, relying on the atmosphere alone to keep the viewer interested.

Although the film does have a nice feel to it, this is not really enough, and as a result the movie does start to drag in places. Similarly, the central couple are actually quite dull, especially Kohei, with a poor performance by Saito. Although the character of Nami is more interesting, and Okina is quite appealing as an actress, the film is generally more interesting in the brief scenes with their computer geek friends.

Another failing is in the way that “St. John’s Wort” relies heavily on the old, tired trick of trying to confuse viewers as to whether what they are seeing is reality or in fact part of a video game. Early on in the film, it is suggested that what is about to unfold is actually a game, and director Ten keeps referencing this possibility to the point of being extremely intrusive. After the third or forth time this happens, it’s quite hard not to feel cheated or worse still, patronized.

Overall, “St. John’s Wort” is an interesting film with a unique approach to adapting a video game for the screen. Although dragged down by a slow pace and an unfortunate dependence on some clich’d narrative techniques, it remains worthwhile for any fans of Asian horror or as a curiosity piece for anyone familiar with this type of video game.

Shimoyama Ten (director) / Shûkei Nagasaka (novel), Goro Nakajima (screenplay)
CAST: Megumi Okina …. Nami Kikushima
Yoichiro Saito …. Kohei Matsudaira

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