Hideo Nakata (Ring, Dark Water) treads familiar ground with The Complex, a film that might not entirely sate your appetite for visual horror, instead opting for character-based tragedy that evokes sympathy, if not your actual shudders.
The film opens with a depiction of suburban mundanity at one of the titular complexes. As student nurse Asuka and her family move into one of the flats, a mystery is built up surrounding their next door neighbour. Initially unwilling to greet a new resident bearing cakes, strange noises coming from his flat wake Asuka in the night, and his alarm clock goes off at five thirty every morning.
Meanwhile, her family are acting oddly, she’s befriended a little boy with Damien-from-The-Omen-hair (why do people still give kids that haircut?), and people on her nursing course are telling her that the flats she’s moved into are haunted.
The key to Nakata’s horror is slow-burning suspense rather than jump-shocks or gore. These are present, but not in great quantities. Also, perhaps aware that this has not always been the case in the past, the film does attempt to explain why someone would go to investigate a ridiculously creepy situation one their own in the dark. Thus we have the long, drawn-out scene where Asuka is investigating the neighbour’s flat for the first time. The tension is undercut when we a crescendo is reached, and then the scene continues. When the reveal comes it is too late to make the most of the dissipating tension. We also find what we are expecting to find (in this case, a dead red herring).
This is The Complex‘s biggest problem: it rarely surprises. The clues are laid out in advance, questions are begged by them and are easy to answer from what’s been said and done. It’s not a difficult act to piece together the twists and turns. Only near the end was there a satisfying, unanticipated reveal, albeit for a character I had pegged as a red shirt by virtue of having merely watched Ring at one point in my life (while it is true that many genre films follow a familiar pattern, it perhaps isn’t great for the same director to have a character fulfil a similar function to his most famous movie). As well as having a predictable storyline, the more typical horror scenes are very much bearably tense. Some deaths are memorably horrible, but one literally suffers from overkill while another – interesting, unexplored character – has a fate only hinted at.
The Complex does hint at a lot beneath the main story. It uses ghosts to examine guilt, but beneath even that is the fact that the number of people we see around the flats decreases throughout. Initially there are a few folk milling around, but in Asuka’s stairwell we only see her, her family, and her neighbour. No-one else appears. Where are they? For a film inspired by Let the Right One In it takes another supernatural turn. No vampires here, but spirits of various kinds. As the population of the complex dwindles, it’s tempting to wonder if this is deliberate, evocative of the novel’s depiction of Sweden in microcosm. The title is possibly a triple meaning: the flat, the guilt, and Japan itself.
Or possibly it’s sloppy film-making.
But when so much else has been thoughtfully conveyed, it seems more likely that it’s a deliberate attempt to represent the country as an army of ghosts. This thoughtfulness extends to the sound design. The film’s best jump-scare comes from noise rather than images, and at times the soundscapes alone are gloriously nasty, multi-layered invasive throbbings. As the film goes on, the music and sound design reflect Asuka’s inner turmoil. In some ways, the film feels like it should end on an earlier, more manic image, underscored by a build-up of dreadful noise. Instead it opts for another ending, one implying something more.
As Asuka’s mental state is fragile, so it’s also possible that much of this is in her mind. If so, that’s disappointing. It’s been done, and it’s essentially identical to the ‘and it was all a dream’ ending. What’s more satisfying is the idea that’s most prominently advertised, that she’s being consumed by guilt over her past actions. When you see the extent that this becomes severely damaging, it’s the most horrifying aspect of the entire thing, and it’s such a simple idea; one that many people can relate to. An unintentional act that has massive consequences for later life.
The Complex is not a film that makes you very scared, but it is a film that moves and unnerves you. Ultimately it’s about guilt and loneliness, and is at its best when ignoring standard horror trappings, and emphasising the ineffable aspect of Asuka’s misfortune, making her reactions to the unfolding situations more understandable and distressing.
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